Monday, July 31, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 036: Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick: Life and Limb

You can’t contain the breadth, intensity, diversity, and astonishingly consistent high quality of Martin Carthy’s 45-year recording career on a single disc. And, even if you could, what side of Carthy would you emphasize to the detriment of others? The traditional singer, who translated the insights of source singers like Sam Larner and collectors like Bert Lloyd and Ewan MacColl to practically everyone in the Brit-folk revival? The magnificent guitarist, who, more than any other folkie except possibly Davy Graham, figured out a way to translate the stuttering, herky-jerky, heartbeat life-blood of traditional piping, fiddling, and singing to his loopy, percussive, and utterly idiosyncratic guitar style? The bandleader, whose Brass Monkey lineup found a way to synthesize village brass bands, folk choirs, and rock ‘n’ roll in a wonderfully hairy and funky acoustic lineup? The prototypical folkie-turned-rocker, who was the trad-music cornerstone of Steeleye Span (and which band went straight down the tubes, in terms of quality, when he left)? The slyly anonymous composer, almost all of whose “traditional” songs contain added texts by Carthy which are even more powerful than the original fragments? The road warrior, willing to hold 10,000 Frenchmen in the palm of his hand at Lorient during a solo performance of Skewball, and play the next night at a church-hall folk club? The avatar of political folk-song, whose fantastic musical taste led him to Leon Rosselson and the world of radical contemporary folk-song before anyone else? The brilliant accompanist and duet-partner, who, with both fiddler Dave Swarbrick and button box player John Kirkpatrick, redefined the possibilities of fiddle tunes and Morris tunes, making utterly contemporary and very powerful music?

You can’t contain Carthy’s brilliance on a single CD. So what do you do: go for quantity, with the excellent (but rather eclectic) 4-disc set Carthy Chronicles (another of Free Reed’s masterful boxes), or for a “classic” single disc like Crown of Horn, or for one of the great duo discs with Swarb like Prince Heathen? How do you account for the great, irreplaceable songs which are scattered through the other discs? And, how can you have any adequate representation of Carthy that omits his titanic version of The Famous Flower of Serving Men, which brings together his fantastic idiosyncratic vocal phrasing, his interpolation and expansion of traditional sources, the spitting venom of his percussive guitar in this tale of jealousy, murder and revenge? To say nothing of the greatest riff in folk-rock, a stuttering, tumbling pentatonic line which Fairport pinched as the “big rock lick” in Matty Groves but which Carthy casually tosses off in endless spinning permutations under his contrapuntal vocal?

Well, you can’t. So you have to make a choice that some things will be omitted while others are included (if traditional music teaches you anything, it’s that life is flawed and choices have consequences). So my choice, today, is the masterful live duo with Dave Swarbrick, Life and Limb. Tomorrow’s choice might be different—and you’d probably have to pry my copy of Carthy Chronicles from my cold, dead iPod. Anyway:

Swarb was a Geordie from Birmingham, but with Scots-Irish roots. He played in ceilidh bands (and still continues an association with the fantastic vamping pianist Beryl Marriott), but in 1966 teamed up with Carthy in a duo that virtually redefined the playing of trad English music. Couple Carthy’s astonishing detective- and reconstruction-work with songs, his fantastic piping-and-droning guitar, and his dry wit with Swarb’s loopy, sliding fiddle and irrepressible singing and stage patter, and the telepathy they almost instantly developed, and you have the template they’ve worked with for the past 40 years. But, as with so many musicians who maintain decades-long associations—and who are working in musical traditions that have some spine and longevity to them—you have recent reunion discs that are better than anything they’ve previously recorded: the 90s-and-later discs really are better than the “heyday” discs of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

So—Life and Limb. Swarb’s health has been terrible since the ‘80s—the archetypal image of Swarb was of him vamping on fiddle, singing, eyes closed, into a microphone, with a cigarette hanging out of his month—and he eventually had both lungs replaced to counter his emphysema (the Daily Telegraph published a premature obituary and Swarb gleefully quoted Mark Twain’s “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”). This disc, recorded in 1990, captures the duo pre-surgery but post-reunion—two old friends playing with astonishing empathy, telepathy, and virtuosity, with an air of casual command that makes aging seem pretty attractive (for another example of same, see the Fierce Old Lions of the Planxty reunion DVD, in response to which, paraphrasing The Commitments, “I’ll bet Lunasa are shittin’ themselves”).

The disc touches on some—but not all—of what made (and makes) this duo great: Carthy’s definitive version (as so many of his versions are) of Child Ballad #3, the female-highwayman-in-disguise story of Sovay; the understatedly-brutal political satire of The Begging Song (another of Carthy’s rewrites out of folk tradition, updating the traditional song with new lyrics about the Thatcherite horror) and of his own song A Question of Sport (which uses the language of British pub quizzes to describe Thatcher’s "banality of evil" response to apartheid’s torture policies); the wonderfully loopy, spinning-and-twisting instrumentals including The Pepperpot and Carthy’s March (the latter a Swarb composition, a dreamed tribute to Carthy); and the closer: the seven-plus minutes of their extended workout on Byker Hill, which nearly accomplishes the impossible task of encapsulating everything that was (and is) great about this duo. It’s a tune that appeared previously in their repertoire as both an instrumental and a song (a great funny miner’s lyric in 9/8) and was always the vehicle for improvisation.

It begins with a beautiful guitar solo in more-or-less free time (or, as Carthy learned from Bert Lloyd, “in One”) which recalls nothing so much as Keith Jarrett on one side and the great Malagasay guitarist D’Gary on the other—but it’s just Carthy…free. Then he goes into the groove, in a mode stunningly distant from where he’d gone (and I’ll bet three quarters of the audience had no idea the song was coming) and begins to sing:

If I had another penny
I would have another gin
I would have the piper play
The “Bonny Lass from Byker Hill"...

with Swarb’s fiddle dancing along every step of the way. They go into the solo, and it’s like listening to a great Afro-Cuban band, where everybody in the band is hearing the clave (or, in the case of Carthy/Swarb, the “One”) but nobody needs to play it—it’s that much part of their shared heartbeat. And then, after the solos, they casually modulate up a whole step to another key—not an easy task on open-tuned guitar, let me tell you!—to take the tune out. Only when the room erupts in applause do you realize how much they’ve held the audience hushed throughout the tune. It’s a performance that captures the guts, balls, and fierce joy that Carthy and Swarb found in the working-class roots of traditional music—and the world they opened to the rest of us.

A year or so ago: our old friends the Right Reverend Colonel Lemual B. Rikkitts and Dr. “Pappy Lilt” Masbrow, specialists in “Appalachian Murder Ballads and Celtic Songs of Love and Death,” are in town for a show. There’s been a lot of hanging out, a lot of hysterical quotation of dialog from O Brother Where art Thou? and High Fidelity, biscuits "and a orange" for breakfast, and some great music. The night before they leave, Dharmonia asks the Rev if he's ever heard Martin Carthy. He says “no,” the Doc says “not much,” so she lays Famous Flower of Serving Men on the two of them. They listen motionless, the Doc stroking his beard and the Colonel prone on the couch, to the whole 11 minutes of the Shearwater version. At the end, after the murderous mother is consigned by her son to the flames (“and they spat and rang in her yellow hair”), they continue to sit motionless…until Pappy says “I have GOT to learn that,” and the Rev falls off the couch, moaning “Oh fuck...oh fuck...oh fuck...Why did you let me know he was that great?!?” That’s the reaction we all had—Carthy sent us all back to school and the woodshed. And he humbled us.

His music is an entire world. He may have started out as a folk-revivalist, but (like Keith Richards’ lifelong accomplishment with Muddy Waters) his dedication was true, and the tradition survives in no small part because of him.

You can live inside Carthy's music. There's a whole world there.

[h/t to the Rev for the corrected dialog]

Sunday, July 30, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 035: The Pindar Family with Joseph Spence: The Real Bahamas Volume 1 & 2

This music comes from a place—and a world of experience—that is gone. And it was a better, kinder place than the world we live in.

The Bahamas, before the tourist trade took the islands away from the people who actually lived there and turned them into picturesque denizens of a semi-tropical theme park, were a wonderful, kind, and gentle place. Mostly people lived very simple lives, with a lot of leisure time and a close connection both to nature (fishing, sponging, growing vegetables) and to God.

The tradition of the lining-hymn got started on the sponge beds: fishermen out on the beds who were unable to get back to shore for Sunday service would hold it on the boat instead. Services mostly consisted of improvised singing, when the song leader would “line-out” verses from the Bible (especially the Psalms) to improvised melodies and improvised responses from the other choristers. It’s a beautiful, unselfconscious, and truly devout musical language. Eventually the style moved off the boats and back on shore. It became, in fact, part of people’s dying: when a member of the community was not expected to live, the community on Andros or Freeport or Cat Island would gather in the stricken person’s home, clasp hands around the bedside, and sing lining-out hymns until the person passed. It must have been a gentle and loving way to say goodbye.

These are recordings made by Peter Siegel and Jody Stecher in ’65, when word was already out in the Boston/Cambridge folk community, as a result of Sam Charters’s 1958 recordings, about this carpenter/stonemason/guitarist on Andros. What I love so much about this record, even more than Spence’s astoundingly joyful solo records, is the way it reveals the musical world that Spence came from, when people sang together, and when singing was part of all kinds of daily activities: living and dying, joy and sorrow. Spence was a valued guitar player, but he was probably just as valued as a carpenter or a stonemason. And, while he was happy to take the check from the “boys from Harvard,” he was also equally happy to play at a friend’s party for a bottle of rum and the chance of a game of dominos.

