MUSIC OF THE DAY- February 1st– The Everly Brothers
There are pop music vocal duos and there are The Everly Brothers. Their harmonies are son=me of the sweetest ever recorded. Sure, it helped that they had Chet Atkins guiding them with top tier songwriters like Felice and Boudleaux Bryant supplying them with hits, but these boys could SING. To me, they cover the emotional landscape of teendom pretty damn well. Their influence on other music of the late 1950s-60s is immense and sometimes hard to fathom, because they seemed ubiquitous on the pop, rock, and country charts. They were crossover artists in a way, but to them they weren’t crossing from one style to another. The Everly catalogue isn’t quite any of those labels, but you can call it pop. They can transport you back to a time before some of us were born; the adolescent fairyland of drive-ins, going steady, and sexual repression. There isn’t any implicit sexuality in their songs, but you can feel the longing and wanting (Think of Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass).
The songs are classics, and not enough of them are represented here. “All I Have to Do Is Dream” could be a trite song in other hands, but they milk it so well. “Bird Dog”, which is about what we call a Player today” “Let it Be Me”-a pure song of love if there ever was one; “Poor Jenny”, which tells of a new girl at school who winds up in trouble, and does so with an unusual chord progression; “Bye Bye Love”, which is a really sad song clothed in a happy beat; “Wake Up Little Susie”; the poster boy song of sexual repression, which tells of teenagers falling asleep at a drive- in and missing their curfew, leading to their classmates gossiping that they must have done something BAD.
There are too many to talk about here, but I don’t think there’s a bad Everly tune from their golden era. If you want to point to their vocal influence on later songs, listen to The Beatlles’ “Please Please Me” and compare it to the Everlys’ opening vocal on “Cathy’s Clown”. BLAMMO! “Love Hurts” is one of the best broken -hearted ballads there is. You can also check Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ version, which manages to bring more self-inflicted torture out of the song. I liken their version to love as an addiction, while the Everlys show you the pain and sadness of not having someone in your life any more.
Happy 81st birthday, Don Everly. You and your brother’s voices will be forever etched in my heart.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 2nd– Stan Getz-Focus
There are those albums you can easily classify into a sub-genre or era, and there are the albums you can’t classify at all. Focus is one of those records. Is it cool jazz? Is it third-stream, that combo of jazz and classical? Is it chamber jazz? All those questions don’t mean shit, because this record is GREAT.
Stan Getz was already one of the top tenor saxophonists in the world in 1961 but hadn’t released his legendary bossa nova album yet which would propel him to the pop charts. Getz commissioned the underpraised arranger Eddie Sauter to write an album for him with a string orchestra. Usually jazz musicians with strings albums are ballad-heavy and showcase the tenderness of the soloist. Sauter’s arrangements and Getz’s playing are the opposite of the previous models. It’s a very modern sounding record, even today. The harmonic structure of the tunes is not very standard for the most part.
Getz shreds. He doesn’t get enough credit for being a badass, possibly because he was popular, and there’s that stupid misconception that if something is popular it must suck. Getz isn’t taking chances here. “I’m Late, I’m Late” combines Bartok and Lester Young on amphetamines; “I Remember When” is a bittersweet ballad with harmonies that tell you the emotions involved are much more complicated than any pop song of the era; “Pan” is what the lovechild of Bernard Herrmann and Maurice Ravel would sound like if that kid grew up on 52nd Street; “Her” showcases Getz’s warm and breathy tone over a blue blanket of strings; “Night Rider” is a brooding but energetically swinging tune that makes me wonder how Sauter could get the strings to swing; “Once Upon a Time” sounds like Walt Disney asking Hindemith and Jimmy Giuffre to score a cartoon; and wherever the park is in “A Summer Afternoon”, I want to go there, even if the trees are sparkly and foreboding.
Stan Getz was known as The Sound. This unusual and beautiful record shows that he was a multi-faceted master of the tenor saxophone. Listen NOW.
MUSIC OF THE DAY- February 3- Buddy Holly
Fifty-nine years ago today was The Day The Music Died. (Cue Don McClean). For you youngsters who don’t know of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, or Ritchie Valens, they died in a plane crash on route to a gig in Moorehead, Minnesota in 1959. Note to musicians: prop planes and helicopters KILL us.
You can say that the future of rock and roll was on that plane. Buddy Holly, most of all, was the guy who was the biggest star and who was poised to take the music to the next level. He had already changed rock and roll by combing elements of country, Texas twang, and whiteboy blues into a very tuneful whole. His recording output was all of three years, but those months changed the musical world. “That’ll Be The Day”, “Peggy Sue”, “It’s So Easy”, “Everyday”, “True Love Ways”; “Not Fade Away”; these are classic recordings. Dylan, The Everly Brothers, and the Beatles could all count Holly as a major influence on their work, and we owe him so much. He also made it cool to look like a nerd.
His bassist with his backing band The Crickets was a young Texan by the name of Waylon Jennings. You might have heard of him. Years after the plane crash, Jennings said that Holly had kidded him about freezing in the gig-bound tour bus. Waylon replied with “I hope your ol’ plane crashes”.
Waylon was haunted by this.
Buddy Holly was twenty-two years old.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 4- Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt
Sonny Side Up
This is a meeting of jazz titans. Unlike some all-star gatherings that turn into “blowing sessions” (where there is little focus on a musical arrangement in favor of extended improvisation), this record is thought-out but still full of some of the best jazz soloing on record. This version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” might be in the top five definitive recordings of the standard. Dizzy’s Satchmo-inspired vocal is incredibly inventive, mostly because he changes the melody, rhythm, and some of the lyrics, but it feels so easy and natural you’d almost wish Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Field wrote it this way.
“The Eternal Triangle” is one of the classic re-writes of George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. It’s fast, but not roadrunner fast. Both of the Sonnys (Get the title?) rip through the chord changes like a bull through a toreador’s cape. Stitt is still underrated as a first-class improviser and saxophonist, while Dizzy and Sonny Rollins are, well, legends. Rollins is still with us, although he recently retired from performing, which is a drag, as I’d want everybody who cares about jazz to have seen him live at some point. Lincoln Center 1996 for me- DAMN.
“After Hours” is a slow-ish 12/8 blues, where pianist Ray Bryant gets to show his Otis Spann meets Horace Silver approach. His older brother Tommy lays it down on bass, and the under-appreciated Charlie Persip grooves hard on the kit. Vincent Youmans’ “I Know That You Know” gets the fast bebop treatment here, and the Sonnys show how to play with 2-bar breaks. It’s a way to show that you have your rhythmic shit together. These guys have it all together.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 5- Television- Marquee Moon
When you’re a rock musician in mid-1970s New York and you take the name of a French Symbolist poet, you better know what you’re doing. Tom Verlaine knew what he was doing (and still does), and the two-guitar attack of Television’s 1977 debut album influenced so many other artists. He conceived the song order before they even recorded the album. Marquee Moon shows us one view of the 1970s Lower East Side, when it was still dangerous and filled with poetry and guitars.
I haven’t been able to find the origin of the white guy/half-sung/half spoken/half sneer vocal sound, but Verlaine is pretty close to the source. David Byrne with Talking Heads is another example of the style, and it’s no surprise that both bands came out of the LES scene. Verlaine’s voice won’t please everyone, but the people who do like it have made some of the best “rock” music of the past forty-odd years.
“See No Evil” rocks from the beginning. The two-guitar melodies of Richard Lloyd and Verlaine are the Duane Allman and Dickey Betts of the CBGB crowd. Fred Smith and Billy Ficca are a more inventive rhythm section than most bands of the era. The title track is a semi-epic adventure, with more twin guitar lines for your ears to latch onto. “Prove It” predicts some elements of the 1980s, but not in a bad way (See U2, The Pixies, R.E.M., Sonic Youth).
No matter which compartment you try to put Television into-Art rock? No Wave? Post-punk? (how can you be post punk when The Sex Pistols came out a few months after your record?)- they are an important part of rock and roll history.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 6-Bob Marley and The Wailers- Catch a Fire
It’s Bob Marley and The Wailers. Need I say more? I guess I will.
