Music Monday: Grachan Moncur III

Last week, Grachan Moncur III died. I got to know him (metaphorically, of course) as a jazz trombonist, but as the obituaries have come in, it is clear that he was also an activist who wrote music for James Balwin’s plays, participated in the wider Black Arts Movement along side Amiri Baraka and Archie Shepp as well as producing and contributing to some iconic albums during the 1960s. I like knowing that avant-garde such as Shepp, Sun Ra, and Moncur understood their music as part of a larger social program that sought to elevate Black people and Black art.

I first encountered Moncur’s playing on Jackie McLean’s album One Step Beyond in 1963. His composition “Ghost Town” is outstanding.

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It wasn’t until after hearing that album about a dozen times that looked up Moncur’s contemporary dates as a leader for Blue Note. On Evolution, he was with a top tier crew with McLean, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Tony Williams on drums, and Bob Cranshaw on bass. It’s all works written by Moncur and they’re all pretty great. Critics seem to really like “Monk in Wonderland,” but “Air Raid” is my favorite. If you haven’t heard this album, it’s pretty great.

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The next year, he released Some Other Stuff with a slightly different crew including the core of Miles Davis’s future outfit (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams with Cecil McBee on bass). As someone who once thought a good bit about Early Christianity the Gothic-sounding “Gnostic” is my favorite track here, although all of them are really outstanding especially since Moncur’s trombone has a bit more space to work on this release.

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While Moncur continued to work extensively over the next 50 years, I want to single out one more of his 1960s recordings. The Way Ahead is an Archie Shepp date from 1969. On it, Shepp and Moncur reprise his “Frankenstein” which appeared on McLean’s One Step Beyond and it’s cool to hear Ron Carter’s frantic bass playing and Shepp’s raspy saxophone remove the early 1960s sheen from this song and allow it to skitter and squawk and announce itself. It’s brilliant and well worth the listen.

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Music Monday: Americana

Over the last week, I’ve been listening to more pop music than usual as part of my daily writing routine. (What’s even stranger is that I’m alternating between so-called “World Music” and Americana these days). Perhaps I’m feeling the tension between being abroad and thinking about home more this year after not traveling for the last two?

Or maybe it’s just a coincidence. The one of the audio reviewers that I regularly enjoy, John Darko of DarkoAudio, mentioned that band Giant Sand and their recent vinyl re-release of their iconic 2012 Tucson. I had heard of Giant Sand, but I had never listened to one of their albums and so on his recommendation, I streamed Tucson, and it’s really a wonderful album. Howe Glebs’s voice seems made for this kind of music as it imbues the stories he tells and scenes he constructs with the dusty patina of the American West. On songs where his voice isn’t front and center (and apparently this album features a cast of dozens including a children’s choir!), the music offers the comfortable and familiar twang and strum of alt-country as a backdrop. As an aside, the song titled “Slag Heap” should superficially resonate with anyone working in western Cyprus!

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I’ve also been listening to James McMurtry’s The Horses and the Hounds (2021). I was (and am still) not entirely familiar with his music or career (other than his famous father) and this album has worked as a kind of introduction for me. I don’t love all his songs and stories, but in some cases, his lyrics and delivery connect with me in ways that leave me (mangling) the words and music on runs and idle moments. Much like Tucson, there’s enough substance here to make the album feel meaningful and in a world that seems teetering in the edge of meaninglessness, that feeling might be all we have.

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Finally, over the weekend, I’ve been listening to the new Wilco album, Cruel County, which came out on Friday. It’s solid work and a comforting listen. The themes are sometimes provocative (and political) enough to reward another listen and personal enough to remind listeners of Wilco’s early efforts that were suffused with just so much earnestness. More than that, the music is pared back and feels as comfortable as a couch on a front porch.
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Music Monday: Shabaka, Lloyd, and Fowler

About five years ago, when we published a little book called Punk Archaeology, my buddy Scott Moore included an essay titled “Don’t Stop Pottery Reading.” It featured a little reflection on the role of music in archaeological work and his ill-fated decision to purchase a Microsoft Zune rather than an iPod.

