Your Holiday Shopping List or, My Island of Misfit Toys

If you’re wise (and/or foolish) enough to take my advice seriously, here are some of my favorite things from 2013.

If you are looking for gift ideas, for yourself or your loved ones, any of these items come highly recommended.

1. Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information/Wings of Love

First, back to the future with Shuggie Otis. His masterpiece, Inspiration Information, was initially released in 1974. It should have been a chart-topping event. It was re-released (thanks to David Byrne) in 2001; it should have been a paradigm shattering event. It was re-re-released in 2013, along with a bonus disc of post-70s work, a gift and a revelation. It should have set millions of ears on fire. Unfortunately, for him, for too many uninitiated listeners, it seems destined to be the ultimate underground joint. And that’s fine. Here is your opportunity to get right with history: trust me, you owe it to yourself.

Here’s a taste from my PopMatters review:

Certain albums, for whatever reason, never find the audience they deserve, failing to connect due to fashion or fate, or because too many souls have been sold in the service of crossover pop candy. It’s one of the oldest, if saddest stories in the music business: same as it ever was. A possibility that at once explains and justifies—however belatedly—the unique potential of Inspiration Information is that, unlike certain cult classics (Love’s Forever Changes) or unrealized masterworks (The Beach Boys’ SMiLE), Otis’ album can, and should, resonate with any listener, anytime. Like right now.

Still a teenager when he wrote and performed it, this song alone should have put Otis in a class by himself. As a composition, “Strawberry Letter 23” is a near perfect synthesis of funk, soul and rock. Sly Stone got (real) close; so did Stevie Wonder, but neither hit the trifecta as indelibly. More than anything anyone else did for the entire decade, “Strawberry Letter 23” picks up what Hendrix was putting down and takes it further into the future: The phased fade-out of the coda is like Side Three of Axis: Bold as Love. And it works as a wholly organic and original vibe; Otis is not trying to recapture (or copy) Hendrix, which is what so many inferior musicians have done. If Hendrix, especially on his ballads like “Little Wing” and “Drifting”, was refining the best work Curtis Mayfield did with the Impressions, “Strawberry Letter 23” anticipates the farther-out freakiness of Funkadelic and the watered down, not-so-solid gold white boys would take to the bank too many times to count.

Full review HERE.

2. Will Calhoun: Life in This World

It is easy to admire Will Calhoun. He has, of course, distinguished himself for the last quarter-century with Living Colour. Anyone who has followed this band beyond what gets played on the radio knows he is one of the premier rock drummers. What many people might not know is that Calhoun is restless as he is talented. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, Calhoun was comfortable playing with jazz musicians years before he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. During Living Colour’s first hiatus, in the mid-‘90s, Calhoun took several extended trips to Africa, studying his instrument and absorbing the culture.

We live in a peculiar time, where industries are imploding and traditional opportunities are shrinking. Whether it’s movies, books or music, the increasingly antiquated view is that an artist should find one thing, do it well, and repeat as often as possible. That limited—and limiting—approach could never apply to a creative force as itinerant and gifted as Will Calhoun. Living life and making music on his own terms has made him the antithesis of our attention deficit generation, and an artist worthy of our consideration and gratitude. It seems certain he will continue doing inspired work that will remain engaging many years from today.

Full review HERE. (Nice feedback from one of my favorite living drummers: I want to personally thank you for writing a brilliant review on my recent release LIFE IN THIS WORLD. More importantly, your insight into the music, choice of tunes, personnel, my career, and the reality of the music business reveals the true identity to the reader. Thank you! Will Calhoun.)

3. New Zion Trio: Chaliwa

Every day, Jamie Saft becomes more like his mentor, the indefatigable—and incomparable—John Zorn. Like Zorn, he is ludicrously productive, aesthetically audacious and churns out albums that are as amazing as much for their consistency as their diversity.

Where NZT’s debut Fight Against Babylon boasted discernible roots elements, the follow-up is a more focused, entrenched approach to instrumental reggae. At times it recalls a more pure mash-up of what Lee Perry got up to in his laboratory in the late ‘70s; at others it is reminiscent of the epic space jams from Prince Far I’s Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3. It works as agreeable background music (again, in a good way), but is meant to be absorbed and internalized. Like the best music, it gets better the more you hear it. If you’ve not given New Zion Trio a try, now is the time to hear what everyone else is missing.

Full review HERE.

