David Bowie: The Man Who Owned the World (Two Years Later)

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ONLY THE BEATLES. That’s the sole comparison that comes to mind when compelled to name a musical act with similar impact and importance. The Beatles, as we all know, changed each year during their still indescribable run, effectively owning the ‘60s. David Bowie, on the other hand, built an entire career on changes, even as he became the peerless satellite so many others orbited around.

Also like The Beatles, Bowie put in his time before lifting off and then, once he really broke through, he kept on breaking, and changing, and winning. A great deal, understandably, has been said about these changes, with inevitable if ultimately reductive words like chameleon and shape shifter tossed into every encomium. David Bowie elevated reinvention to an art form; he was a genius of changing.

About these changes. They weren’t simply haircuts and costume changes (hello, Madonna); they were entirely new identities. And yet and of course, every new character was thoroughly and undeniably David Bowie. This, among so many other things, was what enabled him to remain an innovator who couldn’t be imitated (how can anyone imitate you if you never imitate yourself?). Nor were any of these characters cursory; Bowie transformed himself as well as his music. Although diminished by comparison, none of his better-known acolytes, from envelope-pushers like Eddie Izzard to opportunists like Bono, could have conceivably negotiated their alternately awkward and unabashed milieus without the example set by the Thin White Duke.

Champions of the avant-garde are often bored with, even incapable of conventional thinking. Bowie managed to be several steps ahead of the avant-garde, probably because even he couldn’t have imagined where he was headed next. The thing is, when most artists make profound, if indulgent changes (think Neil Young in the early ‘80s), it alienates fans and inexorably seems either forced or facile. Bowie? He changed the world and took everyone with him, and he did it year after year. Even someone unfamiliar with the music need only look at the cover art from album to album. That’s the same person? Well, yes. And no.

What was that all about? It seldom seemed calculated or strained; indeed, it’s as though he needed to jump-start his own peripatetic sensibility, and these often eccentric, always endearing identities were delivery devices for the brilliance bubbling beneath the pin-up pretense. Red, bleach blonde or brown, his hair—although forever awesome—was window dressing, his clothes more a nod to his impeccable fashion instincts. Make no mistake, it was always about the music.

About that music. “Space Oddity”, “Life on Mars”, “Changes”, “John, I’m Only Dancing”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, “Aladdin Sane”, “Diamond Dogs”, “Rebel Rebel”…these aren’t merely songs, or even (merely) anthems, they are cultural signifiers, queer escutcheons that at once shield and embolden the outcasts and “others”. Bowie, being the Alpha Outsider, was brave and brilliant, and adamant enough to become The Other, and the changes that followed changed others, allowing others to become something other than the others they might have otherwise been destined to be.

There are so many wonderful illustrations, any of which could make a case for why Bowie was more than a pop musician, why he mattered and why he’ll be so desperately missed. For me, it’s a deceptively simple track—from what may be his most consistently satisfying album Hunky Dory—that encapsulates everything he managed to be. “Oh! You Pretty Things”, his little anthem to oddness (and the inevitability of ch-ch-ch-ch-changes) continues to delight, excite and inspire me, even today, as a middle-aged straight white male. I can scarcely fathom how many confused and scared souls Bowie salvaged and empowered. What an artist he was; what a hero he’ll always be.

Significantly, Bowie was not simply a front-man, although to be certain he was one of the incendiary stage performers of the last century. He was a musician. Yes, he could play multiple instruments and he could write the songs (nevermind the singing and lyrics, which we’ll never tire of extolling), but his acumen was unassailable, if unconventional. Consider two easily studied examples: the direction he gave Mike Garson for the title track of Aladdin Sane, or the story behind how his uncanny collaboration with Queen during the “Under Pressure” sessions.

About those lyrics. Yes, they’re sometimes inscrutable, endlessly open to interpretation (intentional, obviously), but there can be no question that multiple meanings are a result of the layers: he was easily one of the most intelligent—and articulate—wordsmiths of our time. A random sample from the top shelf: “And the stars look very different today”, “Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy”, “We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when”, “Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise”, “In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch”, “The shrieking of nothing is killing”, “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about”…

Debate can—and should—now rage forevermore about what Bowie’s post-‘70s legacy means: did he exhaust himself or continue to make boundary-breaking music? A bit of both seems the safest and soundest answer, but opinions and mileage will vary, as they should. Let there be no question whatsoever, though, that he was utterly locked in during the ‘70s. Did anyone own the decade like David Bowie? There were historic runs by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The Who were going strong, at least until the air went out of the Moon; The Rolling Stones acquitted themselves nicely, for the most part. But from first to last, the string of masterpieces Bowie unleashed is unlikely to ever be equaled. Again, only The Beatles put out so many works with analogous import and influence.

Like The Beatles, Bowie didn’t only innovate; he wrought aesthetic and stylistic changes and, like an irrepressible Pied Piper, people followed him wherever he went. Secure prediction: time will only increase our collective appreciation for the extent of what Bowie achieved between ’70 and ’80. This music, for the most part, does not sound dated but remains utterly of its time—including the alternately surreal and intractable Berlin trilogy—and over time, it will define the times in which it was made, the way all our best art manages to do.

Take “Aladdin Sane”, please. This miniature masterpiece employs everything brilliant about progressive rock (the musicianship, the audacity) and distills it into not only an accessible, but irresistible package. If one can hear Joy Division and Iggy Pop in the Berlin trilogy, it’s difficult to deny that many varied hitmakers were paying close attention to this uncanny freak with paint on his face. Prog rock started to wear out its welcome for a million mostly good reasons by mid-decade, but the wise ones, especially Ian Anderson and Peter Gabriel, were paying attention, if not taking notes. Across years and styles, it’s impossible to imagine groups (prominent in their own right) ranging from The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys to Duran Duran, onward to Radiohead and Lady Gaga, without Bowie’s blueprint.

Bowie was indefatigable and, seemingly, unconquerable. That’s why his death (from cancer, that most banal of diseases) not only astonishes, but offends. If Ziggy Stardust is mortal after all, heaven help the rest of us who may still be kidding ourselves. Where would-be epoch defining entities like John Lennon, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Kurt Cobain—all of whom forged specific connections with him, incidentally—didn’t have the luck or wherewithal to withstand Life on Earth, Bowie did: for himself obviously yet also, one suspected, because he understood it was all bigger than him. Remarkably, as beloved as he became, he got the joke and that was arguably the secret (so impossible, so perfect) to his longevity.

In our devolving era of social media attention spans and controversy stirred via electronic one-liners (often anonymous, natch), recalling the courage of Bowie’s convictions is instructive. First and foremost, the closet exodus heard ‘round the world: “I’m gay, and always have been.” That was 1972, and even if, in the moment, this was an act of calculated provocation, it’s the stuff revolutions are made of. Cheers to him for taking the piss out of Andy Warhol way before it was either safe or acceptable (much less imperative). Pivoting from glam to soul and becoming one of the first—and only—white artists to be considered cool enough to appear on Soul Train. Being brazenly ahead of the pack in calling out MTV for its congenital honky-itis in 1983. Appearing in movies by A-List directors like Scorsese (as Pontius Pilate (!) in The Last Temptation of Christ) and Nolan (as Nikola Tesla (!!) in The Prestige). And, all those years later, Bowie being Bowie while sending up an enchanted Ricky Gervais.

He was our Oscar Wilde, obviously. Or better yet, a postmodern Dorian Gray, through the glass brightly: bigger than Jesus and not dying for our sins but celebrating them, or else suggesting, quite convincingly, that there were no sins and nothing to be ashamed of. And speaking of shame, where the legions of imitators and fakers have gotten it wrong this millennium, mistaking shamelessness for substance, Bowie endures as s secular saint of the dispossessed. He will remain revered because he was unashamed, and encouraged others to be as well, whoever and whatever they might happen to be that particular day.

It’s sunrise and millions weep a fountain. The Black Star has returned to Space. Now he’s gone; now he’s immortal.

This article originally published at The Weeklings on 1/14/16.
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Ray Thomas: Legend of a Mind, RIP

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Sad news to report the passing of original member Ray Thomas.

In tribute, I’m reposting my entry on The Moody Blues (from my PopMatters column The Amazing Pudding), originally published in November, 2014.

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The Moody Blues: Masters of the Mini Epic

The Moody Blues have not aged particularly well.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

To be sure, more than a handful of their songs are as timeless as any rock music can be, whatever that actually means and for whatever it’s worth.

