Madlib/Donald Byrd: “Stepping into Tomorrow”/“Distant Land” (Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, 2003) plus more

For x-number of months I did a “Madlib” (on Madlib’s discography). With numerous interruptions, living my life, doing my work, listening to other music, I focussed my attention on trying to hear as much as I could of his music, across the various releases, genres, decades, inspirations. This partly reflects my OCD-aspect, the desire to hold onto an essence of something as a system, to see how it works together. When gaining knowledge, I like to be able to get a sense of how things fit, as if there’s always a broader logic waiting to be uncovered.

It also reflects the fact that this discovery came about via YouTube - a bossy task-mistress insisting on certain tracks, repeating them over and over as recommendations until I heard them. Many of these picks, coming from some algorithm consciousness were Madlib tracks, or Madlib associated projects. The process took on a life of its own and lasted for a while.

The process was also a way of assessing the constancy of my own preferences and tastes; as a barometer, litmus test. Allowing for diversity, among genres, but being constant within them. This sounds egotistical perhaps, but I think it’s useful for writers to be simple and upfront in terms of all this. It’s much more interesting (for me) to think about what this/that preference says about the person, rather than to hear aspects of autobiography in the critical appraisals, in that this music helped a writer psychologically, when they were down or something. (Let alone some writer presenting themselves as the arbiter of universal taste).

I really don’t trust this self-disclosure either. If, when you’re affected by something painful the last thing you’d want to do is listen to someone else go deep into their suffering. What you want is to forget. But this might again reflect something about the way I listen to music. There are plenty of songs that I might have listened to in bad times, but it wasn’t because I could relate to the lyrics, usually it was something about the quality of the sounds, or the voice of the singer.    

I sincerely believe that we are all predisposed to liking certain sounds, and this says something about ourselves and our histories. It’s as if these sounds click with something internal in us, as if making manifest something in our DNA. It’s not the music itself that we like, but how it activates something in us. This reaction does not have to be anything particularly deep, or representative of anything bigger (I’m with Cage here, a sound is a sound it does not have to mean anything).    

Throughout this “Madlib immersion”, I was surprised by something: I had thought that with my background listening to a lot of jazz over the decades, it would be the jazz-inspired Madlib work that would impress me most. What I found there – often, not always, was that this music seemed a little contained, as if he was self-conscious about his own debt, or admiration. This limited the achievement and squashed what makes Madlib’s music most interesting for me, the experimentation and freedom you can find there. Of course, there were exceptions, such as this:

This is an extraordinary piece of music, listen to the thwack of that bassline/drum interplay, something that has come back more recently in Madlib’s beats – see many of the Bad Neighbor instrumentals, for instance or the forthcoming Bandana album with Freddie Gibbs. Here, containment is a positive quality in itself: the way it simplifies the original melody from the 1975 album.

What’s striking is the way Madlib doesn’t use the trumpet line at all, or if he does it’s there as a detail, rather than the central focus. This is interesting and perverse (considering that it’s by Donald Byrd – why use the piece to ignore its central motif and the essence of its origins?) Madlib’s reworking simplifies it, makes it dense and uncomplicated.

The original piece was similarly simple – in its intention, but not its execution. Listening to it now, perhaps this is enhanced by my bad sound system, it’s all fluttery and high-end, wavery, which is attractive, but far removed from the way Madlib turned it into an almost late 70s disco-funk song.

The first piece from Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note that I was kind of obsessed with was “Distant Land” – now it feels like a photograph almost, it’s not so important to me. This is the one with the drums that break the music, sounding over-present, but also add to the overall feeling of naivety. Just over two minutes in, I liked the way the sounds separated from each other – becoming individualised, solitary elements on display – but what I really loved and still appreciate is the way you expect the trumpet to come back, again it’s Donald Byrd after all, but it doesn’t.

This is wonderful and strange; the entire piece seems to be so accessible (that boom bap type drum pattern etc) and then denies our expectations at the crucial moment. This appeals to me, I like this. Then, when the trumpet does return about a minute later, it’s so quiet, you can hardly hear it.

The original (unreleased) Donald Byrd piece from 1972 has a very distinctive quality, it sounds half-asleep, but the trumpet line as you’d expect is clear and prominent (unlike the way it was re-imagined by Madlib, three or so decades later):

Listening to the original Donald Byrd track now, after a few months from my previous time listening to it – I didn’t like it much before, it struck me as overly smooth, easy listening, lacking spirit - my instincts are proven right, as in expecting the trumpet to return or be more prominent in the Madlib version. The track follows a traditional jazz set up, two or perhaps more solos (what sounds like a vibraphone, then piano solo, there might be a solo before this) to return to the leader of the group on trumpet, in what is deeply satisfying, as expected. Byrd returns with a majestic half-solo around 5’30” (you can almost imagine the audience applause).    

There are other songs, which I might even like more than the two I’ve written about here, “Mystic Bounce” say or “Montara” but this writing is a good example of what I was mentioning at the outset. What you end up writing on often is different to what the original impulse was, for questions of ease or simplicity, or getting carried away with something. Rather than discussing the album in full, I’ll leave it there: two songs inspired by Donald Byrd. That makes sense.

This was meant to be an introduction to writing on some Madlib instrumentals, no problem, I’ll come back to them another time.     

Coda x 2: