Cecil Talyor: A Museum For Sound

It is taken for granted the physical context in which a painting is hung. Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” (for recent observers) is synonymous with the Museum of Modern Art; the building, gallery style, floor plan, hordes of crowded patrons all contribute to the environment that forms the backdrop by which the art is experienced as a first hand, real time aesthetic interaction. Much like the canvas, frame, or negative space inside a piece, these elements help create a tangible and physical sense of place that is inseparable from the viewing of the physical object.

The case of music is similar, although more mobile due to the nature of recorded media. But for whole genres of music a defined place, location, and space is essential. Swing bands had the Savoy Ballroom, bebop had its 52nd street and Minton’s, Hip Hop had Sedgwick Avenue, and Punk had its CBGBs.

For Cecil Taylor, and indeed much of 1960s progressive jazz, the sense of location is missing from contemporary experience of the genre. Of course Taylor has performed on countless international stages for decades, but hasn’t been strongly associated with any in particular. With many of New York City’s famous 60s jazz incubators now long closed (The Village Gate, Slugs, The Take Three Coffee House, Tonic, and the most relevant incarnations of the Knitting Factory) the music of generation of musicians who pioneered the style now almost exclusively occupies spaces dominated by headphones, home stereos, computers, and personal listening environments. Location is absent as an essential and quiet frame around these artist’s output in the conciousness of those aquainted only with recorded sound.

The recent installation at the Whitney Museum in NYC, “Open Plan: Cecil Taylor Apr 15–Apr 24, 2016” offered a stark reminder of what a space can contribute to the work of a musical artist, and what an abundance of space around the physical manifestations of that art can contribute to a fuller experience of its contents. For the work of an artist such as Cecil Taylor this presentation can be transformative.  The concept of the open plan is:

…an experimental five-part exhibition using the Museum’s dramatic fifth-floor as a single open gallery, unobstructed by interior walls. The largest column-free museum exhibition space in New York, the Neil Bluhm Family Galleries measure 18,200 square feet and feature windows with striking views east into the city and west to the Hudson River, making for an expansive and inspiring canvas.

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One was greeted in the expansive space by a massive angled projection screen playing Taylor’s performance from “Imagine the Sound”. The music and poetry emanating from the performance filled the space, which was dotted with countless music listeners, historians, experts on the era and the Black Arts Movement, and uninitiated Art enthusiasts who silently took in the displays filled with poetry notebooks, scores, concert posters, album covers, pictures, video screens, and memorabilia from Taylor’s 60+ year career. Drawn equally I imagine by the love of his work, or the ubiquitous curiosity to find out what he does, or perhaps why.

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One of the most striking elements where the countless scores under glass, which provided exacting detail into the visual elements Taylor has taken to the stage. Often indecipherable to those acquainted with standard notational practices, they show clumps of notes, intervals, gestures, and graphics that do an incredible job of representing the aural freneticism of many of his performances with an equaled visual energy and complexity.

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Despite the high-energy music that was being played over the house sound system, the space had a decided air of tranquility and focus, perhaps due to the un-crowded nature of each element of the exhibit. The Whitney did an admirable job in replicating the kind of aesthetic environment that facilitates interest, focus, and serenity around the musical objects as other museums can do around the work of visual artists. It was striking how a large group of people could be in one place learning about Cecil Taylor, and not in a performance venue listening to a concert. The space and presentation lent a dimension to Taylor’s work that seemed essential; a defined environment, surrounded by interested public, with enough physical space to explore the elements without feeling rushed. Curiosity was required, the act of walking up to something rather than having it be presented without warning completed the aesthetic transaction between listener and composer, the physical grandness of the space and the commitment needed to walk to each new corner seemed to make accessible even elements of Taylor’s output that seem to defy it.

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Several leather couches were placed overlooking windows, where one could put on provided headphones and listen to selected albums. The couch that chose me was playing Taylor’s first recording as a leader, Jazz Advance. I sat uninterrupted listening to his performance of “Bemsha Swing” mesmerized by his improvisation, while the north view of 10th avenue lay before me. In the context of the exhibit the recording was hypnotizing, energizing and seemed to draw one into the sound and into one’s self.

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It is a shame this display could not be made permanent. What a wonderful monument to the original free jazz pioneer, and one that restored (or perhaps reinvented) a place suitable for the expansiveness of his output. Every great musician should have such a place, perhaps the time has come for Music museums to arise along side those dedicated to Art.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe: Collage as Punk Rock

The Patti Smith Group’s debut lp Horses is considered to be among the most influential of early New York punk, although the best of the album displays a lyric sophistication and aggressive expressive freedom that was rarely matched by many of her early 1970s contemporaries. In particular the poetic technique she displays when combined with a popular music as collage style makes the seemingly primitive rock and roll expression potentially devastating in its delivery.