But The Moody Blues, as much as any other progressive band, invoke a specific era, and genre, when the type of music prog bands were making made sense in ways that would never fly, these days. And if that makes some of us nostalgic for the great old days of prog rock, so be it.

Music aside, so many of the progressive acts of this era were aspiring to write poetically (the results, of course, were all over the map); the Moody Blues were actually writing poems (the results, of course, were all over the map). It would be a tad too much to decree them the thinking man’s prog band (unless the opinion was offered, derisively, by those who feel the mere word progressive could, and should, be replaced by the word pretentious. In any event, if any band was trying to elevate the lyrical and conceptual discourse, The Moody Blues certainly threw their chapeaus in the ring, for better or worse.

In addition, the Moody Blues, who came into their own several years before the bigger and better/badder bands that followed, such as Yes, ELP and Rush, are perhaps the only act to be pre- and post prog. In the aftermath of their breakthrough, 1967’s Days of Future Passed, a proto-prog, pseudo-symphonic masterpiece combining pretension, audacity and excellence, the Moody Blues helped define the soundscapes for the post-Summer of Love letdown.

The Grateful Dead established themselves (in large part due to their dead-icated fans) as the de facto curators for altered states of consciousness (nevermind what an uninspired cop-out that’s always been, anointing one band, ostensibly because of their noodling excellence, as the soundtrack for getting stoned, even as Pink Floyd is the more satisfactory choice in any event). The Moody Blues had grander aspirations, and came as close as any of their peers to approximating, musically, what such experiences could feel like, and signify.

The Moody Blues projected a more cerebral sensibility, even by prog-rock standards. While some of this was, clearly, by design, some of it had to do with other unavoidable factors. For one, several band members were already in their mid-to-late ‘20s by the time the band became famous. Obviously, that’s not “old” for most of us, but it’s but practically ancient by rock music standards. There’s also the not insignificant matter that, like some of their prog-rock compatriots, the Moody Blues looked (and sounded) more like college professors than Tiger Beat pin-ups. When it comes to art in general and music in particular (and progressive rock most especially) looks could not be less relevant. But let’s face it: no musician (or artist) has ever been hindered, at least early in a career, by being super easy on the eyes.

So in that regard, the Moody Blues were very much like their closest prog cousins Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson Lake and Palmer. That is; faceless for the most part on their album art, and their emphasis was squarely on their music as opposed to band members’ personalities. They were, in short, the kind of band ideally suited for the genre that placed integrity above all other concerns.

None of this, of course, would matter one bit if the band was not capable of making memorable music. And for a run that lasted from 1967 to 1972 (seven albums in six years!), the Moody Blues evolved from being perhaps the earliest practitioners of the prog aesthetic to, in their finer moments, some of its more brilliant ambassadors.

While so many of their contemporaries were writing novels in the form of side-long suites, the Moody Blues were masters of the short story. Occasionally hinting at magnificence, most fully realized on Days of Future Passed and nearly there on In Search of the Lost Chord and On The Threshold of a Dream, many of their better songs function as condensed epics like “Legend of a Mind”, “Isn’t Life Strange” and “Melancholy Man”.

In a sense, they avoided the pitfalls of pretension by keeping it (relatively) simple. Of course, at times they were not quite ambitious enough; as many of their albums are laden with listless ballads (Justin Hayworth giveth and Justin Hayworth taketh away). There are also, inevitably, the numbers that are inseparable from the era of their conception, in all the bad ways (a cursory glance through the song titles will give these away without requiring a single note played).

Other than the category-merging masterpiece Days of Future Passed, they never had the one indelible album that we can reference as an unassailable selection for the canon. In Search of the Lost Chord came closest and On the Threshold of a Dream might be their most consistent stylistic statement, but virtually each album has at least one if not several definitive, top-tier tracks. Taken together they comprise a very worthy and vastly underrated addition to the prog idiom.

First, a few words about their 1967 attempt at immortality, an album that holds up quite nicely, especially compared to so much of what was being made at the time (including certain songs from the sacrosanct Sgt. Pepper). Thinking big, and very much outside the box, the band commissioned session musicians—cheekily dubbed The London Festival Orchestra—and borrowed a page from the Beatles, letting these seasoned classical players do with their straightforward songs what George Martin did so often for Lennon and McCartney. The conceit, a definite candidate for their first fully realized “concept” album, is a day in the life (no, really), and the sections are broken into morning, afternoon and evening.

While the songs that found their way to radio, “Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)” and “Nights in White Satin”, both written and sung by the always reliable Justin Hayward, laudably represent the whole, a deeper dive, as usual, reveals the treasures unfairly obscured by the hits. The extended sequence that takes us from “(Evening) Time to Get Away”, through “The Sunset” and into “Twilight Time” (the sections bridging the aforementioned tracks that open and close Side Two) showcase the considerable strengths of the band.

Hayward’s range and ebullience are easy to notice and gravitate toward, plus his unerring sense of songcraft never hurt, as the tunes that became hits underscore. But Mike Pinder, Ray Thomas and John Lodge, all excellent vocalists (and writers) in their own right, provide some welcome contrast and color to Hayward’s golden glow. Pinder in particular functions as a solemn alter ego for Hayward, and is responsible for some of the band’s more somber and enduring songs. As the orchestra swells and harp chords wind down the excitement, the music (and lyrics, and voices) echo the gradual onset of evening. Pinder’s “The Sun Set” is modest in scope, compared to the awesome if ever-so-slightly overwrought ballads that precede and follow it, and the singer, as he would in subsequent efforts, brings exactly the “voice of God” authority the material compels.

A few words about the poetry. Everyone who has heard “Nights in White Satin”—in other words, everyone—has heard “Late Lament”. You know, “Breathe deep, the gathering gloom…” The words are courtesy of drummer Graeme Edge, resident poet and deep thinker. Although Pinder typically recited the poems on the albums, Graeme’s contemplations became thematic touchstones that the band used to open and close their first three albums. Dated? Yes. Well-intended? Certainly. Worthwhile? Of course, though it’s hard to not smell the patchouli and envision the flared trousers while listening.

Confident and determined, the group set out to make an album even better than Days of Future Passed. In some regards they succeeded, and if the second and third efforts, In Search of the Lost Chord and On the Threshold of a Dream aren’t start-to-finish masterworks, they certainly contain some of the band’s all-time best work. In addition to John Lodge’s slight but irresistible “Ride My See-Saw” and Hayward’s vocal tour-de-force “The Actor”, we have the one-two (or one-two-three) punch of “House of Four Doors” (parts One and Two) and “Legend of a Mind”. If Lodge’s mellotron-laden meditation on art, existence and epiphany practically screams ’60s!! it does so with eloquence, spectacular harmonies and genuine feeling. Indeed, Thomas’s “Legend of a Mind” is one of the band’s ultimate triumphs: an ostensible shout-out to Timothy Leary. It really uses the controversial doctor (and how ecstatic he must have been to hear himself immortalized in such fashion) as a commentary on the possibility of expanded consciousness, not yet a cliché in 1968.

The even more ambitious, follow-up On the Threshold of a Dream sort of combined the thematic twists and turns of the previous two albums, looking at a day, only instead of taking it on literal terms (as with Days of Future Passed), a single day might be said to represent eternity. Or something. Edge’s “In the Beginning” mixes hippie ruminations with Strangelovian cynicism; if you could smell the hash before, you can taste the acid now. And this is definitely the band’s psychedelic album: it’s not so much that the material deals with the obligatory inner-space explorations, it tries to capture, with words and music, elements of the sounds, colors, shapes and emotions these journeys can encompass.

The Moody Blues go for broke, aesthetically, on the psychedelic suite that closes Side Two: “The Dream” (another poem from Edge) into Pinder’s stirring and profoundly affirming “Have You Heard” (Parts One and Two, naturally). And in between, the interlude/centerpiece “The Voyage”. A bit of avant-garde whimsy, a touch of Stravinsky, a full measure of aspiration, more mellotron than you can fit in a freight train, chirping flutes and crashing snares, et cetera. If you think it sounds hopelessly dated, well, you’re right. You should also consider what today’s pre-programmed beats and auto-tuned atrocities are going to sound like in 40 (or four) years.

After this, it wasn’t a case of diminishing returns so much as a steady stream of solid releases with at least one and up to three real keepers per album: some obscure, others everyone who ever listened to classic rock radio in the ‘80s or ‘90s has heard a thousand times. For evidence of the former, consider Hayward’s downright rocking “The Story in Your Eyes” and Lodge’s insufferable “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)”; for the latter, “For My Lady” (Thomas) and “Isn’t Life Strange” (Lodge), which uses strings and sweet-and-sour harmonizing as effectively as anything from Days of Future Passed. It’s a genuine epic in miniature if ever there was one.

