Today’s jazz does have a reputation, to a great extent deserved, for being a bit too serious too much of the time. Yesterday, I was reminded of how wonderfully playful the great St. Louis and AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie could be–and he regularly was. Often donning a lab coat on stage, Bowie was not only a scientist investigating the roots and structure of jazz, but also a surgeon who delighted in taking a mischievous scalpel to the genre’s corpus. The genre could currently use someone who extends Bowie’s acumen for aural amusement of the anarchic variety.
On 1974’s Fast Last (listen to the whole delightful album above), several greatly varied warhorses find themselves operated on–sometimes resulting in what one might call anatomical rearrangement. Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” sounds not all that unhappy about that state of being. “Hello, Dolly!” would seem to be a great risk–how much more jubilant and radiant could one play it compared to Louis Armstrong, one of Bowie’s idols? Turns out if you slap a warhorse on the right flank it might have more get-up-and-go than any listener would have a right to expect. “F-Troop Rides Again”? Well, maybe not–if you think about the subject matter of the associated television series, you can hear Bowie and drummer Bobo Shaw roll the patient out of the hospital and onto a minefield. Besides Shaw, Bowie is abetted on this recording by Lincoln University products (that’s complicated, kind of) Julius Hemphill on alto and John Hicks on piano, as well as his brother and Black Artist Group stalwart (with Shaw) Joseph on trombone. Do not try to read or iron or something like that while this record’s on–it demands, and deserves, your full attention, and you will laugh as you’re surprised by its sounds.
Another great album that will remind the listener how much a sense of humor can add to her enjoyment of a jazz performance is Bowie’s 1975 Rope-a-Dope, with brother Joe and Shaw back on the scene along with Lester’s fellow Art Ensemble of Chicago mates Malachi Favors (bass) and Don Moye (percussion). Their group’s assault / embrace of “St. Louis Blues” is worth the price of admission. By the way, both of these albums are officially out of print but can be picked up as a twofer used as American Gumbo. I enjoyed my listening experience so much I picked up the only available copy on Discogs in between my last surge of keyboard pecks.
Again, I had a very busy day reading, hanging out, watching movies, and welcoming back one of our outdoor cats who’d been on a walkabout–little time to listen. BUT I was able to bend a long-promised ear more intently to the wonderful, exploratory jazz of Ms. Nicole Mitchell, former president of the AACM, current professor of music at the University of California-Irvine, and jazz flautist and composer deluxe.
I’d listened to her Mandorla Awakening II–Emerging Worlds several times last year, and her interstellar settings (very much in the path of the great Sun Ra), magnanimity (there’s always as much space for her collaborators as she makes for herself–often more), feeling for poetry (both literal and figurative), and her activism (explicit or not, her work is always addressing the struggle) consistently hit me hard in the solar plexus.
Yesterday, for the first time, I took in her Intergalactic Beings album, and this cut stuck with me for most of the day:
I was also dazzled by both Mitchell’s playing, composition and band leading and (the great jazz bassist) Alan Silva’s artistic contributions to this video from Mandorla Awakening II:
At the end of 2015, I listed Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago as the album I considered the very best of that year. I believed it, yet at times I have wondered if my biases toward older artists, toward free jazz, and toward historic occasions had too much to do with my choice. Yesterday, I broke out the album for some deep listening in The Lab (my truck’s cab), and can confirm that the music therein was easily worthy of that top ranking. I’ve listened to it several times in the past two years, but it had been awhile, and distance has a way of clearing away the fog of prejudice.
Made in Chicago is more a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Windy City’s legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) than it is a DeJohnette album, though the on-stage drummer’s leadership is clear throughout: on piano, the late Muhal Richard Abrams (ship’s captain and co-founder of AACM); on alto saxophone, bass flute, bass recorder, Henry Threadgill (playing more horn, and playing more scintillatingly, than he has in years); on soprano and alto saxophones, wooden flute, Roscoe Mitchell); and on double bass, violoncello, Larry Gray. Those jazz fans who have a passing knowledge of the work produced by the AACM over the past half-century might expect this live show, part composed and part improvised, to be difficult, cacophonous, and/or cerebral (at the cost of its emotional impact). To the contrary: the five performances–especially the opening three–are a treat for the ears, directly evoking a wide range of conscious states (meditation, serenity, trance, wakefulness, joy), progressing–thanks to these wise septuagenarians’ expert ears and quick minds–with exceptional coherence and logic, and communicating great depth of feeling. Abrams and Threadgill in particular are in great form, the former often playing hypnotic, repetitive figures that bring to mind birdcalls or early morning rain-patter, the latter letting loose a dazzling variety of breath-length vocalizations. Maybe my favorite music of the entire set is the laughter and delight the men share at the end of each piece: considering they have proven to be musicians with exceptionally high artistic and intellectual standards, their happiness with their work confirms for me that I am hearing something grand. Also, you’ll seldom hear such an impassioned reaction to this kind of music by a live audience.
Verdict: yes, this is a great record. If you’ve heard of the AACM and want to dip a toe in its broad and deep expanse, this is a wonderful point of entry.
Recently, I admitted that, if forced into a choice, I’d take Dion over Elvis. Perhaps this declaration is a bit less controversial, but I’d also argue that the greatest non-melanated American rock and roll singer of all-freakin’-time is none other than Austin, Texas’ own Roky Erickson. I don’t have to be nudged too firmly on any day of the week to put on an Erickson platter, from the ground-breaking psychedelic garage rock of his mid-Sixties units The Spades and The 13th Floor Elevators to his post-acid / schizophrenic-breakdown, post-prison-stint solo work in the early Eighties, a period I chose to visit yesterday. The Evil One, originally issued in 1981 on 415 Records and nicely reissued by Light in the Attic in 2013, is, simply put, a landmark of the decade, with at least 10 of its 15 songs being among the best 20 Erickson ever wrote (present are “Two Headed Dog,” “Stand for the Fire Demon,” “The Night of the Vampire,” “Creature with The Atom Brain,” “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer,” and one of his rare Buddy Holly-styled yearners “If You Have Ghosts”), and featuring some of the most transported yowling ever recorded. In the best Roky howls, you can hear a whirring bandsaw blade’s edge, as well as an aching vulnerability hidden deep in his keening Texas twang, and his guitar could and did rhyme with all of that. The lyrics? Best not thought about too deeply, but in today’s political and social environment, Erickson two-headed dogs, demons, zombies, vampires, ghosts, and atom-brained creatures might just take on new meaning for folks just getting their feet wet. The thing is, as late-night sci-fi-corny as his scenarios can be, the best of them can’t conceal and don’t distract from the excitement, inspiration, and depth of feeling Roky invests in his singing. If you love Little Richard, I don’t see any reason why you won’t, don’t, or shouldn’t like Erickson. They’re both uniquely mad, they’re both still breathing, and, while Richard may have gotten his fair share of acclaim, we need to break Roky out of the cult ghetto before it’s too late. Recommendations: very obviously this record, Don’t Slander Me (from 1985), and the career-summing two-disc comp I Have Always Been Here Before, released by Shout! Factory, now out of print but certainly worth the hunt and obtainable at a reasonable price.
Dedicated to my friend Dave Gatliff: An YouTube playlist that should serve as a decent introduction to Roky’s work!
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?”