The Wisdom of Crowds: A Celebration of Humanity via YouTube (Revisited)

Everyone knows YouTube is the best shortcut to favorite, as well as forgotten video clips. And while it is well worth recognizing, and celebrating, the millions of anonymous DJs out there manning the Internets have been doing work bringing the noise. Literally. YouTube is becoming (or has become) a reliable source for tunes. Everyone knows this, but there is no accounting for what gems you might stumble upon while surfing for that favorite (or forgotten) song. Of course, that is what Last.fm, Rhapsody and (insert other sites here) are for. YouTube is less for programmed setlists and more for dedicated investigatory treasure hunts. Like the universe itself, the site is buzzing with signs of life and ready-to-be revealed secrets. If you boldly go where some men (and women) have gone before, you can collide with some very happy accidents.

Category One: Live Gems

C-peter-gabriel-2

Marvin Gaye!

Emerson Lake and Palmer (prog-rock nirvana!):

Oh, you want more prog rock? How about some Genesis? You may recognize that reverse-mohawked lead singer…

The Moody Blues keeping it REAL:

Pink Floyd (not live, but there is plenty of that to be had; here is a rare promotional video, i.e., Prog rock apotheosis!):

John Fahey!!

Category Two: Jazz!

keithtippett711ft5

Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra: “Fables of Faubus”
(First of all, that these songs are available is awesome; that this is a high school band (!) of Japanese girls (!!) playing –among other things– Mingus tunes (!!!) is bordering on miraculous. God bless them and God bless the Internets.)

Version One:

Version Two:

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins:

Art Motherfucking Blakey:

William Parker!

(Special appreciation for the things you were looking for all of your life — but didn’t know it until you found them):

Sun Ra:

The Keith Tippett Group. Who? Exactly. (King Crimson fans will recognize this woefully underappreciated pianist):

Grachan Moncur III:

Pharoah Sanders:

Category Three: Personal Favorites

Standing_on_the_verge_of_getting_it_on

And then there are the old friends you sometimes need to dial up just to get through another case of the Mondays:

(I mean, a little Funkadelic never hurt anyone; in fact, it did a lot of people a whole lot of good. And hopefully a few of you have never heard of Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, and are now addicted. I know what you’re thinking: Wow, what an incredible album title! Here’s the best part, that’s not even the second best Funkadelic album title from the first half of the ’70s. How about Cosmic Slop? Or the truly hysterical (or hysterically true) America Eats Its Young? Of course there is also Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow. And, for anyone still not convinced, we can cut through the cleverness and get to the heart of the matter with Maggot Brain. Yeah, you may be thinking, but how serious can a band be with album titles like that? The answer, incidentally, is: serious as a fucking heart attack.

Two words: Eddie Hazel:

Category Four: The Wisdom of Crowds

planet-of-the-apes

And finally, there are the geniuses amongst us who take the time not only to upload great music, but create arresting –and original– images to accompany it:

Exhibit A, Portishead meets Hitchcock:

Exhibit B, OutKast meets The Peanuts:

Exhibit C, Jimi Hendrix meets Earl King!!!

Exhibit D, Klaus Kinski, remixed:

And finally, Karlheinz Stockhausen — the only possible way to conclude this particular list:

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Billy Bang: Goodbye and Rest in Peace

This hurts.

Of course jazz enthusiasts are (always have been?) a small if discerning bunch, so it’s unlikely the sudden passing of Billy Bang will register as much as it should on the collective consciousness. This is a shame, but it can’t be helped. Those who knew Billy, and those who know and love his work, already miss him, and shall have to console ourselves that a great man has moved to the great beyond.

I fall back on what is, at this point, a somewhat formulaic observation, but I’m content to repeat it since it’s true: the death of any meaningful artist, particularly at a painfully young age (Bang was 63, which might not seem particularly painful or young to you, but it does to me, especially since, as a working jazz musician, he was still relevant, engaged and important to music) is always difficult to endure, but we have little choice but to console ourselves with the work left behind.

In the end that is probably the fairest trade we can expect or ask for: we respect the artist and mourn their absence, but we keep them alive by listening –and responding to– their efforts. This is the only type of immortality we can verify, and it seems more than a little satisfying for all parties.

So…who was Billy Bang?

Check out an overview of his life and career here.

A more detailed, and very touching tribute, from NPR, is here.

Pretty remarkable and very American life. He came up in a time when intolerance based on skin color still held sway, and of course that pain was reflected in his subsequent work. Not being wealthy or connected, he was one of the thousands drafted to fight in Vietnam. Needless to say those experiences played a significant role in his aesthetic. Indeed, he made two masterpieces that draw specifically –and movingly– from those experiences, Vietnam: The Aftermath and Vietnam: Reflections. For anyone interested in Bang’s work (and sublime semi-contemporary jazz in general) would do well to check out either.