From the uneven but typically worthwhile A Question of Balance, we have the two songs that truly comprise the yin-yang of this band at their best. First, Hayward’s finest moment, album-opener “Question”. If he had his moments where he veered altogether too close to melodrama, he hits the mark, for all time, on this miniature epic (those words again). It’s a vocal performance that can sing alongside anything anyone else in rock music has put on record. I tend to feel about Justin Hayward as a singer the way I do about Keith Emerson as a keyboard player: they both could have received acclaim and professional approbation for lending their talents to orchestras and/or operas, but how wonderful that they made their own mark, unwilling to live a preordained existence. For whatever crimes of pretense or however much some of the material, inevitably, sounds tied to the time of its creation, they were put on this Earth with a gift, and they proved more than equal to the challenge.

On the other extreme, Mike Pinder’s “Melancholy Man” is not only the reliably subdued counterpoint to Hayward’s irrepressible conviction, it might be the best thing the band ever did. As has hopefully been established already, the Moody Blues made scaled-down extravaganzas their calling card, and in hindsight their restraint and dexterity seems almost valiant. On “Melancholy Man”, the music matches the mood, and Pinder manages to sound commanding and vulnerable, sometimes at the same moment. And special kudos to the man who did as much as anyone to introduce our beloved mellotron to popular culture; where would progressive rock be without this quirky, uniquely bizarre instrument?

Arguably, in the final analysis, though a second-tier prog act in comparison with titans like Jethro Tull, Yes, King Crimson and, of course, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues brought a seriousness, and influential craftsmanship to rock ‘n’ roll composition. The result: a handful of near-misses (or second-tier prog masterpieces) and over a dozen tunes that, taken together, constitute quite a career. These songs, as a collective statement, stand tall amongst work done by their prog brethren. If, at times, they are inexorably tied to a different time, they certainly made definitive statements of purpose. At other times, more than a few of their songs sound as fresh, original and evocative today, and will resonate during any decade.

Originally published in PopMatters on 11/21/2014

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Nat Hentoff: Great American Hero (Revisited)

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Spiderman, I suppose, came first. Six or seven, comic book in hand, convinced there was no one cooler, no one more righteous, no one else I’d rather be.

After a while, kids figure out there’s no such thing as superheroes, but fortunately, there are sports. Who, circa 1978, inspired the combination of envy and aspiration? Yaz was already too old, Fisk too rough around the edges. Maybe Freddy Lynn; after all, what nine year old doesn’t want to play center field in Fenway Park?

A few years later, most adolescents have come to the painful and permanent realization that there’s absolutely no chance they’ll ever be professional athletes. What else can a precocious six grader do but lick his wounds and start reading Stephen King? Yes, by high school there were a few things of which I was certain: Larry Bird was even more of a badass than Spiderman, the Red Sox were never going to win a World Series in my lifetime, and I wanted nothing more than to be Stephen King when I grew up (A lot more on that HERE).

Flash forward several years and the combination of encouragement and rejection that forms the necessary cauldron any young writer must marinate in to emerge, many years after that, at best a mediocre, but still potential author. In short order, any lingering illusion is obliterated and the novice recognizes the prospects of Stephen King-level sales are even more remote than shooting webs out of his wrist. Still, this is what we have heroes for: to serve as guides or at least paradigms for our potential self-perfection. Or something

By the time you graduate college, you have put away childish things such as superheroes, and both sports and politics are mostly forms of entertainment, capable of instigating short-lived excitement, but the thrills are short-lived and seldom enough to sustain the occasionally crushing tedium of everyday existence.

Some seek solace in money, some succumb to cynicism, and the ostensibly fortunate folks thread the tightrope between awareness and oblivion—doing what life seems to require and not asking too many questions. And then there are the hopeless saps whose capacity for exhilaration cannot be quenched by drink or drug or job title.

What else is there? Jazz, of course.

Fortunately, I endured and explored long enough to figure out there are heroes, after all. They don’t wear capes, they don’t have the superhuman powers we typically associate with cartoon characters, and unlike Santa Claus, they are not something you grow out of; they are the opposite: entities you need to meet on their own terms, and invest the time and effort necessary to understand (and appreciate) the gifts they bestow. They don’t dress in costumes or uniforms, and no movie franchises have been created in their honor. All they do is save your life.

In my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, I attempt to describe what music has meant to me, throughout my life, and what it continues to mean:

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

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All of which brings us, circuitously, to a grateful acknowledgment of the spectacular life of Nat Hentoff, who has passed away, aged 91. As the various obituaries testify, Hentoff was a writer sufficiently productive and peripatetic to make Stephen King seem almost…indolent. Hentoff was a writer’s writer, as well as a reader’s writer. In addition, he was a musician’s writer. He was, in short, a hero. He was of the old school (in all the good ways) and so exceedingly erudite that there’s nothing he wrote that’s not worth checking out. And he wrote a lot.

I discovered Hentoff’s writing as I busied myself devouring as many jazz albums as I could afford, in those lean and hungry years, post-graduate school and pre-rest of my life. He became steadily familiar as the James Boswell of jazz, having written liner notes for seemingly every other immortal album that dropped in the mid-to-late 20th Century; a time, it should be remembered, when immortal albums were dropping all the time: during this brief period when jazz was as popular as it ever would be; America was Eden and these albums were apples, gifts full of wisdom, vitality and revelation. Naturally, many folks ignored them (then, now).

Equal parts interpreter and ambassador, Hentoff helped navigate these sounds, steering the novice toward key passages or to find otherwise elusive phrases for what this music is doing. (Of course, as always, it’s enough to simply affirm that it’s affirming, but part of being a hopeless sap is needing ways to articulate what and how and especially why.)

Understand, it’s all but impossible to describe an era before social media (where the artist can speak directly to the audience), or the Internet; before computers, before cable TV, before color TV. The role of the critic, particularly for an art form that is at times accessible and others, oblique—even for musicians—was not merely instructive, it was often obligatory.

Here he is, having the opportunity—and honor—to pen the liner notes for John Coltrane’s globe-shattering masterpiece, Giant Steps, the calling card announcing, effective immediately, there was a new Heavyweight Champion on the scene (and more, while Coltrane had already provided abundant proof he was allergic to stasis as both player and composer, Hentoff is prescient in perceiving that, perhaps, advanced as Trane now was, he would dig deeper and go further; within a decade it’s possible he took his gifts and, propelled by his compulsive questing, took them as far as any musician ever has):

What makes Coltrane one of the most interesting jazz players is that he’s not apt to ever stop looking for ways to perfect what he’s already developed and also to go beyond what he knows he can do. He is thoroughly involved with plunging as far into himself and the expressive possibilities of his horn as he can. (Full liner notes, and recommended further reading, here)

One thing about superstars is that they need not brag, and don’t need others to boast on their behalf. In Hentoff’s case, a cursory list of titans for whom he wrote liner notes starts to put his import into proper perspective: Andrew Hill, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus (that he wrote well over a dozen for Mingus speaks volumes, both about the ever-irascible bassist’s approbation and Hentoff’s powers of perception to “get” the challenging genius and make a ceaseless case for his significance), Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. Understand: this is a partial sampling of the veritable encyclopedia of liner notes Hentoff composed, which comprise a living history of the great American art form as it unfolded, in real time.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful of his myriad contributions (at once inadequate and yet entirely appropriate, in tiny print inside CD inserts) is the notes he wrote for Booker Little’s masterpiece, Out Front (an album he also produced). Little only lived to be 23, making him—for me, anyway—the apotheosis of premature artist deaths, in any genre. He recorded enough to leave ample evidence of his brilliance, but what he may likely have achieved renders one speechless. I wrote about Little in a piece called “Victory and Sorrow”, a meditation on jazz, life and death. Here’s an excerpt:

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating—and realizing—some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

Here is Hentoff, using his full powers of perception and insight to succinctly capture the almost otherworldly anguish and terribly beautiful profundity of Little’s trumpet:

I find Booker’s playing here—with its resemblance to a Spanish flamenco singer or a Jewish Cantor—exceptionally moving.

