Still Diggin’: May 13-19

I am still reeling from the realization that my drive to own and hold every great record every made has smashed up against my mortality linking arms with streaming technology. That said, here’s a Spotify playlist of the highlights of my last week of listening:

Plucked from History’s Dustbin (best recent purchase of an old record): Dennis Gonzalez, So Soft Yet. Get hip and give the man props while he’s livin’…

Grower, Not a Shower (old record I already owned that’s risen in my esteem): Digable Planets, Blowout Comb–I now like it better than the debut. More of an EDGE, shall we say?

Encore, Encore! (album I played at least twice this week): Dennis Gonzalez NYC Quartet, NY Midnight Suite

Through the Cracks (sweet record I forgot to write about): Dennis Alcapone, Forever Version; Birdcloud, Singles Only

Sunday’s Children / Today’s Sounds:

Shabaka and the Ancestors: Wisdom of the Elders

African Scream Contest 2

Destabilized Collector’s Blues (May 18th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

I’ve finally been rocked by the streaming revolution. In multiple senses of that main verb.

I’d just looked at a list of new rekkids to be released on this particular Friday. I’ve been reluctantly enjoying the heck out of Apple Music, which I’m now subscribing to, and realized that, hey, I could kick back and sample fresh tracks for a few hours. I was honestly pretty excited, and a decent day it was, nicely summed up by these examples:

So I’m listening to all of this very provocative and promising music and thinking to myself, “OK, what am I gonna buy? What digital, what vinyl, what CD?” I’m starting to drool–shopping is easy and there’s much to be bought–when I realize, I mean really realize in my 10,000-plus-units-in-every-medium-in-my-house record collector’s soul, that I don’t have to buy any of them. This may seem like a “duh” moment, but I buy for many reasons. Creators need to be paid. I like to hold albums, study their artwork, and read their liner notes. I take pride in having what my friends need but don’t have. I like to save on data when I’m out of wifi range. I’m a born curator and I love libraries, so I’m building my own. CDs and vinyl sound better. What if the web collapses? What will I leave my heirs (What heirs, asks the Greek chorus)?

But seriously. What do I need more stuff for? I began to think back across the past month, and sat bolt upright: hey, I don’t have the new Willie album, the new Sons of Kemet, the new Bettye LaVette–yet I am still a functioning human being. Normally, I’d already have those. Have have have have. My head was spinning. Really it was. I don’t buy anything voluntarily but books, booze, and toons, pretty much, and that’s been my practice for, oh, 38 years!

What has it all been for?

I’m not panicking. I know there are multiple other answers to that question than a resonating “NAUGHT!” In fact, later, Nicole, who has always encouraged my accumulation and even occasionally tried to prevent me from selling records, suggested, “Hey, I love records! Let’s just get the stuff that’s epic?” Yes, but I have a touch lower bar for “epic” than my beloved does–I’m sure next month’s new Joe McPhee will meet my definition, but I’m not sure she’s familiar with The Poughkeepsie Gypsy’s work. Also, am I cheating artists? What about my vow to pay cash for every Swamp Dogg record that comes out the chute? And didn’t I just sell 500 CDs…to make room for more?

Perhaps, in life and record collecting, the questions are more important than the answers. I’ll keep you posted. I wonder if the Wussy LP that’s on the way will qualify, but I can always check…Apple Music.

Hot takes on the above?

Bombino: every househod needs a Bombino album. Like the above, they’re all good. Straight-up Agadez-style desert blues, no impure funny business–aside from some skankin’.

Parquet Courts: I hate these guys because they’re too cute (musically and formally) by half, but I love them because they have the particular music and forms that I happen to be weak for down cold. BUT first half of this one has emotional fire, too, and thus is my favorite music of theirs ever.

Courtney Barnett: Opens with a weird, slow, kinda whiny one, but recovers with a vengeance. Not as catchy as last time, but more grown.

