Did you know that the guitar player from Weird Al Yankovic’s band is also famous for his slack key guitar playing?
I’m talking about this guy, Jim West:
Jim West has been playing with Weird Al since 1983. He played on the album In 3-D (which includes the hits “Eat It” and “I Lost on Jeopardy”) and has been a part of his band ever since. In fact, everyone in Weird Al’s band from 1983 onward has been the same (drummer Jim “Bermuda” Schwartz and bassist Steve Jay).
I always loved the title track and video from 1985’s Dare to Be Stupid where you can see a lot of Jim West playing stupid guitar in the style of Devo:
Anyways, on a break in touring with Weird Al in the late 90s he took a trip to Maui and fell in love with the island. He has been playing and recording traditional and original music on slack key guitar ever since. He has released over a dozen albums in this style for over 20 years!
Here he is playing the Santo and Johnny classic “Sleepwalk”:
Here is an excellent video (featuring plenty of amazing footage of Maui) of one of his original compositions called “Maui Skies”:
In 2018, he won a Grammy in the Best New Age album category for Moku Maluhia, which is today’s pick!
Phil’s Phriday Picks will be on holiday for the next two weeks. I will return on August 26th. Until then, enjoy Moku Maluhia!
Trombonist Bruce Fowler is primarily known for his work with Frank Zappa. He first started playing with Zappa in late 1972 as part of his Wazoo band. Although he didn’t appear on the studio album The Grand Wazoo he was part of the touring band. He stuck with Zappa pretty much all the way until his last rock tour in 1988:
He was part of the “Petite Wazoo” band that appeared on Apostrophe and Overnite Sensation
He played with the “Roxy band” of 1974/1975
He played on the Zappa / Beefheart “Bongo Fury” tour of 1975
He was included as part of the epic “Lather” recording sessions of the late 1970s
He played with Zappa’s stunning ‘88 band who could seemingly play everything
Allow me to highlight just a couple pieces of live footage to illustrate how amazing his trombone playing is with Zappa.
Here he is playing T’Mershi Duween at the Roxy in 1974:
Not awesome enough? How about him playing and doing weird dances with Zappa and Jean-Luc Ponty also from the early 70s:
Finally, here he is as part of the horn line of the 1988 Zappa band playing The Black Page, which truly must be seen / heard to be believed:
In the late 70s, he left Zappa to be part of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and played on a couple of his latter-day albums (including one of my personal favorites Doc At The Radar Station).
After that stint, he did session / soundtrack work along with occasionally releasing albums as part of a band that included his brothers Tom Fowler (bass) and Walt Fowler (Trumpet) at different times called Air Pocket or The Fowler Brothers.
After the ‘88 Zappa band imploded, he released a solo album called Ants Can Count, which is today’s pick! I was lucky enough to find it in a cutout / bargain bin in the mid 90s.
The music itself is much more subdued than his fare with Zappa / Beefheart, but still uniformly excellent. There is a definite modern-classical influence mixed with jazz throughout the whole album.
Along with the pieces for a full band there are also other interesting situations. “Ode to Stravinsky and the American Indians” features Bruce Fowler overdubbing himself many times to make it sound like a trombone ensemble. There are a pair of duets with french horn player Suzette Moriarty and flute with his brother Steve. Additionally, he includes a nice trombone solo called “One Man One Bone”.
Overall, a well-rounded album which makes me wish he would have released more solo albums through the years.
Nile is a completely fascinating death metal band. Founded and masterminded by guitarist Karl Sanders, they play an extremely fast, extremely technical brand of death metal. Aside from their astounding musical ability, what sets them apart is their reliance on Egyptian / Middle Eastern history in the lyrics and musical themes.
To my ears, the first three Nile albums (Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka, Black Seeds of Vengeance and In Their Darkened Shrines) are untouchable death metal classics. I think at this point they had already perfected the mixture of metal and Middle Eastern music.
Check out this absolutely brutal music video of “Execration Text” from In Their Darkened Shrines:
Nile’s albums are also peppered with interludes that are more subdued and include more traditional Middle Eastern music and instruments. “The Nameless City of the Accursed” from Black Seeds of Vengeance is a fine example:
Their album’s liner notes also went into massive detail explaining the song lyrics and putting them into historical context.
