Friday, July 10, 2020

CLIVE JAMES v MODERN JAZZ


The estimable James, novelist, poet, and critic, has an opinion on everything having to do with culture and the arts, and with Cultural Amnesia , an alphabetized collection of essays on the artists, poets, musicians, writers and film makers he feels we should be conversant in, lest we forget, get lazy, or simply stop giving a good goddamn of what brilliant men and women are trying to do. James does give a damn, fortunate for us, and sallies forth with learned and nuanced barbs, jibes, praise, and digressions that evince a mind that will not stay in one place long. His range 

is impressive, though some of his views are questionable, given to subjectively defined absolutes, such as his long essay on jazz composer and band leader Duke Ellington; James does an insightful reading of the master's body of work, but goes beyond his kiln expressing his dislike of the modernism that caught up with jazz improvisation, claiming, in effect, that the faster, more bracing innovations of Charlie Parker, Coltrane and Miles Davis destroyed the form. Rather than admit that any vibrant art changes with the younger stalwarts who take up it's practice, James would rather that his beloved idea of jazz, rhythmic, melodic, and danceable, was "dead". This is rather typical of the book, where one enters what they think is a discussion of an intriguing personality only to find that James has a grievance he wants to address, a score to settle. He goes off topic with the topic he selects.


A mind as expansive as James' seems to be wouldn't make such closed-source claim, and one gets the feeling as they progress through his pieces on painting, film, literature and the like that rather than attempt synthesis with his tastes, he's formed a template on each of his subjects, a prepared statement that he can repeat time and again, on command. Elsewhere, he shows a knack for leaving his ostensible subject altogether to consider a tangent that makes for a mystifying transition; his essay on film director Michael Mann turns into a muddied meditation on terrorism and relative morality of fighting the scourge with clandestine means. It's something worth discussing, I suppose, but one feels cheated at these times in not getting what James promised he'd discuss. There are other subjects one puzzles over, such as his inclusion and other wise bright essay on talk show host Dick Cavett; the issues he takes up in Cultural Amnesia’s alphabetized format is to have readers be confronted with cultural figure who are truly crucial in the advancing (or retardation) in the 20th century, but one wonders whether Cavett, despite his wit and skill as an interviewer, is among those who contributions mattered to the degree that James immortalizes him further. Cavett himself might well be embarrassed by the critic’s lavishing.A particular annoyance is his habit of showing his rather narrow take on some of the arts he covers, especially in his remarks concerning the respective bodies of work from jazz composer and band leader Duke Ellington and saxophonist John Coltrane.


John Coltrane's Testament to His “Spiritual Awakening” Still ...Typically British and marvelously intelligent, James' goal is not just to inform the uninitiated to new persons and their ideas, but also to provoke a conversation, perhaps controversy among the cognoscenti. He does this effectively on a recent excerpt on Duke Ellington; the essay reads well and describes the composer's particular genius for writing three minute swing masterpieces, not a point of contention. He then takes the dimmer view of Ellington's later work, when he was composing and performing longer concert pieces, a denser, less swinging arrangements of colors and moods. James is not happy with The Duke's efforts:



The ­art form he had done so much to enrich depended, in his view, on its entertainment value. But for the next generation of musicians, the ­art form depended on sounding like art, with entertainment a secondary consideration at best, and at worst a cowardly concession to be avoided. In a few short years, the most talented of the new jazz musicians succeeded in proving that they were deadly serious. Where there had been ease and joy, now there was difficulty and desperation. Scholars of jazz who take a developmental view would like to call the hiatus a transition, but the word the bebop literati used at the time was all too accurate: It was a revolution.


This isn't an unusual position, since critic Gary Giddins has written at length about why he considers Ellington's legacy resting not on denser, mature work in later years, but instead on the sheer wealth of shorter dance tunes he brought to light; all the invention one might wish in notation and sound are found in the work Ellington performed to keep America dancing. Yet Giddins admits the originality and greatness of much of the larger work, while James is harbors a resentment against the post-swing developments of Bebop complexity and post-Bop envelope-tearing improvisation of John Coltrane. Pretty much implying that one of the greatest betrayals against art was that of a younger generation of improvisers seeking ot expand jazz's lexicon, James cites with endearing relish the great Ben Webster's magical tenor work for Ellington against the wild man arrogance of a younger John Coltrane:


There is nothing to be gained by trying to evoke the full, face-­freezing, ­gut-churning hideosity of all the things Coltrane does that Webster doesn't. But there might be some value in pointing out what Coltrane doesn't do that Webster does. Coltrane's instrument is likewise a tenor sax, but there the resemblance ends. In fact, it is only recognizable as a tenor because it can't be a bass or a soprano: It has a tenor's range but nothing of the voice that Hawkins discovered for it and Webster focused and deepened. There is not a phrase that asks to be remembered except as a lesion to the inner ear, and the only purpose of the repetitions is to prove that what might have been charitably dismissed as an accident was actually meant. Shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals. Above all, and beyond all, there is no end to it. There is no reason except imminent death for the cacophonous parade to stop. The impressiveness of the feat depends entirely on the air it conveys that the perpetrator has devoted his life to making this discovery: Supreme mastery of technique has led him to this charmless demonstration of what he can do that nobody else can. The likelihood that nobody else would want to is not considered.


Jazz ought to have stood still.


The most noticeable element of this essay is Clive James' resentment that people and things change over time. Eloquent as he is about Ellington's great early period, there is less a convincing argument for the superiority of swing over more experimental strains of jazz than it is a barely contained lament for lost, youthful elan. As has been said already, the rhythms of the world changed after WW2, and the kids were taken with rock and roll's back beat rather than what was going on with jazz. Being able to swing was besides the point; the children of the Ellington era audience wanted to rock. The jubilation at the Ellington "comeback" concert was a good and great thing--good art should always cause excitement--but it didn't translate into the fabled return of the Big Band/Swing era. It's doubtful Ellington himself would have desired a return to the Golden Days, as he was far too interested in the new music he was composing and performing with his Orchestra. For such a bright fellow, Clive James has the queer notion that art, jazz in this instance, must not progress some vague peak of expression; band leaders should keep their writing chops focused on producing limitless three minute dance tunes, and soloists have to remain sweet, lyrical, and brief.Art is only interesting in that it evolves with successive generations of players, and it would be a strange and stale reading world if novelists adhered to perceived rules from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, or if film makers eschewed sound and color. Jazz would be a predictable shtick rather than a creative act.The truth of this is that audiences were turning away from jazz in general. Dispite whatever historic arguments advanced pitting traditionalists against experimenters in order to explain jazz's declining audience,both Ellington and Coltrane were both playing to diminished fan bases;the record buying public had gotten younger and leaned towards a simpler rhythm and blues style. This was true among black audiences, whose generational switch to Ray Charles, and Rufus Thomas influenced white audiences, resulting in the eventual rise of rock and roll. Everything gets displaced from the center. Clive James objects to both Ellington's widening ambition with his composing, recording and performance of longer concert pieces and to Coltrane's redefining what jazz improvisation could sound like. He seeks to locate the cause and the instance when jazz ceased being the world's all purpose sound track, and for as sweetly as he writes, seeks to attach blame. He forgets a crucial fact of being alive; things change


James is at his best when he finds the clay feet of cultural icon and then wields a sure hammer to smash some other wise sensitive toes, especially in the case of German Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Supported by the government to write his plays and poetry in furtherance of the revolution, James takes delight in detailing the jarring contrast between the man’s image, that as an artist who was “of the people”, and his lifestyle” which, as he describes it, was as bourgeois as any cigar chomping capitalist he might excoriate in his art. Brecht, though, was mindful to keep up appearances; he apparently had the tailor who made his silk shirts manufacture them so that they looked like the rough textured denim that was the requisite dress of proletariat intellectuals. As for Brecht’s art, which was considerable and deserving of analysis on it’s own terms, James skirts the issue altogether with summary dismissals worthy of Paul Johnson (Intellectuals) and dwells on the gossip, the dirt. In that regard, Cultural Amnesia is deep dish indeed.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

