Live Recordings

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 …”

Such splitting allows for a change in delivery (the second verse is more fluid, especially when Nas opens up about his lyricism, in the lines above and when he compares himself to a “smooth criminal”).

This doubling is particularly interesting, and found elsewhere in hip-hop lyricism. Other genres use personae and multiple perspectives, but in hip-hop there’s often a meta aspect linked to the MC drawing attention to the act of writing itself. Nas puts forward a persona commenting on others at the start, to return to this writing of the character at the end: “I lay puzzles as I backtrack to earlier times/Nothing’s equivalent to a New York state of mind.”

References to writing exist in other genres: writing letters to former lovers, or receiving letters, for example, but hip-hop adds another dimension. Writing itself is a core theme, linked to ideas of reputation/status (killing off the competition etc) and survival. I write therefore I am.

None of this is abstract, at least not with my preferred MCs who allow for depth to come through not only on an intellectual level - via references, as Nas does here name-checking “Scarface” the film character, the rapper maybe - and making space for an emotional charge. You sense it here, Nas’s lyricism is not an exercise, a chance to show off, it’s an extension of his self and how he feels. Key to this is the intimate nature of hip-hop; the fact that rap is a spoken art, all the while playing with notions of authenticity and truth.

I understand the emphasis on analysing the line-by-line brilliance that consumes so many fans and critics alike. It makes sense, as a measure of the MC’s skill, as a way of consolidating community bonds. See here the Genius breakdown of “N.Y. State of Mind”, and impressive commentary on the following lines:

Inhale deep like the words of my breath
I never sleep—'cause sleep is the cousin of death

Here’s the take of one commentator:

“A truly classic rap line evoking ghetto drug dealers' “one eye open” sense of paranoia; perhaps inspired by the Talmud (which tells us sleep is 1/60th of death) or the Iliad (where Hypnos and Thanatos – i.e., “sleep” and “death” – are described as brothers)

This line’s 1st degree meaning is evident: sleep is a deathlike, inert state of consciousness

At the 2nd degree, “sleeping” is slang for being inattentive or negligent; a drug dealer who is robbed for lack of vigilance is said to be “caught sleeping”

Nas never “sleeps” – i.e., he’s never “caught sleeping” – because being an easy target could lead him to getting shot to death.

And, to top it all off, what’s New York City’s nickname?”

And another: “Sleep is the cousin of death” is also a Congolese proverb. While yet one more writer notes the parallel with one of the most famous speeches from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

(Nas, in an accompanying video for the Genius transcription says that the lines come from before he was born, from Africa).


II.

The New York nature of the track is not confined to the rhymes; it’s reflected in the title, of course, taken from a Billy Joel song from 1977, here covered by Barbra Streisand:

And music, most famously in the “false start” that opens the track. In this video DJ Premier describes the recording process – “20 people” in the booth alongside Nas, asking him to pass the Henny and weed, and explains how the famous “false” start came about …

This awkward opening reflects Nas’s youth/shyness (DJ Premier refers to the way Nas used to hide his face when recording a verse). It also enacts a key aspect of his craft as MC, the way he draws attention to his rhymes as process, as if he is bringing his verses into being as he raps them. Countless MCs boast about their greatness, Nas does this too here, but what is distinctive is the way he allows for what seems to be a spontaneous element, as if he’s making it up then and there – just like a freestyle. I’ve written about this before. It’s something distinctive about his rhymes, the way they have an energy to them, a liveliness.