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The not quite a title track “Land” (labeled “Horses by many) displays this collage quality merging with a DIY pop art aesthetic that was the default medium for Smith and her most significant other at the time, artist Robert Mapplethorpe. As Smith describes in her book Just Kids, when already struggling for food, housing, and at times survival, the materials for artistic expression for both Smith and notably Mapplethorpe came  in the form of collections of inexpensive or found materials (and the occasionally purchased men’s magazine) which were combined in installations, collages, paintings, photographs, jewelry, and various objects that transmitted complex, stirring, and unapologetic expressions from a highly original yet often ordinary collection of material. Smith adopts elements of this approach in the content and production of the song “Land” aka “Horses.”

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Smith takes William S. Burroughs novel “The Wild Boys”, which would have come out during the same period the couple was living at the Chelsea Hotel and West 23rd street, as the pretext for her character Johnny, in the book part of a homosexual youth movement whose objective is the downfall of western civilization, set in the late twentieth century. Here Patti takes the themes of homosexuality, image, control, violence, and the hallucinogenic quality of deadpan spoken delivery that splits into a multi-tracked vocal over droning guitar. Adding to this mix of imagery and effect is Smith’s persistent and often jarring accent that unusually punctuates words such as “tea” and “mirror.” The juxtaposition of Johnny’s laughter accentuates the end of the second system:

The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea
From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating
Another boy was sliding up the hallway
He merged perfectly with the hallway
He merged perfectly, the mirror in the hallway

The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run
But the movie kept moving as planned
The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker
He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny
The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees
Started crashing his head against the locker
Started crashing his head against the locker
Started laughing hysterically

Mapplethorpe’s emerging homosexuality had an obvious effect on his relationship with Smith, and his creative fascination with the world of sadomasochism would soon become the dominant theme in much of his work. Reconstituting risqué and at times harsh imagery became the norm, with no regard to creative boundaries about what was proper or fashionable to use to create art. Smith similarly adopts this mindset, saying of “Gloria” (the companion piece to Horses”:

“Gloria gave me the opportunity to acknowledge and disclaim our musical and spiritual heritage. It personifies for me, within its adolescent conceit, what I hold sacred as an artist. The right to create, without apology, from a stance beyond gender or social definition, but not beyond the responsibility to create something of worth.”

The layers of vocals in the opening was a result of multiple takes, and succeeds in merging Smith’s well honed talent for poetry reading and merges it with a production technique that symbolizes both the transformation of Johnny and the psychological impact of the story being told. The droning quality also has a NYC punk connection to the Velvet Underground and their successful integration of the technique some years earlier.

The most obvious image in the song’s collage is that of a stampede of horses that surrounds Johnny following is sexual violation in the hallway. Both a symbol of violence, freedom, and the loss of control that is taking over as a principle theme of the song. “Horse” is also slang for heroin, a staple subject in Burroughs and is offered perhaps in a manner that asks whether the sexual control is a metaphor for drug abuse, or vice versa. Smith herself had very limited interest in drugs during the period, showing her ability (unlike Burroughs) to adapt the condition to her literary ends without extensive first-hand knowledge.

When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he’s being surrounded by
Horses, horses, horses, horses
Coming in in all directions
White shining silver studs with their nose in flames
He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.

Almost as an homage to one of Burroughs’s cut up techniques the song transitions to what seems to be a primitive reading of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” but quickly evolves as the list of dances elicits the twist, in the form of the “twister I gave your baby sister…I want your baby sister” as the lyric loses the control necessary to maintain its own metaphor:

Do you know how to pony like bony maroney
Do you know how to twist, well it goes like this, it goes like this
Baby mash potato, do the alligator, do the alligator
And you twist the twister like your baby sister
I want your baby sister, give me your baby sister, dig your baby sister
Rise up on her knees, do the sweet pea, do the sweet pee pee
Roll down on her back, got to lose control, got to lose control
Got to lose control and then you take control
Then you’re rolled down on your back and you like it like that
Like it like that, like it like that, like it like that
Then you do the watusi, yeah do the watusi

Religion being another theme that runs though the album, especially the infamous firs line to “Gloria”, Smith combines angelic imagery with sex, death, and the taunts of what could pass for one of the pioneering early 1970s lower east side drag queen described in the book. The knives Burroughs features in the story make an appearance, with the phallic and violent overtones alluded to earlier before quick nods to Smith’s largest poetic influence Rimbaud and the child-like alliteration of the repeated “watusi.”

Life is filled with holes, Johnny’s laying there, his sperm coffin
Angel looks down at him and says, “Oh, pretty boy
Can’t you show me nothing but surrender?”
Johnny gets up, takes off his leather jacket
Taped to his chest there’s the answer
You got pen knives and jack knives and
Switchblades preferred, switchblades preferred
Then he cries, then he screams, saying
Life is full of pain, I’m cruisin’ through my brain

And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud

Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud,

And go Johnny go, and do the watusi, oh do the watusi

Here Smith mixes her poetic devise, hovering over some repeated rhymes and phrases that don’t advance the narrative explicitly except in a kinesthetic modality of the momentary dip in the musical dynamic accompaniment. The idea of the twist as a dance has been transformed into a fictional band named the “Twistelettes.” The sexuality of the “you like it like that” once again highlights the stanza.

