Out of Hand (February 15th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Some music you love so much you keep it in the shade–like in a wine cellar–and only break it out for special occasions. Maybe it’s so intense it has to be partaken of in small, spaced-out doses; maybe it’s so intense one doesn’t want to overexpose oneself to it, and thus dull its brilliance.

A precious few singers are in my musical wine cellar. One of them is the late, great Gary Stewart, and though yesterday wasn’t a special occasion, his voice started echoing inside my skull while I was reading Walter Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz–go figure, because I can’t. I have a good portion of Stewart’s discography, but I broke out the killer one-two punch, two-fer-one Koch/BMG CD Out of Hand / Your Place or Mine and the only slightly less powerful Steppin’ Out / Little Junior, released by those smart Aussies from Raven Records. Don’t listen to this stuff while doing anything else; if it’s familiar to you–if you’ve lived your life–you might well feel some deep identification with the pain Gary conveys so precisely, and find yourself singing along. Able to ascend to full-throated honky hollers or descend to ‘tween-the-teeth whispers, punctuating nearly every phrase with a bourbon-cured quaver that some might call mannerism and others might hear as signifying the ol’ emotional thumbscrews gettin’ a twist, Stewart was a master actor, a seller of songs, and what a lot he got to sing: “Drinkin’ Thing,” “This Old Heart Just Won’t Let Go,” “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” “Out of Hand,” “Your Place or Mine,” “Ten Years of This,” “Broken-Hearted People,” “Quits,” “Flat-Natural Born Good-Timin’ Man,” “In Some Room Above the Street,” “Whiskey Trip,” “Little Junior,” “Single Again,” “I Got Mine,” “Let’s Forget That We’re Married”–and those are all on these two discs.

The guy could pick ’em, write ’em himself, play the hell out of slide guitar, and roll the keys like Jerry Lee (whom he notably sounds much like, except Gary means it, man, whereas the Killer just don’t give a fuck). I’d attribute it to the coke and whiskey, but I don’t think he ever got to fully realize all those talents. His story is as riddled with intense sorrow as his best songs; I strongly recommend you read Jimmy McDonough’s account for Perfect Sound Forever, but have a hanky handy.

Please enjoy this 15-song Gary Stewart primer–stoked with some great live clips and some hard-to-find rawboned classics.

Short-shrift Division:

Sharkey

Sharkey Bonano (trumpet) and Paul Barbarin (drums): New Orleans Contrasts

Roxy Music: Stranded

 

Ah: The Teacher Has Become the Student (January 30, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

 

As I reported earlier in this space, I teach a freshman composition / pop music class at Stephens College, and I’d assigned my students the task of not only highlighting every record they’d heard in this year’s Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll (so I could inventory their listening experiences and tailor my instruction to them), but also choosing an album or two they hadn’t heard, listening to it in full, then posting a reaction / assessment of it. This assignment has ended up being one of the best I’ve ever given. We’ve been taking about it avidly ever since they began working on it, and they took their explorations seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they began assigning me homework! One of my sharpest and most consistently surprising students chose to test-drive Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic, loved it, and insisted in her commentary that I check it out myself. I am not much of a metal fan, I’ll admit, but, especially on the above song, they have a punk power that pulled me in–and, hey, I could understand the lyrics (hmmm–a sign I am getting old)! I wrote the student about my reaction, and made a commitment to keep following the group; her typical interests are Latin music, EDM, and old school rhythm and blues!

