Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound
Brian Blade Fellowship: Body and Shadow; Ron Miles: I Am a Man; Residente: Residente; Tyshawn Sorey: Verisimultude; Margo Price: All American Made; Cecile McLorin Salvant: Dreams and Daggers; Run The Jewels: RTJ3; Big Thief: Capacity; U2: Songs of Experience; Perfume Genius: No Shape; Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet: Ladilikan.
Some artists are fathomable – their aesthetic fixed in time, their contribution easily parsed, the work highlights easily identifiable, listable, digestable.
That is not Paul Bley. The Montreal-born pianist, who died Sunday January 3 at the age of 83, carved one of the most unusual paths through jazz and improvised music. He was likely the last musician alive who could claim having performed and recorded with bebop trailblazer Charlie Parker, pre-bop legends Ben Webster and Lester Young and such post-bop luminaries as Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Guiffre and others.
Bley evolved constantly over the course of seven strikingly productive decades, and his evolution took him into strikingly different musical realms. He made definitive recordings in many realms but is not rooted in any one place, not part of a single “school.” His hallmark is more an attitude, a broad approach to music that’s applicable to every improvisational endeavor: He brought what the music needed at each moment.
He had all the language of jazz in his backpocket, but did not use it indiscriminately – in a solo setting like this 1988 recording for Steeplechase, he would inject the faintest hints of blue into music that was otherwise beautifully reflective, almost overwhelmingly placid, and the reference would enhance the desired mood.
So….he could clearly play in the key of sweet.
And he could swing fiercely, stitching together lines that felt garrulous and expansive but were also needlepoint precise.
In his freer solo playing, he cultivated a zone of contemplation that was profoundly lyrical, with long arching melodies, and then would happily veer into technical inventions that seemed almost unhinged, yet governed by an intense logic. Follow a Bley solo closely, and you hear the main thought mulled and eventually exhausted with a kind of woodworker’s patience. Running alongside that, often threatening to overshadow the big idea, are irreverent glances backward at jazz history, knots of harmony that suggest music’s future, and moments of effusive fury so dense they defy transcription.
What’s most inspiring about Bley is the way he kept going. He chased music of many forms and most of the time outran it, mastered it, refracted it through his lens until it could belong to nobody else. He made beautiful sounds that seem fully written out, through composed, but were birthed spontaneously, in the moment, with a recording device running. To illustrate this I looked for something from his 1986 recording Fragments (ECM), but didn’t find. That’s a shame, because it’s one of those deep records that sounds like nothing else. Here’s another….
Each of his recordings shows a different aspect of Bley’s intellect, a different curiosity. If they’re united, it’s not by style or genre or personnel. It’s by philosophy.
In what was an excellent year for pop songwriting, tunesmiths spent lots of energy working out what to ponder privately, what to imply with a glance, and what to proclaim publically. Courtney Barnett, the year’s breakout arrival, devotes much of her album to calibrating her terms of engagement in her work and love life – she won’t be put on a pedestal, but doesn’t mind oversharing assorted daydreams and other minutae. Ryan Adams found the introspective side of Taylor Swift; Jeff Tweedy discovered new ways to express vulnerability. We got to hear Bob Dylan chasing alternative musical platforms for some of his most trenchant songs. Alabama Shakes arrived at a maelstrom of sound to amplify the tension embedded in frontwoman Brittany Howard’s intense argument-in-progress lyrics (which were even more sharply rendered on her side project Thunderbitch.) The interior “life of the mind” stuff defined Joanna Newsome’s austere and hypnotic Divers and governed deep, album-length explorations of unsettling mood from Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey. While we’re at it, the sterling moments of the year’s most acclaimed album, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, held rhymes about the challenges of defining the self in an environment defined by indifference and information overload.
There was plenty of storytelling from instrumentalists as well. Those who think we’ve heard every possible approach to the electric guitar should seek out the first record in 15 years from DJ/producer St. Germain – which turns on the jaw-droppingly inventive contributions of Malian guitarist Guimba Kouyate. And also World’s Fair, the sly, meditative solo work from Julian Lage. Then, to be reminded just how malleable a song can be, check Brad Mehldau’s lush Ten Years Solo Live, which includes transfixing live explorations of popular songs and rock evergreens, including an epic expansion of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”
In no particular order….
Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color
The Arcs: Yours, Dreamily
Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free
Julian Lage: World’s Fair
Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
Brad Mehldau: Ten Years Solo Live
Joanna Newsome: Divers
St. Germain: St. Germain
Tame Impala: Currents
Wilco: Star Wars
AND A FEW MORE…
Ibeyi: Ibeyi; The Bad Plus Joshua Redman; Dan Mangan: Club Meds; Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon; Original Broadway Cast Recording: Hamilton; Ryan Adams: 1989; The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness; Bob Dylan: The Cutting Edge (Bootleg Series Vol. 12); Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear; Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit; Weather Report: The Legendary Live Tapes.
When the jazz guitarist Johnny Smith died last month at the age of 90, obituaries told of a career spent mostly in a willful semi-obscurity, then focused on two compositions – his cover of the ballad “Moonlight in Vermont,” which was a left-field jazz hit in 1952, and his original “Walk Don’t Run,” which became a big hit when covered by surf-rock kingpins The Ventures in 1959.
That’s the highlight reel. A multi-instrumentalist, Smith began his career in the trumpet section of the NBC Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, and picked up extra work in New York by playing jazz on guitar. Eventually that became his full-time job; before leaving New York in 1958 for family reasons, Smith put together a string of remarkable small-group recordings, showcases for his fluid technique and impossibly warm guitar tone. Some of these titles are hard to find, but a few, including the Moonlight in Vermont session featuring Stan Getz, endure as chamber-jazz classics, notable for their intricate ensemble passages and apt, lyrical solos. (According to legend, Herbie Hancock’s first exposure to jazz came with this record.) Smith was one of those improvisors who could play anything but almost always exercised restraint; his light, uptempo bebop-influenced solos (see “Where or When”) have a crisp, placid feel, as though he’s thinking, note by note, about not overloading the rhythm. His ballad playing (“Embraceable You”) is equally thoughtful, exhibiting not just genius note choices but an uncanny sense of nuance and texture.
A playlist devoted to some of Smith’s gems is available here.
In the annual exchange of New Year well-wishes, several friends have expressed the hope that in 2013, the fortunes of the music business will turn for the better. I’d like that too. I’m not optimistic though. Not simply because of the reams of data suggesting that in the future it’s going to be more difficult, not easier, for creators to be paid for their work. Or flaws in the delivery systems, or anything structural like that. (Right on time, Lefsetz checks in with one of his pithy and incredibly insightful Top Ten Issues lists, it’ll probably post on http://lefsetz.com/wordpress/ soon….)
I’m beginning to think that the only meaningful way to change the climate surrounding music is to focus, at least a little, on the listener. The arrogant, over-indulged, everything-all-the-time consumer who has learned, over several generations now, that his taste is king, his playlists are all that matter. The listener who dashes off the minute something is too intense, or weepy or in some way challenging to his/her sensibility. It’s a question of receptivity: Talk with enough recording artists, and a frequent lament has to do with how people “don’t give unfamiliar music much of a chance.” Obviously this is a sweeping generalization; plenty of people do it, every day. But there’s a truth in there – about how narrow the window for charming people has become, and how reluctant listeners are to actually immerse themselves in things that don’t enchant them immediately. It’s a game of seconds and nano-seconds now. No matter that lots of music of significance doesn’t thrive in that framework; one’s ears need to “orient” to it, and often the first encounter is a frustrating one. Who has time to go back and revisit anything?
The choices are now all instant. Which means the reactions can be instant; no need to wait for the end of a bothersome song, as in radio days, to be entertained. We are in control now. No waiting for the serendipitous discovery to beam in from a distant tower in the wilderness. We search with the knowledge that bliss is a click away. Bliss our way, unmediated, no filters. Which, hey, that’s all fine. No judging here. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if part of what we long for when we talk about some sort of “rebound” for music has to do with the music itself – the respect (or indifference) we accord it, the value we assign it, the time and attention we devote to puzzling out its mysteries.
As news of the R.E.M. breakup traveled around the web yesterday, one recurring comment I read on Facebook and Twitter went something like this: “About time! Should have happened twenty years ago!”
I’m no big admirer of the later studio recordings of the band from Athens – I’ve argued that the “rock” leaning efforts since Monster (1994) are plagued by an abundance of calculation and, at times, a troubling absence of the loose renegade spirit that drove the early works.
But as one who covered just about every album and tour (starting sometime in 1984), I object to those posts and the glib dismissal of a long career. First because fans and critics don’t – and shouldn’t – get a say in the “calling it quits” decision. Had R.E.M. actually hung up the spikes twenty years ago, the band would not have issued Out of Time or Automatic For the People – two of its most cohesive full-album listening experiences.
There’s also this: Given the particular complementary talents of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, and the catalog they’ve created together, it’s completely unfair to judge them as “finished” – no matter how uninspired the last effort might have been. Most music critics, even ones known for their quick-trigger appraisals, try to approach every release with an open mind; the majority of them would invest time in listening to a new R.E.M. project. Not because the band was a commercial powerhouse and remains a viable “name act,” but because over and over again, for a really long time, R.E.M. offered up provocative, ear-stretching and often deeply moving music. Do that once and you’re an act to watch. Do that over and over, and you’ve got some mojo working. Mojo that commands at least an hour’s worth of respect.
Still, people slept on R.E.M. Some in the band’s fervent following bailed out when “Losing My Religion” became a huge hit. Some jumped even before that. It’s safe to say that even some of the diehards missed what I consider the last great R.E.M. effort – Up! from 1998.
The first record without original drummer Bill Berry, Up! is R.E.M. at its most lush and orchestral, with hints of Pet Sounds in the gilded vocal harmonies and a touch of Lou Reed (a recurring influence on Stipe) in the wonderfully maladjusted lyrics about loners, apologists and sad professors. Mid-tempo and often downcast, it’s a leap into an unknown sound-world – a place where half-crazed characters reveal themselves not in overt declarations, but in contrast to the mysterious, flat-out breathtaking accompaniment rising up around them. It’s also a clear evolutionary step from what the band had done before. It’s the great lost R.E.M. record; many listeners, critics and fans alike, had harsh words for it because it wasn’t in the style of Automatic For the People. Which is a shame. Nowadays, that intolerance is much more prevalent: Anyone with a twitter feed can pop off about any band. To those folks, I say this: Check out “Suspicion” or “You’re in the Air” and then explain to me why anyone other than the individuals who created this music should say when it’s time to stop.
Before twitter, before the status update, even before the annoying all-points email blast, there was the calendar listing — that short phrase describing a show or event, designed to be published in newspapers and other media. It still matters, incredibly. There are some who think the listings are the only reason print survives at all.
Why am I wasting precious Saturday time thinking about calendar listings?
(Hint: It’s not because I’m pining for the old days at the Miami Herald, where one of my jobs was to input the Movie Time Clock by hand, one theater and one film and one showtime at a time, my work supervised by a woman named Kathy Tune. Those were the thrills!)
No, it’s because on Monday I need to deliver a calendar listing about the Tuesday night jazz experiment at Milkboy downtown, which begins on September 27.
Oops I said “jazz.” Did I mean it? There are a bunch of highly skilled jazz musicians who would probably not include me in their ranks; sometimes invoking “jazz” invites a bit of scorn from the Jazz Police.
And at the same time, there are a bunch of people I’d like to share music with who don’t happen to know or care who played guitar on the sizzling Groove HolmesOn Basie’s Bandstandrecord (answer: Gene Edwards!). It’s not fun performing just for obsessives, and in a way, the minute you use the word “Jazz” in a calendar listing, you’re telling all the possibly-interested nonjazzheads out there to be a little bit wary — could be beret-wearing chin-stroking super-serious jazz listeners attending. There’s an argument to be made that categories describing music are meaningless, and that argument gains traction where jazz is concerned. Few terms of art lug around so much baggage.
So what to do?
My friend Aaron suggested we call it “The Tuesday Happening” and identify the artist as “Tom Moon and the Jazz Casualties.” After the great Ralph Gleason TV series Jazz Casual.
That’s our frontrunner in the “Name This Evening” competition.
We need a description that conveys, in just a few words, what listeners might expect. Please help, won’t you?
What do we call this weekly evening anchored by my quintet and featuring special guests from all corners of Philly music? There will be lots of improvising going on, but not always over jazz tunes — we’ve been playing a bunch of samba and some originals that don’t meet the Wynton Marsalis Industry Standard for jazz content.