Holiday (September 11-17, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I am on a Billie Holiday tear. John Szwed’s revelatory book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth is the culprit. Szwed’s intent–to strip away calcified notions about the great singer, examine the concrete artifacts (musical, literary, historical), close-listen to her art and rebuild a fuller, more complex and authentic picture of her–is pretty largely realized (though Szwed admits to mysteries that are unlikely to be successfully parsed), and the book’s clearly and passionately written as well. Among the many surprises is Szwed’s “rehabilitation” of Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday’s memoir written with (some say by) William Dufty; of course, I’m about to crack it today after years of turning my nose up at it due to its professed disconnection from truth. Also, I loaded the CD changer with multiple Holiday disks, primarily my favorites from Columbia’s Essential series and the argument-starter Lady in Satin.

Listening to Holiday for hours on end Friday, I thought back to an experience I once had in the classroom. We were reading a text that featured a lynching, and I thought my students might be stimulated to interesting thoughts and feelings by Holiday’s studio version of “Strange Fruit.” These were 10th graders who had not previously succeeded in English, and they’d self-segregated themselves when choosing seats on the first day; the class was roughly 50% white kids and kids of color. For my part, I was utterly convinced the Holiday was not only the greatest jazz singer of all-time, but impossible to dislike; I was equally convinced the subject matter would be powerful to both “halves” of the population.

I played the track on a clunky portable CD player I’d checked out from the media center, but the sound was pretty good. “Strange Fruit,” in the unlikely case you haven’t heard it, does not exactly produce exuberant moods in the listener. It creeps out of the speakers and its horror unfolds funereally—Holiday doesn’t enter until relatively late, and this delay had the students looking quizzically at each other: “Did dude play the right track?” Also, pre-WWII jazz was not and is not high schoolers’ music of choice; I sensed a stiffening in the ranks. But then Billie took over, and the students’ turned their eyes to the song’s lyrics, which I’d copied for them. I was hypnotized by the precision of her delivery as it was applied to the subject matter–and of course, since I was still a green idiot, I assumed they were, too.

I paused a couple of beats after the song ended, then launched a very broad query: “So, what did you think of her singing?”

“SHE’S THE WORST SINGER I’VE EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE!!!!!”

The answer, yelled angrily by one of my quietest students, a young lady named Toni, froze me in my pedagogical tracks. I am sure my eyes bugged, and that my jaw slackened. I had been punched in the face, and I’d been leaning into the punch to begin with. Sadly, I was also expecting that, since she was a woman of color, she had to like Holiday’s singing. (I’ve evolved.)

I was so stunned that I have little recollection of my response. I ‘d become reasonably reliable in dignifying students’ responses (that now sounds to me like a condescending enterprise), so I’m sure I tried to figure out, or have her help me figure out, what she meant, but she was adamant, much snickering abounded, and the next thing I clearly remember is getting (desperately) to the actual lesson. But later, at home, I sniffed to Nicole, “The kid thought Billie Holiday was the worst singer she’d ever heard–can you believe that?”

So what’s the point? Well, Szwed’s sharp analysis of Holiday’s hard-to-pinpoint style makes clear that Holiday was not always easy on the ear: her delivery was frequently sharp, raspy, crying. Her timing was consistently eye- and ear-popping, but that’s a subtler thing to hear unless perhaps you’re a musician yourself. It occurred to me that, actually, young Toni was in fact listening intelligently and had no need of her response being dignified. From a reasonable perspective, her assessment had an anchor in fact–well, not that she was a horrible singer, but that, in the context of what Toni had listened to, the worst she’d heard. 28 years later is not a satisfactory response time for recognizing a teaching mistake–but better extremely late than never. Sorry, Toni! (We’re Facebook friends.)

Tony's

Friday nights, Nicole and I often head out to Tony’s Pizza Palace, a family-owned pizza joint we’ve been patronizing for most of our nearly 30 years together. We always sit in the booth that abuts the window with a bullet or pellet hole in it (look closely at the above photo and you can spot it). We always order a cold pitcher of Bud, two small Greek salads, and a Tony’s Special (green pepper and sausage). We always get a little caught up with the server, and check in with the head honcho, a charming young man named Daniel whom I taught the same year as Toni, featured above. Then we grab an additional libation, go back home, sprawl out on the couch, and meditate upon three of four specially selected tracks. It’s relaxing, stimulating, fun, and the perfect transition into the weekend. True to form, we followed our ritual last Friday, and selected the following three tracks, the first two of which we’ve worn out in the past, the third indicating I still couldn’t get Szwed and Lady Day off my mind.

