70s

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:

“You Can Win”/”Let’s Go” Bileo 7” (M.T.U/Watts City Records, 1979) remix & more

Not much information on Bileo – Bill Williams, Bobby Love, Joe Farnis, horn arr: Maceo Jackson – other than the group released two singles, this being one of them. The single was re-issued by Athens of the North in 2014. As the promo material for the re-issue states the single sells itself, the song too writes itself; it’s all there, the message of uplift and continuation. It’s a lovely thing.

Movin' up now
To higher ground now
Can use my stride! (?)
When I get there, yeah
I'm gonna smile now
Cause I'll be high!
High on love
That's all I need, yeah
To make my day!
I am happy
Happy now I'm
I'm on my way!

You can be there
If you want to, yeah...
You can be there
If you want to, yeah...

Another track credited to Bill William’s Bileo’s lead vocalist (under the name Bill Williams & Billeo is “Robot People” out on WCM, 1983), probably only of real interest for those seeking to “complete their collection.”

Ditto for another Bill Williams’s track: “Things WIll Be Better Tomorrow,” also from 1983. That said, this remix of “You Can Win” - Dorsi Plantar’s French Kiss Edit – is great:

Versions: Randy Weston "Ganawa (Blue Moses)" - 1972, 1991, 2006, 2013, plus interviews & live performances

“Mozart belongs to me, Dizzy Gillespie belongs to me. There’s no separation because each are geniuses and through music they described where they live. I love Russian music, with Stravinsky you hear the spirit of the people, so if we look at music as one, which I do, we have a lot to learn.”

Randy Weston, Interview - 50th Montreux Jazz Festival 2016



“In 1969, two years after relocating from Brooklyn to Tangier, Morocco, Randy Weston, then 43, attended a Lila—a Gnawa spiritual ceremony of music and dance—that transformed his consciousness and changed his life. In a remarkable chapter of his autobiography, African Rhythms (co-authored with Willard Jenkins), Weston recounted that although Gnawan elders, concerned for a non-initiate’s well-being, were reluctant to allow him to attend the all-night affair, he persisted, telling them that “perhaps the spirits [were] directing me to do this.” As has often happened during the iconic pianist-composer’s long career, he charmed them into seeing things his way.

Gnawa cosmology applies a different color—and a different rhythm and song—to each deity, and at a certain point during the proceedings, the musicians played dark blue for “the sky spirit with all that the sky represents—greatness, beauty, ambiguity, etc.” Weston’s “mind had been blown.”  Invited back the following night “to experience the color black,” he declined. Later, Gnawas with knowledge of these things told Weston that he had found his color.

“I’m not an ethnomusicologist or a spiritualist, but when you’re with these people long enough you don’t laugh at this stuff,” Weston wrote. How else to explain why Weston entered a two-week trance? “I was physically moving and otherwise going through my normal life, but I was in another dimension because this music was so powerful,” he explained. “Imagine hearing the black church, jazz, and the blues all at the same time.”

Ted Panken, “For Randy Weston’s 89th Birthday, A Recent DownBeat article (2015)


“Ganawa (Blue Moses)” Blue Moses, CTI, 1972

“Twilight Song” Charlie Haden/Kenny Barron (Night and the City, Verve, 1998) plus “Sunshower” versions

Label: Verve/ Released: 1998/Genre: Jazz/Style: Easy Listening

“The third in a series of Charlie Haden duet projects for Verve in the 1990s finds the increasingly nostalgia-minded bass player working New York City's Iridium jazz club with pianist Kenny Barron. Moreover, it is entirely possible that we are getting a skewed view of the gig; according to Haden, he and his co-producer wife Ruth tilted this album heavily in the direction of romantic ballads, eliminating the bebop and avant-garde numbers that the two may have also played at the club. Be that as it may, this is still a thoughtful, intensely musical, sometimes haunting set of performances, with Barron displaying a high level of lyrical sensitivity and Haden applying his massive tone sparingly. Most of the seven tracks are fantasias on well-known standards, although one of the most eloquent performances on the disc is Barron's playing on his own "Twilight Song." If Haden deliberately set out to create a single reflective mood, he certainly succeeded, although those coming to Haden for the first time through this and most of his other '90s CDs would never suspect that this man once played such a fire-breathing role in the jazz avant-garde.”

AllMusic review, Richard S.Ginnel

What saves this music, or transforms it, elevates it above any designation as “easy listening” are the instances where Kenny Barron toughens his performance by introducing a kind of syncopated groove. This happens just after 5’30” then about a minute later and finally around 11’20”. Those brief shifts remind me of earlier pianists, earlier recordings and historical moments now passed, thus enforcing the piece’s nostalgic mood. Pianists such as Art Tatum or Duke Ellington shielding their less virtuosic selves, when they keep it still and quiet (with constant sparks of brilliance and surprise).