Musicians have a unique ability to address social issues, especially when they write and sing incredible music like you hear on this record. Catch a Fire is heavier and more minor-key than what we usually think of when we think of the Jesus Christ of reggae, but that doesn’t make it groove any less. When the Barretts and Peter Tosh are involved, there will be groove and truth.
“Concrete Jungle” kicks it off, and we aren’t on the happy beaches of Jamaica anymore. “No sun will shine in my today”- he’s enslaved by the grim city streets. In “Slave Driver” and “500 Years” (the latter by Tosh), they sing us the evils of the African slave trade. Heavy shit.
The mood gets lighter with the classic “Stir It Up”, which has to be one of the best hookup songs ever recorded. “Kinky Reggae”, “Midnight Ravers”, “No More Trouble”, “Baby We’ve Got a Date”; this is some of the best stuff to come out of Jamaica. Bob is smoking one of Jamaica’s other main exports on the cover.
Here’s another example of The Wailers’ brilliance, also from 1973.
Happy birthday Bob Marley!
ALBUM OF THE DAY-February 7-Miles Davis- In A Silent Way
From the second you hear Joe Zawinul’s creepy organ chords, you might think Miles dropped some acid with Vincent Price, but “Shh/Peaceful” calms down to a hypnotic and beautiful piece with 16th note hi-hat patterns by Tony Williams and pleasing textures and moods all around. This was Miles’ first full-fledged foray into electronics, and the tunes are surprisingly less jarring than say, Miles Smiles or Sorcerer. But hey, we’re listening to jazz legends here: John McLaughlin on the electric (gasp!) guitar; Wayne Shorter on saxophone; Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea on keyboards; and relative newcomer Dave Holland on bass. Of course, there’s Miles on trumpet, directing the traffic. The album was recorded in three hours in 1968, and then producer Teo Macero edited the tapes to make a more cohesive sounding record.
“In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time” is pretty much Zawinul’s, and it’s dreamy and floaty without drifting into flower-power land. It’s all about the simple melody, with McLaughlin, Shorter, and Davis each stating their versions of it. Then we get a nice bass ostinato (Miles liked James Brown) with a nice drum groove from Williams, which leads into a three-measure chord pattern of Zawinul’s that they explore. As far as “fusion” records go, this is one you could have on in the background at home and it probably won’t scare you or any visitors. It’s not tame or sanitized, but more of a set of mood pieces with some cool improvisations. Nobody’s trying to shred here, which is one reason it’s so damn good. They’re creating a new form of music partially because they aren’t trying to blow people away.
You can’t go wrong with Miles.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 8- Jan Johansson– Jazz på svenska
Johansson’s recordings, much like Stan Getz’ Focus, are difficult to categorize, but that’s a part of why records like this are good. They slip between the cracks of convention; never announcing themselves too loudly, hoping to be found. I found this through our dearly departed Tim Luntzel. It falls into a couple of different categorizations; piano/bass duo, chamber jazz; Scandinavian jazz: film soundtrack- it is all of these at once, and it is special.
Johansson began recording jazz versions of Scandinavian folk songs in 1964 in Sweden, with Georg Riedel on upright bass. The sound is sparse, and when I drive around with these understated songs, I picture a snowy Swedish winterscape of craggy white mountains and frozen fjords, and then in a comfortable home with a fireplace. The music is in black and white in my head- in 1964 not all of the world was colorized.
The themes grow and snake around like windy roads going up a mountain. Throughout the record I feel a sense of nature, but I am thinking and feeling it from afar. The overall mood of the record is CALM. Not CALM as in New Age noodlings. This music tells you a story, if you would care to hear it. As I don’t read or speak Swedish, I don’t know what the titles mean, but I would guess they are about nature and legends and not about IKEA products.
Jan Johansson died on November 9, 1968. The next day I was born. Coincidence? I hadn’t heard this music for the first forty-six years of my life, but once I did I felt like I knew it before. Did I get a touch of Johansson in the ether that flows around new-born babes? Most likely not, but I try to incorporate Johansson’s simplicity and elegance in my playing whenever possible.
Listen to this on a cold and gray day. Look at the sky. Drink it all in.
MUSIC OF THE DAY- February 9- Carmen Miranda
Carmen Miranda was so much more than a dancing and singing Chiquita banana ad. She was more than a movie star or singer. In 1945 she was the highest-paid woman in America and was one of the most popular celebrities. It’s probably safe to say that she helped put Brazil on the map in 1930s America, even though most Americans then and today wouldn’t literally be able to find it on a map. But I digress.
It’s her singing that floors me. More specifically, it’s her phrasing, which sounds so natural and relaxed even though she’s flying all over the place. This is the beginning of samba, and also the start of movie and Broadway making Latin American culture more appealing to Americans. She had to deal with so much bullshit that was typical for female stars of the time (yes, even worse than it is today) but she was an empire unto herself and was an ambassador for Latin America, even if some Brazilians thought she’d sold out. She died of a heart attack at forty-six.
These early recordings from Brazil really show her vocal and musical ability. I’ve put up two examples, but there are so many more. For sheer joy in a seemingly innocent era (with a whole-tone woodwind intro), check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQtRPvBlkKY
Obrigado, Ms. Miranda.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 10- Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet- The Juliet Letters
It’s always nice to listen to an album and remember who turned you on to that album. Thank you, Tom Paul, for loaning me this CD when it came out, and then taking me to see this incredible group at Town Hall. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever experienced, and the recording of this concert came out in 2006. The Juliet Letters is a loving combination of modern pop songwriting and post-romantic chamber music, but without sacrificing the qualities of either style. It is really in a world of its own.
The title comes from a titular Shakespeare character. Since the 1930s, the city of Verona, Italy has been flooded with letters simply addressed to: “Juliet Capulet, Verona.” You can read about Juliet here and about some of the people who respond to the letters here. I would love to be a person who writes these replies; after all, it is easier to fix another person’s life than your own. And every young poet needs his/her Rilke to respond in kind.
Costello met the Brodskys in 1989 when they performed Shostakovich’s string quartets in London. I’d say that ol’ Dmitri S. is a big influence on the compositions, but you also have Costello’s own musical and lyrical gifts. They listened to music, wrote music, and talked about music. The result is a song cycle of sorts, with each song being a letter, or some form of writing.
“Deliver Us” is an overture that gives us a glimpse of what is to come. “For Other Eyes” Is a jealousy-tinted song sung by a man, but it is really a woman’s story. “Swine” is fiendish and fun. I do love the line “You’re a swine, and I’m saying that’s an insult to the pig.” The narrator is pissed off and probably in prison hundreds of years ago. “Expert Rites” is a few notches above emotional suicide, and Costello’s vocal is heartbreaking. Did I say that this is also an amazing record for dealing with and/or submerging oneself in self-pity and deepest melancholy?
“Dead Letter” feels like Haydn, Bartok, and Dmitri meeting at Goethe’s place to talk about love and death. It’s an instrumental that doesn’t need a lyric to tell you what it’s about. “I Almost Had a Weakness” has a great near atonal intro that goes into a whirling rhythmic pattern for the vocal. It’s about an aunt who is sick of her family’s shit and doesn’t give a fuck- “And I burned the photographs that you had enclosed/God they were ugly children!” There are many characters in these songs. “Why?” is a kid seeing his parents’ relationship destruct before his eyes. When a song has the lyric “Daddy’s on fire,” it’s probably not going to end nicely. “Who Do You Think You Are?” gives us a little bit of the Costello sneer over a caffeinated barcarolle with beautiful harmonies.
“Taking My Life in Your Hands” is the one that killed me the most when I first heard this record. Maybe the lyric is a bit over-dramatic, but the chorus is so catchy and the harmonic structure so fascinating that I feel like I’m 23 and reading Werther again. Listen to Elvis’ high notes. This dude is fierce. Next, “This Offer is Unrepeatable” is a twisted chain letter, much like the FORWARD THIS TO FIVE FRIENDS NOW OR YOU WILL SUFFER GRAVE CONSEQUENCES emails and Facebook messages a lot of us get. I feel like Mr. Kite was involved in this somehow.