Another student, who’d earlier this semester laughed at me because I had not heard of Cardi B, recommended not that I listen to something I’d asked her to explore from the list, but that I listen to something she’d picked out on her own: in this case, some “early” Cardi B, my objective being “hearing” the difference between her explosive current work and where she started. Specifically, she asked me to listen to (and watch, since I’d made a big deal about Cardi’s videos) “Foreva.” Actually, I had to admit that, while she hadn’t come into her own, really, that she started off a pretty effective MC. Here’s what I turned in, via email, on time:

Cardi B: “Foreva”
I hate to see women at each other’s throats, but they have to pay for that kind of back-stabbing! (Her teeth look fine!) All in all, her flow’s pretty good, but, you’re right, the lyrics are kind of standard. However, the chorus and music are pretty catchy, and I like the video. I swear, that woman looks different in every single video–facially different!  My grade: A-

The student also asked that, since I frequently belabor students with my current passions (lately, Princess Nokia, Amodou and Mariam, P-Funk), I be “forced” to deal with one of hers: the Chicago MC Lil’ Durk. Again, she assigned me a specific song:

Don’t get the impression I was interested in any apple-polishing:

Lil’ Durk & Tee Grizzley: “What Yo City Like?”
Now, see, this reminds me why I didn’t get all enthusiastic about Durk: he rushes too much, and I don’t hear that much character in his delivery. The song’s subject matter is sad, but that’s how it is, and I like reports from the front. The detail is pretty good, but it could be more specific. Tee Grizzley didn’t make much of an impression on me, either.(actually they sound a little too alike to be teaming up). My grade: B

We all had a blast–I got some smart and entertaining feedback on my reaction, and, most important, the students seemed very excited about future explorations and exchanges. It must certainly seem a no-brainer, but these kind of exchanges are among the most effective tricks in the teaching book. I was happy to realize I hadn’t forgotten them, though, honestly, their application wasn’t pre-planned. Spontaneity has its place in the classroom, too, and not one in the darkest cobwebbed corner.

Ian
While we’re on the subject of teaching, during my time as a high school British literature teacher, I used to teach mini-lessons under the heading “Brit Lit Songwriter Series,” during which we’d explore the stylistic and thematic traits of some of the U.K. and Irish greats: Richard Thompson, Ray Davies, Shane MacGowan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Strummer-Jones, and even Lemmy! The sneaky purpose of such units was to loosen students up for literary analysis; they tended not to realize they were doing what I wanted them to when music is involved. To my great regret, I never got to fashion one of these side-trips around the great Ian Dury.
Yesterday, in The Lab, I listened to a recent Dury acquisition. Have you ever had the realization you’ve relied to heavily on a particular artist’s greatest hits or best-of package, to the neglect of great album tracks? It became clear that I’d done so with Dury, as I was repeatedly delighted by tracks from New Boots ‘n’ Panties, the CD in question, that I’d never heard before:
(A great Father’s Day track!)

(A guaranteed public school smash!)

(A quite timely skewering of a misogynist!)

(A riotous character study!)

Talk about some opportunities for analysis, thematic investigation, and literary term application (by the way, a dollop of naughtiness always helps, and, in such cases as these when they actually arose in class, I always kept in mind the old Raymond Chandler idea about Shakespeare, and I’m paraphrasing and tweaking out a gendered noun: “Without vulgarity, there is no complete human.”):

Good evening, I’m from Essex
In case you couldn’t tell
My given name is Dickie
I come from Billericay
And I’m doing very well

Had a love affair with Nina
In the back of my cortina
A seasoned-up hyena
Could not have been more obscener
She took me to the cleaners
And other misdemeanours
But I got right up between her
Rum and her Ribena

Well, you ask Joyce and Vicky
If candy-floss is sticky
I’m not a blinking thicky
I’m Billericay Dickie
And I’m doing very well

I bought a lot of Brandy
When I was courting Sandy
Took eight to make her randy
And all I had was shandy
Another thing with Sandy
What often came in handy
Was passing her a mandy
She didn’t half go bandy

So, you ask Joyce and Vicky
If I ever took the mickey
I’m not a flipping thicky
I’m Billericay Dickie
And I’m doing very well

I’d rendez-vous with Janet
Quite near the Isle of Thanet
She looked more like a gannet
She wasn’t half a prannet
Her mother tried to ban it
Her father helped me plan it
And when I captured Janet
She bruised her pomegranate

