The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

RP

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shame and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, karmically and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

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Happy Birthday Chazz: Mingus at 93

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Today would have been (and, still is) Charles Mingus’s 93rd birthday.

I’ve written about him often and I’ll continue to write about him, not only because he is one of my all-time favorite musicians, but his work warrants mention and constant attention.

For today, I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute than the appreciation I wrote, on the occasion of his masterpiece, Mingus Ah Um‘s 50th anniversary.

1959 was, by any measure, a watershed year for jazz music. Some all-time great recordings were released during this year, including Kind Of Blue (Miles Davis), Giant Steps (John Coltrane), The Shape of Jazz To Come (Ornette Coleman), Time Out (Dave Brubeck) and, of course, Mingus Ah Um. Although Charles Mingus’s masterpiece received the full remastering treatment for its fortieth anniversary, it is entirely appropriate to revisit (and reassess) the sessions for Columbia Records that resulted in both Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty. This was Mingus’s first opportunity to record for a major label, and it goes without saying that he made the most of his opportunity. Mingus Ah Um: Legacy Edition could (should?) be named The Mingus Columbia Sessions, since the entire Mingus Dynasty album is included in this (quite reasonably priced) special edition.

Mingus Ah Um is rightly regarded as a seminal jazz recording, and it signals the full flowering of Mingus’s development as a bassist and composer. Even by jazz musician standards, he had paid substantial dues in his extended apprenticeship years, struggling to find a sympathetic label and always worried about money. Of course he also endured the non-musical outrages of the time, being an outspoken and brilliant black man in a country that considered him at best a second-rate citizen. Mingus bristled at the ignorance and intolerance that sometimes suffocated him, and his work can be viewed as an ongoing dialogue between himself and the world. All the passions that informed his underdog triumphs are inextricable from the music he made: as much as any other artist from the last century, his life was his music.

Mingus worshipped Duke Ellington and emulated the great bandleader’s aesthetic, to a fault a times, begging the question of whether he could ever entirely escape the long shadow cast by his hero. All through the ‘50s he refined his chops and expanded on an increasingly exhaustive musical palette, but remained unable to attract a meaningful audience. Slowly but steadily his confidence grew, and the resulting material demonstrated the cultivation of a style that was as distinctive as it was encompassing. Mingus devoured the work of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well as Ellington (and Charlie Parker and contemporaries like Monk and Gillespie). Once he began to assemble the pieces of his developmental puzzle, the results—although a long time in gestation—seemed to come in an astonishing burst.

His first major breakthrough was Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), and while he was satisfied with the recording, even he could not have fully anticipated the ways in which the floodgates were about to open. What Mingus accomplished in 1957 still staggers the mind: in addition to Mingus Three and East Coasting, Mingus recorded a trio of albums that incorporated crucial components of his maturation. Most musicians would be ecstatic to list A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry, Tijuana Moods and The Clown on their career resumes; the fact that Mingus delivered all of them in a single year puts his superhuman productivity in proper context. In addition to the eclectic styles and concepts found on these aforementioned albums, Mingus was getting more comfortable achieving an ideal balance of composition and improvisation. He was beginning to write material with certain musicians in mind, so that when it came time to record, he could convey the sounds he was looking for without necessarily handing the sheet music over; he would play it on piano or sing the notes out loud. The confidence this practice required (in his music, in the musicians he selected) was the final ingredient that made his arsenal complete. Henceforth, he was able to harness the best of both worlds, employing a strategy that enabled his detailed arrangements to retain a vitality that an over-rehearsed studio band could never approximate.

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The landmark Blues and Roots, recorded just before Mingus Ah Um but released afterward, showcased Mingus’s desire to embrace the blues alongside traditional cultural and musical elements, specifically gospel and church music. Blues and Roots is effective but a tad raw (in a mostly good way); it’s polished but dirty and in hindsight seems like a test run for what turned out to be his tour de force. By the time Mingus entered the studios to work with the legendary producer Teo Macero (a man celebrated for his ability to wrangle superlative material from irascible musicians, as his subsequent, extended relationship with Miles Davis affirms), he understood that this affiliation with an established record label was the opportunity he had long dreamt about. Mingus, like Miles, not only had an uncanny, often unerring eye for talent, he was able to inspire, and sometimes cajole, stellar performances from the men he assembled. The stakes, therefore, could not be more unambiguous: Mingus Ah Um features one of the preeminent composers of his era at the pinnacle of his game with (arguably) the best band he ever worked with.

Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Special tributes are offered up to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, and, of course, Duke Ellington. For this work, which was profoundly personal to him for obvious reasons, he embellished his quintet with new faces and old friends. Of the many bands Mingus led, the one that made history in Europe during 1964 (featuring Eric Dolphy) is tough to top, but in terms of sheer versatility and expertise, the individuals handpicked for this session represent an unparalleled collective. Shafi Hadi (alto sax) and Jimmie Knepper (trombone) had already made memorable contributions throughout ’57, and they adapted deftly to the larger ensemble. Booker Ervin (tenor sax) would go on to make many remarkable albums of his own, but it’s likely that his best work is contained on this outing—a circumstance not atypical for so many of the excellent musicians who played with Mingus over the years. Special mention must be made for drummer Dannie Richmond. Mingus is quoted in the album’s original liner notes as claiming he “would rather have no drummer at all if Dannie weren’t available.” Suffice it to say, coming from the notoriously exacting—and occasionally self-destructive—standards Mingus set, this sentiment speaks volumes. Richmond was impressive from the moment he worked with Mingus, and while he shines on the ’57 recordings, he truly comes into his own on this set. Beyond impeccable timekeeping, his lock-step accompaniment with Mingus is almost inexplicable; both men were quick to acknowledge that they seemed destined to work together.