MC Paul Barman: In your face from jump, he’s got the rhymes as per usual—plus Questlove, DOOM, and Masta Ace.

Angelika Niescier: The lady can blow, and she pretty much must wail, with the true genius of the drums Tyshawn Sorey clattering and hissing behind her on his kit.

Note: above are very hot takes—one listen while cramming other things into my living

I Like My Pockets Fat and Not Flat (May 17th, 2018, driving around Columbia, MO, in my truck)

The following is adapted from a Facebook post I made yesterday on a group page inhabited by other music fanatics. We are all–of most of us are–fans of the great, time-tested music critic Robert Christgau. He himself has tested time as few critics have. On the page, we occasionally tout albums that Chriztgau underrated, overrated, or…failed to date at all. It’s that last category that fascinates me, and it just so happened I’d dusted off the above CD to reacquaint myself with in “The Lab” (my truck cab, where I engage in pure musical meditation and try to operate the vehicle simultaneously).

I’d been introduced to the album by a friend in 1992. My wife Nicole, Mark, and I had been invited to a party thrown by Nicole’s co-worker; the majority of the other partygoers would be rap and r&b fiends, and Mark, who happened to be visiting from out of town, insisted on bringing Runaway Slave to force on whoever was selecting. It (along with Redman’s debut and a 12″ of EPMD’s “Headbanger“) turned the gathering out, and I got myself a copy the following week. I listened to it constantly for several weeks (and failed to turn my 10th graders in to it), then it disappeared into the stacks for the better part of 26 years.

Played it twice in the truck yesterday, then purt-near ran into the house and wrote this:

A classic rap album Xgau didn’t even deign to acknowledge. Aside from a run of wreck-catchers (“Fat Pockets,” “Still Diggin’,” “Soul Clap,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Party Groove,” the title song), aside from the great horn-powered, beat-bejeweled production by Showbiz and the underrated Diamond D, aside from it being light on misogyny and peeled caps, aside from the two MCs being distinct and in synch, it’s pretty fucking conscious, with self-determination a thread throughout and considerable science dropped re: systematic racism. On heavy rotation in our three-room apartment in ‘92, and it still sounds phat, yet crisp. An “A,” easy, and one of the peaks of so-called “Golden Age” hip hop.

Hours later, I’ve calmed down, played it again, and rdeduced I’m exactly right…though perhaps not praising enough! Time: the revealer.

Five for The Festival (May 16th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

No unifying thread–just five somewhat disparate recordings I pulled because I hadn’t heard ’em in awhile and had the luxury of cranking them up.

Four discs is more than anyone but a serious aficionado needs; on the other hand, much excellent stuff here is quite hard to find. Conceivably, you might not know The Falcons, but indeed they can contend for the title claim: from the classic “You’re So Fine” to their springboarding of Wilson Pickett, Sir Mack Rice and Eddie Floyd to their showcasing the unique guitarist Robert Ward to the seeds they planted for The Ohio Players, they stretch across the genre’s growth. Doo-wop’s utopianism, gospel’s fervor, soul’s pleading, funk’s eccentricity–it’s all here in at least nascent form.

Three discs of wailing jazz expressionism by a large group of titans in the field. You’d think it’s be enough to bring a headache and scare the cat, but in fact all the tracks demonstrate formal definition and careful listening between the participants. And ingenuity: highlighting the third disc, recorded in the studio, is a 25-minute composition that rocks and rolls (among other things). Key players besides Brotzmann: name o’ McPhee and Gustafsson.

At this point, a somewhat lost masterpiece of–if not pop–powerful pop. Resist “Overnight Sensation,” “Hands on You,” “All Through the Night”–hell, the whole album–and you might be a contrarian. Beyond the great songs, impassioned singing (the Carmen-McCarl team was way too short-lived), and considerable wit, Michael McBride’s drumming will rock yer ass if you’re concerned about sticky sweetness. How this stalled at #143 I am not sure; it is a definitive Seventies classic.