ABBERATION

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photo by Kristina Lopez
Often said by the squarest cubes in my circle of music absolutist that the Sex Pistol's abrasive gouging into the soft rock and arena thump of high volume bands (both in decibel and dollar amounts)was uncalled for, unneeded, a horrible aberration in the sounds of the century that should be forgotten quickly.I never thought the Sex Pistols weren't called for, as the pretentiousness of the musicians and the gullibility of the audience had choked off the life force that made rock and roll exciting and worth caring about. Some of it might be laid at the feet of rock criticisms since the advanced discussions of Dylan's relationship to Chuck Berry's every-man realist required musical technique and lyrical concept just as daunting. This is the danger when folk art is discovered: it stands to become something distorted, disfigured and bereft of vitality.
Sir Lord Baltimore - Encyclopaedia Metallum: The Metal Archives
Sir Lord Baltimore
 I was lucky, I guess, in that I was a fan of the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges long before the Sex Pistols caught the punk wave. They and bands like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath were a grounding principle--rock and roll is beautiful because it's energetic, awkward, and stupid, but profoundly so. There are "concept albums" I admire and still like, if not listen to, but I won't name them here. I am pleased, though, that the idea of the Album is a literary object has been dropped in a deep grave and had dirt thrown over it's bloated remains.I miss albums too. 

I like holding them, reading them, meditating on their physicality while listening to the record. It was part of the experience of absorbing what the musicians were doing, instrumentally and lyrically. Albums made you think that their size and shape were part of the home you made for yourself--house, room, cave, apartment--and that the collection of them, along with books and other such things marked your growing interest in the world around you. Now it seems like disembodied noise too much of the time, piped into devices, not really played nor considered before the music commences. It seems much of the time like a streaming hurry to get done with the whole thing and then move onto another distraction which, as well, will provide no real reward.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

JAZZ ROCK FOR A PANDEMIC


Image may contain: 1 person
Image may contain: 1 person"Devotion", I've been reminded, rocks hard and steps on the adjectival gas. This 1970 solo release from pioneer fusion guitarist John McLaughlin has gotten much play around here the last month as the seeming excessive requirement that we remain indoors and away from our neighbors has motivated me to scour my CD collection for items I haven't heard in years. 'Devotion" still gets it all in motion, a good thing indeed. It's rawness in guitar tone and it's rhythms so primal yet weirdly  effective in unexpected ways makes this early jazz-rock project still sound new, fresh, the beginning of something that hadn't existed before. This is way before jazz-rock became "fusion" and formalized as a style one could select to study and become a slick professional at. McLaughlin and company were still throwing things at the wall to see what stuck.Buddy Miles, of all people, acquits himself surprisingly as the session's designated "rock" drummer, though I wonder what the mix would have been like if it McLaughlin had Mitch Mitchell (or Ginger Baker) on hand. McLaughlin's guitar work is a wheezing grind and buzzing of devices and attachments, fuzz tones and foot pedals galore, and his riffs are choppy , sharp, angular. Larry Young is the textural component here, simply a genius on his outre minimalist take in a tradition still in the making. In the same vein, ":Live at Fillmore East"  by- Miles Davis Holds up amazingly considering the years that have passed since I've heard this. Davis's trumpet is bold , brassy, snarky and snaky all at once as he darts between, over and through the churning keyboard dialogues of Corea and Jarrett. Jack DeJohnette and Holland are a blistering rhythm section here; the drums and bass patterns achieve the impossible, maintaining a rock beat and firm bottom that avoids the supreme tedium lesser rhythm sections contrive. Part of the joy of this early electric jazz rock experiment are the lack of obvious heads or signature riffs that keep the music well mannered, orderly and constricted, as well as the loose ensemble fit . There are times that it seems the band is hopelessly lost in a riff fest, going toward the cliff at quick, shambling pace, but all that is deceptive; this a discipline with a different philosophy and use. This is a choice purchase.







