Power Up! Look Out! This Dance’s About Over!: 155 Rekkids That Have Given Me Pleasure This Year When I Really, Really Needed It!

New developments?
1) Dezron Douglas and Brandee Younger made their record on an iPad in their apartment while sheltering in place; that fact, and the gentleness of the recording have it shooting up my chart.

2) There’s some serious experimental noise coming out of Memphis–and that’s really no surprise.

3) Aesop Rock just gets better with age.

4) Could be the best improvisors in the world–the band Cortex among them–are from Norway.

5) My former student Jessica Kittle TOLD ME Kali Uchis was an artist of exploding potential.

6) AC/DC have made a strong record. Just when you thought they were done….

7) I was struck by a countryish song called “Black Like Me” I heard on a writer’s playlist three months ago and forgot to see who the artist was. So THAT’S Mickey Guyton! Very good to know!

8) The music writer Chuck Eddy is unafraid to tread confidently out on limbs. He recently did this on behalf of a group I hadn’t heard of called Hot Country Knights. The band name and album cover made me chuckle, and I sampled it purely for that reason, without asking Chuck about them. The songs? “Chuckle” isn’t a strong enough word. Hey…if you need some laughter in your life and you sometimes pine for ’90s country, you might wanna take a flyer yourself. Check out Chuck’s blog here.

9) If you know who Madlib and Karreim Riggins are, you will have to proceed directly to their “black classical music” collab project, Jahari Massamba Unit.

10) A couple historical dudes named Mingus and Hendrix are benefiting from very impressive excavations of legendary live performances they once delivered. You can benefit as well.

Living to Listen’s 100 Favorite New Releases of 2020, January 1 to November 30

(Items new to the list are bolded.)

