Jazz

“Ghetto Sci-Fi Music” - in memoriam Ras G (1979-2019)

So sad to hear the news about Ras G yesterday. We had brief contact trying to set up an interview for this site related to his 2017 album My Kinda Blues, one of my favourite releases of that year and a record that still stands up in all its muted intent/musical intelligence.

Ras G was simple to interact with then, unassuming; gentle in his words and manner, open to the idea of talking with me even though there was no record to promote, no obvious benefit to him. The same qualities - simplicity, dedication to his music - memorialised yesterday online. I deeply regret not speaking to him when I had the opportunity to do so. That quiet presence, embodied in his person and heard in his music is rare, of real value.

I won’t write on My Kinda Blues here for the simple reason there’s a risk if I get started it won’t get done, and end up being filed in all my other half-written pieces (to be returned to). Though I recommend you listen to it in full, here’s the link.

Listening to the album again this afternoon, I was struck by how good the songs were and how distinctive; it is as the title has it, a personal Blues as felt by Ras G, filtered via hip-hop consciousness. I kept adding links of songs I liked to this draft, track 3, and 4 and 5 and 8 and it kept going on and on … Here’s track 8 - an amazing sound, no need to over-complicate anything, present it as it is:

Rather than an Afro-futurist cosmic vibe, as it appears was his wont, this album is intimate, sketches and ruminations with its own intensity. Far removed from that cliché of lo-fi – that enervates me so much, as music to chill to/to read a book to – this is music with depth and strong emotion coming through. It has its own distinctive voice and tone.

I liked this quote included in the Pitchfork story on his passing yesterday:

“My relationship with sci-fi is from a creational standpoint,” he told MerryJane in 2018. “My label is called Ghetto Sci-Fi Music, which is how I identify my studio and music-making methods. It’s Ghetto in terms of set-up/layout, but it’s a science to how it all works together and fiction to most who come from a more professional studio setting.”

Here’s an interview from February 2018 with Ras G sharing some of his dub picks, the genre he describes as the great-grand-daddy (if I heard it right) of all contemporary Black music genres … dub as a form of music that is felt, not seen or heard.

And here’s another great album, Beats of Mind - this is really fantastic (release info below the video).

As someone who appreciated his music but didn’t know him personally this news comes as a shock; the best way for me to pay my respects here is to put up his music.

Condolences to his friends and family in Los Angeles and fans/listeners across the globe. Please also consider donating to the GoFundme page for Ras G here, set up by his family to maintain his memory.

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.

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:

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

Live Recording: Alice Coltrane, "Africa" (Live at Carnegie Hall, 21.02.72, w/Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, Cecil McBee, Jimmy Garrison, Clifford Jarvis, Ed Blackwell)

Alice Coltrane - Live At Carnegie Hall (1972)

Personnel: Alice Coltrane: harp, p, perc Pharoah Sanders: ts, ss, fl, perc Archie Shepp: ts, ss, perc Cecil McBee: b Jimmy Garrison b Clifford Jarvis: d Ed Blackwell: d Tulsi: tamboura Kumar Kramer: harm Rec. 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.

"Killaz Theme," writing on Cormega, betrayal and justice in hip-hop and other genres

“[Intro]
Heh heh, yea
Hahahaha, right
Part the crowd like the Red Sea
Don’t even tempt me ”

Genre: Hip-Hop Style: Thug Rap, Conscious


Towards the end of a 2015 interview with Dead End Hip Hop (DEHH) that’s equal parts monologue and free-form talk, New York rapper Cormega says that remaking his début album The Realness was always an option, but that he wanted to do something more, something different to reflect his changed perspective. The man who made the music more than one decade ago was not the same one speaking today. “If we go back to the year of The Testament, (2005) I would have had at least 14 more friends physically still breathing, I would have no kids ...” Not only that, throughout the interview the Queensbridge MC stressed how he was aware of his position as a role model, as someone who could show others ways to move forward in their lives.

One of the DEHH team had suggested that his album Mega Philosophy was “preachy” in parts, then later clarified that he missed the “charismatic Cormega” (before listing all the tracks he liked). “If you speak truths, I don’t consider it preaching, maybe I’m wrong but I don’t,” Cormega replied. “Everything else I said was to uplift us, to say we’re not at the bottom, we’re more than ni**as standing on a corner dealing, jail is a business trying to employ our children, and destroy our mental; every day we’re more conditioned to conform to ignorance …” Starting to rhyme, momentum building as he interspersed lines about how he sees the world around him today with references to African lineage and references to pyramids in Egypt and Sudan to conclude that Black Americans “came from something great.”

Another DEHH host added that Cormega’s serious lyrical intent was “good preaching … (The word) preachy is now given a negative edge so when he says it sounds preachy it sounds like an insult … I say make it preachy as possible because we need that.”

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"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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