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Music Notes


One of the most fun shows I’ve seen in awhile was Rhett Miller of Old 97s play a solo show at the Askew in Providence about two weeks ago. I love Old 97s, even if I have only ever seen them live twice. So I wasn’t too inclined to miss this, especially so few traveling acts go through Providence (there is a thriving indie scene here, but it’s not one I know well as I am less good at following that sort of thing, plus being old). Old 97s are as close to a Gen X party act that also is a good band that ever existed. There’s never been any meaningful political statements from Rhett and the Boys. The songs are mostly about love in all its forms, but they are jaunty and fun and rock. Rhett likes shaking his ass and he really really likes doing windmill guitar strums. The crowd mostly reflected all this too–Gen Xers, a few younger folks. What can I say. But it’s super fun to see Miller live with an acoustic guitar just having all the fun in the world. Not sure why he tours solo as, while he does have a few solo albums over the years, he barely plays any of the songs on them even in his solo show. Nope, it’s acoustic versions of “Buick City Complex” and “Big Brown Eyes” and “Rollerskate Skinny” and “Barrier Reef” and “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” and other classics. Will Dailey was the main opening act and he was great too, very funny songwriter, need to check more of his stuff out.

The other big musical news for me is a long time coming–I finally got through all of Robert Gottlieb’s 1060 tiny print page jazz writing anthology Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, which is this case was 1996. The only reason I even heard about this book is that I had a colleague who taught Black women’s history retire last year. She didn’t want to take her books so they went on some empty shelves in a common room near my office. I was waiting for my lunch to heat up one day, was looking around at the books, and found it. So I thought I’d borrow it. It’s….well, it’s a lot and not only in the page numbers and wear on the eyes (don’t even think about reading the footnote asides, I think they are in 4 point font).

First, I learned an awful lot. Most of this I had not read before and what I had, well, it had been awhile. It is, not at all surprisingly, especially for the mid 90s, extremely heavy on the pre-World War II jazz world. Really, it is too heavy on that, with not nearly enough attention paid to post-1965 jazz, though there is a little bit there. But not very much. Obviously you do want a good bit of this–stories of the development of jazz, the ways in which the genre developed, the culture around it, this is all very interesting. I was really unaware for instance of the dismissal Ella Fitzgerald faced through much of her career, but it sure seems the critical world really preferred Billie Holiday. I don’t have super strong opinions on this since I don’t listen to a lot of vocal jazz. But I really had no idea. On the other hand, it is so obvious that Gottlieb loves Bix Beiderbecke that it makes the book a bit ridiculous at times. I’d say other than Armstrong and maybe Ellington, Beiderbecke is the most discussed player in the entire book (unfortunately, for as long as this tome is, it lacks an index so I can’t actually count the mentions). And I mean, c’mon, obviously the guy was important in early jazz, but let’s not get crazy here.

Second, and related to the first, is that part of the reason Beiderbecke became such a legend is the drugs and the drug culture is by far the most boring part of jazz culture. The book is split into three sections, as suggested in the title. The autobiography is the most uneven, precisely because it is not very interesting to read about how high these people were. Reading about people getting high, then coming down, then debasing themselves to score more drugs, then getting busted, then going to prison, then doing it all over again upon release–this is fine once or twice but over and over and over again, I mean, it’s just not interesting reading. I know that some people love to romanticize the drug culture around different musical traditions, but I feel one of the best things about the kids these days is that there is so much less of that. Lots of musicians are happy to talk about their sobriety and it is accepted and celebrated. Sure there’s still tons of drug use too, but the romanticizing–OMG ANOTHER PERSON DIED AT AGE 27–really is a thing of the past, except perhaps in hip hop. When the astoundingly great trumpeter Jaimie Branch died last year of heroin, there was nothing even remotely approaching some kind of romanticizing. It was just a sad, awful fucking thing.

