Tuesday, August 28, 2007

In Rotation: No Wave

What? No Wave by the Music Revelation Ensemble (James Blood Ulmer, guitar; David Murray, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Amin Ali (bass); Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums)).

Why this? Why today? I’ve got a great network of music lovers surrounding me. Together we travel the spaceways, listening, directing, suggesting, lending… When I announced a few months back that I wanted to spend the summer doing a series of programs on the estimable David Murray, whose work I recognized as significant but which nevertheless constituted something of a blind spot in my view of music history (and present), fellow IMCer Ron stepped right in and offered to lend me anything I might need. So after a long weekend I returned to work to find waiting for me a box containing no fewer than 25 CDs featuring Murray and a note that said, “Keep them all summer.”

No Wave was among them, an early recording by the MRE, a collective which eventually came under the de facto leadership of its longest standing member, James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer’s a rare cat, a free music staple who calls down Hendrix and long-dead bluesmen, then invokes their influence to produce a sound more horn-like than guitaresque. His discography is spotty, frankly, but there are some gems, and this is one of them. There’s a little bit of Fred Frith in his sound here, like Blood’s been playing bumper pool with him in the basement rec room, and maybe that’s Arto Lindsay peeking in the window. Could be that John Lurie’s gonna drop in later, too…

The point, if there is one, is that this record is perfectly titled. No Wave is a secret underground lair where the forces of skronk, blues, funk and R&B gather to plot their next move in the destruction of safe music. If DNA and The Contortions were provocative, this was all-out blasphemy. And no, you can’t dance to it.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

My Favorite Things (or: What a Difference Roy Haynes Makes)

I don’t know just how many versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” John Coltrane recorded, but conservatively speaking it numbers in the dozens, the majority of them performed by the “classic quartet” of Coltrane on saxophone (soprano), McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, but several versions do feature different lineups, too. The song held a deep fascination for Coltrane; it was a measuring stick for his mastery of the soprano, for his bands’ cohesiveness and communication; and for listeners, it provides insight into the development of the sound John William Coltrane heard in his head. It varies from the buoyant near-pop hit originally recorded and released on the album of the same name (Atlantic, 1960) to the brutal and coarse assault of 1967’s The Olatunji Concert, recorded shortly before his death. In between, there are shorter versions, and marathon versions with lengthy bass solos. I probably have a dozen or more iterations in my collection, and it seems every time I buy another Coltrane release (which I do with alarming regularity), my wife jokingly asks, “Does he do ‘My Favorite Things?’” It’s an apt question, for what can be the appeal of hearing the same song over and over and over again by the same musician? The answer is that it is always and never the same.

The dervish-like sound of that soprano horn is a constant, as is the obvious commitment, skill and passion of the musicians involved. But in almost every other respect, they are unique. The sound, the feel - there is always some detail which differs in the telling. The 1960 Atlantic is joyful and breathless; the nearly hour-long Japanese performance is grueling but rewarding; the above-mentioned Olatunji version is harrowing and raw; the Half Note recording sounds more exotic than most others. Interestingly, there are two versions on the latest live Coltrane CD release (and I sincerely hope they keep uncovering/repackaging/recombining this stuff), fittingly titled My Favorite Things: Coltrane Live at Newport. The CD is a compilation of Trane’s performances at that revered Rhode Island festival in 1963 and ’65 with his quartet. What’s noteworthy is that the two performances feature slightly different lineups – the classic group in ’65, but with veteran drummer Roy Haynes filling in for the, um, “ill” Elvin Jones in 1963.

What the 1963 version makes plain is the exact nature and overall importance of Jones’ contribution to the quartet’s sound. There is no question that Coltrane’s horn is the lynchpin of the whole, this music machine which, even at it’s most unrestrained and out, retains an elegiac sound - the sonic embodiment of the leader’s spiritual quest. But Jones’ high-hat, his momentum, the series of mini-crescendos he produces, are a sizeable contributor to that brimstone-scented religiosity. Without them, the band is a different entity altogether.

The 1963 version with Haynes on drums is lighter, skippier, than most others. It has a snap generally not present with this group (and that is most certainly not a criticism, simply an observation), a hard-bop oomph as opposed to a church music bombast. Haynes leads the group down different paths, producing a sound which suggests this band might’ve had a career as a supremely professional club act, had they chosen to pursue that end.

Jones is irreplaceable. Without him, the Classic Quartet would’ve been a different band. Haynes is himself a consummately skilled drummer, a true great, but what would A Love Supreme have sounded like with him and not Jones in the chair? The 1963 Newport performance is stunning and wondrous, and singular in the panoply of Coltrane’s performances of the song. But its greater importance is in removing one of the legendary group’s key elements and, in doing so, confirming that element’s significance to the band’s astonishing body of work.