And yet, as DJ Premier explains this wasn’t made up, it was the real thing, Nas was freestyling and responding to a  friend. Then recorded the verse in one take. That said, listening to it now it seems to convey a (fake) modesty. He raps: “I don’t know how to start this shit, yo …” to kick into one of the most extraordinary verses ever recorded, after the steadying “now …”

All this reflects something else that’s very New York, the freestyle culture kept alive via radio shows. (It’s more than likely the same culture existed elsewhere at the same time, but is less known to me). See the messy to-and-fro set-up, where the MCs banter along with the host, name-checking people who have supported them past and present, such as this very long intro on a 1993 Nas freestyle on the Stretch & Bobbito show, pre-Illmatic:

Keeping it loose like this does two things: it reinforces the fact that rap/hip-hop is part of an oral tradition, of people shooting the breeze playing with language in an improvised way, while also being a crucial part of the performance, allowing the audience to be wowed by the genius of the rhymes that come after it. It’s as if the MC is so cool, so good that they don’t need the formality of a worked-out introduction, it comes so easily to them – their speaking poetry of this quality and magnitude, it’s as natural for them as breathing.  

It also enacts a consciousness where hip-hop draws on Black American musical/cultural traditions, where improvisation is a key element, if not the most essential element – the sign that a musician is blessed, as heard in jazz and other forms of spoken-word performance from the 60s and 70s.  

The DJ Premier beat also has a disassembling aspect, in contrast to the other more melodic beats on Illmatic (see Pete Rock’s emphasis on certain words in “The World is Yours”, something that is quintessentially Motown, or the formal song-based structure of the Large Professor instrumentals).

“N.Y. State of Mind” starts on a single drum sound, which Nas then repeats in the “yeah,” but what makes this very New York is the high-pitched single note repeated like a bell (cf: Easy Mo Bee). This interest in emphasis individual notes (rather than melodies) is one reason why hip-hop music-making is so radical (though this too could be part of the jazz inheritance).

The piano comes in, again as a single note to supplement; on second hearing, it sounds like two piano lines, or the three-note keyboard line and piano. The skill of Nas’s rhymes is the way he maintains the energy; you could listen to his rhymes on that basis alone, the rhythm of them, slowing becoming more groove-like at two points, as previously mentioned. His control is impressive.

The three-note melody and perhaps more comes from Joe Chambers’s “Mind Rain” from his 1978 Double Exposure album:

(Other samples mentioned on the Genius site are “Live at the Barbeque” Main Source; “Mahogany” Eric B & Rakim; “N.T.” Kool & The Gang and “Flight Time” Donald Byrd).

Interestingly the original Joe Chambers piece has a similar mood the the instrumental, of music being in formation, in development; it has a reflective, unformed quality to it, albeit grounded by the low notes (the beginning of both pieces of music especially remind me of the other).

Here’s the full album, Double Exposure, which was recorded in 1977 in New York; with Chambers on “p, e-p, dr, perc” and Larry Young on “og, syn.” As one of the commenters says, enthusiastically: “One of the very few duo albums in jazz using mainly the piano / organ format!! Probably the only one. Hats off to drummer Joe Chambers who shows his skills on the piano here. Joining with space brother Larry, this tops everything. A deep spiritual gem from the great Muse label!!!”

Have a look at this video where DJ Premier speaks more about the Joe Chambers sample and how he used it:

To close, a live performance of “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas in formal attire/sunglasses at the Kennedy Center, backed by an orchestra and DJ from 2018 (with Korean subtitles):

 *(From above: T: “Weak answer” .. HHL: “Elaborate then. Not one line in this song is specific to the 1990s/T: “Still a very weak answer. You talk to me about something you engineered out of bizarre ideas, I talk to you about THE MUSIC.

HHL: Lmao I'm basing my argument off of the lyrics, it's not just my opinion. Nas was born in 1973, so he's writing a lot about his early experiences of life in Queensbridge. Crime in New York (a primary focus of the song) didn't start in the 90s, it was something that he grew up with (hence "the dungeons of rap"). Violent crime in NYC began to skyrocket in the 70s during white flight and continued into the 80s during the crack epidemic. He makes references to Scarface (1983), The Message by Grandmaster Flash (1982), Al Capone (early-mid 1900s), etc. Even the sampled beat in the song is a jazz record from 1977.

