Archive for the ‘A Personal History: Jazz’ Category

Jazz Alive: Tune In Tomorrow

October 26, 2004

Back to my personal jazz history. Truth is my last post in this series depressed me so much I didn’t feel like writing about jazz anymore. It’s just that Miles Davis was so much worse on Doo-Bop than I remembered him being — it was an album that did not age well, and I was a bit ashamed that I had ever found it so enthralling. But I did, and that’s that.

What prompted me to start writing about jazz again was actually the cover of the October issue of Poetry, which has this stunning crocodile photo. That’s what first drew me into this album: crocs.

Where this album came from is shrouded in mystery. I know one thing: it is a movie soundtrack, and to this day I have never seen the movie. Somehow or another I started listening to this album — perhaps prompted by my earlier Wynton Marsalis experience. This was back in the ancient days of cassette tapes, when I would listen to tapes on my walkman going back and forth to high school.

Hold on — memory returning. I think that I bought this tape during a visit to Jakarta for model united nations during my freshman year of high school. I’m recollecting it was a cassette tape from an indonesian company — I remember the style of casing and insert. In Asia, there was all kinds of crazy releases of cassette tapes. In Seoul, Korea, Itaewon had a store called Yes Records where they sold bootlegged metal, punk, rock. The inserts were photocopies of a hand-written list of the songs on the album.

The problem is that the Yes Records bootlegs wore out pretty quickly. They were cheap tapes. Indonesia, inexplicably, had inexpensive — and legal! — high quality cassette tapes through a deal with A&M Records. Or at least that’s my vague recollection. On school trips there, I stocked up on music.

So that’s how I acquired the album. I certainly bought it because of Wynton Marsalis’ name & photo on the cover, not because of the movie. Listening to it on the bus back and forth to school, one day I realized that the fourth track sounded alive — alive like a crocodile or alligator or something. It very viscerally brought to mind the animal. Hard to describe, except that it just sounded like a croc. I scrambled around in my bag and produced the case and insert, complete with glossy cover. Sure enough — title of the track was “Alligator Tail Drag”.

Well, that was a powerful thing. Inducing, just by your music, the personality and character of an animal — an animal that was very far from my mind in Seoul, Korea. The album as a whole was impressive — it was big-band, New Orleans style. But where The Dirty Dozen Brass Band was wonderful, joyful chaos in big band madness, Tune In Tomorrow was carefully coordinated, restrained, scripted — but just as beautiful and inspiring.

My other favorite tracks include a fun, bluesy number, “May Be Fact Or Fiction”, with vocals sung by Johnny Adams. But it’s the romantic, bluesy Shirley Horn pieces — “The Ways of Love” and “I Can’t Get Started” — that really make it stand out. I fell in love with Shirley Horn through this album. She sings with Marsalis’ trumpet and it all comes together with a quiet, simmering intensity. I didn’t know it at the time, but listening to it now it reminds me of Johnny Hartman and his smoke-soaked voice. The track “I Can’t Get Started” (which I vaguely recall is a Gershwin tune) opens with a perfect Marsalis solo, and then Shirley starts her magic:

I’ve flown around the world in a plane
I’ve settled revolutions in Spain
The North Pole I have charted
But I can’t get started with you.

The millionaires I’ve had to turn down
would stretch from London to New York town
The upper crust I visit
but say what is it — with you?

You’re so supreme
Lyrics I’d write of you
Steam… at the sight of you
Dream… day and night of you
But what else can I do?

That is a fine song, Horn’s voice just dripping through it ever so slowly, making me think of smoke rising from a slow-burning cigarette in a dark bar. Or more precisely, “It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette / someone left burning on a baby grand piano / around three o’clock in the morning.”

This is the fourth in a series detailing my personal jazz history. You can read the series here.

Discovering Miles Davis: Doo-Bop

September 20, 2004

Doo-BopDoo-bop was Miles Davis’ last album, released posthumously. It was my first Miles Davis album and I loved it. Listening to Doo-Bop (buy it now) now, it ends up sounding a little dated – when I was listening to it out-loud the other night, someone said it sounded worse than elevator music – like the kind of music the dentist plays.

