Music Monday: Big Bands for a Big Book?

This weekend, I spent some time listening the big jazz bands. When I first started out listening to jazz, I enjoyed the sound of Duke Ellington’s and Count Basie’s band and some of the other iconic jazz orchestras. That said, I never really connected with them and even iconic recorded performances of these groups rarely found their way into my regular rotation. Maybe I had become too invested in small ensemble jazz, hard and post-bop standards, or even the easy to discern interplay between musicians? 

At some point, Mingus and some of his large ensembles forced their way into my play list. Starting with Mingus, Ah, Um (1959) and then Blues and Roots (1960), and finally The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963). At around the same time, I had started listening Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961) and then his orchestra work from the early-1960s and George Russell’s two great albums Jazz in the Space Age (1960) and Ezz-thetics (1961). The latter might not quite qualify as “big band,” but the former certainly is. It goes without saying that any music that evokes the sound of the space age naturally leads to Sun Ra, but I suppose I’ve blogged enough about Sun Ra lately for a while

This particular line of listening passed through the late-1960s and the wonderful Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra performances Live at the Village Vanguard (1967), the amazing Central Park North (1969), and the remarkable Consumption (1969). 

These albums are just so good, but they didn’t really prepare me for my final destination of my listening this week.

First, I returned to the Liberation Music Orchestra eponymous first album from 1970 and caught up with Carla Bley (who had recorded with George Russell between Jazz in the Space Age and Ezz-thetics). This album is the perfect balance between tight orchestration and improvisation, order and chaos, and represents the struggle for liberation as a vehicle for freedom and the foundation for new forms of social organization. Music like this deserves to be the soundtrack for a reading of Wengrow and Graeber’s Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021), which I blogged about here. If you’re going to read BIG BOOKS, you might as well listen to BIG BANDS, right?

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For a long book like this, however, you certainly need more than one album. It seems that Phil Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble’s Spanish Suite (1968) complements the LMO’s Spanish inflected scores and embraces a similar spirit of community. I blogged on Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble here.

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After listening to this, I revisited Horace Tapscott and his Pan-African Peoples Arkestra, Live at the I.U.C.C. from 1979. The groove is deep on this album and the improvisation is brilliant. Every track on this live album reward multiple listens and if you don’t feel the soul of a community here and its potential to liberate and redeem, then you can probably disregard the rest of the recommendations on this post.

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Finally, I leapt into the 21st century and listened to the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords (2020). Schneider’s intense concern with the role of the digital in our society and its potential for limiting the freedom that is present in nature permeates the compositions. That the album was released via ArtistShare, a crowd-funding platform that allows individuals to become investors in large scale creative projects, offers a 21st-century view of the kind of community building that folks like Sun Ra, Phil Cohran, and Horace Tapscott put at the heart of their music.  

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By the end of my long weekend, I had become all the more convinced that the big band remains a vital platform for articulating the ubiquitous tension between order and individualism, structure and chaos, and freedom and responsibility. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that my growing appreciation of this kind of music stems from the prominence of these tensions in our world today.

Music Monday: Neil Young’s Barn and Crafted Immediacy

This past week, I split my time between trying to wrap up winter break writing projects (say tuned!) and trying to prep for the coming semester. On the best days, I did a bit of both, and some of that was inspired by Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s latest album Barn. Musically, it’s a follow up to their 2019 album Colorado which received the (in)famous “generally positive reviews.” I prefer Barn to Colorado, but not for any very good reason. Maybe Barn feels more random and raw than Colorado and that suited my mood (or even the mood).

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A review of Barn over at Pitchfork offered a bizarre take on this album as a lede: “Neil Young’s decision to prioritize immediacy over craft in his later years means these tunes arrive lovingly weathered, but rarely go anywhere in particular.” 

There is a lot to unpack in this statement. First, I was struck by the idea that immediacy was the opposite of craft. This seems to me to be the kind of statement that improvised musicians have pushed back against for years. An especially uncharitable reading would note that the criticism of immediacy as lacking craft often finds itself mixed up in a kind of racial rhetoric of Black music and art as unrestrained emotion or “unschooled” in comparison to finely crafted and deliberate white art. Obviously this doesn’t apply to Neil Young who is not only white, but Canadian, but the legacy of this kind of critique is a bit problematic.

