The other day, I was driving around in my now classic Toyota Prius, yes, listening to jazz and drinking coffee thus making me not just the perfect example of stuff white people like but also a quintessential specimen of the soon-to-be extinct species, the tenured college professor, when I had to stop for a minute and wish that I could start a song over.
I was about to drive home today in the oppressive heat of my adopted state and when I flipped on my car the radio was set to the local jazz station. This station plays mostly instrumental pieces, heavy on standards and classics with some great programs that highlight new jazz, Brazilian jazz etc. from time to time. So, I was a little surprised when the piece playing was just an upright bass.
Ron Carter stretches, rocks, rolls and massages out of “You Are my Only Sunshine” a timeless lesson in the relationship between a standard, a musician, and the audience. I can’t stop listening to or thinking about this number.
Another day, another link. This one comes from a blogger (ADIgnorantium) who has made a great soundtrack for some summer partying. When will WordPress create a post to playlist app?
The only things I would add? Joe Cocker’s “Summer in the City” is one of my all time favorites:
But I also love the old Cole Porter tune “Summertime”, here performed in great style by the one and only Coltrane:
This Coltrane number is good for some deep contemplation (or intoxication). And, what’s a summer playlist without some cheese? Who can really hate Grease’s “Summer Loving”:
Ok, I hate it a little. But I like it a little too
But thanks ADIgnorantium for giving me a start on some songs to play tomorrow.
As I have written about lately, I have been almost as busy as my brother even though it is my “summer vacation”. This year offers many points of transition for me–we bought a house and moved, I got tenure, I have a book coming out, etc. and blah, blah, blah. If my enthusiasm seems tepid it is not because I am not thankful but just because I am so sure that too much of this good fortune is due to chance.
(By the way, even if it outs me as me, I don’t really care, here’s a link to the book).
And, as my brother knows (I think), I have been wrestling with whether or not I really should be spending so much time on this blog. I feel hypocritical for writing a blog when I find it hard to read most blogs (for many, many reasons) and since I know that what I want to do with it is so far from what a blog typically is (and, I fear, from what I am capable of). I found myself returning again and again to the idea of a blog as a useless solipsism, as an exercise (like much of the internet) in masturbatory self-reference.
(Oh, and a way for companies like Google and Facebook to turn our leisure and relationships in to commodities. And a way for the NSA and CIA to track our speech. You know, bread, circus, brothel and self-incrimination all wrapped into one.)
But all of such concerns went out the hill yesterday when I turned on the local jazz station and heard the first half of the 1964 Blue Note Release Point of Departure by Andrew Hill. The first song (“Refuge”) is somewhere between standard and free jazz with some truly insane solos. There is a melody that chaotically fragments and returns–the piece is driven by the piano, but the instrumentalists are phenomenal.
Seriously, my brother, if you are impatient, check out the bass solo that starts at 6:25. Les Claypool must have heard something like this in his dreams as a child. And the transition from drum solo back to full band at minute 11 is just too sexy not to mention. And to understand the virtuosity of these musicians, check out the live clip:
So, as I was speeding along on another trip to Best Buy or some similar place while educating (or subjecting) my children to this kind of edge-of-the-seat jazz, it occurred to me that I was thinking about this blog all wrong. We (my brother and I) started it to think about music together, to be forced to write down our opinions and ideas if for no one else then at least for each other, and to find new ways to enjoy (new and old) music. We started this blog as a way to stay in touch and in ‘communion’ while three thousand miles apart. We began this not because we wanted to do anything other than to love music and to learning more about it by doing so. We’ve done these things and more. I just need to remind myself occasionally of the wonder that music (and life) can inspire.
But, as we have mentioned before, it is probably the time of year that has me down. Here’s a non-jazz pick-me-up:
Happy Birthday, again, my brother.
A few weeks back I had to get up earlier than early to take my mother to the airport. It was another typically fast and emotional visit. As I have intimated before, my mother and I don’t always seem to communicate in ‘real time’. This is symptomatic less of her than of my rather typically closed approach to relationships: I think I am being laconic; I am observed as being distant and unfeeling.
On the way back from the airport, swooning a bit from the early hour and senseless thoughts on the fragility of self and the passage of time, I turned the local jazz radio station up to an uncomfortable volume and rolled all the windows down. (Not a cool sight: remember, I am the one in the rapidly aging blue Prius.) Yet, much to my surprise, the local jazz station straight-out gremlins over night and becomes an Indie-Rock madhouse.
Now the thing about Indie-Rock is that it is mostly described by what it is not: mainstream, major label fare. Beyond the boundaries of delivery device and popularity, it can be anything. So, an overnight, red-eye into the belly of the beast will, in all likelihood, be a mixture of depression, delight and digression. For every moment of wonder, there is another Pavement wannabe or Velvet Underground worshiping poseur.
After languishing through some local act falling somewhere between Stevie-Ray Vaughn and the post-breakdown side of Daniel Johnston (seriously if you don’t know Daniel Johnston and want to be Austin-hip, check out the fine documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston) this track came on:
I love everything about this song from the name (“Every time she turns about Its Her Birthday) to the fantastic rhythms, free-jazz inspired horns, and especially, as anyone who has read this blog before can imagine, the indirect and almost incoherent lyrics:
Spinning round you weigh me down
Gravel hands of green and brown
In your cells both red and white
On the sun that gives us light
In your cells both white and red
From the mouth our kids get fed
Now, what I also love about this track is that there is an essential compatability of sound and lyric-sense–both are fluid, mixed and, for lack of better descriptive, cloudy. The music is somewhere between jazz, rock, and ambient while the lyrics are slightly post-modern and impressionistic. Both, and especially together, invite interpretation and contemplation.