There’s a little place, a place called space
It’s a pretty little place, it’s across the tracks
Across the tracks and the name of the place is you like it like that
You like it like that, you like it like that, you like it like that
And the name of the band is the
Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes
Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes

Another shift in perspective takes place as the third and first person begin to overlap. Smith puts herself in with the horses, now benign, and offering a surreal stairway up to the sea as symbolic of possibility. This first possibility that is seized again becomes sexual in nature as Johnny reappears. Again the double track vocal returns adding to the dreamlike imagery:

Baby calm down, better calm down
In the night, in the eye of the forest
There’s a mare black and shining with yellow hair
I put my fingers through her silken hair and found a stair
I didn’t waste time, I just walked right up and saw that
Up there — there is a sea
Up there — there is a sea
Up there — there is a sea
The sea’s the possibility
There is no land but the land
(up there is just a sea of possibilities)
There is no sea but the sea
(up there is a wall of possibilities)
There is no keeper but the key
(up there there are several walls of possibilities)
Except for one who seizes possibilities, one who seizes possibilities
(up there)
I seize the first possibility, is the sea around me
I was standing there with my legs spread like a sailor
(in a sea of possibilities) I felt his hand on my knee
(on the screen)
And I looked at Johnny and handed him a branch of cold flame
(in the heart of man)
The waves were coming in like Arabian stallions
Gradually lapping into sea horses

The imagery again becomes dominated by images of violence, male sexuality, control, Rimbaud, and the watusi, each crammed up against one another in a poetic and musical whirling dervish, punctuated by the line “that’s how I died”. Other drug references arise in the form of spoons and veins. The humor of Smiths writing offers momentary contrast in lines like “…oh we had such a brainiac-amour …but no more.” Smith seems to merge with Johnny as if he is one of the horses being ridden through the dream:

He picked up the blade and he pressed it against his smooth throat
(the spoon)
And let it deep in
(the veins)
Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities
It started hardening
Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities
It started hardening in my hand
And I felt the arrows of desire
I put my hand inside his cranium, oh we had such a brainiac-amour
But no more, no more, I gotta move from my mind to the area
(go Rimbaud go Rimbaud go Rimbaud)
And go Johnny go and do the watusi
Yeah do the watusi, do the watusi …
Shined open coiled snakes white and shiny twirling and encircling
Our lives are now entwined, we will fall yes we’re together twining
Your nerves, your mane of the black shining horse
And my fingers all entwined through the air
I could feel it, it was the hair going through my fingers
(I feel it I feel it I feel it I feel it)
The hairs were like wires going through my body
I I that’s how I
That’s how I
I died
(at that Tower of Babel they knew what they were after)
(they knew what they were after)
[Everything on the current] moved up
I tried to stop it, but it was too warm, too unbelievably smooth
Like playing in the sea, in the sea of possibility, the possibility
Was a blade, a shiny blade, I hold the key to the sea of possibilities
There’s no land but the land

As Smith returns to speaking, the image of death, blood, suicide, drugs (The scream he made… was so high, horses, and an array of body parts as the guitars dissolve into a percussive drone that supports the dreamy recitation. The music disintegrates with the characters as reference is made to a line from “Gloria” about an object of sexual desire leaning on a parking meter:

Looked at my hands, and there’s a red stream
That went streaming through the sands like fingers
Like arteries, like fingers
(how much fits between the eyes of a horse?)
He lay, pressing it against his throat (your eyes)
He opened his throat (your eyes)
His vocal chords started shooting like (of a horse) mad pituitary glands
The scream he made (and my heart) was so high (my heart) pitched that nobody heard
No one heard that cry
No one heard (Johnny) the butterfly flapping in his throat
(His fingers)
Nobody heard, he was on that bed, it was like a sea of jelly
And so he seized the first
(his vocal chords shot up)
(possibility)
(like mad pituitary glands)
It was a black tube, he felt himself disintegrate
(there is nothing happening at all)
And go inside the black tube, so when he looked out into the steep
Saw this sweet young thing (Fender one)
Humping on the parking meter, leaning on the parking meter

The seemingly odd inclusion of “Land of a Thousand Dances” is revealed in the last image of the man in the sheets dancing to the simple rock & roll song, forming a bookend with the opening boy in the hallway, drinking tea.  Was this a drug induced halluciantion? A time warp? A mind bending sexual encounter? All of the above?  The imagery is all that is real, and like an effective collage emparts meaning without the need for explicit resolutions.

In the sheets
There was a man
Dancing around
To the simple
Rock & roll
Song

It is easy to draw comparisons from Smith’s poetry and lyric writing of the time to Mapplethorpe, not in terms of medium, message, or intent, but to the degree they used a no-holds-barred attitude toward subject matter and effectiveness at colliding various subjects and imagery in non-traditional ways. To this end, Smith is unmatched in this style during this period.

David Bowie Deconstructs The Pixies

In this video, David Bowie adroitly breaks down the influence of the Pixies, not just on his own output, but all of popular music that followed.