The record is beautiful, in which old gospel revival hymns lie like Standing In The Need Of Prayer and Kneelin' Down Inside The Gate are friendly neighbors with Spence’s magnificent solo performance of Out on the Rolling Sea (one of the most beautiful pieces of American music ever recorded) and guitar instrumental Great Dream from Heaven, upon which an entire generation of fingerpicking guitarists built their styles, and without which (and Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground), Ry Cooder would inhabit a much less rich musical world. And Bid You Goodnight, which became an anthem for everyone from Aaron Neville (the only version to come within shouting distance of Spence's own) to the Incredible String Band to (shudder!) the Grateful Dead, is simply one of the most loving texts ever set to music.

Spence himself was related by marriage to the Pindar Family, one of the islands’ great musical clans, and he’s all over this record as accompanist and obbligato singer. He would be absolutely unmistakable no matter how far down in the mix. His guitar style was a marvelously corrugated, twisted, and impossibly funky extrapolation of the implications of ragtime piano (and especially the guitar-ragtime of Blind Blake, who Spence probably heard while working the tobacco fields of Georgia as a migrant) and 4-part gospel song. He played everything under the sun, from folk hymns to Tin Pan Alley to Afro-Caribbean blues, and he was a complete orchestra all by himself, not only in his wildly-contrapuntal guitar (all in the key of D—and for more on that, see below), but also in the irreplicable vocal soundtrack he supplied to his own guitar. You can’t really call it singing, encompassing as it does the widest-possible range of whistles, grunts, cackling laughter, and so on. He sounds happily demented, but he’s actually “living on the hallelujah side,” bringing the whole sacred/secular world of the Bahamas into his solo playing.

Spence is kind of a litmus test: people I play him for either love him or hate him: they start laughing hysterically or pleading with me to take it off. Just as with Blind Gary Davis or Arnold Schoenberg or The Minutemen, you have to listen past your own expectations of what “beauty” is and accept it on their terms—and if you do, your musical world will be bigger.

Years ago I talked to Jody Stecher about that ’65 trip, when the boys from Harvard must have thought they’d entered a virtually Edenic pre-industrial world. Stecher, a magnificent guitarist and a gentle, kind person himself (and a practicing Buddhist), tells the story very well. But he also told me the story of Spence’s rationale for playing everything in “D”. See, he used dropped-D tuning on the guitar, in which the lowest-pitched string is dropped an additional whole-step from E to D. This limits the number of keys you can employ (essentially to D, G, A, and their respective modes) but expands both the range and the contrapuntal capacities in those keys. “folk” musicians, unlike classical players, have never made a fetish out of technical difficulty for its own sake: play some impeccable, finger-busting etude in Db for a folk fiddler or guitarist, and he’s likely to say “you know, son, if you move that up a half-step to D, you’re gonna sound a lot better.”

So with Spence. Jody S told me that, in his guise as good little Topworld folklorist, he asked Spence why he played everything in D. Spence replied, in the gravel conversational voice that was an exact parallel of his singing, “I used to know all them keys! I knew ‘em all: A, and B, and D, and H…I used to know all them keys!” Stecher asked, “well, Mr Spence, if you knew all those keys, how come you don’t use them anymore?” Spence replied, “I got TAHRD of ‘em!”

What an amazing, kind, and bursting-with-creativity man. What a world that must have been. It’s gone—but this recording is like a daguerreotype to remind us of what we’ve lost.

The "Justice" Department

Gonzales is lawyering up for Bush/Cheney.

The projected charge?

War crimes.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Turd Blossum and the Big Lie

Karl Rove never has been able to keep subject and predicate, cause and effect separate. He's made a lot of money teaching people dumber than he how to tell the Big Lie:

Rove: Reporters slam politicans to save selves.

100 Greats in 100 Days # 034: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni (bootleg of Pearlman/Boston Baroque 1986 performances)

Possibly the greatest moment in the greatest opera ever written: in Mozart’s brilliant, scabrous, and subversive masterpiece Don Giovanni, when, after two acts and three hours of irony, satire, playful political commentary, outrageous sexual innuendo, and Marx Brothersian slapstick, the Don’s world is revealed to be shockingly darker, realer, and far more consequential than anyone in the cast or the audience had realized: when the Commendatore, father of Giovanni’s latest conquest, who the Don had killed in an offhand, wisecracking duel in Act I, appears, an animate Golem-esque statue, at the end of Act II, and, basso profundo, calls out to Giovanni, threatening him with the flames of hell unless he repents.

There are three perfect operas—if, like me, you find Romanticism to be gimcrack self-engrossment and thus discount the 19th century: the first real opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, when he recognized that, in the effort to recreate the affect of ancient Greek drama, he could draw from all the musics around him; this one; and the only 20th-century opera that comes within hollering distance of Mozart, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress: a conscious effort to recall the brevity, directness, and synthesis of slapstick comedy and vertiginous surreality of the Mozart. Giovanni might be the greatest of all three.

The “classical” in the world of European aesthetics is a conscious attempt to seek “coolness,” clarity, symmetry, balance, and immediacy. In its broadest interpretation, it’s the willingness to work within the confines of a genre—be it the sonata or the string quartet or representational painting or the 12-bar blues—as opposed to insisting upon an individualistic, idiosyncratic reinvention of the art form in question. A whole generation of composers, in the wake of WWI, essentially abandoned the hyper-romantic individualism of the expressionist style (Strauss’s Elektra and Salome being the canonic examples—dark, contorted, cynical, deeply sexual), horrified that their obsessively autobiographical fetishization of nationalism and individualism might have somehow contributed to the conclave of stupid reasons for that stupid, unnecessary war. Another generation of composers, in the wake of Buchenwald and Nagasaki, abandoned the last remnants of populist nationalism and retreated—regressively and, let’s be honest, with a degree of social cowardice—into the academic enclaves and hyper-“rationality” of serialism, itself an unwittingly fitting soundtrack to the button-down neurosis of the Cold War.

Mozart would not have understood the point of abandoning stylistic conventions: musical satire cannot work unless an audience has expectations which can be invoked, teased, shocked, or subverted. As Allanbrook makes clear in her masterful exegesis, the musical humor in DG depends upon the audience recognizing the references: the way that Leporello evokes and subverts the long tradition of comic operatic basses; the way the Don’s misconduct engages and scandalizes Viennese sexual mores (there’s a reason this opera had to open “out of town” in Prague); the way the music for Dona Elvira, based in formerly au courant styles, is just a few too many years out of date, and played too fast for grace; the way the diegetic music onstage during the first act Finale slyly quotes Mozart’s own operatic catalog. Such references are the best single argument for studying musicology—they are entirely of the time, place, and people of the original context, and recognizing and understanding them can add an entire additional layer of comic reference to the listening experience.

They’re also the best, and an entirely consistent, argument in favor of the historical instruments and performance practice of this recording. Pearlman and the Boston Baroque understood the style of Giovanni from the other end—instead of the tinkering hindsight revisions of Mendelssohn, Stokowski, Karajan, or Bernstein, Pearlman and my homies begin by asking, not “what do I think this should sound like?”, but rather, more modestly, insightfully, and “classically,” “what did Mozart think this should sound like?”

A common critique of historical performance is that it seeks the impossible: to “recreate the music exactly as it sounded.” This is bullshit: what HP seeks to do is simultaneously simpler, more modest, and more ambitious: it seeks to understand the composer’s intent and the composition’s impact. What was the impact of the references and allusive quotations in DG, to music, politics, and public figures of the day? How shocked was the Prague (and later Viennese) audience by the sexuality? How do we have to play to allow this to come out?

Pearlman elicits a performance whose guerilla lightness, flexibility, transparency, and intensity lets the soloists (including the great Sanford Sylvan) float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. And, like Ali in his prime, Sylvan’s Don, at the climactic moment when, confronted by the Don, he must choose between either submitting to conventional bourgeois apology and surviving, or defying even Hell’s power to control him, categorically refuses. Threatened with ejection from the boxing world for refusing to fight in Vietnam (“them Viet Congs never did nothin’ to me”), Ali accepted his exile—and, at the 1996, refusing to submit even to Parkinson’s, he lit the Olympic Torch. He earned it: he was one of the bravest men in the history of American athletics. Unlike Ali, the Don wasn’t brave, but he had the defiant pride of Lucifer, and, like Lucifer, he was cast into hell rather than submit. It’s no surprise that the Viennese censors hated this opera—and no surprise that I love it: I don't do well with authority either.

A radio broadcast, around 1986, of a concert version of DG. We were blasting it through our funky little rented graduate-student house, and at the climactic moment, I sang the Commendatore’s basso profundo command: “Don Gio-VAAAA-ni!Dharmonia thought it was the broadcast: my finest (and only) operatic moment, a thumb in the eye to all the people in my childhood who told me I couldn't sing.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Two more who didn't get their asses kicked hard enough in high school...

(1) Whoever is the ad-agency genius who came up with the high concept for the new Nick Lachey commercial in which he minces through his day, totting up come-on looks he gets from teenage models on a little audience-counter thingie.

(2) Nick Lachey himself, for thinking anyone over the intellectual age of nine would find him, or the commercial, appealing. The dumb fucker is so self-absorbed he makes Jessica look like Jane Addams.