Oh, you ask Joyce and Vicky
If I ever shaped up tricky
I’m not a blooming thicky
I’m Billericay Dickie
And I’m doing very well

You should never hold a candle
If you don’t know where it’s been
The jackpot is in the handle
On a normal fruit machine

So, you ask Joyce and Vicky
Who’s their favourite brickie
I’m not a common thicky
I’m Billericay Dickie
And I’m doing very well

I know a lovely old toe-rag
Obliging and noblesse
Kindly, charming shag from Shoeburyness
My given name is Dickie
I come from Billericay
I thought you’d never guess

So, you ask Joyce and Vicky
A pair of squeaky chickies
I’m not a flaming thicky
I’m Billericay Dicky
And I’m doing very well

Oh golly, oh gosh
Come and lie on the couch
With a nice bit of posh
From Burnham-on-Crouch
My given name is Dickie
I come from Billericay
And I ain’t a slouch

So, you ask Joyce and Vicky
About Billericay Dickie
I ain’t an effing thicky
You ask Joyce and Vicky
I’m doing very well

Still in The Sink / Seller’s Remorse (January 29th, Columbia, Missouri)

I realize I can’t let go of the W. Eugene Smith story, but that’s how fixations are. As I reported Sunday, I was knocked out by The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, a stellar documentary illuminating Smith’s life and work, but especially his years quartered in a Manhattan loft churning out photos, hosting marathon after-hours jazz sessions, and making audio recordings of purt-near every sound made in the building. One of the many great moments in the documentary (and in Sam Stephenson’s recent Smith bio, Gene Smith’s Sink) comes when surviving participants–including the great alto saxophonist Phil Woods–recall the loft rehearsal sessions for Thelonious Monk’s first-ever big band performance at Town Hall. The arrangements, the difficulty of which one familiar with Monk’s music can well imagine, were written by the great Hall Overton–who just happened to live and work in the space on the other side of Smith’s wall. After creating arrangements to Monk’s satisfaction, a process fascinating in itself, the two men contacted the musicians and called the rehearsal. At two in the morning. And, Monk being who he was, everyone showed. Suffice it to say that I found it impossible after watching this sequence to avoid listening to Thelonious Monk at Town Hall last night (and I’m doing it again right now) (and you should, too), the full recording captured via YouTube above. Nothing short of amazing, folks.

I’ve also previously written about my attempt to whittle my CD collection down to a sane size. Since early January, I’ve traded in 200-300 of ’em, and they’d already been honed about a year ago, so at times I’ve felt like I was trading chunks of flesh. When my wife observed me taking a couple of late Aylers (Love Call and New Grass) downstairs to box up, she said with great alarm, “Wait, you can’t trade in those!” Yes, I am lucky; Nicole is as much an Albert Ayler nut as I. She even eagerly accompanied me to visit his grave outside of Cleveland! However, I told her, “Well, these are late experiments where he was trying to make accessible music, and they’re more than a shade uneven…we’ll never miss ’em.” She looked askance at me, and I went on downstairs with them.

I put them in a box, then stared at them for the next five days.

Have you ever felt guilt-pangs at getting rid of music by one of your favorite artists, even if it isn’t their best work, even if you could just digitize it? As if you’re betraying them, even if they happen to be dead (in Ayler’s case, for almost 50 years)? As if you’ve just discovered you’re a cold-ass bastard?

I took them out of the box, and out to The Lab, to give them one last listen in the compressed space of my Ranger’s cab and make absolutely sure I wasn’t fucking up.