Like much of the mainstream public, Bowie first encountered the band as they made their recording debut, and what many consider their creative peak in 1988. Four seminal recordings demonstrated a seemingly sui generis style: Surfer Rosa, Surfer Rosa (1988), Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990), and Trompe le Monde (1991). Bowie’s praise for this era is towering:

The first time I heard the pixies was around 1988. I found it just about the most compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire 80’s.

Bowie points to several elements that distinguish the group’s style and songwriting from their peers that, in his words, “made them important as a “sound” band.” These include:

 Pure dynamics; Very obvious now but not obvious at the time, dynamic of keeping the verse extremely quiet and then erupting into a blaze of noise for the choruses.

This technique, which influenced bands such as Nirvana who emulated the dynamic style in a more forward manner, is on display on the opening track of Surfer Rosa, “Bone Machine” from the beginning of the track. The opening drum and bass groove erupts at 0:17 with the addition of guitars. The guitars will come down for the verse at 0:33 and alternate these distorted terraced dynamics throughout the track. The impact of this riff is coupled with the accent and entrance on beat 4, which will create an unsettled syncopation throughout the track and is doubled by the lyric placement.

The interesting juxtapositions that Charles brought together of quite sordid material at times. Charles’ his lyrics actually dealt with common variety subjects, but the permutations that he created with in the different subjects that he dealt with were so unusual that it caught my ear immediately.

Permutations are on display within the lyrics to “Where is my mind?” and begin with the first verse:

With your feet on the air and your head on the ground

Try this trick and spin it, yeah

Your head will collapse

If there’s nothing in it

And you’ll ask yourself

The koan-like nature of the verse is previewed in the first line, where “ground” and “air” have been flipped from their more colloquial positions in the line. The cuteness of this play on words evaporates with the quickly following reference to a trick that will collapse your head, but only if nothing is in it. This causes ones bring to twitch somewhat, is the idea of a trick is one of a skill that takes some attention, presumably one you would not be able to do when attempting such a feat let alone for the first time.

It was the sense of imagination, and I use “imagination” not likely, not in terms of it being a fantasy (which most people define imagination as) but being able to understand the affinities of something and have those affinities illuminate a subject. It’s done so effortlessly and with such a sense of fun and enthusiasm. There’s a great sense of humor that underlines everything that Charles does.

This metaphor of mindlessness is reflected in the chorus through the bluntly obvious question of “where is my mind?” The answer comes in the form of a Freudian water image where apparently we can’t “see it swimming.” This leads to a reference to the inspiration for the song, a swimming expedition in the Caribbean and an interaction with a small fish:

Where is my mind?

Where is my mind?

Where is my mind?

Way out in the water

See it swimming

I was swimming in the Caribbean

Animals were hiding behind the rocks

Except the little fish

Bump into me

I swear he’s trying to talk to me, coy koi

First verse and both repeats with a seeming emphasis on the command of “try this trick and spin it.” In the same way a cold one is an irresistible mental puzzle, the seeming intellectual skills required to decipher its message actually takes you further away from the goal of the Koran itself. In the same way this song is perhaps best enjoyed just through listening to the melody, rhythms, and composition and even singing along without thinking to consciously of what the peace my intend.

The colors that Santiago provided as a guitarist. As a guitar player he is terribly underrated. It’s much more about texture. He supplies extraordinary texture.

Unlike some of the more daring sprawling soundscapes heard on sonic youth records from this era, Joey Santiago’s adventurous guitar textures and interjections of distortion and noise are often fully integrated into what are often some of the most sugary offerings from the band. This is on display during the last minute of “Tony’s theme begging about 1:13. The screeching atonal distortions quickly Give Way, outro, and are even eclipsed by the barking noises coming from the vocal.

I always thought that there was a psychotic Beatles in there, a great reverence for earlier rock music with Charles.

For all the larger-than-life impact of the bands Ross sound and adventurous topics, the subtle influence of a myriad of earlier rock styles lies just underneath the surface of many of the pixies songs from this era. The rather overt references two bands like the Ramon’s and the early 80s infantile Punk aesthetic dominate songs like Tony’s theme and also in the way of the song is put together. The simple Ramones-like power chords, tempo, and even a slightly disguised nod to “Hey ho, let’s go!” don’t stick out as an homage to the Pixies’ punk predecessors, but rather demonstrate the ability to take earlier stylistic components of a pioneering band and integrate them into the Pixie’s aesthetic as a whole. Examples of this are contained all over these early pixies albums, including the not too early piano rock contained in the song “Gigantic” at 2:48:

All of these elements combine to form an often brutal and/or subtly unique musical impact. As Bowie concluded, “What they’ve done is change the format for delivering harder rock. I don’t think that format really existed before they came along.” While not delivering the chart topping success of some of the bands that were directly influenced by them, the pixies have an important place in late 80s rock because of the profound influence the exerted on bands to come and existing artists such as Bowie.

It’s a cliché, but somebody once said that the velvet underground didn’t sell very many albums, but everyone that bought a velvet underground album formed a band. I have to suggest that the same thing applied to the pixies. Once you heard them, you wanted to have a band just like them.

Cecil Taylor, Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Tony Oxley “Nailed”

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  1. “First” – 52:20
  2. “Last” – 25:48
  • Recorded at the Bechstein Concert Hall, Berlin on September 26, 1990

Personnel

Purchase: http://destination-out.bandcamp.com/album/nailed

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Released 2000
Recorded September 26, 1990
Genre Free jazz
Length 78:08
Label FMP
Producer Jost Gebers

American Music is Self-Absorbed

American music is self-absorbed. The obsession on the experience, personality, skill, and individuality of the performer is rooted in the DNA of most vital early styles, most notably in solo blues performances, instrumental jazz solos, and the spotlight placed on the multitude of musicians who entered into the celebrity wing of popular music. This ubiquitous use of “I” and the first person lyric style can be traced back to “ I woke up this morning” themes in the blues, (epitomized by Son House in “Walkin’ Blues”) Where the “I” approach is used as the gateway often to larger themes of love, infidelity, and the multitude of social realities surrounding life in the rural south. It has reached new peaks in the last ten years, at least according to Dr. Nathan DeWall, who’s 2011 study determined: “a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music.” As was hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently in the last few decades, along with what are labeled “anger-related words”, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” as well as the expression of positive emotions. “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before.”

Hip-hop is no more or less self-obsessed than any other genre, but is the most striking. This may have something to do with a still relatively young genre that shifted so dramatically and quickly in terms of content and depth of purpose. Early artists created music that functioned for parties, large crowds, dancers, and often downplayed the participation of MC’s. It was also drawing on many influences from the contemporary dance and punk practices of the period, and self consciously trying to cast the widest net possible in the emergent national radio market. It also may be unmatched to the degree that un-broadcast-able self-aggrandizement of monetary, physical, and sexual attributes raised the ire of a mainstream public while simultaneously exploding into global music phenomena.

Grandmaster flash introduced the idea of biographical realism, graphically describing the brutal realities of the segregated south Bronx in 1982’s “The Message.”  The success and influence of this piece rests in the ability for listeners to relate to Flash’s delivery, whether they were living in the Bronx or not. For subsequent artists, a biographical account, even if not entirely real, provided an intense reservoir of personal experience that would resonate with others with similar experiences, but also for a global audience that would be able to adapt the specify of the approach as an adaptable metaphor for their own background. This of course is a similar phenomenon to many other forms of music, especially rock and roll. Teen angst is universal, regardless of background, and a new musical language offers a similar catharsis to blocks of culturally underrepresented listeners. The forms may change through the decades, but the function for the listener, especially if they are going through predictable modes of psychological development, is similar.

The outer world gives way to the realities and necessarily complex communication of the inner as a musical style develops. This transition is seen in its nacent stages in “The Message”, but has taken center stage with pieces like Kendrick Lamar’s “What a Dollar Cost?” The track has been lauded, and combines a relatable metaphor of success, guilt, and imperfection with an invitation for the listener to engage in a kind of emotional and cultural voyeurism. The track describes Lamar’s experience with a fictional homeless person, taking the listener through various confessions of the rapper’s proposed arrogance toward a crack-addicted panhandler. The slow, dark Phrygian 12/8 groove is punctuated by moments of harmonized melody, and integrates past and present tenses as the narrative flips between panhandler and Lamar. Lamar describes the track as “…me talking to him was simply a thank you from God. And I felt God speaking through him to get at me.”

This inner world is where a listener will determine whether the track succeeds or not.   Lamar’s descriptions in the track are those of a young man, confused by his own success and an apparent lack of cultural authenticity. Not as beguiling as the inner turmoil of other artists perhaps such as Charles Mingus, and even the “homeless person is god” metaphor comes off as a tired cliché, that is unless one has never heard it. To this extent Lamar’s rap is perhaps relatable to a young audience, but the track succeeds when the delivery consumes the message itself, filling in holes within the ego driven narrative with a musical substance that supplants the occasional lack of universality of the metaphor with a groove and orchestration that communicates meaning that the biography and the metaphor leave out. Here Love Dragon’s production is a vital component. The track creates a world inside the head of Lamar’s character, oscillating between looking out and looking in, dialogues and introspections. Even if one finds the content somewhat lacking, the delivery is certainly not. In this regard the sophistication of Lamar’s lines is such that the dizzying amount of energy emanating from his structure and delivery eclipse the simplicity of the narrative. The relatability of “I” story becomes real on a musical level first. Ironically, the obsession of the track in Lamar’s pious life lesson leaves the beggar as invisible and unrecognized as Lamar faults himself for making him.

 

‘Kendrick Lamar Breaks Down 8 To Pimp A Butterfly Tracks – MTV’. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
Kendrick Lamar (Ft. James Fauntleroy & Ron Isley) – How Much a Dollar Cost. N.p. Audio Recording.
Tierney, John. ‘A New Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Hit Lyrics’. The New York Times 25 Apr. 2011. NYTimes.com. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

 

 

Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul, Jazz, Blues…

 

Aretha Franklin has earned the mantle of the Queen of Soul, but her influences and her talents transcend any single genre, with the diversity of her recordings often freely crossing boundaries. These boundaries are consumed in the individuality of her personal mastery and amalgam of jazz, blues, soul, gospel, R&B, and pop influences. This is evident on her recording of “Ramblin’” from the Soul ‘69 record. The track mixes heavy doses of these elements in an incredible pyrotechnic display of all that was right with American music in 1969.