The way the music returns after the bass solo too is a moment of pure understated loveliness, as are the opening and closing sections.

A lot of contemporary (pop-inflected) music is said to reference Satie, perhaps wanting to connect with his music’s unadulterated melody without understanding the way he radically upturned previous tradition, blending high/low culture (let alone his eccentric, even odd theories and behaviour). John Cage cited him as a key, “indispensable” influence, as did other key members of the twentieth century US. avant-garde, while Ravel called his music “brilliant and clumsy.” See this 2015 article from the Guardian by Meurig Bowen on Satie’s later, more revolutionary music and then another article one year later marking the 150th anniversary of his birth. I thought about Satie when listening to this piece – the opening, closing - but also in the way the music encourages us to look beyond the liminal sweetness. A lot of the most popular jazz, even that by great artists – see Chet Baker – appears to be surface-only, pretty and diversionary, but here in those brief instances Barron signals other forms of Black American music and thus adds depth. Breaking the music down, making it emblematic.

The piece was recorded at the Iridium Room Jazz Club In 1996, a place that according to Wik was: “a basement room below the Merlot restaurant across from Lincoln Center; it initially booked "traditional, swinging jazz musicians of the second or third level"; Ronald Sturm, the club's manager and booker, told The New York Times his goal was to "hire people like the trumpeter Marcus Printup, or Cyrus Chestnut or Carl Allen"— the goal was to give a chance to "younger, mainstream musicians while still booking the legends."

Here’s a performance of Kenny Barron’s famous song “Sunshower” (solo piano), apologies about the amateur fan/listener video:

that became a standard covered by so many prominent jazz musicians, Ron Carter on his 1977 Piccolo LP among others and was first released on Sonny Fortune’s Awakening album in 1975. This is a beautiful performance, with Barron playing his composition, especially the final two minutes with that hard to place echoing sound. (Alto saxophone, flute, claves, shaker – Sonny Fortune piano – Kenny Barron bass – Wayne Dockery drums – Billy Hart. Recorded September 9, 1975 at Sound Ideas, New York City).

And the Kenny Barron recording in his own name from his Innocence LP three years later.

“Hop Special (Whiter Shade of Pale),” Roland Alphonso prod. Derrick Morgan, 7” (Pyramid, 1968) w/Alton Ellis, Pat Kelly & Lynn Taitt & The Jets plus more

“Roland’s flavor was one of the first tastes of the nation’s emerging musical identity. His saxophone sounds shaped Jamaican music at its “Boogie Shuffle” inception and into Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae.”

Brian Keyo, “Rolando Alphonso, 1931-1998 - A Remembrance of The Chief Musician, SoulVendors.com, 2003(?)

Embedded in this version of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by the artist dubbed “The Chief Musician” of Jamaica, Roland Alphonso is the alchemy that so often defines essential recordings in any genre: the fusion of the individual artist’s spirit, with history, the expression of a clear voice that is enhanced by echoes of the past.

This performance, or interpretation remains open, expressing vulnerability where contrasts can co-exist. There is something both melancholy and stirring about this music, from the very opening moments, in its purposefully naive interpretation of the extremely famous song. My use of the word “naive” is not a criticism, but quite the reverse, as I have never liked the Procol Harum original – here is a video of a 1968 live performance - that was a massive hit (winning a Grammy, reaching first place on the UK charts, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide), but I love the Roland Alphonso version and some other reggae takes, also included here.

Some have said that the Procol Harum song is the most popular/best/greatest British song of all time, sharing the honour with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody: two songs notable for their inclusion of the word “fandango” in their lyrics. The original may, or may not borrow from the second movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, one of the group’s song-writers, Allan Moore has said that there is “a certain family resemblance” that “creates the sense of [Bach’s] music but no direct quotation. (The music also borrows ideas from "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge, apparently).

Here is a truly beautiful performance of the Bach piece by the Mito Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa from 1990. I realise that the video might be a bit distracting, to get a sense of the wonder of the performance it might be best to listen to the music without it. Notice how the musicians allow the music to stay still at certain moments, allowing the music to rest before returning to the fold.

Versions: “Never let go”/”Forever and Always” Carlton and the Shoes, prod. Coxsone Dodd (Studio One, 7” 1968?) live performance & more

You are just my … cup of tea/You are everything to me ...


