My biggest music story this week was watching Tom Sturgal’s recent film Fire Music, a story about the free jazz movement. It was initially released in 2018 but then wasn’t really released to the point that it got any reviews until 2021, so I have no idea which year to say it was released. In any case, as everyone here knows, I love the free jazz movement of the 60s and this film does a good job of getting to its essence. It rightfully starts with Ornette Coleman and reminds us how much he was hated early on. Then it goes into what a titanic shift if was for Coltrane to join the movement, which gave it legitimacy with the more bop-oriented crowd who didn’t like this free improvisation stuff. The documentary itself is fairly formulaic in that it consists of some footage and some interviews of living members of the scene. No experimental film for this experimental music. And some of the footage I had seen before in other films, including that of Cecil Taylor (who gets a lot of attention here) and Bill Dixon. The real highlight of the film is the great drummer Rashied Ali, who is totally unfiltered and who reminds us of just how much shit they took from other musicians. Given that Ali died in 2009, I was curious just how long this project had been in the works.
One thing the film made me consider is what would have happened if three of the four great saxophonist band leaders that led it hadn’t died young, by which I mean Dolphy, Coltrane, and Ayler. Those were all titanic losses of young men who should have had decades of genius within them. To be fair, I don’t really care for the very last Coltrane recordings, which I find quite arid. There’s no guarantee they would have continued producing great music until their death at a normal age; we can probably assume the 70s would have been tough for them as it was for so many jazz guys.
The film’s one weakness is selling the post-69 or so stuff short. I was very glad to see the European scene covered (Peter Brotzmann!) and some of the slightly later American stuff. But it doesn’t note that the scene is still pretty amazing today, with figures such as William Parker and Matthew Shipp and Mary Halvorson making astounding music. On the other hand, it does a great job featuing those living free jazz guys dismissing the nostalgic artists such as Wynton Marsalis or even Terence Blanchard (though they don’t include any names) entirely, correctly noting that the entire point of jazz is to explore and what’s even the point of reliving 1962. Very good question. Anyway, Fire Music is presently streaming on Criterion and it’s worth watching. As our good blog friend Glenn Kenny noted in his Times review, “As a fan of improvisational music myself, the 88 minutes of this movie constituted a too-short heaven on earth. I’d binge on an expanded series, honestly.” Indeed, absolutely. 88 minutes is too short.
A few deaths to note this week. First is Grachan Moncur, the legendary trombone player of the 1960s, though he’s not as well known today except among hard core jazz fans. One thing I will note here is how few trombonists are major jazz figures today. There’s Curtis Fowlkes and, well I’m sure I could think of some if I worked at it, but the point is that I have to think hard. I would think that the trombone would be as dominant as the trumpet and sax but it really never has been.
Then there’s Bill Walker, an arranger based out of Nashville that played an outsized role in the peak era of the Nashville Sound. And there’s Yes drummer Alan White, but Yes may even be worse than Queen, though I suppose probably not. Which says a lot about how much I hate Queen. In any case, White was definitely less enjoyable to hear than Bill Bruford, who at least has the best King Crimson albums to balance out Yes.
I don’t have a particularly strong position on whether Big Thief or any other band chooses to play in Israel, but it is indeed quite hard to see what the difference is between playing there or apartheid-era South Africa. At the very least, the criticism is something to take seriously.
It’s annoying that legislators have to spend time on something as annoying as hidden ticket fees, but we live in a dumb country and I am glad New York is banning them.
I await all the Depp Bros coming out and showing it to the bitches by buying what is sure to be an absolutely wretched album Depp is doing with Jeff Beck, who evidently lives.
Among this week’s Bandcamp profiles of someone you would probably never hear of otherwise is the Iranian singer Touraj Shabankhani.
This week’s playlist, which is naturally shorter than normal due to me being in Japan:
- Eric Dolphy, Other Aspects
- Wussy, Funeral Dress
- Bill Frisell, This Land
- Steve Earle, Train A’Comin
- Ray Price, Burning Memories
- Jerry Joseph, The Beautiful Madness
- The Who, Who’s Next
- Amanda Shires, Down Fell the Doves
- The Hacienda Brothers, self-titled
- Old 97s, Too Far to Care
- Charlie Louvin, Hey Daddy
- REM, Automatic for the People
- The Gourds, Cow Fish Fowl or Pig
- St. Vincent, Masseduction
- Drive By Truckers, Decoration Day
- Last Exit, self-titled
- Miles Davis, Steamin with the Miles Davis Quintet
- Caitlin Cary, I’m Staying Out
- Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger
- Joe Ely, Down on the Drag
- Patsy Cline, Showcase
- Will Oldham, Guarapero: Lost Blues 2
- Emmylou Harris, Pieces of the Sky
- Richard Thompson, Live at Rock City Nottingham, 1986
- Paul Motian, Conception Vessel
- Tom T. Hall, New Train Same Rider
- John Moreland, In the Throes
- Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell, Red and Black in Willisau
- Snail Mail, Valentine
- Joe Ely, self-titled
- Tracy Nelson, Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country
- Waylon Jennings, Waylon Live, disc 2
Album Reviews, in which I mercifully break my streak of being disappointed in the new music I hear:
Modern Nature, Island of Noise
This is a nice album that combines both good lyrics and a quite interesting instrumental palette that brings to mind Bert Jansch from ye olden days and Ryley Walker from today. A jazzy singer-songwriter set-up has worked great since at least Van Morrison if one can pull it off. And this band does. The music is actually quite challenging at points and yet the blurps and blips remain well within the structure of the song. I mean, not only does the legendary saxophonist Evan Parker guest here but he both sounds awesome and also doesn’t take over the proceedings, at it would be so easy for him to do. The vocals are nice and the lyrics smart. I liked this album quite a bit.