In 2004, Karl Sanders started working on a solo album focused completely on that style of music. Sanders explained that “he got sick of hearing big loud death metal everyday after touring”, and started writing quieter music to relax, and recorded them.
The result was Saurian Meditation which is today’s pick!
Karl Sanders played most of the instruments himself (including baglama saz, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, ebow, guitar synthesizer, keyboards and bass guitar). However, original Nile drummer Pete Hammoura also plays percussion throughout.
Much of it is acoustic and oddly hypnotic and psychedelic. A very enjoyable album that is almost like a movie soundtrack in scope and mood.
Nile continues to record new albums and tours, but ever since drummer George Kollias joined in 2005, they really haven’t been the same for me. I don’t think it’s George’s fault, as I absolutely love his drumming:
Karl Sanders also occasionally puts out solo records similar to Saurian Meditation (in fact his first one in 13 years, Saurian Apocalypse, came out today!) but I think Saurian Meditation is still the best one.
A regular feature of every Grateful Dead live show since the late 1970s was a sequence called “Drums/Space.”
During this segment of their concerts, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann (collectively known as The Rhythm Devils) played a lengthy drum solo. Not only including their drum sets, but usually predominant use of other percussion instruments as well.
Eventually that would segueway into the portion called “Space” where the rest of the band (and sometimes guests) would play very free-jazz / space-rock inspired improvisations. Much of the time, this included electronic noises and other unusual sounds.
It truly showcased Grateful Dead’s most out-there inclinations.
Here is very early footage of “Drums/Space” from Oakland in August 1979:
In late 1991, Grateful Dead released an album called Infrared Roses which compiled and morphed a bunch of recordings of “Drums/Space” from their 1989 and 1990 tours into an hour long head-trip (by Bob Bralove, the sound engineer from The Dead’s tours from the mid-80s onward). It is very much one of the most bizarre, yet awesome, entries in their very lengthy discography. There are no real “songs” on this album, just the wild sounds of a massive, imaginary “Drums/Space”. Infrared Roses is today’s pick!
To see and hear how “Drums/Space” evolved over time, here is some incredible footage from Alpine Valley on the 1989 tour:
About a year after Infrared Roses was released, Grateful Dead put out an accompanying video called Infrared Sightings which plays about 15 minutes of the music over some pretty amazing for its time (and still pretty trippy today) computer generated animation. You can watch it all online!
While many people think drum solos at rock concerts are a fine time to take a bathroom break, I’m not one of those people. This is why Infrared Roses remains a favorite and fascinating record for me.
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is one of those musicians that many people don’t realize that they know. He’s played on some gigantic hits with popular bands for close to 50 years.
His early success was as a member of Steely Dan. He was a member for all their early records (up to and including Pretzel Logic). He left when Steely Dan became less of a band and more of a studio concern.
Perhaps his most famous playing from that era was the incredible guitar on “Reelin’ In The Years”. Here he is wailing on that song for the Midnight Special TV show in the early 70s:
After he left Steely Dan he joined The Doobie Brothers. A little while after he joined, the original singer Tom Johnston became ill. Jeff Baxter suggested a friend of his named Michael McDonald fill in on a tour. Of course Michael McDonald became the full time singer and keyboardist after that and was part of the Doobie Brothers biggest hits. A fine example is “Takin’ It To The Streets”. Here are The Doobie Brothers, with Jeff Baxter, blowing the roof off the place:
By 1980 Jeff Baxter left The Doobie Brothers to focus on studio work. He performed on tons of hits throughout the 80s.
Most interestingly, he also became interested in military missle defense in the mid-1980s! He eventually became a United States defense contractor and works regularly with congress on such things. Here is an interesting article detailing his work there.
Eventually he started doing work for TV soundtracks and ended up collaborating with composer and keyboardist C.J. Vanston. C.J. Vanston encouraged him to work on his own material.
Surprisingly, after all this time Jeff Baxter has never released a proper solo album. Until now. He recently released Speed Of Heat with C.J. Vanston which is today’s pick!