Third, it should go as no surprise that the book overemphasizes white players, especially in the early days. There are a few bits on race in jazz, but as many of these that talk about it directly are whites angry about being challenged over the issue. But there is a real desire by Gottlieb I think to not go there much. I don’t really blame him given the audience for this in 1996 (might not be much better today, though I’d like to think that the small number of white people who both read and listen to jazz today are probably a little more self-reflective around these issues than 27 years ago, but maybe not).

Fourth, I can hardly remember a lot of the individual pieces of the book right now–it took me about 4 months to get through this–but a few of the ones I really cherished were both Ralph Ellison’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s reflections on Minton’s Jazz Club, Billie Holiday’s recollections, Lillian Ross’s hilarious essay on rich Newport people listening to the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and trying to convince themselves they liked jazz, and the parts of Miles Davis’ autobiography (I can’t believe I haven’t ever read that all the way through),

Fifth, one area that gets a lot of attention here–and I understand why even though I find such debates useless and tiresome–is how to write about jazz and whether it should be treated like classical. Who cares is my response. But then we live in a post-genre world in the 21st century. It didn’t take long though for people to wonder how to present and write about jazz versus classical. Then you have the debates between different eras of jazz and people wondering whether the new jazz was really jazz at all. The bitterness of some of the swing writers toward bop was more than just a little deep. It was fucking betrayal. This seems to me to miss the point that what makes jazz jazz is innovation, not one particular way of playing it. And if the music never really changed, it would wither and die. But even today people (cough, Wynton Marsalis) sure like to complain about new stuff, including the recent mergers of jazz and classical, to the point that jazz artists are writing and performing in chamber quartets and stuff like that.

Finally, this leads to me my last point, which is how much I despise Stanley Crouch. For decades, Crouch has been compared to Ellison and Albert Murray. He was friends with both men. They are all excellent and perceptive writers. But there is a fundamental difference. Ellison and Murray were writing about new music that was rooted in the past and advancing into the future. They liked this, mostly. Crouch, like Marsalis, is angry about most of the innovations after 1965 and certainly after 1970. So while they share similar aesthetic preferences, there’s a fundamental difference between chronicling the new and dismissing the new. Nowhere is this more outrageous than in Crouch’s essay on Miles Davis’ electric period. It was a controversial piece when he wrote it in 1995. It’s probably the most recent piece in the collection. The problem here is two-fold. First, Crouch equates the post-Bitches Brew period with the post-drug comeback period. So he can slam on Miles’ stage antics and seeming desire to be liked for once in 1985 with the crazy amazing stuff from In a Silent Way and just hate it all together, without even trying to differentiate.

And then there’s what Crouch said about Prince. See, Miles was a big Prince fan, as was everyone with decent taste in the 1980s. But Crouch? This is what he wrote about Miles liking Prince:

He can be seen on television talking about the greatness of Prince, or claiming (in his new autobiography, Miles) that the Minneapolis vulgarian and borderline drag queen “can be the new Duke Ellington of our time if he just keeps at it.”

This sums up everything I loathe about Crouch in one sentence. Of course he would revert to homophobia (or perhaps transphobia if you will) to hate on Prince. Meanwhile, I don’t know that Prince quite reached the peak of Ellington. I don’t suppose he did. But it’s not an absurd take all these years later, especially given that it was made when Prince was doing transcendent work. Ellington, Miles, and Prince are three of the all time titans of American music and all are just as enmeshed in Black traditions and history as Crouch. It’s just that late-era Miles and Prince were enmeshed in traditions that the outright snob Crouch hated. So this combines a ludicrous take on Prince with a hatred of Miles *gasp* going on television and then outrage that anyone could compare a modern musician in such a debased genre as rock and roll to the Duke. No wonder Crouch routinely embarrassed himself talking about hip-hop.

So of course Ken Burns relied on Marsalis and Crouch as his guides on his Jazz film, which explains it almost completely ignoring the last fifty years of jazz.

Anyway, it is a collection well worth your time.

