As They Used to Sing (June 13th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

I spent the day with some of my favorite noise. Why not?

I love Bob Wills and the Playboys anyway they can be served, but the loose virtuosity, astounding range of repertoire, joyous swing, and infectious camaraderie of their Tiffany Transcriptions of 1946 and 1947 are their recorded apex. Wills is full of mischief, guitarist Junior Barnard is helping invent rock and roll, Millard Kelso is romping on the 88s, and Tommy Duncan? At the peak of his everyman world-weariness and experienced ease. The band recorded these tracks after having come off the road, and it’s quite possible the resulting delirium and collapsed defenses are the secret ingredients. Volume 2 features the band’s biggest tines and, along with the bluesier Volume 3, are the ones to check out.

I know of few sounds wilder and more thrilling than Sidney Bechet’s soprano sax playing, and today I dipped into Storyville’s The King Jazz Records Story, which covers a series of New Orleans jazz sessions recorded between 1945 and 1947. King Jazz was a label booted up by Jewish “voluntary Negro” Mezz Mezzrow, of Really The Blues fame. Mezzrow partly intended the label to show off his clarinet playing, but not only does Bechet’s intense genius overshadow it, but Sammy Price’s expert boogie woogie occasional steals both of their thunder (he also excelled teamed with Sister Rosetta Tharpe). A great opportunity to hear top-rate New Orleans swing across five inexpensive discs, with Mezz frequently supplying characteristic commentary.

I know of no easier way to aural bliss than to engage with Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages, the “chainsaw jazz” guitarist’s final album before his unjust early demise at the hands of a heart attack. Sharrock often commented that he aspired to play Coltrane on a six-string, and here those aspirations are reached; Trane-mates Elvin Jones and Pharoah Sanders are on hand to help. One thing I love about this album is its very memorable and grand themes are both supported and sparred with by pulse-quickening free spasms by Sharrock and Sanders, especially on the back-to-back classics “As We Used to Sing” and “Many Mansions.” Cathartic, lyrical, romantic, and proud, the record covers a mile of emotional ground. I will die owning this CD. (By the way, I played it today because I received a remastered edition made available by Bill Laswell. It’s indeed an improvement, especially in the definition of Jones’ drums.

Short-shrift Division:

I cannot quit playing this album–four times in two weeks now –and its excellence forced me to abandon Apple Music and buy the damn thing. Great notes by reggae expert Randall Grass, too.

Good to My Earhole, January 30-February 4: Life’s Too Short

HIGHLIGHTS OF THIS WEEK’S LISTENING, RANKED ON A 10-POINT SCALE TO WHICH ‪#‎GreilMarcus‬ MIGHT OBJECT IF HE LISTENED TO JAZZ:

HAPPY #MARDIGRAS SEASON, MUSIC LOVERS!

A message from #ProfessorLonghair–watch those fingers when they hit the keys!

Now–on to the featured selections:

Rahsaan Roland Kirk/THE INFLATED TEAR – 8.8 – The album title refers to his tragic childhood sight-loss. The tunes might be today’s soundtrack–the man could always speak clearly and directly, without words.

Jason Moran/BLACK STARS – 10 – Perfect ‪#‎BlackHistoryMonth‬ entry: best jazz album issued this millennium on a major label (did I stutter?), what with Byardesque young turk Moran spreading modes of joy via sprightly keyboard runs and then-78-year-old-now-passed-on Sam Rivers running hot and lyrical by his side on tenor, soprano, and flute (and even piano). Sam, you are missed on this turf. Jason…you’re due.

Odean Pope/ODEAN’S LIST – 9 – Many years have passed since I last heard Philly’s answer to Chicago’s Von Freeman (in the “eccentric soul” tenor sax sweepstakes). Careless on my part. 71 at the time, he surrounded himself on this session with some relatively young studs (Stafford, Watts, Blanding–and a guy named ‪#‎JamesCarter‬ on three rowdy tracks) and knocked out robust takes on nine originals and a standard. Each record like this makes me feel more guilty about my laziness in keeping up with the old guard–jazz is a different elder’s game, and records like this are great motivation for waking up tomorrow with a mission.

Benny Spellman/FORTUNE TELLER – 8.3 – Bought it knowing who’d be on the sessions, and guessing more joy awaited beyond “Fortune Teller” and “Lipstick Traces.” For the benighted, Spellman’s the deep voice who intones the title line of Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law.” There’s some filler, but there’s also “Life is Too Short” (Oaktown, can you hear him?), “The Word Game” (doesn’t QUITE beat “The Name Game”), and “10-4 Calling All Cars” (a weird song to sing from the heart of ‪#‎NOLA‬).

Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys/LET’S PLAY, BOYS – 9 – Junior Barnard and Tommy Duncan missing, dumb title, haven’t we heard enough ’40s swing transcriptions? NO. The band’s sprightlier than on the Tiffanys (I had difficulty typing that), and with three Wills brothers in tow and a Shamblin/Moore/Remington attack on electrified strings, it’s just marginally different enough for the Western swing fan to HAVE TO order it from the Oklahoma Historical Society. Plus, the eternally underrated “LX” Breshears on swinging trumpet.

CAVEAT EMPTOR!

DUD ALERT (5.0 at best): Robbie Fulks & The Mekons’ JURA and The I Don’t Cares’ (Paul Westerberg w/Juliana Hatfield in very intermittent geisha mode) WILD (make that MILD) STAB (exactly what it is).

Only Poem I’ve Written in the Last 15 Years…

…and it’s no surprise it’s about Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. This comes from maybe 6-7 years ago. I was teaching seniors at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri, and trying to persuade them to shoot high in preparing for our class poetry slam. Nothing was seeming to work (strategies, videos, models, exercises, live readings), and, mildly crestfallen at my failure, I was surfing YouTube when I came to this video:

As usual, contact with Wills’ music banished the blues, then it occurred to me, “Hey, I’ll write my own poem for the slam, and surreptitiously introduce them to one of my all-time idols. If you know anything about The Youth of the ‘Oughts, you know any hope of them welcoming music like Western Swing with open arms was going to be dashed on the rocks. Still, I plunged blindly ahead. Here are the results, and after almost a decade, I guess I like them, because I am posting it:

“Texas Playboy”

After class one day,

Kid asks me about Howlin’ Wolf.

I submerge into pure joy for ten minutes

Channeling some Delta griot’s ghost that

Mastered me when I was the kid’s age.

When I surface, flushed but conscious,

The kid gapes at me with worried eyes.

Stutters, “So who’s your favorite?”

Speechless, I lie.

“That’s a parlor game, kid, shows

Free enterprise won’t even let you

Think about art without having to

Declare a winner. Good Lord.”

Kid shrugs, looks at his shoes.

“What a dick,” he thinks.

 

Fact is, I know all about such games.

Play them myself all the time.

Playing one now.

Have a favorite.

Looking at him now

On You Tube,

This portal for dead musicians

And hoarded cathode memories.

He is fat,

His belt sitting atop his navel

like a rough uncle.

Blatant toup wraps a head

Split by cophragous grin.

Squat, he struts the stage

Like a doctored chicken

In white cowboy boots.

White.

His axe?

A fiddle.

He is everything I know

Of cool.

 

This explains the lie, kid.

 

Old black and white short

From the Forties.

Crowded by a sextet,

Crouching as if to make,

He points fiddle bow at pianist,

And looses two euphoric syllables:

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh-ha!”

Bouncing saloon tinkles

Trigger steel

Trigger guit

Trigger trumpet

Trigger drums

Trigger fiddles.

Swing emerges,

Magic, ecumenical,

Impossibly joyous.

 

Wine tasters raise my hackles.

But permit me this:

If you could drink this sound

You would taste

Africa

Germany

Scotland

Our own maligned Texas.

 

Two choruses in,

He whirls and stabs bow

at the other fiddler.

“Ahhhhhhhhh, Joe D.”

By tune’s end,

All have shone.

 

Foreground:

Couples shelve grievances,

Embrance and spin,

Imagine, believe in,

Harmony.

 

He takes it home,

Raises fiddle to chin,

Graces band with a

Smiling, peripheral gaze.

 

So, kid—Bob Wills.

In my fantasy, I both

Point the bow

And wait my turn.

It flowed out if me in about 15 minutes, then I took about an hour to hammer at it. I read it to the kids the next day–of course, I showed the above video, and had to do a verbal version of footnotes, but they did not throw anything at me. And…every student wrote a poem and participated. The class elected its own judges, and I held myself out from the competition, obviously, but guess what won?

A poem that read like the lyrics to an Usher song, but, as its punchline revealed, was about washing and waxing…a car.

You can’t win ’em all. Or maybe you can.