Surely one of the greatest dub reggae love songs, or love songs of any genre; each time I hear the way Carlton Manning sings his vocal part, enclosed by the supporting harmonies that creates a kind of claustrophobic intensity, it kills me, just a little bit.

Lyrically, musically in terms of its overall tone, its production vision, few songs come close. Certainly there are other reggae vocalists who have comparable talent as singers, but this song - largely thanks to the Coxsone Dodd production sound (listen to the unexpected hidden-away drums that only appear sometimes, after introducing the song so confidently) has an otherworldly mood all of its own.

There are so many elements to highlight: to take one the pause after “my” for no apparent reason other than to draw attention to the “cup of tea” in the sweet couplet: You are just my … cup of tea/You are everything to me ...

Released by Studio 1 as the AA-side (not B-side) of his hit, “Love Me Forever,” one of reggae’s foundational songs -

(the info linked to the Soul Jazz reissue from 2017 supplies a different release date) produced by Coxsone Dodd (Carlton Manning says that Dodd underpaid artists - he was also given £ 5 by Lee “Scratch” Perry in another context - see the interview below, causing him to move on).

On YouTube there are two versions of the song with this title that sound dramatically different; here is the second. I’m not sure if the difference in sound relates to different versions/recording sessions, or the way they’ve been uploaded online. The track’s muffled quality disappears in the second, which is a shame as this submerged quality is what distinguishes it and makes it so affecting.

Countless capital-R romantic Lovers rock songs, deep on melody were recorded in Jamaica in the 1960s on, but usually the tone of the songs is clear with the vocals the dominant element, just like a pop song. The tone shifting between upbeat, mournful or threatening (warning the departed lover how much she’ll miss him now she has left him) - think about the catalogue of Ken Boothe or Honey Boy.

In contrast, this song has such a dense sound with that over-exaggerated bassline taking prominence over the guitars, drums and pulsing with such an intensity. Basslines in dub are often key – exposed and allowed to be the sole element – but the way this song is recorded/mixed makes it sound as if the bass is distorted, it’s so prominent, relentless and constant. The contrast between it and the sweet vocals is really something.

Similarly, the track’s intensity comes from not only the bringing the vocals right at the top and the way they are recorded: Carlton Manning sings the beginning of each line alone, to be joined for the latter part by the other vocalists. This is strikingly different from many/most reggae songs, which depend on a call & response dynamic between the vocalists, where the singer is “met” by another voice, and often one of a contrasting character for contrast, effect and frequently humour. (This use of contrast between voices and parts continues on in hip-hop, of course).

To stay with the way the vocals come in so early, just before 15 seconds: this is the signature of other famous dub/reggae songs say The Congos’ “Fisherman” from Heart of the Congos, released in 1977 on Blood & Fire Records:

But here the singer/backing vocalists interaction is maintained, so it’s not exactly the same as “Never let go” and is generally more conventional despite the beginning (and extraordinary sound). Listening to the Carlton & The Shoes song it’s almost as if Dodd is not only recording it, but imagining this song with vocals as if it were an instrumental, with no space between the two principal elements as is normally the case, i.e. no separation between the vocals and the music. This strikes me as innovative, forward-thinking.

Other groups - recordings from the same year, see this cover by The Gaylads/Soul Vendors of “Sound of Silence” also on Studio 1 and produced by Dodd- follows a more familiar pop song structure, allowing the song to build first:

The performance here is wonderful and has that submerged-production, which might be the defining quality of Coxsone’s work at this time, but sounds old-fashioned compared to the Carlton & The Shoes song. To get a sense of how Coxsone Dodd’s production style is so distinctive, check out this much cleaner cover by Roland Alphonso.

I like the muted vocals in this version of the song, the way Carlton Manning sounds distracted and preocuppied and the dub.

The extended version above is credited as having the Family as producer, the overall feel is less intense, more sweetly melodic than the one by Coxsone Dodd with the emphasis on on the horns solo - it more predictable and pretty, but still nice, the very simple dub especially.

In a 2016 interview with Angus Taylor for unitedreggae.com Manning shared stories about Dennis Brown, their trip to London that Brown organised where Manning had to keep returning to the airport to get visa extensions so he could remain in the U.K. and how his group got its name.

How did your original name Carlton and the Shades become Carlton and the Shoes?

Let me see. I have a problem with shoes. I have a disease when it comes to shoes. The most expensive things, raiments I wear, are my shoes. I will pay any amount of money for a good pair of shoes if I like it. I’m going to tell you something – Clarks Shoes are the most comfortable shoes you will ever find. You look at the bottom of that there and you see “Wallabee Clarks” right there. I love Clarks. I like to be comfortable. When I was in the studios working, every time the song is finished and everybody has gone to the console room, I get my guitar case and get my duster and I am dusting off my shoes. I like to see them nice and shiny.