In fact, the statement gets muddier still when the author acknowledges that tunes are weathered. The patina attributed to the tunes suggests that these are not spontaneous compositions bursting from the Young and Crazy Horse’s surplus emotion, but songs, ideas, and styles long exposed to the elements. The immediacy of these tunes is a studied immediacy. Or better still, we can resolve the tension between immediacy and craft by saying that these tunes reflect the crafted immediacy of a group who knows how to conjure a mood by deploying deeply familiar sounds. The best example of this is the dirty guitar at the start of “Heading West” which is about as weathered as this album gets and if it’s not a deliberate reference to Crazy Horse’s harder, guitar rock days in the 1970s, then I’m not sure what is. 

As for the critique that the songs don’t go anywhere “in particular,” this is what Neil Young songs do. His songs hang out down by the river (where, for some reason or other, he shot his baby), amble along prairie highways, or embody melonymic meditations with only fuzzy references. Part of Young’s power as a songwriter is that his songs consistently articulate rudderless surfeit of passion. He’s the archpriest of the kind of hopeless, directionless, wandering that is not quite without purpose or values (after all, Young imagines himself a principled man and can be outspoke), but often finds itself on a tour bus or outside a tired midwest town or alone, on stage, performing for an audience that changes every night.  

In other words, if Neil Young is anything, he’s pure craft. The weathering, immediacy, and songs that go nowhere is fundament to Young’s musical legacy. Moreover, it’s clear that Neil Young knows this and the regular alternation of unreleased, re-released, and new material reflects a sense of timelessness that complements the directionlessness of his lyrics and songs.

By the end of Barn, you get the feeling that albums like this are the Neil Young’s response to his most famous lyric “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” (or even “better to burn out than it is to rust”). His career appears resistant to rust or burn out owing to its own irreducible consistency. His crafted immediacy ensures that while there is better and worse Neil Young, there will never be bad or great Neil Young. 

Music Monday: Three Short Reviews

I am starting to feel a tiny bit of urgency that perhaps I have not accomplished as much over break as I had wanted. This ordinarily wouldn’t bother me much — after all, it’s a break — but I have a feeling that this semester is going to be a bit of a doozy in terms of work, unpredictability, and stress. 

With this in mind, I need both some good music and a short blog post and it happens that there are three albums that I’m really enjoying these days.

First, like half the world, I’ve been transfixed by Hasaan Ibn Ali’s Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album. Ali was a Philadelphia based pianist who is sometimes seen as one of the “invisible hands” in the jazz world. His sound apparently inspired Coltrane and, in particular, influenced his “sheets of sound” approach which he refined when he relocated to Philadelphia. I’m not so sure about this, but Ali’s music absolutely shares the kind of dense, sometimes stuttering, sometimes soaring, character of early 1960s Coltrane and offers the contemporary listener a challenging but exceptionally rewarding listen.

Second, for the last year or so, I’ve been interested in Daniel Carter. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who came out of the 1970s New York loft-jazz scene. His most recent album, New York United, Volume 2, with a bunch of forward-looking electronic musicians blends Carter’s avant-garde playing with roots in the free jazz movement with the more driving drums, bass, and electronic beats. I haven’t spent enough time in New York to say whether this album embodies the sounds of the city, but it certain coincides with how I imagine New York sounding or feeling.

Finally, I’ve really enjoyed Adam O’Farrill’s Visions of the Other. O’Farrill is the third generation of the great O’Farrill Cuban jazz dynasty, but rather than continuing the trajectory of Cuban jazz (a completely honorable trajectory though it may be), Adam has crafted his own style. Visions of the Other with its emphasis on complex melodies, room for improvisation, and laid back sound (at least compared to Ali’s Metaphysics!) feels like contemporary jazz. It was neither boring nor predictable and seemed always ready to draw you into the music deeper than you ever expected. 

One last thing… I had to immense pleasure of listening to these albums with a brand new set of tubes in my stereo amplifier. In a vacuum tube stereo amp, tubes are a bit like the tires on a car. You can tell when they’re getting old and worn, but as long as they continue to do their job, it’s hard to justify changing them. When you finally do change them, the change is remarkable and you rue that you waited so long to make the change. My amp went from tired, but obedient to dynamic and rich almost instantly (and the power tubes, I’m assuming, will take a while to completely “burn in” and settle down). Some of this might be attributed to the new signal tubes which were a bit of an upgrade over the last set, but I suspect more than anything, it is that the new power tubes (KT120s) are happier being driven at full throttle than the previous set that were struggling to hold bias.