Just a couple of other pieces of news since this is too long as is:

I guess I’m not super surprised that David Byrne would blow up union rules about using live musicians in his Broadway musical. Bad stuff though. Bad stuff.

Just a few of the many great pieces about Tina Turner. Here’s one on how she influenced domestic violence survivors. On her hometown of Nutbush, Tennessee. On her comeback and how she influenced the MTV generation, i.e., people like me.

Juan Carlos Formell of Los Van Van died after a heart attack on stage. The rock lyricist Pete Brown, best known for writing the lyrics to a lot of Cream songs, also died. I will discuss the passing of Cynthia Weil next week.

Cool story on how Tyshawn Sorey is bringing up a bunch of high school students to play with him on his latest project.

Playlist from the last two weeks:

  1. H.C. McEntire, Eno Axis
  2. Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle
  3. Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady
  4. Palace, Arise Therefore
  5. The Harmaleighs, She Won’t Make Sense
  6. High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
  7. The Dillards, Back Porch Bluegrass
  8. Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show, self-titled
  9. Pharoah Sanders, Karma
  10. Sleater-Kinney, All Hands on the Bad One
  11. Childbirth, Women’s Rights
  12. Algiers, The Underside of Power
  13. Harry Nilsson, Pussy Cats
  14. Townes Van Zandt, At My Window
  15. Merle Haggard, Strangers
  16. Sleater-Kinney, Call the Doctor
  17. Mary Halvorson, Calling All Portraits
  18. Johnny Cash, The Essential, 1955-1983, disc 2
  19. Ray Charles, The Genius of Ray Charles
  20. Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine
  21. Tom T. Hall, Ballad of Forty Dollars
  22. Wussy, Strawberry
  23. Peter Rowan, self-titled
  24. Dave Burrell Full Blown Trio, Expansion
  25. Hurray for the Riff Raff, Life on Earth
  26. Fauxe, Ikhlas
  27. Willis Alan Ramsey, self-titled
  28. Palace Brothers, There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You
  29. Tom T. Hall, In Search of a Song
  30. James McMurtry, Live in Aught Three
  31. Priests, The Seduction of Kansas
  32. Bonnie Prince Billy, I See a Darkness
  33. Centro-Matic, Navigational
  34. Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billy, Superwolf
  35. Aretha Franklin, Lady Soul
  36. James Brown, It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World
  37. Richard Thompson, Acoustic Classics
  38. Terry Allen, Salivation
  39. Chris Stapleton, Starting Over
  40. The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo
  41. Bill Callahan, Apocalypse
  42. Parquet Courts, Content Nausea
  43. Dilly Dally, Sore
  44. Doug and Rusty Kershaw, Louisiana Man (x2)
  45. Ibeyi, self-titled
  46. Drive By Truckers, Brighter than Creation’s Dark
  47. Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted
  48. Poppy Ackroyd, Pause (Reworked)
  49. Charlie Haden, Liberation Music Orchestra
  50. Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise
  51. Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double, March
  52. John Coltrane, Africa/Brass
  53. Johnny Bush, Whiskey River
  54. The Meridian Brothers, Salvadora Robot
  55. Big Thief, Masterpiece
  56. Angel Olsen, Big Time
  57. Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billy, Superwolves
  58. Si Para Usted: The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba, Vol. 2
  59. The Grateful Dead, Hundred Year Hall (4/26/72, Frankfurt)
  60. Juliana Hatfield, Pussycat
  61. Steve Earle, Ghosts of West Virginia
  62. Drive By Truckers, Pizza Deliverance
  63. The Waco Brothers, Going Down in History
  64. Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops, One More in the Cabin
  65. Elvis Costello, King of America
  66. Joe Ely, Down on the Drag
  67. Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, Sidelong
  68. Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen
  69. St. Vincent, 4AD Session
  70. Mount Moriah, Miracle Temple
  71. Mitski, Laurel Hell
  72. Anteloper, Kudu
  73. Red Sovine, Phantom 309
  74. Buddy Tabor, Writing on Stone
  75. Stevie Wonder, Signed, Sealed, and Delivered
  76. Bonnie Prince Billy, Greatest Palace Music
  77. Miles Davis, A Tribute to Jack Johnson
  78. Farmers by Nature, Love and Ghosts, disc 1
  79. The Gil Evans Orchestra, Little Wing: Live in Germany
  80. Chuck Berry, The Anthology, disc 1
  81. The Decembrists, The Crane Wife
  82. Borderlands: From Conjunto to Chicken Scratch
  83. Old 97s, Fight Songs
  84. U2, Achtung Baby
  85. Bonnie Prince Billy, Master and Everyone
  86. John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat

This week’s album reviews:

Lucrecia Dalt, Ay!

Spacey music from this Colombian composer and singer. The idea here is to bring listeners into the Colombian jungle with somewhat theatrical meditations on the relationship between place and culture. Lots of flutes, basically. But this is a pretty arresting listen that usefully splits the difference between the South American indie scene and what is often lame New Agey type of tunes dedicated to white people trying to get in touch with themselves or something. There is a lot of this type of thing in the Colombian music scene–the great Bomba Estereo engages in some of this for instance. This is more compositional and folky than dance music, but by and large, it works.


Sylvan Esso, No Rules Sandy

Enjoyable electro-folk-pop from this North Carolina band. Like a poppier version of Chrvches. This isn’t some profound statement, either musically or lyrically, but it is quite nice dance pop. Whether or not the little 30 second tracks work or not, well, they probably are gratuitous at least. But they are short so who really cares.


Gwenno, Tresor

OK indie-folk rock. Interesting conceit in that she is singing it in Cornish, which is close to an extinct language. Not sure that I particularly care one way or another about the language she uses, but it’s notable and it’s cool as far as it goes. What this means is that of course you are relying on the vocal stylings and the music rather than the lyrics. These are both fine. It grooves some. There’s some good beats. Gwenno certainly has more than solid control over her voice. I can’t see bothering to hear this a second time, but it’s fine. And the catchier songs are really pretty catchy.


The Dears, Lovers Rock

This 2020 release was the first in a long time for this veteran rock band that formed in Montreal in the mid 90s. The theme is trying to find your way in an awful world. The voice is pretty whiny (Morrissey is a common comparison). I just didn’t think it was very interesting. It’s musically tepid, no songs really stand out, and the vocals are just OK. I don’t think this is bad music. I do think it is mediocre and forgettable.


Daniel Carter/Gerald Cleaver/William Parker/Matthew Shipp, Welcome Adventure, Vol. 2

I don’t think these four guys had played on the same album together as a quartet until the Welcome Adventure project came together. They’ve played together in different forms forever now. In fact, I’ve seen all Carter and Cleaver play with William Parker but not together. I’ve seen Shipp twice but not with any of these guys, although the last time I saw Shipp, Cleaver was supposed to be in the band, but he had a family issue and so another great drummer replaced him. This is their second release as a group, from last year. It is a rich, multifaceted recordings of four masters who know each other’s every move continuing to move ahead as artists. It’s hard to evaluate these guys when there are so many releases. But what you can say is that this has a strong Miles mid-60s vibe, though with more dissonance at times, and that Carter, especially when he is on the clarinet, adds an almost Middle Eastern vibe to the proceedings. I can’t say this is the best recording of their careers, but I can say it is a valuable addition for all of them,


