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!
Short-shrift Division (courtesy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel):
Ricky Nelson, “Be-Bop Baby”
The Coasters, “Yakety Yak”
Blossom Dearie, “The Gentleman is a Dope”
Charlie Parker, “Bird of Paradise”