Tuesday, November 21, 2006

All-TIME 100 Albums

Gil Scott-Heron: "The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb, Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth." Boy is he gonna be pissed ...

I just read about yet another one of those lists, although I actually missed it by a week. Oh well, so did the Post .... So apparently Time has compiled a list of the greatest records of all-time. Every music nerd has an opinion and can painstakingly deconstruct such a list, and no one wants to read that (the authors, in fact, for all their mistakes, were smart enough to preempt that in their introductory graf, saying that it's intended to provoke discussion, which it probably would were it not in Time). Instead, I have broken down several lists by decade and race. Keep in mind, each of these lists purports to be the greatest records (not albums!) of all time.

So now, without further ado, the lessons I learned:

1. The recording industry began in the late 1950s with some guy names Elvis Presley. That's right, there were no recordings before then. It all began with Elvis, but some guy named Miles Davis picked up on it pretty quick and cut some record called Kind of Blue in 1959. It's sure a good thing that happened, 'cause what would hipsters do without discs to talk about? OK, so a couple of the lists (Rolling Stone and Time) include Robert Johnson's stuff, which ends up in the 1960s on my tally sheet because that's when the tracks were first compiled and re-issued. No consideration, however, of Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Al Jolson, Charlie Parker, Charley Patton, etc. Or Miles' excellent Milestones, for example, which is better than f*&ing anything Tina Turner ever put out (I'm looking at you on this one, VH1).

2. Marvin Gaye is the greatest black musician the world has ever produced. Runners-up: Miles, Prince, Public Enemy, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Michael Jackson (yeah, about that ...). Actually, it might be more accurate to say that he produced the greatest black album of all time. What's Going On comes in at 27, 4, 6 and present (Time doesn't number), handily defeating all challengers. Jimi's close in places, and usually has between 1 and 3 records on the chart (except NME); both Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue rate consistenlty high; Purple Rain's a fave, as is It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Based on frequency of appearance, Miles, Jimi and Jacko are actually the greatest black artists we've produced.

3. Rap's a mostly white art form. Apparently, there was some band called Public Enemy which was pretty important, and another called N.W.A. But if you really want to hear rap, you have to go to its most authentic proponents: the Beastie Boys and Eminem. Jay-Z, Nas, Wu-Tang, Dre, Eazy etc are amateurs compared to these cats. Which leads me to my next lesson ...

4. Black people haven't really had that much effect on the development of American popular music. Take it from these guys--American music didn't really grow out of the blues and Afro-American gospel forms. Amiri Baraka, Ellison--hell, every non-racist (and most likely some racists, too) critic ever--was wrong. That must explain why there are hardly any blues artists, only Miles and Trane as token jazz artists, very little soul, etc. Here are the number of "white" records vs. "black records":
Time: 64 vs. 36
Rolling Stone: 68 vs. 32
NME: 90 vs. 10
VH1: 71 vs. 29
[A note on methodology: Some of these were judgement calls; Jimi Hendrix Experience records were counted as black (with apologies to Noel and Mitch), while the Allman Brothers were counted as white (with apologies to Jaimoe).]

And finally,

5. The '60s and '70s were pretty much the greatest time for music. Ever. Unless you're one of the hipsters at NME, in which case you have to be contrarian (Hipster, n. translation: no historical memory) and have lots of albums from the '80s and '90s, too. 79 of Rolling Stone's top 100 were in these two decades, 48 for Time, 72 for VH1, 45 for NME.

Clearly, I'm joking here. Are the editors of all of these publications racists? I have to say no, and not only because I might try to get a job from some of them some day. And clearly the historical distribution of the music has more to do with the audience and authors, than, say, reality.

There was some hullaballoo a few months back when Sasha Frere-Jones suggested Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields was a racist. See, Merritt made a list of the top 100 songs of all time or something and it had too few black artists for her tastes. Since my musical taste runs toward a lot of jazz and soul, I tend to like a lot of black artists and would imagine that a such a list would be poorer, but not racist.

Anytime you place the "all-time greatest" label on something, you're stepping in to dangerous waters; it's this overstepping of terminology that bothers me. Actually, the fact that NME's list is straight-up 90% white is concerning too, but whatever. Just watch your words, guys--and if you mean "since 1960, and not including any folk or classical records and only a choice few jazz records," then say that, dammit.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ciompi Quartet with Branford Marsalis, Page Auditorium, 11/18/06

This is the best I could come up with; Branford Marsalis and marc faris outside the beautiful Biddle Music Building, without question the ugliest building on Duke's East Campus.

I'm brutally unqualified to write on anything classical except maybe ecclesiastical choral music, but here goes anyway ... There's a twist, I s'pose.