Hands down, my (and many other listeners’) favorite dub reggae album. Briefly frightening, frequently nuts, deeply spacey and spacily deep, it’s an aural experience not to be missed. The CD reissue from Trojan has several more Gussie Clarke-produced tracks from the period, featuring Youth, Gregory Isaacs, and Leroy Smart, that don’t detract from the effect of the original album. By the way, if you dig it, Screaming Target is not the man’s lone shot; Blood & Fire’s three-disc Natty Universal Dread (no overlap) is the proof.

Given the implications and sorrow of the Windrush scandal, it’s a good time for any citizen of the world to revisit the work of reggae’s greatest poet. Though he still walks the earth, this may be his final offering, and for a musical valediction, it’s pretty perfect: the addition of violin to LKJ’s always-sharp attack gives several tracks an autumnal feel, and the opening “Mi Revalueshanary Fren” (as well as other key tracks) could only have been written by an ideological soldier of many years’ standing–through wins, losses, bridge-building and bloodshed. Let’s hope he’s got another record in him.

Fifteen from My Teens (May 15th, 2018; Columbia, MO)


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Music first deeply affected me when I was a young public pool rat. Certain jukebox sounds just made me feel good, and I played them over and over: Lobo’s “I’d Love You to Want Me,” The Spinners’ “Mighty Love,” Paul Revere’s “Indian Reservation,” Cher’s “Half Breed”–I have no native ancestry, nor did I study it in class or on the side, so don’t ask me–Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” anything by Elton or Alice. But since I remember really thinking, I’ve spent quite a bit of time (too much, still) inside my own head. I think that was originally an outgrowth of eventing games and scenarios first for Captain Action, Johnny West, and GI Joe, then for doodling in my school notebooks, then for “TV shows” I acted out alone in our backyard when we moved out in the country. I never needed another person to have active, imaginative fun, and eventually my interest in music joined with my tendency to spend considerable time silently thinking, imagining, and inventing.

The catalyst was Ken’s Record Shop, just down from the high school. There, I bought my first albums; to me, their design implied extended mental engagement, though I still evaluated them as a whole, like I did the pool jukebox 45s, and like I still do. For the first time, I started thinking about lyrics and archetypes (I didn’t have that word, but I had Edith Hamilton and Bergen Evans) and seeing if they applied to what I was living and seeing, or what I could live or might see. To a great extent, those first albums were an escape: from the exquisite torture of adolescent yearning to belong and be loved, from the grind of most of my classrooms, from the considerable lack of constructive non-sports outlets in my community (I was an athlete, but sports were not an escape for me; they were where I physically released my frustration, anger, and confusion). Church couldn’t compare to those first records, and I wasn’t being asked to read many books in school, so they were my first scriptures, for better or worse.

Here are the first ten albums that I contemplated and tried to unravel, interpret, and apply–whether they really bear up under that weight or not.

1. Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (seemed literary and I was starved for such, though I thought I was stoopid because I didn’t “get it”; the title seems to me today a bit more of a clue)

2. Alice Cooper: Billion Dollar Babies (I mos def got the entertainment aspect of this, but I labored to dig it what money and decadence really meant to him–um, Phil, you knew the reflexive property from math, dude!)

3. Bob Dylan: Street Legal (yeah I know–this Dylan album?–but I was miserable and confused by girls just like he was)

4. Neil Young: Decade (his Cortez v. my teachers’ Cortez + his guitar + he was confused by girls = love!

5. Rush: All the World’s A Stage (when I heard the album on KSYN outta Joplin–in its entirety–it sounded profound)

6. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (a whole new strange world to me–I knew no Bruces but I did see the cars–but “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” became a credo)

7. Ted Nugent: Double Live Gonzo (proof I wouldn’t lie to you if I’d actually list this–remember, I said archetypes as well as lyrics)