100 Greats in 100 Days # 033 Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath: Country Cooking

Chris McGregor was one brave son-of-a-bitch [ETA 6/5/07: and now, I find out, my kinsman!]. Growing up a white South African with an interest in jazz, he took that interest where it led him—straight into the townships, the “tribal homelands” in which the white minority government had segregated blacks. By corralling them in these barely-livable “independent states,” they could absolve themselves of any responsibility for infrastructure (you know, minor things like food, clean water, schools, sewage disposal, and so on) under the heading of “maintaining security.” Of course, these homelands were completely surrounded by white enclaves in which curfews and paramilitary police forces made sure blacks couldn’t travel freely for work.

The result was great for whites: a captive, essentially slave population who, desperate for work, would cross over into the enclaves to clean houses, do the laundry, mow the lawns, nurse the children, and so on—and then cross back into the homelands at night, to try to rustle up the same resources for their own families. White South Africans in the apartheid era had a higher, artificially-inflated lifestyle than any other nation with the same average per capita income. Of course they didn’t want it to end. Just like whites in the American South didn’t want Jim Crow to end. Just like entirely too many Zionists don’t want Gaza to be opened. It’s not about security, or “respecting cultural differences,” or “allowing the subordinate population its own governance.” It’s about “I got mine and I’ll keep my foot on your neck as long as necessary to keep it.”

Chris McGregor, Johnny Clegg, and a few other white musicians had the balls to defy this white minority color bar. McGregor was a pianist interested in jazz, Clegg a guitarist interested in Zulu music, but they both had the ferocious determination to learn that took them out of the white ghettos and into the townships.

Black South African music under apartheid, as is ironically the case with so many such situations, was an incredibly rich, diverse, and exciting world. In the mining camps and gospel churches, on the Jo’burg streets and in the Durban shebeens—and just occasionally on college campuses and in unannounced “guerilla” concerts—musicians of many ethnicities including Zulu, Xhosa, and Shangaan were working out syntheses of their various musics with each other and with the musics that had come with the Afrikaans and British colonizers. Guitars and concertinas became Zulu instruments, pennywhistles and pianos became kwela (street jazz) instruments, and, in 1962, McGregor formed the Blue Notes, a racially-mixed jazz group which included future greats Dudu Pukwana (alto), Johnny Dyani (bass) and Louis Moholo (drums).

They were a fantastic band, playing a mixture of hard-bop, standards, Ellington-esque originals, and, most originally and enchantingly, improvisational tunes based upon township grooves (the gorgeous and eloquently-simple mid-tempo marabi chord progression—I IV I6/4 V--among them).

After the 1948 elections, when the Afrikaans National Party roared into power and enacted sweeping new apartheid laws, it was illegal for musicians to perform or crowds to congregate in mixed-race settings. It only got worse after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960: just as South African national radio maintained a psychotically paranoid playlist and censorship policy (consciously promoting European classical music as “South African” music and keeping anything but the most innocuous indigenous music off the air), the security forces kept the audiences separate as well—they had learned from America’s Jim Crow laws. So the Blue Notes, and the crowds who loved them, had to perform in the gray areas between legal and illegal venues: little bars, college “folk” clubs, and on the street. They finally left in ’64, part of the exodus that also saw the departure (and legal banishment) of other great musicians including Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, and Hugh Masekela. In almost all cases, they would not revisit their shared homeland for the next 30 years (the exception was Dudu Pukwana, who with truly breathtaking courage slipped into Soweto in the late ‘70s to record an LP defiantly entitled In the Townships).

Like many expatriate musicians—and especially bandleader/composers, who somehow have to corral enough players to play their charts!— McGregor scuffled for years, playing around Europe’s festival circuit with various pickup bands. He had the guts—and the stamina—to keep after his original vision. Though times were tough, his presence in Europe, along with Dudu’s and Johnny’s, was fantastically liberating for the British free-jazz scene of the early Seventies. Eventually, his peripatetic big band, the wonderfully-named Brotherhood of Breath, included along with Dudu and Louis Moholo, John Surman, Evan Parker, and Kenny Wheeler, who would go on to become stalwarts of Britain’s new- and free-jazz scenes.

The Brotherhood pointed a new way for a big band, moving past the riffing-sections-under-soloists models of conventional swing and post-bop arranging, past the (beautiful, but meticulous) orchestrations of Gunther Schuller and Gil Evans), toward a more open, interactive, sprawling, conversational texture. In fact, they played more like an African band or percussion ensemble, with a sense of improvisational-but-responsive, loose-but-tight-knit give-and-take which is like a breath of pure country air.

I first heard them on the LP Country Cooking. I was living in Indiana, going to school for jazz, but interested in a wide range of world (especially African) musics. I was playing with the great Heather Adou, a singer, dancer, and percussionist from Mali, and with Alain Barker (another culture-crossing white South African who was lambasted for doing it), from whom I learned my first Zulu dancing, drumming, and panpiping. Country Cooking, the title track on this LP (based once again on the venerable but irreplaceable marabi chord progression) was so simple, so clear, and yet the solos and the overall aura of the record were so technically commanding, that it seemed to point a way toward a synthesis of those two worlds—jazz and African music—that I loved.

Maybe it’s the egolessness which African musicians are expected to develop. Or the sense, always present in South African music, of sacred joy under the simple grooves. Maybe it’s the unshakeable sense of self that jazz players under apartheid had to maintain to survive. But I think a lot of it’s Chris—his personality, his charts, his piano playing, and his vision of the band are all over this music.

Two years later, I gave a final master’s jazz recital of original charts which blended jazz, blues, Afro-Cuban, marabi, mbaqanga, and izihlabo styles, with a “pocket” big band of ten players, some of whom later went on to the Basie band, and two dancers.

Afterwards, a tight-assed ethnomusicology student, who had half the cultural insight and one-tenth the musical chops of anybody on stage, said “was that supposed to be some kind of joke?” At the time, I was too taken aback to articulate all the snotty comebacks I later thought of. But in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t: the best way to fight apartheid of any sort, from any source, and whether in the jazz clubs of South Africa or the recital halls of Indiana University, is to play music that denies its existence.

Chris McGregor taught me that.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Senior Pentagon analyst's new book on Bush/Iraq: "Fiasco"

Thomas E. Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post "serves up his portrait of that war as a misguided exercise in hubris, incompetence and folly with a wealth of detail and evidence that is both staggeringly vivid and persuasive."

We knew it, we said it, we screamed bloody murder about it, we marched against it.

They ignored us, jailed us, mocked us, wire-tapped us, "Swift-Boated" us, and did it anyway.

They were wrong. We were right.

On their heads be it.

100 Greats in 100 Days # 032: John Coltrane Quintet: Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings

There is almost no way to describe this music. It is certainly some of the greatest jazz ever recorded—but that is faint praise. It is certainly some of the greatest American music, some of the greatest improvised music, ever recorded—but that is faint praise. It is certainly some of Coltrane’s own greatest playing—but that is faint praise.

It captures Coltrane teetering on the edge of one more breakthrough: having come up through the cerebral fury of bebop, the gutbucket funk of “big-toned” bar-walking tenor saxophone R&B, and the down-home groove of hard-bop; having helped birth modal jazz with Miles on Kind of Blue; having happily subjected himself to the funhouse-mirror of Monk’s musical world (subject of a future “100 Greats” post); having burned through and annealed himself to chord changes with the harmonic steeplechases of Giant Steps and Countdown; having cured himself of booze and junk; and finally having been fired by Miles (which Miles dig for his own good—Trane was so self-effacing that he probably never would have left), Trane found himself leading a live band for the first time under his own name. It wasn’t yet the “Classic Quintet”—that would have to await the arrival of bassist Jimmy Garrison in ’62—but two permanent members and one special guest, all of whom would boot Trane’s burgeoning genius into the stratosphere, were already on board. McCoy Tyner, a bare 22 years old, had already developed a muscular, athletic, and harmonically-liberating approach to the piano: instead of laying down the complex dominant-7th based “shell voicings” pioneering by beboppers like Bud Powell, Tyner had worked out a rolling, percussive, open-voicing-based piano style which (with the benefit of a lot of hindsight) owed as much to Ellington, gospel, and the blues. The titanic drummer Elvin Jones—certainly one of the two or three greatest drummers jazz ever produced—became the cornerstone of Coltrane’s live bands virtually to the end. An astonishingly powerful, visceral, and creative player, he had developed a “circular” style which eschewed even bebop’s “ching-chinga-ching” ride-cymbal patterns for roiling cycles of polyrhythms, which sounded like nothing so much as West African percussion ensemble music played on drum kit. More than any other player, Elvin had the chops, the guts, and the sheer physical stamina to keep up with Trane, who in this period was sinking deeper and deeper into an obsessive, 12- and 15-hour per day practice regimen. In all of the live gigs, there’d come a point in one of the simple modal tunes they played (really vehicles for virtually free improvisation; tunes like My Favorite Things, Greensleeves, Impressions, or Chasin’ the Trane), 6 or 8 or 10 minutes into the tune, when McCoy and the bassist would drop out, and Trane and Elvin would go at it, playing and playing and playing, pushing each other higher and higher.

Coltrane in this period was a spiritual seeker. He’d hit such depths as a junkie, and had pulled himself out of that limbo, seemingly and primarily with the help of his practice regimen. He never left a Christian cosmology, but he intended in this period that his music should be a tool for spiritual enlightenment, both for himself and his audience (this would culminate in the LP-length prayer of 1964’s A Love Supreme). He was investigating the music of India and Africa, looking at the way each of these polyrhythmic and (more-or-less) modal musical worlds used sound as a sacred tool. And he was practicing 12 hours a day—and between marathon sets on the gig.