Among the originals, there are also excellent covers peppered throughout the album. One of those covers is “My Old School” by Steely Dan. Here he is performing it a few years ago with C.J. Vanston and you can tell he hasn’t lost his fastball:
Overall, Jeff Baxter’s solo album is long overdue. It has been in heavy rotation here and hopefully it will be for you as well.
I’ve waxed poetic before about Billy Cobham here (Inner Conflicts was a previous pick back in 2020). His studio albums in the 70s are beyond reproach (especially the timeless Spectrum which first blew my mind as a freshman in high school). However, his live concerts in this era were completely ridiculous.
Of course, I cannot talk about live Billy Cobham without at least mentioning his time in the pioneering jazz rock outfit The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Here is a full set from 1972, with Billy Cobham practically stealing the spotlight from guitarist John McLaughlin throughout.
Soon after this he released Spectrum with Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer and guitarist Tommy Bolin (who later had a short stint with Deep Purple before sadly passing away).
Cobham picked up the pieces from the short-lived Spectrum band by joining forces with the Brecker Brothers and guitarist John Abercrombie. They released a excellent studio album Crosswinds and hit the road.
This band was absolutely on fire!! Taking songs from Spectrum along with new material and pushing the tempos and volume up to bonkers levels was the name of the game.
Luckily much of this was recorded. Here is the band playing “The Pleasant Pheasant” and “Red Baron”:
Here they are absolutely blazing through a new tune called “Tenth Pinn”, bookended by jaw-dropping Cobham drum solos:
This material has been in heavy rotation for me the past week. Yesterday, I went out to the local record store to find the live album documenting this band and tour called Shabazz. It was kismet and I bought it without thinking twice.
Coincidentally (and hilariously!) my good friend Patrick in Chicago also bought Shabazz yesterday! If that isn’t fate (and motivation for choosing it as today’s pick) I don’t know what is.
A short, yet powerful recording! Along with “Tenth Pinn” and the title track it also features two Spectrum tunes (“Red Baron” and “Taurian Matador”). The band is in top form absolutely blazing through the songs.
Essential listening for Billy Cobham fans or jazz fusion enthusiasts in general.
Last week the avant-garde rock super-group High Castle Teleorkestra released their debut album The Egg That Never Opened. I have spent the time between then and now immersing myself in this unbelievable magnum opus and still unraveling all the greatness contained within.
For the uninitiated, High Castle Teleorkestra consists of members of bands that were previous Phil’s Phriday Picks (Estradasphere, Deserts of Traun) and similar groups (Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3, Farmers Market). If you have any familiarity with those ensembles you have a general idea about what this sounds like, but even with those expectations set you will likely be blown away by this.
It basically takes the template of Estradasphere’s excellent last album, Palace Of Mirrors, and pushes every element to the absolute extreme.
High Castle Orchestra takes surf rock, film soundtracks, jazz fusion, 20th century classical, death metal, prog rock, and European folk music and throws it all into a blender at high speed.
What you suspect might come out as a bunch of silly noise, half-baked ideas or jarring juxtapositions actually comes out as a stunningly complex, yet catchy, highly enjoyable listening experience.
A fine example is a song they released with a music video before the album came out: “Mutual Hazard”. A song that combines Balkan folk with death metal and surf rock played in 7/8 with a tempo pushing 300 BPM. Believe me, you are not prepared:
As if the music itself wasn’t enough, the whole album is inspired by the book Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick.
To learn more about the project overall, I recommend listening to this radio interview by bass player Tim Smolens:
You could also just dive in to The Egg That Never Opened and the experience will be just the same: a jaw-dropping listening session.
Japanese drummer Tatsuya Yoshida is one of my greatest influences on the drums. His complex, busy style has been something I have been trying to achieve ever since I first saw him play in The Ruins at the Empty Bottle in Chicago back in 2001. It was a crazy bill with Pak, Flying Luttenbachers and Cheer-Accident also playing that night. A “brutal-prog” overload if there ever was one.
The Ruins were a bass and drums duo that were known for their short tunes packed full of quick time signature changes, heavy music and Magma / Zeuhl-inspired vocals in a language of their own making.
Tatsuya Yoshida would expand the concept with other bands that were larger in scope. My favorite of these is Koenjihyakkei. Along with bass and drums, the group also has keyboards, occasional saxophone and multiple vocalists. Taking cues from Zeuhl music but pushing the speed and heaviness up even further than the classic 70s bands in that style.
Probably the best example of Koenjuhyakkei firing on all cylinders is their fourth album Angherr Shisspa, which is today’s pick.
It was originally released in 2005, but Skin Graft Records re-released it in 2019 with some live bonus tracks. Just in case you don’t believe they could pull the songs off in a concert setting. The whole thing is pretty mind blowing.
The Skin Graft promotional materials describe the album better than I can, so I will quote them here:
Angherr Shisspa, the band’s landmark fourth album explodes with glittery keyboard lines, speedy bass/drum workouts, emotive reed respites, and operatic female vocals that take the listener from sheer exuberance to absolute apocalypse… all performed with superhuman technique in confoundingly catchy, complex arrangements.
Sign me up!
As a bonus for today’s pick here is a live video from 2006 where the band plays every song on Angherr Shisspa along with other classics peppered throughout the set. Incredible stuff!
If you like this music, all of the other albums in their short discography are worth seeking out.
Before Michael Franti formed Spearhead and became well-known for his sunny, reggae influenced music, he focused on much harsher, more politically charged music.
The first widely known example of this was the industrial/hip-hop group called The Beatnigs. Drummer Rono Tse was also part of this heavy-hitting ensemble.
Both Rono Tse later went on to form the more successful Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, which took the concepts The Beatnigs had to a much larger scale.
Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s most famous song “Television, The Drug Of The Nation” was initially a Beatnigs song. Here they are performing it in 1989, complete with power tools percussion:
Along with Michael Franti and Rono Tse, Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy also included jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter before he gained larger fame playing 8-string guitar in instrumental ensembles.
It is interesting to hear him in this context. The crazed, Public Enemy / Bomb Squad style beats, Gil Scott-Heron inspired spoken word and lyrics encased in a barrage of samples is pretty different than what he (and even Michael Franti) are known for nowadays.
Here’s Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy’s take on “Television”:
They were also a powerful, live act. Here they are performing “Famous And Dandy (Like Amos And Andy)” (ironically?) on late night television:
Here they are performing their version of the Dead Kennedy’s “California Uber Alles” at a club show:
Their live act was so good they eventually opened for U2 on a portion of their Zoo TV tour, along with Primus!
U2 was so into the group, that even after they were off the tour itself, their music was still incorporated into their massive show introduction.
Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy only put out two albums (the second one being the backing band for William S. Burroughs reading selections of his works). So their first album, Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury, remains their definitive musical statement.
Stephen Perkins is best known as the drummer of the 90s alternative rock bands Jane’s Addiction and Porno For Pyros. However, his skills go beyond plain ol’ rock n’ roll.
After Porno For Pyros dissolved following their 1996 tour, Stephen Perkins started a more jazz and improvisation-based band called Banyan.
He recruited bassist extraordinaire Mike Watt to join (Watt also appeared on Porno For Pyro’s Good God’s Urge) along with guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline (who is now with Wilco) and Money Mark (of Beastie Boys / Grand Royal fame). They put out a self-titled album with this membership in 1997, which is decent.
In 1999, Stephen Perkins expanded the Banyan concept, including a wider variety of styles (funk, metal, world music, hip-hop along with the jazz fusion) with a much larger ensemble and released Anytime At All, which is today’s pick.
The musicians who appear on the album is lengthy and amazing. Along with Mike Watt and Nels Cline the following bigger names are also on board along with a smattering of less famous individuals:
Rob Wasserman (bass)
John Frusciante (guitar)
Martyn LeNoble (bass)
They still play shows and tour sporadically. Here is some bonkers live footage of Banyan playing in 2005, keeping the spirit alive:
However, Banyan has not put out another studio album since 1999, so Anytime At All remains the best place to hear their music outside of a live context.