Interviews

Sarathy Korwar "More Arriving" (The Leaf Label) interview, published at DownBeat

A desire to reinterpret South Asian music traditions for the modern era courses through Sarathy Korwar’s music. The drummer’s Day To Day, a 2016 release on Ninja Tune, embedded recordings from the Sidi people of Ratanpur (descendants of East Africans who came to India as merchants, sailors and indentured servants beginning in the 7th century) in a soundtrack provided by London’s new jazz generation. And on last year’s My East Is Your West (Gearbox), Korwar’s UPAJ Collective sought to correct what the bandleader sees as spiritual jazz’s misappropriation of Indian classical music through live renditions of pieces by Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Pharaoh Sanders, among others.

“The mistake, or the problem with a lot of this kind of music is that a lot of jazz musicians back in the day—or even now, to be honest—think of the East as the repository of knowledge, where you can spend a week, learn a couple of scales, then come back and put it in your music,” Korwar said. “But these are musical traditions that take years to master and go back centuries.”

The percussionist recently spoke with DownBeat from London about More Arriving, his forthcoming album on The Leaf Label, and what pre-Brexit Britain feels like today.

Read more here.

To read the interview on the DownBeat site, and hear some other Korwar tracks, please go here.

Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind,” (Illmatic, Columbia Records, 1994) prod. DJ Premier, interviews plus live performance

“[Intro]
Yeah, yeah
Ayo, Black, it’s time, word (Word, it’s time, man)
It’s time, man (Aight, man, begin)
Yeah, straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap 
Where fake ni**as don’t make it back
I don’t know how to start this shit, 
yo... now”

Not entirely sure about the above video, with it’s very literal editing (“Be havin’ dreams that I'ma gangster …” and there’s a close-up of a familiar screen face, ditto for other references, say “The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps …”) splicing shots from Taxi Driver, Shaft with Nas’s rhymes about “stories when my peoples come back, black.”

Below the YouTube video two listeners battle it out (I’ll include the exchange at the end of this piece). One states baldly: “Show the 90s this stuff is not describing hip hop subculture and 90s suburbs” another replies: “Nas makes many references to pre-90s culture (including movies). It's supposed to be relatively timeless.”*

What’s interesting about “N.Y. State of Mind” is that it is both: archetypal and personal, in terms of its construction and themes. The first verse is Nas taking on the persona of a jaded, older man, as he put it in 2007:  

[“N.Y. State of Mind”] is one of my favourites, because that one painted a picture of the City like nobody else. I’m about eighteen when I’m saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out. I was a very young cat talking about it like a Vietnam veteran, talking like I’ve been through it all. That’s just how I felt around that time.

Interview with Rolling Stone (2007)

The opening lines has this “older man” looking back, comparing the current scene with the past: “It’s like the game ain’t the same/Got younger ni**as pullin’ the trigger, bringin’ fame to their name …” The second verse is more introspective, with Nas describing his artistry and compulsion to write: “I got so many rhymes, I don’t think I’m too sane/Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain …”

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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

“Welcome” John Coltrane (Kulu Sé Mama, Impulse! 1967) “Search For A New Land” Lee Morgan (Blue Note Records, 1966) plus Coltrane interviews

Personnel: John Coltrane — tenor saxophone, McCoy Tyner — piano, Jimmy Garrison — double bass, Elvin Jones — drums. Recorded, June 10 & 16, 1965

"You know, I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know there are bad forces, forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good." 

John Coltrane

Quoted in Brian L Knight, “Better Living Through Coltrane” published in The Vermont Review (2018)

Right from the very first piano note that marks the start of the piece: that note where it all begins, before the music expands poetically via Tyner’s piano, all those trills and flourishes – the piano, as one writer said, sounds like a stringed instrument:

"Welcome" is one of the most serene things recorded in the period. McCoy's piano sounds like a harp here. For the first time in a long time, Coltrane sounds like he's at peace.”

(“1965 was the year where everything changed. Of course, things were changing in all the years before that as well, but John Coltrane's 1965 was a watershed year …”)

Review of the “transition period” in Coltrane’s career by Mitch NZ  

and Jones’s percussive drumming that stays so still in parts, repeating the same beat like a broken-down instrument: tapping out the rhythm as if it were being kept by an open hand.