T replies: “Blah blah blah blah ...... no.”) For those who’d prefer a “90s-era fan mash-up video,” go here.

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

Originally arranged by Melba Liston, officially re-arranged by Don Sebesky. Trumpet – Freddie Hubbard Flugelhorn – Alan Rubin, John Frosk, Marvin Stamm Trombone – Garnett Brown, Warren Covington, Wayne Andre Bass Trombone – Paul Faulise French Horn – Brooks Tillotson, James Buffington Tenor Saxophone – Grover Washington, Jr. Oboe, Clarinet, Flute – Romeo Penque English Horn, Clarinet, Flute – George Marge Flute – Hubert Laws Piano, Liner Notes – Randy Weston Synthesizer [Moog] – David Horowitz Bass – Ron Carter, Vishnu Wood (track 2) Drums – Bill Cobham Vocals – Madame Meddah

(The above are the album credits)

Randy Weston, according to online sources, didn’t like this record. Thought it was too clean, over-produced, yet four decades-plus on it retains its interest - largely because of the line-up of musicians - and impact, to a degree. (The same original power that made it a “hit” for CTI within jazz circles at the time of release). The Rateyourmusic description spells out how/why Weston rejected the finished product, first calling it: “Progressive Big Band, Afro-Jazz” in bold, then with “Berber Music, Gnawa” hiding in tiny font below. (Discogs has it as: “Big Band, Fusion, Modal.”)

Weston had returned from five years living in Morocco (after a visit to Nigeria in 1961 with Nina Simone and other Black American musicians) and assembled a group of other jazz greats to join him on what is his best-known album.

Listening to it you can hear how the piece’s brassy, big band display is an uneasy fit for the musical influences you imagine Weston wanted to pay homage to in this work; even his earlier recordings were more interior, more deconstructed, less showy and bombastic. Thom Jurek’s AllMusic review takes a more positive view, noting that the flashy horns “frenetic, minor-key piano lines, knotty, Middle Eastern Eastern-sounding charts, and skittering North African rhythms push the listener into a new space, one that stands outside of CTI's usual frame in, and into, the exotic.”

Yet this notion of the music being “exotic” (and emphasis on how the “listener” might hear it) backs up Weston’s complaint about it not being true to his vision, as does the sleeve image, according to a review in LondonJazz the Pete Turner cover photo features “the stare of a mystic, focused on infinity — a psychedelic, solarised image drawn from Turner’s visit to the Far East.” The review quotes the photographer: “This is a holy man, in Benares, India, near the Ganges,” taken while he was “on assignment covering Allen Ginsberg.”

There is little to suggest that Randy Weston had any interest in India - at that point - or any affinity with a beatnik like Ginsberg. His attention was solely focussed on his own “ancestral” roots in Africa. In interviews included here - from Montreux 2016 and Open Democracy 2012 - Weston makes it clear that the “African” influence was there in his work and self from the beginning, instilled in him by his Panama-born father who repeated that he was an “African born in America” alongside the perspective of his mother’s Virginia family. This was then mirrored by the world he saw all around him of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn New York in the 1930S-1940s of his youth. It could be seen in the way he played piano, he tells us; he like all other Black American jazz musicians played the piano as if he were playing the drums. The (memory of the ) drums never left us, he explains.



AMY GOODMAN: Langston Hughes dies in May (1967).

RANDY WESTON: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And before the end of the year, you’ve moved to Africa.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that decision and where you went.

RANDY WESTON: Well, I’m sure it’s because of Marshall Stearns. He was on the State Department board. That’s for sure. Unfortunately, Marshall died before I had a chance to thank him. But I was chosen to do a State Department tour of 14 countries in 1967 of North Africa and West Africa and Beirut and Lebanon. And I put together a great band: Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, Ray Copeland on trumpet, Bill Wood on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums, and Chief Bey on African drum. And I took my son with me, as a teen—he was 15, Niles, at that particular time. And we had a wonderful, wonderful tour. And I requested, whatever country we went to, I would like to be in touch with the traditional music of that country.