I will forever be transfixed by John Coltrane’s renderings of “My Favorite Things,” a warhorse of a standard that would prove the artist’s longstanding obsession. It was his Leaves of Grass, the thing to which he returned again and again, tweaking, further exploring, revising, plumbing, editing. This latest available version has added a new dimension to my appreciation of the song, and of the band which performed it so many times.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Freedom Now

R.I.P. Max Roach, 1924 - 2007

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

In Praise of John McDonald

This post is in no way about music, unless I decide to reel off some purple prose about the rhythm and musicality of a baseball player’s defensive prowess, which I won’t do. It is rather a sincere appreciation for Toronto shortstop John McDonald, who routinely makes the impossible (or the highly unlikely) appear routine.

He’s not to be confused with the scores of other John M(a)cDonalds out there. Not Sir John A. MacDonald, reputed lush and first prime minister of Canada, and not John D. MacDonald, author of such colourful classics as Dress her in Indigo and The Turquoise Lament (which, by the way, would make a wonderful/terrible band name).

He’s John J. McDonald, a much-journeyed infielder who finally seems to have found a place on the left side of the Rogers Centre turf. Granted he doesn’t swing much of a stick, but he probably saves a run or two a game (maybe baseball needs the equivalent of hockey’s plus/minus stat?). And he’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Diving stops, throws from his knees, short flips to Aaron Hill at second, an effortless grace while racing to cover the bag, and all of it with an air of humility, a sort of blue collar, put-your-head-down-and-do-it work ethic. No flash, no boastfulness, no trash. Just good baseball.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

In the Jingle-Jangle Morning

Magnet (“Real Music Alternatives”) magazine recently arrived via rural free delivery, featuring Spoon as cover boys, an article on the one of a kind Kramer, and one on jangle-pop legend Mitch Easter.

I love jangle, especially a couple of epochal albums produced by Easter, R.E.M.’s Murmur and Reckoning. I also love Magnet, and the Easter article is up to their usual high standards – informative, well-written, etc. But maybe the most entertaining part is the revelation of Easter’s first few, pre-Let’s Active bands’ names:

  • The Loyal Opposition
  • The Imperturbable Teutonic Gryphon
  • Sacred Irony

    In reading those band names, I am reminded of a high school friend who played bass while wearing a crown of thorns, and who named his band Bramble Shreve. It should be noted that BS were anything but jangle.

    My point is that, whether you play Swedish death metal, proggy jam stuff or pure jangle, there is perhaps a finite and dwindling supply of good band names.

  • Friday, August 10, 2007

    Dedicated to You: Take This Job and Shove It

    Dear CEO,

    I hope I never see you again. Here's a little Johnny Paycheck in your honour. Turn it up loud, okay?

    Yours, etc.


    Wednesday, August 8, 2007

    Dedicated to You: Atlanta Blues

    There are tears today in Atlanta, figuratively speaking, as Hank Aaron’s homer total slides to number two on the all-time list. I am, as many are, conflicted over this. No doubt, Bonds is a skilled player. There are few who can put wood on the ball the way he can, and there is as yet no smoking gun as regards his apparent steroid use. Even if there were, it would reflect a graver indictment on baseball itself then on a man who took advantage of MLB’s blind eye as it wooed fans back into the fold after the Great Robbery of 1994. But Bonds is unquestionably a far less classy man than Henry Aaron, and his ascendancy reflects something the game has lost.

    The question nags at me: how will I share this with my daughter?

    And poor Hank. What must they have had on him to make him record that message? So to Hammerin’ Hank, I dedicate Sara Martin’s “Atlanta Blues,” and with it a wish that time produces a new home run king, someone with Aaron’s carriage and good grace, someone I can admire alongside my daughter.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007

    Young Folks

    What a wonderful long weekend – sunny, warm, easy. I celebrated my 31st birthday with family, and it was good. My wife, my daughter and my parents celebrated with me, as did my niece and nephew and their mother, who were in town from the coast. We went to a ballgame, ate hotdogs and cotton candy, watched the home team win it in the bottom of the 9th, and then returned to the scene of my upbringing for food and fun. The kids played and laughed and fairly fawned over the babe while the adults looked on contentedly.

    And imagine my surprise when, in the middle of the proceedings, my sunny 15 year old niece began to hum a tune I recognized. I turned, flung an accusatory finger at her and said, “Peter Bjorn and John!”

    Friday, August 3, 2007


    Four a.m. thunderstorms don’t require pop music soundtracks to render them dramatic or emotion-stirring. Music would be redundant. Nevertheless, and in that indomitable spirit of unnecessary redundancy which tends to inspire scenarios wherein significant life moments, missed the first time around, are reenacted for the camera, this morning’s exuberant sound and light show had me thinking: if this were an album, it would be this one...

    Wednesday, August 1, 2007

    In Rotation: Scream, Dracula, Scream!

    What? Scream, Dracula, Scream! by Rocket From the Crypt.

    Why this? Why today? If you have to ask, you’ll never know. RFTC defined swagger – they owned it. RFTC were far cooler than you’ll ever be. RFTC sweat motor oil and tequila. Head RFTCer John Reis would remove the toothpick from his maw just long enough to growl and spit and claw his way through 14 sides of aural scorn.

    And yes, it depresses the hell out of me that this record came out 12 years ago. Just like last night when CC and I got a little weirded out by the fact that Daydream Nation is now TWENTY YEARS OLD.