I have always wanted to write more regularly about music on my blog (and in real life more broadly). The problem is that whenever I start to write about music I find myself lacking the right words, technical vocabulary, and historical understanding to write confidently.
Today, for whatever reason, I decided to throw caution to the wind and write a bit about music. I don’t have a cohesive or coherent post on music to offer, but I thought I’d pull together some little observations for a kind of fragmentary start.
First, I’m pretty enchanted by Promises, Pharoah Sander’s latest album with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s exactly the kind of ethereal, cerebral, ambient music that you might expect from Floating Points made more richer through the London Symphony’s strings. Pharoah Sander’s saxophone floats in and out, mostly above the mix, and his solos create new impressions and add textural relief to nuance soundscapes produced by Floating Points. In short, it’s good stuff and a real album rather rather than a project designed to leverage Sanders’ place in the jazz pantheon to entice us to listen.
Sanders is not the only post-Coltrane sax player to continue to release new music this year. Archie Shepp’s Let My People Go with Jason Moran is a more intimate album than Promises that emphasizes Shepp’s distinctive tone and style rather than something more grandiose. For fans of Shepp, Let My People Go evokes his two recordings with Horace Parlan, Goin’ Home (1977) and Trouble in Mind (1980). This is a good thing. Shepp returns to his long tradition of political Black music statements that stretches into the 60s and 70s, while embracing a less complicated setting of a saxophone and a piano.
Readers of my “what I’m listening to” section of my Friday Varia and Quick Hits know that I’ve taken some deep dives in Charles Lloyd’s discography and have been really enchanted by his recent work with the Marvels. His 2021 release, Tone Poem, isn’t quite as engaging as Vanished Gardens (2018) or I Long to See You (2016) and it doesn’t have the soul shattering beauty (and context) of his last gaggle of ECM albums (crowned by his 2002 Lift Every Voice), but they’re solid albums where Lloyd plays within himself. Like Shepp and Sanders, he relies on his exquisite tone to make his points (although he was never as keen to show his pyrotechnic chops as Sanders and Shepp; although see his recently released Manhattan Stories which is Lloyd’s private recording of a 1965 live date at Slugs).
Second, I’ve been listening to and thinking about Maria Schneider’s Data Lords (2020) a good bit lately. It not only represents a particularly fertile few years for large ensemble jazz (I’m still really enjoying the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Swirling) but also the emergence of jazz that critiques the pervasive character of our digital world. Data Lords, for example, deliberate juxtaposes the chaotic and incessant world of digital data with the personal, spiritual, and intimate world of human experiences. Putting aside the validity of this juxtaposition (which clear has both merits and shortcomings), Schneider’s music is a sometimes strident call for balance which has particular salience in the music industry where the datafied nature of music and download culture can often reduce the success of a work to bits in a stream.
This kind of critique goes beyond Schneider’s album. I’m looking forward to listening to Malnoia’s Hello Future which is likewise framed as a complex response to the dehumanizing character of technology. Magnus Granberg’s Come Down to Earth Where Sorrow Dwelleth is also high on my spring listening list. The album apparently draws you into its slow, dolorous sound and forces a kind of reflective state on the listener.
I got wondering how these albums that explicitly or implicitly critique our face paced digital worlds sit alongside the traditions of futurism in jazz music. I keep thinking of the Afrofuturism inherent in Sun Ra’s work or in Herbie Hancock’s explicitly futuristic sounding work on Head Hunters. The implications that this music is the “shape of jazz to come” fused the sound of avant-garde music with a view of the future.
The rise of digital technologies and synthesizer music forms a useful backdrop for the futurism of bands like The Comet is Coming (and their other UK based projects). I wonder if Afrofuturism also informs the spirit present in the recent albums by the likes of Kamasi Washington and Christian Scott which manage to look back and forward at the same time? Maybe I’ll blog a bit about this next Monday.