K-Pop Skype-Strike (March 6-7, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri)

Jonghyun

Since I began integrating pop music discussions and writing assignments into the freshman comp class I teach at Stephens College, a private women’s liberal arts school here in Columbia, I have tried to convince working music critics to visit the classroom, dollop out their wisdom, and talk about their philosophy, process, struggles, victories, and obsessions. Wednesday, Hyperallergic and SPIN reviewer Lucas Fagen valiantly Skyped into class (it was 6 a.m. his time) and, after some annoying technical delays, engaged us in a very interesting and wide-ranging discussion.

Only seven of my already small class of 11 appeared (it’s midterm week), of those who did, only two had read any of the selected Fagen essays I’d assigned–and only one of those read all the essays I’d assigned. In addition, I was flustered from the tech delays and slightly off-balance when Lucas wasn’t sure what I wanted him to tell them about his life. I switched quickly into moderator mode, and posed the first couple of questions while prompting the class to think of some of their own (we’d spent 20 class minutes last week brainstorming a long list of those, which were apparently bound away in the ether). They owe me a record review rough draft Tuesday, and the whole point of Lucas’ visit was for him to share tips.

Fortunately, by the time Lucas had clicked away back to Portland, we’d discussed preparation, record review non-negotiables, writer’s block, negative reviews, ideal writing environments, audience relations, striving to suggest (rather than state) judgments, the relevance of private lives, a bad Randy Newman record (I’d wanted to discuss Lucas’ Lil’ Uzi Vert review, but my students’ abstention from homework rendered that direction null and void), cultural context, other young writers we should read, and the impossibility of objectivity (on the part of the reviewer, but also where songwriters are concerned). I judged that be evidence of fair success, and students affirmed to me they had gained some confidence in their upcoming task. I really wish, though, that one of them hadn’t asked if Lucas were single.

Once question I was hoping some student would ask was, “Hey, what reviews are you currently working on?” As time was winding down, I wedged it in myself, and Lucas responded quickly, in a burst of enthusiasm: “I’m reviewing Jonghyun’s new album! The title isn’t great–Poet / Artist–but it’s my album of the year so far for 2018.” I expected to see uncontrollable twitching overcome the class, as K-Pop has been a frequent topic of very animated student discussion since 2015, but apparently this lot is immune to its charms.

As had I been; students having subjected me to several K-Pop videos in past classes, the genre seemed a frenetic blur of hyper-ramped, blindingly colorful, rap-n-r&b-influenced tween-tunes…ummm, do you remember that scene in High Anxiety?

That has been K-Pop’s effect on me. However, Mr. Fagen’s impassioned defense of the artist’s and the record’s merits, plus my ever-creeping suspicion that I have become a calcified old fart, forced me to promise him I would listen to the album carefully once I could cloister myself properly. I must admit, too, that the artist’s suicide late last year, apparently simultaneous with his having reached a creative pinnacle, saddened and intrigued me.

 

If you’d like to take some time, you can simulate listening to the album with me:

 

Now. If this is where K-Pop might be going, I’ll hitch a ride there. I found the young man’s singing marvelously flexible; he shifts effortlessly in and out of a wide range of moods: jubilant (“Shinin'”),  desperate (“Only One You Need”), chilled-out (“#Hashtag,” tinged with Steely Dan cool),  seductive (“Take the Dive”), and desolated (“Before Our Spring,” the deeply poignant closer). Admittedly, I’m guessing at some of these since I hear in English only, but it’s further proof of the young man’s skill that his singing’s consistently affecting beyond vocabulary’s reach. Also commendable is that the young man doesn’t over-sing. He’s in full control, floating, dropping in and out, modulating, easefully riding the album’s varied tempos and rhythms.

Poet / Artist‘s musical settings, pop/r&b-flavored, are clean, percolating, and unobtrusive, staying out of Jonghyun’s way and providing him just the right walls off of which to bounce. I’m a bit of a gestaltist–as much as I love classic singles, I’m rather helplessly an album guy, a listener after a vaster artistic whole–and, by those lights, Poet / Artist is stellar. Only what I hear as a holding-pattern filler cut (“Rewind”) would keep it from my own early-2018 Top Three; it’s certainly a Top Five for me now. At 27–not again! have they started up yet?–Jonghyun left us far too soon, but nonetheless I’m eager to explore his back catalogue, and maybe hunt down some translations (YouTube seems a good resource).

