In the Classroom, With The Dogg, and Between the Pages (September 3-10, 2018, Columbia, Mo)

I am constantly tweaking my teaching strategies for my freshman comp/pop music class at Stephens College. Thinking about data-based questions, I stumbled upon what I thought would be a stimulating lesson plan:

1) zero them in on an artist with fresh work out, and ask them to sample the entire album;

2) ask the kids to read some new and quality reviews and/or features on the artist;

3) funnel them to some good and recent performance and video clips of the artist;

4) ask them to annotate as they explore, listen, think, and reflect;

5) convene for a kind of Socratic seminar, with the above serving as the data.

Actually, the lesson was pretty successful. Since we’re a women’s college, I thought Mitski and her new album Be the Cowboy would be an ideal subject. The young woman’s an intense singer, a talented writer and musician, and loves to mine her (justifiably, I feel) turbulent emotional life for material. Myself, I like her and her new album very much, but, honestly, that had nothing to do with my choice: I simply thought it would be reliably stimulating for my class of 18.

It was. But. A few students responded very positively and strongly to her work; a few (not necessarily the same few) skillfully used evidence and analysis to back up their opinions; most, however, found her a little much. What did that mean? All over the place musically (I was thinking that range was more a tour de force, if not more simply the artist matching setting with material, as were a couple kids; most wanted a groove). Providing too much information (for example, there is a masturbation line) and relying too much on lyrics. Not being chill enough. And–this was probably the most interesting thread of the conversation–cannily packaging herself as having a foot in pop and a foot in avant garde in order to be easily commodified, for the convenience of consumers, with Urban Outfitters. As you might be suspecting, we have a passionate anti-capitalist in the house, which I am enjoying immensely, but, while she accused the writers of the three articles I’d assigned them of “fellating” Mitski with no real supporting arguments (unfair in some ways, though none of the writers did supply any caveats or constructive criticism about her work), the student herself had a little trouble supplying specific support for her own attack. Since one of my ulterior motives was getting them to effectively substantiate their contentions–or at least start practicing same–perhaps the ensuing provided an obvious model of what to avoid. I don’t know, but I’m always surprised to find in this course that, often, women hold female artists to a very (too?) high standard. I’ll have to continue letting that phenomenon marinate.

I was very encouraged by a very quiet student’s lone contribution, though, which followed the above barrage: “You know, she’s a very young artist. Shouldn’t the fact that she’s still developing earn her some room to be messy?” (Yes.)

 

HOT TAKE: Swamp Dogg’s superbly titled Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is one of the best–and the strangest–r&b records of the year. Only The Dogg could take Auto-Tune and make something deep out of it–except that it really appears to have been Justin Vernon’s idea (why, Lord, why?), so that hurts, but I have to admit it works, and Swamp’s the show. His songs, lyrically speaking, aren’t as eccentric as usual (“Sex with Your Ex” the exception)–in fact, the covers are among the brightest highlights–but the shot of loneliness and alienation with which the much-maligned effect injects them is…a word I never thought I’d use in connection with Bon Iver…POWERFUL. Great cover art and liner notes, as one would expect.

 

Otherwise this week, I indulged in some very, very good music-related reading. Sam Anderson’s wild and wonderful Boom Town focuses on Mr. Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips as one exemplar of the spirit of his subject, Oklahoma City. I’m not a huge fan of Coyne or his group (though seeing them when they were just kids was a trip), but Anderson makes a convincing case that to understand the city and its travails and aspirations, you have to consider them. Elsewhere, a star weatherman, the OKC Thunder, and several “city visionaries” flesh out his analysis. This is one of the very best books I’ve read this year, and it’s as much about us as it is about Oklahoma City, looked at a certain way.