Even with the insulting beginning to his March 1st 1969 review[1], Stanley Booth labels Soul ‘69 as “the best record to appear in the last five years.” The album features a stellar jazz orchestra, with arrangements by Arif Mardin that would not have been out of place on a Count Basie Recording, or amongst Oliver Nelson and Thad Jones’ work of the period. Even with the presence of such soul icons as King Curtis, Tommy Cogbill, and Jerry Jemmott, this is a jazz band, and one that represents the height of talent working in the genre that were just at home helping Atlantic records produce studio hits as crafting cutting edge musical movements with Miles Davis and Gil Evans. The wealth of jazz talent is staggering:

 

Aretha Franklin

Soul ‘69

Released          January 17, 1969

Recorded         April 17–18 & September 24, 1968

 

Aretha Franklin – vocals, piano (on #2,7,9)

Junior Mance – piano (1,3-6,8-11)

Spooner Oldham – organ (2,7)

Joe Zawinul – organ (5), electric piano (6,12)

Kenny Burrell (1,3-6,8-11), Jimmy Johnson – guitar (2,7)

Ron Carter (1,3-6,8-12), Jerry Jemmott (2,7) – bass

Tommy Cogbill – electric bass (2,7)

Bruno Carr (1,3-6,8,9,12), Roger Hawkins (2,7), Grady Tate (10,11) – drums

Jack Jennings – vibraphone (5,7,9,12)

Louie Goicdecha, Manuel Gonzales – percussion (5,7,12)

David Newman – tenor saxophone, flute

King Curtis, Seldon Powell – tenor saxophone

George Dorsey, Frank Wess – alto saxophone

Pepper Adams – baritone saxophone

Joe Newman, Bernie Glow, Richard Williams, Snooky Young, Ernie Royal – trumpet

Jimmy Cleveland, Urbie Green, Benny Powell, Thomas Mitchell – trombone

Evelyn Greene, Wyline Ivy – backing vocals

Produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd

Arrangements by Arif Mardin

As the lineup suggests, the ensemble on the opening track “Rambin’” swings hard, as does much of the rest of the session. In that regard it is amazing how naturally and exceptionally Aretha leads this group in that groove. Not merely being accompanied, she strikes out and pushes the rhythm with vocalisms that would not be out of place coming out of one of the instrumental solos. Indeed, during the saxophone solo on the track Aretha reverses roles, and sings her own obbligato part as accompaniment. She invents her own riffs and counter melodies during the out vamp that, aside from not using identifiable scat syllables, match the bands when needed and consume them when she wants to. This is not surprising from a singer raised as much on Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn as the richest of gospel traditions.

The blues element in the track is directly traceable to, amongst many other places, the original recording of Big Maybelle Smith from 1957. Smith’s version can trace a straight line back to Mamie Smith’s original blues recording, both with the informal yet virtuosic improvisations in the rhythm section and the upfront presentation of her volcanic and versatile interpretation of the lyric. Drums are placed far in the back of the mix, except for a decidedly insistent backbeat snare drum beat. The lyric of this 8-bar blues becomes more minimal as the piece moves on, leaving increasingly large amounts of space for her amazingly varied approach to coloring words and contrasting dynamics.

Aretha also takes advantage of this space, with expressive phrasing that at times serenades and alternately roars out of the arrangement. Huge crescendos and dynamic shifts play with emphasis on particular lyrics, including a delivery of the line “sick of your funky ways” that should be heard to be believed. The stop time break at 1:53 allows Aretha’s back phrasing to be heard alone, buoying the pulse but leaning back to create a pocket so deep you could drive a car through it. She effortlessly matches the world-class trumpet section, both in timbre, intensity, and often in volume. This is Aretha Franklin at her peak, both in terms of jaw dropping vocal ability, but comprised of a blues component that seamlessly integrates the jazz elements coming from the band and the arrangement.

The recording is amazing for these amalgamations, but not surprising given the influence of the singers named above, as well as Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Little Willie John, the Falcons, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. What is equally amazing that after a 6-decade plus career we tend to forget how incredible her singular contribution is. Recordings like this help shine the spotlight on Aretha as a crafter of groove that defies any simplified label, perhaps just the moniker of “Queen” should be enough.

 

[1] “It does no good to say Aretha Franklin can’t sing as well as Ivy Anderson; Ivy Anderson is dead, and not a dozen of the dedicated music-lovers who read this journal remember the great Duke Ellington vocalist. We must make do with what we have, and the best female singer we have now is Aretha.”

: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/soul-69-19690301#ixzz42pgW9fa3

 

Feeling as Form and Feet: James Brown’s “I Got The Feelin”

By the late 1960s James Brown was well into his most innovative and influential period as the pioneer of funk. His recording of “Cold Sweat” in 1967 hit number one on the R&B chart, and was to be followed up by, amongst other landmark recordings, “I Got the Feelin” in 1968.