Like most archaeologists, I listen to music while I work in the storerooms, doing data management tasks, or writing. Music helps me concentrate amid the bustle of collaboration in the sometimes crowded storeroom and tempers the sometimes frustrating work associated with corralling various forms of information into a coherent argument.

(Listening to music during excavation is another matter entirely. I tend to believe that hearing what’s going on while digging is an important part of being able to make good archaeological decisions. Experienced excavators can often hear soil changes before they see them and, of course, there is always the issue of safety especially when working in close quarters with people wielding picks.)

This season, I’ve been enjoying Shabaka Hutchings album Shabaka. He’s long been a favorite of mine for his remarkable range of styles. He sounds as at home playing in more traditional settings with his group Shabaka and the Ancestors as he does playing in with electronics in The Comet is Coming or in the London Jazz idiom of Sons of Kemet. But even this range didn’t quite prepare me for Shabaka.

Shabaka is contemplative, ever so slightly heavy, and deep. It trades the ecstatic sounds of Sons of Kemet and Shabaka and the Ancestors, for more a more meditative sound that suits Hutchings’s capacity for understated lyricism and his attention to tone and sound. This is a fantastic album and one that will remain in my playlist for years to come.

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I’ve paired this album with Sangam by Charles Lloyd, Zakir Hussain, and Eric Harland. Hussain is a tabla player whose intricate rhythms and tones create a tapestry against which Lloyds famous tone can dance. Eric Harland somehow manages to keep everything together. I never really liked the idea of “world music” which often (it seems to me) stood in a euphemism for musical forms or instruments detached from their cultural context. This album avoids this pitfall.

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Finally, I’ve had never heard of Chad Fowler before I started listening to his recent duo with Matthew Shipp. It’s pretty great (and it will be included in my “duos” play list!). Fowler is fiery and Shipp is elegant. Fowler is adventurous and, on this album at least, Shipp anchors Fowler’s flights of fancy. Fowler is deeply committed and Shipp feels just a bit more restrained than usual here. It feels deliberate, like he’s holding back to allow Fowler the space he needs to go all in.

This album is not good for writing or thinking. It demands that I take a break, eat a tiny halloumopita, and think about what I’m doing with my life.

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Music Monday: Keith Jarrett

Yesterday was Keith Jarrett’s birthday and so it felt like a good day to revisit one of the most iconic sounds in late 20th century music. The challenge with a guy like Jarrett is that he simply recorded so much music from the late 1960s to the early decades of the 21st century. 

To celebrate his distinctive sound, I decided to (digitally) spin recordings done with his classic trio of Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette and released by ECM. First, I enjoyed the single release compilation of his live albums recorded in 1983 at the Blue Note in New York. These were originally released as Standards Vol. 1, Standards Vol. 2, and Changes. They embody a sound and sensibility that feels to me like it established the crucial territory for late 20th century jazz: virtuosic in its execution, but perhaps a bit traditional in his horizons?

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I then spun this trios 2001 recording from the Montreux Jazz Festival which is splendid in the balance between its immediacy and refinement. Jarrett’s trio had played together for over 20 years at this point and their deeply sympathetic playing was visible throughout. His performance of “My Foolish Heart,” after which the album is named, evokes Bill Evans and his famous trios in the 1970s and by doing so he feels like he’s marking out similar territory through this trio’s commitment to standards. 

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Finally, I listened to the six volume release of his trio’s 1996 performance at the Blue Note in New York. The album is 7 hours of music and I’m not sure I have it in me to listen to it straight through, but it begs to be put on shuffle and to power me through the rest of my grading and into the summer.

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Music Monday: Mingus

This past week was the centenary of Charles Mingus’s birth and it coincided with the release of a concert recording from Ronnie Scott’s in London in 1972. By 1972, of course, Mingus’s playing was not necessarily what it was a decade earlier, but the album is tight and enjoyable with Mingus’s characteristic balance between the raucous and the spiritual. I don’t really know the performers on this recording (other than Mingus and a vague familiarity with trumpeter Jon Faddis from his time in the mid-1970s with Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra). 

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This got me thinking about Mingus’s catalogue and flipping (digitally, of course) through my collection of his albums and thinking about why I’ve always had a kind of excitement about Mingus, but also tended to manage my listening with him. For me, there was always a time and place for listening to his music (and the centenary of his birth was definitely one of those times and places).