Friday, May 22, 2020

KILL YOUR IDOLS


Phases & StagesI gave up hope for rock criticism developing into a respectable form of criticism when I realized that it was, for the most part, a pissing contest for most of the guys who decided to try their hand at it. For every Bangs and Young there were dozens of lesser lights who proved, at length, that they could make noise aplenty but offer little or no light on the subject. Much of it has to do with how well the current state of the music happens to be, of course, but pop music criticism did come to the point where everyone was recycling what everyone had already written, and the two trajectories being offered readers by the end of the seventies was incomprehensible Greil Marcus/Dave Marsh obscurantism, which insisted that the music they listened to in college dorms was the Spenglarian peak of civilization and that every note played afterwards was an inferior facsimile of the authentic , or the knee jerk Bangs imitations where wave after wave of typing nitwits missed out on Lester’s capacity for feeling deep emotion and his brand of self-criticism and instead freight us with jabbering sarcasm by the car load. Jim DeRogatis , rock critic for various outlets , author of the Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt, rounded up a slew of younger, Generation X pop writers and invited them to select a classic rock album, an album, by consensus, considered to be Canonical and there for unarguably great and then to debunk an older generation of critics’ claim for the lasting greatness of those records. It’s an interesting idea, I admit, but the result, an anthology called Kill Your Idols is a miserably strident , one note mass of pages dedicated to puerile dismissals of a lot of good, honest music. “Snotty” doesn’t do that particular disaster justice.

The problem with the generation of rock critics who followed the late Lester Bangs was that too many of them were attempting to duplicate Bangs’ signature and singular ability to write movingly about why rock and roll stars make terrible heroes. Like many of us, Bangs became disillusioned with rock and roll when he discovered that those he admired and was obsessed by — Lou Reed, Miles Davis, and Black Sabbath — were not saints. The discovery of their clay feet, their egos and the realization that rock and roll culture was a thick cluster of bullshit and pretentiousness didn’t stymie Bangs’ writing. It, in fact, was the basis of Bangs transcending his own limits and finding something new to consider in this. Sadly, he died before he could enter another great period of prose writing. Kill Your Idols, edited by Jim DeRogatis, is an anthology that is intended, I suspect to be the Ant- Stranded, the Greil Marcus edited collection where he commissioned a number of leading pop music writers and asked them to write at length about what one rock and roll album they would want to be left on a desert island with; it’s not a perfect record — then New York Times rock critic John Rockwell chose Back in the USA by Linda Ronstadt and couldn’t mount a persuasive defense of the disc — but it did contain a masterpiece by Bangs, his write up of Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks. His reading of the tune “Madame George” is a staggering example of lyric empathy, a truly heroic form of criticism. Kill Your Idols”, in reverse emulation, assigns a group of younger reviewers who are tasked with debunking the sacred cows of the rock and roll generation before them; we have, in effect, pages full of deadening sarcasm from a crew who show none of the humor or sympathy that were Bangs best qualities. Bangs, of course, was smart enough not to take himself too seriously; he knew he was as absurd as the musicians he scrutinized.
“Kill Your Idols” seemed like a good idea when I bought the book, offering up the chance for a younger set of rock critics to give a counter argument to the well made assertions of the essayists from the early Rolling Stone/Crawdaddy/Village Voice days who’s finely tuned critiques gave us what we consider now to be the Rock Canon. The problem, though, is that editor Jim DeRogatis didn’t have that in mind when he gathered up this assortment of Angry Young Critics and changed them with disassembling the likes of Pink Floyd, The Beatles, the MC5; countering a well phrased and keenly argued position requires an equally well phrased alternative view and one may go so far as to suggest the fresher view point needs to be keener, finer, sharper. DeRogatis, pop and rock music critic for the Chicago Sun Times, author of the estimable Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt, had worked years ago as record review editor of Rolling Stone and found himself getting fired when he couldn’t abide by publisher Jan Wenner’s policy of not giving unfavorable reviews to his favorite musicians.
His resentment toward Wenner and Rolling Stone’s institutional claims of being a power broker as far as rock band reputations were concerned is understandable, but his motivation is more payback than substantial refutation of conventional wisdom. The Angry Young Critics were too fast out of the starting gate and in a collective haste to bring down the walls of the Rock Establishment wind up being less the Buckley or the Vidal piercing pomposity and pretension than , say, a pack of small yapping dogs barking at anything passing by the back yard fence. The likes of Christgau, Marcus and Marsh provoke you easily enough to formulate responses of your own, but none of the reviews have the makings of being set aside as a classic of a landmark debunking; there is not a choice paragraph or phrase one comes away with.Even on albums that I think are over-rated, such as John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, you think they’re hedging their bets; a writer wanting to bring Lennon’s post-Beatles reputation down a notch would have selected the iconic primal scream album Plastic Ono Band (to slice and dice. But the writers here never bite off more than they can chew; sarcasm, confessions of boredom and flagging attempts at devil’s advocacy make this a noisy, nit picky book whose conceit at offering another view of Rock and Roll legacy contains the sort of hubris these guys and gals claim sickens them. This is collection of useless nastiness, a knee jerk contrarianism of the sort that one over hears in bookstores between knuckle dragging dilettantes who cannot stand being alive if they can’t hear themselves bray. Yes, Kill Your Idols is that annoying,  an intriguing project that succeeds in being a smug irritation.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