Of course, before it was dawn, I had downloaded the whole album Up in Flames by Caribou who used to be called Manitoba. Caribou, I discovered, is not a band but a man masquerading as one with all the skill of an Aphex Twin blended with a Beck unsullied by mainstream success. The album? One of the most interesting and challenging compilations I have heard in a while. The music is thick and layered, like a sonic parfait doing battle with a milkshake. The lyrics are exceptionally oblique and always wrapped up or buried beneath steppes of rhythm and sluiced by horns.
I thought I had heard of the band Caribou before and bad the mistake of dismissing it as some Train wannabe or fringely progressive one-off. I am so glad I was wrong. Before that morning, the only musical Caribou I knew about was this one I have heard my brother singing to many times before:
I can’t say that I understand what is going on in Caribou’s music or lyrics; I can say that I will try to. I can also say I am thankful to the randomness of the universe for giving me this song at that time. It took me away from myself and the monotonous road. It took me away from that marginal and displaced feeling in between the end of someone’s visit and the resumption of ‘normal life’. And, whatever normal life is, it saved me from that for a bit too.
Hungry for some more Caribou, my brother?
While driving to work during a run of recent rainy days–which is a rarity in my state where it is sunny 90% of the time–I was contemplating some weather-appropriate emotions of weariness, worry and frustration. I know that a great deal of this came from the weather, but it seemed to be bubbling from within and spilling over without.
As usual, I was listening to the radio. This day was a jazz day because I just couldn’t handle commercials or, I thought, anything with words in it. The children were strapped in their car seats. The traffic was beginning to clear. The rain stopped and the sky seemed to lighten. And then this song came on the radio:
A few weeks ago I was driving (probably a little too quickly) to pick up pizzas for my son’s birthday party, I was lucky enough to have the radio on for the local jazz station’s weekly blues evening. The DJ was revisiting some of the releases from the past calendar year focusing especially on possible award winners in the upcoming and endless award cycle. When he introduced an album up for the Grammy for Best Blues Album and the Blues Music Awards for Best Blues Album and Best Traditional Blues Album I might have yawned (awards shows don’t always impress me). But from the first note to the last (I was late returning with pizza because I listened to five full tracks) this was the best thing I had heard on the radio in years.
The band? A group of talented and seasoned musicians who form the Heritage Blues Orchestra. The album? Their debut And Still I Rise.
I don’t often like to get nationalistic or jingoistic, but we, as Americans, should take pride in our musical art forms, though not without first admitting that they were made possible by a particularly vile bit of history. The cultural blending from forced migration (i.e., slavery) and economically or politically motivated immigration created a violent and vibrant mixing pot (more a boiling and roiling stew than a true blend) that gave birth to the most influential musical forms of the last century: jazz, blues, rock, R&B, country, folk and hip-Hop all come from the admixture of our national heritages.
Of these genres, blues is probably the least well-represented in mainstream culture even though it may be the oldest, most pure and the granddaddy of them all. Blues musicians of the greatest talent labor in relative obscurity because the genre doesn’t have the catchy colloquialism of its rock, pop and hip-hop descendants or the Caucasian-approved art-house elevation of jazz. The repetitive and seemingly ‘un-original’ nature of its composition, moreover, makes blues seem less exciting to modern audiences
Unless, of course, you spend some time watching blues musicians and realize how talented they are (or learn to play a little yourself). When I was learning to play the guitar, my teacher—who could play an impressive range of genres with equal talent—spent time teaching me the basic picking patterns of piedmont and delta blues both as a way to give depth to my musical knowledge and to strengthen my hands for folk and classical pursuits. While I never became the guitarist he hoped (it was the nineties, power chords were all I needed!), I have never forgotten the feel for it or the basic twelve-bar blues.
So, a few months back the Family J moved from one city to another in our gargantuan state. It wasn’t as much of a life change as one might think since I had been commuting between the cities and basically existing part time in each place. Now the wife and I work in the same city and spend (relatively) less time in automobiles.
I still drive around a lot with our offspring; and they still love music. In our old town, the local alt-rock station was my go-to choice every time we got in the car. In this city, the FM dial is dominated by bad hip-hop stations, country, Christian stations, Spanish-language radio and JACK FM. The radio landscape is so barren that I cannot even choose six stations available for my pre-set dial (I can’t even conceive of filling the FM2 list as well).
There is one notable exception to this wasteland. There is a local, listener supported jazz station that plays the best selection of jazz I have ever found in one location. The programming ranges from early be-bop well through modern fusion and afro-cuban jazz. I can’t get enough of this station.
I don’t really ever write about jazz because I find myself to be so ignorant about so much of it. Liking jazz is kind of like having a taste for scotch: you can know some specific preferences and dislikes, but just when you think you have a handle on the issue, you see a scotch menu and 95% of the entries are a mystery to you.