From the NPR story:

At least initially, the period after his service was hardly any better. In 2005, Bang told Roy Hurst of NPR’s News and Notes that returning was a shock.

“When I came home from Vietnam — when I got off the airplane — the next thing I was on was the New York City subway, and that was extremely traumatic for me — I mean, just really destructive to my whole system,” Bang said. “I couldn’t take the sounds. I couldn’t take the people all around. So I finally got home; I didn’t want to come outside for a long time, which I didn’t do. So my mother was coaxing me to come out and sort of — she was trying to help me to get back to some kind of normality. But I still criticize the United States government for not having a real bona fide re-entry program for veterans.”

Again from the NPR piece:

The Vietnam albums proved to be more high-water marks for his career. Bang called up fellow musicians who had also served in Vietnam for the recording sessions, including conductor Butch Morris.

“It was quite heavy,” Morris told Howard Mandel. “I’ve never seen so many grown men cry. It’s not only how he brought this thematic stuff back — it’s how he brought the experience back, the experience of being there, the experience of smelling, the experience of seeing, the experience of feeling, the experience of fear, the experience of joy, the experience — he brought back all these experiences. That’s what was so frightening in the studio. He brought back the same experience that each of us had.”

My personal favorite is his 2003 collaboration with William Parker and Hamid Drake, Scrapbook. If you are the sort of person who still pays for music, you can download this sucker for $6 at Amazon: a dollar per song; it’s worth missing a meal to procure. Of course this is somewhat of an acquired taste: it’s jazz and it’s just bass, drums and…violin. For me, it’s musical crack, but I also think it’s sufficiently accessible and original that anyone with half-opened ears can pick up what’s being put down. And like all top-tier efforts, it never loses its luster. It still entrances and inspires me every time I hear it, and that is not only because of the first-rate compositions, it’s all about the playing and the indescribable empathy these musicians have for one another (Parker and Drake, as I’ve opined, are far and away the bass/drum combo of this generation, no one else especially close).

Unfortunately, there is only one song from this album on YouTube; I wish a few others were available since this one (typically) is probably the most difficult of the six. The last song on the album, “Holiday For Flowers” (link at Rhapsody here) is one of my desert island tracks from the last decade: it is swinging, ebullient yet elegaic; a particularly appropriate tune to serve for this somber occasion.

Here he is, live with Parker, in 2007.

The more I think about Billy Bang, the more I’m convinced his life is the kind of story someone should write a novel about. Except someone already did: Billy Bang did, and his novel was his life, and his life’s story is articulated in his music. And his music lives on.

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Thanksgiving 2010: Some Things I’m Grateful For

Give it up for old school (and the Oskar Blues brew pub’s vintage arcade room):

 

John Davis for helping make people aware of obscure American treasure, Blind Tom Wiggins (for eight bucks you can download this album at Amazon.com and it might just be the best money you spend this month, and possibly this year).

 

Speaking of American treasures, how lucky we are to have Mark Morford who is like a Mark Twain for our times or a David Sedaris with a political acumen. He slices, dices and souffles our imbecility and hypocrisy, and makes you laugh while you read about it (that itself is a minor miracle). Check him out this week, at the top of his game on the TSA silliness. Sample for your pleasure (and so I can read it for a third time):

Let’s also put aside the assorted political bitching of people like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — never one to pass up an opportunity to whine like a goddamn child and blame Obama for everything, despite how it was the Bush administration that invented the damnable TSA in the first place. Jindal says we should skip the groping and scanners and use some kind of profiling instead. Dear Gov. Jinhal: That’s a fine idea. Of course, you yourself, with your shifty eyes and scary, anti-American Hindu lineage, would be singled out for a hard grope in a millisecond. Just sayin’.

More? Okay!

And let’s ignore the inconvenient truth that a recent ABC poll found that 81 percent of Americans actually support the full-body scanners, at least until it happens to them. Is it not wonderful? Are we not a nation of fanciful hypocrites? Just add it to the list: security cams, irradiated food, red light cameras, handguns in bars? You bet! Except, oh wait, unless you’re talking about something near me.