“Dear Sweet Filthy World” is a suicide note wrapped in beautiful strings. It goes from despair to self-mockery to a Wagnerian dissipation. Elvis’ repeated “I can’t go on” is one of the most powerful moments on the album. The quartet follows with an unexpected jaunty coda. “The Letter Home” is set in 1935, a letter besot with British formality that turns into bitterness. Every song in this cycle feels like it is set in a long-ago decade. “Jacksons, Monk, and Rowe” could be a late Motown or a Philly soul song with a groovy band, but the quartet and Elvis turn it into something else. It’s also about lawyers.
“This Sad Burlesque” reminds us that politicians will fail us and say the same shit over and over. It’s not as sad as the title suggests; more like a veil of disillusionment. “Romeo’s Séance” is a man trying to contact his dead lover over a bouncy bolero. The middle instrumental section suggests flying objects controlled by supernatural forces. Romeo is still calling for her when the tune ends. “I Thought I’d Write to Juliet” begins with a cynic describing a letter he received. “When someone is already dead, they can no longer let you down.” But it morphs into what is the heaviest portion of the album, because it paraphrases a letter received from a female fan while she was a soldier in the Gulf War.
“I’m a female soldier, my name is Constance
I enlisted in the military, needing funds for college
I’m twenty-three years old and if I do get home alive
I imagine I may think again…”
“I’m sleeping with my eyes open for fear of attack
Your words are a comfort, they’re the best things that I have
Apart from family pictures and, of course, my gas mask
I don’t know why I am writing to you”
Allegedly, Elvis met her after a concert. I hope this is true.
When I hear “Last Post” it’s 1918 and I see older Germans and Russians discussing what little future they have. There are a few sparks of hope, but it’s the same old thing humanity does over and over to nearly destroy itself. “The First to Leave” is a letter the narrator leaves for his wife to read after he dies. But is it a letter or a message from the afterlife? The beauty of lyric writing for me is that some of the greatest lyrics let the listener interpret them to fit his/her life. Many different meanings to many different people. “Damnation’s Cellar” is a jaunty reel that turns into a poppy chorus that asks which bastards in history should rot in hell and which heroes should be brought back from the dead. “The Birds Will Still Be Singing” is a sad yet hopeful ending to the cycle. The narrator tells his love that the afterlife is boring, but that she should “Banish all dismay/Extinguish every sorrow/If I’m lost or I’m forgiven/The birds will still be singing.” Out of the darkness and despair come flecks of light and hope.
The birds will still be singing.
P.S. Here’s their version of a “California folk song”:
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 11- Weather Report- Domino Theory
Weather Report is quite possibly the best jazz fusion group there has ever been. At its core throughout its many incarnation were Joe Zawinul on keyboards and Wayne Shorter on saxophone. Both of these masters composed most of the music for the band, and I’ve always been fascinated that Zawinul, the piano player, wrote more line-based tunes, while Shorter wrote heavier chord material. The dichotomy worked.
Domino Theory was recorded in 1983, which was the beginning of the digital keyboard takeover and when what we know as the black vortex of 1980s music really begins. This record doesn’t have that, largely because Zawinul could take a broken-down calliope or accordion and make it sound like heaven. More on that in a future post. The record begins with “Can it Be Done?”, with a soulful vocal by Carl Anderson. It asks: is there a melody that has never been played? I’ve always wondered that. I’ve also wondered why this led off the record, as it’s a ballad and Carl was not a member of the band. But I feel like my vinyl had this tune going third on Side A. Even if it sounds a little out of place, “Can it be Done” is a beautiful song.
Then we get into why so many of us love Weather Report; the unreal playing, composing, sound, and, especially on “Db Waltz”, GROOVE. The was the band’s second record without bass god Jaco Pastorius, but not many people mind when he’s replaced by Victor Bailey. If that’s him growling at 1:12, damn, that’s nasty. Omar Hakim’s drumming is just plain joyous, and makes you want to be his friend. Wayne Shorter has a chorus effect on his horn that makes him sound like he’s snorkeling. He shreds through the vamp as only Wayne could. Listening to this again makes me realize how much I’ve tried to steal from Zawinul, especially in the way he phrases on synths. I’d almost forgotten the “Ba-De-Ap-Ba” vocal part, which adds to an involved but happy groove.
“The Peasant” is one of those WR tunes that defies categorization. It’s a mood piece, but I’m not sure whose mood it is. Zawinul wrote it, so there’s that. It’s a hypnotic piece that uses the Emulator, an early sampler. It sounds like what you feel if Austria had a jungle and you got lost in it at the summer solstice. “Predator” is a funky track, with a catchy melody. Bailey, Hakim, and percussionist Jose Rossy make you want to dance, something you can’t say about most fusion records. It’s Wayne’s tune. Genius. “Swamp Cabbage” is another funky tune in ¾, only there’s a hyena synth crying out every once in a while. It’s like the Serengeti moved to Lake Ponchatrain and Zawinul captured the process. “Blue Sound-Note 3” does the same thing, only in the Andromeda galaxy. Wayne’s entrance is stately and elegant. Vocoder, cool chords, and a mélange of other moods fill it out. Then there’s a melody and feeling that only Zawinul could write. He hits a certain type of melancholy with announcing the fact. Then the vocoder kicks back in. This tune does a lot in fewer than seven minutes. “Domino Theory” closes out the record, with some crazed hi-hat patterns that Zawinul programmed. He’s also playing some gnarly lines and a swirling angry synth sound. Victor rips through his solo. This is almost the predecessor of drum-and-bass.
Every Weather Report takes you on a tour of new worlds, some of them familiar and some less so. It’s always worth the ride though. I got to see this band when I was 15, and only for a few songs, because it was 3 A.M. and our tour bus was leaving. One of the regrets of my listening life was not seeing the rest of the set. Later in life I was able to play first with Zawinul and then record with Victor Bailey. They were huge gifts to mankind and to music, and both of them are no longer with us. Blast this record while you’re driving down the street and see what happens. It’ll be good.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 12-The Dave Brubeck Quartet- Brubeck Time
SOME people think that Dave Brubeck is overrated, can’t swing, didn’t deserve all these accolades he received- I call those people WRONG. Like Stan Getz, he’s sometimes put down by jazz nerds partially because he was popular. Sometimes popular isn’t too bad. In the case of this record, which put him on the cover of Time magazine in 1954, it’s the understated West Coast Cool that makes this album feel really good. It’s one of Brubeck’s early rhythm sections- Bob Bates on bass and Joe Dodge on drums. This is Brubeck before odd time signatures, when his quartet was big to jazz fans and college students, but not the million-selling arena-filling Brubeck of “Take Five”. Add to all that the advantage he had of being white. Just because you’re white doesn’t mean your jazz sucks, but it makes some of us want to prove that we’re not Wonder Bread Jazz.
Alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s minor blues “Audrey” kicks off the record. It’s wistful and melancholic, with an impressionistic piano intro by Brubeck. Desmond said he used to wait outside of Audrey Hepburn’s stage door when she was on Broadway in the play Ondine. He watched her get in her limousine many times but could never get the nerve to say anything to her. Most guys will know the feeling of loving a beautiful woman you will never meet, and the self-inflicted pain that goes with it. You can feel it here.
“Jeepers Creepers” is a semi-standard from the 1930s, but it gets a nice Brubeck arrangement here. Brubeck can sound clunky at times, but he’s got a lot of Duke Ellington in him, and harmonically he was way ahead of most piano players of the day. Brubeck’s compositional studies with Darius Milhaud really paid off. “Pennies from Heaven” is a medium-swing tune and shows Desmond’s vast melodic abilities. He’s musically present, ironic, and detached all at the same time, but he never plays something he doesn’t mean. Desmond is the only W.W. II era alto player to emerge without being directly affected by Charlie Parker’s titanic genius. That’s like being a German composer in the 1830s who doesn’t sound a bit like Beethoven. Brubeck’s solo is motivic and has the quirky harmonic elements that are some of my favorite things about his playing.