Now…if each of my seven students who were present had at least one similar breakthrough moment as a result of Mr. Fagen’s talk, I’ll forgive them that unprofessional proposition (after all, what if the parties’ genders had been reversed?).

There will, of course, be a quiz over it.

 

‘14, ‘17, ‘24, ‘31 (March 6, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I spent half my day with a group of my favorite jazz pianists. This was set in motion by the unexpected arrival from Strut Records of Sun Ra’s In Some Far Place: Roma 1977(Earth’s water supply may run out before Mister Ra’s vault does). I’d subscribed to the label’s Original Masters series in February of ’17, mostly out of interest in some curated international dance records but also because the cost of my purchase was being donated to a great social justice organization. Four records were to come my way, but the label couldn’t secure rights to the fourth, so in its stead I received this double-disc sans-Arkestra show. Hearing Sun Ra alone or with drums only (as one does here) can be a revelation: his sense of humor comes more to the fore, the path of his thinking’s a little easier to trace, and, while I prefer to hear him leading the Arkestra, it’s a fun and trippy ride across styles and eras, with the pianist occasionally switching from acoustic to electronic keyboards as the mood suits him and toggling between his own catalog and beloved standards.

As Nicole and I settled in to read in the evening, I loaded three study-friendly discs into the changer. The first was Memphis pianist Phineas Newborn Jr.’s 1956 outing, Here is Phineas. As the Ellington interpretation linked above demonstrates, the man could fly across the 88s–perhaps, as this early album occasionally reveals, too speedily for his own good. But his light, precise touch and feeling for the blues tempers that tendency; the album’s a decent way in for the beginner. (According to the expert Memphis sources I’ve consulted, his name’s pronounced FEE-nuss.)

Next up was 1959’s Thelonious Alone in San Francisco. Every night’s a great night for Monk’s music in the Overeem home, and, after the pleasantly wandering experimentalism of Sun Ra and the full-bore momentum of Newborn, this solo recording, featuring both familiar and relatively obscure originals as well as some very mischievous interpretations (like the above), was the perfect shift. Listen to this ’53 version of “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie,” from Rich, Young, and Pretty (!), then try Thelonious’ adventure navigating it, and ask yourself, “What did he hear in this tune that attracted him to it? Without the assistance of words, what does he transmute it into?”

We closed out the night with Bud Powell’s 1956 recording, Bud Plays Bird, which is one of the few releases I’ve owned in which the notes significantly enhance the music. They’re penned by old hand Ira Gitler, who examines the complicated musical and personal relationships between the titular two, shares his experience having witnesses the men play, and leads us through some very close and adept listening. Powell, while not in his earlier, frighteningly skilled and intense turn-of-the-decade form, plays exceptionally well, and is fluently augmented by George Duvivier on bass (that man’s invaded my house!) and Art Taylor on drums. A great addition to any be-bop enthusiast’s collection.

Note: The post title refers to the respective birth years of Ra, Monk, Bud, and Newborn. The earliest-born outlived them all. With the exception of Bud, whose career was damaged by the brutality of racist law enforcement in the North, these men were Southerners who came of age and worked in the shadow of Jim Crow–how might their work have shone more brilliantly without the obstacles of systematic oppression?

Short-shrift Division:

Oh, and before all that I listened to the expanded edition of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, learning to appreciate the production ideas of Martin Hannett (I hadn’t realized that the effects didn’t also emanate from Ian Curtis’ tortured soul) and the raw-and-daily-growing attack of the band on stage in ’79.

Tomorrow:

Influenced by the man pictured below, who spoke to my comp / pop music class this morning about writing record reviews, I am going to interface at length with K-Pop–specifically, Jonghyun’s POET | ARTIST. Wish me luck! Dive in with me and we can compare notes tomorrow.