Okay, so for those not already in the know, what does Mingus Ah Um sound like? Plain and simple, it sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter. Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

“Better Git It In Your Soul”, introduced by Mingus’s muscular bass lines, brims with confidence and purpose right out of the gate. This is possibly the first time the blues have been incorporated so seamlessly with gospel and folk: from the congregation-like conversations between the horns to Knepper’s authoritative outbursts to the syncopated hand-claps to Richmond’s propulsive backbeat, this is celebration in music. Mingus literally cannot contain himself, repeatedly crying “Hallelujah” and “Lord I Know!” throughout the piece. This song sets a forceful tone, and over the course of 50 years it has never lost its capacity to delight or surprise.

Mingus moves from the ecstatic to the restrained on the album’s first tribute, an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

Mingus turns back again to early roots with “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, an ideal vehicle that displays his ability to commemorate the past with a contemporary imprint. Booker Ervin and John Handy each turn in delightfully buoyant solos while Mingus and Richmond lock in with Horace Parlan (piano). Next up is the composition intended for use in John Cassevete’s first feature, Shadows. When it did not find its way into the film, Mingus retitled it “Self-Portrait in Three Colors”. It can never be overstated how sophisticated and dexterous Mingus’s compositional skills were at this juncture: this short piece can easily be imagined as a string quartet, or as the foundation for a big band’s deconstruction. As it plays on the album, it remains a delicately understated tone poem. Knepper’s trombone restates the plaintive theme as the saxophones subtly comment on and around it, while Richmond’s brushwork gives the entire piece its peaceful, almost elegiac air.

For the next tribute, “Open Letter to Duke”, Mingus revisits three pieces from his (overlooked) album A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry: “Nouroog”, “Duke’s Choice”, and “Slippers”, all of which are worked into a showcase for the entire band. Horace Parlan carries the momentum as Mingus and Richmond lay back, providing an uptempo pulse for the others to expand upon. Once again, all the horns are utilized in a manner that affords ample opportunity for individual commentary while maintaining the collective integrity of the piece. This piece is followed by another installment of Mingus’s series of odes to Charlie Parker. Unlike “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” (from The Clown), “Bird Calls” is at once a figurative nod to Parker’s bebop stylings as well as a literal (via the horns) approximation of an aviary: each saxophone states the theme in unison, then the soloists are given free rein to improvise. It turns into an amiable cutting session with each voice outdoing the previous one, adding up to six minutes of exuberant abandon.

For a “tribute” of a different sort, Mingus takes aim at Orville Faubus, the Arkansas governor who forcibly resisted integration in Little Rock, prompting President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard. “Fables of Faubus”, beyond being a masterpiece, epitomizes the power and purpose the best music is capable of achieving: it is a rollicking cherry bomb that combines righteous indignation with contemptuous mockery. Knepper’s exaggerated trombone blasts invoke a carnivalesque atmosphere, and Mingus eagerly steps in as ringleader, his bass-slapping equal parts violent and sardonic, while everyone joins in the merriment: they are having fun at Faubus’s expense, celebrating this well-warranted smackdown. The tune romps along, Richmond urging the band into double time throughout, while the horns function as sarcastic crows, looking down and chirping their amusement. Accounts vary as to whether the shouted lyrics (heard on subsequent live versions) were already written and omitted, or if they simply developed while Mingus performed in concert. Let it be opined that the “lyrics”, while enjoyable enough, are overly literal and not particularly original; the band is able to “say” everything that needs to be said in this take, and that remains the enduring achievement of this recording. Only Mingus could take such a distressingly serious topic and deflate the backward status quo that put a clown like Faubus in public office in the first place. This song stands alongside “Haitian Fight Song” and “Meditations (of Integration)” as Mingus’s abiding social statements.

“Pussy Cat Dues” is another stroll down memory lane, with Handy’s clarinet invoking early Ellington and an earlier America. Knepper’s trombone floats above the procession like clouds escaping a steam grate, and Parlan’s ultra-laid back solo invokes saloons, moonshine and cigar smoke. Fittingly, Mingus ends the album by going back to the very beginning, paying respects to Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, the ragtime genius who is generally considered the first authentic jazz composer. A refined version of “My Jelly Roll Soul” (from Blues and Roots), “Jelly Roll” is an ebullient homage, complete with slapped bass, trombone flourishes, and more inspired soloing from Ervin and Handy. Appropriately, Horace Parlan moves to the forefront on this track, and his solo is a wink and a nod to the great old days while remaining rooted in the here and now. Mingus’s playful plucking and countdown at the song’s conclusion reiterates the spirit of celebration and good cheer that permeates the album.

For those who slept on the 40th anniversary edition of Mingus Ah Um, this new version is indispensable. Like the previous reissue, the pieces feature remastered sound and the original versions (edited due to LP time constraints) are all lovingly restored: the songs truly sound the way they were meant to be heard. In addition to the cleaner sound and reinserted solos, there are a handful of alternate takes (“Bird Calls”, “Jelly Roll” and “Better Git It In Your Soul”), as well as bonus material. Of these, both “Pedal Point Blues” and “GG Train” are consistent in feel and spirit with the proper album, but neither match the levels of brilliance contained on the original nine tracks. The third “bonus” track, a cover of the 1920s classic “Girl of My Dreams” (a song used to mesmerizing effect as a leitmotif in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart), could easily have found a place on the album, as it represents yet another reimagining of a tune from jazz’s earliest days (and would have constituted the only cover). Mingus’s arrangement turns this old chestnut into a miniature epic, packing an incredible amount of music into four minutes: he and Richmond are so locked in that they sound like the same person with four arms, and the rest of the band is scorching; it is an absolute jackpot.