My favorite Mingus is Oh Yeah from 1961 in part because I love the interplay between the member of his band. I’m particularly fond of Roland Kirk and Booker Ervin. I could do without Mingus’s singing and his absence on bass is notable, but “Hog Callin’ Blues” is one of my favorites. And the cover art is great.

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Like most people, I love Blues & Roots (1959) and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) which feel like they bracket Oh Yeah in some ways. Obviously, Blues & Roots (1959) features an all-star band and digs deep into Mingus’s background in the blues and gospel. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) seems to take these some of these same ideas and infused them with Ellington, modal music and Spanish influences. As most music critics agree, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) is a masterpiece and a dense and rewarding listen.

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I need to go back and listen to Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1964) which features one of his greatest bands and swings without abandoning its roots in the blues. “Mood Indigo” followed by “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul” is just a great sequence!

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At the same time, I’m drawn to Let My Children Hear Music (1972) which, like me, turned 50 this year, and offers a compelling window into in Mingus’s large ensemble thinking at the same time as his live show at Ronnie Scott’s. Let My Children Hear Music is not without a certain amount of weirdness. “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too” features animal noises that perhaps meant to evoke a circus (or Jurassic Park). 

The rest of the album, however, takes turns swinging, honking, and blaring and more delicate passages. Through the entire thing, even when we might feel that the overdubbing and editing is a bit heavy-handed for our contemporary tastes (I’ve been also listening to the Bill Evan and George Russell album from the same year which is… difficult to appreciate), the magic of Mingus is audible.   

Music Monday: Japanese Jazz

On Friday, I was surprised by a new collection of Japanese jazz. Called WaJazz: Japanese Jazz Spectacle, this collection appears to derive from the Nippon Columbia Jazz Masters (Nippon Columbia is the name for any number of labels that recorded Japanese artists in the starting in the early decades of the 20th century). 

The album is good and provides a window in the remarkable range of Japanese jazz in the 1970s and 1980s. From stuff that sounds as vigorous and dynamic as the American large ensemble jazz from the 1970s to spiritual jazz complete with post-Coltrane squawks and honks and soul jazz that would make Donald Byrd smile. You can check it out here.

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I don’t know any of the artists and can’t really speak to their individual virtuosity, but the collective character of this album has put it in heavy rotation at my house.

It also pushed me back to the anthology that provided me with my first exposure to the richness and quality of the Japanese jazz tradition from BBE Records:

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This collection (and the two follow up volumes) tends a bit more toward the spiritual side of things with a solid dose of modal and post-bop intensity. Again the artists are unfamiliar to me, but I’ve enjoyed the album length entries in this collection as well

These albums got me thinking much more about the global scope of jazz as an idiom. I have to admit that I am pretty biased toward American jazz artists in part because I imagine that I can understand the social,  political, and cultural context for the musicians and their music. I recognize that listening to music as the illustration of certain larger trends or as a cultural artifacts is not always the most sympathetic way to listen to music. Listening to the passion and intensity of some of these Japanese artists whose passion for jazz developed in the context of post-war American colonialism and cultural interaction, I am actually drawn to wonder about how their music created meaning for these musicians and communities. In fact, I like to think that listening not only to Japanese jazz but also British and European jazz might even help me listen more intently to the music itself rather than listening to it as the manifestation of something that I have all sorted in my head. Of course, every now and then, I cheat and read things like this article from The Guardian that situates Japanese jazz in its cultural moment.

P.S. As I was listening to music last night, I came across another complication of Japanese Jazz. I’ve not heard this, but as I have a day revising a paper, I thought I’d spin it while I polish some prose and check references. Oddly enough, I could only find “Vol. 3” in this series. 

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Music Monday: Sun Ra Sundays

Over the weekend, I started the final push on a long simmering project over at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This project is called Sun Ra Sundays and it involves the converting a well-known blog by musician and music collector Rodger Coleman into a book. Sun Ra Sundays was a long running blog which explored Sun Ra’s musical output during the 1960s and 1970s.

Sam Byrd, a librarian and musician, took on the considerable task of editing and organizing Rodger’s posts and we ran the entire gaggle of them through the editorial wringer to create a more cohesive volume that nevertheless preserved some of the spontaneity of the original posts. 