One thing that struck me immediately was the improved soundstage. My main system consists of a pair of Zu Omen Def (Mark II) and Zu Undertone subwoofers. These are full range driver speakers with super tweeters and they tend to be a bit beamy (that is have a limited sweet spot where the full stereo effects are audible). With my new tubes, however, the beaminess dissipated and while I can’t say the speakers disappeared, they certainly faded into the background a bit more than usual. I suspect this is because the amplifier was provided more low mid-range and upper bass where so much of spatial information is embedded (and I know my room has a bit of a mode in the low mid-range, say 300 hz, and upper bass).   

Music Monday: Places and Assemblages

This weekend, I started to try to work my way through my pile of “to read” articles and I started with a pair by John Schofield: with Ron Wright, “Sonic Heritage, Identity and Music-making in Sheffield, “Steel City”” in Heritage & Society 13 (2021) and with Liam Maloney, “Records as records: excavating the DJ’s sonic archive,” in Archives and Records (2021). 

Both are nice articles in their own right and continue Schofield (and collaborators) long interest in the archaeology and heritage of popular music. The first article looks at the urban context for the Sheffield music scene in the final decades of the 20th century and builds on not only familiarity with urban history, venues, and a bands, but also interviews with veterans of the music scene and a survey of a leading national magazine New Music Express (NME). Schofield and Wright argue that the city’s distinctive post-industrial heritage and relative “cultural isolation” (which they left a bit undefined) allowed for the emergence of a unique sound characterized by bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Pulp, and, most recently, the Arctic Monkeys. This traced not only the DIY culture of Sheffield where small manufactures emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the steel industry. This culture of small scale adaptation amid industrial transformation (and in a post-industrial landscape) suffused the city’s music scene with independent minded producers, promoters, and musicians. The confluence of musicians at venues (often made available through abandonment associated with de-industrialization)  and festivals ensured the regular cross pollination across genres. The sounds of Sheffield, particularly the drop hammer associated with steel production, likewise contributed to the Sheffield’s “industrial sound,” which they integrated into their music through the rise of digital technology. 

The methods that Wright and Schofield employ seem relevant to any distinctive music scene in the US from the New York or Chicago jazz scene of the 1950 and 1960s, to the Detroit music scene of the 1970s, or even the distinct Philadelphia or Minneapolis punk and rock scene of the 1980s and 1990s. Even the dispersed urbanism late 20th century sprawls of Los Angeles or D.C. would seem susceptible to similar kind of inquiry. 

The second article looks at record collections by DJs as important archives. Schofield and Maloney note that any effort to understand the ephemeral experience of DJ sets requires that we understand the archives on which they are based. That said, scholars have only rarely take DJ archives seriously with the exception of collections such as Africa Baambata’s at CornellEven then, we often reduce the archive to the names of albums or tracks and overlook the various indications for how DJs use their collections. These indications ranged from cue stickers affixed to records themselves (to aid with beat matching) to notes on record covers, wear patterns, and other signs of wear and tear associated with use. 

Of course, there are intriguing models for how record collections have shaped in our culture. I can’t help but think of Harry Smiths collection and eccentric interests have shaped our view of American folk music. Similar efforts to understand the libraries of important literary figures, such as my friend Shelia Liming’s work on Edith Wharton’s library, have unlocked new reading of their works. The ephemerality of DJ sets, however, make them a bit unique. The opportunities for spontaneous creativity through the juxtaposition of music creates opportunities for new ideas and new experiences of even thread worn classics. The genius of a DJ is the genius of someone else’s library, but one that exists just for a moment. Being able to understand the production of the moment through its material traces offers archaeologists and historians a window into the craft of a DJ and the experience of music. 

Music Monday: Nina Simone’s Gum

This weekend, I read Warren Ellis’s Nina Simone’s Gum. My punk archaeology buddy Kostis Kourelis sent it to me as a holiday gift and for that I’m immeasurably grateful. It’s really a genius book and one full of such unguarded earnestness and emotion that I’ve decided to add it to my class on things next semester. 