“Why Do I Love You?” is a Jerome Kern tune I wish I got to hear and play more. It’s brisk, although I should say “West Coast brisk”, which is a few ticks slower than NYC bop and with different shadings. Think Seurat instead of Van Gogh or Delacroix. They don’t just play the head, solo, and play the head again, like a lot of 1950s jazz, but have arrangements with rhythmic and harmonic points of interest. The same goes for the rest of the album, all standards, with “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” being my personal favorite. This is jazz that you can play for your muggle friends, and it won’t scare them. But it also has some unexpected twists in it, like most Brubeck/Desmond combinations.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 13- Peter Gabriel-So
As I came to my teenage years in the 1980s, I can easily assert that pop music sucked more then than in any other era (except for the last sixteen years, but that’s another story). As in any era of uninspired art, there are always brilliant works that stand out. Peter Gabriel’s So is one of the best pop records of the 1980s, and of any decade.
“Red Rain” kicks if off with an energetic but gloomy mood. You’d be bummed if you had blood-colored water falling on you, but this stellar band hits you so hard that you don’t mind the dampness. Stewart Copeland (The Police) enters with a hi-hat pattern for a few measures until Jerry Marotta (drums) Tony Levin (bass) David Rhodes (guitar) and producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois enter for Gabriel’s vocal. Kevin Killen told a group of us that this track alone had over thirty edits, and an edit in those days wasn’t done with a few clicks of a computer mouse. He eased the 2 -inch analog tape on the recording head until he found the right spot and pulled out the x-acto knife. I can’t hear these remarkable edits, but I know he does.
“Sledgehammer” was the big hit, and it sounds a helluva lot better than other songs on the radio from 1986. It also had a trippy video that challenged the limits of what a music video should be. The track owes a bit to Stevie Wonder, especially when the horns kick in. This is a pretty funky track for a pretty un-funky decade. “Don’t Give Up” is one of the best songs about, well, not giving up. It goes from the male narrator detailing his lousy life to the angelic Kate Bush encouraging him to keep going. It’s a mysterious ¾ groove that goes from moody to hopeful and back again, with a gospel interlude to provide anthemic inspiration that isn’t anywhere near being contrived. Glorious fadeout.
Drummer Manu Katche slays “That Voice Again”. What a feel! I was obsessed with this tune (the whole record, really) wondering HOW DID THEY GET THAT SOUND? There are so many textures on this record that I keep hearing new stuff every listen, and I’ve been listening for thirty years. That’s the end of Side A. Yes, I have the cassette.
A lot of Gen X kids will see Lloyd Dobler with the boom box when they hear “In Your Eyes”. It is at once so very 1980s yet so timeless. Youssou N’Dour’s vocal outro is one of the best and inspiring vocals there is on record. I’m usually not a fan of vocal riffing, but this is YOUSSOU N’DOUR. Look him up if you don’t already know him. “Mercy Street”, like most of So is a moldy minor key piece. So English that you can see the fog coming out of the speakers. It glides more than grooves. “Big Time” was another hit, and I can’t help but quoting “I’m on my way I’m making it” a lot, and usually not when the words are appropriate. It’s all about a small-town man going to the big city to make it, and everything will be big. This tune is also funky. A real Hammond B3! “We Do What We’re Told Milgram’s 37) is an electronica underworld, with the title chanted in group unison. It’s a quiet nod to the desperation of conformity. Finally, Laurie Anderson guests on “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)”. It has a distinctly Gabriel-ish keyboard part, the one that sounds like flutes. Another one of those where-did-that-sound-come-from puzzles for me. It closes the album out on a dreamy note, although it’s not a dream you want to have every night.
Listen to it again, or for the first time. I told you SO.
ALBUM OF THE DAY-February 14- My Funny Valentine: Miles Davis in Concert
I am about as fond of Valentine’s Day as I am of paper cuts, but if Miles is bringing a growly but sensitive valentine message, I’m down. This was recorded live at Lincoln Center, NYC on February 12, 1964. It’s got most of the members of what we call Miles’ second great quintet: Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The always underrated George Coleman is on tenor saxophone. The album “Four and More” is from the same concert, but “My Funny Valentine” focuses on the slower and introspective tunes of the night.
The title track is an old Rodgers-Hart classic, and Miles plays it without a mute. Muted trumpet became the thing on ballads largely due to Miles’ use of the harmon mute. Herbie’s piano intro is introspective, with Bill Evans, Bud Powell, and Debussy all converging into his hands. Miles is shy about his valentine at first, but the band kicks into a double time feel and he tells us more how he feels with bursts of sound. I think it’s impossible to write about Miles without using the word “motherfucker”. He was one, after all. George Coleman’s solo is neither bop or post-bop, just a great sonic painting. Herbie’s solo is, well, HERBIE HANCOCK.
Cole Porter’s “All of You” gives us Miles with the harmon mute, and also shows some of the musical clairvoyance the group had. The performance goes so many places, time-wise and harmonically, that it’s difficult to explain without hearing it. Like some of the 1950s quintet’s records, there are extended vamps that go wherever the collective consciousness of the band wants them to go. I love the way Coleman enters; he has way more command thatn you’d think, especially if you compare him to Coltrane or Wayne Shorter. Herbie’s solo is one of the classic jazz piano solos of all time.
It should go without saying that this band broke new ground in music. Ron Carter is the most recorded bassist in history for a reason; he’s steady, even when Tony Williams is messing with the pulse. It should also go without saying that Tony changed drumming forever, innovating the role of the drums and where the beat is and where it can be. He was nineteen at the time of this concert, but had already changed drumming forever.
“Stella by Starlight” is another standard, with a rubato intro by Davis and Hancock. It’s a blueprint for what post-1960 jazz can be. The rhythm section slowly enters and they go into a double-time feel, although one with lots of space. “All Blues” is from Miles’ record “Kind of Blue” (Get it now if you don’t already have it) but this tempo is a lot faster, and Hancock adds some seriously cool sub chord changes. It might not be recognizable to a lot of people compared to the original, but that’s how great improvised music develops. To close the album (the vinyl from 1964) the quintet plays “I Thought About You”, a Jimmy Van Heusen classic. It starts slowly and softly, then builds up. I only noticed now that the only time George Coleman plays is on his solos. There are no unison melodies or parts, or any arrangements, per se. This is how a modern jazz group is supposed to sound.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 15- Elliott Smith-Either/Or
I went through a serious Elliott Smith kick last year. It’s not like I don’t love him now or didn’t before, but he affected me more than any other “pop” artist in my long listening history. Looking back with a little distance at my obsession, I’m really glad Elliott spoke to me from beyond the grave and got me to really work on my songwriting. He really understood the craft of making a song, no matter what style or genre. Which is not to say he drifted from genre to genre; he pretty much WAS a genre.
Either/Or, from 1997, pays homage to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in more than just the title. The existentialist crises of my X generation are well represented here, starting with “Speed Trials”. Elliott’s lyric writing was a revelation to me; I like songs that don’t have an obvious meaning. You can come up with a multitude of explanations for this song, but most people think it’s about drugs, specifically, heroin. I’m not so sure. “He’s pleased to meet you underneath the horse/
In the cathedral with the glass stained black/ Singing sweet high notes that echo back/
To destroy their master… It’s just a brief smile crossing your face/Running speed trials/ still standing in place”. Hell, this could mean anything. I think of horse races, foreboding not-so-merry-go-rounds, and mildly sinister characters. The main thing though, is the music itself. It’s a great melody with semi-ominous chords underneath. Actually, I could say that about just about every E.S. tune. Sometimes I think he’s the David Foster Wallace of singer-songwriters. He knows so much and puts it together so well. He also played all the instruments and recorded it in a variety of apartments and house in California and Oregon.