4. John Goodman: Mingus Speaks

Like Ellington, Mingus wrote his autobiography in his music. Unlike Ellington, Mingus was never accorded remotely the same measure of respect, money and corresponding opportunities. As a result he was a constant cauldron of insecurity, anger and, more than occasionally, fear. Certainly not the first or last man in America to see his brilliance misconstrued, undermined or (worst by far) ignored, Mingus, as much as any 20th Century icon, had sufficient cause to feel aggrieved. That this man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a skyscraper was able to remain as productive and positive as he did is a testament to his will, and a defiant commentary on our not-so-awesome American tradition of failing to appreciate or embrace our geniuses while they share air with us.

John Goodman deserves credit and praise for his work here. For starters, most of the interviews (with Mingus; with others) were conducted when he was a jazz critic for Playboy, and the intent was to compile them for a book. For a variety of factors, it was not meant to be, but Goodman was never able to stop thinking about it. The result, finally, provides something for everyone: it contains the history of Mingus, a history of jazz (which can also be found in his discography), astute reflections on American culture—from Mingus; from others, especially Goodman himself—and yet another testament to a titan who looms ever larger. Perhaps in the final analysis, this difficult project, an obvious labor of love, further sets the record straight and stands as something Mingus himself would undoubtedly endorse.

Full review HERE. (Happily, Goodman endorsed the review; here is his comment via the PopMatters site: Sean, this is a great review. You not only have a remarkable understanding of Mingus, but you got the gist of what I was trying to do in the book. Thanks so much. –John Goodman)

5. Jimi Hendrix: People, Hell, Angels

Do we, at this point, require further evidence that Jimi Hendrix was the most prodigiously gifted guitarist to ever play the instrument? We do not. Then again, we don’t need additional proof that stars glow at night, but it’s still nice to see them light up the sky.

Not quite filler, much of this material is anything but indispensable. On the other hand, considering how fleeting Hendrix’s recording career turned out to be, it’s remarkable that so much material was recorded. In this regard, Hendrix was way ahead of his time, ceaselessly working in his own studio and putting jams and improvisations on tape. What remains are fragments that got worked into more refined compositions, and enticing snapshots of ideas and visions that never had a chance to reach fruition.

For Hendrix enthusiasts, and the historical record, this latest (and hopefully not last) installment is priceless in its way. Any time we have an opportunity to hear Hendrix, particularly the incomplete works that clarify how his restless creativity operated, we are amassing additional (if unnecessary) validation that Jimi Hendrix, as an artist and explorer, has few peers in modern music.

Full review HERE.

(Bonus Book)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Apparently another movie was made about this, the best American novel of the 20th Century. Whatever. If you have not yet read the original masterpiece, your life is less because of it. I wrote at length, in May, in response to a provocative piece that picked apart the book. Check it out HERE. The premise of my essay, in addition to celebrating “The Greatness of the Gatsby” is to remind naysayers or the uninitiated that while it remains the ultimate period piece –of the Roaring ’20s and the emptiness that followed fast on its heels– it is timeless in the way that we are timeless in all our rage, aspiration and the myriad follies we inflict on one another. Also, it happens to nail, for all time, the devastating myth that sells itself, endlessly, as the American Dream.

What Fitzgerald does, with these ostensibly soulless and unpleasant people, is interrogate cause and effect, motive and aftermath, and all aspects of that myth sold to us as the American Dream. He takes this construction and places it on the operating table, dissecting what causes it to breathe, thrive and rot from the inside out. In this single regard, Fitzgerald was more prophetic than his critics can comprehend: he predicted how the roaring ‘20s would end and be remembered before they expired. If the people (like Nick) who wind up on the outside looking in see nothing but emptiness, it’s because all vanity, in the end, returns to the ashes whence it sprang. Fitzgerald is not describing anything Ecclesiastes did not say first, if less poetically.

In addition, he depicted the way Americans would react to every calamity of the 20th Century: after each debacle, the architects of said crisis waltz away, licking their wounds and counting their cash. No amount of dour intuition could have prepared Fitzgerald to imagine that, in the 21st century, they also get paid to scold the complicit masses (receiving book deals, going into politics or appearing on TV—the lucky ones doing all three). Think about the cowards in Congress today, who lustily passed legislation (and deregulation) that hastened the latest crash, now pushing austerity (but not higher taxes!). It isn’t that their methods or strategies are predictable (they are), it’s the narrative they employ that is so quintessentially American: cynicism covered in money, preaching solidarity.

In one of the most quoted passages of the book, Tom and Daisy are described as “careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” One need look no further than Wall Street, or Iraq, or the budgetary realities of a small town under sequestration to see, even with eyes wide shut, the ways everything Fitzgerald held his mirror up to are reflecting back at us, bigger, uglier and more shameless than they ever were a century ago. In America it is not only romance and nostalgia that ensure we are borne, ceaselessly to the past.

(See what I did there?)


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