That’s what Coxsone noticed. I told him Carlton and the Shades. Well, at that time there was a singing group named the Shades. To be truthful I wasn’t penetrating that. But because of that fussiness about the shoes Coxsone put “Carlton and his Shoes!” I was mad about it for a while but it caused one thing where everybody wanted to know who was Carlton and the Shoes. I just resigned to it. Everybody was calling me Mr Shoes, Daddy Shoe, Uncle Shoe, Fada Shoe. That’s what they called me since then. I kind of got used to it.

Anywhere you go on Mountain View Avenue ask “Where Shoe live?” Just say “Shoe” and they’ll tell you “Jus down the round there”. If you say “Shoe” you’re going to find me. A lot of people might not know who you’re talking about if you ask for Carlton Manning but if you say “Carlton Shoe”? Everybody knows where Shoe is!

In praise of: Havoc/Mobb Deep (“Apostle’s Warning,” Hell on Earth, Loud Records, 1996), notes towards an essay, part 1*

Exiting the office to rue de la Chapelle, near Marx-Dormoy on the city’s northern edge, I notice the drop in the weather. Even if the change won’t last and the unseasonable sunshine will soon return, I’m happy to see the “grey” that Henry Miller once wrote is full of meaning for a French person, or Parisian.

Mobb Deep instrumentals capture the constricted atmosphere of Paris for me, even if the music is indelibly tied to its city of origins, New York. This is music for Paris when it’s cold, not raining so much as cold; the chill that comes in through badly sealed windows of (my) our apartment/s, entering our bones as we wait outside. It’s music of faces in my neighbourhood, in and around Château-Rouge and Barbès, immigrant locations where the hotels advertise the fact that they have rooms with hot running water, shared showers in the hall.

I’m writing this fully aware that no other group better conveys the essence of the city New York in the 90s than Mobb Deep. If you wanted to re-visit that era in a social or psychological sense, this music takes you there. Mobb Deep’s music lets you feel what it was like in the city and boroughs, to imagine what it was like walking around the streets, steam spiralling up from the lower depths of the subway.

And as with any great art, this music while individual is part of a continuum. Listening to the “Apostle’s Warning” instrumental, I hear Lou Reed’s skittish ad libs during 70s live performances, spiking a vein, pulling a tourniquet sharp by his teeth, and the dense wash of Suicide: it’s punk-ish, unreconstructed, keeping things hidden, below the water-mark. The precise becomes universal. Music which represents New York comes to evoke Paris in the imagination of an Australian and so it goes.

This is the music of big cities, weighed down by history, where our shadows and ghosts co-exist.

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Related article: “Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017)/”Up North Trip” (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995) published 21st June, 2017

"Sundance" - an essay on Jeanne Lee

We’re talking about our work at a roof-top bar in the 11th arrondissement where you can see Sacré-Coeur in the distance. The woman teases me with light humour and kindness about the emphasis of my writing; she says that she plans on returning to Senegal, the country where her father was born to find work in an organisation that makes connections between Dakar and Paris. Recently she says she attended a conference about “women in jazz.” No, no, she says laughing in response to the expression on my face, it was interesting, really. 

"Jazz is a music that combines so many opposites ... You have to find that balance, then you have a guideline between freedom and discipline, between rhythm and melody, between body and spirit, between mind and instinct."

"I feel the music like a dance, I think it's an important part of the music, it has to be felt like a dance."

Jeanne Lee  

 

Few jazz singers, or singers of any genre, could capture the same emotional depth with such ease, as self-described "a jazz singer, poet/lyricist, composer/improvisor” Jeanne Lee who died aged 61 in Mexico, 2000. Compassion, tenderness, levity and freedom can be heard in her voice. More than anything else, even from her earliest recordings and performances with Ran Blake in the 1960s, Jeanne Lee sounds at peace with herself.

Recently I’ve been ruminating about how our sense of our own identities as women, even as the years pass, is shaped by how we see ourselves in relation to others, how we think about ourselves in terms of how others see us (self as performance, performance as self). I am grateful to Jeanne Lee for the way she seems to have found a way through all this, as an artist she sounds free.

None of this was by chance. Lee’s artistry emanated from her conscious exploration of the limits and potential of performance and improvisation, to give voice to her musical gift and experience as an artist and as a Black woman in the United States (and Europe). Yet in the later years of her life, Lee expressed frustration that she didn’t have so many recordings to her name (a consequence of raising children, she said) and that the multi-faceted nature of her achievement had not been recognised.

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