A few months after Mingus Ah Um hit the streets (September ’59), Mingus entered the studio with many of the same musicians and recorded the tracks later released as Mingus Dynasty. This material, taken by itself, is typically solid and occasionally ingenious work, but it can’t help but suffer by comparison with its predecessor. Nevertheless, it contains some of Mingus’s more satisfying compositions, including “Song With Orange”, “Far Wells, Mill Valley”, and “Put Me In That Dungeon”. There are elements that recall Blues and Roots (especially the astutely titled “Slop”, which sounds like a messier, less successful version of “Better Git It In Your Soul”) and, obviously, the previous album, but Mingus opens things up a bit with the inclusion of vibes (courtesy of Teddy Charles), giving several of the songs a slightly more formal, old-school feel. Yet another Charlie Parker tribute appears, the very satisfactory “Gunslinging Bird” (which was originally entitled “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”). The Ellington influence is in full effect—perhaps too much for comfort, considering the quantum leap made on the last recording—with covers of “Mood Indigo” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. One senses an emphasis on composition with less opportunity for the improvised flashes of heat that spiced up Mingus Ah Um. On the other hand, Mingus Dynasty can also be viewed as a very successful step toward Mingus’s next landmark opus (and the undeniable apex of his compositional prowess), The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady.

A few closing thoughts concerning this indelible record, half a century later. There are arguably better albums (Kind of Blue and Giant Steps are well-loved and oft-invoked touchstones whenever these discussions arise), or albums with more emotional import (A Love Supreme or Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village), but it would be next to impossible to find a more suitable candidate that summarizes virtually everything jazz music is about than Mingus Ah Um. This is material that can truly be savored, every individual moment, each note, all the ideas as close to perfection as is humanly possible. Those of us whose lives are enriched by music should remain eternally grateful for the miracle that was Charles Mingus.

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Yusef Lateef: R.I.P., Gentle Giant (One Year Later)

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We have lost one of the great, indeed one of the greatest, ones.

Yusef Lateef, aged 93 years young, was finally stopped by cancer on December 23.

I say “finally” because Lateef was so positive, productive and relentlessly creative, it seemed like he might never slow down, much less die.

How productive was he over how many years? Check this out.

And definitely check out this excellent overview of his life and career, via Peter Keepnews.

There are many ways beyond his impressive biography to celebrate him, but for me, much of what he did and who he was can be summarized by one word signifying one year: 1957. Lateef’s output in 1957, like that of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane –not shabby company– must rank amongst the most astonishing bursts of energy and ecstasy we’ve ever witnessed. Of course, he did not exactly burst onto the scene: he had been working on his music and his vision for over a decade, and once the opportunity arose, he struck quickly and that initial momentum scarcely slackened for the next decade. After that, his recordings were seldom infrequent and never uninspired.

Here is a useful excerpt from the Keepnews piece:

by the time he made his first records as a leader, in 1957, he had begun establishing a reputation as a decidedly unconventional musician.

He began expanding his instrumental palette by doubling on flute, by no means a common jazz instrument in those years. He later added oboe, bassoon and non-Western wind instruments like the shehnai and arghul. “My attempts to experiment with new instruments grew out of the monotony of hearing the same old sounds played by the same old horns,” he once told DownBeat magazine. “When I looked into those other cultures, I found that good instruments existed there.”

Indeed, Lateef was not merely expanding his instrumental arsenal, he was upgrading his compositional acumen. The result is a series of works that are grounded in jazz, certainly (a word/description he did not endorse), and not infrequently based on blues motifs, but also far-ranging and far-reaching. As many have pointed out, Lateef was creating, if not inventing, World Music long before the concept was known and/or imitated. It’s one thing to introduce such an unlikely instrument as the oboe into jazz songs that could still swing; Lateef was integrating sounds from the Far East into music in novel ways that even the mighty Coltrane emulated, years later. Like Sun Ra, Lateef was hearing things and imagining worlds that still seem exotic and ahead of their time; that they came in a world that was so black and white (mostly White) in the mid-to-late ’50s is staggering, bordering on inconceivable. Like the best music from our best musicians, it is also miraculous. No need for excessive description; just listen to to it.

It has always been, for me, at once exceptional and inspiring to consider Lateef, who was barely scraping by financially as a full-time musician circa ’57, road tripping from Detroit (a city he would celebrate later in his career) to The Big Apple on a random weekend to record yet another masterpiece. The fact that, later in his career and already an acknowledged master, he refused for a time to play live in clubs were alcohol and cigarette smoke were pervasive, augments his street cred. He was not faking it, and his personal life and of course his music are a living soundtrack to a life of honesty and exploration. It was, perhaps more than anything else, Yusef’s insatiable need to discover and learn that make his albums endure, that make him such a worthy role model. To be certain, any musician or artist would be wise to emulate his inimitable discipline and humility; but any human being who wants to connect with others, understand more of the world (and, inevitably, his or herself) can learn a lot from the nine decades and change of evidence Lateef supplied us. He was real, and his soulful vision will keep him amongst us so long as people are capable of paying attention.

Here are ten tracks (with two bonus live tracks that are AMAZING) for both the uninitiated and the aficionado; songs to savor and songs that hopefully inspire a deeper dive into this great man’s vast catalog.

Go peacefully and sleep well, Gentle Giant.

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10 for NYC by 10, on 9/11

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New York City would be unimaginable without jazz, and vice versa.

Here then is a tribute for –and by– several musicians who help define and celebrate the cultural mecca of our known universe. On a day like today, it seems appropriate and right to acknowledge the artists that express the pain, grief, joy and delight –those things that comprise this fleet, miraculous time we have together. Their music is a living celebration of life, and a testament to what the best among us are capable of delivering.

How about four from the old guard, five from the new(er) guard and a final one from the epitome of so much of what makes The Big Apple such a special, truly incomparable place?

Kick it off with the king: Charles Mingus, one of his many (many) tributes to the amazing city that coursed through the blood pumping his huge heart:

(If you are new to this blog you may not know that I have a slight reverence for Chazz Mingus. More on that here.)

Put plainly: Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

A scorcher from Sonny Rollins (more on him here, but here is the bottom line: The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process).