The Village Vanguard was comfortable, intimate, and familiar to Trane: he, and hundreds of other jazzmen, had gigged there regularly. It was a place where hipsters went, and could listen to the newest and most challenging music in tight proximity, without management bugging them to buy more than one drink. A strange, dank place to serve as the birthing-ground for a recording of spiritual transcendence, but then, jazz has always of necessity found the sacred in the alley and the whorehouse—that’s part of its greatness.

The guest, who though he was in the band less than a year, had a comprehensive impact on Trane, was Eric Dolphy. A Los Angeles native, and an enormously facile technician on a whole range of reed instruments (including, most notably and significantly, the ungainly bass clarinet), Eric was also extremely knowledgeable about both classical music and alternative/healthy lifestyles, a vegetarian, and had never been part of the New York booze-and-junk lifestyle. He was also an astonishingly unself-conscious improviser, capable of playing competent Charlie Parker-style bebop alto but also of the most angular, challenging, anti-harmonic, and “out” sounds anybody had ever heard (my revered teacher David Baker, who wrote a series of charts featuring Eric in the George Russell band, said to me “I dunno…Eric was a freak. I think he just heard that way”). In all of these ways Eric was profoundly influential—really an inspiring comrade—for Trane. I loved his playing so much, heard as such a clear and forceful extension of Bird, that I transcribed a dozen Eric solos on Bird standards, just so I could compare the lines and find the Bird licks in Eric's style.

Trane was also listening to the legendary Sun Ra tenor player John Gilmore, like McCoy from Philly, and indirectly found himself inspired both by the free playing, the musical collectivism, and the spacy Afro-centrism of Ra’s Arkestra.

All these things coalesce on Village Vanguard. They’re playing tunes they knew as well as they knew each others’ breathing patterns: in addition to those cited above, Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, Spiritual, Naima, and Miles’s Mode—all of them open, wispy forms intended to provide the maximum amount of improvisational freedom. They’re in a comfortable venue they knew well and where they could count on simpatico listeners. They had five nights in a row with a sympathetic recording engineer, Bob Thiele of Impulse!, managing the machine and staying out of the way. And they had each other.

There is no way to describe this music. There is no way to describe the places to which these men together take themselves and their listeners. There is no way to describe the spiritual intensity and the sheer sonic beauty of the music they play. It’s as if, for those five nights in November 1961, all the stars and the planets lined up; all of Coltrane’s musical and spiritual quests coalesced; all the (myriad) personality conflicts washed away; all the power, selflessness and courage of which jazz is capable came to the fore. And in India, a feature for the droning plainchant harmonies of Trane’s soprano, Eric’s bass clarinet, and the buzzing insistence of Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s oud (which I think is misidentified: it sounds like a lauto or buzuq to me), with the rhythm section of McCoy, Reggie Workman, and Elvin’s roiling drums churning underneath them, they truly reach a state of grace, and baraka (the Sufi metaphor of blessedness and spiritual connection) rains down upon them all. This music is in the same transcendent company as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Qawwali, Aaron Neville’s falsetto gospel, the polytonal chants of the Gyuto Tantric Monks, and the Bach B-minor Mass.

It's holy.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 031: Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland

Jimi Hendrix was the most visionary musician in rock music.

Many claims are made for him: “greatest guitar player” principle among them, and certainly all rock (and most blues and many jazz) guitar players since then have had to grapple with Hendrix—even if only to attempt to reject him. Certainly both his physical dexterity and his command of the electric instrument’s enormous timbral range were unmatched to his advent, and have been matched by damned few since then: Stevie Ray got within hollering distance of Hendrix’s blues playing, Eric Johnson within range of his timbral acuity, Ernie Isley his overall post-modern R&B approach. This is fitting: there’s certainly no shame in wearing Jimi’s dirty drawers, and Hendrix himself was a masterful synthesizer of prior threads of black guitar playing: the stinging pentatonic licks and sheer, manhandling strength of Albert King; the beautiful hummingbird’s-wing vibrato of BB; the funk of John Lee Hooker and (especially) Jimmy Reed; the heart-wrenching chord-melodies (and poetry) of Curtis Mayfield; the feedbacking psychosis of Hubert Sumlin (with Wolf).

Equally many claims were made for Hendrix as a psychedelic Staggerlee: Anglo-America’s fantasy of the biggest-endowed and most dangerous Black Stud of them all. Jimi understood the bizarre and subliminal neuroses that underlay that (he’d been on the chitlin’ circuit, after all, and he’d seen all those little white kids—and dweeby white hipster adults—slumming at the black clubs), and the fantasies of pimpdom and sexual prowess that drove some of the (positive and negative) reviews (for a real glimpse into the muck at the bottom of Anglo-America’s Superfly fetish, read the outrageously derogatory—but titillated—reviews by British critics of his first England shows; they’re particularly outrageous, because, as dharmonia says, “That was the most beautiful man in rock ‘n’ roll”). And he’d play into that too: dressing more “flash” and with more panache than any Brit-boy could possibly pull off, and always with at least one blonde white chick on his arm. Going all the way back to Bert Williams, and to Mr Tambo and Mr Bones before that, Anglo-America has held an unholy fascination with Big Black Men. Particularly one like this, who looked (they claimed) “like a Mau Mau,” but had been a fucking paratrooper in the Screaming Eagles, the 101st Airborne--talk about a bourgeois nightmare!

Certainly he built the most persuasive synthesis of psychedelia and improvisation: the Grateful Dead played longer solos, the Jefferson Airplane wrote “trippier” lyrics, Blue Cheer turned the amps up even louder, but NO ONE had both the chops and the imagination to create aural canvases (especially live) that supported psychedelia’s prose imagery. Except Jimi, who had twice as much cosmicity and ten times the funk.

What Electric Ladyland makes clear is that Jimi’s vision was greater than virtuosity, than Staggerlee the Badman, than psychedelia—was even greater than the sum of their parts. Other people prefer other albums (the “Viet Cong have just assaulted Carnaby Street” guerilla pop of Are You Experienced?, where he made a snotty British guitar player-turned-bad-bassist and a snotty British jazz-drummer keep up with him; the funky grooves and smart brevity of Axis: Bold as Love (which has some of his most beautiful songs); and the deep, scary, Black Pantheresque, Vietnam/midnight grooves of Band of Gypsies (subject of another “100 Greats” post), but Ladyland, the 3rd and last set released (as two LP’s) under his direction, is his magnum opus.

Partly this is because it addresses all of those constituent genres that were his building blocks, and makes them all his, as the “First Rays of the New Rising Sun”: the badass funk of Long Hot Summer Night (complete with black-doo-wop vocals), the chank-style rhythm licks and screaming guitar/vocal doubling of Gypsy Eyes, in which he appropriates (and inverts) the James Brown template, and the lickety-split Come On (Part I), where he turbo-charges Earl King’s already-titanic New Orleans anthem; the lovely Mayfield-esque funk of Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland); the lunar Superfly slow blues of Voodoo Chile (worth the price of admission all by itself); the contemptuously brilliant pop of Crosstown Traffic and House Burning Down; the magnificent version of All Along the Watchtower (which joins Jimi’s live 1967 version of Like a Rolling Stone as the only two covers which ever bested Dylan’s originals—so great that bar bands since then play Jimi’s version, not Bob’s); and most especially the slow, revolutionary funk of Voodoo Child (Slight Return), where Jimi takes the menace of Muddy Waters’s I’m a Man into outer space, “standing up next to the mountain, chop[ping] it down with the edge of my hand,” and, oh yeah, blowing away any boundaries to the guitar as he goes. But his vision is also there in magnificent, courageous, imaginative, and free-wheeling extended pieces: the tape loops and backwards-masking of Rainy Day, Dream Away; the extended solos and spoken word musique concrete of 1983 (A Merman I should turn to be). Some of this sounds dated now—psychedelia had a limited shelf-life, but what you mostly hear in these tracks is an unfettered musical imagination: someone who had cast off the chains of the chitlin’ circuit and the blackface performing-bear expectations of Anglo-American pop, who ahd found a way to use all the spectrum of “Great Black Music” in service of a creative vision. As a composer, as a master of available technology, and most certainly as an improviser and sculptor of musical sound-scapes, I’d put him up there with Ellington.

Hendrix died in 1970 at age 27, essentially killed by a rock ‘n’ roll industry so young, so greedy, and so ignorant that it hadn’t realized how many more millions could be made by keeping its artists alive (even if that meant paying for drug clinics, alcohol treatment, or six-months’-stays in Caribbean island studios). The first time I saw him, in the fantastic and revelatory concert/compilation film Jimi Hendrix, which connects clips of many different kinds of music and many different situations (and also his brilliant and hilarious appearances on the—clearly sympathetic—Dick Cavett show), in a midnight show at the old Harvard Square Theatre around 1978, it made me weep.

It still does.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Blank-Generation coffee-shoppin' observatin'


[bile mode/]
Tattoos don't make you tough.
Attitude doesn't make you imaginative.
Irony doesn't make you smart.
[/bile mode]

Air Marshals: Innocent People Put On "Watch List" To Fill Quotas...

Just like traffic tickets.

The air marshals, whose identities are being concealed, told 7NEWS that they're required to submit at least one report a month. If they don't, there's no raise, no bonus, no awards and no special assignments.
Yeppers. We're just here to fill their quotas, their body bags, and their PAC accounts.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 030: William Billings: Wake Ev’ry Breath: Music of William Billings; live

By the William Appling Orchestra. Avoid the ridiculously pristine and airbrushed recordings by Paul Hillier (a Brit, for God's sake!).