Playing Changes

More exclusively about music is Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century. A test any music book must pass with me is, “Does it hurt my wallet by sending me to stuff I never knew about or unfairly dismissed?” Well, technically, with Apple Music, I don’t have to fork over any green, though that’s a sad fact I’ve addressed elsewhere and don’t feel like going into here. Chinen’s book easily passes the test; as I read, I constructed a playlist from the chapters’ subjects and his extensive discography that will take me until the middle of the next decade to fully absorb. The main thing it did for me is pry me out of my stubbornly resistant attitude toward jazz that’s flavored by new-millennium r&b and hip hop. Examples: Robert Glasper, Snarky Puppy (shitty band names can hurt a group!), and Lalah Hathaway, all of whom Chinen induced me to like). He’s also great in chapters on jazz education and international influence, innovation and practice, but I pouted when I realized he would not be including Scandinavia or Portugal in the latter discussion. I am biased, but how he could skip over Joe McPhee in looking at the role of “the new mentors” in the transfer of methods and ideas to the new generation leaves me nonplussed.

 

An article about Jelly Roll Morton showed up in my feed, courtesy of (hmmm) The Wall Street Journal: “Plotting His Way Into Jazz History.” John Edward Hasse, a writer previously unknown to me, presents Morton as “jazz’s first theorist,” which I’d heard argued before, but he hooked me with this paragraph–I don’t play an instrument, so I can’t initially hear this stuff when I listen to jazz:

“…Morton took on several problems. In just over three minutes, how do you create interest and drama? In a musical style taking shape, how do you prove the full potential of jazz to integrate the planned with the spontaneous, the notated with the improvised?”

Even better is how Hasse succinctly explains Morton’s solutions (exemplified in the classic “Black Bottom Stomp”)…but read the article yourself for that. Suffice it to say that I went straight from reading the article to JSP’s great Morton box set and Wynton Marsalis’ Morton tribute, Mr. Jelly Lord, my favorite record by my favorite musical tight-ass. Why? Well, the band is effin’ cream: Don Vappie on banjo and guitar, Dr. Michael White on clarinet, Herlin Riley on drum kit, Wycliffe Gordon on ‘bone, tuba, and trumpet, and Marsalis himself as loose and playful (and masterful) as you’re gonna hear him. Did you ever wonder if Harry Connick, Jr., ever really applied on record anything he learned from James Booker? He does here, and does justice to his mentor. The selections are perfect and often surprising (“Big Lip Blues,” for example), and the arrangements, execution, and production do not embalm them. And you get lagniappe in the true NOLA fashion, with Wynton and pianist Eric Reed nailing “Tomcat Blues” via wax cylinder from the Edison Museum:

 

I swear, right now books are like heroin to me (yes, I listened to the Gun Club this week). I should count myself lucky. I also picked up John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth, which sets out to vaunt the former and puncture the latter. It’s note-perfect in doing so thus far, and has convinced me that I do too need to to read Lady Sings the Blues. I didn’t know Billie made it to film at 19, singing an Ellington song with Duke backing her and already exhibiting the mastery that would make her legendary. She begins singing at about the 4:40 mark:

Szwed also wrote the best book yet on Sun Ra. Check him out.

Short-shrift Division:

David Virelles: Mboko (WOW!!!!!!)

The Gun Club: The Fire of Love

Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (expanded edition)

George Coleman: Live at Yoshi’s

Robert Glasper: Black Radio

Lalah Hathaway (feat. Snarky Puppy), “Something” (ZOINKS!!!)

 

 

Are You Sure Outlaws Really Done It This Way? (July 3rd, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Some simple forays into the music today.