That artists like David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Hamid Drake and William Parker are making music today that will be studied the way we dissect and savor all those impossibly perfect albums from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s:

William Parker Quartet:

David S. Ware Quartet:

For GQ writers, who continue (along with Esquire and Oxford American) produce the best feature stories year-in, year-out. 2010 is not over yet, but I already know I’m not going to read anything better, or more affecting, than Kathy Dobie’s piece (from the March issue), The Few, The Proud, The Broken. I’m sure the guy sitting next to me on the plane thought I was quietly weeping because my iPod had run out of juice, but it was actually because of the coruscating story I was reading. It got inside me and is still there. I’d suggest you read it, and keep it handy for future debates when your tax-cut-for-the-wealthy fellow Americans are using that shallow, scolding tone to talk about “entitlements”. Our collective willingness to wage war (on future generations’ tab!) and ignore the traumatized soldiers who return home has to rank near the top of topics we need to address.

For air conditioning:

Hey DeLay, how are you enjoying the (long, long overdue) hammer of justice?

For this guy with the Red Sox tat on his SCALP (and for me being able to get his picture without him noticing and beating me up):

For the spider that has lived in my car since this summer.

For having a great Pops, Mom and sister/brother combination.

For John & Holly:

For Arthur Lee and all the gifts he left behind, like this:

For Beethoven and Barenboim:

The collective wisdom of crowds (thank you YouTube!).

And finally (for now), Myron (and his mum), one of the most wonderful, soulful stories I’ve been fortunate enough to see this year.

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William Parker: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield

A Match Made in Heaven Turns Into a Near Miss

This review should be prefaced by a simple acknowledgment: William Parker has few peers in contemporary music. For the better part of two decades, he has been releasing statement after statement, steadily cementing his name on the all-time roster of jazz immortals. Because he is a bassist, it might seem facile to name-check Charles Mingus, but the comparison is apt and inevitable. Like Mingus, Parker is, in addition to being a monster on his instrument, a prolific and first-rate composer. And like Mingus, Parker is ceaselessly weaving together a tapestry that integrates tradition with the avant-garde. Many musicians would love to attempt this, and a lot of them try. Few have been as successful as Parker, just as a mere handful could hold a candle to Mingus when he oversaw the scene.

With considerable regret, then, I find I would rather talk about every other album in Parker’s catalog before getting around to his latest effort. It’s by no means a failure (concerning Parker such an assessment is impossible); rather, it’s a disappointment. On the other hand, for the genuinely interested but uninitiated jazz novice, this could be a suitable point of entry. It is for the hardcore William Parker fans that these reserved words are primarily intended.

It’s interesting. Jazz musicians have been covering popular music forever, using both commercial and obscure songs for a variety of reasons: to engage with the audience using accessible tunes, to pay homage to the individual being interpreted, to utilize traditional or “safe” material as firm if friendly ground from which to leap and explore. In recent years, artists like The Bad Plus, Marco Benevento and Stanton Moore (to name three acts that non-jazz fans may be familiar with) have utilized contemporary pop and alternative rock to satisfactory effect.

Part of what makes the enterprise enticing—particularly for listeners who wouldn’t readily gravitate toward jazz—is the novelty of re-imagining works, both the beautiful and the banal, that have infiltrated the public consciousness. As such, these exercises are seldom literal (note for note) and rarely incorporate lyrics or vocals. And, for myriad reasons, this is a good thing.

Which brings us to Parker’s eight-piece ensemble, The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield, and their new release I Plan To Stay A Believer. On paper, this project is inspired and appealing: 11 songs collected from a series of concerts recorded over the past decade. There is not a long list of musicians who could (or want to) try and pull off a full-scale tribute to the late, great Mayfield. And as he has frequently illustrated with his unique and indelible covers of adored songs such as “Come Sunday” and “There Is A Balm In Gilead”, Parker is quite capable of putting his own imprint on the classics.

It is, therefore, regrettable for a band this talented, performing material this good, to wind up with a well-intended, but underwhelming product. This is one of the better bands anyone could assemble, so it’s a shame you can barely hear them. You can hear the band, of course, but what you really hear are the vocals. In fact, these are not only (overly) literal interpretations—there are often more vocals here than on the original songs. This, putting it plainly, is not a formula for success.

In all fairness, your mileage may well vary. If you find instrumental improvisations of well-known tunes a bit played out (or just “out”), the relative structure and curiously tame renderings of these songs may resonate. If you are an ardent Mayfield fan, you might find yourself racing to the shelf for the original item(s). Mayfield’s catalog, after all, is not merely well-known, it is miraculous. It would, needless to say, require a radical or at least inventive revamping in order to make a project like this sufficiently intriguing (over two discs, no less).