The book tells the story of a piece of gum (and a towel) that Warren Ellis, a musician and long-time collaborator with Nick Cave, retrieved from a piano after a Nina Simone concert in 1999. He had kept the gum in his possession for nearly 20 years before deciding to include it in an exhibition that Nick Cave had somehow coordinated in Copenhagen. The decision to include this prize possession in the exhibit pushed Ellis to think about this precious relic in a much more expansive way. The gum not only became a reminder of his experience at a Nina Simone concert, but also his own journey which began with a cast off accordion retrieved from an Australian dump and continued through his own development as a person and musician. In the hands of Ellis the piece of gum became a talisman that protected his journey and creativity and was somehow at least partly responsible for his success.

When the gum leaves his hands, he discovers that its power to inspire care, compassion, and empathy travels with it. From the artist who made a mould of the gum to the jeweler who turned the mould into silver mementos, the couriers who traveled with the gum on its way from London to Copenhagen, and the curators who ensured that the gum remained safe and secure while they prepared for its exhibition, the gum seemingly drew people into its orbit. This is partly because Warren Ellis was such an earnest curator of the object and believed so much in its power. This belief imbued the gum with a kind of sanctity that others experienced as well. The significance of the gum both to Ellis and others was documented across the book in a series of text messages, emails, photographs, and anecdotes. They walked the fine line between sincerity and incredulity, but always seems to lean slightly toward the former. There’s something amazing about witnessing a world with just a bit less irony.

At first, I reckoned that Ellis, the gum’s protector, was especially susceptible to the kind of emotional energy that objects like Nina Simone’s gum conveyed. After all, the book details a few encounters that he had with Beethoven’s ghost that left him rattled and transformed. 

The more I read the book and thought about it, though, I came to understand Ellis’s almost spiritual attachment to the gum.

So, this will sound weird, but I’ve been a bit bothered lately by how I got rid of my old grey Ford F150. I moved quickly when I bought my new truck last year. It was the beginning of the great used car inventory crash and the truck that I wanted was available at a decent price. As a result, I had move efficiently to ensure that I could get the truck I wanted at the price I could afford. When everything came together, I was offered $1000 for my 15 year old F150 and just walked away from it parked in a customer parking spot at a local car dealership.

Of course, my old truck has none of the sentimental and little of the associative power of Nina Simone’s gum. In fact, in 2004, Ford sold over 900,000 of them and even today they remain common sights on the roads of our small town. But the truck did carry with it significant memories: research trips in The Bakken oil patch, cruising around town with my yellow dog, pulling a two cars from a ditch during a snowstorm, and myriad conversations with friends and my partner across the now-vintage bench seat. 

These memories were enough to make me think about the truck a bit differently and regret leaving it without any ceremony and without so much as a photograph. I recognize, of course, that sentimentalizing a truck or a piece of gum can lead to a kind of commodity fetishism that risks obscuring the processes and people whose labor our material world represents. At the same time, there is no doubt that objects – from ancient relics to modern conveniences – provide us with nodes in complex networks of human relationships, temporalities, and memories. 

Ellis’s book doesn’t aspire to be a theoretic treatise on the significance of things or our entanglement or how they work, but it offers a personal and disarmingly wholesome view of how one object – a piece of gum – created a window into what makes us human. 

Materiality of Music Monday

Last week, for some strange reason I started to listen to William Basinski’s Disintegrations Loops (which you can listen to here).

Basinski famously discovered the basis for these recording by accident when he was transferring magnetic tape recorded in the 1980s to a digital format. As the tape ran through the machine, it started to deteriorate and he became fascinated by the gradual disintegration of the music. As he ran the tapes through more and more, the tape continued to fall apart and Basinski continued to transfer the sound of the disintegrating tapes. He was listening to these recording in 2001 while he witnessed the planes crash into the World Trade Center towers in New York. He released the first part of the recordings as an album in 2002 and dedicated them to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

The tracks are haunting as you might expect and require both some patience from the listener to hear the detail of the music changing, but also reward playing as a kind of ambient track which feels like it draws the entire world into its plaintive entropy.

(As a vaguely unrelated aside, one of my favorite parts of Bill Evans’ three disk recording of his 1961 classic date at the Village Vanguard in New York is the power failure which caused the tape machine to stop during “Gloria’s Step.” I’ve always wondered how the producer (Orrin Keepnews) of the 2005 complete recording decided how long to pause the playback on the first public release of the song. Perhaps he compared it to other version of “Gloria’s Step” or maybe he counted out the time based on the recorded part of the song. You can hear it here.)  