Objectively I have to agree at least a little – the samples, drumbeats, and other material sound a little trite at this late date. But Miles is still there, wailing away – and I still groove out to the best tracks. One of my favorites is the opening track, “Mystery”. It is ethereal – just out there. The trumpet comes in like a beacon from the edges of space and touches the eardrums, offering a whole new sound experience. A review on Amazon described the track as a “seductive groove of downtempo heaven that really brings out the best in Miles’s trumpeting” and I must agree.

After the more traditional sounds of Wynton Marsalis and the big band Dirty Dozen, the hip-hop infused Doo-bop was liberating, a whole different way jazz could sound, a trumpet amid an army of electronica. The sound was new and exciting for me then – and I still hear it that way, even if it sounds to a new ear now like tired riffs. Of course, even compared to the hip-hop of the time (at the time I think I also owned A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory) this album is behind the curve, but Miles Davis is a musical genius – and that genius shines through even on this album.

I went on to enjoy a lot of other Acid Jazz (like Karl Denson and St. Germain) and a lot of other Miles Davis. But Doo-Bop always will have a special place in my heart as my introduction to Miles.

This is the third in a series detailing my personal jazz history. You can read the series here.

Discovering Dixie: Dirty Dozen Brass Band

September 16, 2004

Dirty Dozen Brass BandI have no idea how I came across it. I know the album cover was exciting to me — but somehow I ended up purchasing the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “Whatcha Gonna Do For the Rest of Your Life” (buy it here)while a freshman in high school in Seoul, Korea. I must have run across it on the US military base, at the PX (Post Exchange). I remember the PX had a large and kind of bizarre mish-mash of CDs for sale, and somewhere among the jumble I found the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

They’re a true New Orleans / Dixieland sound, but on this album they are a tad more introspective than usual. Two tracks stand out — the first was the title track. Here I am, a freshman in high school, with the Big Bad College Applications apparently around the corner, and I found myself bizarrely worrying about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. The lovely sax that opens the song sends kind of a different message — it’s got a smooth, silky sound, a kind of “oh, what the hell” feeling.

The song, with its snare drum and tambourine is down right celebratory. As the band starts chanting in the background, “Whatcha gonna do with the rest of your life, whatcha gonna do til you get it right” you can’t help but laugh — it feels like such a tongue-in-cheek comment being mixed in with the fun and vibrant sounds of the dueling saxophones.

I loved the song — and still love it. It has a care-free attitude to it, throwing it back in your face — what are you gonna do for the rest of your life?

But the other song on the album which captured my teenage attention was Song For Lady M — a sad, slow saxophone solo number. Although some of the progressions are still reminiscent of Dixieland, this is more of Coltrane-inspired sound. It starts slow and sad. For some reason I could always imagine it being played from a high window off a dark street. It’s that kind of smoky feeling. In the middle of the song it starts to pick up — but the sound is not any less sad, it starts to communicate a sort of desperation. A Desperate Song for Lady M.

At 15, I had no idea what heartbreak was. But Song for Lady M was heartbreak — an intense, personal heartbreak, different from “Soul Gestures in Southern Blues”. Marsalis’ jazz genius on that number is the menacing yoke of history; the Dirty Dozen sax solo is mournful, a personal love lost.

I somehow went on to then completely forget about the Dirty Dozen Brass Band until a couple of years ago. I am a huge Olu Dara fan, and looking for more of his music I stumbled upon a track he does with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on “Medicated Magic” — the track is called Junko Partner and it is as good as this kind of party jazz gets. The album as a whole is great, with an amazing number with Dr. John – not to mention the all out delight of the opening track, Ain’t Nothing But A Party. That’s the truth.

And so one year after my virgin birth into Jazz, I went from the Serious, Village Vanguard-style jazz of Wynton Marsalis to the Dixieland joy of the Dirty Dozen. Next up: Acid Jazz.

This is the second in a series detailing my personal jazz history. You can read the series here.

The Beginning: Thick in the South: Soul Gestures in Southern Blue, Vol. 1

September 7, 2004

coverLast night I was playing around on iTunes, taking advantage of the long weekend, and I realized I was missing one of my favorite jazz songs of all time — “Harriet Tubman”, by Wynton Marsalis, on Thick in the South: Soul Gestures in Southern Blue, Vol. 1. Taking advantage of the disturbingly immediate gratification of iTunes, I bought it and a few minutes later I was listening to the song. I got lost in its familiar twists, my mind wandering back to the first time I heard the song. As I started to think about it, I realized it might have been the first jazz song to really penetrate my consciousness, to dramatically capture my imagination.