I was. Well, I’m only halfway through New Grass, but, though it features very lame “spiritual” lyrics and singing, and some awkward arrangements (“Ayler goes R&B!”), Albert actually plays pretty well, and at least suggests what a successful merging of his wild wails and seriously soulful backing might have sounded like. Also, one gets to hear Ayler talking; that might not seem like much, but we hardly knew him before he was gone, and I treasure any moment that makes him seem more real. One track that exemplifies the worthy struggle of engaging with New Grass is “New Ghosts”: it’s seriously marred by some very-sub-Leon Thomas ululations, apparently emitted by Ayler himself, and Bill Folwell’s bass playing seems out of sync, but once the leader starts playing his tenor, some sparks fly–he brings out the calypso melody that was always embedded in the earlier recordings of “Ghosts” and anticipates Sonny Rollins’ ideas of the mid-to-late ’70s (think Sunny Days, Starry Nights). Goofy and wonderful: I suspect that combo was another Ayler’s human elements.

So, I’m keeping them. Try New Grass yourself–another full-album link’s there for your pleasure.

Cover Track List

Speaking of Ayler–and this mysteriously happened after my Lab session–an archival release by the great Hat Hut free jazz label finally showed up in my mailbox: Ayler, Sunny Murray (drums), Gary Peacock (bass), and Don Cherry (trumpet), live in 1964, in fantastic fettle and fidelity, from the Café Montmarte in Copenhagen. The performance is one of the greatest of Ayler’s life, and Cherry is in amazing form, dancing lightly in and out of the eye of the saxophonist’s hurricane and illuminating the link between Ayler’s work and Coleman’s: an exciting contrast between free styles, earthiness v. elegance (and, yes, I’m calling Coleman’s work elegant in a relative kind of way, but even if I weren’t, his work still was).  This release is a must for any serious Ayler fan. A must. Don’t make me repeat it again. (I will die with this CD still on my shelves, I assure you).

 

 

 

Octopi (January 28th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Kris Davis & Craig Taborn: Octopus

Two masters of jazz piano, dueting live, balancing compositions with improvisation. A key question in such circumstances: will the performance be a dialogue of the deaf? Here, the answer is a resounding “no”; Davis and Taborn have been playing together for quite awhile, and this record is a bit of a tour de force. They play in harmony, in unison, trailing each other, in response to each other’s calls, and, on “Chatterbox,” in dialogue. Quite surprisingly, at least to me, the dominant tone is meditative, especially on Davis’ “Ossining” and segments of Taborn’s three “Interruptions.” Best in show are interpretations of Carla Bley’s “Sing Me Softly of the Blues, and–especially–Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space,” a wry and touching closer. I didn’t know they were interpretations until after I’d listened to the record twice and done my homework.

Ty Segall: Freedom’s Goblin

You gotta hand it to the guy: few musicians on the planet work harder, and for an open spigot of creativity, his quality control valve’s gasket is pretty tight. However, after one listen, this double-record set is too much a melange for me to truly appreciate–from horns to funk covers to ladyfriend’s vocals to jams, he crams in just about everything–and even the “better” production does not hold from beginning to end. Still, as one would expect, Segall unleashes several ravers, and he goes out streaking through guitar heaven with “I’m Free” / “5 Ft. Tall” / “And, Goodnight.”

Brian Eno: Music for White Cube

Composed for an art installation, Eno’s simulations of quiet, late-night-early-morning environments–ships coming into port, street life heard around an alley corner, industry creeping into life–are mesmerizing. I never know when the old wizard is gonna put the hook in; I wasn’t expecting it here, but he definitely understands how to energize any old sound when its context is silence.

Riot Days

Maria Alyokhina: Riot Days

Here, Pussy Riot co-founder Alyokhina recalls the planning, execution, and aftermath of the group’s “Punk Prayer” action at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral and, in disarmingly direct narrative, with undimmed defiance and power, details her three-year stint in several Russian prisons. I think the book’s a worthy addition to the world’s prison-lit canon, but what do I know? One thing’s for sure: it’ll raise your hackles if you give it a chance.