Check it out: “Moods in Free Time” flies from the starting block, bursting with ebullience that can scarcely contain itself; and then, after some portentous tympani from Max Roach, it slows and becomes almost elegiac. This is indeed exceptionally, almost unbearably moving expression. I’m not sure I can think of a better (if sadder) instance where a musical instrument has mirrored the bliss and torment of its creator.

Here is Hentoff, from the liner notes, discussing a piece written in his honor.

“Man of Words” is, I’m told by Booker, dedicated to this writer…actually, it is Booker’s description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop…eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer knows he he’s solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution, or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music…(this) is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker’s performance is an impressive display of sustained invention—and sustained clarity of line and feelings.

Here’s the thing about heroes: we all need them, even (and especially when) we no longer find ourselves able to believe. Fake ones are easy to find, and that much easier to forget. The real ones are out there, although it seems we’re not producing them nearly as often as we once did. So many of his words, offered in the service of his (and my) heroes, are not readily compatible with our increasingly all-digital habits of musical consumption. Put another way, it’s difficult to preserve the record if no one retains their records. Men like Nat Hentoff reaffirm my intense gratitude for being alive in a slower and more soulful time. If I’m sad to see him go, I’m appreciative of the work he did—the life’s work he respected and consistently refined.

In my modest and hopeful way, I’ll continue my own work, using his example (as a writer, as a human being) to seek out worthy subjects and celebrate them, accordingly.

A modest sampling of Hentoff's handiwork

A modest sampling of Hentoff’s handiwork, from my personal collection.

*Tribute originally written in January, 2017.

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God is (Still) Not Dead: Jimi Hendrix at 75

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It was 75 years ago, today.

Attention, of course, must (and will) be paid, but the real question remains: what more can possibly be said, at this point, about Jimi Hendrix? Actually, it is entirely fair to propose that we have not yet said enough about him. As it has long since been established that he is the Alpha and the Omega of electric guitar, conversation tends to stop there: what more needs to be said, we say, when we don’t say anything more. As a result, the actual scope of his virtuosity tends to, however unintentionally, get reduced to stock phrases (see above) and the sorts of encomiums that preempt elaboration. So how do we explain the truly singular genius that is Jimi Hendrix? Aside from the innovation (he did it first), apart from the obvious (he did it best), what sets him apart?

When it comes to Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

Jimi Hendrix has been dead for a long time, and the only thing we have to reconcile the senselessness of how young he died is the legacy he left behind. This is true, of course, with any artist who goes away too soon, except that with Hendrix it is more so. The loss is unparalleled, but then, so is the music he made. Depending on whether you care to see the cosmic glass as more than half-empty or as one that forever runneth over, we celebrate him for what he did in direct proportion to mourning what we still should have received. It is selfish, but understandable. Hendrix with horns in the ’70s? With samples and scratching in the ’80s? Mentoring (or obviating the need for) the grunge movement in the ’90s? Collaborating with musicians from all over the world, releasing live jams on his website today? Or just continuing to do what he was doing practically until the last second he drew breath. Whatever it might have been, it would have improved the playing field, and he would likely still be eons ahead of his peers.

There’s an aesthetic vertigo that only music can so fully and consistently deliver, and –regarding Jimi Hendrix– obliges me to quote T.S. Eliot:

We shall never cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

(I’ve attempted to take a measure of Hendrix’s import and influence a few times in the past, overviewing the deluxe editions of his official catalog, along with reviews of box sets Live at Winterland and West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology.)

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1967: there are the immutable opening salvos, those hit singles that remain radio-friendly four decades on (“Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe”, “Fire”, “Foxey Lady”) and the moodier harbingers of what lay ahead (“Manic Depression”, “I Don’t Live Today”, “Love or Confusion”) and then there are the outright masterpieces. Consider “The Wind Cries Mary”: written the night before, brought to the studio the next day and captured in one take. An example like this underscores the seismic shift that blasted an unsuspecting world when Are You Experienced hit the streets, the unambiguous arrival of a major, scary talent. But it’s the subsequent embellishment, courtesy of five overdubbed guitar parts, that move this track from mere classic to one-of-a-kind epic: the mood and feeling of melancholy Hendrix conveys calls to mind Poe’s edict about the totality of effect.

Then there’s the psychedelic space jazz of “Third Stone From the Sun”: the ways Hendrix navigates an almost surf-rock elegance with proto-thrash distortion and makes it sound not just natural but inevitable, is part of why the first album continues to merit consideration as the most fully realized debut album in rock history. Finally there is the title track, which truly is one of those instances that defy time and description on so many levels. This song could only have been released in ’67, but it still sounds unsettling and slightly ungraspable in 2010. Perhaps more than any of the other tracks, this one signified the summation of Hendrix’s strategy at that stage: backwards solos, restless feedback and subtly effective piano plinks build up the tension like the song was programmed to detonate. And by the time anybody knew what had hit them; Hendrix was already back in the studio.

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)

The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup. Indeed, the only gripe about the bonus DVDs is their brevity; I could easily listen to Kramer and Chandler tell war stories for hours on end without getting bored, and I’m certain I’m not alone.

There’s also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

By 1968 Hendrix has relocated from London to New York City and it was during the open-ended and generally unrestrained Electric Ladyland sessions that Chandler, ever the taskmaster, famously fled the scene. “Gypsy Eyes” alone allegedly required forty different takes before Hendrix was satisfied, an intensity surpassing obsession that literally drove Chandler out of the studio. This circumstance was inevitable, and frankly necessary. Hendrix absolutely needed and benefited from Chandler’s mentoring, but now he had more than come into his own and nobody could keep up with him (he could scarcely keep up with himself). The results scream for themselves and to say that Electric Ladyland is yet another major advancement (how do you improve upon perfection?) is of course a pallid understatement.

Just as little from Are You Experienced hinted at the next installment, Axis: Bold As Love seems almost pedestrian and conservative compared to the staggering triumph of style and sound that is Electric Ladyland.

This is Hendrix’s masterpiece, and it is on this double album that practically every trick in his oversized bag is employed to its fullest extent. The storytelling skills are displayed on tracks like “Crosstown Traffic”, “Long Hot Summer Night” and “House Burning Down”. The compositional prowess is evident in every note, most especially on the song suite that covers side three and spills over to side four. What Hendrix was able to achieve, despite the contemporary limitations of old-fashioned recording equipment is, on a song like “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”, heroic. It also offers the best evidence we have of what he saw and heard inside his always-teeming imagination.

What remains vital, and compelling, all these years later is the way Hendrix appropriates blues music, creating a template that copycats are still trying, in vain, to emulate. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and the live-in-the-studio riot of “Voodoo Chile” are rock music touchstones, and nothing anyone has attempted has come particularly close to them. Hendrix himself puts it best when he boasts “Well I stand up next to a mountain/And chop it down with the edge of my hand.” That is exactly what he did, and he remains king of the mountain he scaled, and then razed.

From “Purple Haze” to “Rainy Day, Dream Away” in less than two years still seems inconceivable, even impossible. But it happened. And, of course, Hendrix continued to broaden his scope and incorporate more styles and sonic experiments (check out the full, funky brass accompaniment on the title track from South Saturn Delta), pushing past the boundaries he had already blown away. The material collected on First Rays of the New Rising Sun represent many of the songs Hendrix was assembling for another double album in the summer over 1970, just before his death. Noel Redding is gone and Billy Cox, having already worked with Mitchell and Hendrix during the Valley of Neptune sessions, is a liberating presence that allows the band to spread out and chase the guitarist as he soars above, around and beneath them. With all due respect to Noel Redding—and nevermind the rumors that Hendrix simply played all the bass parts himself—one of the tantalizing prospects remains what avenues would have continued to open with Cox freeing Mitchell to incorporate his jazz stylings into the mix.

Back to the genius thing and how to wrap our minds around the extent of Hendrix’s gifts: Eddie Kramer analyzes “Dolly Dagger” and uses the console to demonstrate the fastidious attention Hendrix devoted to every second of every song, down to his ability to multi-track his own vocals, knowing in advance exactly where each note and inflection was meant to go. When Kramer isolates the guitar tracks on “Night Bird Flying”, it’s not just a matter of how great each one sounds and the ways they complement each other; it’s more the uncanny way each one could easily and convincingly stand alone as a fully formed statement. Many of the songs, like “Izzabella”, “Stepping Stone”, “My Friend”, “Straight Ahead” and “Astro Man” are loose and as light as Hendrix had been since some of the tracks on Axis: Bold As Love. Then there are irrepressible gems like “Ezy Ryder”, “Dolly Dagger” and “Belly Button Window” that bring the band directly into a new decade. Most of the material has a fresh and unfettered sound: much less overdubbing and Hendrix’s infatuation with “phasing”—which he took to its logical limits on Electric Ladyland (think “Moon, Turn the Tides…Gently Gently Away”)—is now discarded in favor of a more straightforward assault. This direction is nicely encapsulated in the instrumental “Beginnings” where there are no frills or tricks, only a scorching a workout that showcases Hendrix’s ability to create fire with any smoke.