Like a lot of Smith’s tunes, “Alameda” has a great fuck-you tinge to it. “Nobody broke your heart/you broke your own ‘cause you can’t/finish what you start”. I wish I knew this song when I was younger. The snare sound is pretty cool, as are the chord changes. Elliott knew how to write chords that sounded almost normal, but that are far more complex when you analyze them. “Ballad of Big Nothing” has a great hook and an almost passive-aggressive chorus that is part you suck and part I don’t care.
Elliott worshipped at the pillars of misery. Yet he rarely feels like he’s drowning in self-pity to me. He could write a sad fucking waltz too. “Between the Bars” could be about jail, bar-hopping, drugs, or maybe all three:
It’s haunting and sad, but doesn’t wallow, largely because it’s such a strong melody. Like the songs of John Prine and Townes Van Zandt, Elliott makes you smile in one line and feel like you got punched in the next line. The difference is that you know where Townes and Prine hit you, but Elliott’s pain-punches could be anywhere on you and in your soul.
“Pictures of Me” and “No Name No .5” ride on the ether trails of misery and self-loathing, but never dip below them. “Rose Parade” is ostensibly about a parade in Portland, but according to Elliott is more of a commentary on events that are full of themselves. “Punch and Judy” is one of the bouncier tunes on the album, that is; if you can all anything Elliott does “bouncy”. He compares modern romantic life to the olde English violent puppet show, although the contemporary scenes don’t involve beating someone with a bat. “Angeles” shows off Smith’s picking skills and breathy vocals. “Cupid’s Trick” has some interesting chords that would be creepy with a heavy-handed approach, but it lies in a nether world full of sugar, lies, and dope. Maybe.
I’m going out sleepwalking
Where mute memories start talking.
It’s 2:45 A.M. He feels abused, and he’s gonna split them back in two. It’s far more shaded than it sounds by the way I wrote it.
The album closes with “Say Yes”, which is as close to a love song as Elliott ever wrote. It’s a beautiful melody that unfolds in different ways. You can find the lyrics here.
I’ll be writing about this dude a few more times this year. He’s one of the best songwriters of the last fifty years, according to Drydo. And Drydo’s always right.
MUSIC OF THE DAY- FEBRUARY 16-BILL DOGGETT- Honky Tonk and others
This is some of the most grooving, sexiest, and bumpiest (is that a word?) stuff you will ever hear. “Honky Tonk Pt. 1 and 2” is one of the best examples of the shuffle there is. Those handclaps and screams add to the majesty. If you don’t move a bit when you hear this, you are dead. Or something worse. In fact, if this doesn’t make you move, I don’t want to know you. Now, this GUITAR SOLO. It’s Billy Butler, and those last two choruses should be ground zero for any guitarist. I’m sure some of you know this tune from “Blue Velvet.” I know who you are.
If you want to know how to play a slow swinging groove, “After Hours” should do it. That hi-hat. Damn, that’s so hard to keep a groove sitting in that spot. When Doggett’s organ comes roaring in, the strippers drop their fans to the ground and make you the center of attention. It’s grinding music. As this is a YouTube playlist, it’s not a real album, just a curator’s take on what Doggett’s greatest hits could be. They all hit. Is that Gene Ammons on tenor? Earl Bostic? This is what a juke joint should sound like. “Peacock Alley”, “High Heels” “Slow Walk”- these are all basically blues tunes with slightly different feels that kick the shit out of mediocrity and pour gasoline on it “Ram-Bunk-Shush” is not so rambunctious as it is about having a great time.
It’s impossible to not have a great time with Bill Doggett. There are many more tunes of his out there if you want to find them. I think you need to find them.
SONG OF THE DAY- February 17-The Fiery Furnaces- Tropical Iceland (Remix)
I’m going with one song today, and it is a bit odd compared to some other stuff I’ve written about. But I can credit Brooklyn’s Café Steinhof and its mid 2000s staff for introducing me to this song.
The Fiery Furnaces are a Brooklyn indie band started by brother and sister Mathew and Eleanor Friedberger in 2000. You could call it alternative rock 2.0, or folky-trippy power pop.
There’s something about the remix version that gets me; it’s the drums or the manic synth hook, or her sexy voice singing a great melody. The acoustic original is slower and dreamier, which makes the lyrics feel more mystical to me. The remix, however, pumps everything up into an irresistible stomp beat.
I can only rely on my Icelandic friends and people like Danielle Crook to tell me if the lyrics make more sense if you’ve been to Reykjavik. I quote them here:
Goat’s head in the deli case
Oh sweet angel-angel-bearded face
Paper Mache parade on at night
That’s what you do with no sunlight
In the tropical tropical
Bleak church on a cold tundra
Black stone beach and a black death bottle
Is all me and my baby will need
In the tropical, tropical
Take intermission at the movies
Freeze outside for one quick smoke
Take a Klondike bar from the pop machine
Hey it’s ice cream, no not coke
In the tropical tropical
Let’s meet in Kristiana next summer
Let’s get out before we melt away
I’ve seen enough stray ponies and puffins
To get me through till the end of May
In the tropical tropical
It’s not a deep message; more of a series of observations with a very catchy melody. The video is superbly low-budget and cheesy, but don’t let it throw you off. Now I have to delve further into The Fiery Furnaces twisted catalog. Brooklyn Uber Alles!
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 18- Jimmy Giuffre 3- Trav’lin’ Light
Jimmy Giuffre was a jazz musician unlike anyone else. He’s thought of as a West Coast and Cool Jazz player, but he wrote for the Woody Herman big band and led some of the earliest and most musical forays into free jazz (music that is often wholly improvised). In this 1958 recording, his trio is very unusual; Giuffre on clarinet, tenor and baritone saxophones, Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone, and Jim Hall on guitar. Not a piano, bass, or drum set in sight. Nobody played with this instrumentation, and nobody else could play like these guys. It’s melodic, it swings, and it feels like you’ve gone down a jazz hallway you didn’t know existed, and it’s welcoming and warming.
The title track is a bluesy tune by Johnny Mercer, and there is a little bit of tailgate trombone and pungent clarinet, supported by Hall’s beautiful shuffle guitar. You don’t miss the rest of the rhythm section that you expected to hear. It’s familiar, but odd. It’s so natural and musical that I feel like the hard bop police are going to break up the session for being too folky. “The Swamp People” is a Guiffre blues, and the trombone ostinato sounds like someone is hiding out in the Bayou reeds. It’s a mildly sinister sound, and the interplay between the three players is lovely. You feel like they’re in your living room.
“The Green Country” is Giuffre’s ode to New England, and holy shit do I hear and feel the Northeast. It’s reminiscent of Aaron Copland, which is why I feel the original Americana swirling around. I’d call this chamber jazz, because it’s intimate, classically influenced, and so damn melodic. Harry Warren’s Broadway hit “Forty Second Street” shows a different side of that midtown block. It’s darker and seedier, but not terribly menacing. It lopes and swings like crazy. They remind me of the band Weather Report, where either everybody’s soloing or nobody’s soloing. “Pick ‘Em Up and Lay ‘Em Down” is another of Giuffre’s tunes where the melody sounds like a Mississippi steamboat. Jazz guys in 1958 weren’t really checking out old Delta Blues music, but this band seems to know who Skip James is. Huck Finn too, for that matter. Another Giuffre piece “The Lonely Time” is just that; it’s slow and mournful, with beautiful moving lines between all three instruments. Sure it’s a lonely time, but you’re in a house with an autumnal view and books and a fireplace. The whole record could be a soundtrack to a movie in my head.
“Show Me the Way to Go Home” is a 1920s drinking song. If this band has a glass of anything, it would be sherry or a ruby port, not the collegiate quaffs of the original. They’re having fun, but not getting trashed. Although I’d like to hear that. The original album closes with “California Here I Come”, the 1920s hit that inspired millions to move West. It’s a fast swing tempo, and they keep the momentum perfectly without the crutch of a rhythm section. Guiffre is probably my favorite clarinetist and baritone player. His phrasing and ideas are so original.
