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: 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: 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!

The Media Is Not Always the Message

I continue to slog my way through revisions on my book project which I’m now calling “the world’s longest Master’s thesis.” This week, I’ve started to revise my chapter titled “Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology.” You can read the original version here.

As part of my effort both to emphasize the American experience more thoughtfully and to trace more specifically the networks and relationships that form what we consider the American experience. In my effort to revise my chapter on media and archaeology, I take as a point of departure the rather mundane appearance of the Atari E.T. game cartridge and contrast it with its rather frustrating game play and its relationship to the blockbuster movie. A narrowly archaeological perspective focused exclusively on the materiality of the game might find little of particular interest in the hard plastic cartridge, the circuit board inside, or the adhesive paper sticker (although see Guins 2014). To understand the significance of the game, one would have to understand game play, the digital code, and the devices that made game play possible.

In the introduction to this chapter I draw upon two musical examples. First is the excavation of an assemblage of records from Rancho Olompali where the Grateful Dead had lived in the late 1960s. These records demonstrate the eclectic and diverse taste of the Dead at the point in their career when they were transitioning from being a more free flowing psychedelic rock style to a style characterized by more intricate folks harmonies, melodies and lyrics. The second example is a reading of the work done by John Cherry and Krysta Ryzewski in documenting the George Martin’s AIR studio on Caribbean island of Monserrat. The first example allows us to consider the impact of consumption patterns on our view of the late-1960s counter culture typified in some ways by The Dead. The second example allows us to reflect on the networks of colonial relationships that informed the music produced at Martin’ AIR Studios in the 1980s. Both examples rely less on the materiality of the records or the studio space and more on the music that these records contained and the AIR studio produced. 

Here are the three most relevant paragraphs:

Micah Bloom’s Codex project (Bloom 2017), which we detailed at the conclusion of the last chapter, likewise explores the fate of media cast out of context by the Souris River flood in Minot. Bloom demonstrates how the topics and titles of the abandoned, damaged, and forlorn books create subtle ironies, emphasize their abject state, and communicate the intimate potential of media. E. Breck Parkman’s excavation and cataloguing of the vinyl records recovered from excavations of the burned remains of Rancho Olompali where the Grateful Dead had lived as part of a larger commune for almost 2 years before a fire destroyed the rented mansion in 1969 offers another example of how media offers a particularly vivid window into the recent past (Parkman 2014). The discography recovered presented a wide range of collecting and listening habits from July Garland to Doc Watson, Frank Sinatra, recordings of Broadway musicals, and jazz artists. The presence of lead and asbestos in the debris required extensive remediation before archaeologists could document and study the material. Like so many of the books recovered by Bloom’s Codex project and the Atari games collected from the Alamogordo landfill, the records were largely unplayable, but nevertheless told the story of the “eclectic and contradictory” tastes of the commune surrounding the Grateful Dead. Parkman noted how the assemblage of records spoke to the diversity of tastes present in the Olompali commune in the late 1960s and complicates a narrow view of late 1960s counter culture.

John Cherry’s, Krysta Ryzewski’s, and Luke J. Pecoraro’s work at the Sir George Martin’s AIR studios on the Caribbean island of Monserrat offers another example of how traditional archaeology intersects with the archaeology of media (Cherry et al. 2013). The studio hosted the recording of any number of famous albums from its establishment in Monserrat in 1979 including significant albums by the Police, Duran Duran, Dire Straits, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones. It was abandoned after hurricane Hugo devastated the island in 1990 and, five years later, the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano blasted the studio with a pyroclastic flow sealing its fate. Since then, the studio has stood in an exclusion zone surrounding the volcano and succumbed to vegetation and the elements. Cherry and colleagues explored the studio space in 2012 and documented its current condition and the dispersal of key elements of the studio – such as its bar, its recording console, and its sound system – around the island and the world. They also reflected briefly on how the studio’s distinctive layout, design, location, and recording technology shaped the music that the studio produced. While their efforts to document the studio did not reveal any recoverable media or direct links to the studio’s audible output, the archaeology did emphasize that the compact design of the studio and its location on a small island promoted a kind of intimate and intensive practice which contributed to its successful output.