8. Elvis Costello: My Aim is True (I seldom listen to him or it today, but he put words to my (so often self-inflicted) agonized romantic and sexual desires, and he was confused by girls)

9. Boston: Don’t Look Back (soaring guitars, smooth harmonies, and strangely transcendental lyrics were Midwestern boy-balm–balm enough that I had to write my first-ever record review about it)

10. Bob Seger: Night Moves (the whole album’s still good to me, but the title song was dictated from my fantasies, the only place I got to cluelessly “work on” The Mysteries)

Scary, ain’t they? For scriptures? Exclusively white and male, het’ro (far as I knew), foursquare (even Alice, really–I never took him seriously even then), a tad humorless (no?). On the plus side, there’s some “poetry” in there, a dollop of politics (historical and emotional), a touch of class-consciousness, spacey futurism, wang dang sweet poontang (really, though…), wordsmithery–stuff for my addled but determined mind to work with.

Maybe the next five I explored before heading to college were more important.

1. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (the kind of food my teachers should have been serving me daily–still nutritious after all these years!)

2. The Clash: London Calling (a cultural dictionary I didn’t have the background for, but I wasted no time trying to translate “Spanish Bombs” and figure out who Ivan and Montgomery Clift were)

3. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks (“I’m looking over the wall / Oh no it cannot be!” was the most exciting line I’d ever heard, delivered by the most frightening singer I’d ever heard, and I didn’t even have a clue about the Berlin Wall at fucking 18–but I did know he meant it, man…and that meant a lot in the days of “Disco Duck”)

4. Teddy Pendergrass: Teddy (yes, I studied that–to no avail, and no hot oil rubdowns for me)

5. Neil Young: Live Rust (I would read a book about the sound engineering for these shows, because they sounded transmitted from outer space–or the Palace of Experience)

Still no codexes from women, but I am thankful for the intercession of those five platters in this southwest Missouri boy’s life before I was cut loose into the wider world. I guess I linger over them because I’m fascinated that I got here from there, and wonder if, oh, “Desolation Row” had anything to do with it in a dance with chance. Believe me, if you’d told me then where, what, and who I’d be now, I’d have fainted from surprise–and relief. I’m still an old chunk of coal, though, and I wonder, too, like most, how much of the teenage me is still operating in my core. At least I’m much less confused about girls.

Afternoon Freak (May 14th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Grab-bag Day, for various and sundry reasons. The post title refers to the name of the newest band to be highlighted in Joyful Noise’s White Label Series, to which I subscribe. One album a month, in a 500-copy vinyl run, chosen and annotated by an already-established artist who believes it’s worthy of broader and deeper exposure. Afternoon Freak’s “The Blind Strut” is in the May spotlight:

Odd thing: the curator here is in the band, so he’s got a vested interest. He’s also named Mike Watt, and he’s on bass here in an instro combo with Danny Frankel on drums and Matt Mottel on various keyboards. I will always extend Watt encouragement and critical latitude; The Minutemen have been and always will be a guiding light for me, musically and philosophically–plus, a better dude cannot be found. Trouble is, I’ve yet to truly get with any of his solo ventures, though this comes close. Mottel seems to be the lead voice among the three, Watt plays with restraint, finds the groove, and pitches his ear closely, Frankel rides the grooves ably. The tracks are catchy, a tad repetitious–this kind of date puts pressure on someone to be very imaginative–and evocative of multiple possible influences (remember the instros on Second Edition?), but they are not an irritant upon the ear. Four tracks A-side that get where they’re going; three on the B that stretch out, if a bit monotonously. All of Joyful Noise’s White Label releases have been interesting; one’s been terrific, and one great. This one wouldn’t do badly thrown on a venue PA before a cool band’s gig.

If you’re a Scratch Perry fan and haven’t heard his work with Jah Lion on Colombia Colly, you have your weekly grail hunt. The physical media’s a little scarce, but let the above track from the album be a motivator for you–one of the all-time greatest Perry sound effects leading into a ghostly voice reaching back to Peggy Lee.