  1. Kahil El’Zabar: America, The Beautiful
  2. Run The Jewels: RTJ 4
  3. Gil Scott-Heron and Makaya McCraven: We’re New Again–A Reimagining
  4. SAULT: Untitled (Black Is) 
  5. 79rs Gang: Expect the Unexpected
  6. Princess Nokia: Everything is Beautiful
  7. Fire! Orchestra: Actions
  8. Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger: Force Majeure
  9. Serengeti & Kenny Segal: AJAI
  10. Neptunian Maximalism: Éons (band name and album title of the year, based on music’s justification of same)
  11. Marx Lomax II: The Last Concert—Ankh & The Tree of Life
  12. Mark Lomax II: The 400 Years Suite
  13. The Third Mind: The Third Mind
  14. Jyoti: Mama You Can Bet!
  15. Hamell on Trial: The Pandemic Songs
  16. Boldy James & The Alchemist: The Price of Tea in China
  17. Roisin Murphy: Roisin Machine
  18. Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
  19. Anna Högberg Attack: lena
  20. Tee Grizzley: The Smartest
  21. Aesop Rock: Spirit World Field Guide
  22. The Good Ones: RWANDA, you should be loved
  23. Kahil El’Zabar: Spirit Groove (featuring David Murray)
  24. Bob Dylan: My Rough and Rowdy Ways
  25. Ashley McBryde: Never Will
  26. Zeal and Ardor: Wake of a Nation (EP)
  27. Princess Nokia: Everything Sucks
  28. Shabaka and The Ancestors: We Are Sent Here By History
  29. Lido Pimienta: Miss Colombia
  30. Bettye LaVette: Blackbirds
  31. Mike & The Moonpies: Touch of You–The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart
  32. Cornershop: England is a Garden
  33. Elizabeth Cook: Aftermath
  34. Body Count: Carnivore
  35. Open Mike Eagle: Anime Trauma Divorce
  36. James Brandon Lewis and Chad Taylor: Live in Willisau
  37. Cortex: Legal Tender
  38. Various Artists: Memphis Concrete Presents Sound in Geometry Series, Volume 1—On Triangles
  39. James Brandon Lewis: Molecular
  40. Charles McPherson: Jazz Dance Suites
  41. Kali Uchis: Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios)
  42. SAULT: Untitled (Rise)
  43. Various Artists: New Improvised Music from Buenos Aires
  44. The Human Hearts: Day of the Tiles (EP)
  45. Kesha: High Road
  46. DJ-Kicks / Various Artists: Mr. Scruff
  47. Little Simz: Drop 6 (EP)
  48. K. Michelle: All Monsters are Human
  49. Drakeo the Ruler & JoogSzn:Quit Rappin
  50. Joel Ross: Who Are You?
  51. KeiyaA: Forever, Ya Girl
  52. Rob Mazurek & Exploding Star Orchestra: Dimension Stardust
  53. Bobby Rush: Rawer Than Raw
  54. Hot Country Knights: The K is Silent
  56. Thiago Nassif: Mente
  57. Luke Stewart: Luke Stewart Exposure Quintet
  58. Bette Smith: The Good, The Bad, and The Bette
  59. Florian Arbenz & Greg Osby: Reflections of The Eternal Line
  60. Irreversible Entanglements: Who Sent You
  61. Carlos Nino and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: Chicago Waves
  62. Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids: Shaman!
  63. City Girls: City on Lock
  64. Moses Sumney: grae
  65. Apollo Brown & Che Noir: As God Intended
  66. Al Bilali Soudan: Tombouctou
  67. JD Allen: Toys / Die Dreaming
  68. No Age: Goons Be Gone
  69. Steve Earle: Ghosts of West Virginia
  70. Ammar 808: Global Control / Invisible Invasion
  71. Jeff Parker: Suite for Max Brown
  72. Junglepussy: Jp4
  73. Alicia Keys: ALICIA
  74. Grimes: Miss Anthropocene
  75. Dehd: Flower of Devotion
  76. Mickey Guyton: Bridges (EP)
  77. The Ridiculous Trio: The Ridiculous Trio Plays The Stooges
  78. Burna Boy: Twice as Tall
  79. Conway the Machine: From a King to a God
  80. Mr. Wrong: Create a Place
  81. Various Artists: Eyes Shut, Ears Open–A Burning Ambulance Compilation
  82. Moor Jewelry: True Opera (EP)
  83. Teodross Avery: Harlem Stories – The Music of Thelonious Monk
  84. Asher Gamedze: Dialectic Soul
  85. Optic Sink: Optic Sink
  86. Laraaji: Sun Piano
  87. Tiwa Savage: Celia
  88. Jinx Lennon: Border Schizo Fffolk Songs for the F****d
  89. Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra: If You Listen Carefully, The Music is Yours
  90. Beauty Pill: Sorry You’re Here (EP)
  91. Steve Arrington: Down to the Lowest Terms—The Soul Sessions
  92. Jahari Massamba Unit: Pardon My French
  93. Swamp Dogg: Sorry You Couldn’t Make It
  94. Julianna Barwick: Healing is a Miracle
  95. Black Thought: Streams of Thought, Vol. 3—Cane and Abel
  96. Speaker Music: Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry
  97. Lori McKenna: The Balladeer
  98. Old 97s: Twelfth
  99. Theo Parrish: Wuddaji
  100. Mars Williams: An Ayler Christmas, Volume 4

