So Long, Cecil (April 6th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

taylor_cecil

The great pianist Cecil Taylor passed away on Thursday, April 5, at age 89. I devoted the next day to listening to his music. Taylor, sometimes confronted with pointed questions about his musical aims, once pointed out that he was creating a language; I’d advise newcomers, rightly curious about his work in the wake of his death, think of it that way as they get started. They could also think of the grandeur of the ocean waves, if they’ve ever stood on a coast–a Taylor composition can capture their roaring power, their whispering delicacy, their dynamic regularity. A drum solo by a master like Andrew Cyrille or Milford Graves; a surge of choreographed motion by a master like Martha Graham or Mikhail Baryshnikov, suggestive of nothing but freedom; a clot of lines following a polygraph pattern, penned by a master like Allen Ginsberg or Nikki Giovanni–it might behoove the first-time listener to think of Taylor’s pianistics as if they’re from a different physical source of art.

Or maybe they need to just to say to themselves: “Prepare for something you’ve never heard before. Prepare to surrender your attention fully. Prepare to hear a new language that might quicken your heartbeat.”

I chose three of my favorite Taylor records to surrender to yesterday. The first was 1966’s Unit Structures, featuring a septet that included his longtime musical partner, Jimmy Lyons, on alto, and Cyrille on drums:

The second was a 1974 solo recital at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland–the first Taylor record I ever bought and ever heard. I can say truthfully, though I’d read his work was challenging, that it made sense to me. I could hear dancing, drumming, call and response, dark ruminations and joyous exhortations, whispers from the past–in short, Africa. What do you hear?

I closed out the afternoon with 1988’s Alms / Tiergarten (Spree), recorded in Berlin during a month-long celebration of Taylor’s music in which he was given a free hand, an excellent instrument, and the service of a wrecking crew of improvisatory musicians. Surely it was one of the most rewarding episodes in Taylor’s life, and, across 11 discs, he responds with an outpouring of music in multiple settings. This one’s comprised of two compositions, each about an hour long, played by 13 musicians, including such luminaries as Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, William Parker, Harold Stanko, and Peter Kowald. It’s a must for admirers of Coltrane’s Ascension, I think, and it is indeed challenging–but invigorating!

SORRY! No YouTube track available–if everybody doesn’t want it, nobody gets it!

Please read Ben Ratliff’s obituary for Taylor, published in The New York Times. It’s very true, and also a good way for the beginner to start out with a firm handle on a man who resisted many attempts to reduce him, personally and artistically, on an innovator who took even fellow innovators aback but never faltered.

Short-shrift Division:

You’re sunk when you’re considered in the shadow of Cecil Taylor’s work, but Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, just released, if not as wholly undeniable as her singles or personal appearances, is pretty entertaining. I do think, over the course of an entire record, that her rapping is revealed as still a work in progress.

I also sampled the equally new record by the great Ghanaian bandleader, composer, and instrumentalist Ebo Taylor, previously vaunted on this site. It’s called Yen Ara, and it’s a joy. Here’s a taste:

 

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

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?”