Christopher Parker & The Band of Guardian Angels, Soul Food

When I decided to hear this 2021 album, I had no idea that Gerald Cleaver, William Parker, and Daniel Carter were all on it. So it’s an interesting experiment to compare it to the album above. As Parker is a pianist, no Shipp here. The rest of the band is Kelley Hurt on vocals and the late, great Jaimie Branch on trumpet. This is a very different kind of project, even with so many of the same performers. Although Parker has been around as a sideman forever, this was his first solo album. The intensity of these performances is very real, especially when Hurt sings in her experimental way (though she has a long career of more mainstream work as well). Parker is an compelling pianist, the horns are high in the mix, and Parker and Cleaver provide more of a traditional backing rhythm that one might expect from these guys but a deep listen shows the interplay between them is truly incredible. I thought this a highly compelling album. I will also note that a lot of the reviews were a bit more restrained, but for no stated reason. I couldn’t help but think when I read these reviews that the reasons are twofold. First, jazz is hard to write about. Second, I legitimately think no small number of reviewers will place a limit on how much they will praise music from a new voice who haven’t reached some sort of pantheon/cool level.


Cola, Deep in View

Pretty solid, slightly slowed down post-punk from an album released about a year ago. This is two members of Ought reconvening after their own band broke up and adding a new drummer. It’s fine. Melodic enough, though not generally catchy. Sour, but not angry, or not really. Certainly quite listenable. Fine.


Amy Helm, What the Flood Leaves Behind

For all I know about Helm–not only but certainly including her legendary father–I had never sat down and listened to one of her albums. So I chose this release from 2021. It’s very good! This is her third solo album, recorded in the converted barn on her family’s property that has become such a legendary spot to see a show. But what makes this album is not the family or the place. It’s that Helm can sing almost anything. She has such a great voice–outstanding blues singer, great country singer, more than good R&B or rock singer. The songs cover all those styles too, from pretty straight ahead blues to some classic southern garage rock. In other words, she has inherited the spirit of her father and all the music that came into him and then came out in a unique way that mashed it all up into something new.


Matt Ulery’s Delicate Charms, Live at the Green Mill

I don’t know Ulery at all, but this is a hot performance. Starts off quite understated, but by the time you are the middle of the second track, you realize there’s a heck of a lot going on here and then it just builds and builds into some pretty fantastic post-bop jazz. Reminds me of how little I really know about the Chicago scene. Ulery is a bassist and plays a pretty big role on the album, including a pretty incredible solo to start the last track. The rest of the band is James Davis on trumpet, Greg Ward on alto, Paul Bedal on piano, and Quin Kirchner on drums. Really need to hear more of this stuff.


Jerry Joseph, Istanbul/Fog of War

Joseph is absolutely one of the great songwriters of our time. It’s not often that you run into leftist ex-Mormons who have spent lots of time in Middle East (including running covert guitar camps for girls in rural Afghanistan) and who write about the region. Welcome to the life of Jerry Joseph. No, he’s not a great singer, but who cares. Few have his pointed vision. Not every album has this kind of power, but this one from 2015 sure as hell does. Two songs, 30 minutes, a nearly unknown thing in the world of songwriters. “Istanbul” is the kind of furious political song he does best– opium, refugees, war, religion. “Fog of War” is more an epic relationship song, the kind of thing one could see Neil Young closing an album with. In fact, the guitar here sounds like Neil on Everyone Knows This is Nowhere. Master class in songwriting.


The Tubs, Dead Meat

Imagine taking a modern London rock band and thinking this is what Richard Thompson would sound like if he started today. That’s The Tubs. Owen Williams even kind of sounds like RT might if he went through a punk phase. Extra interesting is that this was the follow up band for a couple of the dudes from Joanna Gruesome after they split up. Given that Joanna Gruesome was a more intense and very angry punk band (the members actually met in an anger management class), this is kind of a surprising turn. What’s more, ex-JG vocalist Lan McArdle shows up to sing backup some and while she doesn’t sound like Sandy Denny or Linda Thompson, she certainly can pull this kind of music off. Really a more interesting take on the old British folk scene than crooners such as Olivia Chaney, who I like fine too, but who can get a bit boring after all. This rocks pretty well. And, you know, for all the noise and screaming, Joanna Gruesome really did have some great melodic bits too. Bunch of good music minds here.


As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics (or off topic bullshit that has nothing to do with music or art).

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