Sometimes I get an irresistible hankering for the work of Gene Pitney. For some folks, I imagine he’s the opposite of cool: straight-looking, corny-sounding, a persistent profferer of melodramatic pop, caught in an unfashionable time capsule. For me, he’s a gone kind of cool: hitmaker deluxe (16 in the Top 40), studio tinkerer (multi-tracking his own vocals and instruments on “I’m Gonna Love My Life Away”), writer of “Hello Mary Lou” and “He’s a Rebel,” ace Spector avatar (“Every Little Breath I Take”), early coverer of and sideman for the Glimmer Twins (“That Girl Belongs to Yesterday”), hit duet singer with none other than George Jones (“I’ve Got Five Dollars and It’s Saturday night), master of geography songs (“Mecca,” “24 Hours from Tulsa,” “Last Exit to Brooklyn”), poet of teen you-and-me-against-the-world (“Town Without Pity”). As Jerry Lee might say, “Top that, motherfucker!” Pitney might have said it himself–in Italian.

Tempted? A brief Pitney Playlist for ya:

Persistent profferer of melodramatic pop–with a difference, huh?

Short-shrift Division:

I received my copy of Offbeat! yesterday and noted some interesting new records being reviewed. Sometimes I suspect I am critically soft-minded in that I will like anything if it’s in a New Orleans or south Louisianan tradition. Sampling these records with Apple Music, I was able to reassure myself that I can exercise critical discretion. I’m violating a blog rule by writing about lukewarm creations, but I suppose I need to show I can do it for the record:

Chas Justus & The Jury–Pale (really pale), characterless, zestless, sterilized Western swing. Merely skilled playing and boring vocals.

Cha Wa: Spyboy–To scope in further, I truly thought there was no such thing as an enervating Mardi Gras Indian record. I was wrong. This is record suffers from having a very finely-tuned funk-field.

Keith Frank & The Soileau Zydeco Band: Return of the King–I am nutso for Frank’s “Haterz.” But his recent insistence on walking his zydeco into urban musical neighborhoods makes it less tough and contagious.

Big Sam’s Funky Nation: Songs in the Key of Funk, Volume 1–I am always seeing Sam’s gigs touted in Offbeat! (and hearing them recommended on ‘OZ when in NOLA myself). First sentence of the current review of this album includes the phrase “[t]he heavyweight champion of rocking, brassy, NOLA funk.” This wouldn’t make it out of Golden Gloves.

Ok, never again…

Where Mobile Steel Rims Crack (May 13th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Today’s listening was inspired by my terrific experience with the above book. I needed a push to read it; there have been a plethora of books lately that look like this but end up having scant meat on the bone. Thanks to my friends Jeffrey and Ken, I was given no choice but to check it out from the local library and get crackin’, and let me tell you true, it’s a trip worth taking. I’m a bit tired of Van the Man, I’ve read deeply about ’68, and I wasn’t sure I needed to read an entire book about the city of Boston written by a rock musician, but I’ve learned something new and exciting every page, my mind has actually been blown a time or five, and Walsh’s tone and style are right up my alley (why the hell am I always lining up strings of clauses???). What’s the dealio? This is a book that deserves to have nothing spoiled, so let me just say that Walsh pulls back the skin of that year and reveals what very much appears to be a nervous system of imaginative radicalism (in lifestyle, in media, in art, in more) that made Beantown twitch, vault, and sometimes crash. The number of interconnections between innovators and visionaries, between locations and events past, present, and future, was almost enough to drive me to superstitious thinking, something which Walsh definitely doesn’t indulge but finds other reasons for. Who you gonna meet? Besides Morrison? Timothy Leary, Mel Lyman (if you don’t know him, you’re gonna), Michelangelo Antonioni, Howard Zinn, The Velvet Underground, James Brown, The Boston Strangler (perhaps), Bruce Conner, Edgar Cayce, Ram Dass, MLK, Peter Wolf, The Black Panthers…ok, that’s all I’m offering…it’s a must-read, so get on it.