Reissues and Past Recordings Freshly Excavated

  1. Various Artists: Daora–Underground Sounds of Urban Brasil
  2. Wussy: Ghosts
  3. Various Artists: Turn Me Loose, White Man
  4. Thelonious Monk: Palo Alto
  5. Charles Mingus: @ Bremen 1964 & 1975
  6. Jimi Hendrix: Live in Maui
  7. Hallelujah Chicken Run Band: Take One
  8. Pylon: Pylon Box
  9. Various Artists: Hanging Tree Guitars
  10. Various Artists: Saint Etienne Present Songs for the Fountain Coffee Room
  11. Milford Graves & Don Pullen: The Complete Yale Concert
  12. King Ubu Orchestru: Concert at Town Hall – Binaurality Live 1989
  13. Luiz Carlos Vinhas: O Som Psicodelico De L. C. V.
  14. Oneness of Juju: African Rhythms 1970-1982
  15. Junior Byles: Beat Down Babylon (Deluxe Reissue)
  16. Various Artists: Soul Love—The Black Fire Records Story 1975-1993
  17. Sun Ra: Unity—Live at Storyville NYC October 1977
  18. Peter Stampfel and The Bottlecaps: Demo ‘84
  19. Various Artists: La Locura de Machuca—1975-1980
  20. Lee Scratch Perry with Seskain Molenga and Kalo Kawongolo: Roots from the Congo (reissue)
  21. Victor Chukwu: Akalaka / The Power
  22. Dennis Gonzalez: Forever the Falling Stars
  23. The Heshoo Beshoo Group: Armitage Road
  24. Various Artists: Strum and Thrum—The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987
  25. Hiroshi Yoshimura: Green
  26. Milton Nascimento: Maria Maria (reissue)
  27. Jon Hassell: Vernal Equinox (reissue)
  28. The Awakening: Hear, Sense, and Feel
  29. Bessie Jones: Get in Union
  30. Tony Allen: No Accommodation for Lagos
  31. Black Unity Trio: Al-Fatihah
  32. Various Artists: All Aboard! The CN Express—Rock Steady and Boss Reggae Sounds 1967-1968
  33. The Pogues: BBC Sessions 1984-85
  34. Ranil: Stay Safe and Sound!
  35. Various Artists: Love Saves the Day—A History of American Dance Music Culture 1970-1979
  36. TEST: TEST and Roy Campbell, Jr.
  37. Joe McPhee: Black is The Color
  38. Various Artists: Look Out! The San Diego Scene 1958-1973
  39. Various Artists: Stone Crush—Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987
  40. Walter Bishop Jr.: Coral Keys
  41. Observer All Stars & King Tubby: Dubbing with the Observer (reissue)
  42. Roky Erickson / 13th Floor Elevators: You and Me and I (Live)
  43. Bryan Ferry: Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 1974
  44. Fela Kuti: Perambulator
  45. No Trend: Too Many Humans/Teen Love (reissue)
  46. Pharoah Sanders: Live in Paris 1975
  47. Nina Simone: Fodder on My Wings
  48. Yabby You & The Aggrovators: King Tubby’s Prophecies of Dub (reissue)
  49. Various Artists: Léve Léve – Sao Tomé & Principe Sounds ‘70s-‘80s
  50. Various Artists: Soul Jazz Records Presents Black Riot—Early Jungle, Rave, and Hardcore
  51. Lee Scratch Perry: Play On, Mr. Music
  52. Various Artists: Maghreb K7 Club–Synth Rai, Chaoui & Staifi (1985-1997)
  53. Brother Theotis Taylor
  54. Black Ark Players: Black Ark In Dub
  55. Prince: Sign O’ The Times (Deluxe Edition)
  56. The Replacements: Pleased to Meet Me (Deluxe Edition)

The Phuncky Feel One (May 11th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Anytime I get out Cypress Hill’s debut album, I can’t get beyond the first four tracks. Why? Because I just repeat-play those for about a week. I’m sure you will think of others, but no rap album I know opens so strong and so deep. Absolutely classic early Muggs production, unfortunately still spot-on bloody-slice-of-hood-life lyrics (“Being the hunted one is no fun!”), defiant MCing courtesy of B-Real–plus the “Pigs” / “How I Could Just Kill a Man” / “Hand on the Pump” / “Hole in Your Head” sequence is ridiculously catchy and pithy. The rest of the album is fine, but in contrast it might as well be filler. I’m still re-running them this morning–third time, after five times yesterday!