The feeling that James Brown might be referring to is audibly and visually manifested in the studio recording, as well as live footage captured at the Apollo theatre in March and the Boston Garden[1] on April 5th. In particular, Brown’s irrepressible dancing is both a manifestation of the structure of the groove, as well as the traditions of the blues that influenced all of Brown’s output.

The Apollo performance begins with Brown asking his congregation if they have the feeling’, singling out each area of the theatre before asking the question of the band. Suddenly the band pops into the signature groove. The footage from Boston here is illuminating, featuring a long shot that makes most of the band and all of Brown’s body clearly visible.

The first phrase, featuring the first line “I Got the Feelin” ( about 10:10 in on the video below) features a driving rhythm section and horn riff. Brown’s feet alternate, close to the ground, alternating in quick succession. The second phrase, where the band moves to the IV chord, features a unison hit by the band that Brown chooses to acknowledge with a sudden twist of his head down and to his left. The largest accent of the tune is left without a vocal, instead maximized with Brown’s exaggerated gesture. A few measures later, upon returning to the I chord, Brown returns to a variation of his earlier moves.

When the band hits the V chord and the “Baby baby baby…” break, Brown turns his back to the audience, accenting his right foot.

This template is expanded, with wilder variations of the IV chord hit showing Brown creating wilder moves, mimicking the growing intensity of the band, and eventually Brown showing it off at 12:45 during the saxophone solo,. The performance continues to build into the last chorus with Brown manipulating the mic stand, catching it along with his continuously intensifying performance. The last break, Brown sings “Baby Baby Baby…” facing the audience before turning it all loose at 14:00.

The story of this tune is in as much of Brown’s physicality as his vocal. And while It builds throughout the 4-minutes shown in the video, it uses the ebb and flow of a modified blues form to create peaks and valleys where he can build and fall from each successively higher plateau.

The otherwise tune is a blues form, using a 12-bar first phrase, and a 6-bar turnaround and break. The piece foreshadowed other Brown classics such as “Sex Machine” where an audible cue to “take it to the bridge” sees the groove leave the I chord to move to a second section built on the IV chord. This second section ends with short hits on the V chord before starting the next chorus.

These tunes show how the flexibility of phrasing often noted with early blues pioneers such as Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker that resulted in a malleable number of bars re-exerts itself at in the foundations of funk, with Brown often audibly conducting his band as to when he believes the next phrase should be played.

“I Got The Feelin” (1968)

|           I           |                       |                       |                       |

|                       |                       |                       |                       |

|                       |                       |                       |                       |

|           IV        |                       |                       |                       |

|           I           |                       |                       |                       |

|           V         |                       | break ………|………………|

|………………|…………     :||

 

“Sex Machine” (1971)

||:          I           |                       |                       |                       :||

on cue

||:          IV        |                       |                       |                       :||          V         ||   D.C.

 

[1] This April 5th performance is outlined for its significance to the civil rights movement and to the city of Boston in the documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston.”

Composition as Process: Charles Mingus’ “Folk Forms I”

What is the jazz “process” as it relates to spontaneous performance and improvisation? When does the process involved of creating improvised music become indistinguishable from what one would recognize as a preconcieved compositional product?

Charles Mingus is unmatched as an improviser, leader, and diverse musician that could create music relying on the artistry of a method often more so that compositions that used traditional preconcieved elements such as written melody and harmony. The art of Mingus’ mastery in this regard reaches a new creative peak beginning with the inclusion of Eric Dolphy in 1960, and notably on the album Mingus at Antibes, recorded July 13th, 1960.

The material documented with his working bands, especially those recorded live in concert, offer the best glimpse into Mingus’ mastery not only of composition, spontaneous arrangement, double bass virtuosity, but also a cumulative mastery of different expressive methods drawn from blues, folk, and gospel musics, and an ability to employ them in real time.  As Robert Palmer[1] summarizes:

This is one of the great Mingus albums. It was recorded live at the Antibes Jazz Festival in 1960 with a group many listeners feel was Mingus’s best, during one of the bassist/composer’s most productive and boundary-stretching periods. At a time when Ornette Coleman’s free jazz was just beginning to be heard and the avant-garde movement which would follow his example was still gestating, Mingus and his musicians, particularly the incandescent Eric Dolphy, proposing a brand of freedom built on the black folk forms and the skeletal remains of popular song structures. This album captures their freedom-with-order, which was to become a principal influence on Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the other structuralists of the Midwestern avant-garde almost ten years later, at the peak of inter active intensity. There is nothing quite like it in the rest of the Mingus discography.

While many later concerts actually do capture this freedom, and often a more intense, evolved form[2], the Antibes recording is the first live document of the Mingus quintet to feature Eric Dolphy with Booker Ervin, arguably two musicians who were essential to the realization of Mingus ensemble ideal.   It goes without saying that the contributions of drummer Danny Richmond are  irreplaceable and that the unprecedented rhythmic flexibility the bassist and drummer developed in the ensuing years is a milestone in the idiom.