Of course what we’re hearing here is less the performance itself and more the disintegration of the medium. And this reminds me how much archaeology is visual rather than auditory practice (even though many archaeologists will admit that, say, changes in strata can be heard in the sound of the trowel scraping across the soil or the thump of the pick into the earth). When it comes to documenting spaces, however, we almost always fall back on texts, plans, photographs and the like. In other words, the sound of Basinski’s Disintegration Loops which documents the formation processes encountered by the magnetic tape as it breaks down would fit only awkwardly within traditions of archaeological practice.

This got me thinking about some of the work I did a few years ago with the Wesley College Documentation Project and our plan to use sound to document the space of the now destroyed Corwin Hall recital room. We published some reflections on this over at Epoiesen. I was reminded of this work after reading the chapters from Krysta Ryzewski’s Detroit Remains (2022) that documented the iconic Detroit jazz venue, the Blue Bird Inn, and its influential rock music venue, the Grande Ballroom. Both buildings have undergone significant changes since their prime as active venues with the Grande Ballrooms roof caving in and the Blue Bird Inn’s stage removed. The scale of these changes would obviously be audible in recordings made at either venue. What’s more, because there are earlier live recordings at the Blue Bird Inn (and I have to assume at the Grande Ballroom), it would be interesting to compare a contemporary recording with one from the past. While I understand that microphone placement, equipment, mixing boards, the PA and all sorts of other variables influence how sound is captured in a space, I think some of that could be sussed out based on probability and some historical sleuthing. Capturing the sound of the contemporary space would offer another way to think about how the buildings’ materiality influenced their distinctive character as performance venues. As Ryzewski pointed out, the use of copious quantities of horsehair plaster in the Grande Ballroom contributed to its distinctive sonic characteristics. At the same time, the collapse of the roof and the deterioration of the interior would presumably be audible in a recording. Comparing recordings of the space in its bustling prime with those in the space as near ruin would offer a distinctive perspective on their materiality. More than that, it would be fitting for buildings designed to accommodate performances to be recorded in ways that documented that function. It is telling, for example, that Ryzewski had jazz musicians from Wayne State play on the stage of the Blue Bird Inn. It suggests an understanding that performing once again on the stage could provide insights into the function and character of the space.

I know that I’ve posted on this kind of thing before (even just last week), but it continues to fascinate me!

Music Monday: Soundtrack to Detroit

This weekend, I started to read Krysta Ryzewski’s new book Detroit Remains: Archaeology and Community Histories of Six Legendary Places (2022). I’m no far enough into the book to offer any impressions or commentary yet, but I’m enjoying it.

More importantly (for now at least), it got me thinking about Detroit music. A few week’s ago, I blogged about the late Dr. Lonnie Smith and the Club Mozambique and made reference to the work of the Detroit Sound Conservancy which seek to preserve and conserve the legacy of music in Detroit and the Music Origins Project which seeks the more modest goal of geolocating important venues. The Concert Database is another interesting project that seeks to document venues and performances from throughout Michigan.

To be clear, I’m not an expert on the amazingly rich Detroit music scene. In fact, I’m not an expert on anything, but I do like what I like and have this kind of weird faith that perhaps if I post some of it here, other people will find some things that they like. (I do want to read Mark Stryker’s book Jazz from Detroit (2019).

I also believe that most books deserve a soundtrack.

So for Detroit Remains, I’ve selected music from two 1970s jazz labels: Strata and Tribe. These are not the most prominent or “important” labels from the Motor City. They also didn’t necessarily feature the best known or even more influential artists. Part of their charm is that they feel like they embody a kind of grassroots music anchored in the community building, often Black identity (especially Tribe), and ownership of music rights. They also appear to have relied on the availability of session gigs with MoTown (for example Larry Nozero, despite being an active participant in the Detroit jazz scene for years and contributing to any number of class Strata tracks is best known for playing the saxophone solo in the open bars of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”) and on the vibrant network of local music venues.

Here’s my playlist. 

First, one of my favorite examples of Detroit soul jazz is the Layman Woodard Organization, Saturday Night Special.  It’s an absolutely fantastic blend of jazz, funk, and R&B sensibilities with just a little something exotic (which feels characteristic of the Detroit jazz scene). The cover is also pure Detroit in that it’s a photograph taken by Leni Sinclair (co-founder of the White Panther Party). It apparently was a photo of the contents of Layman Woodard’s pockets after the show where the album was recorded.

