Yesterday, I mostly played out an intensely pleasant Sonny Rollins hangover and caught up with some music I’d be hearing about but not hearing. And Marvel put some more flava in my ear, though I’d originally tasted it a while back.
Joe McPhee: In Finland (I’m a McPh(r)ee(k), and he’s at his finest–as are Matthew Shipp and Dominic Duval–in this live trio recording, where he engages in some witty inside quotations. Curious? Here’s an Apple Music playlist, since YouTube isn’t helpful.)
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.
I have been quiet here for a while–but I have been listening diligently, and that diligence has been quite pleasurable. To wit, three aural adventures:
“Mr. O, What’s ‘The Golden Age’ of Rap?'”
This was a question posed to me by a couple of my young Science Olympiad competitors after, as is my year-end ritual, I offered to custom-assemble an MP3 disk of music for each student on the team. Counting graduates who returned for our celebratory banquet, I knocked out 22 disks, but the one that was the most fun to put together was the one that answered that query. My definition of rap’s Golden Age is loose (1988-1994?) and arguable, and I stepped outside of it for a few selections, but I wanted them to taste some stuff that they might well have overlooked in the flood of possible Spotify/YouTube/iTunes choices, and here are my personal favorites of what I fed the kidz:
The Goats: “Typical American”
This Philly trio had one great album in them, and it’s still one of a kind. a) It’s a concept album about the traps of ’90s USA that works; b) the skits are as great as the songs; and c) it delivers an anthem–this song–that still, unfortunately, resonates.
Busta Rhymes with Old Dirty Bastard: “Woo-Hah” (Remix)
The original is just fine, but, to my ear, the remix is outta sight. One might argue that the two MCs’ styles are too close for a great team-up, but the Dirt Dog’s improvs, associations, and even-crazier-than-usual vocal stylizations mean there’s no mistaking who’s who. And ODB just steals the track.
Fu-Schnickens: “Sneakin’ Up On Ya”
Speaking of insane vocal stylizations, what the heck happened to Chip Fu, the only real reason to listen to this group? Yeah, he was fast, but that was far from all: on the Fu-Schnicks’ best tracks, he came closer than anyone to justifying the shaky claim that rap is simply verbal be-bop. That sells be-bop short, but Charlie Parker was grinning in jazz heaven when he heard Chip explode on his mind- and ear-bending verse here.
Ahmad, Ras Kass, and Saafir: “Come Widdit”
My man Alex Fleming from the Windy City tells me this trio was actually a short-lived GROUP called the Golden State Warriors; at the time, I only knew ’em from singles, and Ahmad’s killer debut. Listening to this now, it’s shocking that none of the three ever really blew up: their flows are fresh (especially Saafir’s, lingering just behind the beat), their rhymes and vocab are stunning, their personas as distinct as almost any rapper’s at the time you might want to name. This track’s from the great soundtrack of a horrible movie, Streetfighter. Lend a special ear to Ras Kass’ figurative language!
The Coup: “Dig It”
“Gunned us, gunned us/They raped us and they hung us/I’d like to take a moment to say/’Fuck Columbus!'” Thus The Coup and their mighty-mouthed MC Boots Riley ushered in their career, carried by a killer drums ‘n’ keys track that still sounds freshed. If you had bet on any of the writers featured in this list NOT to make it, you might have put your chips here, not because the skillz aren’t in play, but the confrontational style might have even scared off the hardcore. It’s a tribute to Riley’s commitment, brains, and talent that the best was yet to come, and that they are still in play almost two decades later. Note: if this track appeals to you, please read Ta-nehesi Coates’ recent related piece in The Atlantic.
Diamond D: “Best-Kept Secret”
For a moment, Diamond D was both a rising MC and an assassinatin’ producer. This track from the classic Stunts, Blunts, and Hip Hop demonstrates exactly why.
Showbiz and A.G.: “Fat Pockets”
Another shining Diamond D production moment, but the duo themselves showed every sign of stardom, and this tune was on almost every mix tape I made ’92.
Natural Resource: “Negro League Baseball”
Don’t be fooled by the video image; it’s the uploader’s way around a copyright dispute. However, the group did indeed feature a young woman, here not quite out of her teens, who’s long been my choice for “Queen of Hip Hop”: Ms. Jean Grae. Her verse is the standout, to my ears.
Heavy D and Friends: “Don’t Curse”
My all-time favorite posse cut, a hilarious idea that the gathered MCs actual pull off–barely!!!–and the best use ever of Booker T and the MGs’ classic “Hip Hug Her” outside of the original (and maybe the intro to Barfly). Heavy D, R.I.P.!
Ricky B: “Shake For Ya Hood”
The proof of the brilliance of this NOLA classic is, after a few plays, you’ll adopt it as your own anthem, no matter how pristine your own ‘hood is. And as raw as it is, it’s also innocent in its own special way (as many of the above tracks are): it’s hard to be outraged at a rap track that uses a zylophone (playing a cagey clip from The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”) for its hook, and, for once, an MC other than Chuck D really does live up to the “Black CNN” label. Ricky scans the scene, describes it in mournful detail, reveals his fear, but claims his turf anyway.