Trav-lin’ Light is just one of many amazing Guiffre trio records. It should be required listening for anyone who is stuck in a musical rut and has run out of ideas. There will be more of Jimmy G in future posts.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 19-The (English) Beat- I Just Can’t Stop It
This record forces me to dance, albeit dancing in a 1980s ska-boy kind of way. While the New Wave movement was going on in the UK and America in the late 1970s, there was also the Two-Tone movement, which employed ska and reggae with a a call for racial equality. The “movement” terminology is used to categorize different music for easy recoginization, not to confine artists into a set of parameters. I’m beginning to think that most people who name their ideology or artistic style are cult leaders, economists, and megalomaniacs. Sometimes you find all three of those in one person. I’d give my conclusion a name, but….
Anyway, back to the inescapable joy and grooves in this 1980 release. Dave Wakeling is the lead singer on most tracks, and his “Mirror in the Bathroom” is a classic for those of us who liked beats and melodies but didn’t fit in to the preppy pop world or the trenchcoat mafia crews. Anyone can appreciate the melody and lyric of “Hands Off She’s Mine” and Ranking Roger’s toasting on Prince Buster’s “Rough Rider”. “Twist and Crawl”, “Noise in This World”, and “Click Click” are manic and almost dangerous calls to the dance floor.
My friend Adam Beach once said that “Ska is Reggae on 45”. For those of you who are too young to know what that means, look up your phonographic history. The verse of “Big Shot” could be a Dennis Brown track if there were amphetamines involved instead of cannabis. The chorus is closer to a New Wave sneer, a critique of someone who is too full of himself. We all know that guy, but we don’t always get a chance to dance when he’s being called out on his shit. “Whine and Grine” is another Prince Buster update, coupled with “Stand Down Margaret”, one of the best anti-Thatcher songs that gets its point across without preaching. “Can’t Get Used TO Losing You” is a Doc Pomus tune that was a hit for Andy Williams. Wakeling, Pomus, and Andy Williams aren’t three names I’d ever think would wind up in the same sentence, but this cover is a sad but pulsating one-drop. “Best Friend” features a Byrds-like 12-string guitar, along with the great tenor lines of Saxa. I hear Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” in the chorus. Which one came first? Does it matter? Wakeling and Roger just want a woman’s touch in “Jackpot” and it sure sounds like they found it.
This is the order of the original album, but the one I grew up with had their cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”, and I can count it as one of the best re-makes in pop history. They speed it up, and while I feel the rejection of Smokey’s lyric, it’s better to be crying on the dance floor than by yourself in a dark place. Not that Smokey was ever in a dark place. His use of Pagliacci showed me that operatic subjects can cross over to pop music. “Ranking Full Stop” is Ranking Roger at his finest, singing and toasting over a rock steady groove. At least, I think it’s a rock steady groove. Drummers, chime in?
Put this on while driving a little too fast, or when you need a musical pick-me-up, or when you need to move and exorcise the little demons from your soul. It will work.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 20- Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley
There are albums by great jazz singers and there are albums by great jazz musicians. This one is both. It’s been in my top 5 vocal jazz albums for over thirty years, and it’s so ensconced in my brain and soul that I sometimes forget it is there. Yet there it is, a hard-swinging yet easygoing record that HAS to be heard by every aspiring jazz singer, and really should be heard by everyone.
Alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and his cornet-wielding brother Nat were already jazz stars when they recorded this in 1961. Nancy Wilson had a few albums already under her name, but this association with the brothers from Florida really put her on the map. It’s such a strong album that most singers can’t sing these songs without referencing these versions, unless they completely change the song. This is very true of Buddy Johnson’s “Save Your Love for Me”, a slow bluesy ballad. It’s the arrangements that add that musical umami to the mix, as their structure and melody let Ms. Wilson’s interpretations really sing. Sing she does, and she holds no stops on this opening number. If the coda to this tune doesn’t make you worship Nancy, then you must be on some drug I don’t want to know about.
There are a number of instrumentals on the record, and they all have the charm and melodiousness that I expect from a Cannonball record. For me, there’s no other jazz musician who personifies joy better than Cannon. Even when he’s coaxing and soothing a sad ballad “I Can’t Get Started”, you feel that he’s going to be ebullient again soon. Nat’s muted horn (he’s really underrated, especially with his muted playing) shines on his tune “Teaneck” which might be the best tune named after a town in Jersey. Nancy kills “Never Will I Marry”, a Frank Loesser song about the joys of living free with no one else to worry about. I can relate.
Like a lot of the tunes here, “The Old Country” is a standard, but not an often-played standard. That’s one thing about Nancy’s tunes here- she wasn’t the first to record them, but she might as well be the last, as these are the industry standard ways to perform the tunes. “The Old Country” is a rare standard song, in that it talks about an old man wishing to be back in whatever country he grew up in. It’s a refreshing lyric in a sea of love songs. Plus, it has that great minor key progression and a sense that it IS old. Germany? Bulgaria? The Middle East? Old, but timeless, like everything on this album. “One Man’s Dream” (by Joe Zawinul, appearing for the third time in my series), “Unit 7” (by bassist Sam Jones, another underrated talent), and Cannonball’s “Never Say Yes”; these are all prime examples of what hard bop sounds like at its most musical. Drummer Louis Hayes swings so subtly that you forget he’s really steering the ship.
Ms. Wilson really displays her chops and emotional range on “The Masquerade is Over”, one of the best lesser-known standards that talks about dealing with a breakup. Dinah Washington fans would agree with me. She CRUSHES the ending. After that, she sasses up the Harold Arlen/Truman Capote swinger “A Sleepin’ Bee” from the Broadway musical House of Flowers. Capote’s Southern-infused lyric makes less sense when taken out of context of the musical, but in the end, it is a sophisticated love song:
A sleepin’ bee done told me
I’ll walk with my feet off the ground
When my one true love I have found.
You’ll walk with your feet off the ground after you hear this buoyant record. It’s a classic.
ALBUM OF THE DAY- February 21- Steely Dan-The Royal Scam
Sure, you could say, as my good friend Dave McGillicuddy did, that Steely Dan sounds like music recorded in the sterile environment of a hospital, or you could say (like my other great friend Anthony Lacques did) that Steely Dan is the band every band likes but no one wants to sound like. Since those guys aren’t on FB, they can’t refute their statements, which could be true. But the fact is that Steely Dan made some really fucking great records.
By this point in the band’s timeline they were less of a band than a rotating cast of studio musicians nailing the musical ideas of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. This is far from a bad thing, especially when you’ve got Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie, Larry Carlton and many other badasses playing on your tunes. “Kid Charlemagne” hits us with Purdie’s hi-hat and a C7#9 chord right away. The groove is bouncy while swinging and locked in at the same time. Fagen’s lyrics, ostensibly about a legendary purveyor of hallucinogens, is cryptic and funny. I will always say “Is there gas in the car? Yes, there’s gas in the car!!!” whenever I go on a road trip. This is also my favorite Larry Carlton guitar solo, culled from several different passes. It’s up there in the top 25 rock guitar solos ever recorded. The Dan seemed to get something out of Carlton that I don’t hear him doing on other records.
“The Caves of Altamira” is about the loss of innocence as well as the actual prehistoric cave paintings. I’ve always related to the thrill of finding something no one else has seen in thousands of years, before there was even any Hollywood. For all of us music geeks, it’s a haven for slash chords.
“Don’t Take Me Alive” could be the anthem for any paranoid militia group, if they only listened to Steely Dan. I don’t think Fagen and Becker would appreciate a crazed ideology co-opting their song, but it is a catchy tune about saying fuck you to the world. Carlton kills this one too. “Sign in Stranger” is a half-time funky groove with some great guitar fills and a solo by Elliott Randall. It could be about a guy who gets undesirables across a border, but with Donald Fagen, you never really know. No matter how funky the track is, it seems like a zombie-filled place I wouldn’t want to be in for long. Purdie really makes “The Fez” work. It’s like Barry Manilow got attacked by a bunch of funk goons with coke spoons dangling around their exposed checks. There’s a sparkly curtain in there. I’ve always felt it. At any rate, if you wear a fez for any reason, you have to sing to everyone within a mile radius that you ain’t gonna do it without the fez on. It’s the goddamn law.