Of course, there are also a handful of tracks that elevate themselves above the rest and go to that other place. “Freedom”, the perfect album opener, is just a clinic of where rock and roll had gone, and where it might have continued to go; “Room Full of Mirrors” is a tour de force of multi-tracked guitar bliss (including cowbell!) and “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” is, or will have to be, as suitable a farewell statement (“May I come along?”) as we could hope for. And finally, the one-two punch of “Drifting” and “Angel”, that, not that it’s necessary to quantify, might represent the most beautiful work Hendrix ever recorded. Inevitably, some measure of outright hyperbole is unavoidable: if there is such a thing as beyond perfection, it is achieved on “Angel” and “Drifting”.

And then he was gone. The magnitude of his loss remains unfathomable. There is no question, absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that he had years and years of untapped magic to explore and nourish. On the other hand, perhaps Hendrix did live and record for four decades; he just crammed it into four years. Hendrix and the gift of his music are subjects that can never be exhausted: the songs hold up, they should be studied and dissected, and above all they should be savored. They are, like the man who made them, incapable of ever being forgotten.

In the end, it always comes back to the same impasse: once we’ve gotten beyond the music (which we never get beyond, because, thus far, there has always been new material, causing us to celebrate our good fortune and hope we might get more) we catch ourselves asking the two questions that can never be answered: why and what. Why did it have to end so abruptly, so appallingly? And then, if and when we allow ourselves, the attempt at imagining what else there could have been… what else he would have left for us if he had not accidentally left us behind?

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Lou Reed: Rock and Roll’s Dark, Beautiful Heart (Revisited)

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EVERYONE WHO JOINS A ROCK BAND WANTS TO BE HEARD.

The good ones want to be unique, while the pretenders tend to imitate what has already been done. The soulless ones regurgitate musical ideas manufactured by others and served up to them on soiled platters. Sadly, this third group tends to enjoy the greatest success.

And what is success? Financial success certainly is the easiest to measure, with an artist’s influence ranking a close second. What is not so simple is identifying what will endure. In all but the rarest of cases, only the inexorable passage of time can reveal, long after the artist and the initial audience has expired, what has truly mattered to us.

Lou Reed was just such a case. His import and legend were established pretty much from the get-go, and he went wherever he wanted to go: underground, gutter, mainstream, whatever. He was a leather-wearing Whitman for a postmodern America, and his leaves of grass were the kind we used to smoke before, during and after we tuned in. Sweet Lou was inscrutable, elusive and still, somehow, everywhere.

1967 was for rock music what 1959 was for jazz.

Consider both the quantity and quality of ’67?s seminal releases; obviously Sgt. Pepper assumes the spotlight, but those twelve months also yielded a stunning spectrum of halcyon platters from Love’s Forever Changes to the (then, unreleased) SMiLE by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. How about the debuts? Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead went on to become two of the biggest bands on the planet. Yet even including the mind-boggling brilliance of the Doors/Hendrix/Captain Beefheart holy trinity, it might not be wrong to suggest that The Velvet Underground’s shot heard ’round the underground remains the most influential.

Hendrix changed the way the guitar was played, and everyone who has picked up a guitar ever since is, in some way, paying homage to the Temple he raised. But Hendrix was not human; Lou Reed was the New Testament Jesus (or Jesus’ son, if you like) compared to the Old Testament God (or at least Moses) of Hendrix. As such, we stand in awe of Hendrix, but we recognize we are not of his kind; no one ever will be. The Velvet Underground on the other hand? Well, since everyone else always invokes the quote, I’ll do my obligatory bit and nod to Brian Eno’s astute assessment: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

That may well be true, and in fact, it may even be an understatement. But none of those bands — ranging from R.E.M. to David Bowie to The Pixies, just to name a few — ever released anything as strange and ecstatic as the first Velvet Underground offering. Over four decades later, it continues to confront our innate capacity to understand or to assess; it is simple in the way Dylan is “simple”: ostensibly straightforward stories sung by voices that never won any talent shows, which inspires the visceral appeal of the Velvet Underground in general, and Lou Reed, in particular.

Reed was the perfect imperfection rock music needed: neither a naturally brilliant guitarist nor a honey-throated singer, and not always the best lyricist; let’s not let his death sanitize the fact that he wrote a lot of ham-fisted stinkers over his long career, although Lou might have been the first –and best– example than anyone could do this. It’s an illusion, of course: many people have tried, and most of them have failed. But Reed got there first, a darker version of Dylan who combined punk, glam and the paradoxical one-two punch of apathy and self-aggrandizement. Precious are each generation’s artists who can cultivate such a subtle flash of brilliance.

As much as he’s both lionized and lambasted for his poetic pomposity, Jim Morrison tapped into something quite a bit darker than Dionysus For Dummies circa ’67, as songs like “The Crystal Ship” and “The End” evince. Reed was tapping into something even darker and more disturbing (his own veins, for one thing). Setting narcotics, sexual ambiguity and S&M to exotic, surreal soundtracks, like a marching band in Hell, Reed not only wrote like a grown up in what had long been a child-like art form, he wrote –and sang– like no adult anyone had ever known (the same could be said, sort of, for Nico, who functions as an uncertain angel to Reed’s imperious demon on the debut). He still sounds that way to today’s less sanitized sensibilities, and for decades he took his role as reporter and raconteur as a badge of dishonor. Some of those early tracks still sound surreal and exhilarating half a century later: if you ever want evidence of a wholly unique and inimitable vision, stand in awe of “Venus in Furs”.

One way you know you’ve made not merely an indelible impact—itself enough of an achievement in our fifteen-minutes-of-fame-dumb-world-order, and yes I’m invoking Warhol on purpose— is when the accolades come fast, heavy and quickly. Circa 2013, when hipper-than-thou tributes compete for pathos-per-pound –as they have been with Reed—you are likely to remain relevant. Aside from the musical and cultural import that he carried like a piece of tattered luggage, Reed never stopped mattering because he didn’t half-step to anyone else’s beat. He was the drummer of his own perplexing parade, and he was both confident and cool enough to keep the interlopers, imitators and especially the music critics at bay. Well-played, indeed.

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Speaking of cool. It’s easy to attempt when you’re young, since that’s when it matters the most. Reed dodged all appearances of giving a shit for the entirety of his career, and consequently he only became cooler as he aged. Although it happened to become a big hit, it still seems remarkable to consider what Reed pulled off with his signature song “Walk on the Wild Side” (He was a she? The colored girls? Even when she was giving head?). Or the middle finger to everyone in the world, including possibly himself, with the electric drill in the ear assault of Metal Machine Music. Or that he played with musicians ranging from Don Cherry to Metallica and, for lack of a better cliché, did it his way. It didn’t always work, but Reed always did it the way he wanted, and anyone who wasn’t down could hit the bricks. That, in art as well as life, is how cool happens.

More: he carried the cool as neither a burden nor a status to maintain; he was what he was. He did not just live in and sing about New York City, he was in every regard a living seed in that big dirty apple. Most legends don’t live this long or that well when anointed so young. We could all learn a lot from Lou Reed, and our world is a lot less cool, and a great deal colder without the beating of his dark, beautiful heart.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 11/04/2013.

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RIP Walter Becker, Your Work Here is Done

Walter-Becker

RIP Walter Becker.

Not many musicians were involved in a run as productive and consistently sublime as Steely Dan’s. My life, in short, would make much less sense without his work.

Here’s my tribute, from (yikes) 2006.

Steely Dan will not be denied. At this rate, within the next decade or so, the total of greatest hits collections will surpass the number of actual albums they made. This, shall we say, lack of restraint does not necessarily become the badass band that famously refused to tour and took its name from a dildo in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. And yet, the music makes most of their excesses excusable. Unfortunately, there is not much new or provocative in this latest set. Fortunately, it’s still fantastic.

