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

Kamasi

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.