Another native son, and icon we will appreciate as long as we have ears to hear (and his sidemen each, in turn, crank out some of the best solos ever caught on tape: first trumpet fire from Freddie Hubbard, then the most bad-ass bass solo from Jimmy Garrison and the typical roaring thunder from the mighty Elvin Jones):

Slowing it down, a tear-jerking tribute from the gentlest of giants, John Coltrane.

(A lot more on him here. My quick .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.)

And lest we forget, the man who took one of the biggest bites out of that apple, Miles Davis. (He needs little introduction, but if you are as yet unitiated, take care of that as soon as possible. Check it: Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.)

From his second quintet’s masterpiece Nefertiti, the appropriately entitled “Fall”, a glorious elegy for autumn, featuring some of Wayne Shorter’s most gorgeous writing and playing):

Aram Bajakian’s Kef, who made another one of my favorite albums last year (full review here). This is my bottom line appraisal on the debut recording from this remarkable young artist:

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom (here is my very positive review of their 2011 effort Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes). Here is the conclusion of that piece:

By the end, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is not unlike a good workout, on multiple levels. You should be exhausted by the experience but you mostly feel rejuvenated, aware that something meaningful has happened. There is emotional heft here and a vibe that engages the intellect. This is music that matters. Is it too soon to begin wondering—and anticipating—what Pitom is going to come up with next time out? Stay tuned.

Jon Madof’s Rashanim (much more on him and his band here). Writing about his masterful 2009 effort The Gathering, I concluded thusly:

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

Matthew Shipp, from one of my favorite albums (jazz or otherwise) of the last decade, Equilibrium:

Jamie Saft (more on his most recent effort with New Zion Trio, entitled Fight Against Babylon, here). I can’t say enough good things about this utterly original genius, but here’s a taste:

Zelig-like, Jamie Saft has been an indefatigable fixture in the downtown NYC music scene. Equal parts MVP and unsung hero, his presence—as player, producer and composer—is at once daunting and exhilarating. Anyone familiar with John Zorn’s Tzadik label will already be quite familiar with his work, but if any musician is inadequately described by labels and geography, it’s Saft. Granted, Tzadik’s mission statement is the promotion of music without boundaries or agenda, resulting in albums that shift comfortably between genres like jazz, classical and so-called world music. Still, even in the Tzadik stable, Saft has been all-world in terms of his reach and aspiration these last ten years and change.

Productive and diverse, Saft has steadily amassed a body of work that can rival any contemporary artist. There are practically too many quality items to count, but consider a random sample of high points: there is his involvement with Zorn’s Electric Masada project, The Dreamers series, and—to pick only two from a half-dozen from the remarkable Filmworks series—Workingman’s Death and In The Mirror of Maya Deren. He also figures prominently on Bobby Previte’s (enthusiastically recommended) Coalition of the Willing and original Masada trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Freak In. Then there is the work he’s released as a leader…Get the picture?

And last but far from least, the master. John Zorn, who over the past several decades has done as much as anyone to encourage and inspire the creation of meaningful music. (A lot more about him, here.) Here is an overview, with some recommended recordings (and cohorts) included:

In the early 2000’s Electric Masada, a semi-rotating cast of characters including Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Ikue Mori (laptop and electronics/effects), began to tackle the catalog. The live performances were incendiary (trust me) and all this time, Zorn continued to make other music (tons and tons of it), particularly his always-compelling series of film soundtracks (currently at Volume 23, and counting…). Then, roughly ten years after he completed the first Masada songbook, Zorn challenged himself to compose new material, and quickly found himself with another 100 (!!) compositions, which he christened Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book, all recorded by the (acoustic) quartet, this series has been handled by a variety of bands in and outside the NYC jazz circuit, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Koby Israelite and The Cracow Klezmer Band. It can be said, without the slightest hint of (intentional) hyperbole that this is by far some of the more moving music recorded so far this century: it is not comparable, really, to anything being created by anyone around at this time.

He is not from New York City, he is New York City. Here is perhaps his most somber and elegiac piece, “Kol Nidre” (more on that and what it signifies, here):

I hope that anyone who lost someone thirteen years ago, or suffers for any number of reasons due to the day that will define our new century, finds some peace and comfort. And as always, I encourage everyone to realize that while no music can completely heal a broken heart, it can go a very long way toward restoring your soul. Peace.

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Four: Separating The Best of The Best

Jackie-McLean

Best sax solos ever?

That is kind of like choosing the best sunset; it’s impossible.

But some do stand out apart from the rest, and beauty is always in the ears of the behearer.

5. John Coltrane: “The Last Blues”.

Of course it would be possible to make a list without including Coltrane; it just wouldn’t feel right. His entire career is an extended highlight reel, a hall-of-fame enshrinement in real time. Also, as at least one person has opined, no one has ever done anything as well as John Coltrane played the saxophone.

Even on tunes like “Russian Lullaby” (arguably the apotheosis of his famous “sheets of sound”) or “Countdown” (where, after having learned to fly, he finally broke the sound barrier), other players get a say, however briefly. On “The Last Blues” it’s all Trane from start to stop, and even though Elvin Jones is in typical form, dropping sonic booms from every conceivable angle, this is Trane preaching from the mountaintop: this is the tide crashing and receding –and everything in between.

*Proceed to the 46:56 point and then go to the very beginning and listen to the entire album. Twice.

4. Jackie McLean: “Plight”.

For my money, probably the single-most underrated musician in jazz history. Listen: the streak Jackie Mac went on from the late ’50s to the late ’60s can stand toe-to-toe with what anyone else has done in any era; just one masterpiece after another. Also, Dr. Jackyll discovered –and promoted– more amazing young talent than anyone not named Miles Davis or Art Blakey.

“Plight” is from his enthusiastically recommended album Action, featuring as solid a line-up as Blue Note ever boasted: Cecil McBee on bass, the estimable (and also severely under-appreciated) Charles Tolliver –who composed most of the material– on trumpet, “Smiling” Billy Higgins (who is without any question on the short list of all-time great jazz drummers) and, added bonus, the incomparable Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. Add Mac’s alto, at once searing and then soothing, and you have a tune that can –and should– convert anyone with the slightest bit of sense, or soul. This also is just about as cool as it gets.