On a recent trip to our old stomping grounds in Springfield, Missouri, my wife and I forced one of our favorite artists down the throats of two of our friends. You ever do that? I thought you had! If you see me on the street and you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, whatever you do, DON’T mention Anita O’Day, or you’ll have to drag me wherever you’re going. Graduate of the school of hard knocks, protofeminist in the manly world of jazz, fashion pioneer, author of an unapologetic memoir that earns it title (High Times, Hard Times), survivor of not only an accidental uvula-ectomy and nearly two decades of heroin abuse but also neglect during her senior years, but–most important–a vocal stylist on par with Billie, Sarah, and Ella, she’s a jazz legend and inspirational icon you’re very unlikely to know. In my mind and ear, she has no other peers. Since we’re not on the street, I’m writing, and I do have places to go, here’s my quick attempt to hook you:
From the superb jazz documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day:
From a Sixties appearance in Tokyo:
And the trailer for what we forced down Rex Harris’ and Heather Phipps’ throats (it went down smoothly, they would say–and they will be forcing it down others’ throats all too soon):
OK…you say you’re hooked? I knew you would be. Since YouTube so nicely offers COMPLETE ALBUMS (a development about which I am not sure), here’s my fave Anita album–bend a special ear to her album-long duel with accompanying pianist Oscar Peterson, and ask yourself what other vocalist could keep pace.
Appreciating the latter studio recordings of the Sinatra of Jazz, Sonny Rollins
If you are reading this blog, you no doubt know that Sonny Rollins, one of the last living jazz titans and surely one of three greatest tenor saxophonists ever, has just released the third in a series of live albums, called Road Shows, that document the outstanding playing of his seventh and eighth decade swinging on this mortal coil (I will plug the first as so far the most mind-blowing, but they are all excellent). Also, if you have been reading this blog since its recent inception, you no doubt know it’s mostly dedicated to keeping rekkids that might be destined to be lost in the torrent in your eye- and ear-lines. Well, if you’ve heard or are simply very interested in the Road Shows volumes, I would also encourage you to sample Rollins’ last four studio albums. The proper albums of Rollins’ post-1970 career have often been maligned as 1) too stiff; 2) too clean; 3) too boring; 4) too generous to too-pedestrian sidemen and, perhaps that’s true (Gary Giddins’ Silver City compilation argues very effectively otherwise for 1970-1990), but Sonny Rollins +3 (1995), Global Warming (1998), This Is What I Do (2000), and Sonny, Please (2006), none of which are represented on the Giddins comp, have many, many things to recommend them. Primary is–big surprise!–Rollins’ playing. Though the man’s never been shy of experimenting, and though the complexity and abstration of some of his greatest solos are pretty danged challenging, on these records he lets loose his huge, confident, sly sound on the melodies and just rides them. In a recent NPR, Sonny claimed that it’s impossible for him to think and play at the same time, but you’ll doubt that claim as he bends, twists, savors, exclaims, questions, scolds, and dances with these numbers, many of which are calypsos, which he typically blasts into the upper deck. Another underappreciated aspect of these records are the number of outstanding compositions by Rollins himself. He does have a few pieces of jazz repertory to his credit (“St. Thomas,” “Oleo,” “Doxy,” to name a few), and it seems he’s best known for his miraculous interpretations (“I’m An Old Cowhand,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Isn’t She Lovely?”), but he has given future jazzmen and jazzwomen plenty to dig their teeth into with “Biji” (from +3), “Island Lady” (from Global), “Salvador” (from This), and “Nishi” (from Please). There’s a great compilation lurking in just the originals alone. Finally, the players? I am not sure Al Foster, Jack DeJohnette, Tommy Flanagan, Idris Muhammad, and Steve Jordan strike you as pedestrian, but I guarantee you they didn’t strike Sonny that way, and, though they mostly stay out of the way and let the man blow, that isn’t all that easy to do well, really. Here’s my main pitch: if you’re familiar with the best of Sinatra’s Capitol and Reprise recordings, what you’ll be getting out of Rollins’ horn is equal to what Ol’ Blue Eyes was intoning into the mic: warm, intelligent, intimate sound, created by a brain that knows its material inside and out. I do not proffer that comparison lightly.
Poor ol’ YouTube has very few tracks from these albums up; Spotify, however will help you out. But here’s a live track of Sonny blowing on “Salvador” that, if it speaks to you, should send you on to the rekkids I’ve rekkamended above.
The huddled sandspeck of humanity who regularly visit this blog no doubt have discerned a certain propensity of the author’s for looking backwards. Always said I never would, now I seem always to be. I’ve made the “dustbins of cyberspace” argument, and I am indeed left slot-mouthed in response to “new music,” but, to be fair, one needs a little perspective (in addition to 42 years’ worth of listening to records) to evaluate art accurately. However, two new albums by established giants came through the mail slot this week, as well as one from a local hero who‘s just sailed from between Scylla and Charibdis scarred but not scared, so I cannot resist taking a shot at ’em.