Before Coltrane’s saxophone comes in, at just before 30 seconds the three-note melody referencing “Happy Birthday To You.” And especially when Coltrane’s part descends, repeating the same note over and over there is something innocent and all-embracing about this music, as if you can hear something of John Coltrane’s heart.

The reaction to John Coltrane’s first London tour in 1961 was one of sharp contrasts, with the critics generally lost to understand his music (his show was an extended version of his hit song “My Favorite Things” - one song only for the entire performance). One critic dismissed his work, saying that his music “belonged more to the realm of higher mathematics,” while listeners at the show were in raptures, the audience was “shouting with enthusiasm … with ecstasy.” (I don’t have release/authorial information for the documentary above that provided this information, here’s part two).

This split reaction is typical for the mystique that surrounds Coltrane, something that has become even more pronounced as he takes on a secular saint role. This notion that he, his work are deeply analytical, dry, lacking in feeling. Yet, this music is all about the emotion. Central to this is his reinvention of popular songs, most notably the Rodgers/Hammerstein song from 1965 The Sound of Music musical and “Happy Birthday To You” here. Reworking pop music is a central part of jazz practice. See the way Jeanne Lee/Ran Blake transformed an excessively sentimental ballad from West Side Story into a work of mystery and wonder that I wrote about in an earlier essay on Lee, published on this site.

I imagine that doing these versions almost operated as a kind of in-joke among the musicians, while possibly having a broader import as the work of Black Americans existing within a hostile socio-cultural space. There is nothing more racialised than Julie Andrews singing of “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes/silver-white winters that melt into springs …” (in a 1930s Austria re-imagined by mid-1960s Hollywood).

Coltrane’s choice of such popular foundations for his experimentation serves to make his work even more elemental; it reinforces a sense of our commonality, while stamping it with his individual voice.

Three things particularly touch me about this piece of music. First, the way it exists in a state of becoming; the capacity of jazz to evoke this state is one of the qualities I like most about the genre. The music’s power lies in the way it suggests, it invokes. There is no need for resolution.

The second aspect is the “false ending” at 3’30.” The piano and drums appear to be building towards a conclusion. Coltrane is gone, then returns (unexpectedly). This re-appearance reinforces my earlier impression of the music having an almost mystical aspect: it is as if he (Coltrane) is gone, but still present, still there. Coltrane’s absence/presence – especially when his part is the dominant and unifying element in the music – is intriguing (and possibly reflects something of Coltrane’s character: his humility is noted in the documentary above).

Here is Alice Coltrane speaking of the Interstellar Space album released in 1967, as quoted in the Brian L Knight essay where she also refers to Coltrane’s music as a kind of mathematics :

"A higher principle is involved here. Some of his latest works aren't musical compositions. I mean they weren't based entirely on music. A lot has to do with mathematics, some on rhythmic structure and the power of repetition, some on elementals. He always felt that sound was the first manifestation in creation before music."

Such a comment might also apply to this work.

While searching for interviews with Coltrane from this period, this came up as a recommendation on Youtube. It’s from 1958 and recorded in Baltimore at “August Blume’s house.” One YouTube listener says it was published in the Jazz Review (another says it’s transcribed in the book Coltrane on Coltrane by Chris DeVito pg. 10.) It’s quite wonderful, I haven’t heard an interview like this before. Someone seems to be doing the dishes, you can hear the sound of cups and cutlery and general background noise, which makes the mood incredibly intimate. Coltrane seems relaxed too, speaking openly about his religious background, his views on religion in general and other subjects. Notice the way he speaks – the emphasis on certain words – is not so different to the way he plays the saxophone, his voice seems to have the same phrasing.

Lastly, Elvin Jones’s drumming is something to witness. Remember that this was recorded in 1965, long before this kind of approach became so familiar. It’s so submerged. If you listen to it alone it seems to have no direction, at certain points it repeats, other times there’s an increase in speed, or it slows, it becomes internal. With this in mind, the goal of the music seems to be to privilege Coltrane’s part, and for the drums to play out in the deep background and yet as I have already mentioned above Coltrane’s part is tentative, impressionistic, often absent. It disappears, to re-appear. This undermines this idea that it provides the music’s spine. Such apparent contradiction is the music’s achievement, and indeed genius, the way the performance appears to undermine musical logic in general.