Side B. Yes, it’s an ALBUM. “Green Earrings” has another slick groove and more slash chords. It seems to be about a remorseless jewel thief, and it feels like he’s crashing Studio 54 with The Dan, a few Mexican bandits, and Miss February. The guitars jump out and chew on your ears, but it’s a good sensation. Dean Parks’ talk-box guitar (not just for Peter Frampton anymore) drives the reggae-funk of “Haitian Divorce”. This is actually a straight-forward lyric; two people around Port-Au-Prince get married too young and realize their mistake too late. It ranks with Bacharach’s “Mexican Divorce” in songs about the end of marriage. I will have to say that when I had The Royal Scam on cassette, I fast-forwarded it through “Everything You Did” and its odd cadences and obvious dominant 7th chords. It’s grown on me now, as I didn’t have the experience at age nineteen (hey!) to really feel the impact of:
Where did the bastard run
Is he still around
Now you gotta tell me everything you did baby
I’m gonna get a gun
Shoot the lover down
Are you gonna tell me everything you did baby
Traces are everywhere
In our happy home.
It seemed a bit harsh then. Now I know human nature a lot better and fucking GET IT. The dominant 7th chords still feel like they stepped on a slug or a whoopee cushion.
The title track closes the album, and it’s as close to being an epic track as Steely Dan gets after their first two albums. It’s slow but a little scary, like the guy with spasms and the crazy eyes walking down your street late at night. The song is about immigrants coming to America to find that Big Dream it promises, only to have their illusions shattered. Or it could be about pizza, for all I know with Fagen. The music sits there, like it doesn’t have to go anywhere. Kind of like the subjects’ BROKEN DREAMS. Musically, it’s an odd tune to end on, but it does give a finality to the record.
Even though this record wasn’t well-received when it came out, it’s come to be seen as one of the best albums of the 1970s. Aside from Stevie Wonder, I don’t know any other artists who can make jazz chords so catchy. It’s the melody, musicianship and production values that make these tunes work. Listen to this record and see the glory of The Royal Scam.
ALBUM OF THE DAY-February 22- Herbie Hancock- Headhunters
In case you don’t know this record, you should get it immediately. I should say that about every record I talk about, but Headhunters is the record that really married jazz and funk with electronic keyboards and made it groove. The album cover is so iconic I have a bumper sticker of it on my car. Get the funk while you fill your tank!
This was 1973, and Herbie Hancock was already a jazz star, but his previous records were a little out there and with larger ensembles (check Mwandishi, Sextant, Fat Albert Rotunda). He wanted to do something different and not as far-out. It’s a good thing for the world that he was really into Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone (if you are not into those two, then I don’t know you). Stevie, Sly, and Miles’ Bitches Brew all contributed to this groovy record. You get hit with the synth bass line of “Chameleon” immediately. It’s one of the most famous bass lines in American music, and the tune is common in blues and funk jams, even though nobody really knows how to play it right. Drummer Harvey Mason joins in with a simple but lightly syncopated beat. Then the inimitable bassist Paul Jackson enters with a riff that is more guitar-like but has a funky aura about it. Herbie plays a Clavinet with a wah-wah effect- the magic of overdubbing. The tenor saxophone of the underrated Bennie Maupin joins Herbie’s lead synth for the melody. The tune is over sixteen minutes long, so they aren’t in a hurry. They let it grow and breathe. Listening to it now, I don’t think they recorded to a click track, as the tempo varies slightly over time. Not like it matters. Mason doesn’t even go to his ride cymbal until after six minutes have gone by. Herbie’s synth solo goes out of tune near the end, but they quickly go to the hook part of the melody.
Next comes the part that nobody plays when this is called at a jam, mostly because hardly anybody has figured out what it is. Jackson switches to one of his trademark through-composed bass parts, and percussionist Bill Summers jacks it up a bit with congas that play nicely off of mason’s building groove. Is this middle section Bb7sus to Db7sus? Whatever it is, it’s funky, and Herbie’s Fender Rhodes solo is so warm sounding that I feel relaxed hearing it, even if he’s playing some crazy shit. We get the melody again, and then another WTF IS THIS part. They don’t tell you about this section in school.
You know you are a badass when you’re thirty-three and covering a hit tune of yours from a decade earlier. This version of “Watermelon Man” is not much like the original that Mongo Santamaria had a hit with. Summers imitates the Hindewho, and African instrument, by blowing into a beer bottle. It’s unsettling at first, but then you want to hear that sound on every other record. This version is more laid back, like the dude on the corner who drives a decked-out Cadillac and is cool because he’s laid back and doesn’t care, even if he has a nasty habit or two.
“Sly” starts in a spaced-out synth string paradise but goes into a double time feel soprano sax solo by Maupin. The groove is almost frantic, but never out of control. You could dance to it, but you might be better off smoking a bowl and feeling the rhythms pour into you. Get ready for the Rhodes solo, where Herbie pulls out a lot of his tricks. I can’t say enough about Herbie’s playing in terms of influencing me, but his Rhodes playing on this and other albums is pretty much the basis for how I approach the instrument. It gets intense, then calms down for a return of the melody, which always reminded me of pipe smoke going up into the air. You can hear the sounds of Sly in the brash hits of the intro and outro.
“Vein Melter” gets us back into chill-out big comfy pillow land. Mason gets a march-like motif going, and things enter and swirl until you’re not sure which room you’re in when the synth strings come in. Is that the Mad Hatter in the corner or an opium dealer? Maupin enters with a calming phrase that lingers for a bit, until Herbie discovers some fancy electronic gizmos. I’m guessing there’s an Echoplex and maybe a ring modulator. The Synth-Of-Another-Room returns, then so does the melody. It grows, and morphs, but never rises up like the attack dog you could imagine it is. It’s actually very friendly, even if it barks in a strange tone. On top of all this, there’s bass clarinet! Bass clarinet makes most things better. I had the good fortune and honor to tour with Mr. Maupin, and when he pulled out his bass clarinet, I asked him if it was the same axe he used on Headhunters and Thrust.
Fanboy geek dream achieved. One of many. You’ll hear about them.
Buy this record.
MUSIC OF THE DAY- February 23- Tom Waits- Blood Money
Even if the world woke up and realized that Tom Waits (and spouse/co-lyricist Kathleen Brennan) is one of the greatest musical gifts of the past fifty years, he’d still be underrated in my eyes and ears. He has so many great records, songs, styles, and personas that it’s hard for me to name just a few. However, these two records came out on the same day in 2002, and are songs that Waits wrote for plays directed by Robert Wilson. Blood Money is based on the Beuchner play Woyzeck ( also the inspiration for the brilliant and atonal opera by Alban Berg, and Waits’ songs reflect the dark story of a 19th century German soldier who kills his girlfriend out of jealousy. It’s perfect fodder for Waits, who has always been a friend of the dark side of human nature.
Blood Money begins with two songs that certainly live in the dark spaces. “Misery is the River of the World” and “Everything Goes to Hell” are fairly self-explanatory, and the musical textures and lyrics add to the angst without turning the songs maudlin or overly dramatic. “Misery” combines marimba, bass clarinet, and what sounds like German stormtroopers marching through the studio and down your soul. If you aren’t familiar and prepared for the sound of Waits’ voice, you will be even more creeped out. He sounds like the merger of Louis Armstrong, a drill instructor, and a bourbon-laced carnival barker, with the rasp of someone who’s been gargling with razor blades for decades. Some of you might be turned off by this, but I think a lot of us will get this side of Waits’ musical personality.