Word of warning: if you’re an audiophile punk, or a prissy classical geek, or don’t like music that refuses to “let the ears lie back in an easy chair” (Chas. Ives)—like, say, this guy—then you should run far away from this record. Go listen to the Hilliard Ensemble or somebody whose tone, tuning, technique, and interpretation has been buffed to a high sheen and a low level of intensity. But if you love what makes American music, then check out this CD.

William Billings was the first great idiosyncratic composer in American music, one in an honorable lineage that also includes Anthony Philip Heinrich, Daniel Decatur Emmett, Eubie Blake, Jimmie Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Ives, Frank Zappa, and Thelonious Monk. A marvelously individualistic prose stylist as well as musician, Billings famously “thought it good to follow no musical strictures but my own”—which could be taken as the virtual mantra of all the above-mentioned. Born in ?, he was a tanner, a composer, a music-salesman, and one of the great American singing-masters—itinerant teachers who provided both the principle means of musical instruction and the principle source of new musical collections in Colonial New England. Billings was the inheritor of the New England Puritans’ approach to composition: essentially an “additive” method by which successive lines were added to an existing bass line or melody.

The result is a marvelously clash-ridden harmonic language: the members of the “First New England” school didn’t worry about harmony, but about texture, rhythm, text, and most of all singers’ engagement. They wrote “fuging” tunes which had little to do with the formal fugal methods of Buxtehude and Bach, but provided the successive/staggered individual entrances that singers find so enjoyable. Their collections included folk songs, hymn-texts set to borrowed folk tunes, original compositions, blithely-appropriated re-writes of choral works by Bach and Handel, and so on: but they always included an instructional “Preface”, introducing everything from the rudiments of note-, clef-, and rhythmic-reading to the details of good vocal production and choral blend. In Billings’s case, such Prefaces also provided an opportunity for him to vent his spleen toward the Boston reformists and English politicians he despised.

And that gets at another something honorable in Billings’s lineage: his blithe willingness to use his own music for scabrous political commentary. Billings was in on the thick of the Revolutionary activities of the Sons of Liberty (a bunch of street thugs, basically) and the Committee of Correspondence, headed by that notorious rabble-rouser Sam Adams, and in the less verbose and more courageous activities of Paul Revere—who rode himself into exhaustion to warn the Committee of British Regulars’ approach on the night of April 18 1775, and who also engraved the frontispiece of Billings’s first collection, The New England Psalm-Singer—and Captain John Parker, who stood up at the “rude bridge that arched the flood”, crossing the Concord River into Lexington, and said “Stand your ground, don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Billings’s music is astonishingly original and amazingly engaging—and an absolute blast to sing. Billings’s knew that, whatever he wrote, it had to appeal to the backwoods singing-schools attendees who he counted on to buy his tunebooks. That made him a populist—both commerce and his own experience and philosophy demanded it. These tunes also became the bedrock of American hymnody, both black and white, being used over and over again, often with “contrafacts” (new texts) to the old familiar tunes. Billings himself reused them: in his second collection, CHESTER appears with new words:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New england's God forever reigns.

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join'd,
Together plow our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin'd.

When God inspir'd us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc'd,
Their ships were Shatter'd in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet'rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen'rals yield to beardless Boys.
I grew up in Massachusetts and the events and locales of the First American Revolution were part of my childhood. I stood on the bridge at Concord and I walked the Boston streets that Johnny Tremaine did. Billings’s tunes were still in the hymnbooks in the old Anglican church attended, built in 1714. Every 4th of July during my childhood the Revolutionary War bands played Yankee Doodle (originally a song mocking the Colonials) and The World Turned Upside Down (which Cornwallis’s band played as he surrendered at Yorktown) as they marched to a cannonade at the harbor-fort that prevented capture of the USS Constitution during the War of 1812 (in contrast, an asinine and pointless war). The Spirit of ’76 painting (you know, the three wounded guys playing fife-and-drums and carrying the flag) hangs in my home town hall. Sailors and fishermen from my home town saved George Washington’s ass by ferrying him across the Delaware on Christmas Day night 1776, rowing through the swirling snow and ice-laden water to initiate the attack that won the Battle of Trenton for the Colonials—and a foul-mouthed, tobacco-juice-spitting bunch I’ll bet they were.

The spirit of Paul Revere, John Parker, Ethan Allen (who took Fort Ticonderoga with the command “Open in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!”), Charles Ives (who wept, privately, when composers he admired couldn’t get their music published—and then gave them anonymous donations), of Frank Zappa (who registered voters on his ’88 tour and cut up the PMRC’s Senators’ imbecilic comments into the disc Porn Wars), of Duke Ellington (who kept a band on the road 50 years, subsidizing them out of his own pocket, so he could play his own music)—they are all pre-figured in Billings’s music. It arises from a bedrock conviction that no-one, NO-ONE, is going to tell us what to believe about music, about culture, or about our democracy.

This is the republic I’m proud to have been born into—not that of the “greedy little hustlers” (Hunter Thompson) like George Bush and Dick Nixon. William Billings kicks Dick Nixon's ass--and as for George Bush (either one): they've never even heard this music. But in the next American Revolution, we’re going to rediscover that America—and Billings’s music will provide our anthems.

100 Greats in 100 Days # 029: The Neville Brothers Band: Fiyo on the Bayou

My favorite album by my favorite New Orleans musicians and one of my favorite bands on the planet. The Neville Brothers—saxophonist Charles, keyboardist Art, singer Aaron, and percussionist Cyril—are New Orleans music royalty, whose uncle George Landry was Big Chief Jolley of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian tribe. They grew up in the 13th Ward of New Orleans where there was music everywhere for every occasion—bands, street parades, parties, picnics, fish fries, and funerals. They learned harmony singing in the Catholic church and doo-wop on the street corner (see Jason Foose and Jonathan Berry’s fantastic Up from the Cradle of Jazz) and made their first records in the early Sixties, as individual artists. Art (“Poppa Funk”) led the Meters, the best of the New Orleans rhythm sections—and therefore and by extension one of the best on the planet—and they laid down tracks for an awful lot of pop stars who thought they needed an injection of the funk. The Meters, like Dave Bartholomew, like Dr John/Mac Rebennac, like the bands Charles, Aaron, and Cyril were involved in, also experienced the typical New Orleans story of lies, rip-offs, and losses—virtually no musician out of the Big Easy escaped unscathed—they all got ripped off.

But, eventually, the brothers were able to get together as a family again: they’ve all always played the best with family, both as brothers, with their uncle George Landry, Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and with an extended cast of nephews and nieces (nephew Ivan was the secret weapon keyboard/vocal behind Keith Richards’s X-Pensive Winos).

Again: they never played better than as a family. This record came together in 1981 with the support and nominal production of Bette Midler (say what you like about the Divine Miss M, but she’s always had a phenomenal nose for music and musicians). The Brothers have done a number of discs for several labels since then (most notably, the fantastic live set Nevillization for Black Top and the superb concert film At Tipitina’s with a large cast of guests), and there are aspects of this record that date it to the Seventies, but the air of excitement and reunion is palpable.

And the sense of reunion extends beyond the brothers to the other sidemen: both Dave Bartholomew and Allen Toussaint were involved in writing the horn charts and the section was full of NO stalwarts. The most powerful aspect of all, though, is the tunes: many of these songs are based on old New Orleans or Afro-Caribbean tunes, several of them had been recorded by various Brothers in other bands, but these are the archetypical versions.

So, when the Brothers play these tunes, you hear the city’s musical heritage not just in the lazy yet in-the-pocket raggedy horn charts of Toussaint and Bartholomew, the rattle-tat second-line snare drumming of the great Zigaboo Modeliste, the conga-playing of Brother Cyril or the otherworldly funky-angelic soprano of Brother Aaron (a man who looks the ex-con stevedore he once was but who sings like a black saint). You hear it in the history of the songs themselves: in the very first track, with a staggering descending keyboard gliss into the powerhouse horns of Hey Pocky Way (whose key title line we think harkens back to the French Creoles who helped shape the city’s cultural life); in the rolling piano of Brother Art, which reaches back to Professor Longhair and to the nameless piano professors of Storyville and the Irish Channel; the staggering deep funk of Fiyo on the Bayou; the deepest possible roots in Brother John/Iko Iko, which marries ancient street chants of the Mardi Gras Indians with the girl-group groove of the Dixie cups; the transcendent falsetto doo-wop of Aaron’s Mona Lisa (which asinine commentators think is “disposable”); and the rum-and-coke-in-the-sun Afro-Caribbean groove in their cover of Louis Jordan’s Run Joe.
I used to live in New Orleans, for a brief, confusing time (nobody can process the complexity of a mature love affair at 19), working as a doorman at a bar in the French Quarter called Ichabod’s. It was a fierce town even then, and to be part of the night-time community was to risk drugs, booze, disease, and a very self-destructive lifestyle.

But on every street corner, in every corner bar, every parade, every funeral, every picnic, political rally, and store opening, there was music, and the music was voodoo magic. You could walk the streets of the Quarter at 7am on a Tuesday morning and the music would drift past you like the smells of bougainvillea and chicory coffee, of filé and of levee water.

There was no place on earth like New Orleans for music—and, in the wake of Katrina and Bush’s criminal negligence, there never will be again. But I was there when, and I remember the way it was, and this record takes me back home.

Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!

...for the hiatus in posting. Combination of a week of nights in the studio finishing the first LNF CD--and yes, we got some good sounds!--and Earthlink once again crashing the home wireless router. Not ready to spend hours on the help-line, so blogging remotely.