LESLIE WEST PLAYS GUITAR WITH YOUR FACE



Mountain - Flowers Of Evil | Releases | Discogs
Mountain is one of my favorite bands of all time, Leslie West is one of my top 3 rock guitarists, and FLOWERS OF EVIL, THEIR 3rd studio record, changed a good part of my listening preferences as regards the four chord beauty hard rock provides. The album has a a studio side, which resolutely blows due mostly to the lyrics of Gail Collins, wife to and murderer of bassist Felix Papalardi; her rhymes seem nothing less than a botched combination of Harry Chapin and the vacuous spiritualism of Jon Anderson, with strong doses of Dungeons and Dragons poured into the wretched mix to further enhance the gag reflex. This disc changed my life for side two, the live side, which , to my mind, is a as fine and as well played, on its down terms, as any live album I've purchased . Recorded at the Fillmore East in NYC in 1971. It is one of the great moments of Hard Rock guitar, with a great, lumbering riff that distorts and buzzes on the low strings with crushing bends and harmonics squealing at some raging pitch that might make one think of natural calamity, a force that cannot be withstood. West, never the most fluid guitarist, had, all the same, a touch, a feel, a sense of how to mix the sweet obbligato figures he specialized in with the more brutal affront of power chords and critically nasty riffing. The smarter among us can theorize about the virtues of amplified instrumentation attaining a threshold of sweetness after the sheer volume wraps you in a numbing cacophony, but for purposes here it suffices to say, with a wink, that is a kind of music you get and accept on its own truncated terms, or ignore outright. There is an aesthetic at work here, but it might as well come to saying that you had to be me, at my age, in 1971 when I was struck by this performance to understand a little of why I haven't tossed the disc into the dustbin. He is in absolute control of his Les Paul Jr., and here he combines with bassist Felix Pappalardi and drummer Corky Laing in some theme and variation that accomplishes what critic Robert Christgau has suggested is the secret of great rock and roll music, repetition without tedium. There are no thousand-note blitzkriegs, no tricky time signatures, just tight playing, a riffy, catchy, power-chording wonder of rock guitar essential-ism. I've been listening to this track on and off since I graduated from high school, and it cracks me up that my obsession with this particular masterpiece of rock guitar minimalism caused a number of my friends to refer to me listening yet again to my personal "national anthem." I might have even lit a Bic lighter for this tune.