Much as the selection of records in the Grateful Dead’s collection revealed challenges to our expected pattern of consumption associated with counter culture movement. The list of bands produced by George Martin at the AIR studio is almost entirely white, with the exception of Luther Vandross and Ziggy Marley. The status of Monserrat as an British overseas territory serves as remind of the British colonial expansion and its key role in creating the Black Atlantic as a political, cultural, and economic institution. The development of reggae music, for example, among Black residents of the British Caribbean and in the Caribbean diaspora in the UK led to its incorporation into the sound of punk and post-punk bands such as the Police, who by the 1980s traveled to the Caribbean to record their music. The appropriation of blues and R&B music by British bands such as the Climax Blues Band, The Rolling Stones, and Dire Straits, further traced the spread of Black music beyond its origins in the United States through the sale of records. In the context of the AIR studios, the genres of music and the lines of influence follow the recursive flow of Black culture through the Atlantic world and complicates the reading of the studio itself. If “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” offered a compelling caricature of the excesses of the American society in the 1970s and 1980s, it is useful to remember that “rock ’n’ roll” (like many of the more popular drugs of the same period) often traced long-standing colonial lines of exchange. These patterns of exchange also continued to appropriate the creative forces of the Black Atlantic for the benefit of colonial powers. The physical remains of Martin’s AIR studio in Monserrat might ultimately become an important landmark in the islands late-20th century history. The media that this studio produced, however, traces a far more global reach and situates the studio in a longer and more complex history of colonial relations, appropriation, and power.  

Live Blogging Music, Reading, and Cooking on Thanksgiving

I’m going to try a bit live-blogging this morning to document my Thanksgiving day adventures. There’s nothing particularly exciting about my morning, but there is something vaguely archaeological about the intersection of reading, cooking, and listening to music. Hopefully this live blog will bring some of that out. 

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6 am

The turkey is in the smoker and sitting at about 210°. 

I’m hunkered down by the fire reading Krysta Ryzewski’s Detroit Remains and listening to Lee Morgan introduce the band for the Friday, July 10th 1970 performance at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California.

I’m reading with significant interest Ryzewski’s account of how her work at the Ransom Gillis house in Detroit involved negotiating with an HGTV program for access and collaboration. While I’ve just started reading this chapter, it’s struck me as not entirely dissimilar to the negotiations conducted by Andrew Reinhard to get us access to the Atari excavations at Alamogordo. 

I’m aware that Lee Morgan does not have any particular connections to the Detroit jazz scene, but the 7.5 hours of music (starting with pianist Harold Mabern’s “The Beehive” which features a scorching “post-Coltranesque solo by Bennie Maupin, one of the underrated voices of late-1960s saxophone. Morgan’s solo is so slick and smooth.)

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6:15 am

As Morgan introduces the band members and heads into the Bennie Maupin number “Something Like This,” a quick check on the smoker shows that the temperature has dropped to about 160°, so I reopened some vents. It’s about 2° F outside so keeping the heat up today might be a challenge!

It seems fitting that I’m fussing with the grill temperatures as reading about Pewabic pottery manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century in the stable behind the Ransom Gillis house in Detroit!

6:30 am

A quick update shows the temperatures have settled to about 210° F and another Bennie Maupin composition “Yunjana” is on the stereo. It’s quieter and a bit more settled which makes it an appropriate complement to the stabilizing temperatures on the grill.

7 am

I’m cutting out on Bennie Maupin’s lovely flute solo on the first track of the second set from July 10th, “I Remember Brit” to check the heat and maybe start some more coals. It’s now 1° outside!

It looks like no new coals are needed and while I missed most of Lee Morgan’s lyrical solo, I’m thoroughly enjoying Harold Mabern’s piano work on “I Remember Brit.” The long tail of bebop makes a great backdrop to Ryzewski’s chapter on the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit where bebop found a home in Detroit’s musical landscape in the late 1940s.

7:20 am

The temperature is still a steady 210° and there’s been a car accident outside our house. The cops are on hand and they have a dog working to try to find the driver of the car, which was apparently stolen. It’s a bit dramatic, but the cops seem very intent on getting it sorted.

Jymie Merritt’s bass solo at around the 15 minute mark in his “Absolutions” is pretty great. 

I’m enjoying reading about Paradise Valley in Detroit and its vibrant music scene and thinking about it also as the place of origins for the Nation of Islam which would developed in the decade before the bebop heyday of the Blue Bird Inn, but which would go on the exert an influence over music (and especially jazz) in its own way especially when it relocated to Chicago in the early 1930s.

Now, I get to fret about when to start a fresh batch of coals. There’s no need to add them if the temperature hangs at 200°-ish.   

Wrapping up the second set of July 10th with another rollicking version of Lee Morgan’s “Speedball” before the 3rd session of the night begins with Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet on his “416 East 10th Street.”

8:00 am

I had some breakfast and started a new chimney full of coals. The temperatures are dropping from 210° to 200°. hit the turkey with the first round of smoke. I’m going with cherry wood and a just a bit of hickory. 

I’m listening to Lee Morgan’s classic “Sidewinder” from the 3rd set of July 10th. It’s scorching and the absolutely outer fringes of hard bop just as it should have been in the 1970!

Back to reading about the Blue Bird Inn and the state of both Black owned entertainment venues, recording, and music in late 1940s Detroit.

