Records are rated on a scale of one (awful) to four (classic) stars:
3 stars = Good
What would possess a veteran hard-rock band like AC/DC to come out with a record that experiments with collages of ambient sound and techno beats?
Because it does nothing of the sort here.
These are the Australian bangers as we know and love them, back in "Black Ice" and bursting through the studio walls with bone-crushing beats, jack-hammer riffs and a singer painfully pushing the limits of his vocal range.
Try this at home on your family, friends or pet: Slip "Rock 'n' Roll Train" or "Big Jack" onto your "Back in Black" playlist and see if they can tell the difference.
Brendan O'Brien, who tends to muddy up productions, sticks to the raw basics here of recording AC/DC as an arena band that could just as well be playing in a garage.
For their first album in eight years, the boys, led by Brian Johnson and Angus Young, turned up with 15 tracks, which is beating a dead horse when the lyrics are all pretty silly ("Take it to the spot/You know she make it really hot") and the stylistic range could be measured on half a ruler. In places, they take a piece or two from their contemporaries, meaning "Decibel" has a touch of old ZZ Top, "Stormy May Day" snatches a slide part from Led Zep and "Rock 'N' Roll Dream" is proof they heard the Who.
AC/DC is clearly a case of stunted growth (no knock on Angus), but, frankly, that's the only way we'd like them.
-- Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette pop music critic
3 1/2 stars = Very good
MIKE REED'S LOOSE ASSEMBLY 'THE SPEED OF CHANGE' (482)
3 1/2 stars = Very good
You can take Manhattan if you want, but for my money, Chicago is the town with the best progressive jazz players, following confidently in the footsteps of both '60s AACM heroes (Art Ensemble of Chicago, Fred Anderson) and more recent icons such as MacArthur recipient Ken Vandermark and Chicago Underground wizard Rob Mazurek.
Case in point is Greg Ward. An alto saxophonist with a fine, warm tone, I recently saw him give his all in front of an audience of 15 young people, as if he were playing to a seasoned, sold-out crowd at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild.
This multi-tasker is also front and center on two new recordings, the first with out-jazz quartet Blink, on the label's "Blue Series" curated by piano giant Matthew Shipp, so you know it has worthy avant-cred.
"The Epidemic of Ideas" is an appropriate title for Blink's debut CD, as the exploration of forms, textures and motifs is almost never-ending.
Successful tracks range from jazz-funk-rock ("Secret Weapon Part I") where guitarist Dave Miller blisters the fretboard Marc Ribot-style, to the glitchy, laptoppy electronics permeating "Sources," from the off-kilter, odd-timed Miller guitar runs and Quin Kircher's percussion clatter on "Displacement," to the comparatively meditative, gamelan-like feel of "Glass."
And that's only halfway through the disc. By the end, so much melodic ("Three Illustrations") and dissonant territory is mapped out that a whole new world has emerged, especially if you're only accustomed to the uh-jazz-uh offered these days on WDUQ. The piece de resistance is clearly "Misadventures," an eight-minute workout with complex lines and grooves that could make you long for the days of our city's own defunct Water Shed 5tet.
Ward is the common link to Loose Assembly, one of several bands led by overachieving drummer Mike Reed. A driving force in new Chicago music, he's a younger member of the AACM, helps curate the Chicago Jazz Festival, and runs the avant-pop Pitchfork Festival (suddenly indie rockers' ears perk up, if they've read this far). Reed and Ward also helm the tribute to '50s/'60s Chicago hard-bop called People, Places and Things (who have a CD called "Proliferation"), but here the action is all post-'60s and forward-thinking in nature.
The first piece that makes a solid impression is their treatment of Max Roach's Afro-Cuban flavored "Garvey's Ghost," here given an atmospheric, free-flowing air, punctuated by the beautiful scrapings of cellist Tomeka Reid, the careful vibes of Jason Adasiewicz, and a strong melodic solo by Ward. The group also brings depth of expression to a tune by Ethiopian legend Mulatu Astatke, where Ward does a great job of laying out the distinctive East African head while Adasiewicz jazzes things up and Reed provides solid anchorage.
But Reed's original material shows plenty of strength as well. Among his winners are "Soul Stirrer," which with Reed's tom-tom underpinnings and Adasiewicz's ringing tones recalls Martin Denny's jungle-laden exotica mixed with a more laid-back Coltrane (although Reed says much of Loose Assembly is inspired by Henry Threadgill's band Air). And "Exit Strategy," with a dissonant head that Ward collapses and transforms into fiery runs while Reed swings furiously in the background and bassist Josh Abrams takes a Mingus-like turn, would be impressive even in the hands of a band of seasoned European players.
Conclusion: If anyone says jazz is dead (or continues to look to a cadre of suit-wearing 'young lions' for guidance) after listening to these discs, they ought to have their head examined. And then get on the first train to Chicago and spend a month in the clubs, where the spirit of the AACM and their allies lives on and on.
-- Manny Theiner for the Post-Gazette