Let's start with a cliche: "Jazz is anything you can tap your foot to." It's a quote which is frequently (and probably apocryphally) attributed to Duke Ellington. Jazz is also what Durham resident Branford Marsalis is best known for. I tried my damnedest to tap my foot to the two works he played with Duke's Ciompi Quartet last night. Two conclusions, which I didn't really need all this artifice to say: One, it wasn't jazz, but two, it was pretty interesting.

(Aside: Having been in Page two nights in a row, have you ever noticed how different the chatter before a classical concert sounds as compared to before a jazz concert? Similarly high-brow, and yet the overall sound is very different.)

I had a somewhat difficult time concentrating for the first half of the concert, a Mozart divertimento and a string quartet by Mendelssohn, with the previous night's (mis)adventures post-Masada still working themselves out. I will say this: There is never enough viola. On the other hand, violist Jonathan Bagg sounded a bit scratchy in some places, not quite achieving a pure tone. First violinist Eric Pritchard, meanwhile, is fun to watch--he always seems ready to leap out of his chair, and lo and behold, no sooner had they hit the final note of the Mozart than he did just that. The Mendelssohn was denser musically than the Mozart and I liked it better, especially the playful bandying back and forth of a riff in the adagio non lento, the second movement.

The second half was composed (ha!) of a premiere (marc faris' Mountain Music) and a repeat of another work Branford and Ciompi premiered in 2003 (Mark Kuss' Reminiscence). Branford was on soprano for both. Imagine if Trane hadn't taken up that horn--Branford might not play it, either! He has a beautiful, clear, core tone. I very much liked faris' piece. It reminded me, actually, of Wayne Horvitz's Four + 1 Ensemble, especially the string vs. horn thang. The work was lyrical, but seemed to be trying very hard to remain a bit spiky, as in an early section with cello and viola pizzicatti where the music lurched rather than flowed forward. What faris was going for, perhaps, but a little unsettling, and it seemed as though Marsalis and the violins really wanted to overcome the jolting low end and surge forward. I liked the work, and could really feel the Appalachian aura the composer described in his program notes, although my own personal conception of the Blue Ridge might not be so mighty and aggressive. Kuss' piece, meanwhile was cozy and lyrical, but overall didn't make much impression on me.

The sax-string interplay is quite pleasant--the tone and register of the soprano meant Marsalis could blend when he wanted and fade into the ensemble. The rest of the time, he seemed to be playing--well, not against the others, nor with them, nor completely on top, as a soloist. The sax line seemed to roll above, below and with the strings, lapping about fluidly.

I'm always struck by the different sound of modern harmony, something I wish I understood more. Where the Mozart and Mendelssohn seem closed, a layer of glass covering them--even the airy, pleasant Mozart--the twin Marc/ks' pieces seem to have big holes in the harmony, big enough to drive a musical truck through. It's not a hole in the score; there's just a space there, and I don't know how well I'm describing it. Here's hoping it makes at least a modicum of sense.

Friday, November 17, 2006

John Zorn's Acoustic Masada, Page Auditorium, 11/17/06

In the 1960s, soul jazz and hard bop were the thing. It was arguably reductionist and non-progressive, but it sure does feel good--basic jazz crammed with gospel and blues. It was undeniably black music. Saxophonist John Zorn--who has played with some veterans of that era, like organist Big John Patton--is doing something similar with his Masada project. It's real visceral, gut-bucket stuff infused with tradition. But to his credit, Zorn doesn't try to imitate a culture that isn't his: Masada celebrates his own Jewish heritage, using parallel cultural elements to what Horace Silver used. (If Blue Note was the leader of the soul jazz crowd, can we call Zorn's Tzadik label Jew Note?)

Acoustic Masada, which played at Duke this evening, consists of at least two Jews (Zorn and drummer Joey Baron) and at least one other guy who may be (bassist Greg Cohen--I'm stereotyping based on the name). Trumpeter Dave Douglas rounds out the quartet. The band actually functions on two planes--Douglas and Zorn tend to be the more Jewy part of the band, blowing over Sephardic scales, while Baron and Cohen are in many ways a conventional rhythm section.

Friday's performance was excellent, but not quite worth the standing ovation it got. The set fell too easily into a pattern. First, they'd play a ridiculously intense, high-speed, free number, then a melodic, modal tune. The latter are remarkable tours-de-force, running a wide gamut of speeds and dynamics, but the larger pattern was just too strong.

I especially enjoyed watching Baron, who's like Gene Krupa on cocaine. He was unmiked and still was exceptionally loud; I have several tapes where he plays and the drums are always too loud and distorting on the recording. It wasn't that way where I was sitting, but I can imagine it's damn near impossible for a taper to get a good mix. If Max Roach and Connie Kaye "dropped bombs," Joey carpet-bombs you with daisy cutters. Zorn was occasionally conducting him--on some of the best numbers, he conducted the hits on certain sections, even during his solos. As a result, it became a meta-solo, consisting of not only him but drums also. Baron was fun to watch, too--he was so amused by all the interplay and was having such a blast, laughing as he played. All that said, there were a couple tunes where I could have done with a little less out of the kit.