3. Charles Mingus: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.

It’s not just that I’ll take any opportunity available to discuss Charles Mingus (I will); it’s that he can’t be talked about enough. He was sufficiently god-like in his time that he always was able to assemble top-tier talent; part of his enduring legacy (aside from his musicianship and compositional prowess) is that he consistently got the best performances out of so many of the men he employed. Simply put, too many great players to count did their finest work on sessions led by Mingus.

From the immortal Mingus Ah Um, this is an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Teo Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

2. Ornette Coleman: “Civilization Day”.

This one is for all the uninformed haters. Black beret this, bitches.

Punk rock? Please. This shit makes that slop sound like what it mostly was: a bunch of spindly misfits playing their instruments poorly but passionately. Child’s play, musically speaking. This is the truth that a whole lot of people can’t handle. In part, because it makes so much other material sound like little boys playing with toy soldiers. This is a report from the frontlines, with real bullets flying and the sort of shrapnel that gets stuck in your soul. Can you dig it?

As Charlie Haden and (the aforementioned) Billy Higgins double-time the soundtrack of the end of the world as we know it (try to wrap your mind around what is happening during the 4:36-4:51 section), Coleman remains impossibly calm and collected, because that’s how he’s always rolled. In his own elegant way he makes a compelling case for why the skies of America shouldn’t come crashing down on a 20th Century spun all out of control. You don’t need to try and understand what he’s saying; just be thankful that he said it.

1. Sonny Rollins: “East Broadway Rundown”.

Sonny. One of the last still-living links to the great old days. Like Coltrane (and every other player on this particular list), it is too easy to pick a representative solo –which makes it difficult to isolate just one.

So it seems a bit appropriate to choose one from the album where Rollins “borrowed” Coltrane’s rhythm section (Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones). A special guest appearance from the remarkable Freddie Hubbard (who also augmented the collective genius on Coltrane’s Ole Coltrane disc) makes this one of the seminal recordings of the ’60s.

Along with the epic side-long “Freedom Suite” this title track represents Rollins doing an extended improv in the studio, and in many ways it remains his most satisfying, if unorthodox performance. Rollins was not as quick to embrace the free jazz ethos as his compatriots, Coltrane and Coleman were, but once he let his guard down he proved, once again, that he could be the best at whatever he set his mind to doing.

Perhaps the most notable playing Rollins does here occurs when, having seemingly taken the instrument as far as he can take it, Sonny starts blowing through his mouthpiece (!!). The resulting sounds are many things: spooky, surreal, unsettling and awe-inspiring. Nothing else anyone has ever done sounds anything like this, and it’s ceaselessly exciting to hear Garrison and Jones hold down the fort while Sonny leaves the room for a while and goes to that sacred other place where very few artists are capable of going.

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50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part One

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NO SELF-RESPECTING writer should ever undertake the process of making a list lightly. As we all know, lists are ultimately trivial, subjective and practically a provocation inviting rebuttals, questions and caustic dismissal. They are, therefore, matters of life and death. Making this list made me (more) insane, so I know my mission is accomplished, in spirit if not actuality. Even picking the title caused consternation: some people will know and love all of these albums; all people will love and know some of them. The point, simply, is to celebrate fifty that I don’t think get enough love, and that I recommend without reservation. That said, this is not an exercise in obscurity: we already have hipsters happy to select the most abstruse or impossible-to-procure albums. In the cases where I allow for works I know a lot of people recognize, I’ve included them because in my experience, not nearly enough people seem to own them (spoiler alert: the top two selections are critically regarded masterpieces, but in my humble opinion they should be a great deal more beloved and recognized).

I enforced a few guidelines to make the project manageable: there is exactly one blues album, one classical, one “world music”, one country/bluegrass, one soundtrack and one jazz (but I broke that rule, inevitably): entire lists could—and should—be made of each genre, and I tried to limit the reggae, because an entire list is begging to be made at some point. There are more than a few albums on this list that I heard or read about and all music fanatics understand the karmic implications of turning friends and strangers on to albums that improve their lives. Getting off the familiar path always is always a word-of-mouth enterprise, so I thank everyone in advance for mentioning lesser known albums that warrant celebration in the comments section.

Let’s get it on.

50. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings

Yes, everyone has heard of him. But have you heard this music? Do you own his collected works? They fit on one disc, so there’s no acceptable excuse not to.

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson? Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve. The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937. And as anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring.

In sum, if you consider yourself a fan of history, or culture, or America, or Art (etc.), you need this in your collection, and not as something to put on display, but something you will return to, often, to remember how deep, dark and mind-boggling humanity can be, at its best.

Robert J

49. Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), is a chamber quartet by French composer Olivier Messiaen. This music was not merely inspired by the concentration camps, it was written, and then performed there. True story, and worth looking up. When considering the circumstances that accompanied its creation, the hyperbolic title not only seems appropriate but even inadequate. The music itself? Exactly what you might expect: stirring, solemn, celebratory. It is a living document of endurance and memory, and it is the soundtrack of a hope that can never be silenced.

messiaen

48. Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. Plain and simple, Mingus Ah Um sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter.  Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

mingus

47. Bela Fleck: Natural Bridge

It’s possible there is not a more maligned or misunderstood type of music than bluegrass. Banjo wizard Bela Fleck is probably the best-known practitioner of what is commonly referred to as “Newgrass” (progressive bluegrass). His credentials are unimpeachable, and his entire discography is consistently remarkable, but Natural Bridge stands out as a document that can entice a newbie and satisfy an aficionado. Pushing boundaries and styles, the results are buoyant and expressive, a tour de force of collective musicianship: every song is hummable and manages to sound familiar yet fresh on first listen. It’s difficult to imagine anyone with a remotely open mind being immune to the considerable charms on display, and it’s likely this could be a gateway to a love affair that never ends.