Oh, yes–the listening! Pretty simple: I listened to Morrison’s Astral Weeks–for the 2nd time since I started the book. As a young man, it gripped me tightly, before and after I read Lester Bangs’ essay on it, which has been known to convert a listener. The searching mood, mysterious and poetic lyrics, and enigmatic and sensitive singing spoke directly to my 18-year-old soul (I think it ’80 when I first dug it). In addition, it seemed to tap into a world far, far different than I was used to in its concrete description, but very similar to what I’d been feeling emotionally (I may be repeating myself)–particularly what was being brought on by a sharpened awareness of mortality on my part. Over the last 15 years or so, though it’s one of those “fine wine albums” you reach for when you need them, the lyrics and singing haven’t really reached me like they used to–I’m less miserable and more rational. When I have selected it, I’ve listened to it with jazz ears (Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Jay Berliner and even John Payne always reward that approach), and focused on its very personal forms. However, cranking the album up and getting into Morrison’s vocals anew, I was reminded of one reason I’ve always been amazed by him: who else do you know who can not just get away with so many modes of singing, but actually sell them, masterfully at that? You name it: punk (that’s what many of his performances with Them are: “One Two Brown Eyes”?), rock and roll, spirituals, jazz, blues, poetry (singing that is like walking in a creek on slippery rocks), soul, rhythm & blues, ballads (both traditional and invented), incantation, vocalese, pop (bubbly damn pop!), dream texts, chants, country & western, hell, Sesame Street! Ok, maybe he can’t MC, and I don’t want him to take that as a challenge, but you get my point. And on Astral Weeks alone–is there another classic album in history that sounds least like both its immediate predecessor and follow-up?–he effortlessly shifts from mode to mode, though beyond “ruminations” I don’t really know what to call any of ’em but “The Way That Young Lovers Do,” which he just self-covered this year on his neat album with Joey DeFrancesco. Might I suggest you may be due for some fine wine listening yourself?

Short-shrift Division:

The Story of Them–Though on these records they are not really a band, for British Invasion punks I often prefer Them to the Stones. Note: Morrison’s early multi-mode acumen!

Lost Bayou Ramblers: Kalenda–Have I mentioned how great this daring Cajun record is? Yes I have. And guess what, in case you were wondering? It’s got legs.

Friendos: Diary Playlist 5 (May 6-12)

Plucked from History’s Dustbin (best recent purchase of an old record): I didn’t buy an old record this week–wah!!!

Grower, Not a Shower (old record I already owned that’s risen in my esteem): I have to admit, Migos’ Culture is 30% better on the third play. I’m starting to decipher their little quips.

Encore, Encore! (album I played at least twice this week): Cypress Hill; Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

Through the Cracks (sweet record I forgot to write about): Mt. Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. Sweet? I don’t know. A one-of-a-kind record that I really like, but I gotta think on it a bit.

Sunday’s Children / Today’s Sounds:

Lost Bayou Ramblers: Kalenda

Sonny Clark: The 1960 Time Sessions

Gene Pitney: Anthology

Linton Kwesi Johnson: In Concert

Linton Kwesi Johnson: LKJ in Dub

Them: The Story of Them

The Phuncky Feel One (May 11th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Anytime I get out Cypress Hill’s debut album, I can’t get beyond the first four tracks. Why? Because I just repeat-play those for about a week. I’m sure you will think of others, but no rap album I know opens so strong and so deep. Absolutely classic early Muggs production, unfortunately still spot-on bloody-slice-of-hood-life lyrics (“Being the hunted one is no fun!”), defiant MCing courtesy of B-Real–plus the “Pigs” / “How I Could Just Kill a Man” / “Hand on the Pump” / “Hole in Your Head” sequence is ridiculously catchy and pithy. The rest of the album is fine, but in contrast it might as well be filler. I’m still re-running them this morning–third time, after five times yesterday!