Douglas was also good; haters (me included) tend to attack him for his chilliness and remove. Zorn helped to loosen him up a bit, I think, but he still plays with this sort of dry, ironic tone, a musical smirk, and I don't like it (too much like me, probably). A couple times, it seemed like Baron was playfully jabbing and sparring; but Douglas remained aloof, raising his voice as necessary but never really throwing himself into it.

Zorn's just the opposite--he's totally into it. His compositions are great, intricate and passionate, and his writing for two horns (another similarity to the front lines like Lee Morgan and Joe Henderson or Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook on those Blue Note sides). The free stuff is fun, too, and the combination of rhythmicality (rhytmicism?) and strong rapport between all four players means it works well. He does a lot of crazy fluttering stuff, which sounds a lot like noise but takes on a special meaning in the context. I don't pretend to understand what the hell he's doing (I'm only half-convinced he does) , but almost everyone else did: in one solo, after a weird thang, he went back to a tonality and people all erupted in applause, even though he was still playing the solo. This strikes me as pseudo-artsy bullshit on their part. They don't know what it means either. (I should have asked him about, but I froze up when I met him. Oh, well.) Even the onstage banter was weird and unintelligible. I don't get it all, but it makes me feel good, which works for me. I give the show 7 or 8 out of 10 overall.

A note on the band's appearance: they play really close together, and all four look so different. The tousled-haired Zorn came out in a t-shirt and camo cargo pants with tortoise-shell glasses. Douglas, true to his image, had chunky black glasses, black pants and a black shirt (and a black leather jacket, too). Cohen is a tall, gangly, professorial type, grey-haired and dressed in a far-too-large button-down shirt. Joey was t-shirted and shaved bald. A hilarious sight, altogether.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Navelgazing on Lope de Vega and Nickelback

This will be taught in the hallowed classrooms of Duke University in 4 centuries.

Short riff today. Look for John Zorn and Branford Marsalis in this space in the next coupla days.

Kelefa Sanneh has one of his typical socio-critical columns today in the Times. Sanneh, for the uninitiated, is the best critic working today (at least that I've read), a former Voice writer who now seems to cover mostly hip-hop and country--apparently these are the only two things Pareles, Chinen and Ratliff can't cover, so he got the very asymmetrical beat. He covers them both with cleverness and skill, although recently he's seemed kind of formulaic ... One of his formulae is this kind of piece.

This one is about a documentary about what's wrong with the pop music business. Kelefa focuses on the hypocrisy of the commentators, pointing out that there's no real examination of their own tastes.

Lots of people like to complain about how what's popular is only popular because record execs and Clear Channel (or choose your own bogeyman) feed it to us (sorry, too lazy to look for citations on this. Trust me!). I'm pretty convinced that if CBS and Warner decided they were only going to give us "good" music--as defined by, uh, me--and phased it in over a decade or so, there wouldn't be much difference in record sales. I also think they should do that, and realize they won't. But I have limited patience with this argument, 'cause I think people genuinely do like a lot of pop (and why shouldn't they? A lot of it is ridick pleasant).

We were discussing a work by the 16th century Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega in class today. Lope was unabashedly formulaic and populist; he wrote dozens, even hundreds, of works using a very few different plot lines, each adopted a little bit. In one text, he admits that he's happy to flout the classical rules of drama as long as people like it. Id est, he didn't give a shit about high art or any such rubbish. He pokes fun at himself in this regard (see La dama boba), but he sticks by it; he also takes some pot shots at the academias, organizations of petty nobility who sat around and talked about works like his--the effete, tight-shirt-wearing, hipster elitists of their day, if you will (Lope was one of them himself). Lope was incidentally a rival of Miguel de Cervantes, a failed dramatist who also wrote a little story that laid the foundations of the modern novel. The more high-brow Cervantes was not a fan of Lope--he envied his success (I see Doyle Bramhall II in K's column as the logical analogue).

We didn't really go into enough detail to know what kind of critical acclaim Lope got at the time. Now, though, he's considered one of the greats of Spanish drama, a writer on the order of that rival of his, and his works are taught at pretentious institutions such as my own. So as much as hipsters and pretentious jazzbos hate it, what are the chances that Medeski, Martin and Wood are going to outlast goddamn Futuresex/Lovesounds or "Promiscuous Girl"? Probably pretty low; even "worse," those are going to be canonical works, well-respected for their influence, craftmanship, and artistry. And the guys in that movie Kelefa writes about? They're going to look like some asses, man.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Black Keys, 11/9/06 @ Cat's Cradle

(This photo was taken at M.D. Garage in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Holla!)