However, "100 Greats" should now resume. Thanks for your patience.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

PAC Tied to DeLay Is Fined, Shutting Down

Got him. If he can't steal money from constituents on false pretenses, he's toast.

Bye, Tom.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 028: The Band: The Last Waltz (DVD reissue)

Martin Scorsese might understand American popular music better than any other mainstream film director (although the Coen Brothers certainly give him a run for his money). In every one of his movies, going all the way back to Mean Streets, there are fantastic moments when music takes over the telling of the story.

Some aspects of this film, which details the supposed "farewell" concert by the group known as the Hawks, then the Crackers, then "Dylan's band," then just "The Band," are painful, for one reason or another: Robbie Robertson’s absurd and transparent self-aggrandizement being chief among them: why Martin ever let Robbie think he could be a movie star is beyond me (must have been the shared coke habit), but you can see the germs of it here. The reality is that Robbie is an opportunistic scumbag who used his connections with Marty and his position as songwriter to do the others out of rights to both the performances and the band’s very name. The tragedy of Richard and Rick: in this film, Richard (who would eventually commit suicide) is already almost a ghost, and Rick, who looks to be enjoying his life, and never more than when he’s high as a kite and singing-and-fiddling Old Time Religion, but whose lifestyle would eventually kill him.

Other moments, however, are transparently wonderful: Levon’s stories of the chitlin’ circuit and the minstrel shows he remembers, in their first, grainiest, and most unself-conscious manifestation, the group’s wonderful story of meeting Sonny Boy Williamson in Memphis, the quiet intensity with which Garth speaks of the musician’s “holy obligation.”

Scorsese made a conscious decision to leave out the audience and emphasize the interplay between band members, and he got it, brilliantly: the way that Robbie visibly straightens up and defers to Ronnie Hawkins (who also goads out of him his best solo of the night, on Who Do You Love?); the way that Rick laughs uncontrollably at Ronnie’s hyper-Cracker antics (yelping "BIG tahm, now, Bill! BIG tahm!" when he first hits the stage); the moment after Clapton’s first chorus on Further on Up the Road when his guitar strap breaks and Robbie is forced to step into the breach (and, with Slowhand breathing down his neck, is forced to come up with his second-best solo of the night, before Clapton comes back in and obliterates him) ; the ungainly but transcendent stage kicks from Van Morrison in Caravan, which should have been the anthem for this show, and who truly does “go someplace else” when he’s on; the Longhair-on-acid cakewalk of Dr John as he sashays off stage after playing the greatest piano coda ever on Such a Night; even the huge glob of snotty cocaine visible on Neal Young’s upper lip; the ferocity with which, starting with Baby Let Me Follow You Down, Dylan channels the careening genius of the ’66 shows in England when he and the Band played into the teeth of the folk-Nazi gale; the psychedelic supercharged Chicago blues of Butterfield as his and Robbie’s versions of Mystery Train duke it out, with Butterfield’s tornadic harp-playing declaring him the uncontested winner; the look on Joni Mitchell’s face as, trying to play the diva/Madonna, she teeters over the Band’s groove as they take Coyote (her greatest song) into places she never could by herself; the trance Garth Hudson enters as he plays The Genetic Method/Chest Fever; the unself-conscious, truly sacred intensity of Mavis Staples as she leads the Band into a version of The Weight even greater than Aretha’s; and, perhaps most compellingly, the 8-minute version of Muddy singing I’m a Man, shot from a single fixed angle because every other camera had simultaneously run out of film—and all the more riveting for that.

And then there are the original songs. I’ve known a lot of musicians over the past 35 years—not as many different people as some free-lancers I know, and certainly not as many as the horn players like Sonny Stitt or Ben Webster who used to travel from town-to-town playing one-nighters—but a lot of musicians nevertheless. And they’re no better (and in some ways worse) as a group than are the civilians.

But one thing I can say is that all of them, not matter how sleazy, opportunistic, neurotic, or just plain lazy, have some kernel of beautitude in them, because the music couldn’t be that beautiful otherwise. Even Charlie Parker, even Charles Mingus, even Richard Wagner or some of the dysfunctional singer/songwriters I’ve known, have that bit of grace inside them. And so does Robbie Robertson, because he could not have written songs like these without it. Cripple Creek, It Makes No Difference, Life is a Carnival, Stagefright, Rag Mama, The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show are absolutely and utterly supernatural songs, rooted in a sense of America so deep and so true that it’s astounding that Robbie, like Rick, Garth, and Richard, is actually Canadian. Maybe it takes growing up next door to “old weird America” that makes it possible to imagine it so lovingly; to channel these old, grainy voices. Maybe it takes a band of singers as intense, unself-conscious, and original as Rick, Richard, and Levon (Robbie’s microphone was famously unplugged for this concert).

These songs sound like they were written by William Billings, Dan Emmett, Stephen Foster, Jimmie Rodgers, and Robert Johnson, and they sound like they’re being sung by the backwoods choirs, minstrel troupes, parlor singers, and mountain musicians they wrote for—or their offspring. If Robbie never did anything else—and, by the looks of things, his writer’s block has now stretched into its third decade—this would assure his place in the history of American music.

Ultimately though this record is about the state of grace that musicians can create together: the pristine beauty of the Theme from the Last Waltz; Allen Toussaint’s fantastic horn arrangements, which epitomize the New Orleans synthesis of funk and church (and, in Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Caravan, take us back to church again); Levon’s loopy inside-out drumming that sounds like it comes off the King Biscuit Flour Hour; Rick’s jug-band/tuba-esque fretless bass-playing (he was certainly the earliest and greatest fretless player in rock) ; Richard’s impeccable, rolling New Orleans piano.

And Garth. Garth Hudson, who agreed to come along and join the teenaged Hawks only when they agreed to hire him as music teacher (thus placating his conservative parents) is easily one of the most brilliant, imaginative, and unfettered improvisers rock music has ever produced. I used to play with a keyboardist nowhere near as well-known but every bit as brilliant—the much-missed “Dr Jolt”—and he was the only other keyboard player I’ve heard come within hollering distance of Hudson. Endlessly imaginative, technically virtuosic but always in service of a musical idea, a fantastic improviser, an instinctive (and fluid and sophisticated) harmonist, Garth and the Good Doc both shared a background as church organists—who after all spend their whole musical lives improvising on some of the greatest, most bedrock tunes in the American musical imagination. Beyond that, they both had a grasp of “Saturday night” versus “Sunday morning” music (the Doc famously said that, if the night’s gig ended too late, and the morning service was too early, he’d wind up playing organ preludes on Bob Marley and Ladysmith Black Mambazo), and of the transcendence each experience was capable of creating.

You cannot understand American music if you don’t have this record. Billings, Dan Emmett, Foster, the Singing Brakeman—they all would have understood this music. You should too.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 027: James Brown: Star Time

James Brown changed the sound of American music. He revived dance as the defining premise of American black music. His band served as an essential “post-graduate” education for at least two generations of innovative black musicians. In the 1960s, he exemplified black entrepreneurship. Without him, P-Funk, Michael Jackson, and Prince would not exist as we know them. I would submit that JB is probably the most influential black musician between Duke Ellington and George Clinton—with both of whom he shares key traits. All three understood that black music was about dancing rather than sitting, about tone rather than technique, about groove rather than complexity, about the collective sound rather than the individual voice, and that it was all about expanding the parameters of black identity.

James grew up in the South at a time when there were not many opportunities available to poor blacks; when, to quote the old saw, music (and sports and crime) was one of the only ways out of the ghetto. By the age of 5 he was dancing for tips in the streets of Augusta Georgia, forging a dance/music interplay that would be essential throughout his career (even more than Thelonious Monk or Charles Mingus, both of whom danced parts for their sidemen, James made his body his instrument). He tried crime and served time in a youth farm, he was a Golden Gloves boxer, but by the age of sixteen, he had met up with Bobby Byrd and formed the gospel group that would become the Famous Flames (for which he was originally drummer as well as vocalist).

In the mid-1950s, one part of the seismic explosion in American popular music was the importation or transformation of black sacred into black popular/secular styles. Many musicians came out of the church and brought gospel’s intensity with them—Sam Cooke, Al Green, the Five Royales, and many others—and Brown and Byrd did the same thing. By 1956 they’d recorded their first R&B hit (“Please Please Please”), despite the fact that King Records president Syd Nathan said “he sounds like an idiot—he ain’t singin’ but one word!”

This 4-disc set charts the development of James’s sound and the astonishing speed at which it evolved. From the down-home doo-wop of Please Please and Try Me to the blues shuffle of I’ll Go Crazy the Flames moved very quickly (within a couple of years and over the course of a single disc) toward a more rhythmic, improvisation, dance-oriented, and “visual” style. It seems a non sequitor to refer to an audio document as “visual,” but more than just about any other black artist, James’s records preeminently conveyed a sense of the danced visual spectacle for which they were the soundtrack, and a sense, to the listener, of being there (this would reach its apotheosis in 1962’s Live at the Apollo, the first LP-length live record, where James blows the roof off the temple of black pop music in Harlem). Night Train, a personal favorite, chants the names of crucial towns on the black chitlin’ circuit, and by I Got You and Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (1965), the band has moved on—they’re no longer playing R&B, doo-wop, blues, or gospel. Something else is happening, and that something has to do with the interaction between the astonishing rhythm sections, whose parts were as fine-tuned rhythmically as a Swiss watch or a West African percussion ensemble, and had about as much to do with Western music, the percussive horn parts of Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, St Clair Pickney, and the other horn players who, James’s own dancing and verbal exhortations, and the incredible, stop-on-a-dime-or-you’re-fined-five-dollars cuing discipline to which he subjected them. No other band was as tight as James’s; no other band toured as much (sometimes as much as 300 one-nighters a year) with as complete control (carrying their own crew, sound-system, hair- and wardrobe-staff). Nearly a decade before the Black Panthers’ experiments, James was already proving out the merits of black capitalism.