Steely Dan, these days, is kind of like the kid you remember as an insufferable smarty-pants from high school who rolls up at the reunion suddenly the coolest dude in the class. Only more so. They could be accused of many things (and they are), but Steely Dan was never stupid: they knew enough to get out while the getting was bad, and managed to avoid ever making a substandard record. Indeed, their swan song, Gaucho, was not their finest hour, and if the sweetly sung invocation of the semi-obligatory addictions of its time (“The Cuervo gold / The fine Colombian”) is any indication, it’s not a stretch to speculate where most of the royalties from Aja went. After that, they stayed gone until deciding it was safe to come up for air, touring in the ‘90s and making new music in the new millennium.

Steely Dan remains impossible to pigeonhole, and therein lies their difficult-to-define appeal. How many other bands could boast their jazz influences so brazenly as to build their biggest hit (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) on a Horace Silver standard, and then sing wistfully about Owsley Stanley, the legendary chemist who supplied, among many others, the Merry Pranksters with the fodder for their acid tests (“Kid Charlemagne”)? Answer: exactly one. These guys were smart. They were also shrewd: the best player-coaches of their era, Walter Becker (bass and guitars) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals) made albums with a sweet sheen that just barely subdued the strained malaise always lurking beneath. Take “Black Friday,” for instance, which chugs along pleasantly enough until the lyrics kick in: “When Black Friday comes I’ll stand down by the door / And catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor.”

A band has to know its limitations, so Steely Dan built their studio of dreams, and sure enough, the players came. Looking at the personnel listed on virtually every song is like reviewing a roster of (mostly) unsung heroes from the ‘70s: Pete Chistlieb, Larry Carlton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Jeff Porcaro—to name but a handful. Notorious control freaks who spurned world tours, and wanting the best of all other worlds, Steely Dan made their unique blend of perfection seem, or at least sound, effortless, conjuring up the production chops of George Martin, the sonic skills of Phil Spector, and the sardonic acumen of Captain Beefheart. Somehow, it worked.

Not many white guys could ask the world to call them “Deacon Blues” and avoid coming off like William Shatner. Listening now, it seems safe to suggest that Steely Dan was rock music’s stealthy shadow, filling in some of the dark space between bloated early ‘70s side-long suites and the stripped-down punk rock revolution. These studio nerds’ street cred only escalates in hindsight, especially when considered alongside the pantsuit pomposity of, say, 1975. (Emerson Lake & Palmer, anyone?) Mostly behind the scenes, Steely Dan blazed an eccentric trail no one could copy, with one foot in a past they knew better than to reproduce, the other foot in a future they ultimately became too uncomfortable describing.

And so, another Steely Dan collection? The question should not be who wants this album; the answer is who needs it, and that would include anyone not already in the know. For the uninitiated, it’s a safe bet and hopefully will serve as a gateway to more dangerous Dan. Those seeking familiar favorites will not be disappointed: “Reelin’ in the Years,” “My Old School,” and “Peg” are a few of the usual suspects making another curtain call here. Like most compilations of well-known bands, half the songs have been beaten into banality by unimaginative radio stations, or else—the ultimate sign of dubious immortality—born again as Muzak. None of this, naturally, is the artists’ fault. As such, it’s hard to quibble with a collection that includes, as it must, the hits. As an incremental bonus, The Definitive Collection features a couple of samples from the Y2K incarnation, which are just enough to render the glory days more immutable. Steely Dan has not died, and they are still the coolest dudes in the class.

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It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: Celebrating Sgt. Pepper

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It was fifty years ago today…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

To get a proper handle on how revolutionary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was, it’s imperative to appreciate how far pop music came in such a remarkably brief span of time. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s also undeniable that after June 1, 1967, nothing was ever the same again. Needless to say, this is a very good thing.

(Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend starting crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut. And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s.)

Part of rock ‘n’ roll’s infectious (and mostly innocuous) appeal is the no-brainer element of its intellectual import. From its earliest days when rock lyrics were mostly an unimaginative contest to see who could say I love you without saying the words I love you (of course The Beatles broke the mold here, shamelessly cutting out all pretense and wallowing in the very shallow depths of the literal, from “She Loves You” to “Love Me Do” to “All My Loving” to… you get the picture).

Around the same time, and across the pond, The Beach Boys were busy crafting best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Seemingly out of nowhere, and driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—front man, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge with Revolver (showcasing a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import and restlessness regarding convention). “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit, accordingly.

But before The Beatles helped define the Summer of Love and introduce the mixed blessing also known as the concept album, they released what’s arguably the most transcendent single of all time. Not only did “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” signify (yet another) giant step for the band, it crystallized the principle strengths of its primary songwriters. Lennon agonized over the acoustic-based (!) snapshot of youth seen through the glass surreally that “Strawberry Fields Forever” mutated into (with considerable assistance from the ever-underrated George Martin). McCartney, as always, makes it sound easy. “Penny Lane”, while being neither as oblique nor unsettling as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, is disarmingly rich in detail and the product of a songwriter firing on all cylinders. In a move that reveals McCartney’s inspired and indefatigable mind, he asked George Martin to approximate the piccolo trumpet featured in a movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, granting his whimsical reminiscence an almost regal air.

So, full of confidence, bristling with ambition and, make no mistake about it, eyes staring straight into the sun, the Fab Four did the Icarus routine. Suffice it to say, they not only survived, they transcended. Or something. And for the millionth time, it’s not necessarily how great the album is (and track by track, it’s arguably aged less well than ones that came before and after it, like many other efforts from 1967), it’s the not-so-simple fact that The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be and appraised as art.

And while a song-by-song reassessment would seem superfluous (even this modest essay practically answers its own inevitably rhetorical question: do we really need more words written about Sgt. Pepper?), it seems necessary to remember that, as overplayed and overanalyzed as certain songs have been, some of the boys’ best work is nevertheless represented. Imagine hearing “With A Little Help From My Friends” for the first time, today. Or, even if you’ve listened to it too many times to count, savor the loping basslines McCartney uses to anchor “Getting Better”. Or, if Lennon was coasting a bit on “Good Morning Good Morning”, with “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” he gave the uninitiated a soundscape for psychedelia before most of the world knew what was soon to hit it. Even the unfairly maligned “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” should be noted—in addition to being a clever tone poem invoking other times and places—providing a showcase for the way the studio could (and, subsequently, would) be utilized, combining technology and ingenuity to literally create new sounds.

Or how “Fixing A Hole” somehow seems to slip under the radar, or be dismissed as a lightweight effort. For me, in addition to being yet another short burst of pop virtuosity (ho hum), it’s an extremely laid-back and convincing statement of individuality—kind of a bookend to Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping”. Macca, establishing himself in the driver’s seat during these sessions, may have embraced the countercultural energy of the era, but he was his own man. He didn’t name names or slag off any institutions and he didn’t need to. In one of the seminal years in rock ‘n’ roll history, McCartney did not surf the wave that crested during the Summer of Love: he was the wind that helped create the wave. If “Lovely Rita” and the insufferable “When I’m 64” wore out their collective welcome many years (decades) ago, we must still marvel at the economical, emotional devastation of “She’s Leaving Home”, a composition that manages to be in front of women’s lib and anticipates the generational pushback the Hippie years would engender. And while the sitar sounds at once calculated and quaint today, let us never sleep on the role George Harrison played in bringing world music to the fore: like just about everything the group did, their work helped enlarge and expand how we understand (and hear) music.

And, for this writer, five decades has only cemented speculation that “A Day In The Life” endures as perhaps the most perfect (not to mention important) song in rock history.

The Beatles, with Sgt. Pepper, did not just issue their own indelible statement of purpose, but provided a spotlight, and credibility, for other acts, not to mention inspiring countless others to rally behind the trail they blazed. Getting to a place, inconceivable only years before, where rock music might be acknowledged as art-with-a-capital-A, is not something The Beatles did all by themselves; they were simply the biggest, loudest and most successful spokesmen for the cause. They didn’t make what happened next possible so much as they made it inevitable.

For that, we must always appreciate them, and celebrate Sgt. Pepper. A splendid time, lest we forget, was guaranteed for all.

 

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The Moon is Glued to a Picture of Heaven: Ten Thoughts on Chris Cornell

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i.

In Bull Durham, the cranky and overachieving Crash Davis, at once in awe and envious, explains to the preternaturally talented but callow Nuke LaLoosh why he should appreciate his good fortune. “When you were a baby,” he says, “the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt.”

When Chris Cornell was a baby, the Gods reached down and turned his vocal chords into a golden vessel of sound. The Gods made the baby a Golden God, or something. Cornell was straight-up central casting. First the hair. Then the eyes. The attitude and intelligence, always incidental to a mediocre rock star, seemed instinctive. And then the voice. That voice. It doesn’t matter whether or not he was the best vocalist of his generation. Suffice it to say, he’s on the short list.

ii.