All this is a universe away from Coltrane’s earlier recordings, say “My Favorite Things” (1961), “Spiritual” (1963) “Equinox”. Obviously there are points of commonality, the essence of the artist can be heard in all, but the emphasis is different. (Note that I’m purposefully avoiding categories when speaking about this work and how Coltrane’s music changed and/or developed. My preference is to keep my writing on music as spontaneous as possible. And as we know many jazz musicians resisted such categories being applied to their work, with some refusing to call their music anything at all, or preferring looser notions such as “midnight music,” as was the case for Gil Scott-Heron).

Now listen to Lee Morgan’s “Search For the New Land” released in 1966. Another favourite piece of music, one that conveys a similar mood:

Album: Search For The New Land Year: 1964 Label: Blue Note

Personnel: Grant Green - guitar Herbie Hancock - piano Billy Higgins - drums Lee Morgan - trumpet Wayne Shorter - tenor sax Reggie Workman - bass

Yet, Morgan’s composition follows the solo formula, the rising and falling, the disintegration and resolution (albeit with unkempt edges and dimensions). Coltrane and the musicians playing alongside him enact none of this. “Welcome” is granular, focussing on conveying the jazz idiom in shorter phrases, thus encouraging a listening experience of the moment.

Here’s a review of the Kulu Sé Mama album which notes the subtle reference to “Happy Birthday To You:”

“Kulu Se Mama, recorded in June and October 1965 and released in January 1967, sees Coltrane return, for the near nineteen minute title track, to the larger band format introduced on Ascension. This time the band is an eight-piece, again with Sanders on second tenor saxophone, and it is percussion rather than horn heavy. If it had been recorded in the 2000s, "Kulu Se Mama" might be labelled jam band or groove jazz. It's a vamp-driven, tuneful, African-informed piece which contains wonderfully soulful solos from Coltrane (on tenor), Tyner and bass clarinetist Donald Garrett. Anyone who enjoys the astral jazz of albums like Sanders' Tauhid (Impulse!, 1967), or pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane's Ptah, The El Daoud (Impulse!, 1970), will love "Kulu Se Mama." The two remaining tracks, "Vigil" and "Welcome," from the June sessions, are by the quartet. "Vigil" is a motor rhythm free, tenor and drums feature. "Welcome" is a lyrical and amiable affair in which at one point Coltrane references the tune to "Happy Birthday To You."

John Coltrane: John Coltrane: The Impulse! Albums - Volume Three Chris May, All About Jazz 2009

Coda:

London-based producer/WhoSampled head of content Chris Read interview published at okayplayer.com

Right from the very start, hip-hop has always held within it a contradiction related to sampling, secrecy and artistic self-exposure. DJs soaking off the labels of records to evade prying eyes of their competitors, as Chris Read, Head of Content at WhoSampled says, co-existed with compilations such as Ultimate Breaks and Beats (or before that Octopus Breaks) breaking down the genre to core elements.

This public dimension of the producer’s craft has only become more pronounced in the internet era. “It’s impossible to live your life outside the reality of the world we live in now,” Read says. “Whether it’s making music or playing sports, there’s always going to be a body of people out there who will want to discuss and analyze what you do.”

The UK-based WhoSampled site, founded in 2008 by Nadav Poraz, has as its tagline “exploring the DNA of music”. With its collection of 462,000 songs and 156,000 artists alongside content provided by 17,000 contributors worldwide the scope of the project is vast.

Each month the site notches up two million visitors curious to discover music they may, or may not recognize, with others drawn into the “web of musical connections” the site provides. In Read’s description: “It’s discovering stuff you like, but don’t know you like yet via its connection to something you already know you like.”

With such a reach, the site’s approach is necessarily eclectic. The frontpage when I last looked featured a D’Angelo mixtape; a piece exploring the “varied catalogue of Herbie Hancock” and an analysis of samples used on the Baby Driver movie soundtrack. The deep impact of sampling on pop culture means top searches for the month are just as likely to include Katy Perry, or a track performed by an X Factor contestant, as a hip-hop classic.

For a long while, Chris Read was best-known as the “rap mega-mix guy,” he tells me with a laugh when we met in the dark recesses of a restaurant in a plush East London hotel – soundtrack: Childish GambinoOtis Redding — because of a phenomenally successful mixtape The Diary he put out ten years ago. The mixtape charted hip-hop’s history, from 1979-2007, via more than 800 tracks — in order of release.

Read more here