This book is going to be good. 

First, it’s going to be timely. People are interested in Sun Ra these days not only as part of a new appreciation of his music and improvised music more broadly, his role in the development of Afrofuturism, his poetry and philosophies, and his connection with the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements. A few months ago, I published a review of recent work on Sun Ra and it only scratched the surface. You can read it here.

Second, despite this recent outpouring of interest, there has been remarkably little accessible engagement with his musical legacy. While any number of scholars recognize the significance of his dense and often obscure music, it remains incredibly difficult to untangle his music from its convoluted discography. In fact, Ra’s discography is so complicated that it requires a massive scholarly book by Robert L. Campbell and Chris Trent called The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (1998) that runs to nearly 500 pages. This book for all its erudition does little, however, to help the average listener appreciate, understand, or even identify key recordings from this singular musician.

Sun Ra Sundays does just that. In an accessible and conversational style, it offers a guide to Sun Ra’s music from the 1960s and 1970s with enough context to give a reader the foundation to explore more widely on their own. 

This weekend, I produced a draft of a cover for the book. It’s not a great cover right now, but I think it captures some of the informality of Sun Ra’s discography and makes a certain graphic impact. I think I want to add a kind of hieroglyphic element to the cover before we go to press probably down the right side of the page.

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The interior book design is pretty convention visually, but incredibly challenging. Not only are there over 130 individual chapters, but they vary in length considerably.  

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This through a spanner into my efforts to always start chapter on the recto, for example, and pushed me occasionally start a one-page chapter on the verso. Notice the slight misalignment of the line separating the chapters title from the text. I’ll have to fix this before we go to press.

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For the record, I love Tisa OT as the font in these chapters. It not only produces an incredibly readable text block but also gives it just a bit of contemporary swagger appropriate for one of the founders of Afrofuturism.

Keep an eye out for this title later in the summer!

Music Monday

This week was supposed to offer me more time to relax and listen to music. While I did find some time to unwind, I didn’t end up listening to as much music as I would have liked. That said, I did get a chance to listen to one new album that really caught my attention.

Maquis Hill’s latest, New Gospel Revisited, is absolutely worth your time. I don’t want to call this album “straight ahead jazz” because it clearly reflects Hill’s longstanding interest in hiphop, soul, and and R&B, but unlike his past albums, which often feature vocalists prominently, this album is all instrumental. This gives Marquis Hill a bit more space to stretch out and showcase his impressive trumpet chops. Saxophone player Walter Smith III’s playing is pretty great and vibraphone player Joel Ross add his characteristic shimmer to the entire proceedings. The results are good and locate this album somewhere in the hard bop, post-bop universe. 

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It also got me excited about Joel Ross’s forthcoming release on Blue Note, The Parable of the Poet, which thought was going to drop last Friday, but is now schedule to appear on April 15. As so often happened, it did not, and this nudged me back to his earlier 2020 release, Who Are You? There are real similarities between this and New Gospel Revisited. Walter Smith III produced the album and perhaps his guiding hand shaped the sound. That said, Immanuel Wilkins, one of the key new voices on alto saxophone provided a distinctly different sound that Smith on Hill’s album. Wilkins tone complements Ross’s vibe playing and the two seem to work in tandem setting out melodies and working them through. Anchoring the entire album is Kanoa Mendenhall remarkable (and prominent) bass work. This is post-bop work at a very high level.

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Two more little odds and ends from this past weekend. Mad About Records released the New Jazz Orchestra’s 1965 live set Western Reunion London 1965 on vinyl and offered it, albeit briefly, as a free download. It’s a good album and completely in the spirit of mid and late 1960s big band. If you missed the download, you can check out the album here on YouTube.

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I was also excited to see the re-release of of David Wertman’s Sun Ensemble’s early 1980s album Wide Eye Culture. If mid- to late-1960s big bands tried to carve out more space for individual soloists without abandoning the large ensemble sound, guys like Wertman, taking cues from the loft jazz scene of the 1970s, sought to create a unified experience from the free improvisation of individuals. Wertman’s Sun Ensemble lacks the intense pyrotechnics of some of the loft recordings, but it shares their earnest desire to make music as a kind of spiritual exercise.