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The other Strata Corporation album that I can’t quite get enough of is pianist Kenny Cox’s Clap, Clap! The Joyful Noise. Cox was one of the co-founders of Strata who had recorded with Blue Note and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet but founded Strata in the early 1970s as a way to get more control over his music and creative vision. Clap Clap! is brilliant and like Saturday Night Special, it evokes an understated exoticism with Latin and Caribbean sounds (complete with the gentle wash of the waves on the albums opening track)! Is this a form of escapism, like the Club Mozambique? Set against the backdrop of Caribbean nationalism is it a subtly encoded aspiration for greater political autonomy?

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Tribe is another of the great, local Detroit labels of the 1970s and like Strata, had a deep engagement with the local situation. They not only released albums by stalwarts of the Detroit jazz scene (including the incredibly influential Marcus Belgrave), but also a magazine that tackled key political and cultural issues for the Black community. While the label was short lived, like Strata it captured a moment in time.

Belgave’s Gemini II for example, blends space jazz, fusion, and soul into a post-bop statement album. Belgrave didn’t record often although he played out constantly throughout his career. More importantly, he mentored a new generation of Detroit musicians included the superstar Kenny Garrett.   

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Almost as good as a soundtrack is trombonist Phil Ranelin’s The Time is Now (which also features Marcus Belgrave).

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Maybe I’m just romanticizing these labels and this period. I recognize, of course, that Detroit in the 1970s was a complex, racially torn, and economically vulnerable. But that said, there’s a kind of defiance and power in this music that seems to align with the view of Detroit in my imagination. 

Music Monday: Kahil El’Zabar

Kahil El’Zabar is one of my favorite musicians. I love the deep groove inherent in almost everything he’s released and his unapologetically political. I don’t always get what he’s saying, but I feel like I need to listen to him carefully. 

It doesn’t hurt that he’s also played with so many of the musicians that I really like including some of the post-Coltrane greats like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, the innovative and unpredictable Billy Bang, and both the original and more recent generation of AACM musicians from Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors to the more recent members like Justin Dillard and Corey Wilkes.

Since El’Zabar’s birthday was last week and he has a new album coming out on Friday, it seemed like a nice time to provide a little list of my favorite three Kahil El’Zabar albums. This shouldn’t be confused with a list of his best albums or anything like that. They’re just the ones that constantly hoover around the edges of my collection.

First, I really like Conversations which brings El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio together with Archie Shepp in 1999. Like most El’Zabar albums (especially which feature him alongside AACM founder Malachi Favors and longtime Chicago staple Ari Brown), there’s a groove here and Shepp’s playing shows that he can speak across registers as effortlessly as he did in the 1970s and when he does take off on a more wild-eyed flight, it’s almost serves to inform his more melodic moments and remind the listener that there’s always this tension in his playing between the song and the fury. 

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Billy Bang is one of those artists whose work has always wanted to get to know better, but the idea of jazz violin has sort of made me nervous. Spirits Entering (2001) has been one of my introductions to his work and it’s the kind of album that I can listen to over and over and drift in and out of over the course of  an afternoon and consistently find something interesting. Like all El’Zabar albums, there’s a groove and there’s also a story and the interplay between the two is the power of his brand of spiritual jazz. 

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Finally, El’Zabar partnership with Hamiet Bluiett has been as enduring as it is wonderful. In El’Zabar’s American the Beautiful (2020) Bluiett’s baritone sax sometimes threatens to steal the show. The tracks on the album range from pop standards to the American songbook, as with so many of El’Zabar’s albums, and the interpretations of the songs flow along with enough momentum to be contagiously fun and enough depth to be serious. The album cover evokes the productive tension between the message and the messenger with the spectacular critique of the American flag. 

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Finally, the band that El’Zabar has assembled for his new album sounds really great. I’ve been curious about the trumpeter Corey Wilkes for some time and I’m looking forward to his work on this new album. Based on what I’ve heard on A Time for Healing should very much continue in El’Zabar’s tradition of compelling groove-centered spiritual jazz. You can check it out here.

Music Monday: Solo Notes

Just a very quick music Monday today, and I have a busy week and I’m buckling my scholarship belt for revising another chapter of my book.

Over the weekend, I had the chance to listen to two albums of unaccompanied musicians: one of solo trumpet and the other of solo saxophone. 

The solo trumpet album was Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo: Reflections and Meditation on Monk from 2017, which consists of a series of solo trumpet interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s work. None of the individual tracks do much on their own, but the totality of the album is so deeply engaging to almost be mesmerizing. 