Bela F

46. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate: Ali & Toumani

Although Mali legend Ali Farka Touré was taken entirely too soon (despite having lived a long and productive life, artistically and spiritually) in 2006 after battling cancer, this posthumous release, his second collaboration with kora master Toumani Diabete, is an ideal summation of his work and perfect point of entry for newcomers. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

ali toumani

45. Mikey Dread: Beyond World War III

If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts (And then there is his fruitful, crucial association with The Clash: keyword Sandinista!).

This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive, at times jovial and, when appropriate, somber. This is party music for the apocalypse.

mikey D

44. Elysian Fields: Bleed Your Cedar

This album should have made the beautiful Jennifer Charles a superstar. That it didn’t says more about our country, and its tastemakers, than it does about Elysian Fields. The songwriting and guitar playing of Oren Bloedow is effulgent throughout, and the album manages to be spooky and luminous at the same time. Centerpiece “Fountains on Fire” is sexy yet forbidding: Charles is a siren who will lull you to sleep and then steal your soul. Other tracks like “Jack In The Box” and “Anything You Like” have unmistakable noir elements while delivering the adrenaline. This is lounge music from hell, sung by an angel.

Elysian F

43. Robert Fripp and Brian Eno: No Pussyfooting

The origin of ambient? If not, definitely one of the early, and more enduring experiments that led to thousands of lifeless imitations. Considering the pedigrees of both men (long since anointed as legends) it’s almost impossible to imagine this not being brilliant, but recalling the relatively primitive conditions in which it was recorded, No Pussyfooting remains a revelation. Considering Fripp was in the midst of recording masterpieces with King Crimson’s most riotous ensemble and Eno was fresh out of Roxy Music, the subdued, glacial pull of this album is the type of anomaly we now know we could—and should—have expected from these two geniuses. In addition to being a remarkable recording in its own right, this can also be seen as a template for the types of sounds Eno and Fripp are still experimenting with, four decades later.

Fripp Eno

42. Wax Poetic: Nublu Sessions

Yes, this is the one that has Norah Jones on it. And I’m grateful for two reasons. First, even though Jones sings on only two tracks, they are both top-notch. Second, her involvement in this project clearly elevated its commercial appeal and helped more people stumble upon it. Nublu Sessions features a variety of guest vocalists, all to incredible effect. In addition to Jones, we get N’Dea Davenport, U-Roy and especially Marla Turner, whose vocals are some of the sexiest and most memorable of the last decade. Turner’s work on “Della” is an instant classic that invokes Motown filtered through a psychedelic jukebox: it is an ethereal Burt Bacharach song, equal parts Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes and Portishead. Nublu Sessions effortlessly meshes jazz, rock and pop, and is everything that great music is capable of being. Do yourself a favor and grab hold of this.

nublu sessions

41. Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation

It seemed too good to be true that this band became one of the big stories in 1997 with their breakthrough When I Was Born For The 7th Time. In a way, it was. Whether because of pressure (self-imposed and critical) or lack of sufficient inspiration, it took them over five years to make their next album. With America’s typical attention span, that meant they were not only mostly forgotten, but effectively yesterday’s news. It’s a shame, then, that this atmosphere (partly of their own making) led to the apathetic embrace of 2002?s brilliant Handcream For A Generation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this album was (and continues to be) met with such indifference. Certainly, it doesn’t have the sure-fire hit single that “Brimful of Asha” was, but in many ways, the best songs on this album are better than the best songs on the one that preceded it.

In any event, it is one that remains ripe for reeavaluation, and the delights it contains are considerable. Put as simply as possible, anyone who dug When I Was Born For The 7th Time is strongly encouraged to snatch Handcream For A Generation. Cornershop’s inimitable Indian/British rock permutations are consistently clever, inventive and always, always cool as shit. This is one of the coolest albums of the new century and, in fact, it may be too cool for its own good. For skeptics or naysayers, how can you possibly go wrong with a record that has a song entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”? This is intelligent music that makes you want to dance, laugh, and marvel at how such creativity is conceived in the first place.

Cornershop

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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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. Also, this:

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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The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

RP

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shame and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, karmically and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

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Happy Birthday Chazz: Mingus at 92

charles-mingus-012013

Today would have been (and, still is) Charles Mingus’s 92nd birthday.

I’ve written about him often and I’ll continue to write about him, not only because he is one of my all-time favorite musicians, but his work warrants mention and constant attention.

For today, I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute than the appreciation I wrote, on the occasion of his masterpiece, Mingus Ah Um‘s 50th anniversary.

1959 was, by any measure, a watershed year for jazz music. Some all-time great recordings were released during this year, including Kind Of Blue (Miles Davis), Giant Steps (John Coltrane), The Shape of Jazz To Come (Ornette Coleman), Time Out (Dave Brubeck) and, of course, Mingus Ah Um. Although Charles Mingus’s masterpiece received the full remastering treatment for its fortieth anniversary, it is entirely appropriate to revisit (and reassess) the sessions for Columbia Records that resulted in both Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty. This was Mingus’s first opportunity to record for a major label, and it goes without saying that he made the most of his opportunity. Mingus Ah Um: Legacy Edition could (should?) be named The Mingus Columbia Sessions, since the entire Mingus Dynasty album is included in this (quite reasonably priced) special edition.

Mingus Ah Um is rightly regarded as a seminal jazz recording, and it signals the full flowering of Mingus’s development as a bassist and composer. Even by jazz musician standards, he had paid substantial dues in his extended apprenticeship years, struggling to find a sympathetic label and always worried about money. Of course he also endured the non-musical outrages of the time, being an outspoken and brilliant black man in a country that considered him at best a second-rate citizen. Mingus bristled at the ignorance and intolerance that sometimes suffocated him, and his work can be viewed as an ongoing dialogue between himself and the world. All the passions that informed his underdog triumphs are inextricable from the music he made: as much as any other artist from the last century, his life was his music.

