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.

First Third o’ 2015 Top Twenty Albums, in Pleasure-Order:

First Third o’ 2015 Top Twenty Albums, in Pleasure-Order:
  1. Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie: December Day (Legacy) – Still picks, sings, and writes better than professionals a quarter of his age. Nails down a concept album second only in 2015 to the next item–wait, maybe it is better. I can’t remember….
  2. Kendrick Lamar: to pimp a butterfly (Aftermath) Sprawling, manic depressive, multi-masked masterpiece seems to include voices of a whole city, plus 2Pac’s (from beyond the grave). Also, offers cautious consolation to the despairing and a quiet, level warning to the rest. What we were wanting from D’Angelo on Black Messiah, in a way, but didn’t really get. Bonus: Best employment of Robert Glaspar than even on Robert Glaspar albums.
  3. Jack DeJohnette: Made in Chicago (ECM) – Never count an old jazzman out–never. Jack and Muhal Richard Abrams keep a loose lasso around reedmen Threadgill and Mitchell.
  4. Kate Tempest: Everybody Down (Big Dada) – Skeptical about poetry with music? Me, too. Very. BIG exception that proves the rule.  
  5. 79rs Gang: Fiyo on the Bayou (Sinking City) – 7th and 9th Ward NOLA Injuns join forces for one of the best Injun albums in years? Wait: there’s that many of them? YES. Also: support this label!
  6. Low-Cut Connie: Hi Honey (Ardent) – Very weird, frequently funny indie roots band powered by sly boogie piano and an odd UK/US duo who always sport at least a Hollywood loaf.
  7. The Close Readers: The Lines are Open (Austin) – New Zealand novelist-led band needs you only to do this to be hooked: click the link and follow along. “Hardcore” – Husker Du’s so loud…
    I can’t hear the engine failing
    Driving to your house
    Got a sense of trepidation/You tell me Bob Mould’s gay
    You read it in the paper
    But you say it in such a way
    Trying to cause me aggravation/I say I don’t care who he’s with
    Or if he does it upside down
    Zen Arcade’s still a gift
    it’s the record of our generation/So put on some Little Red Rooster
    Get some words from Thus Spake Zarathustra
    We’ll make another killer tape loop
    Our group is good
    Our group is strong
    Our group’s the greatest
    Group to come along/When you sat on the edge of my bed
    Leaned back against the wall
    Then you put your hand on my leg
    I said, Boy is that all?
    Boy, are you hard
    Are you really hardcore?
    Hardcore, hardcore, hardcore/Let’s put on some Minutemen
    Cos we need a change of pace
    You like Mike Watt’s laugh, George Hurley’s hair
    And D. Boon’s surprising, lovely,
    D Boon’s inviting, lovely
    D Boon’s kind, inviting face
  8. Nots: We Are Nots (Goner) – Mean-mama punks from Memphis. I do mean “punk.”
  9. Heems: Eat Pray Thug (Megaforce) – My favorite half of Das Rascist waxes a record that’s been needing to be made for 14 years.
  10. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love (Sub Pop) – They’re a bit too much of a sober, hectoring machine for me, but they give the drummer some, and does she give back.
  11. Pop Staples: Don’t Lose This (Anti-) – They didn’t. Pops’ last session, and, yes, they got some shake on his guitar.
  12. Ornette Coleman and New Vocabulary: New Vocabulary (System Dialing) – “New” means 2009, but we may not hear this certified genius again, and he’s in fine form bouncing off youngsters’ constructions, electronic and otherwise.
  13. Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night (Sony) – He’s my hero, but he’s a hustler. And this is a hustle. A very seductive one–and it ain’t no joke. Pick to click from Bizarro Ol’ Blue Eyes: “The Night We Called It A Day.”
  14. The Paranoid Style: Rock and Roll Just Can’t Recall (self-released) – If you know who Wide Right was (Buffalo’s finest!) and Sally Timms is, and you’d like to hear a great song called “Master Jack,” step right up.
  15. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom & Pop) – Clicked play gritting my teeth, came out of the last track charmed, delighted, satisfied. A smart, funny, and ebullient one from Oz.
  16. Dead Moon: Live at Satyricon (Voodoo Doughnut) – It is not fair for me to review a Record Store Day exclusive, but maybe you can still get it. It’s only a well-recorded, intense live show from 1993 from the ultimate “family values” garage rockers of all-time–who happen to be playing some reunion dates. Long live the Coles and their drummers Andrew (Dead Moon) and Kelly (The Pierced Arrows).
  17. Bob Marley & The Wailers: Easy Skankin’ in Boston, 1978 (Tuff Gong) – Do you need another live Marley record from this period, especially since the estate’s gonna release a bunch more? YES, when the times are like they are now, and when this concert opens with six intense calls to revolution that’d make 25,000 hackey sacks hit the ground and a legion of stoned frat boys turn tail.
  18. Obnox: Know America (Ever/Never) – The hardest-working man in midwestern punk rock backs up his title command with nasty noise, wry imprecations, and music that’s seldom made like this by spades. His other (other?) 2015 album, Boogalou Reed (on 12XU), is only 1/119th less excellent. Don’t fight the raver who needs you (click here)!
  19. Various Artists: Burn, Rubber City, Burn (Soul Jazz) – Akron: Future home of The Punk Rock Hall of Fame. Copies of this will be handed out at the grand opening. Yes, I know I have used the word punk several times in these descriptions–it’s deliberate and, as Roger Sterling would say about his mustache, “IT’S REAL!!!!” And it ain’t going away anytime soon.
  20. Barry Hannah: i have no idea what tradition i’m in. don’t care. (The End of All Music) – It’s not a reading from one of Hannah’s many great stories. But his ramblings on sundry topics here are definitely rock and roll.

Note: I have been very inattentive to this blog. I do work two real jobs, but I have also been suffering from a lack of inspiration and the sneaking suspicion that it’s just not possible for me to capture the essence of a record as I would like. However, for some reason, I awakened this morning ready to peck and quip. I hope you see something you’re moved to hear.