I am constantly tweaking my teaching strategies for my freshman comp/pop music class at Stephens College. Thinking about data-based questions, I stumbled upon what I thought would be a stimulating lesson plan:
1) zero them in on an artist with fresh work out, and ask them to sample the entire album;
2) ask the kids to read some new and quality reviews and/or features on the artist;
3) funnel them to some good and recent performance and video clips of the artist;
4) ask them to annotate as they explore, listen, think, and reflect;
5) convene for a kind of Socratic seminar, with the above serving as the data.
Actually, the lesson was pretty successful. Since we’re a women’s college, I thought Mitski and her new album Be the Cowboy would be an ideal subject. The young woman’s an intense singer, a talented writer and musician, and loves to mine her (justifiably, I feel) turbulent emotional life for material. Myself, I like her and her new album very much, but, honestly, that had nothing to do with my choice: I simply thought it would be reliably stimulating for my class of 18.
It was. But. A few students responded very positively and strongly to her work; a few (not necessarily the same few) skillfully used evidence and analysis to back up their opinions; most, however, found her a little much. What did that mean? All over the place musically (I was thinking that range was more a tour de force, if not more simply the artist matching setting with material, as were a couple kids; most wanted a groove). Providing too much information (for example, there is a masturbation line) and relying too much on lyrics. Not being chill enough. And–this was probably the most interesting thread of the conversation–cannily packaging herself as having a foot in pop and a foot in avant garde in order to be easily commodified, for the convenience of consumers, with Urban Outfitters. As you might be suspecting, we have a passionate anti-capitalist in the house, which I am enjoying immensely, but, while she accused the writers of the three articles I’d assigned them of “fellating” Mitski with no real supporting arguments (unfair in some ways, though none of the writers did supply any caveats or constructive criticism about her work), the student herself had a little trouble supplying specific support for her own attack. Since one of my ulterior motives was getting them to effectively substantiate their contentions–or at least start practicing same–perhaps the ensuing provided an obvious model of what to avoid. I don’t know, but I’m always surprised to find in this course that, often, women hold female artists to a very (too?) high standard. I’ll have to continue letting that phenomenon marinate.
I was very encouraged by a very quiet student’s lone contribution, though, which followed the above barrage: “You know, she’s a very young artist. Shouldn’t the fact that she’s still developing earn her some room to be messy?” (Yes.)
HOT TAKE: Swamp Dogg’s superbly titled Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is one of the best–and the strangest–r&b records of the year. Only The Dogg could take Auto-Tune and make something deep out of it–except that it really appears to have been Justin Vernon’s idea (why, Lord, why?), so that hurts, but I have to admit it works, and Swamp’s the show. His songs, lyrically speaking, aren’t as eccentric as usual (“Sex with Your Ex” the exception)–in fact, the covers are among the brightest highlights–but the shot of loneliness and alienation with which the much-maligned effect injects them is…a word I never thought I’d use in connection with Bon Iver…POWERFUL. Great cover art and liner notes, as one would expect.
Otherwise this week, I indulged in some very, very good music-related reading. Sam Anderson’s wild and wonderful Boom Town focuses on Mr. Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips as one exemplar of the spirit of his subject, Oklahoma City. I’m not a huge fan of Coyne or his group (though seeing them when they were just kids was a trip), but Anderson makes a convincing case that to understand the city and its travails and aspirations, you have to consider them. Elsewhere, a star weatherman, the OKC Thunder, and several “city visionaries” flesh out his analysis. This is one of the very best books I’ve read this year, and it’s as much about us as it is about Oklahoma City, looked at a certain way.
More exclusively about music is Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century. A test any music book must pass with me is, “Does it hurt my wallet by sending me to stuff I never knew about or unfairly dismissed?” Well, technically, with Apple Music, I don’t have to fork over any green, though that’s a sad fact I’ve addressed elsewhere and don’t feel like going into here. Chinen’s book easily passes the test; as I read, I constructed a playlist from the chapters’ subjects and his extensive discography that will take me until the middle of the next decade to fully absorb. The main thing it did for me is pry me out of my stubbornly resistant attitude toward jazz that’s flavored by new-millennium r&b and hip hop. Examples: Robert Glasper, Snarky Puppy (shitty band names can hurt a group!), and Lalah Hathaway, all of whom Chinen induced me to like). He’s also great in chapters on jazz education and international influence, innovation and practice, but I pouted when I realized he would not be including Scandinavia or Portugal in the latter discussion. I am biased, but how he could skip over Joe McPhee in looking at the role of “the new mentors” in the transfer of methods and ideas to the new generation leaves me nonplussed.
An article about Jelly Roll Morton showed up in my feed, courtesy of (hmmm) The Wall Street Journal: “Plotting His Way Into Jazz History.” John Edward Hasse, a writer previously unknown to me, presents Morton as “jazz’s first theorist,” which I’d heard argued before, but he hooked me with this paragraph–I don’t play an instrument, so I can’t initially hear this stuff when I listen to jazz:
“…Morton took on several problems. In just over three minutes, how do you create interest and drama? In a musical style taking shape, how do you prove the full potential of jazz to integrate the planned with the spontaneous, the notated with the improvised?”
Even better is how Hasse succinctly explains Morton’s solutions (exemplified in the classic “Black Bottom Stomp”)…but read the article yourself for that. Suffice it to say that I went straight from reading the article to JSP’s great Morton box set and Wynton Marsalis’ Morton tribute, Mr. Jelly Lord, my favorite record by my favorite musical tight-ass. Why? Well, the band is effin’ cream: Don Vappie on banjo and guitar, Dr. Michael White on clarinet, Herlin Riley on drum kit, Wycliffe Gordon on ‘bone, tuba, and trumpet, and Marsalis himself as loose and playful (and masterful) as you’re gonna hear him. Did you ever wonder if Harry Connick, Jr., ever really applied on record anything he learned from James Booker? He does here, and does justice to his mentor. The selections are perfect and often surprising (“Big Lip Blues,” for example), and the arrangements, execution, and production do not embalm them. And you get lagniappe in the true NOLA fashion, with Wynton and pianist Eric Reed nailing “Tomcat Blues” via wax cylinder from the Edison Museum:
I swear, right now books are like heroin to me (yes, I listened to the Gun Club this week). I should count myself lucky. I also picked up John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth, which sets out to vaunt the former and puncture the latter. It’s note-perfect in doing so thus far, and has convinced me that I do too need to to read Lady Sings the Blues. I didn’t know Billie made it to film at 19, singing an Ellington song with Duke backing her and already exhibiting the mastery that would make her legendary. She begins singing at about the 4:40 mark:
Szwed also wrote the best book yet on Sun Ra. Check him out.
David Virelles: Mboko (WOW!!!!!!)
The Gun Club: The Fire of Love
Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (expanded edition)
George Coleman: Live at Yoshi’s
Robert Glasper: Black Radio
Lalah Hathaway (feat. Snarky Puppy), “Something” (ZOINKS!!!)