FRANK ZAPPA THOUGHT YOU WERE AN IDIOT AND YET YOU BOUGHT ALL HIS ALBUMS

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, along with King Crimson, are my two favorite bands from the "prog rock" school of making things busy, although my appreciation of both bands is that they are both outliers from the form. Before anyone was aware of it, there seemed to be a dozen bands that sounded like Yes, ELP and Genesis, so many of them with similar riffs, oddly regimented time signatures, fantasy, sci-fi or cosmic muffin levels of grandiose lyric baiting. I admit the truly committed prog partisans could tell the difference, as could I in most blindfold tests, but the really issue was what exactly the point of all that repetition of effort was. The answer was clear, which was sales of  records and tickets, no less than the disco movement. It wasn't all mercenary , as it's unlikely anyone begins to play music of any kind without a love of making instruments produce sweet sounds, but the idea was that prog rock was selling and that despite the protests that maintain that it was a new art form, or a natural expression from musicians who'd grown up listening to the refined stuff, which  it was in both cases, choosing to be in a prog band was a commercial move, not an artistic one. 

Zappa and KC, though, had other things in mind, a certain kind of monomania that made the music, morphing, argumentative, diverse and truly "out there" in both bands, than anything else. Weasels Rip my Flesh is my favorite Mothers/Zappa release simply because it pretty highlights the leader's astounding range, from gritty atonal classicism, free jazz cacophony, old school rhythm and blues, electronic skroinksterism  and a good amount of Zappa's flying dagger guitar improvisation.  It's a resume album, you might say, a release of what had not made it yet to album release, outtakes they used to call them, music from both studio sessions and live dates sublimely edited together in such a way that it becomes a jaw dropping realization that the styles and moods this record masterfully presents, the crankiest avant garde experimentation coexisting with humdinger fanfares,  an obstacle course of rapid and bizarre meter changes, the sustained scream of a deranged arrangement for reed instruments, you begin, perhaps, to appreciate the genius Frank Zappa was. "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask", "Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue," "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama", "Oh No"--these titles provide a good idea as to the peculiar landscape that is Zappa's imagination, which is satirical, vulgar, entirely surreal using the commodities of consumer capitalism to poke a sharp sick into the vulnerable and obese sides of  our collective American fetishism for gadgets, fads and trends. 

An admirable facet of Zappa's work as a librettist is that he has no interest in creating poetic/philosophical/spiritual constructs that operate as Fire Exits for the consumer who wants a safe space for his psyche to believe, however fleetingly, that everything is okay and that he's doing just fine. No such luck, as Brother Zappa distorts the chaos you're already in and aware of and makes it his goal to give you the shock of recognition. That is , what am I laughing at?  With the disconcerting variety and collision-course eclecticism  the Mothers of Invention so brilliantly maintained, it would seem to have been Zappa's goal to shame a few folks in his audience, at least, to recognize the softness of their thinking , turn off the TV and get a library card.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

MITCH RYDER SOUNDED LIKE A WET RUBBER GLOVE BEING TURNED INSIDE OUT WHEN HE SANG

Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels were a great, blistering rhythm and blues unit from the Sixties, with inspired, pumped up hits like "Good Golly Miss Molly/Jenny Take a Ride", "Sock it to Me Baby", and "Devil in a Blue Dress". Ryder had an unbelievably limited voice, perpetually hoarse, rasping, cracked and textured like old sandpaper: not suitable for more melodic fair, but perfect for the kind of Stax/Volt gospel shouting style that the band was influenced by, a sound where holy rapture was supplanted by a condensed and amplified eroticism.The music was climaxing from the start, and every element, from the punchy piano chords, shotgun drum reports and open-wound guitar vamps underscoring the brilliantly realized desperation in Ryders' grunting, coughing, phlegm-coated singing style. This was the testimony of a man who knew he was down to the last seconds of the time he was allowed to plead his case. This is Love-As-Cardiac Arrest.After the break up of the Wheels, little of what Ryder did was compelling. He did a solo turn on the hoary "What Now My Love", backed by over-the-top orchestration that tried to legitimize the brave but sad efforts of Mitch trying to hit and hold the right notes of the melody. An album recorded in Memphis yielded mixed results, hardly funky. He had another band called Detroit that had one album and a minor hit with Lou Reeds' "Rock and Roll".Later, an interesting turn. He released an album called, I believe, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation". It was all about buggery, and God bless him