But, what I’m writing to report are two personal memories the record conjures. As a 30-year-old teacher in Missouri, I had few friends who were hip hop fiends. Really, two: my wife Nicole and my buddy and groomsman Mark, who out of the blue could bust multiple bars from Cypress Hill with pinpoint accuracy and attitude. At the time, immediately after he’d explode into MC mode and expostulate, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I think he probably wanted me to kick in a few bars myself, but a) my memory and articulation weren’t as precise, and b) where Mark had command and rhythm (by the way, did I mention how addictive the accents are on this album?), I “rapped” the way you would imagine a Kansas-farm-rooted white boy might–um, uncertainly. What I did feel like doing was clapping and nodding my approval at Mark’s performance, which seemed a paltry thing in the face of his enthusiasm, commitment, and interpretive skills. Bottom line: 26 years later, I remember his eruptions very fondly.

The other memory is of a moment in the classroom. The school I taught at housed students even a fan like me would have a hard time scooping when it came to the freshest hip hop. Actually, most of the time, I was the student: Spice-1, Brother Lynch Hung, X-Clan, and MC Eiht are just a few acts about whom I specifically remember receiving wisdom. However, shortly after Cypress Hill was released and had become heavily-rotated in our home, I found myself teaching a young man who is still in my pantheon of most enjoyable, intelligent and enriching students I ever shared space with for 180 50-minute classes (that’s 1/6th of a teacher year). “Dice” was damn-near a man at 15: over six feet tall, with an athlete’s build, both an easy, good-humored manner that made him friends and a subtle edge that probably gave most strangers pause, and a mature sense of humor and world view. These gifts were not enough to keep him out of trouble–in fact, they (and the fact he was black, more than occasionally) could land him there. In my class, however, he was a star. He was always on top of our class reading, and he had a talent for being able to voice controversial opinions passionately without creating an apoplectic state among his less-enlightened peers. He was also incredibly receptive; when we read Shane (yeah, it was a novel first!), I figured he might tune out, since he had no obvious ways in. Quite to the contrary: he was engaged in the book beginning to end and simply adapted it to the truths of his world. A damn pleasure to teach–and he knew his hip hop!

One day, just wanting to give something back to him, I cautiously asked him if he’d heard Cypress Hill, expecting to be gently ridiculed.

“Naw! Who’s that?”

The next day, I slipped him a dub of it on cassette, and he returned the following day with this report:

“Mr. O, that shit is wild! They’re on the real, and they’re bilingual! Thanks!”

As much an obsessive as I am, you’d think I’d have had many moments like this in my educator guise, but no, not really–especially where rap is concerned. I will always treasure that moment when I enlightened the student who was consistently enlightening the teacher.

When my Cypress Hill jones kicks in, it always brings memories of Mark and Dice, two of the most impressive men I’ve known. I just hope one day I play it and the problems at the center of “Pigs” and “How I Could Just Kill a Man” are things of the past.

Short-shrift Division:

William Faulkner Reads from His Works (The Sound and The Fury and Light in August)–I always thought he’d sound taller and deeper-chested! Still, I always wondered how you’d read this stuff aloud, and he delivers it with, what else, “an inexhaustible voice.”

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady–Swirling, turbulent jazz on the cusp of madness. Plus, ain’t this the second time I’ve written about it in ’18?

Peter Brotzmann and Fred Lonberg-Holm: Ouroboros–Another second-time subject, and…it’s confirmed…a 21st century free jazz masterpiece.

Jamila Woods: HEAVN–If you missed this poignant poet and gentle singer’s 2016 classic, hey, plenty of American recorded music isn’t disposable. There’s still time for you to be enlightened, inspired, and bewitched by one of Chicago’s finest.