On a prestigious critical recommendation, I sampled Armadilloes & Outlaws, a new compilation surveying country’s “Roaring ’70s” and purporting (or seeming to purport) to represent the range of players involved. I am already well-versed in the stuff, but I’d heard there were surprises. There were a few good ones: a Jessie Colter tune I really dug, a new-to-me Tom T. Hall cautionary, an incandescent early version (I think–I have no notes) of “Dallas” by the Flatlanders, and Lou Ann Barton taking on an Irma Thomas classic fronting an early version of Stevie Ray’s Double Trouble. But. The rest of the solid tracks are totally predictable. The proto-outlaw Doug Sahm is unaccountably missing–his influence is too strong for him to be omitted, and there’s plenty cross-licensing power behind the collection. [CORRECTION: Sahm’s “Groover’s Paradise” (and a few others I didn’t hear yesterday, are included in the album but not available for streaming, for some reason. Those significantly upgrade the overall quality—but I still consider it an infield single, if you will.] And there is baaaaaad shit. David Allan Coe’s “I Still Sing the Old Songs” is unspeakable Confederate apologist nostalgia; the usually good for a laugh Bobby Bare and the overly vaunted Jerry Jeff Walker are avert-your-ears dated; and Michael Murphy should have just kept on ridin’ into the cosmos–out of earshot. I usually abjure the dis, but this compilation could have been leagues stronger, and more representative.

I am reading Steven L. Isoardi’s outstanding overview of the South Central Los Angeles jazz scene and social environment surrounding the too-little-known giant Horace Tapscott, The Dark Tree; the title comes from one of Tapscott’s greatest compositions. I’m only a quarter in, but today I encountered a story of a bespectacled alto saxophonist who entered Tapscott’s circle, which was filled with fearsome players, and just cut heads. Jimmy Woods was the name, and agile, speedy, inventive lines were apparently his game. I look forward to more musical discoveries from Mr. Isoardi.

Phineas’ Hour (June 2nd, 2018, Columbia, MO)

 

I’ve spent the afternoon luxuriating in the music of two brothers from Whiteville, Tennessee (and always associated with Memphis), pianist Phineas (pronounced FINE-us by his family but eventurally FIN-ee-us by the artist) Newborn Jr. and guitarist Calvin Newborn. The elder brother’s command, invention, precision, and speed on the 88s was such that critics still battle, as they’ve done with other keyboardists, over whether he was a purveyor of mere (mere?) technical facility or an artist of abiding soulfulness–the latter requiring a treacherous, possibly arrogant and presumptuous leap for the listener to make. As much as I’ve listened to music, I’m not at all convinced that I listener can accurately gauge “soul”; I mean, I can say for certain how it makes me feel, but if soulfulness exists in the musician as he plays, how would I ever know, and precisely what aspects of the recorded evidence indicates whether it did or not–and why do they? As for the younger Newborn, one has to dig a little to hear him in his exuberant youth, then in his prime, as he was usually an accompanist, and versatile and flexible enough to thrive in any setting, especially (maybe) when he was asked to play a discreet musical role. Only some thirty years after the advent of his recording career did he become a solo artist, and by then his best work may well have been past him. Suffice it all to say that he was one of jazz’s most underrated guitarists of the ’50s and ’60s.

You can think about both questions–of Phineas’ soulfulness and Calvin’s unjust obscurity–on the records I listened to today, combined on one CD by Jazz Beat Records: 1956’s Here is Phineas–The Piano Artistry of Phineas Newborn, on Atlantic, and 1958’s Fabulous Phineas, on RCA. The brothers play together on both releases (more so on the later) and furnish plenty of evidence to support my claims that the feeling, knowledge, and ideas behind Phineas’ playing = soulfulness, and that Calvin, coming out of Memphis blues and southwest jazz, was a force to be compared with the likes of Pee Wee Crayton and even (lightly, hoss) Wes Montgomery–particularly in his ability, honed through sibling battles and the oversight of their drummer father, to stick with Phineas even at his fleetest and highest.

As a bonus, enjoy the masterly rhythm sections on both, the Atlantic session featuring Kenny “Klook” Clarke and Oscar Pettiford, the RCA Denzil Best and the Newborns’ childhood friend and long-time musical cohort, George Joyner (each pairing, drums and bass, respectively).

Short-shrift Division:

I mentioned this a few pieces back, but if you love the above, you’ll want to try this very, very, very unsung set from the same basic period, as it features a mess of smokin’ Memphis players, most of him are from the Newborns’ cohort.