But, what I’m writing to report are two personal memories the record conjures. As a 30-year-old teacher in Missouri, I had few friends who were hip hop fiends. Really, two: my wife Nicole and my buddy and groomsman Mark, who out of the blue could bust multiple bars from Cypress Hill with pinpoint accuracy and attitude. At the time, immediately after he’d explode into MC mode and expostulate, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I think he probably wanted me to kick in a few bars myself, but a) my memory and articulation weren’t as precise, and b) where Mark had command and rhythm (by the way, did I mention how addictive the accents are on this album?), I “rapped” the way you would imagine a Kansas-farm-rooted white boy might–um, uncertainly. What I did feel like doing was clapping and nodding my approval at Mark’s performance, which seemed a paltry thing in the face of his enthusiasm, commitment, and interpretive skills. Bottom line: 26 years later, I remember his eruptions very fondly.

The other memory is of a moment in the classroom. The school I taught at housed students even a fan like me would have a hard time scooping when it came to the freshest hip hop. Actually, most of the time, I was the student: Spice-1, Brother Lynch Hung, X-Clan, and MC Eiht are just a few acts about whom I specifically remember receiving wisdom. However, shortly after Cypress Hill was released and had become heavily-rotated in our home, I found myself teaching a young man who is still in my pantheon of most enjoyable, intelligent and enriching students I ever shared space with for 180 50-minute classes (that’s 1/6th of a teacher year). “Dice” was damn-near a man at 15: over six feet tall, with an athlete’s build, both an easy, good-humored manner that made him friends and a subtle edge that probably gave most strangers pause, and a mature sense of humor and world view. These gifts were not enough to keep him out of trouble–in fact, they (and the fact he was black, more than occasionally) could land him there. In my class, however, he was a star. He was always on top of our class reading, and he had a talent for being able to voice controversial opinions passionately without creating an apoplectic state among his less-enlightened peers. He was also incredibly receptive; when we read Shane (yeah, it was a novel first!), I figured he might tune out, since he had no obvious ways in. Quite to the contrary: he was engaged in the book beginning to end and simply adapted it to the truths of his world. A damn pleasure to teach–and he knew his hip hop!

One day, just wanting to give something back to him, I cautiously asked him if he’d heard Cypress Hill, expecting to be gently ridiculed.

“Naw! Who’s that?”

The next day, I slipped him a dub of it on cassette, and he returned the following day with this report:

“Mr. O, that shit is wild! They’re on the real, and they’re bilingual! Thanks!”

As much an obsessive as I am, you’d think I’d have had many moments like this in my educator guise, but no, not really–especially where rap is concerned. I will always treasure that moment when I enlightened the student who was consistently enlightening the teacher.

When my Cypress Hill jones kicks in, it always brings memories of Mark and Dice, two of the most impressive men I’ve known. I just hope one day I play it and the problems at the center of “Pigs” and “How I Could Just Kill a Man” are things of the past.

Short-shrift Division:

William Faulkner Reads from His Works (The Sound and The Fury and Light in August)–I always thought he’d sound taller and deeper-chested! Still, I always wondered how you’d read this stuff aloud, and he delivers it with, what else, “an inexhaustible voice.”

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady–Swirling, turbulent jazz on the cusp of madness. Plus, ain’t this the second time I’ve written about it in ’18?

Peter Brotzmann and Fred Lonberg-Holm: Ouroboros–Another second-time subject, and…it’s confirmed…a 21st century free jazz masterpiece.

Jamila Woods: HEAVN–If you missed this poignant poet and gentle singer’s 2016 classic, hey, plenty of American recorded music isn’t disposable. There’s still time for you to be enlightened, inspired, and bewitched by one of Chicago’s finest.

Pianistics (February 28th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Two months into this listening diary project, I have finally realized what my friends and wife have known for quite awhile: these days, I’m spinning jazz more than any other genre.