To evoke our beloved NOLA, and to electrify our ears, minds and bodies:

To revisit a romantic favorite from our days of penury:

To engage with pure desolation–but also with an alert artistic mind at the end of its rope:

 

During the weekend, I chose to explore the work of a young Chicago MC one of my current students had begged me to check out. Perhaps still feeling guilty from my earlier revelation, my conscience was the driver, but this young lady, from Oklahoma City by way of Salt Lake City, was, like Toni, right (only less problematically). I loved her recommendation so much I bought some of the artist’s work. She goes by the handle of Noname, and she’s something–smart, mischievous, funny, and skilled. I’ll go out an a limb and say she’s gonna be a star. Thanks for the tip, Juniper!

The new one (soon to appear way up on my annual list):

The previous one:

 

Coming attractions: I’ve assigned my comp class the following listening, reading and viewing for our next semi-Socratic (you’ll recall my reportage on our Mitski’s Be the Cowboy lesson last post). Feel free to engage if you need some homework!

How Dev Hynes Became a Miracle Worker for R.&B., Pop, and Everything Else You Can Imagine (Lizzy Goodman, New York Times Magazine)

Premature Evaluation: Blood Orange, ‘Negro Swan’  (Briana Younger, Stereogum)

Blood Orange builds a refuge for black stories on the exquisite Negro Swan (Judnick Mayard, The Onion AV Club)

 

 

 

Three Spaced Masterpieces by “The Hillbilly Dalai Lama” (February 25th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

PhasesSpiritDecember Day

My Sunday afternoon was graced by these three magical records recorded across forty years by Willie Nelson, the man accurately dubbed “The Hillbilly Dalai Lama” by Kinky Friedman. If Nelson had left nothing but these albums, he’d be in the pantheon; it’s truly awe-inspiring to consider that outside of these masterworks lay hundreds and hundreds of diamonds. I have often casually said to friends and students that Hank Williams wrote 50 of the 100 greatest country songs of all-time and he only lived to 29. In tranquility, and hypnotized by the man’s stunningly eloquent and accurate way into our moments of darkness and light, I think that Willie just picked up that mantle and extended it, as if to rebuke an unjust universe.

All three of these albums are humbly conceptual, the first two linked by the lyrical thread of Johnny Gimble’s fiddle, the last two by big sister Bobbie Nelson’s piano, all three by crack bands and Willie’s unmistakable acoustic guitar. Phases and Stages (1974) plumbs the heartbreak, humor, and illumination of both a woman’s and a man’s side of a break-up–taken outside the context of the concept, each of the songs is a classic, either major (“Bloody Mary Morning”) or minor (“Sister’s Coming Home” / “Down at the Corner Beer Joint”). Spirit (1996), sparer, drumless, linked mostly by the instrumental passages titled “Matador” and “Mariachi,” meditates on loss and perseverance, and its songs, perhaps, rely on each other for their eternal air. December Day (2014) is one of the most startling road-band studio recordings I’ve ever heard. The concept’s pretty simple, and seems to have come from Bobbie: as she’s quoted as asking in the studio, “Why not record our favorite songs like we play them for ourselves?” It works–the listener does feel like he’s eavesdropping on a little corps of musicians (on a family of musicians) laying back and sharing what’s always made them happiest. In that way, December Day might be the most successful of the three, and its song list may well have been assembled much more casually than the others’: three Irving Berlins, a Reinhardt, a Jolson, “Mona Lisa,” and “Ou-es tu, mon amour” surrounding several old Nelson copyrights (for example, “Permanently Lonely,” ’63) and a couple of very poignant–and dryly funny–new ones  (“I Don’t Know Where I Am Today,” “Amnesia,” and “Laws of Nature,” of which the Dalai Lama himself would surely approve). The effect is confidently valedictory: “This is the stuff I’ve loved all my life, and, by the way, do you notice how my stuff stands up in the American pop canon?” Not too valedictory, as it turns out, as Willie’s released several albums since then, and probably has more in the chute. I don’t doubt that he might also have another masterpiece in him, and that it’ll be 2028 before we know it.

Dig in:

Short-shrift Division:

Otis Redding: Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul–Willie got me hankering for more mastery, and when I called this up on Apple Music I was stunned by what sounds like an expert aural restoration.

Swamp Dogg: Gag A Maggot–“Just call me wife-sitter / I’m a mighty happy critter! / Don’t be bitter / ‘Cause I’m wit’ her….”

Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra (Horace Tapscott, conductor–and pianist): Flight 17–I have yet to hear a Tapscott-associated album I didn’t love, and this is no exception. It’s wayyyy out of print, so I had to throw my bobber out on Discogs Lake and wait for twitch…and wait…and wait. But was it worth it! Recorded at Los Angeles’ Immanuel United Church of Christ, it’s a large group recording of power and delicacy, with no Tapscott compositions but two strong ones by the departed honoree (pianist Herbert Baker), one by saxophonist Sabir Mateen (who’s on board, and how), and a winning foray through a Coltrane medley.

 

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.