And so, we spent three months in Africa. And it was a good test for me, because, you know, you can write music about Africa in New York, but the test is when you play that music on the continent itself.

When I play music in Africa, I tell the people, “This is your music. You may not recognize it, because it came in contact with European languages, it came in contact with European instruments, you see. But it’s your music, you know.” And I always had Chief Bey, because Chief Bey always had the African traditional drum. So we had a big success in Africa, because it was not only a concert, but having the people understand the impact of African rhythms in world music, whether it’s Brazil or Cuba or Mississippi or Brooklyn, whatever. If you don’t have that African pulse, nothing is happening.

AMY GOODMAN: So you move, Randy Weston, to Morocco. Why Morocco?

RANDY WESTON: Morocco was the very last country, and that’s when I wanted to live in Africa, because I wanted to be closer to the traditional people. And when you do a State Department tour, you have to make a report: what you like, what you didn’t like, etc., etc., etc. So I stayed in Rabat for one week working on this report. And so, I went back to New York. About one month later, I got these letters from Morocco saying the Moroccan people are crazy about your music, and they want you to come back. So I had no idea I was going to be in Morocco, because, number one, the languages spoken are Arabic, Berber, French, Spanish—very little English, you see. But the power of music is the original language, is music, right? So I went back and ended up staying seven years. And that’s when I discovered the Africans who were taken in slavery who had to cross the Sahara Desert. I discovered these [inaudible]. I discovered their music, the Gnawa people in particular in Morocco. So that really enriched my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Gnawa people.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, the Gnawa people, they’re originally from the great kingdoms of Songhai, Ghana, Mali, you know. And during the invasion from the north, they were taken as slaves and soldiers up to the north. But they created a very powerful spiritual music. And so, I first met them in 1967, and we’ve been together up until this day, because when you hear this music, you hear the origin of blues, of jazz, of black church, all at the same time. You realize that. In other words, what has Mother Africa contributed to America? What has African people brought with them? Because when they were taken away, they had no instruments, no language, no nothing. How did they take these European instruments and create music? But when you hear the traditional people, you realize, music began in Africa in the first place. And the music is so diverse, because the continent itself is so diverse. So if you go to the Sahara, you’re going to have music of the Sahara. You go to the mountains, you’re going to have the music, because African people create music based upon where they live, their environment. So I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, so I was influenced by the Palladium, by the black church, by the blues, Mississippi. So where you—you know, it is the foundation of what you do.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you play “Blue Moses” a little bit?

RANDY WESTON: Of course. [playing “Blue Moses”]

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, you often quote the Somali poet Moussa.

RANDY WESTON: Yes. Yeah, he said—Moussa, I met him in Nigeria in 1977. He said, “Randy,” he said, “I’m going to tell you one thing.” He said, “The first thing that changes is the music, because music is the voice of God, is music.” He said, “Music is our first language.” We think French or English or Arabic or Spanish is our language. There was a time we didn’t have those languages. The language was music, because we listened to the music of the birds. We listened to the music of Mother Nature. We listened to the wind, the sound of thunder. So, he says, “When you have ordinary music, you’re going to have ordinary times.” Yeah, and I’ll never forget that, yeah. And when you have creative music, you have creative times, because music—you can’t see music. You can’t touch music. Music is the king of the arts, you see. And so, music is everywhere. But we tend to take music for granted. But imagine our planet without music. It would be dead, because all people have their music, you see.

Black History Special: Jazz Legend Randy Weston on His Life and Celebration of “African Rhythms” Open Democracy, 2012. Watch the video interview here.



“Blue Moses,” feat. Pharaoh Sanders, The Spirits of Our Ancestors, Verve, 1991

To understand how Randy Weston might have liked the original 1972 to sound like (and be, in essence), listen to these recordings from 1991 and 2006. I won’t describe them. The music is far more eloquent on the subject than I could ever be.