Kronos Quartet, My Lai
This is both very powerful and a bit hard to evaluate. I find classical music based around the controversial elements of American history always hard to talk about. This is because I am worried about committing the cardinal sin of art–evaluating my appreciation for the politics instead of the art itself. Sometimes, I change my mind about it. For example, at first I thought John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls to be a brilliant statement of mourning about 9/11, but then I eventually came to the conclusion that it was manipulative and kind of fascist.
So I’m being careful here. Kronos Quartet is at this point one of the most venerable institutions in global music. No one has brought more composers to the public than these people and good for them for never resting on their laurels. They are always doing new work. In this case, they perform Jonathan Berger’s opera that tells the story of Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who intervened in the My Lai Massacre where he could, saved some people, and brought attention of this American war crime to the world. The conceit is that it meets Thompson on his death bed from cancer, thinking back with bitterness to the horror of what he saw and the irrelevance of his ability to do anything about it. As a piece of reckoning with the horrors of American history through music, it feels pretty powerful to me. I am not a big opera guy at all, but I did enjoy listening to this, if “enjoy” is the right word. It’s not an easy listen, that’s for sure and I’m not sure I would buy this just because I can’t imagine putting myself through it very often. But it is powerful, if nothing else.
Dinosaur Jr., Sweep It Into Space
Hey, a perfectly fine Dinosaur album like basically every Dinosaur album. I guess this is perhaps a bit more melodic and accessible than most of them. At this point, this is a venerable band that puts out solid material that will make fans happy, maybe attract a few new fans, and won’t change the world. And that’s OK. Good rock music will always have a place in my heart and it should in yours too.
Old Crow Medicine Show, Live at the Ryman
This 2019 release is a perfect encapsulation of an Old Crow live show, minus seeing their somewhat silly dance routines. It’s a great band with a tremendous reverence for the history of country music that has a bad habit of undercutting their power by relying too much on the irony. It’s true enough that their cover of “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” with Margo Price doing the Loretta part works well because that songs just screams for irony, but then on “Sixteen Tons,” the famed Merle Travis song that Tennessee Ernie Ford made part of the American canon, the ironic voicing takes away the power. The originals are focused on their songs with drug references, which again makes sense for this band and their history. It’s a fine document of a fine band that I would absolutely see again in a heartbeat even if they never will achieve the greatness of which they are fully capable.
Kae Tempest, This Line is a Curve
The former Kate Tempest had a rough third album after two brilliant works to start her career. The problem with The Book of Traps and Lessons was the production was so limited that it was a spoken-word album more than a hip-hop album. What made both Let Them Eat Chaos and Everybody Down so brilliant wasn’t just the words but the great music behind it. It was why people listen to hip-hop and not poetry albums. For most of us, we need some sound other than the human voice behind our listening. Moreover, the conceptual framework of the first two albums were stronger.
Well, this is an excellent return to form, bringing back their tremendous power as a lyricist with the proper musical background to make it all work. Very strong songs, going back to the common theme of depressing life in contemporary Britain and the extreme dissatisfaction people under the age of 40 or so feel with the world. Bad jobs and loneliness are the norms. But it’s hopeful at the same time. It’s also just a damn fine album.
Lana Del Ray, Lust for Life
Not very sure why I wanted to listen to this album, but I did. You know, it’s ain’t too bad. Whether she can really pull off the sex-oriented songs is still something I question. I don’t think she’s a great pop musician. But she is a functional pop musician. And in that, she has value. One thing I wonder about some of these pop albums today though is the length. This album clocks in at over 70 minutes. It’s hardly alone in big pop albums of the last decade going on way too long? Why? Is this because the record companies don’t want to put out very much material by them so they throw it all on there at once? Is it to see which beats and songs stick since it’s all pretty manufactured and they aren’t quite sure? I just know this would be a pretty good album at 45 minutes and it’s an OK album at 72 or whatever.
As always, this is an open thread for all things art and music and none things politics.