Mingus worshipped Duke Ellington and emulated the great bandleader’s aesthetic, to a fault a times, begging the question of whether he could ever entirely escape the long shadow cast by his hero. All through the ‘50s he refined his chops and expanded on an increasingly exhaustive musical palette, but remained unable to attract a meaningful audience. Slowly but steadily his confidence grew, and the resulting material demonstrated the cultivation of a style that was as distinctive as it was encompassing. Mingus devoured the work of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well as Ellington (and Charlie Parker and contemporaries like Monk and Gillespie). Once he began to assemble the pieces of his developmental puzzle, the results—although a long time in gestation—seemed to come in an astonishing burst.

His first major breakthrough was Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), and while he was satisfied with the recording, even he could not have fully anticipated the ways in which the floodgates were about to open. What Mingus accomplished in 1957 still staggers the mind: in addition to Mingus Three and East Coasting, Mingus recorded a trio of albums that incorporated crucial components of his maturation. Most musicians would be ecstatic to list A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry, Tijuana Moods and The Clown on their career resumes; the fact that Mingus delivered all of them in a single year puts his superhuman productivity in proper context. In addition to the eclectic styles and concepts found on these aforementioned albums, Mingus was getting more comfortable achieving an ideal balance of composition and improvisation. He was beginning to write material with certain musicians in mind, so that when it came time to record, he could convey the sounds he was looking for without necessarily handing the sheet music over; he would play it on piano or sing the notes out loud. The confidence this practice required (in his music, in the musicians he selected) was the final ingredient that made his arsenal complete. Henceforth, he was able to harness the best of both worlds, employing a strategy that enabled his detailed arrangements to retain a vitality that an over-rehearsed studio band could never approximate.

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The landmark Blues and Roots, recorded just before Mingus Ah Um but released afterward, showcased Mingus’s desire to embrace the blues alongside traditional cultural and musical elements, specifically gospel and church music. Blues and Roots is effective but a tad raw (in a mostly good way); it’s polished but dirty and in hindsight seems like a test run for what turned out to be his tour de force. By the time Mingus entered the studios to work with the legendary producer Teo Macero (a man celebrated for his ability to wrangle superlative material from irascible musicians, as his subsequent, extended relationship with Miles Davis affirms), he understood that this affiliation with an established record label was the opportunity he had long dreamt about. Mingus, like Miles, not only had an uncanny, often unerring eye for talent, he was able to inspire, and sometimes cajole, stellar performances from the men he assembled. The stakes, therefore, could not be more unambiguous: Mingus Ah Um features one of the preeminent composers of his era at the pinnacle of his game with (arguably) the best band he ever worked with.

Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Special tributes are offered up to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, and, of course, Duke Ellington. For this work, which was profoundly personal to him for obvious reasons, he embellished his quintet with new faces and old friends. Of the many bands Mingus led, the one that made history in Europe during 1964 (featuring Eric Dolphy) is tough to top, but in terms of sheer versatility and expertise, the individuals handpicked for this session represent an unparalleled collective. Shafi Hadi (alto sax) and Jimmie Knepper (trombone) had already made memorable contributions throughout ’57, and they adapted deftly to the larger ensemble. Booker Ervin (tenor sax) would go on to make many remarkable albums of his own, but it’s likely that his best work is contained on this outing—a circumstance not atypical for so many of the excellent musicians who played with Mingus over the years. Special mention must be made for drummer Dannie Richmond. Mingus is quoted in the album’s original liner notes as claiming he “would rather have no drummer at all if Dannie weren’t available.” Suffice it to say, coming from the notoriously exacting—and occasionally self-destructive—standards Mingus set, this sentiment speaks volumes. Richmond was impressive from the moment he worked with Mingus, and while he shines on the ’57 recordings, he truly comes into his own on this set. Beyond impeccable timekeeping, his lock-step accompaniment with Mingus is almost inexplicable; both men were quick to acknowledge that they seemed destined to work together.

Okay, so for those not already in the know, what does Mingus Ah Um sound like? Plain and simple, it sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter. Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

“Better Git It In Your Soul”, introduced by Mingus’s muscular bass lines, brims with confidence and purpose right out of the gate. This is possibly the first time the blues have been incorporated so seamlessly with gospel and folk: from the congregation-like conversations between the horns to Knepper’s authoritative outbursts to the syncopated hand-claps to Richmond’s propulsive backbeat, this is celebration in music. Mingus literally cannot contain himself, repeatedly crying “Hallelujah” and “Lord I Know!” throughout the piece. This song sets a forceful tone, and over the course of 50 years it has never lost its capacity to delight or surprise.

Mingus moves from the ecstatic to the restrained on the album’s first tribute, an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

Mingus turns back again to early roots with “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, an ideal vehicle that displays his ability to commemorate the past with a contemporary imprint. Booker Ervin and John Handy each turn in delightfully buoyant solos while Mingus and Richmond lock in with Horace Parlan (piano). Next up is the composition intended for use in John Cassevete’s first feature, Shadows. When it did not find its way into the film, Mingus retitled it “Self-Portrait in Three Colors”. It can never be overstated how sophisticated and dexterous Mingus’s compositional skills were at this juncture: this short piece can easily be imagined as a string quartet, or as the foundation for a big band’s deconstruction. As it plays on the album, it remains a delicately understated tone poem. Knepper’s trombone restates the plaintive theme as the saxophones subtly comment on and around it, while Richmond’s brushwork gives the entire piece its peaceful, almost elegiac air.