Up for some very entertaining and enlightening music lit you’ll have to search, then pay for?

I suggest this. (Price range on three used copies currently for sale on Amazon: $125-150–I didn’t pay half that much, so you might set your bobber out on the pond, if you know what I mean.)

IMG_2498

‘xcuse me while I plagiarize my Goodreads review:

This hard-to-find book is a classic of Memphis culture. Newborn and his brother Phineas Jr., both skilled multi-instrumentalists–the latter one of the greatest jazz pianists of the latter half of the 20th century–rise up through the Memphis’ rich musical soul, then ride a rollercoaster through regional and national tours, professional recording sessions, the Armed Forces, night life in New York and Los Angeles, and struggles with substance abuse.

Note: the book is not particularly professionally assembled. Misspellings and typos abound, a chapter number is skipped, three blank pages leave the reader in a state of mystery, the index is in alphabetical order by first letter ONLY, and the photo section is slopped together at the very end of the book. HOWEVER, it is also chock-full of great stories, the author’s mischievous wit, insights into mid-century African-American life in a very complicated city, charming candor, delightful idiosyncrasies of narrative…and the slopped-together photos are GREAT. I paid a pretty penny for a copy, and I do not regret it in the least (though I would like to know if EVERY copy has the blank pages).

Kirk Works! (May 10th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

When I seek joy, I often turn to the work of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Columbus, Ohio’s multi-instrumentalized jazz genius seemed to have direct and immediate access to the full range of human emotions (often, when he was at his best, on display on a single recording), and be reliably alive in the moment whether on stage in the studio. When an old friend who’s just getting into jazz inquired after something new (he’s been cutting his teach on Blue Note hard bop), I knew just where to turn. We were meeting for coffee, he still listens to CDs, so I decided to begin a “Great Albums Series” for him with two-on-one Kirk mix disc.

It’s not that easy to pick the best two Kirk records to start someone on his aural learning journey. Certainly, few would argue with such stellar and unique recordings as Rip, Rig, and Panic or The Inflated Tear; one could even make a fan for life from the man’s sideman sessions, like The Jaki Byard Experience (its versions of “Evidence” and “Memories of You” alone vault both leader and accompanist to jazz Valhalla) or Charles Mingus’ Oh Yeah. However, I chose the two records I turn two most: 1961’s audacious We Free Kings (Kirk a mere 26) and 1964’s sui generis flute tour de force, I Talk with the Spirits–on which he does, if spirits really do exist.

We Free Kings is both the ultimate proof Kirk’s playing of tenor sax, flute, stritch, manzello, and siren (just those on this record, and up to three at once) was mastery and sound attack, not gimmickry, and a complete display of his many strengths. To wit? A fondness for and deep knowledge of both old and new styles (here, demonstrated on the title cut, which takes the old holiday chestnut into Traneland as if that were the most logical idea in the world). A knack for catchy, penetrating, soulful original compositions (the eternal “Three for The Festival”) and daring explorations of the jazz repertoire (Bird’s “Blues for Alice”). That previously-stated ability to tap into the deepest (see the aptly named “The Haunted Melody) and the most buoyant (see “Some Kind of Love) human emotions. The ability to consistently surprise: the sudden, virtuosic shifts from one instrument to the next (check the stop-time flute passage on “Three for the Festival”!); the astonishing ability to wring profound blues out of a flute; the spirited vocal interjections at key inspired moments. That should be enough to convince, but his backing combo, especially the underrated Charlie Persip on drums, sticks with Kirk through every hairpin turn.