Why? I’m not entirely sure, but I’d guess its variety of movement and rhythms and its continual struggle to balance freedom and order suit my bodily needs (nothing else feels as good and surprising) and mental habits (jazz’s musical struggle is my teaching struggle). Also, as much as I also read, maybe words get in my way–though I have been known to mow down hundreds of pages with ’65-’66 Dylan cranked to “7.” Also, as a listener, I have gradually evolved to meet the challenge of jazz that’s more (or totally) freely improvised. I’ve always been interested in it, but now I can listen to more daunting works (say, Cecil Taylor’s Winged Serpent / Sliding Quadrants) with as much ease as I would a Flamingos comp. I’m not bragging, but it’s brought me quite a bit of unexpected pleasure, and more and more it matches my better understanding of the world as I age. But…yo…I am not abandoning other music worlds, not by a long-shot. It’s just that I don’t think this is a phase.

Anyway, I was bewitched yesterday by two great recordings of jazz piano that I’d never heard before, picked up in trade for about 30 used CDs–a bargain. Sonny Clark’s The 1960 Time Sessions with George Duvivier and Max Roach is a dancing, blues-soaked look into some of the ill-fated pianist’s lesser-known non-Blue Note work, with interesting, more considered versions of Clark classics like “Nica”–and all the alternate takes on a separate disc (thanks, Tompkins Square!). Also, his supporting musicians could hardly be in better form, or better equipped to propel his compositions.

John Lewis I have known mostly through Modern Jazz Quartet records, but his two valedictory Evolution records are so powerful I couldn’t pass up a crate-dug used copy that ended up being in mint condition. Lewis’ playing on Improvised Meditations and Excursions (a more concise and eloquent description than I can muster) is quite a bit different than Clark’s–I don’t really have the pianistic vocabulary other than to say the former’s European interests seem to add a stateliness to his sound–but, in particular, his recasting of Bird’s “Now’s the Time,” which leads off, is very inventive. Side A features Lewis originals, Side B’s Tin Pan Alley takes. Duvivier’s on bass on this album, too, beside MJQ drummer Connie Kay.

Short-shrift Division:

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady–One of my all-time favorite records, I found a vinyl copy of it, too (a 2015 reissue), and was knocked out by its swirling, vaguely threatening (why? hmmmm) power. I always hear something different that reaches out and grabs me; last night, it was Quentin Jackson’s trombone explosions that most certainly must have pleased Bubber Miley’s soul. Every American home should have this record.

Good to My Earhole, January 10-16: Wailin’ in the New Year with Jazz


In response to the strong showing of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, a three-CD jazz expression of what might be companion sentiments to Kendrick Lamar’s to pimp a butterfly, a bit of controversy has emerged among music wags regarding whether a) Washington’s project deserves the rankings it’s getting, and b) he really ranks as a jazzman. Rather than be a curmudgeonly old fart shooting my mouth off after a listen and a half, I decided to give it two-and-a-half more listens–it takes up an afternoon, folks–sandwiching each disk between past jazz projects that have similarities with the project’s design. Obviously, it’s sprawling; its inclusion of human voices (sometimes in light chorus) and Washington’s touching at the edges of a Pharoah Sanders-like cry signal that it might be about the endless incidents of black men being shot dead in the street; its cast of players (and Washington’s appearance on to pimp a butterfly) (and its ground zero being Central L. A., long an influential cultural nexus of black America and the classroom turf of Horace Tapscott) could indicate that the record is a statement about community. Here are the records I used in my listening experiments, and my thoughts, for what they are worth (scores given from the ear-brain-gut obstacle course out of 10):

The Sonny Criss Orchestra/SONNY’S DREAM – BIRTH OF THE NEW COOL – 10 – Truly, one of the most underrated records of the late ’60s. Great blowing by alto man Criss, driving and inventive arrangements and compositions by Horace Tapscott (see above, and note subtitle), and some interesting nonverbal social commentary, the most striking in solidarity with Native Americans. Should be a part of every jazz aficionado’s collection.