8:30 am

Lee Morgan’s “Speedball” from Set 4 on Friday, July 10th feels even a bit more “out” than the version at the end of Set 2. It was hard to drag myself away from it to check on the bird in the smoker. Temperatures are still around 210° with the addition of wood chips adding just about 5° to the heat. I probably started the additional coals prematurely, but better to be prepared, I guess.

The work of various stake holders on the Blue Bird Inn is fascinating. I appreciated the performance of music in the venue once again by some members of the Wayne State music program and would have loved to hear a recording of their set. I wonder how it would compare to live recordings made in the venue in the 1950s (with Phil Hill’s band apparently). My work in the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus included working with Michael Wittgraf to record in the Corwin Hall recital space and to think of these recordings as a way to preserve not only the original use of the space, but its changes over time. It was a small offering to the debates 

I’m now onto Set 1 from July 11th with begins with Mabern’s “Aon” which is very much hard bop and feels just right to get the audience ready from the more adventurous offerings to follow.

9:00 am

I finally had to add some coals to the fire to keep the heat closer to 210° than to 180°. Temperatures outside were about 2° so this seems reasonable. 

Fortunately, it’s warm by the fire inside and Bennie Maupin’s lyricism is on full display during his opening solo on his “Yunjana” from the first set on July 11th. Lee Morgan’s reflective solo complements Maupin’s perfectly and keeps the mood going.

The slow, but not sluggish lyricism of these songs is a lovely backdrop to Ryzewski’s work of “slow archaeology” at Gordon Park in Detroit where she and students conducted repeated pedestrian surveys to chart how the park established to mark the start of the 1967 uprising in the city changed over time and endured episodes of neglect and revitalization.

9:30 am

There’s a point my operating the smoker where I can’t quite figure out if the best way to keep the heat up is adding more coals or adding more air by opening the vents. I opted to add a bit more coals and restrict air flow right now with the hope I can open the vents and stretch the coals until close to noon where I’ll take the first temperature of the turkey. 

The second set of July 11th opens with Mabern’s “I Remember Brit” and it’s lovely round based on “Brother John” (or Frère Jacques) that eventually gives way to steady dose of a hard bop melody. You can similarly hear the musicians trying to manage the heat of their sets. You need to keep it warm enough to pull in the listener, but too much fire and the entire show begins to combust too soon and too hot. “I Remember Brit” does just that and it’s a suitable backdrop to the start of coal management work in my smoker. Of course, things get hotter after that with Mabern’s “busy” track “The Beehive.”   

10:00 am

Temperatures are cruising along at around 210° and Lee Morgan’s quintet is finishing Set 2 on July 11, 1970 with “Speedball,” before starting Set 3 with Maupin’s bass clarinet on his “Neophilia.”

I’m just getting into Ryzewski’s chapter on the Grande Ballroom in Detroit which witnessed a wide range of remarkable shows. She’s focusing on its history as a rock music venue and its subsequent history of neglect, abandonment, and deterioration. I’m just getting into the chapter and was pleasantly surprised to see the reference to “punk archaeology”! I’m looking forward to reading about the kinds of archaeological documentation deployed in working to understand and interpret this significant building.

The first temperature check on the bird will happen at around noon, and until then, we’ll be in coals management mode!

10:30 am

The heat is too high!! So I closed some vents and opened the ones on the lid to bleed some heat, but this is a good sign for the rest of the morning because I can conserve coals and cut the heat down to low and slow.

Bassist Jymie Merritt’s “Nomo” appears in Set 3 of the July 11th performance of Lee Morgan’s crew. It has a loose, but deep groove and Morgan really shines on his solo midway through the track. It’s clear that funk, soul jazz, and the spirit of late hard bop come together in this track. 

The chapter on the Grande Ballroom in Detroit is really remarkable. Not only did the work from Ryzewski’s crew show how survey methods can be adapted to document standing buildings in ways that reveal their transformation over time, as well as their main phases of use. Interweaving the discoveries from the building and its history helped me appreciate the role of John and Leni Sinclair in the musical history of Detroit. I’ve appreciated Leni Sinclair’s photography of jazz musicians and her work for Strate Corporation on their cover art and now I can connect her and her husband to the rock and proto-punk scene fueled by the MC5 (who John Sinclair managed) and bands like the Stooges who performed regularly at the Grande Ballroom.

11:00 am

The heat has settled back into the acceptable range, and I’ve added a bit of cherry wood to add some smoke. I’ve also recalled a certain yellow dog from his turkey guard duty as the temperatures outside hang around in the single digits.

Lee Morgan’s guys are into Set 4 on Saturday night and playing Bennie Maupin’s “Peyote” with a kind of comfortable intensity that feels like it should naturally lead into Jymie Merrit’s “Absolutions” as the final number of the night.