Kirk Works! (May 10th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

When I seek joy, I often turn to the work of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Columbus, Ohio’s multi-instrumentalized jazz genius seemed to have direct and immediate access to the full range of human emotions (often, when he was at his best, on display on a single recording), and be reliably alive in the moment whether on stage in the studio. When an old friend who’s just getting into jazz inquired after something new (he’s been cutting his teach on Blue Note hard bop), I knew just where to turn. We were meeting for coffee, he still listens to CDs, so I decided to begin a “Great Albums Series” for him with two-on-one Kirk mix disc.

It’s not that easy to pick the best two Kirk records to start someone on his aural learning journey. Certainly, few would argue with such stellar and unique recordings as Rip, Rig, and Panic or The Inflated Tear; one could even make a fan for life from the man’s sideman sessions, like The Jaki Byard Experience (its versions of “Evidence” and “Memories of You” alone vault both leader and accompanist to jazz Valhalla) or Charles Mingus’ Oh Yeah. However, I chose the two records I turn two most: 1961’s audacious We Free Kings (Kirk a mere 26) and 1964’s sui generis flute tour de force, I Talk with the Spirits–on which he does, if spirits really do exist.

We Free Kings is both the ultimate proof Kirk’s playing of tenor sax, flute, stritch, manzello, and siren (just those on this record, and up to three at once) was mastery and sound attack, not gimmickry, and a complete display of his many strengths. To wit? A fondness for and deep knowledge of both old and new styles (here, demonstrated on the title cut, which takes the old holiday chestnut into Traneland as if that were the most logical idea in the world). A knack for catchy, penetrating, soulful original compositions (the eternal “Three for The Festival”) and daring explorations of the jazz repertoire (Bird’s “Blues for Alice”). That previously-stated ability to tap into the deepest (see the aptly named “The Haunted Melody) and the most buoyant (see “Some Kind of Love) human emotions. The ability to consistently surprise: the sudden, virtuosic shifts from one instrument to the next (check the stop-time flute passage on “Three for the Festival”!); the astonishing ability to wring profound blues out of a flute; the spirited vocal interjections at key inspired moments. That should be enough to convince, but his backing combo, especially the underrated Charlie Persip on drums, sticks with Kirk through every hairpin turn.

You may have noticed I used the word “flute” three times in the last ‘graph. I am no fan of that instrument, but in Kirk’s hands it is a magic wand–on I Talk to the Spirits, it’s all the famed multi-instrumentalist plays. You may have noticed that I called We Free Kings audacious, and it is: Kirk’s confidence, at 26, in going there in numerous ways, in JazzWorld 1961 (think about it), is astounding. However, the word might be better applied to this album. Kirk dares to keep us locked in, surprised, moved, and even rocked for the full duration of a record with only the most notoriously light of instruments. Not only that, but he bets he can make Barbara Streisand (“People,” from Funny Face) and Joyce Kilmer (“Trees”? Yes, “Trees”!) stand firm and tall next to not only his own indelible originals (try playing “Serenade to a Cuckoo” only once, then avoid a week-long earworming–I double-fuckin’-DARE ya!) but also canonical offerings from Clifford Brown, John Lewis, and Brecht-Weill. And he cleans out the house on that. Again, the backup is superb. Drummers? Rah could pick ’em: Walter Perkins is all ’bout it on a very eccentrically accented session. The piano’s manned by the estimable Horace Parlan, whose elegance anchors Kirk’s wonderfully wild ideas. There is no album like this is the annals of jazz, my friend needs it, and so do you.

Just gotta say, I love Rahsaan so much primarily because he has serious fun–he’s soulful and mischievous–and he loves both the old and new, the disposable and the essential. I strive for the same, though I don’t really have to work at it. It seems the nature of our time here, and I’ve always heard Kirk as–in a nod to my fellow jazz fiend Charles–a sensei. I’m confident you will, too.

Note: if you are able, please check out the great young filmmaker Adam Kahan’s insightful Kirk documentary, The Case of the Three-Sides Dream.