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Music Monday: Duos

This week is spring break and I’m looking forward to catching up on all sorts of projects that I’ve allowed to linger about. I also look forward to taking a deeper dive into the massive William Parker box set and follow some of the directions that he traces in those recordings.

For example, I’ve really enjoyed the solo piano of Eri Yamamoto on the second disk of the Parker box set called Child of Sound. Her version of the Parker original, “Malachi’s Mode,” is really great. It got me exploring her discography a bit more especially because I’ve been in the mood for piano jazz lately. A listen to Cecil Taylor’s Return Concert album sort of triggered this “return” to piano jazz which Yamamoto, who plays in a very different style, consolidated. 

I found myself particularly drawn to her set of duo recordings called Duologue. It helps, of course, that the artists on this album are among my favorites: Hamid Drake, Daniel Carter, and William Parker (I’m just not as familiar with drummer Federico Ughi). The album consists of a series duos with Yamamoto on piano. The tracks range from the subtle to the arresting (especially those featuring Daniel Carter), but I’ve found that they all commanded my attention. 

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The other set of piano duos that I listened to this past week was Sullivan Fortner and Kyle Athayde’s Tea for Two. I don’t know Athayde at all, but the play vibes on this album with pianist Fortner. I first heard Fortner on the new Allison Shearer album, A View from Above, and admired his style. Tea for Two gives his distinctly bluesy bop sensibilities pride of place by featuring a number of jazz standards where Athayde provides a kind of atmospheric backdrop to Fortner’s piano. Fortner keeps things from drifting into the ether, but it’s Athayde’s vibes that give the entire project coherence. It’s definitely worth a listen.

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Music Monday and Managing Malaise with Moran, Melissa Aldana, and Migration of Silence

Last week, I was felt out of sorts. I’m not sure whether it was the long tail of The Omicron or a bit of mid-semester fatigue or maybe even a bit of emotional overload from the relentless onslaught of horribleness that seems to confront us every day.

Without trivializing the fatigue experienced by my colleagues or the horrors of the contemporary moment (or the long tail of The Omicron), I started to feel better this week. Not only did I start to feel a bit healthier but even more emotionally energized. My classes have gone well (and the workload has been manageable), my research continues to get me excited, and my music universe seems to shaken off the malaise it felt last week.

Some of the credit has to go do to Melissa Aldana’s remarkable album 12 Stars. It was in heavy rotation all weekend here and it’s really remarkable. Her saxophone has a bit of Charlie Parker and a larger dose of Sonny Rollins and just saunters across these tracks. With guitar, piano (from Sullivan Fortner), bass and drummer forming a tight quintet that adds plenty of texture to her understated but incredibly engaging tenor solos. Having listened to this album three or four times, I found nothing on this album that felt derivative despite its solid grounding in the post-bop style. Perhaps it is the distinctive influence of her roots in Latin jazz filtered through he global band and anchored in a style that is synonymous with the Blue Note label and New York? I really can’t say enough about it.   

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I also really like Jason Moran’s recent album The Sound Will Tell You. I rarely get excited about solo piano, but this album has such an abundance of style and such a distinctive sound that I keep getting drawn back to it. Apparently Moran processed the sound of piano to give each note additional reverberation called a “drip.” Whatever this means, it gives the album a distinctive sound to it that doesn’t compromise our ability to hear Moran’s playing which as usually ranges from delicate to assertive and driving. The tracks refer to Toni Morrison and Moran recorded the album during the COVID quarantine when he was reading a good bit of Morrison. I’ll admit that it’s been years since I’ve read Morrison, but I know now what I want to listen to when I do again.

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Finally, I sold some of my unused stereo gear this past week. I did this part of a larger shuffle to get my office system settled and clear some stereo related clutter from my space. As part of this transaction, I purchased William Parker’s massive, 10-CD, album(?), project(?), boxset(?) called Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World. It is too enormous to review (10+ hours of music) and I’ve only listened to a bit of it, but so far, it’s been thoroughly enjoyable and at times breathtaking. Check out “It’s a Great Day to be Dead” composed by Parker and sung by Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez. I’m looking forward to digging into what Parker has done as a composer and a performer on these tracks.

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And just like the my malaise has abated and