Thursday, January 22, 2009


Greetings and a good evening to all, or a good whatever portion of the day it is when you happen to be reading. I'm sure everyone is happily ensconced in the young Presidency as I type. Just a quick, typically grab-bag rundown of what is and has been on the brain, if you don't mind.

As far as Inauguration Day went, mine was like most others', I'm sure--got a nice little break at work to watch the festivities and whatnot. Enjoyed the ceremony itself, shots of the First Couple greeting well-wishers on their way to the House, etc.

As far as the recap coverage, I wanted to make sure everyone knew of this typically thoughtifying Fresh Air interview with artist Shepard Fairey, the man responsible for many years' worth of awesome and iconic poster art, culminating in the ubiquitous Obama "HOPE" prints--seen above in their natural pre-election habitat--and the official (!) Inauguration poster. Fairey--you know, the guy behind the "Obey Giant" stickers--is a great example of the Obama phenomenon, namely how he's lured so many artists and thinkers and generally cool folks up from underground to lend their voices to the cause. It's like the country--or at least the sane part of it--is letting down its guard and you're getting all these hopeful messages from the most unlikely corners. Tim "Awesome Show" Heidecker, anyone? Okay, how 'bout Trey "Love of Lava" Azagthoth?! (Fave quote from latter bulletin: "I have never been into politics nor has this band, but I have always been into Life.")


I hate to do the bullet-point rundown re: recent media consumption, but there's no choice at this juncture. First, the muse-ic:

*Confessor - Condemned (out-of-print yet bountiful in the blogosphere)
This damn thing is like a Weeble-Wobble (sp?) in my musical consciousness. Keeps popping the heck back into view. Was listening to it today and thinking about how it if I didn't have a natural affinity for uber-geeked-out tech metal with screechingly grandiose vocals, Condemned might be the single most annoying record I'd ever heard. A quick scan of message-board brouhahas will tell you: This is an incredibly polarizing disc. But if you are down... boy, are you ever fuckin' down. You will bro with this record for life, as I have begun to do. See my previous Confessor post for an MP3 and some viddies.

*Paul Motian - I Have the Room Above Her
Have had this one lying around forever, but only truly delved into it over the past few days. As far as I know it's the most recent studio disc by the Bill Frisell/Joe Lovano/Paul Motian trio, though I reserve the right to be completely wrong about that. (Also, was that band typically leaderless? This is definitely a Motian session.) Hearing Frisell and Motian live a couple weeks back made me curious to dig into more of their long-running collaboration. Anyway, I'll tell you what this record is... Actually I'll tell you a few things this record is. First of all, it's aqueous. It's an aqueous record. You will probably not ever find a more convincing display of slippery, nonmetrical jazzmaking. This music floats and is *about* floating. I'm thrilled by the swirly weightlessness. At times it's almost cloyingly plush, but in measured doses, it's absolutely mesmerizing. It's a whole *other* idea of what it means to swing. It's free jazz, yes, but a free jazz that's free of "free jazz" and free of any other conventional imperative. It just hangs there, or drifts there, or flows there, or whatever air or water metaphor you want to apply. It's unmoored music. Also, the title--a mite cheesed-out, no? Or is it simply the most gorgeously romantic notion ever? Hard to say.

*Roy Haynes Festival on WKCR
This awesomeness has been flowing nonstop since 1/11. Haven't caught a ton, but every time I've tuned in, I've been psyched. Heard some killer Jimmy Smith this morning, and some bitchin' Dolphy and Oliver Nelson last week, and I happened to switch on last weekend just before Andrew Hill's Smokestack was spun, which led to an intense run through Black Fire, which conveniently linked up via Joe Henderson to last week's renewed obsession w/ Pete La Roca's Basra. Anyway, Haynes kills on those Hills, for sure. Had always thought of those outings as less modern or hip or what have you than, say, Point of Departure, largely due to my perception that Haynes's playing was less modern or hip than Tony Williams's. In the final analysis that might be true, but relistening to Black Fire, I was struck by how insanely sophisticated Roy sounds on that disc. The time is so microfractured it's nearly impossible to count bar lines. (Billy Hart has a few things to say on Haynes's forays into the '60s vanguard in this marvelous interview (conducted by Ethan Iverson), which also touches on just about every other drummer you could imagine. It's an insider encyclopedia of modern jazz percussion lore.)

And then there's the reading:

*Ben Ratliff's The Jazz Ear
I'm trying to avoid the obvious lame food metaphors for the way I consumed this book, but they're inevitable, and yes, I did in fact devour this tome, so what's it to ya? I read most of these pieces--wherein Ratliff conducts interviews prodded along by the act of listening to music with musicians--when they came out in the Times, but each of them is expanded here and they also function as a kind of suite when taken together. What Ratliff essentially collects here is his subjects' various enthusiasms. It's a simple and brilliant idea. A musician may not want to open up about his or herself, but what artist--hell, what *anybody*--would not be psyched to simply enthuse over their most loved artworks? They all move differently through this process--some, like Wayne Shorter and Ornette, are cryptic and sagelike (Ratliff describes them in this nice recent Talk to the Newsroom feature over at the Times as "ninjas of the opaque"), and some--like Pat Metheny and Maria Schneider--are eloquent and precise. But none of these pieces is without its revelations, I promise you. You put this book down wishing Ratliff had administered this experiment (as he terms it in this cool Tavis Smiley video interview) to just about every jazz musician that ever lived. Can you imagine an Eric Dolphy one? A Booker Little one? A Tony Williams one? An Anthony Braxton one? A Bill Dixon one? Hell, a Cecil Taylor one? I can envision the process cracking even that impossibly guarded nut, as long as it was something like Lena Horne playing on the stereo. It's a brilliant idea, and as Ratliff emphasizes in the intro, one that's gloriously ungoverned by the tyranny of timeliness--the musicians aren't rapping about Their New Record or Their Upcoming Concert or any other talking point; they're simply articulating a love of music that's as easy and natural to them as breathing. I pretty much guarantee that reading this, you will wake up to a musician you didn't know well or at all (for me: Bebo Vald├ęs, Bob Brookmeyer, Guillermo Klein, Hank Jones), or get a fresh new perspective on one you already loved (Paul Motian, Andrew Hill) or one you were lukewarm about (Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis). This is a tremendous contribution to the jazz literature, first and foremost because it's so casual and blatantly enjoyable to read. Better than just reproducing conversations, it lets you feel what they were like; you sense the musicians opening up, pulling back, sidestepping, but most of all losing themselves in the music. It's a meditation on the profundity of the act of concentration, really. Anyone who loves music can relate to the poetic simplicity of the idea: Let's sit, listen and talk.

*Bill Milkowski's Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries
Not as poetic or groundbreaking as the Ratliff, this is still a very valuable companion. A 1998 collection of interviews done over the years and what makes it special is the range and the stature of the luminaries he's got on hand. What I love about books like this is that I'm drawn in by the inclusion of musicians I love and respect (Tony Williams, who really tees off on Stanley Crouch in here) and then I find myself drifting over to ones whose work I've ignored or dismissed in the past. For example, I've always been a fairly vocal disser of Bill Laswell, but I loved reading what he had to say here--a very no-nonsense type of a dude. And again, you can't help but wake up to someone new here. My buddy Joe has long enthused to me about Robert Quine, but I've been lazy about checking him out; Milkowski's interview is an awesome primer. (There's a great part where Quine talks about his fascination with blues vamps that stay on one chord.) So again, this is more an encyclopedia than a coherent work, but if you're willing to follow the winding paths of these Q&As, it is a formidably info-packed and oustandingly well-curated book. Bobby McFerrin, Larry Coryell, David Murray, Branford Marsalis (again), Steve Coleman, Dr. John, Joe Henderson, Jimmy Smith (who offers Milkowski a sexual favor in exchange for some catfish) and tons more. You can get the damn thing for like $5 at Amazon via the link above.

*Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On
This is like Gold Medal of All Time in terms of orderly research presented artfully. Laal and I tackled this as part of our intermittent book club and it took us both a few months to complete, but we agreed it was very worth it. An incredible array of dramas at play here, from the very personal and visceral to the numbingly bureaucratic. And some truly strange and remarkable characters. You will not forget Patient Zero Gaetan Dugas--who basically comes off as the Grim Reaper--or outspoken playwright Larry Kramer, or cocky scientist Robert Gallo. Nor will you forget how AIDS basically went off like a bomb in the world's face, after first detonating within the gay community. It's a weird and horrific modern plague and Shilts, who eventually died of the disease himself, agonized to get the facts straight. It's a dry, methodical book at times, but there's also this really fiery, passionate core to it. You know this guy was on a mission, as much as any historian has ever been. Now what I'm looking for is something similarly comprehensive and sweeping (and preferably, readable) re: the civil-rights movement. Anyone got any suggestions?

*Calvin Tomkins's awesome profile of painter Walton Ford in the latest New Yorker (whole piece ain't online)
Tomkins seems to be in the process of doing for painting what Ratliff is doing for jazz. [Editor's note: By the end of writing this post, I realize that Tomkins has done for painting what Ratliff has done for jazz maybe ten times over at this point. Didn't realize he was such a veteran.] As Ratliff listens to music with musicians, Tomkins is really intent on observing paintings in the company of painters. He's formalizing the studio visit, portraying it on the page as a trip into an artist's headspace. And like a good music critic, he engenders a rabid desire to see what's being described. I kind of like that you're not shown more, in a way. The magazine could easily over-illustrate these pieces, but you only get the opening portrait and you have to extrapolate. A nice touch. This piece follows the excellent John Currin study of a year ago. (Which makes me wonder: How long do New Yorker writers get to gestate their pieces? Does Tomkins really get to work for a year on an article? ...)--as I was typing this, I was searching around the New Yorker site to see if Tomkins had published anything since the Currin piece and I was pretty shocked to find that he'd been writing for the mag since 1960! Wow. It's kind of awesome to think that a writer could stay so contemporary on his or her beat for half a century. Anyway, I look forward to the day these studio-visit pieces are archived into a book a la Ratliff's tome. Uh, again, I'm an idiot--such a thing exists, as of last October! Well, this is going on my reading shortlist pronto...

1 comment:

jesse said...

If no one else has beat me to it,responding to your request for an engaging civil rights read, Taylor Branch. He's your man.
Agreed on Shilts, read it around '92 and it actually prompted me to volunteer at the Aliveness Project, a service agency in Minneapolis for folks with HIV/AIDS.
Check Branch!