There’s too much to discuss in its entirety here. Throughout the late ’60, James would continue to speak up for black identity (though he was accused of Tomming by younger activists who came late to the party, and he did suck up to Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon), and the music would continue, not so much to evolve as to refine, becoming tighter and tighter, more and more precise, more and more telegraphic and telepathic. Just a few places to touch down, outside of the hits (Papa’s, I Got You, Cold Sweat, Say It Loud):

  • I Got the Feeling, where James virtually wills a new song into existence in the studio;
  • Give It Up or Turn It a-Loose, where James and Byrd anticipate the call-and-response of rappers like Chuck D/Flaver Flav 15 years before Public Enemy;
  • Mother Popcorn and Funky Drummer, without which hip-hop DJ’s wouldn’t have any samples to loop;
  • Soul Power, a virtual street manifesto which could have been chanted on the barricades of the revolution the Panthers sought but lost;
  • Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses), which proved that, even late in his career, the Godfather was still the baddest rapper on the block.

Back in the ‘90s, I played in an 8-piece horn band which was substantially too hip for the “college rock” crowds we played for—Juluka, the Neville Brothers, Weather Report, and David Lindley tunes jostling for space with the Beatles and Creedence covers. But at one stage we did put together an entire JB “mini-concert,” with about 12 of the classic tunes segued in a row from one to the next. Transcribing and re-arranging the horn and rhythm charts for that set was like a post-graduate education in how to play black music, and I wasn’t the only one: everyone from his sidemen (“Maceo!” Parker, Bootsy and Catfish Collins, Bernie Worrell, and many others) to MJ, Prince, Sly, and George Clinton went to the same university, which you can hear in their music and see in their stage shows.

Also in the ‘90s, James very sadly became mostly a caricature of himself, busted repeatedly for drugs, domestic violence, driving violations, or various cartoonish run-ins with the law. But this set (a fantastic value and an astonishingly good example of programming, selection, and sequencing), reminds us that, without James, American music would be a very different, much poorer world.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 026: Jim Hall and Ron Carter: Alone Together

The essence of jazz playing is communication. There’s no doubt that great solo playing is exhilarating, both for player and listener, and that soloing can allow the player a huge degree of flexibility. But solo playing is unavoidably a soliloquy: as listeners we’re basically being given a look-in to somebody’s else thinking.

For jazz to really work as it always has, there needs to be a feedback loop: between player and listener, but ideally between multiple players and the audience. In jazz ensemble playing, the exhilaration really comes when the players themselves are communicating and discovering together.

This is some of the greatest jazz duo playing I’ve ever heard, and certainly some of the best Jim Hall. I’ve never been a huge Ron Carter fan—though he worked well in the 2nd Miles Quintet—but he sure sounds good here. Hall and Carter have done a series of duo recordings, but this is the first live one (from ’72) and it’s magnificent. The sound is kind of dated (and the guitar is kind of noisy) but on this record you can hear, more clearly than anywhere else, just how and why Jim Hall was always cited as a prime influence by Metheny, Mick Goodrick, and Scofield. Although the superchops players (Tal Farlow, Joe Pass, Pat Martino) are often cited by young guitarists as their models, there’s another approach to the instrument—legato, spacious, and horn-like—that’s ultimately proven more influential: Hall (like Wes) falls into this category.

He plays very quietly, on a small-bodied guitar with relatively light strings, and much of the sound we hear is actually a combination of the pickup sound and the acoustics of the instrument. He also plays with an incredible legato: although he doesn’t describe himself as a technician, there’s a beautiful flow and logic to his lines. Much of this can be traced to his studies in composition (at Cleveland) and his work with numerous composition-oriented players, Jimmy Giuffre being principle among them.

Probably the single greatest influence on his linear approach, though, I think is Sonny Rollins, with whom he gigged and recorded. Sonny is of course the greatest living jazz improviser (I know it seems foolish, hyperbolic, and ridiculous to say “of course”, but really there’s general agreement in the jazz community that there’s no one to touch him)—the kind of player who can present a two-hour concert of unaccompanied saxophone improvisations—and so he’s a great model for a guitarist. As a ‘comper, Hall is strongly influenced by Bill Evans, with whom he did a series of gigs and a great duo disc called Intermodulation. From Evans, Hall gets a gentle touch, an advanced harmonic/modal sense, and a wonderful ability to structure improvisational forms.

Both sides of Hall come together in this live set from 1972. Though it’s noisy (cash registers and drinks rattling), it does capture the astonishing breadth and depth of sound these two were capable of. The program is excellent, emphasizing the blues and standards which have been the backbone of straight-ahead jazz playing since the ‘30s, and they find amazing spaces. It’s a study in textural contrast: counterpoint, grooves, lush harmony, call-and-response, flow.

I went to school on this record. I was working at the old Guitar Workshop of Boston: for a short time, a fantastic place where a student enrolling in one 16-week evening class could sit in on as many others as s/he wished. Having moved back from Texas, I used that premise to give myself a decent basic music education when I hadn’t had one. I sat in on classes with Dharmonia, Mike Bierylo, Larry “Guitar” Baeder, the fantastic flatpicker Dean Magraw, and Little Mikey Bevan. It was Mikey who gave me a photocopy from the Real Book and this recording and told me to check out St. Thomas.

It’s a Sonny Rollins calypso, a simple 16-bar tune with straightforward changes, but what Carter and Hall do with this is incredible. For much of the tune, after the head, it’s actually Carter soloing and Hall ‘comping. He turns the guitar way down and sinks deep into the groove, and it’s amazing—thoughtful, compositional, voice-led, motivically-involved, spinning out logically for chorus after chorus. On his solos, what I mostly hear is Hall’s freedom from preconceptions: preconceptions about the guitar’s role, about the kinds of lines to play, about the balance between complexity and simplicity. And that’s another thumbprint of Hall’s playing: that throughout his whole career, whatever kind of music he’s been playing, with whatever musicians and in whatever situations, his playing sounds simple. Not “simple” in the sense of simplistic, but simple with a sense of logic, control, relaxation, and most importantly inevitability. You listen to Hall play St. Thomas, and you think, “Of course—why didn’t I think of that?”

It's that quality of clarity, logic, and free-flowing imagination that makes Hall one of the great jazz soloists. I'd put him right up there with Sonny--and fortunately, these two grand old men are both still with us.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 025: Andy Irvine and Paul Brady: Andy Irvine and Paul Brady

Oh, my goodness. Where to begin with this record? What factors align when a record like this results?

The players, for sure: Andy Irvine, Paul Brady, Donal Lunny, and Kevin Burke have all four been extraordinarily influential across the 40 years of the trad-music revival, and all four have been commanding instrumentalists.

The timing, for sure: all four were at the absolute peak of their individual arcs of innovation and creativity in the summer of 1976. Irvine had played on Christy Moore’s Prosperous LP, which had given birth to Planxty with Donal. Brady had played with the Johnstons (along with another mandolinistic triple-threat, Mick Moloney), Donal and Kevin were in the thick of the Bothy Band’s innovations. Irvine had left Planxty just after Brady joined, and there was a lot of trading ideas and repertoire.

The repertoire, for sure: Andy especially has always had an extraordinary nose for great traditional songs (and for the writing of new songs in traditional forms). Plains of Kildare, Lough Erne Shore, Bonny Woodhall, Arthur McBride, Mary and the Soldier, Streets of Derry are all crucial songs in the singing tradition.

But it’s mostly, I think, the synthesis of all these factors—timing, personnel, repertoire, and aptitude—that makes the disc the masterpiece it is. Each of these musicians is extraordinarily imaginative in his own way, each of them an absolutely riveting arranger and solo performer, but them together and they become even greater than the sum of their parts. Combine Andy’s extraordinarily contrapuntal mandolin/voice parts with Paul’s flatpicked guitar and the resulting sound is bigger than that of just two players. Pour Andy’s Balkan polymeters into Donal’s astonishing mental computer and you get the tour-de-force shifting time signatures, percussive rhythms, and fantastic storytelling of the show-stopping Plains of Kildare (it took me twenty years of listening, transcribing, and problem-solving just to understand what was happening formally and rhythmically in this song--and I still can't play it perfectly). Combine Andy’s sense of a song and Paul’s lovely singing and you get the rolling Mary and the Soldier. Kevin never played better than he played on this record, particularly on the Jolly Soldier/Blarney Pilgrim set and on the closing Martinmas Time/The Little Stack of Wheat. Paul especially has some fantastic moments: the beautiful tour-de-force guitar/voice solo of Arthur McBride (a song Andy had covered also) and on the flatpicked reels set of Fred Finn’s/Sailing into Walpole’s Marsh.

They all went in different directions after this record as well: Andy to a (mostly) solo career, Paul almost entirely to a career as a pop-rocker, Donal to a series of experiments (most notably the fantastic-but-doomed trad/fusion supergroup Moving Hearts), and Kevin to a new home in Portland and a fantastic duo with guitarist Micheal O Domhnaill.

