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Music Notes


In September, the New York Review of Books published a long essay about Otis Redding. 2017 was the 50th anniversary of Redding’s death. The whole thing is worth reading, but it’s worth thinking about what a remarkable talent Redding was and how much we lost when he died so very young. Just listening to Otis Blue is an amazing experience. How can one just throw an album like that together in a few days? Astounding. There’s a lot of conversation out there about the dead musicians of the 1960s and what was lost. But other than Hendrix, I don’t think there’s a bigger loss in terms of the future career than Redding. What would he have done in the 1970s? My guess is some amazing work, albeit with a different sound. I’m a long time Joplin skeptic and Jim Morrison in the 70s would have been a horror beyond contemplation. But losing Redding, that’s a hard one. I actually have a mutual acquaintance with Redding’s family and so when I was in Macon a couple of years ago, I got a guided tour of the little Redding museum by his daughter, which was pretty cool. They run a camp every summer that focuses on music broadly, but mostly the music business, which is probably a good thing.

I don’t buy a lot of it anymore, but I am a big fan of old-time music, made by both white and black artists in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, the white music tends to listen easier because the recordings were of better quality originally and then were better preserved. It depends on the artist though. Anyway, given it was the 1920s, a lot of these songs are racist. What do you do with that? How does one listen to those songs? This is a good essay on the issue. These are fascinating songs with fascinating stories and they often have very different meanings depending if the singer is black or white.

Turns out the last Sex Pistols show in England was a benefit for the children of striking miners, which you can watch.

Who is buying me this 20-CD set from Bear Family of Louisiana Hayride outtakes? God, that sounds great. Only $200!

I saw Patterson Hood play a solo show a couple of weeks ago at the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, with Chris Funk from The Decemberists accompanying him, mostly on lap steel, but also on this or that other weird instrument that these multi-instrumentalists tend to have in droves. It was just great. Right before the Roy Moore defeat, Hood was pessimistic about his home state and pessimistic about the country, but he never lets that get in the way of a great show. Seeing him in this setting has three advantages over a Drive-By Truckers show. First, there are fewer people, so I was really close. Second, he really takes time to tell a lot of stories about the songs, about his family, and about the band. I didn’t quite realize that he was such an engaging storyteller. Sure, the accent helps, but he also just tells a good story. Third, he played a lot of songs that are rare when the full band is together: “The Thanksgiving Filter,” “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues,” and “The Deeper In” are a few of the rarities he played, as well as some new tunes, and some classics. Great show overall.

I am sad to see the gentrification of New York take out another musical institution. This time it is John Zorn’s free jazz space, The Stone. To be honest, that place is a terrible club in terms of the space. It doesn’t even have air conditioning, there’s no raised stage so if you aren’t in the first two rows you can barely see the musicians, and there’s a ton of street noise. I’ve also seen some great shows there: Marc Ribot on my birthday a few years ago, the percussionist Adam Rudolph with Hamid Drake, Hassan Hakmoun, and another North African chanter/drummer/wind player; Sylvie Courvoisier and Marc Feldman, and a few others. I believe Zorn opened the space with the MacArthur Genius Grant money, so it was certainly a good use of that.

We all like Best of the Year lists. But I like Worst of the Year lists too.

A couple of musician deaths to note as well, especially Pat DiNizio, lead singer of The Smithereens. The saxophonist Ralph Carney, perhaps best known for his work on several of the best Tom Waits albums, also died.

Album Reviews, all 2017 releases, as I try to listen to enough to put together a reasonable end of the year list, coming next week:

Wadada Leo Smith, Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk

In May, I was lucky enough to see the aging but still great trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith play in New Haven. Little did I know that his set of Monk tunes was the first time he had ever played Monk live. He then recorded an album consisting of four Monk tunes and four compositions inspired by Monk. This is beautiful music by a true master, part of an amazing late-stage career resurgence. My only caveat is that it is a lot of solo trumpet to listen to. It’s the sort of album that may do better as an occasional song coming up in shuffle than something where I will listen to the entire album frequently.

I also have to thank our esteemed commenter Howard for purchasing me this album, as well as Muhal Richards Abrams’ 1990 outstanding album Blu Blu Blu. In fact, his frequent generosity, both in comments and with albums, led to dinner last week in Seattle with Howard, myself, Scott, and djw. We all had a great time. And no, we didn’t talk about you all! Turns out that in addition to Howard’s great taste in music, he also provides superb restaurant recommendations.


Toxic: Mat Walerian, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, This is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People

Matthew Shipp and William Parker, along with the late David S. Ware, are the cornerstones of the avant-garde New York jazz scene over the past thirty years. I have seen Parker three times and Shipp once. Each show was incredible. With Shipp, the greatest jazz pianist of his generation, choosing to wind down his recording career, this is one of what will become an increasingly rare treat. Mat Walerian I was not familiar with, but he is a young (for jazz anyway) saxophone and flute player with a great interest in Japanese music and philosophy. With Toxic, these three amazing musicians have a great album. It starts with Walerian on Japanese flutes and then Shipp comes in with his atonal piano and finally Parker on his bass. Many of the songs lean toward the compositional side of the modern jazz movement, but there are plenty of moments of faster and more improvisational music as well.


Unfortunately, there is not anything on YouTube from this album, but you can get recordings of Walerian and Shipp so I will embed one.

Amadou & Mariam, La Confusion

The outstanding Malian duo scored again with their latest. Now a couple, both professional and married, for 37 years, they have lost little of their ability to make great music. This album combines a wide array of musical influence, from blues to reggae and of course a wide variety of African styles. The band is great, including some of the finest kora and ngoni players living. The Malian music scene has become internationally famous over the past decade, but where the desert guitar bands such as Tinariwen can get a bit repetitive over an album, every song is fresh here, each bearing repeated listening.