You may have noticed I used the word “flute” three times in the last ‘graph. I am no fan of that instrument, but in Kirk’s hands it is a magic wand–on I Talk to the Spirits, it’s all the famed multi-instrumentalist plays. You may have noticed that I called We Free Kings audacious, and it is: Kirk’s confidence, at 26, in going there in numerous ways, in JazzWorld 1961 (think about it), is astounding. However, the word might be better applied to this album. Kirk dares to keep us locked in, surprised, moved, and even rocked for the full duration of a record with only the most notoriously light of instruments. Not only that, but he bets he can make Barbara Streisand (“People,” from Funny Face) and Joyce Kilmer (“Trees”? Yes, “Trees”!) stand firm and tall next to not only his own indelible originals (try playing “Serenade to a Cuckoo” only once, then avoid a week-long earworming–I double-fuckin’-DARE ya!) but also canonical offerings from Clifford Brown, John Lewis, and Brecht-Weill. And he cleans out the house on that. Again, the backup is superb. Drummers? Rah could pick ’em: Walter Perkins is all ’bout it on a very eccentrically accented session. The piano’s manned by the estimable Horace Parlan, whose elegance anchors Kirk’s wonderfully wild ideas. There is no album like this is the annals of jazz, my friend needs it, and so do you.

Just gotta say, I love Rahsaan so much primarily because he has serious fun–he’s soulful and mischievous–and he loves both the old and new, the disposable and the essential. I strive for the same, though I don’t really have to work at it. It seems the nature of our time here, and I’ve always heard Kirk as–in a nod to my fellow jazz fiend Charles–a sensei. I’m confident you will, too.

Note: if you are able, please check out the great young filmmaker Adam Kahan’s insightful Kirk documentary, The Case of the Three-Sides Dream.

Anita: The Most (March 30, 2018, Columbia, MO)

One album I will always, always listen to is Anita Sings the Most, starring the scintillating Ms. O’Day and Oscar Peterson, who both supports her winningly and constantly challenges her (she’s more than equal–the proof’s in the pudding) throughout the 33:59 of the 1957 recording. It’s brief, but packed with radiant music.

Anita is at her sassy, mischievous, inventive, joyous best here–it’s the LP I’d recommend first to listeners dark to her genius–and it’s telling that she’s listed as co-producer with Norman Granz. She’s in control, from the song selection, tempos, and drummer, her longtime telepath, codependent, and partner in rhythm John Poole. The band is essential Peterson’s group, with Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis, frequently sounding teleported, on guitar, but Anita could always count on Poole to turn the sharp corners she made in her interpretations.

Where to start? Where else but the beginning! Anita Sings the Most explodes out of the gate with two minutes and fifty seconds of quicksilver Gershwin: “‘S Wonderful / They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” There’s something about the heart-quickening pace and instrumental magic that makes her delivery of “You can’t blame / For feelin’ amorous” even more irresistibly fetching:

And it’s not just the sheer speed that’s exciting here. You can hear Anita ache, wince, and steel herself as she feels her way through “Love Me or Leave Me” and (especially) “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”:

If you jazz diva channel only features Billie, Ella, Sarah, and Dinah, consider adding Anita to your programming. Anita Sings the Most is a sure convincer.

Short-shrift Division:

Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed–Bettye sounds forced into some selections of this all-Dylan program, and her voice at times sounds on the verge of shredding, but she nails the title song, wears “Ain’t Talkin'” like she’s Alida Valli at the end of The Third Man, and wrests “Do Right to Me, Baby” out of Dylan’s grip, and Christendom’s.

The Be-Bop Boys (March 12th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

BUDSTITTkenny_dorhmam1

A very straightforward but exciting day of listening. I was a bit overwhelmed with tutoring chores and catching up on reading, but I made time for some amazing work by the individuals pictured above: pianist Bud Powell (left), saxophonist Sonny Stitt (center), and trumpeter Kenny Dorham (trumpet).

When the average music fan with a broad but general taste thinks about unit that personify the style known as be-bop, she must first think of Charlie Parker’s units with first Dizzy Gillespie and then Miles Davis on trumpet, usually driven to their legendary heights by Max Roach on drums. And those groups produced unquestionably masterful, exciting music that you can live your whole life with and never grow tired of. But another unit, recording during the same general time period, recorded stunning and thrilling tunes of their own that, while it may not match Bird’s group’s work for emotional intensity, will stop you short with their skill and invention.