For the next tribute, “Open Letter to Duke”, Mingus revisits three pieces from his (overlooked) album A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry: “Nouroog”, “Duke’s Choice”, and “Slippers”, all of which are worked into a showcase for the entire band. Horace Parlan carries the momentum as Mingus and Richmond lay back, providing an uptempo pulse for the others to expand upon. Once again, all the horns are utilized in a manner that affords ample opportunity for individual commentary while maintaining the collective integrity of the piece. This piece is followed by another installment of Mingus’s series of odes to Charlie Parker. Unlike “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” (from The Clown), “Bird Calls” is at once a figurative nod to Parker’s bebop stylings as well as a literal (via the horns) approximation of an aviary: each saxophone states the theme in unison, then the soloists are given free rein to improvise. It turns into an amiable cutting session with each voice outdoing the previous one, adding up to six minutes of exuberant abandon.

For a “tribute” of a different sort, Mingus takes aim at Orville Faubus, the Arkansas governor who forcibly resisted integration in Little Rock, prompting President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard. “Fables of Faubus”, beyond being a masterpiece, epitomizes the power and purpose the best music is capable of achieving: it is a rollicking cherry bomb that combines righteous indignation with contemptuous mockery. Knepper’s exaggerated trombone blasts invoke a carnivalesque atmosphere, and Mingus eagerly steps in as ringleader, his bass-slapping equal parts violent and sardonic, while everyone joins in the merriment: they are having fun at Faubus’s expense, celebrating this well-warranted smackdown. The tune romps along, Richmond urging the band into double time throughout, while the horns function as sarcastic crows, looking down and chirping their amusement. Accounts vary as to whether the shouted lyrics (heard on subsequent live versions) were already written and omitted, or if they simply developed while Mingus performed in concert. Let it be opined that the “lyrics”, while enjoyable enough, are overly literal and not particularly original; the band is able to “say” everything that needs to be said in this take, and that remains the enduring achievement of this recording. Only Mingus could take such a distressingly serious topic and deflate the backward status quo that put a clown like Faubus in public office in the first place. This song stands alongside “Haitian Fight Song” and “Meditations (of Integration)” as Mingus’s abiding social statements.

“Pussy Cat Dues” is another stroll down memory lane, with Handy’s clarinet invoking early Ellington and an earlier America. Knepper’s trombone floats above the procession like clouds escaping a steam grate, and Parlan’s ultra-laid back solo invokes saloons, moonshine and cigar smoke. Fittingly, Mingus ends the album by going back to the very beginning, paying respects to Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, the ragtime genius who is generally considered the first authentic jazz composer. A refined version of “My Jelly Roll Soul” (from Blues and Roots), “Jelly Roll” is an ebullient homage, complete with slapped bass, trombone flourishes, and more inspired soloing from Ervin and Handy. Appropriately, Horace Parlan moves to the forefront on this track, and his solo is a wink and a nod to the great old days while remaining rooted in the here and now. Mingus’s playful plucking and countdown at the song’s conclusion reiterates the spirit of celebration and good cheer that permeates the album.

For those who slept on the 40th anniversary edition of Mingus Ah Um, this new version is indispensable. Like the previous reissue, the pieces feature remastered sound and the original versions (edited due to LP time constraints) are all lovingly restored: the songs truly sound the way they were meant to be heard. In addition to the cleaner sound and reinserted solos, there are a handful of alternate takes (“Bird Calls”, “Jelly Roll” and “Better Git It In Your Soul”), as well as bonus material. Of these, both “Pedal Point Blues” and “GG Train” are consistent in feel and spirit with the proper album, but neither match the levels of brilliance contained on the original nine tracks. The third “bonus” track, a cover of the 1920s classic “Girl of My Dreams” (a song used to mesmerizing effect as a leitmotif in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart), could easily have found a place on the album, as it represents yet another reimagining of a tune from jazz’s earliest days (and would have constituted the only cover). Mingus’s arrangement turns this old chestnut into a miniature epic, packing an incredible amount of music into four minutes: he and Richmond are so locked in that they sound like the same person with four arms, and the rest of the band is scorching; it is an absolute jackpot.

A few months after Mingus Ah Um hit the streets (September ’59), Mingus entered the studio with many of the same musicians and recorded the tracks later released as Mingus Dynasty. This material, taken by itself, is typically solid and occasionally ingenious work, but it can’t help but suffer by comparison with its predecessor. Nevertheless, it contains some of Mingus’s more satisfying compositions, including “Song With Orange”, “Far Wells, Mill Valley”, and “Put Me In That Dungeon”. There are elements that recall Blues and Roots (especially the astutely titled “Slop”, which sounds like a messier, less successful version of “Better Git It In Your Soul”) and, obviously, the previous album, but Mingus opens things up a bit with the inclusion of vibes (courtesy of Teddy Charles), giving several of the songs a slightly more formal, old-school feel. Yet another Charlie Parker tribute appears, the very satisfactory “Gunslinging Bird” (which was originally entitled “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”). The Ellington influence is in full effect—perhaps too much for comfort, considering the quantum leap made on the last recording—with covers of “Mood Indigo” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. One senses an emphasis on composition with less opportunity for the improvised flashes of heat that spiced up Mingus Ah Um. On the other hand, Mingus Dynasty can also be viewed as a very successful step toward Mingus’s next landmark opus (and the undeniable apex of his compositional prowess), The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady.

A few closing thoughts concerning this indelible record, half a century later. There are arguably better albums (Kind of Blue and Giant Steps are well-loved and oft-invoked touchstones whenever these discussions arise), or albums with more emotional import (A Love Supreme or Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village), but it would be next to impossible to find a more suitable candidate that summarizes virtually everything jazz music is about than Mingus Ah Um. This is material that can truly be savored, every individual moment, each note, all the ideas as close to perfection as is humanly possible. Those of us whose lives are enriched by music should remain eternally grateful for the miracle that was Charles Mingus.

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The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shamelessness and out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, accordingly and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. (However: if karmic justice could be rendered in cartoon fashion, Robert Plant should have noisily imploded the second he whined about the Beastie Boys sampling Zeppelin, appropriately on a tune called “Rhymin’ and Stealin’”.) In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

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