Jazz Loft

Sara Fishko, director: The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith

I’ve already documented my devout enthusiasm for Sam Stephenson’s Gene Smith’s Sink this month, but if the reader desires the most powerful Smith experience, she might pair her reading of that book with this superb documentary. Somehow, its release slipped past me (thanks, Barrett!), but, hard as it would seem to have been to accomplish, visually, structurally, and emotionally, Fishko’s movie does justice to Smith’s genius. She picks and frames the right talking heads astutely, integrates wonderful segments of Smith’s massive Loft tape archives (I am quite sure with Stephenson’s aid), whets your artistic appetite with glimpses of Smith’s most famous photographs, and boils the burgeoning, chaotic doings of the Loft’s years into a coherent, fascinating, and moving string of stories. I already want to watch it again. Here’s the trailer:

Apples and Oranges (January 22, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

ErnestDawkins

As I do with my reading, I follow my nose when I explore music. I read, I chat with folks, I read some more; what I don’t tend to do is put myself in an algorithmic cage, which isn’t that different from radio other than the cage has broader dimensions. In the case of the most explosive and deeply felt music I listened to yesterday, neither YouTube nor Spotify nor Pandora (nor most certainly radio) would have helped me, as I only happened to learn about this particular recording through a perusal of jazz critics’ best-of-’17 lists in Jazz Iz (a publication I seldom see but happened to notice in the rack shadows in a local grocery store). You could say I sniffed it out. You might also carp about critics being gatekeepers, but, look–their job is to listen, and they have the time to do more of it than we do because of that. And lists are very important: right now I know I am not alone in hoping that the Village Voice eventually provides all voter ballots for the 2018 Pazz and Jop Poll, which are almost always a better resource than the list itself and its accompanying lists.

Cutting to the chase: the album I am speaking of is Transient Takes, Chicago saxophonist and AACM member Ernest Dawkins‘ 16th as a leader. Dawkins, 64, is in magisterial form on alto and tenor, shifting easefully between woolly blues, passionate ballads, and no-holds-barred free scrums that unsurprisingly landed the record on two Jazz Iz correspondents’ lists–and at the very top of one of those. Reinforcing Dawkins’ powerful, emotionally complex, and witty playing is Vijay Iyer, one of jazz’s most preeminent  pianists, but also one who is frequently accused of being too cerebral and cold (a stereotypical assessment, perhaps). Frankly, Dawkins (if not such observers) seems to inspire Iyer to some of the earthiest playing I’ve ever heard from him–and I’m a big fan. Isaiah Spencer on drums and Junius Paul also provide solid, rousing, and sensitive support, and the crisp live recording makes a very present group performance even more immediate. Transient Takes is one of the best American releases of any kind from 2017; it would have been on my year-end list had I known about it in time, but I’ll vote for it next year anyway!

The catch: Should you like a copy of Transient Takes–and if you are a fan of Dawkins, post-Trane jazz in general, the AACM, the Chicago tradition, saxophone, or Iyer, I believe you should like one–you’ll need to a) trust me re: the above take (or dig David Whiteis’ review in Jazz Times), because there’s not much commentary out there; b) write Mr. Dawkins directly at the following address for a copy ($20 if shipped in the U. S., I think)–because you’ll not find it streaming, or for sale anywhere but from him.

Ernest Dawkins, P. O. Box 7154, Chicago, Illinois, 60680

You might think it’s perverse for an artist not to “get his work out there,” but in this world of free and instant access, I found it refreshing. The process of obtaining Transient Takes took me back to the days when, hunkered down in my college dormitory, I mail-ordered punk albums from Trouser Press.

Note: According to his website, Dawkins is working on two very interesting commissioned projects that might be reason to stay informed.

OK, those were the apples. Now for the oranges….