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In contrast, Joe McPhee is one of my favorite musicians, although I have to admit that I love individual tracks of his generally better than entire albums. The opening track of his 1971 album Nation Time is among my favorite tracks that shows both McPhee’s sense of phrasing and rhythm as well as his amazing sound. Tenor & Fallen Angels is from 1977 and offers a much more intense experience. It’s solo saxophone and it allows a listener to really experience McPhee’s sense of phrasing and tempo as well as his amazing ability to tease a wide range of sounds from his horn from big and brash to typical post-Coltrane squawk and honk. If Smith’s album provides a meditative reflection on Monk which washes over you, McPhee keeps you at attention and challenges the listener throughout.    

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I realize, of course, that any number of jazz musicians performed solo albums. Dave Douglas did a blog post on solo trumpet albums (including one by Lester Bowie that I still haven’t heard) a decade ago. Solo Saxophone is even more common with Anthony Braxton’s For Alto (1971) being a classic in the genre and Marion Brown, Sonny Rollins, Evan Parker, Steve Lacy, Leo Konitz and any number of others doing it (here’s a list from 2008!).

Whenever I listen to these albums I think about the intensely lonely experience of writing or doing fieldwork alone. I suspect I’m a pretty emotionally fragile person, but I find the stress of writing without a co-author to be incredibly taxing. I can’t imagine what it’s like to record an album or perform an entire concert without anyone there to coax, cover, and collaborate with you. That alone makes listening to these solo albums a rewarding and challenging experience.

Music Monday: Jazz and History

Last week, Dizzy Gillespie would have celebrated his 104th birthday and while Dizzy makes only an occasional appearance in my house, I took this impressive landmark to play two albums of his that I’ve long appreciated. 

I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve never really dug deeply into Dizzy’s discography and adapted instead a random sampling strategy familiar to any archaeologist who has worked on an extensive survey project. When using this method, I’ve always been drawn to his 1961 album An Electrifying Evening with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet which was recorded at the MoMA and includes as its final track an 18 minute interview with Dizzy. The album is short, energetic, and includes genuinely remarkable performances of “Kush” and Gillespie’s classic “A Night in Tunisia” in their full orientalist glory.

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The other album of Dizzy’s that I find myself coming back to time and time again is Diz and Getz (1955) with (of course) tenor saxophone player Stan Getz backed by Oscar Peterson (piano), Ray Brown (bass), Max Roach (drums), and Herb Ellis on guitar. The Peterson-Brown-Roach rhythm section and Herb Ellis on guitar overlapped with both Oscar Peterson’s Trio and with Dizzy’s early 1950s working band. Getz was not an unknown quantity to this group, but his style offered a significant contrast to the more rollicking tempos favored by Dizzy. To my untrained ear, the contrast in styles and tones really worked perfectly making this album more than a blowing session. If you like the opening track, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” which alternates between almost skittering to silky, then you’ll find the entire set engaging.

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One thing that I find compelling about jazz and improvised music is the often explicit awareness of history. Last week, I also had three albums by James Brandon Lewis on heavy rotation. Lewis is a tenor sax player whose 2019 album An UnRuly Manifesto captured my attention. He released three albums in 2021. The first, with the Red Lily Quintet is titled Jesup Wagon, after the agricultural education wagon developed by George Washington Carver in Alabama to spread the latest methods and technology to black farmers. Red Lily Quintet is a tight ensemble featuring William Parker (bass) and Chad Taylor (drums) and Kirk Knuffke (cornet) and Chris Hoffman (cello). The play Lewis’s compositions which both evoke a mood and tell a story. “Lowlands of Sorrow” is pretty amazing with Lewis and Knuffke trading solos over a driving rhythm set out by Parker and punctuated by Taylor. I like the idea that this kind of album is a modern day Jesup Wagon designed to spread a new kind of knowledge to a new audience.

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The second album deserves a deeper listen than I’ve managed to give it so far, but it’s called Code of Being and whereas Jessop Wagon feels anchored in a historical time and place (even if this place is a bit unclear), Code of Being is more expansive and theatrical affair. “Code of Hella” with its droning bass and its series of “Oriental” and then Latin melodies seems to simultaneously look forward in sync with the interest in contemporary jazz to make grandiose statements and to the intimacy and melodic investment that prospered at the dawn of Bebop.   

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