The processes Mingus draws upon reflects the bassist’s extensive musical experience up to 1960, and the well documented personal, psychological, racial, religious, and societal forces that shaped the aesthetic of one of American music’s most dynamic figures. Where these elements start and stop are often difficult to measure, although sometimes they leap out of the music in a way that’s belies the complexity that lies beneath Mingus’s expression. As Palmer states:

Although his transmutation of Black folk music into modern Jazz must have been inspired, at least in part, by similar alchemy’s in Ellington works such as black, brown and beige, Mingus brought a profoundly original understanding of folk process to his Jazz workshop performances of this period. He preferred working orally to writing melody lines or even court progressions on paper, and together with his drummer, Danny Richmond, he developed an unprecedented rhythmic mobility. To judge from the sound of the music, he was seeking to duplicate within his groups the freely responsive relationship between black preacher and congregation or blue singer and audience, a relationship which allows for abrupt changes of tempo and meter, stop time, dramatic pauses, and other devices, according to the shared feelings of the participants in the sensitivity of the preacher/singer/group leader as a chancellor of collective energies.

The piece Folk Forms I epitomizes this approach, with nothing  pre-composed except for master musicians drawing upon various tradition of blues and folk music, the  emotional disposition of its composer,[3] the archetypal structures of the blues, and a reoccurring riff played by the drums:

riff

Mingus’ approach to bass in this track is rooted in riffs and blues improvisation, flexible in all regards, and less concerned with any bebop-esque outlining of harmony or traditional execution of a regular quarter note pulse. Each musician draws extensively from this perspective as well, leaving out many of the devices that were characterisitc of the hard bop idiom prevelant at the time.  Mingus’ solo lines develop the aab phrase structure of the blues, and often take advantage of the sole role as a harmonic instruments to vary placement (and duration) of the I,IV, and V harmonies, while maintaining a strict 12-bar form. The groove becomes an amalgam of concurrent improvisations drawing from upbeat that has equal parts coming from New Orleans, Kansas City, and New York. The band begins with a minimal bass solo, building thorugh a layering of instruments and textures  in both orchestration and percieved tension. It flirts initially with releasing this tension before the tenor solo, but that release is denied. This ebb and flow of extreme amount of tension is released four times throughout the performance, and results in  intense and long crescendos, and sudden drops in dynamic as if the floor had just fallen out from beneath your feet.

The composition of this track is then rests in Mingus’ acute sensitivity and skill to create a spontaneous arrangements within a form, and the ability to create a spontaneous orchestration and dynamic arc built upon a minimal rhythmic idea, rather than a more traditional melody and chord progression. It is the process here that is preconceived; a series of crescendos, denied or resolved rhythmic tensions created by strategic fleeting eruptions of 4/4 swing in the rhythm section, the space for individual solos from everyone in the band, and the dynamic arc that reaches its ultimate climax in the out head of the performance. This arc alone is a singular example of one of the most challenging of jazz compositional elements. There are few examples in the jazz cannon of performers who can successfully create such an epic dynamic arrangement, exceptionally few who can do so out of an extreme minimum of “composed” elements.  The detailing of this arrangement is shown in the chart below.

The irony of this extreme level of ensemble freedom rests in the necessity of a strong (perhaps even authoritarian) bandleader who can make a moment to moment decisions within ear towards rhythm and dynamic, and the process of developing those as primary compositional elements. While the performance is virtue are obviously collective in its execution, this collective improvisational virtuosity stems from the singular direction of its strongest personality, and done so in real time.

“Folk Forms I” (Mingus) – 11:08

Charles Mingus, bass; Dannie Richmond, drums; Ted Curson, trumpet; Eric Dolphy, alto saxophone; Booker Ervin, tenor saxophone.

table 1

table 2

table 3

table 4

[1] Mingus, Charles. Passions of a Man: Complete Atlantic Recordings. Atlantic, 1997. Audio Recording.

[2] See Jazz Icons: Charles Mingus Live in ’64. Jazz Icons, 2007. Film.

[3] Also on display on the Candid Label’s version of the piece recorded later in the year: Charles Mingus. Presents Charles Mingus. Wax Time, 1960. Audio Recording.

Blues as Experience

“That it was the history of the African American people as text, as tale, as story, as exposition, narrative, or what have you, that the music was the score, the American life, our words, the libretto, to those actual, lived lives…the music was explaining the history as the history was explaining the music. And that both were expressions of and reflections of the people!” (Amira Baraka, Blues People)

 

Intense

Expressive

Personal

Physical

Vocal

Cultural History

Call and Response

Audience participation

Dancing

A “negation”(?) of elements

Individuality

Uncensored

Groove

Story

Slide Guitar

Coded language

Heavy Metaphor

Locality

Work Song/Rhythm

Poetry

Poverty

Slavery

Segregation

Migration

To make sophisticated/to make raw

Not two, not one

Irony

Mississippi

New Orleans

Kansas City

St. Louis

New York City

Aural

Gospel Music

Baptist

Congregation, Choir, Minister

Water, Trains, Highways, Guns, Women, Men, Work, God, Devil, Crazy, Abuse, Love, Fine and Mellow…