This paean was written directly after returning from seeing The Black Keys at the Cat's Cradle down the road in Carrboro, NC.

The Cradle is odd because it's so iconic, but it's also located right in a strip mall and could just as easily be taken for a five-and-dime from the street. The night's first great moment came when I marched right up to the doorman, told him I was on the list, and was promptly let in gratis. Makes one feel almost legitimate. (Here's my preview from recess, the arts and entertainment section of The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper: http://www.dukechronicle.com/media/stora...

Openers were the Black Angels, who were passable, but if we'd been lost any longer (and we were lost for quite awhile) it wouldn't have been a shame--they were sort of like My Morning Jacket, but heavier and dronier, with less poppiness. NB: I can't stand MMJ ...

The Keys team/setup is sick complicated for a two-man band--three or four techs, lights, etc etc etc--and it took forever to get them ready, which I passed by pushing Andrea forward, so that by the beginning of the set she and John and I were pretty close to the front. The guitar tech tuned up Dan's Telecaster, but alas, all he played for the set was a white SG custom. Pat's set, meanwhile, was pushed up right up to the edge of the stage, which was pretty cool. Major downside: the rather putsy couple in front of us who were treating those around to an extensive display of PDA. Eww. Probably Tar Heels ...

Dan comes out, says they're the Black Keys (applause) from Akron, Ohio (at which point I emit a cheer which prepared those around me for deafening volume we were about to experience). They then launch into a bizarrely twisted "Thickfreakness"--Dan was doing some weird things with the rhythm of the main riff (I notated all of this in my official, Chronicle-issued reporter's notebook--made, as it happens, in Akron!). I was pretty ecstatic already, and then they went into "Girl Is On My Mind.' The repertoire was pretty evenly divided between (1) Rubber Factory, (2) Magic Potion, and (3) The Big Come Up and Thickfreakness. Some personal faves outside of the opening two: "Set You Free" and "Your Touch" back-to-back, "10 A.M. Automatic," "Grown So Ugly," "Stack Shot Billy."

At the risk of being the snob who likes earlier stuff, I'm still having trouble getting into Magic Potion, although they burned some of those tunes down tonight. I coulda done with fewer of them, but whatever; judging by the crowd's reaction, they know Rubber Factory and Potion better than the previous couple. Novices!

Dan was sporting a railroad-themed jacket (didn't Mary Stormer say *Pat* was into trains when he was a teenager?) but otherwise looked pretty rockstar. He sorta bounds around the stage during his solos, and he's as likely to be turned toward the wall doing rockstar moves as toward Pat or the audience--it's not so much that's he's antisocial a la Miles, but rather that he just doesn't even think about it. Awesome. When he sings, he does this funny little shift-back-and-forth dance, a little like Richard Thompson, actually. That's about the only way he's like RT--he has none of RT's nuance plays insanely loud and distorted through a Marshall, and he gets away with a lot of what might be sloppiness on the fretboard because it's just turned up so damn loud. It's absolutely brilliant. Pat looks pretty much the way you'd expect on stage based on the way he looks generally and the way he sounds.

After buying a t-shirt ("I know the artist. He used to bag my groceries!"--I've got to be almost intolerable; how John and Andrea put up with it I don't know), I was hoping to talk to Pat and/or Dan; despite the roadie's assurance that there was no way they'd come out, I walked out of the club to see the bird-like Pat Carney himself standing there, smoking a cigarette. I of course went up to introduce myself (I was wearing my RCCC Akron shirt, natch) and told him who I was and how I'd written a story on them and how I lived on Highland and how I knew Barry and Barry and his mom from St. Paul's. (I've tried to replicate the silliness of my vocal cadence talking to him in the above, unpunctuated sentence ...). He was friendly if spare of words, but I didn't want to be That Guy, so I told him I'd see him at Angel Falls before scampering back to Andrea and John, who laughed at me. Bastards.

Overall, a top notch show. Having played on at least one stage as them (Lime Spider) and been to other clubs they played, I wish I'd seen them in Akron; maybe later. And having seen some other, considerably less interesting bands on those stages, I can't imagine how thrilling it must have been to walk into, say, Annabell's in 2000 or 2001 to see this unbelievable and original band blowing like mad. Wow.

Selling out

And so David A. Graham, curmudgeon extraordinaire, enters the modern age by getting himself a blog. Tune in here for regular ramblings on musical topics (defined broadly) of my choice. I'll be starting presently with a retroactive post, primarily because--well, because it's already written. If you don't like it, read something else, hey?