I will freely admit to being slow to the dinner table when it comes to pop music. I don’t club, I don’t listen to the radio at all, I don’t follow the charts (my nose can’t smell them for some reason), I feel creepy listening to Taylor Swift, I’ve perhaps become too temperamentally and philosophically aligned with the world of underground, experimental, and otherwise marginal music, I don’t trust megasmashes–the list goes on and on. Though when I read Neil Postman many years ago he annoyed me, for some reason when I think of contemporary pop music, I detect him whispering in my ear, “This is what I was talking about.” However, I like to think that, particularly after friends and fellow writers wear me down and I make an effort, I do eventually bow at the feet of the Undeniable Pop Smash.

Cardi B is undeniable. Migos are undeniable. I am warming back up to Ms. Minaj. And–I am feeling my forehead here–I am even interested in Bruno Mars, thank to this:

My Stephens students laughed out loud at me this morning when I told them I had just listened to a Cardi B song for the first time yesterday (true statement). I had distributed to each of them the above Pazz & Jop poll results, and assigned them to highlight every album and song they’d heard, star each one of those they could defend in public, and otherwise notate records they hadn’t heard but were curious about, which filled them with immediate enthusiasm, but also some reticence, especially when I mentioned I’d voted in the poll. I could see on their faces a look that anticipated my stern judgment of their choices, but in response I said, “How smart can I be if I just listened to Cardi B yesterday?”

 

 

Son of Rough Mix, on the Fly (January 18-19, Columbia, Missouri)

Still wrestling with wedging writing time in between returning to work, compulsively striving to keep up with my reading goals, catching up with Call the Midwife, and simply living. But I’m gonna by-God post every day of January if it kills me….

Thursday:

Like 15-20 other people in this world, I buy and read jazz mags. After scanning about the 50th Smoke Sessions label ad I’ve flipped to in two months, I broke down and downloaded Heads of State’s Four in One, like many Smoke releases a gathering of old pros (two of my old faves here, Gary Bartz and Al Foster) crisply and skillfully playing mostly jazz rep with a sprinkling of originals, and new-to-me Detroit pianist / vocalist Johnny O’Neal’s In the Moment. O’Neal, too, is an old pro who can make the 88s speak several jazz dialects, and he sings a bit, too. I’d love to see him in a little bar. For the record, though neither release breaks any new ground…so what? These players feel the music, the production is smart and clean, and the performances have an immediacy that’s stirring.

Friday:

Morning: due to Nicole’s enthusiasm for the Carter Family biography Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone, I sneakily bought her (read: me) (no, really, I got it for us) JSP’s endlessly wonderful The Carter Family 1927-1932 5-disc box. We broke it out at 5:15 and listened raptly to the first two discs. Few foolish moves therein, and YES Maybelle plays driving guitar. Also, that Guthrie stole their “When the World’s on Fire” melody for “This Land is Your Land”just gives the latter even more subtext.

Later in the day, driving from job to job in “The Lab” (the ’92 red-orange Ford Ranger that serves as my high-volume listening center), I revisited two old rap faves, Dizzee Rascal and Busdriver. Rascal: I love that early grime sound and I’m a sucker for an MC with a British accent. Bus: I found myself thinking, “This is prog-rap!” an association that would normally force me to separate myself from the music but which in this MC’s case, thanks to wit and humor, passes muster, barely. I was proud of myself for coming up with that label, then remembered that Robert Christgau had, hilariously and quite accurately, compared Busdriver’s delivery to Sparks and Conlon Nancarrow, so I’d probably My-Sweet-Lorded ol’ Bob.

Speaking of, Xgau recommended the new Joey Badass release in his Expert Witness column today, so I dipped my toe in that musical pond. Badass has never moved me much, but his social commentary on All-Amerikkkan Badass was just what the doctor ordered for this dude, who today finished the highly-recommended anthology Tale of Two Americas. Here, listen to the whole thing free!

The weekend has presented itself, so I hope to leave something more coherent tomorrow.

“Rock and roll is about attitude. You don’t have to play the best guitar.”

Johnny Thunders