I’m also onto the final chapter of Detroit Remains which involves documenting a 19th century log cabin which was quietly preserved in the frame of a 20th century house in a Detroit neighborhood.  

11:30 am

The smoker is just chilling at 200° and my hope is that we’re well on out way to a smoked turkey. Stay tuned for a temperature check in about 30 minutes.

Set 1 from Sunday, July 12, 1970 begins with Bennie Maupin’s “Something Like This.” While this set’s performance may lack the fireworks of those recorded on the 10th and 11th, it certainly has a copious amount of feeling and soul. It was worth the wait.

The final chapter of Detroit Remains, likewise offer a healthy dose of feeling as it deals with the demolition of the log house discovered in Hamtramck by the Detroit Land Bank despite efforts made to preserve and move the building. As someone who has seen any number of significant historical buildings demolished in my community, I can empathize with the disappointment expressed by the authors and stakeholders.     

12 pm

The first temperature check and, miracles of miracles, the bird is done: 165° on the dot.

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Happily, my reading of Detroit Remains is done for the day too. Ryzewski’s reflections on Section 106 reviews in the aftermath of the Hamtramck log house demolition resonated with my own experiences on the State Historical Review Board and our local Historic Preservation Commission. While locally we continue to see innumerable 106 reviews, we also recognize how much these remain dependent upon the collective good will of the city, contractors, developers, and the community. Raising awareness of historical preservation issues always involves threading the needle between being outspoke about the value of the past in general and navigating the complicated interests that establish the value of specific pasts to specific communities and stakeholders. 

Finally, “I Remember Brit” from Set 2 on Sunday, July 12 is playing in the background and I sort of feel like pressing pause on this track and listening to the final performance during dinner in an hour or so. And this probably means pressing pause on this bizarre experiment in live blogging.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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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Music Monday: Theo Croker and James Brandon Lewis

This past week, I’ve been enjoying Theo Croker’s latest album, BLK2LIFE || A Future Past. For anyone not familiar with Croker’s work, he’s a young(ish) jazz trumpeter (the grandson, it would seem, of Doc Cheatham. Thanks Wikipedia!) whose last few albums have embraced certain elements of both Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism. 

His most recent album cover is perhaps the most blatant in this regard. Croker, seated an Egyptianizing throne, butterflies, lotus flowers, and surrounded by magical and historical landscapes (including, I believe, Giza and Los Angeles) and a field of stars. According to Croker, the album was inspired by “psilocybin meditations and astral travels” while in COVID lockdown.

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The themes present in the album cover parallel the the titles of a few of his earlier albums, including Afrophysicist, Escape Velocity, and Star People Nation. It is clear that Croker is keying into themes present not just in work of jazz predecessors such as Sun Ra, but the Black culture more broadly. The idea of a future past is perfect for me these days as I’m writing about time, the present, and contemporaneity in archaeology.

The music itself is perhaps less adventurous than the album cover. Croker draws on a wide range of inspirations from fusion era Miles Davis, to Donald Byrd’s soul jazz (who was apparently a mentor to Croker while they were at Oberlin), and, of course, the current trend toward exploring the intersection of jazz and hiphop and R&B. The cameo by Wyclef Jean is pretty fun and appearances by Ari Lennox, Charlotte Dos Santos, Iman Omari, and Kassa Overall create a range of sonic textures and opportunities for engaging with a wide range of listeners. I find the album pretty insistent without being forced and this is either a good or a bad thing, depending on your feeling about the future. 

I usually listen to an album five or six time in various settings before writing about it, but last night after a weekend when I worked too much (more on that later this week) and probably didn’t get enough rest, I put on on James Brandon Lewis’s 2019 album, An UnRuly Manifesto.

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The album cover is a bit less adventurous than Croker’s but still compelling and the music might offer a deeper provocation. Lewis is a tenor sax player who apparently cut his teeth with Charlie Haden. In fact, the album is dedicated to Haden, Ornette Coleman, and Surrealism. It is appropriate, then, that the rhythm section on this album is Luke Stewart on bass and Warren Trae Crudup III. Crudup and Stewart and tight (in a good way) and driving and provide a great foundation for Lewis, Jaimie Branch (on trumpet) and Anthony Priog on guitar to explore. While there is a lot on this album to remind one of Ornette Coleman, the places I found the album most compelling is when it evoked just a bit of Albert Ayler (such as on “Haden is Beauty”… although maybe I’m hearing mid-1960s Coleman and Cherry).

In any event, the album is UnRuly and clearly offers a pre-COVID manifesto of sorts. I’m looking forward to digging more into it this week and spinning (well, virtually at least) Lewis’s two 2021 albums Code of Being  and Jesup Wagon (with the Red Lily Quintet and William Parker on bass!) as well.