Sonny Rollins: Road Shows, Volume 3 (Doxy) For the 83-year-old Rollins, both the road and the show seem to go on powerfully forever, and together. The third volume in this highly recommended and expertly compiled series mixes three Rollins originals–he is an underrated composer–one solo flight, and two of the American-songbook chestnuts Sonny was seemingly born to explore the contours of for an approximation of an epic performance (the tracks actually date from four different appearances, 2001-2012). Though his solos may not forge and unfurl unbroken like in days of old, his tone, invention (though he claims not to think and play at the same time), sense of humor, and grace are still beyond the reach of mere mortals–aka “the living body of jazz players.” Case in point: the majestic “Why Was I Born.” As my man at The Stash Dauber, Ken Shimamoto, has eloquently suggested, there are worse predicaments on Planet Earth 2014 than having the grammar of world popsong (that is, of the HISTORY of popsong) at your disposal. Give your man props while he’s living. Don’t wait ’til the heartbeat stops.
Neil Young: A Letter Home (Third Man) Honestly, I haven’t attended Uncle Neil for awhile, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on him. He’s always had one eye on the hands of time, so he’s a sure bet to still have plenty of artistic life in him as he ages. Which brings us to his newest release, one, conveniently, that plays with time by virtue of its recording circumstances. You can go elsewhere for the specific technical details, but Young recorded a set of very thematic O.P.s (“other people’s”) in a contraption that spits out “forest-fire” audio, complete with pops, crackles, lo-fi gauze, and unreliable pitch, that is reminiscent of both a very primitive demo and a much-abused 78 from the ’20s. It’s not a new trick–among major artists, Tom Waits has had it up his sleeve in the past–and I am not sure I like it. At first glance, I thought the song selections were chosen with inconsistent imagination, and would end up being my major complaint; after two listens, I actually like even “On the Road Again” and “My Hometown,” and the concept speaks the way the artist intended it to. It’s even moving. However, I don’t see the point in intentionally make it sound like crap (PRIMITIVE I will take in a minute–not the same thing!); maybe it’s just me, but that would seem to compromise the emotional power of the project: the deliberately “antique” production not only creates an unnecessary barrier for the intimacy of Young’s performance to penetrate, but it also raises my suspicions about Neil’s sincerity, if the record had to be thus fiddled with. And if he’s NOT being sincere–man, gimme my money back to spend on some Pono thing. I confess to being highly sensitive to the taint of Jack White’s hand in matters–he’s screwed up other projects for folks with his gimmickry (most notable past victim: Wanda Jackson) after having largely built his own reputation on gimmicks. It’s something I’d never have thought Neil Young would fall for. So…caveat emptor, if you’re going to spend your hard-earned dough. Try this, which is the highlight, to my ears:
Glen David Andrews: Redemption (Louisiana Red Hot) What would a blog post of mine be without some New Orleans flavor? Unbeknownst to outsiders, Mr. Andrews, a talented trombonist, songwriter, and singer, as well as progeny of a royal music family line, has spent the good part of the last fifteen years putting great music down in the studio, traveling the country testifying to the continued vitality of Crescent City traditions, and putting his feet in the street and squaring up to authorities as an activist for multiple local causes. Unfortunately, he did all of that while wrestling with substance abuse, which finally brought him down during the first years of this decade. Redemption is one of the most musically and emotionally powerful sobriety albums since Stevie Ray Vaughan’s In Step; Andrews himself says, “This is a record about my journey back from the living dead.” Glen is one of the finest brass band and NOLA trad jazz players alive, but the music here is brawny, funky rock and roll. This is not only an accurate projection of Andrews’ personality, but also an expression of spiritual joy buoyed by rebirth and a product of the man’s muscular support: Ivan Neville, Galactic’s Ben Ellman, and local guitar hero Anders Osborne. If you’ve never heard (of) him, time to get on board. Special guest appearance from beyond: Mahalia Jackson.
No one should be surprised to learn that an attempt to parallel the rhythms, inventions, and effects of jazz has fueled a raft of poetry over the years. Just as great jazz is difficult, so is great jazz poetry. Here’s a stellar one that, to my eye and ear, is a spectacular success. It’s called “Listening to Sonny Rollins at The Five Spot,” and it’s written by Paul Blackburn:
THERE WILL be many other nights like be standing here with someone, some one someone some-one some some some some some some one there will be other songs a-nother fall, another spring, but there will never be a-noth, noth anoth noth anoth-er noth-er noth-er
Other lips that I may kiss, but they won’t thrill me like thrill me like like yours used to dream a million dreams but how can they come when there
never be a-noth
Just for fun, play this clip of Rollins playing–what else?–“There Will Never Be Another You.” The venue isn’t The Five Spot, and Rollins is incapable, I think, of duplicating an improvisation, but I think it might go a long way towards proving Blackburn’s triumph in the above poem.
Note: The song “There Will Never Be Another You” was written in 1942 by Harry Warren (music) and Mack Gordon (lyrics) for the Sonja Henie musical Iceland. I believe I am right in saying that jazz musicians have put the song to more lasting use (try Chet Baker’s, too).