I’m talking about the Be-Bop Boys, led by Powell, Stitt, and Dorham, virtuosos and composers all, occasionally augmented by two other young greats, Fats Navarro on trumpet and Kenny Clarke on drums. Here, Powell is poised to become, with his friend Thelonious Monk, the most influential pianist of his generation; Stitt is contending furiously for Parker’s alto mantle (experts differ on who was first to the attack they share, though the mercurial nature of the latter’s playing make them easy to distinguish–to my ear at least); Dorham, perhaps more in the shade than his compatriots, plays with a control that belies his years.

Of special note are the original versions of tunes that would later become established Powell classics (“Bebop in Pastel”–> “Bouncing with Bud”; “Fool’s Fancy”–> “Wail”), as well as another that is probably this unit’s claim to lasting fame in the jazz book: “Webb City.”

But here–don’t trust me. Partake and judge for yourself with this Be-Bop Boys playlist, which includes the three tracks above and more:

ROLLINS (March 1st, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

SONNY

Sometimes you take a swallow of something you’ve enjoyed forever but just haven’t knocked back for awhile, and you think, “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, this stuff’s not only cask-strength, it’s so rich and full I think I’ll just slosh around the next sip!”

Such was my experience after unwrapping Craft Recordings’ new deluxe edition of Sonny Rollins’ 1957 album Way Out West. The record is justifiably famous for three reasons: it stands as the first jazz studio album recorded in its entirety in a bass-drums-sax format; it’s graced by a hilariously droll cover that seems like a joke but becomes a concept once you look at (and hear) the titles; and it features Rollins, not quite 27, demonstrating a jaw-dropping, self-possessed, jocular mastery of his art. I’d truly be insane to try to say anything profound about Sonny that real writers haven’t already said, but if you are either somewhat or totally unfamiliar with him, consider this: the trio format–free of a piano, guitar, or other horns–leaves a cavernous amount of space for Rollins to create in, and, for some, that responsibility would be perilous, if not disastrous; for this tenor saxophonist, however, that space gives him the opportunity to unfurl his very fecund vocabulary of sounds, all integrated into an unmistakable tone that does indeed reach out and grab one by the throat. Authority. Logic. Wit. Warmth. Audacity. Inventiveness. Grace. Depth. Just stop me–or wait, I’ll stop myself. But I’m not lying about any of those qualities.

So, OK, this is a two-LP reissue that costs a pretty penny. Is it worth it? I think so. The sound, engineered by Roy DuNann, was always stellar; my 1980s pressing is only mediocre by comparison with Craft’s remaster. You’ve heard people say about a record, “It sounds like you’re in the same room with the musicians”? Well, this recording has that same quality, and it is a true giant, on fire with deftly controlled inspiration (yeah: Rollins can be on fire and under control at the same time), whose horn bell you’re leaning into. By the way, drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Ray Brown:  definitely no slouches.

The second disk is only relatively less fluent and exciting alternate takes–very nice for Craft to put them together there–three of which are previously unreleased. The truly irresistible bait, however, are two telling snippets of dialogue, including one in which Sonny confirms what most already suspected was one of his improvisational by singing some of “I’m an Old Cowhand”‘s most piquant lines to his fellow musicians and emphasizing their importance. The cover art (photographs by the great William Claxton, also responsible for the photo at the top of my scrawl) is beautifully reproduced, and both the original liner notes and revealing new ones by Neil Tesser helpfully supplement the set. Honestly, I bought it as a birthday present to myself, and I think you can tell I am not the least disappointed.

Below is a YouTube playlist for Rollins newbies. Thing is, with Way Out West, couched between his equally great Saxophone Colossus (’56) and his daunting live trio record from the Village Vanguard (recorded later in ’57), Sonny was just getting started; his next near-sixty years would be studded with masterpieces. He is one of the last living jazz artists with a totally distinctive, instantly recognizable instrumental voice, and I emphasize the word “is”: give the man props while he’s living.