Booker Ervin/BOOKER ‘N’ BRASS – 9.5 – I have been binge-listening to Denison, Texas’ finest tenor saxophonist this week, and, of the six records or so of his I’ve played (a couple multiple times), this has been the shining star. Nuthin’ fancy: Ervin in front of a powerful orchestra, wailing away on pieces like “Harlem Nocturne” and “Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)?” Those selections might not fill you with excitement, but if you want to understand the term “Texas tenor” you’ll want to seek it out. Booker stepped on a rainbow far too soon at 39 years.

Dexter Gordon/MORE THAN YOU KNOW – 9.1 – Like THE EPIC, this album not ineffectively bolsters its star with strings, orchestrations, and occasional vocals. Unlike THE EPIC, the star is consistently inventing, in a wry, knowing, allusive flow of notes that could only emanate from Long Tall Dexter. Also, it’s clear HE’S the show, though I suppose Washington may have intended to be more of a team player on his record.

Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy/CORNELL ’64 – 10 – If you haven’t heard this amazing but oh-so-short-lived band at length, and you like powerful music, sorry–you may not have fully lived. Tenor isn’t the show, though Clifford Jordan plays fine: it’s Dolphy’s scintillating tripartite inventions on alto, bass clarinet, and flute, Jaki Byard’s shape-shifting piano (which kicks things off with the rollicking “ATFW”–that’s short for “Art Tatum Fats Waller”), the leader’s muscular bass, inspiring, funny, and exciting vocal encouragements–the recording is very intimate, but the playing and exhorting are explosive–and the repertoire, a mix of addictive Mingus compositions the band had become deeply invested in, nods to Ellington/Strayhorn and Waller, and a post-St. Pat’s “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” (a March 18th show). To have been there. This band was ALIVE on stage.

David Murray/SOUTH OF THE BORDER – 9 – Just prior to hitting middle-age, I overdosed so much on Murray’s great run of mid-’80s-to-early-’90s recordings that I eventually had to wean myself off of them and regard them as fine wine for special occasions. Complicating that is his habit–slowed a bit recently–of churning out pretty powerful and often conceptually different records at a dizzying pace. This 1995 recording features the tenor giant surrounded by a large orchestra of the last quarter-century’s greatest players, conducted by the late great Butch Morris to put a Latin/Spanish tinge on covers like Sonny Rollins’ “St Thomas,” future standard repertoire (I’m betting) like Wayne Francis’ “Calle Estrella,” and Murray’s on durable, flexible “Flowers for Albert.” One to turn up. LOUD.

Hannibal Peterson/CHILDREN OF THE FIRE – 10 – Like Washington’s record (in part), Peterson’s suite is a response to violence and an attempt at reconciliation–in this case, the children who became collateral damage of the war in Vietnam. One of jazz’s greatest statements about that time, criminally underrecognized, and really, really, really good. Peterson’s on trumpet, Richard Davis is on bass, David Amram’s the arranger, and poetry and voices deepen rather than distract from the message. For more on Vietnam from jazz musicians, look into the work of Billy Bang and Leroy Jenkins.

Pharoah Sanders/TAUHID – 8.8 – Washington’s playing recalls Sanders, though Kamasi doesn’t quite ever enter the all-out scream zone that is/was (?) Pharoah’s domain. On this late ’60s recording, Sanders had something similar to say, and a secret weapon on guitar named Sonny Sharrock to help me get it across. Sharrock’s wellings and wailings at the record’s opening make it all worth it.

Kamasi Washington/THE EPIC – 8.3 – That’s a high score for three discs’ worth of studio recordings of tenor-driven “Compton jazz” with occasional vocals and chorale. Kamasi needs to figure out a more distinct and consistently inventive way to say what’s on his mind (something damned important), but some hard r&b in the middle of disc two and bassist Thundercat’s submarine pulse have gotten me through three full listenings without pain. I will return to it.