I think one of the reasons grunge grated, lasted so briefly and, for the most part, has aged poorly, is how affected and solipsistic it often seemed. Dudes in flannel whining about how unfair life was. And worse, rich dudes in flannel whining about how unfair fame was. Wah. One of the reasons I’ve always loved hockey is because you hear any of those guys talk and they’ll acknowledge that if they weren’t playing the game they love, they’d be pumping gas or working in a coal mine. Maybe a little more acknowledgment of the minimum wage jobs Fate kept them from would have made Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain slightly more tolerable. Maybe not.

iii.

Is grunge all or nothing? No more than any genre is. Do we have to lump all prog rock bands together? All punk, etc.? Of course not, and the only people who do are usually attempting a facile dismissal of an era or aesthetic they never cared for or couldn’t understand. Still, it seems both fair and accurate to say grunge had more than its share of poseurs. Or maybe it was just the time: the early ‘90s were a transitional time in pop culture. Like the beginning, middle or end of any decade, only more so. Synth pop to hair metal to Hip Hop Lite (hello M.C. Hammer), and then, the earliest days of a new music mostly coming out of Seattle.

Two things. One, with the increased benefit of hindsight, it’s farcical to insist all these bands were copycats, stylistically. Taken with two decades and change of recycled fads and uninspired rock clichés, it’s very difficult to lump this flannel-covered vault of goodness (and badness, and ugliness) all together, or dismiss it out of hand. There’s as much variance and growth (even in a relatively short period of time) amongst bands like, say, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden as could be found with any other “movement” bands. Soundgarden was never the biggest and likely will never be considered the best, but they always seemed least encumbered by whatever ethos grunge was supposed to attain, or attempt to mimic. They were at once above it and beyond it.

Two, while mileage will vary regarding the earnestness, opportunism, honesty and integrity of heavyweights like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder (and middleweights like Layne Staley and Scott Weiland), there was never any faking it with Soundgarden in general and Cornell in particular. He was clever, literate and—importantly—self-aware enough to translate that unhappiness and intensity into something lasting.

iv.

Exhibit A:

Close your eyes and bow your head

I need a little sympathy

‘Cause fear is strong and love’s for everyone

Who isn’t me

So kill your health and kill yourself

And kill everything you love

And if you live you can fall to pieces

And suffer with my ghost…

You don’t write lyrics like this unless you’ve a more than casual acquaintance with pain. Anger boomeranging outward and in. That makes you mortal. To use that angst and your talent to make unique and uniquely urgent music? That’s art. Using your frailty to empower other people? That makes you a hero.

v.

Exhibit B:

Don’t you lock up something/That you wanted to see fly…

It saddens, and kind of sickens, me that we will always hear a song like this with an irretrievable regret and a sense of foreboding-in-hindsight. But I will continue to celebrate it as a very human, and awesome shout of defiance, and use it to help me in the battle.

vi.

Cobain. Staley. Weiland. Cornell. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of anguish and a lot of exceptional men leaving the world entirely too soon.

vii.

The gifted, wounded Cornell checking out the same day as the fetid, corpulent and soulless husk of a human Roger Ailes seems like a necessary reminder, an admonition from the Universe: your mission, here, is to leave the world, if not better, at least kinder, happier and more expansive than it otherwise would have been. I can hardly conceive of two people who used their talents to such contradictory ends.

viii.

If he’d done nothing else, his contributions to this miniature epic (which, as time passes, seems certain to solidify its position as one of the best and most significant songs of the ‘90s), Cornell would demand attention and approbation.

ix.

Exhibit C:

Nothing seems to kill me no matter how hard I try

Nothing is closing my eyes Nothing can beat me down for your pain or delight

And nothing seems to break me No matter how hard I fall nothing can break me at all

Not one for giving up though not invincible I know…

Whatever the opposite of Jesus Christ pose is, that’s what Chris Cornell was. What he’ll always be.

x.

Would you cry for me, you sang. (You asked. You cried.) Of course we will. It’s the least we can do. More importantly, we’ll remember you. And celebrate all you left us with.

 

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B-Boys To Men: Check Your Head at 25

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At first the Beastie Boys were brats, then they were bratty; with their third album Check Your Head they dropped an ebullient bomb that is both heartfelt and soulful.

Any discussion of Beastie Boys’ third album is likely to divide fans into two camps: those who contend that Paul’s Boutique was?—?and remains?—?their masterpiece, and those who feel that their second album, while amazing, was also a necessary gateway for their best material. Put another way, they had to make Paul’s Boutique, and once it was out of their systems, they could embark on new challenges. This reviewer thought Check Your Head was a surprising and refreshing leap forward in 1992, and the passing of 25 years has done little to diminish its enduring appeal. It remains vital and engaging, in part because of the way it documents a particular moment when the band embraced the past while anticipating the future. A forward-looking album that establishes a distinctive ‘70s-era soul vibe? Only this band was capable, at that time, of pulling off such an ostensibly paradoxical achievement, and bringing the masses along to the party. That the group was able to establish a foundation from which their future work would flow was only slightly more momentous than the ways in which they turned a white-hot light on the myriad influences they wore so gleefully on their sleeves.

When the boys picked up instruments and actually proved they could play them it was intriguing; that they produced an album brimming with original, occasionally indelible material remains something of a revelation. Who woulda thunk it? This is the same band that announced themselves (quite successfully) to the world as wiseass clowns on Licensed to Ill. They rallied the underage troops to fight for their right to party and, beer bongs in hand, a nation of nitwits made them millionaires. But there was always a sense that this was a naked, calculated ploy for commercial success. To their credit, it worked. So it was impressive and, frankly, astonishing, to see how quickly they put away childish things and got busy concocting Paul’s Boutique. Indeed, the prepubescent fan base deserted them as quickly as it had embraced them, and their second album earned instant street cred simply for not being a retread of what had worked so wonderfully the first time.

Although it eventually became a cult classic, Paul’s Boutique was deemed a commercial dud when it dropped in 1989. It was such a departure from the simplistic, goofy boys-just-wanna-have-fun shenanigans of their debut, it obviously alienated some, and left many indifferent. By refusing to ride the gravy train, the band drew a line in the sand and has never retreated. It took a while for fans to catch up with them, but enough people eventually gravitated to Paul’s Boutique to ensure they had indeed made an astute decision, artistically and commercially. And so, some of these newer fans must have been shocked when, three years later, Check Your Head appeared, signifying another radical musical makeover. The response this time was immediate and undeniable, with the album breaking into the Billboard Top Ten. The first single, “So What’Cha Want” was so good, and so fresh, it managed to turn haters into backers. It was, and still is, a magic nugget of pop perfection.

Not everyone loved this release, and a critique that resurfaces to this day is that the album lacks cohesion; that it’s an uneven mess with some great moments, some weak moments, and some middling material. Another way of looking at it is to suggest that the rap-to-rock kitchen sink methodology works just fine, and is in fact an ideal strategy that allowed Beastie Boys to embrace their disparate interests and obsessions. The authentic DIY sensibility wins style points while augmenting what was, at the time, a burgeoning aesthetic integrity. If they couldn’t acquit themselves on their instruments, or their composing chops were weak, all of this would have been exposed and the album would have been a failure. By taking off the sample-phile training wheels, they effectively boxed themselves into a corner and put the onus entirely on their collective creativity. Where they once relied (too much?) on a hodgepodge of pirated pop culture treasure (courtesy of the justly venerated Dust Brothers production team and their set the controls for the heart of the sample M.O.), Check Your Head places the band itself in the spotlight and the focus is evenly split between music and mood.

Not to worry, the rhyming and stealing is still on display, but ultimately the words are part of a much bigger picture: where Paul’s Boutique was an elaborate comic book, Check Your Head is like a successful remake of an old B-movie. The music itself is the star attraction, with Adam (Ad-Rock) Horovitz handling the guitar, Adam (MCA) Yauch on bass and Michael (Mike D) Diamond doing drum duties. It is worth remembering that these gentlemen first formed a group in 1979, so it wasn’t as if they had never played instruments before; of course, it was as a punk/thrash outfit that they first gained attention. The best supporting actor is keyboardist Mark Ramos-Nishita (Money Mark) who makes crucial contributions throughout, adding color, flavor and sometimes a whole foundation the band builds on. It is difficult to overstate how important the organ player’s presence is: Money Mark is the fourth member of this outfit in much the same way George Martin functioned as an indispensable fifth Beatle on much of their later work.