Gogol Bordello, Seekers and Finders

I’ve long meant to listen to this band popular with so many music people. Combining eastern European folk music with punk, they have a sound unlike many other bands in the world. Yet I can’t say I love it. There are some really good songs, especially “Walking on a Burning Coal” but to me, the merged sounds seem a bit forced, reminding me a little bit of a number of world-focused groups and artists over the past couple decades who become internationally popular for cosmopolitan fusion, such as Manu Chao. I don’t care about authenticity, which doesn’t even exist in the world of popular music. But sometimes I feel these bands are explicitly targeting educated white liberals who shop organic and think buying fair trade coffee will save the world and show their worldliness. It’s certainly not a bad band though, just not quite my cup of tea.


Childhood, Universal High

I enjoyed this new pop-soul album from this south London band more than I thought I would. Its infectious hooks and danceable grooves were appealing for an evening listen. There’s not a lot of new ground broken here certainly. The songwriting isn’t amazing and the influences are so obvious that it doesn’t challenge a listener. Yet it’s an entirely enjoyable album.


Blondie, Pollinator

I thought I would give this a listen, not expecting too much. And it’s alright. The first two songs are even pretty strong. Then it’s just sort of whatever. That’s fine. Debbie Harry is somehow 72 years old after all. She still sounds pretty good. Most of the songs are by outside songwriters and this doesn’t necessarily serve her all that well. If you are a Blondie fan, it’s worth a spin.


St. Vincent, Masseduction

I don’t exactly think Annie Clark can do no wrong, but I’ve never heard her do anything wrong. I think she’s a spectacularly talented artist. The one caveat I have is that she’s not very warm and that comes through in her songs. I really loved her last, self-titled, album, because it felt more personal than her usual displays of guitar and electronica. “Severed Crossed Fingers” for instance has a verse that goes:

Wake up puddle eyed, sleeping in the suit
The truth is ugly, well I feel ugly too
We’ll be heroes on every bar stool
Seeing double beats not seeing one of you

On Masseduction though, she’s back to a more distant set of lyrics and ideas, all while making more of a pop record than usual. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It’s another very strong album. I’ll be curious whether “Pills” wears on me after repeated listens, but right now it’s an amusing take on our chemical world. “Los Ageless” is a song about Los Angeles and you already know what that’s about. Now, I’ve only listened to this once so far, and some reviews discuss how her lyrics reveal a kind of destitute present, once the appeals of drugs and sex wear off. And maybe that will reveal itself to me over time. As for right now, this is a consistently interesting album by a really great artist who I respect a lot and I can’t ask for much more than that.


Daniel Brandt, Eternal Something

Brandt is a percussionist for a German avant-techno band called Brandt Brauer Frick. Never heard of them, but this is pretty interesting combination of modernist classical and electronic music. As I’ve stated before in these posts, I find a lot of electronic music tiresome and uninteresting, but this works a lot better than most, being grounded in the roots of modern compositional music. Mostly Brandt plays all the notes, the drums, the electronics, and the guitar, with others coming with with cello, trombone, and something called the hang, which looks interesting. These slow, repetitive, but never boring compositions slowly build into some pretty worthy music. I don’t know how often I would listen to this, but it’s good music.


Matt North, Above Ground Fools

There’s always something pleasing to me about running across a fine songwriter. North lives in Nashville and sometimes I wonder, just how many awesome songwriters are there in Nashville, all trying to make a living? A lot, no doubt. This debut album by a guy who has worked in Nashville for the last 30 years impressed me a good deal. This is something for folks with enough failed relationships, families, and age under their belts to enjoy some downright excellent songs about middle age. Lyrically and musically, there’s more than enough here to appeal to Zevon fans, North also reminded me of people such as Jon Dee Graham and Chuck Prophet. “Cronkite and Cosell” brings a lonely man back to watching TV with his father, “Seventeen Days” is a good rocker about a guy with nothing going on, and “A Good Day in Nashville” is a classic observational song. This is well worth your time.


Albert Ayler Quartet, Copenhagen Live 1964

I haven’t listened to a lot of this year’s archival releases but I am sure glad I heard this. Ayler in 1964 was playing with Don Cherry, Gary Peacock, and the recently passed Sunny Murray. It’s a great document at a moment when the avant-garde was really starting to take off and Ayler was leading the way. I know I mentioned Otis Redding as a great “what if he lived” story but one also has to wonder where Ayler’s career would have gone, especially as the limits of that version of the avant-garde began to crest by 1970. What would Ayler have looked like in the 70s? Would he have found a way to keep it going or would he have moved in a more accessible direction? Or just disappeared? His late albums that tried to venture toward rock suggest further moves in that direction, but who knows with a guy like Ayler. Anyway, the interplay between Ayler and Cherry is especially outstanding here. A great recording.


Free Radicals, Outside the Comfort Zone

Free Radicals, a Houston-based jazz-rock collective, sounds like something I would have been super into 20 years ago. I don’t say that in a negative sense. But they sound like people have listened to a lot of Frank Zappa’s early 70s albums. They are pretty outstanding musicians. But does the music add to much? They claim to have a political bent but it’s hard to really hear in the music. Much of it sounds as silly as it does profound and the sometimes meaningless song titles don’t help too much. They switch styles a lot–a Latin jazz song here, a song with African influences there, a straight ahead jazz number over there–but I’m not sure dabbling is really helping here. 23 songs is an awful lot on top of it. It feels like it goes on forever. If you like jazz-rock, you may well appreciate this. Their instrumental chops are very real. Still, I found it a bit too virtuositic and a bit lacking in soul.


As always, this is an open thread for all things music and no things politics.

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