We go from hell to Brooklyn bliss with “Coney Island Baby.” If I wind up marrying a Brooklyn gal somehow, this would be our first dance. We’ve gone from Germanic angst to a Brooklyn-Irish waltz with odd instrumentation. It’s sentiment without sentimentality:
To take me off to dreamland
She’s a rose, she’s the pearl
She’s the spin on my world
All the stars make their wishes on her eyes
She’s my Coney Island baby
She’s my Coney Island girl
She’s a princess in a red dress
She’s the moon in the mist to me
She’s my Coney Island baby
She’s my Coney Island girl.
Simple, dreamy, and beautiful. She might just be a dream, but it’s the dream I’d want every night.
Next up is “All the World is Green.” The narrator is asking his wife for forgiveness and a second chance to go back to the old days, when all the world was green. It’s a stark and marimba-filled song of poignancy. Form-wise, the song seems simple on first listen, but the sections change in metrical length, seemingly at random. Lyrically, the narrator weaves off his pleading path and into nature metaphors. Woyzeck went mad; perhaps this is the early signs of his disease. “God’s Away on Business” gets us back to the dark Germanic vibe, with log drums and Waits’ quietly demonic voice telling us that all our problems now don’t mean shit because God doesn’t give a fuck. I’ve found this to be a perfect metaphor for these troubled times, only the people who should hear this never will.
F minor is one of the starker and darker of the minor chords. I think East German and Russian doom and gloom, and Waits pulls it out here in a waltz. Great chords- I think this could make a great slow jazz waltz, although the singer better be ready to talk about adultery. He smells a red rose blooming on another man’s vine. You can do the math. “Knife Chase” is an instrumental that imagines Perez Prado, Link Wray, and the Wallendas stuck in a barrel. And this is a good thing.
Now Waits hits us with the sadness. I’m immediately near tears from a lot of lullabies, and always have been. There’s something about their musical construct and sad sweetness that hits me. “Lullaby” is a cradle song, but an oversized Tim Burton-esque cradle with jagged rails, perched on top of a craggy mountain. Or it’s deep in the woods, dark and slightly foreboding. It’s not a story we’d usually hear at bedtime, but too many kids have had to deal with the theme of the lyrics:
Sun is red; moon is cracked
Daddy’s never coming back
Nothing’s ever yours to keep
Close your eyes, go to sleep
If I die before you wake
Don’t you cry don’t you weep.
Nothing’s ever as it seems
Climb the ladder to your dreams
If I die before you wake
Don’t you cry; don’t you weep
Nothing’s ever yours to keep.
Close your eyes; go to sleep.
Not exactly calming material, especially when delivered from a voice that’s as cracked as the moon. But I can’t help but love it and its acknowledgement to the impermanence of life. One of the top 7 Waits ballads for me.
“Starving in the Belly of a Whale” is the further adventures of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Cookie Monster as they’re stuck in a demonic funhouse in the crooked old world. “The Part You Throw Away” is a sparse pizzicato waltz. Tom and Kathleen have a way with words:
I want that beggar’s eyes
A winning horse
A tidy Mexican divorce
Saint Mary’s prayers
And a barman who always understands.
“Woe” is an Irish ballad in miniature, all of five lines long. “Calliope” is a homogenized 12-tone piece with drunk trumpets and whistles stuck inside a calliope. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is not the old standard, but could as well be. It’s almost normal compared to the previous songs. The lines“Only strangers share my bed”, “My favorite words are good-bye”, and “I’ll always remember to forget about you” deserve songs of their own. Hell, maybe I’ll write them.
Look tomorrow for Alice, the next Waits album. The dark humor and sorrow continues.
ALBUM OF THE DAY-February 24- Tom Waits-Alice
This record came out the same day as Waits’ Blood Money in 2002. The beautiful darkness continues, with these lines from the title track:
How does the ocean rock the boat?
How did this razor find my throat?
And so a secret kiss
Brings madness with the bliss
And I will think of this
When I’m dead in my grave.
These songs are Waits’ versions of songs he wrote for Robert Wilson’s play Alice, which was loosely based on Alice in Wonderland. I saw it at BAM many years ago, but there was so much to it that it would take me many repeated showings to feel like I got it. I’ve understood these versions since they came out, and it’s some of his best writing. The song “Alice” could be a great jazz ballad for Chet Baker if he could rise up from the grave. “Everything You Can Think” begins with a lonesome train whistle (is there any other kind?) with a crooked set of horns that lead to Waits’ skeleton growl. He adds the unearthly sounds of both a Mellotron and Chamberlain to the one-two-three rhythm. This is not something most people would want to wake up to.
“Who will put flowers on a flower’s grave? Who will say a prayer?” “If we are to die tonight, is there moonlight up ahead?” We’re back to sentiment-filled Waits with “Flower’s Grave”, and few people do it better. Who will take care of the caretakers? No one puts flowers on a flower’s grave. Waits hits me in places that few artists do; that combination of genetic memory and personal experience that trigger a wash of emotions and thoughts that I may or may have not experiencd. I hear it’s a Welsh thing, which I believe.
“No One Knows I’m Gone” continues the less-than-happy feeling, with only a bit of self-pity:
Hell above and heaven below
All the trees are gone
Rain has such a lovely sound
To those who are six feet under ground
The leaves will bury every year
And no one knows I’m gone.
You could write a whole album out of two lines in any Waits song. “Kommienezuspadt” is a rumbling number of decay, complete with Waits barking out lines in German and my friend Andrew Borger on smashed inanimate objects. “Poor Edward” is a sad waltz based on an apocryphal person, Edward Mordake. I’d really like to believe this is true, since Tom told us this in the second track of Alice. “Table Top Joe” makes me miss Brooklyn. A piano-playing wunderkind was born without a body and takes the circus and The Sands by storm. That’s Stewart Copland on the old-timey trap kit.
Everyone and everything is “Lost in the Harbour,” and nothing works. Maybe they get out of denial in time for the narrator to come to the harbor and fill it up with his tears. “We’re All Mad Here” is the most direct reference to Alice in Wonderland that I could find here. It is a musical asylum, but I could traipse around these halls for a while with a recorder and a notebook. Then I’d have more songs to write. “Watch Her Disappear” is a mostly spoken vocal over pump organ and pizzicato strings. It’s madly poetic, with champagne laughs and a banjo tango. “Reeperbahn” describes a few bizarre characters from Hamburg’s red-light district. “The apple is gone, but there’s always the core.” Vince Guaraldi could have been in on the intro for “I’m Still Here”, a song that’s possibly about rekindled love. “How long was I dreaming for? What was it you wanted me for?”
“Fish and Bird” is one of my favorite Waits ballads. It’s a waltz with a few simp[le chords, so you know it’s going to be tearful. I don’t know why that is; waltzes and lullabies have their sorrow-less sadness with me. The song is ostensibly about a bird that falls in love with a whale.
They bought a round for the sailor
And they heard his tale
Of a world that was so far away
And a song that we’d never heard
A song of a little bird
That fell in love with a whale.
He said, ‘You cannot live in the ocean’
And she said to him
‘You never can live in the sky’
But the ocean is filled with tears
And the sea turns into a mirror
There’s a whale in the moon when it’s clear
And a bird on the tide.
Please don’t cry
Let me dry your eyes,
So tell me that you will wait for me
Hold me in your arms
I promise we never will part
I’ll never sail back to the time
But I’ll always pretend you’re mine
Though I know that we both must part
You can live in my heart.
You take it for what you think it is; I think the best songs can mean many things to many people. To me, it’s about two creatures who love each other but cannot be with each other, and I can understand the literal lyrics as well as a human version. Gets me every time.
A Barcarolle is a gentle song in 6/8 originally sung by Venetian gondoliers. Waits’ “Barcarolle” has some waterway references, but aside from a semi-tonal saxophone interlude, is a love song that hopes everything will all be good someday. “Fawn” is an instrumental featuring violinist Carla Kihlstedt in a beautiful theremin-like performance. It’s a lovely coda to the album.
Waits said that he liked beautiful melodies telling him terrible things.
So do I.