This morning I got up with the memory of the first time I heard the song still banging around in my head. And I started to think about my jazz-life — what was the history of my jazz listening? what albums happened when for me? what impact did they have?

For whatever reason, this topic was of great interest, and I spent the better part of my Labor Day morning figuring it out, thinking through my listening life. I discovered I have a lot to say about this music — so I thought I’d start a series of blog posts about it. My Personal History: Jazz.

The first album – the album that started it all – is, as mentioned, Thick in the South: Soul Gestures in Southern Blue, Vol. 1 (buy it here) by Wynton Marsalis. I was in eighth or ninth grade, 1991. All the misery and franticness of adolescence, coupled with living abroad in Seoul, Korea.

Sometime a few months earlier I had gotten a stereo with a CD player. Compact Discs were just starting to become standard issue. I recall my father didn’t have a CD player yet, and he was an intense audiophile. I was very proud of my first sound system, a Sony boombox job. The first CD I got with my stereo was Sting, The Soul Cages, but soon afterward my birthday arrived and so did a package from Queens, New York, from my Aunt Linda.

She must have been briefed by my father. She had sent me CDs for my birthday — two of them. Volumes One & Two of Wynton Marsalis’s Soul Gestures in Southern Blue titled Thick in the South and Uptown Ruler respectively.

I don’t recall being very interested in Jazz before that, but maybe I was. I do vaguely recollect that I was trying (in vain) to learn to play the trumpet — so maybe that inspired the gift. At the time I had a nascent interest in classical music, specifically Wynton Marsalis’ classical trumpet playing, hoping that by listening some small smudge of musical ability might wear off on me. So maybe that is what prompted Linda’s gift. But Jazz just wasn’t entirely on my radar yet, and then suddenly there was Thick in the South.

It really hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ll never forget it. That first song, “Harriet Tubman” — it was just truth, aurally. I was stunned by it. That quiet, but not slow, bass line starting the song, the percussion sneaking up on it – steady, growing in intensity. The piano comes in, adding a sort of foreboding progression – and then the trumpet and sax announce themselves on the scene. The song as a whole carries a darkness to it – even Wynton Marsalis’ beautiful, smooth trumpet solo holds a tension and weight that speaks to the weariness of the Blues, to a sadness undiscovered, biding its time before surfacing and consuming the song. The saxophone solo gets lost in its own spiral of anxiety, repeating, repeating, with no easy way out. It’s the piano solo that saves it from total and utter darkness. The piano comes in with a crisp, clear certainty – but the solo ends with an resounding, almost terrifying urgency. The rest of the musicians come in, but then fade away almost as soon as they arrive. Throughout the song, the key keeps getting lower, taking you away down into the depths of your soul, but all the while the beat marches on, never slowing in its intensity.

It’s so strange to me – listening to it now, this is not a song you’d expect a white diplomat’s teenage son to be completely gripped by. But this song was like a lightening bolt to my adolescent soul, and seared into my being a deep personal connection to jazz. It set the stage for the rest of the jazz to come, offering intense emotional connection to the music. This song spoke to me of the misery of the daily grind, the deep sadness of injustice, the perseverance in spite of everything. Harriet Tubman and her intense, under-the-radar attack on slavery and the power structures of her day is infused through the song – the song is as the album is described, literally a soul gesture in southern blues. It’s also got a thick thread of aggression woven into the fabric of the song, a sort of intuitive “don’t tread on me”.

I could tell this music didn’t really appeal to my friends. Remember, this is 1990, 1991, with Nirvana and Pearl Jam at their apex. Primus and Mister Big are on the charts with big hits. Teen angst is surging in the culture. But I didn’t need “Smells like Teen Spirit”. I had just discovered jazz – and it would sustain me.

Buy Thick in the South: Soul Gestures in Southern Blue Vol. 1 by Wynton Marsalis.

(stay tuned for the next installment of this series: Whatcha Gonna Do for the Rest of Your Life? by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band)