But this record is a shared high point for all of them. It might be the finest synthesis of repertoire, skills, technique, and timing that any of these four men were ever involved in. An essential cornerstone.

Friday, July 14, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 024: Prince and the Revolution: Purple Rain (special CJS edit adding live tracks)

This is the most brilliant black musician since George Clinton. I’d put him in the pantheon with George, and before that James Brown, and before that Ellington. That’s how brilliant I think he is. In the 1980s, a common topic of music-geek argument was the “Michael-versus-Prince” debate, reminiscent of the “Which Side Are You On?” one in the 1960s. Chris Rock got the last word on that in a ’96 HBO special where, in the midst of a rant about Michael’s “non-mammality” (“you know, somethin’ that breathes air and drinks water”) he said “you know how we used about who was better, Prince or Michael Jackson? [beat] Prince won!”

I never thought it was a contest: though Michael as a performer (and as a child prodigy channeling James Brown) was undeniably great, here are all the things Prince did that Michael didn’t:

  • recruited band after band of fantastic musicians and made them all better;
  • wrote his own tunes, tunes for other artists, and literally thousands of additional tunes that were completed and produced but are now archived;
  • developed the most impressive on-stage cuing and performance choreography since James Brown;
  • played all the instruments on many of his sides;
  • was a notable (if derivative) guitar soloist;
  • improvised his dance steps;
  • knew the history of black music better;
  • had a far greater understanding of jazz;
  • produced his own recordings;
  • stayed local and built the scene in Minn/St Paul;
  • heels, makeup, and all, he made grown-up women (rather than just pre-pubescent girls) horny;
  • Oh, yeah: kept his hands off children.

As with so many of my favorite musicians, it’s the live stuff that just completely blows me out of the water. Purple Rain was an awfully silly movie with a creakily-antiquated plot (shit, it was basically The Jazz Singer only without the blackface, and it operated on about Jolson's level of sentiment), but damn those concert sequences were incredible. At the time this record came out, I was (momentarily) playing with an all-black funk/show band made up of 6 ex-cons and junkies, a great keyboardist named EJ Sharpe ("Gotta take my Lecithin, so I be smart for rehearsal"), the drummer Ric Haddad (Jamey’s cousin), and me. We never gigged, but we rehearsed in a halfway house in Jamaica Plain, where my snowflake-ness stood out like a sore thumb. I didn’t know the music well enough, and I didn’t endear myself to the 4 singers up-front by suggesting we might look into Prince’s music—they were still mired in MJ, the Commodores and the Tempts. I didn’t last long with them, but I did manage to get them to think about playing Let’s Go Crazy, mock-sermonical opening and all. And I have to give it up: those boys knew what a preacher sounded like, even if each one of them had “fallen away” from the church (to put it kindly) and if any competent black preacher would have locked up his daughters, his prescriptions, and all portable electronics if any of these guys came calling.

On PR, it’s the live show-stoppers that are the cream: while Darling Nikki and When Doves Cry, the studio creations, sound rather dated, the hard-rock of Let’s Go Crazy, Baby I’m a Star, and I Would Die 4 U, the incredible R&B vocal fireworks (and stage gymnastics) of The Beautiful Ones, and the titanic gospel of show-stopper and film-climax Purple Rain are fantastic songs, the vehicles for absolutely magnificent live performance, and compositions which both reach back through the history of American pop music and also forge an absolutely distinct trail. And, it’s no coincidence that those five songs are also the backbone of the concert sequences and the material which raises the movie above adolescent bathos.

This version of the band, which he called “The Revolution” (add to the Prince vs Michael list above that Prince always thought of better names for his bands), did not really have any distinctive soloists—in this era, that would be reserved for The Revolution’s sister band The Time, where Jimmy Jam (keys), Terry Lewis (bass), Jesse Johnson (gtr), and especially the great drummer Jellybean Johnson were the powerhouse behind Morris Day and Jerome Benton’s hilarious and sardonic Amos ‘n’ Andy act.

But Prince made The Revolution really play above themselves, and certainly the discipline, tightness, and exhilaration of the stage show directly under his eye were unmatched. To really get a sense of where he was going, you need to watch Sign O the Times (topic of a future post), where everyone in the band (most notably including the legendary—and hot!—drummer Sheila E.) can actually keep up with him, but the seeds are there in the concert sequences of Purple Rain—and we get a little sense of what it must have been like to see them at First Avenue in the early ‘80s.

No doubt about it—Prince really did win. I got fired out of Chances (speaking of terrible band names...), but I was damn sure right about that.

We don't serve your kind here...

The following, having voted against renewal of the Voting Rights Act, are here-and-now sentenced to spending eternity drinking out of the "Colored" water fountain in Purgatory:

Richard Baker (R-LA), J. Gresham Barrett (R-SC), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), Joe Barton (R-TX), Jo Bonner (R-AL), Dan Burton (R-IN), John Campbell (R-CA), Mike Conaway (R-TX), Nathan Deal (R-GA), John Doolittle (R-CA), John Duncan (R-TN), Terry Everett (R-AL), Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Trent Franks (R-AZ), Scott Garrett (R-NJ), Phil Gingrey (R-GA), Joel Hefley (R-CO), Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Wally Herger (R-CA), Sam Johnson (R-TX), Steve King (R-IA), John Linder (R-GA), Patrick McHenry (R-NC), Gary Miller (R-CA), Charles Norwood (R-GA), Ron Paul (R-TX), Tom Price (R-GA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Ed Royce (R-CA), John Shadegg (R-AZ), Thomas Tancredo (R-CO), William Thornberry (R-TX), and Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA)

Any minority person who votes for any of the above should have her/his head examined. Any non-minority person who votes for any of the above is an enabler of racism.

I expect it of people like Burton/IN (a notorious thief, liar, adulterer, and recipient of bribes who nevertheless led the charge for Clinton's impeachment), Rohrabacher/CA and Tancredo/CO (both scheduled for the High Jump back to the private sector in November), but I'm delighted to see Barton, Hensarling, Johnson, Paul, and Thornberry upholding TX's reputation as Cracker Central.

100 Greats in 100 Days # 023: Duke Ellington Orchestra: The Carnegie Hall Concerts, January 1943

I don’t think there was ever a better big band. I don’t think there was ever a greater version of the Ellington band. I’m pretty sure that there was never a more perfect and sublime combination of Ellington players and Ellington charts than on this wartime set. And I’m very damned sure that Ellington was one of the greatest composers in the history of American music.

There have been two different types of great bandleaders in American music, a group that includes John Philip Sousa, Bill Monroe, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buck Owens, James Brown, Prince, Frank Zappa, Count Basie, and a few others: the type of bandleader for whom players played above themselves, better than they ever had or would on their own, and the type of bandleader whose ensemble functioned as a kind of “finishing school” or post-grad education, for whom players played great and then left. Monroe, Blakey, Miles, Muddy, JB fall into the latter category: with an astonishing eye for talent, they recruited brilliant youngsters before anyone else had recognized their brilliance, paid them relatively short bread, and watched them move on; Sousa, Wolf, Owens, Zappa, Prince, Basie fall into the former category: an astonishing eye for talent, but players never played as well elsewhere as they did in those seminal bands. The result was that the smarter players stayed in those bands, sometimes for generations.

That was never more true than in the Ellington band: some of his sidemen played with him for 3 or 4 or 5 decades, and none of them (with the exception of this 1943 band, which was an exception in many other ways as well) were as successful outside the band’s orbit.

And what a staggeringly brilliant band: trumpets Rex Stewart and Ray Nance (the latter a triple threat on violin and voice as well as trumpet); an incredible and diverse ‘bone section of Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, Tricky Sam Nanton, three distinctively different players (Brown a technician, Tizol a valve trombonist, Nanton a specialist in vocalisms and the blues), and the staggering saxophone section of Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Otto Hardwicke, and Chauncey Haughton, Hodges, Hardwicke, and Carney multi-decade veterans and Ben Webster a short-term powerhouse. Very few of these players ever went elsewhere, and Ellington took pains to make it pleasant for them to stay, both musically (by writing beautifully-tailored parts for each individual soloist) and financially (he overpaid them, saying “I let them have all the money, and I have all the fun”). He kept the band on the road for almost 50 years, often losing money on tours and subsidizing it with income from song copyrights, so that he would have the band as a composition workshop (“I can write something that morning and hear it that night”). Virtually no other American composer has had that kind of laboratory, and even only a few of the other leaders I cite were not really composers. The exceptions are JB, Zappa, and Prince, who also developed astonishingly brilliant, complex, and virtuosic on-stage procedures (absolutely incredible live shows from all three).

And what compositions! This January 1943 program shows the fantastic diversity of Duke’s writing: Black and Tan Fantasy, the gorgeous and sexy “jungle music” of the ‘20s; Rockin’ in Rhythm, which I’ve always heard as another in Duke’s series of fantastic portraits of trains (also including Daybreak Express from 1936); the beautiful “tribute” pieces Portrait of Bert Williams and Portrait of Bojangles, which also served as features for various soloists, as do Jack the Bear (for the young bassist Jimmy Blanton) and Boy Meets Horn (for Rex); the knotty complexity of Ko-Ko and Bakiff; and the beautiful, heartfelt, often misunderstood or derogated extended works he wrote as tributes to his people: Black, Brown, and Beige and Come Sunday (the latter featuring the greatest Ellington soloist of all, alto player Johnny Hodges).

There is no way to contain all of Duke Ellington’s genius on a single recording. I teach a 16-week intensive seminar on his music and feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s there. But if you want a sampling of his greatest band and most classic compositions, this is a great place to start.