The songs that retain their capacity to impress and amaze are the same ones that opened eyes all the way back in ’92: the instrumentals. Altogether, there are three tracks without any sort of vocals, a handful with minimal vocals and a couple where the vocals function as a part of the music (the chanting on “Something’s Got to Give” and the practically whispered words on album-closer “Namaste”). All of these songs are successful: once the novelty of these clown princes of rap playing instruments wears off, it quickly becomes evident that they also can compose memorable tunes. They have gone from sampling Curtis Mayfield (on Paul’s Boutique) to creating bona fide slinky ’70s soundscapes. And yet, even as they are taking fairly giant strides forward, the band can’t help looking (lovingly) backward: many of these tracks invoke the aforementioned ’70s soundtrack vibe (“POW”, “In 3’s”) while others recall the past as a springboard for the band’s unique vision (“Lighten Up”, “Gratitude”). And then there is the funkified anthem “Groove Holmes”, an unadulterated tribute to the jazz organist generally considered one of the forefathers of acid jazz. It was never this good before, and never got this good again.

Of course, there are some rambunctious reminders of the good old days, with marble-mouthed rapping front and center on songs like “Finger Lickin’ Good”, “Stand Together”, “The Maestro” and “Professor Booty”. The highlight of the band’s rap-and-roll 3.0 is the tour-de-force “Pass the Mic”, where they demonstrate that they can still pull off what worked best on Paul’s Boutique. This is their tightest, most authentic rap song, a tag team effort crammed with ideas and energy, incorporating everything from Jimmy “Kid Dy-no-mite” Walker to James Newton (a five second flute sample that inspired an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit). Obviously words can’t convey what sounds achieve, and the best way to “feel what they’re feeling” is to  listen.

Sample junkies can have a field day with what could (should?) have been a simplistic throwaway, the infectious “Funky Boss”. In actuality, it is a clinic of sound-collage adrenaline, from the bongo beat/cop-show theme introduction to samples ranging from Barrington Levy, Ohio Players and Richard Pryor?—?all in just over 90 seconds. “Finger Lickin’ Good” goes all the way from Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Sly and the Family Stone to…Bob Dylan (!). Speaking of Sly Stone, the band’s cover of “Time for Livin’” is like a brick through the window: a short, sharp shock wherein they manage to represent their hardcore roots while working in some borrowed lyrics from the immortal Lee “Scratch” Perry. And here again is an opportune time to reiterate why this album somehow manages to be slightly better than the sum of its parts. An entire album of (or, even a couple more) punk rock workouts would be entirely too much of a not-so-good thing; but coming as it does between the droll “The Biz vs. The Nuge” (sampling Ted Nugent’s “Homebound” with the irrepressible Biz Markie’s serenade) and the almost shockingly subtle “Something’s Got to Give”, it explodes as a one minute and 48-second smoke bomb.

What about the obligatory goofball quotient? The balance is just right, proving that the boys, no longer brats, could still be bratty. The gleeful sample from (actual album?) On Wine?—?How to Select and Serve is a refreshing change of pace, and the faux night club noodling of “Live at P.J.’s” is amusing enough, while showcasing Money Mark’s flawless organ embellishment. But the ultimate inside joke is the opening section of “The Maestro” which utilizes an actual voice mail left for the boys by someone who called the number for “Paul’s Boutique”: “Yo Paul…you can kiss my ass, I ain’t interested in you anyhow…”

Special mention must be made of the group’s tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the moment when all of these elements come together. “Jimmy James” is certainly one of the ultimate opening statements of any album made in the last two decades, and it still reverberates as the shot heard ‘round the record industry. Listening to this one, then, was an immediate announcement that we weren’t in Brooklyn anymore, and listening to it, now, is an unnerving reminder of how many bands (the good, the bad, and the awful) tried to imitate this hardcore rap rock amalgamation, with little success. Of course the boys themselves emulated the great Run DMC. Obviously they understood they could never sound as authoritative (or make it sound as effortless, think “It’s Tricky”). On the other hand, “Jimmy James” sounds quite unlike anything anyone else had done (or has done): building a sound structure from the ground up, all on a groove from an obscure Curtis Knight song (“Happy Birthday”, featuring a young Hendrix). It anticipates Beck and the full fruition of live music married to samples on Beck’s (Dust Brothers produced) Odelay. Here, the sick sounds of the B-Boys’ science coalesce: the raw scratching and brilliant sampling interspersed with their newfound joy of playing music. Interesting trivia tidbit: Unable to get approval from the Hendrix estate, the original version was “refined” and the actual Hendrix snippets (from songs like “Third Stone from the Sun” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming”) were smoothed over; although even in the album version you can hear the split second of “Foxey Lady” that spins the song out.

So why now for the deluxe reissue treatment? 2009 being the 20th anniversary of Paul’s Boutique, which itself was remastered a few months back, means there is no time like the present to spruce up the best of the back catalog (their next album, Ill Communication will follow this summer). Frankly, the sound on the original CD was top-notch (much credit should be given to co-producer and engineer Mario Caldato Jr, aka Mario C.), so while you can certainly hear all “eight bazookas” on this edition, the real draw is the second disc chock full of B-sides and remixes. There is plenty of throwaway material here, but for fans who never splurged on the 12-inches, here is an opportunity to get all the detritus in one place. There are some interesting, if inferior versions (and/or remixes) of the mega-hits “Pass the Mic” and “So What’Cha Want”, and there are some tasty nuggets, such as “The Skills to Pay the Bills”. The true highlight is that “original original” version of “Jimmy James”; you can hear all those Hendrix samples and the groove is as aggressive and gnarly on this take.

As always, the material left on the cutting room floor tends to put the final product in appropriate perspective. The fact that they decided to omit a song like “The Skills to Pay the Bills”, which is, by any reasonable criteria, a better “song” than “Live at P.J.’s” or “Mark on the Bus” is ultimately not the point; it wouldn’t have fit into the flow as well. Each song on Check Your Head eases (or crashes) into the next, coming out guns blazing with “Jimmy James” and drifting off to serenity with “Namaste”. It might be said that this is one of the first CDs that truly approximates the feel of a double LP: it has the ups, downs and (importantly) the in-betweens that ultimately add up to an artistic statement: if nothing worthwhile is being said, it’s forgettable, when the material is tight and timeless, it endures as a stylistic and soulful milestone.

*This piece originally appeared in PopMatters on 4/29/09.

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Beauty is a Rare Thing: Celebrating International Jazz Day (Revisited)

monk

All hope is not lost. At least enough people are still making –and listening to– jazz that we can even attempt to initiate what hopefully becomes an ongoing occasion.

In a piece celebrating one of my heroes, Eric Dolphy, I made an honest attempt to address what jazz music means to me and why I consider it an obligation to share this passion (full piece here):

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 4-5 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about, to name a relative handful, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn, Henry Threadgill and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

Before this blog (and PopMatters, where virtually all of my music writing appears), and during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

I have, in short, done my best to provide context and articulate why some of us continue to worship at this altar of organic American music. Naturally that discussion has included Miles, Mingus, Monk. And of course, Coltrane. With any honest discussion of jazz we can quickly get dragged into an abyss of snobbishness (however unintentional), trivial footnoting and the self-sabotaging desire (however well-intended) to include all the key characters. So for the novice, it’s not necessary to begin at the very beginning. Indeed, it might be advised to get a taste of Coltrane, who is at once accessible and imperative. Here’s my .02:

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Entire piece here.

The title of this post comes courtesy of the brilliant Ornette Coleman (speaking of misunderstood geniuses; to call him an iconoclast is like calling Marine Boy a good swimmer). More on him here and a crucial preview of the shape of jazz that came, below:

Jazz is not only fun to listen to (duh), it’s fun to analyze and obsess over. For instance, a short treatise on some of the more sublime sax solos can be found here. A case is made for the best jazz outfit ever assembled, here.

And a loving ode to contemporary jazz (for all the haters who won’t acknowledge it and the uninitiated who are entirely unaware of it). A taste:

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

The entire thing, with some very tasty audio samples, here.

For now, this (which does more to convey the ecstasy of improvisation and community, not to mention solidarity and soul, than a billion blog posts ever could):

In the end, jazz is always about now and the wonderful possibilities of tomorrow, but it also achieves what the best music of any genre does, and brings us back, always, to the beginning.

To be continued…

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