Unfortunately, Leena Conquest’s effusive if occasionally overwrought vocals run the constant risk of reminding even the most open-minded listener that if you can’t improve upon a particular work, you’d better put it in a different wrapper. Too often, the presentation offers the worst of both worlds: it invokes Mayfield (but in a way that is distracting, not enlightening), while suffocating the exceptional performances of these remarkable musicians. When they are not being (inexplicably) drowned out by Conquest, they are ceding the stage to a legend that ought to be read and not heard. Amiri Baraka, who contributes original (though not particularly interesting and certainly not incendiary) poetry, also loudly recites it on more than half the selections. Baraka’s credentials (as a writer, thinker and provocateur) have long been largely unassailable. Alas, on this misadventure, he pretty much sounds like what he is: an older man trying to rap. (I know, his poetry from back in the day was rap before scratching and the wheels of steel, but its magic was conveyed on the page.)

There are, to be sure, stretches of songs that convince and delight, and these are not coincidentally when the band is able to cut loose without the vocal histrionics. The first 20 seconds of “If There’s Hell Below”, for instance, offer tantalizing impressions of how scintillating this material could (should) have been. So many Mayfield masterpieces are incorporated (including lesser-known gems like “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, and “It’s Alright”), it causes one to wish for an alternate version of this release, without the words. For now, we can still have the best of all worlds: the enduring Mayfield albums and the ever-growing list of treasures from Parker.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/130960-william-parker-the-inside-songs-of-curtis-mayfield/

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The Wisdom of Crowds: A Celebration of Humanity via YouTube (Part One: Music)

 

FarSideCownCar 

Everyone knows YouTube is the best shortcut to favorite, as well as forgotten video clips. And while it is well worth recognizing, and celebrating, the millions of anonymous DJs out there manning the Internets have been doing work bringing the noise. Literally. YouTube is becoming (or has become) a reliable source for tunes. Everyone knows this, but there is no accounting for what gems you might stumble upon while surfing for that favorite (or forgotten) song. Of course, that is what Last.fm, Rhapsody and LimeWire are for. YouTube is less for programmed setlists and more for dedicated investigatory treasure hunts. Like the universe itself, the site is buzzing with signs of life and ready-to-be revealed secrets. If you boldly go where some men (and women) have gone before, you can collide with some very happy accidents.

Category One: Live Gems

C-peter-gabriel-2 

Marvin Gaye!

  

Emerson Lake and Palmer (prog-rock nirvana!):

 

Oh, you want more prog rock? How about some Genesis? You may recognize that reverse-mohawked lead singer…

 

The Moody Blues keeping it REAL:

Pink Floyd (not live, but there is plenty of that to be had; here is a rare promotional video, i.e., Prog rock apotheosis!):

John Fahey!!

 

Category Two: Jazz!

keithtippett711ft5 

Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra: “Fables of Faubus”
(First of all, that these songs are available is awesome; that this is a high school band (!) of Japanese girls (!!) playing –among other things– Mingus tunes (!!!) is bordering on miraculous. God bless them and God bless the Internets.)

Version One:

Version Two:

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins:

Art Motherfucking Blakey:

 

William Parker!

(Special appreciation for the things you were looking for all of your life — but didn’t know it until you found them):

Sun Ra:

The Keith Tippett Group. Who? Exactly. (King Crimson fans will recognize this woefully underappreciated pianist):

Grachan Moncur III:

Pharoah Sanders:

 

Category Three: Personal Favorites

Standing_on_the_verge_of_getting_it_on

And then there are the old friends you sometimes need to dial up just to get through another case of the Mondays:

(I mean, a little Funkadelic never hurt anyone; in fact, it did a lot of people a whole lot of good. And hopefully a few of you have never heard of Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, and are now addicted. I know what you’re thinking: Wow, what an incredible album title! Here’s the best part, that’s not even the second best Funkadelic album title from the first half of the ’70s. How about Cosmic Slop? Or the truly hysterical (or hysterically true) America Eats Its Young? Of course there is also Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow. And, for anyone still not convinced, we can cut through the cleverness and get to the heart of the matter with Maggot Brain. Yeah, you may be thinking, but how serious can a band be with album titles like that? The answer, incidentally, is: serious as a fucking heart attack.

Two words: Eddie Hazel:

Category Four: The Wisdom of Crowds

planet-of-the-apes

And finally, there are the geniuses amongst us who take the time not only to upload great music, but create arresting –and original– images to accompany it:

Exhibit A, Portishead:

Exhibit B, OutKast meets The Peanuts:

Exhibit C, Jimi Hendrix meets Earl King!!!

Exhibit D, Klaus Kinski, remixed:

And finally, Karlheinz Stockhausen — the only possible way to conclude this particular list:

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