Personnel: Randy Weston - piano, Pharaoh Sanders - tenor saxophone, Alex Blake - bass, Jamil Nasser - bass, Idris Muhammad - drums, Big Black - percussion, Yassir Chadly - percussion, karkuba, vocal. Arr: Melba Liston, prod. Jean-Philippe Allard/Brian Bacchus

“Blue Moses,” Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Trio, Zep Tepi, Random Choice, 2006

Personnel: Randy Weston - piano, Alex Blake - double bass, Neil Clarke - percussion, prod. Paul West.

“Blue Moses” Randy Weston and Dar Gnawa of Tanger, New School, New York 2013

“The Gnawa in Morocco, like African-Americans in the United States, were taken as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa and developed a unique and very spiritual music and culture. Gnawa music is one of the major musical currents in Morocco. Moroccans overwhelmingly love Gnawa music and Gnawas 'Maalems' are highly respected, and enjoy an aura of musical stardom. On October 13, 2015, Abdellah El Gourd and Dar Gnawa of Tanger joined New School Jazz Artist-In-Residence, pianist and composer Randy Weston for a discussion and demonstration of various aspects of traditional Gnawan music, and how this African musical tradition has influenced Weston's own compositions. The two first met in 1968 after Weston moved to Morocco and continue to perform together around the world, nearly fifty years later. It was El Gourd who initiated the pianist into the riches of Gnawa music. Weston explains, "The Gnawa people and their music represent one of the strongest spiritual connections I've ever experienced." Dar Gnawa of Tanger, a group of traditional Moroccan musicians led by El Gourd, performed and were joined by Randy Weston on piano. This program is part of the Randy Weston Artist-In-Residency series at The New School for Jazz, produced by Phil Ballman.”

Information from below the YouTube video

To close, a touching performance by Randy Weston and Alex Blake at the memorial service for Freddie Hubbard, recorded December 2008 at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Randy Weston (April 6, 1926-September 1, 2018)

“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.

There are many performances of this piece, as you would expect for such a famous work; many if not most have a deep, unified approach that can border on the schmaltz, unfortunately, To get a sense of an alternative approach that is less lyrical but still retains some delicacy, not weighed down by this “united front” see this rendition by The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.

Other reggae artists covered the song, soon after its release: principally Alton Ellis, prod. Coxsone Dodd, on his 1967 album Alton Ellis LP : Sings Rock & Soul:

This cover is another marvel (for me); the combination of the manic/maniacal keys and one of the best basslines, a mix of tentative and insistent - going no particular place - the jagged beat and then the really special delivery of Alton Ellis, all those added syllables and stretching of words, it’s so heartfelt. Beautiful.

Pat Kelly released his version in 1979, production by Ossie Hibbert:

While researching this work I came across two really excellent extended pieces on Roland Alphonso; these two essays stood out, even if there wasn’t much available online on an artist whose career spanned five decades and included working with the key figures and being a founding member of the Skatalites.

The first by Brian Keyo (see his site, Tallawah.com here which includes a great introduction to the era, “From The Aces To The Zodiacs, A Primer in Jamaican Rock Steady”) covers Alphonso’s career in enormous detail, with anecdotes that are both informative and frequently touching. After reading his essay, “Rolando Alphonso, 1931-1998, A Remembrance of the Chief Musician” I felt like I had not only increased my knowledge of the artist, alongside his contemporaries but also had a sense of the man’s character and personality.

The second comes from reggaevibes.com and linked to the 2016 reissue of ABC Rocksteady on Dub Store Records. You can read it in full here, but following this is an extract that puts Alphonso’s career in context:

“Mrs. Sonia Pottinger is one of Jamaica’s reggae pioneers. She was the first female Jamaican record producer, running her Gay Feet and High Note labels out of her Tip-Top Record shop in Orange Street, Kingston. After some minor hits during the ska period she broke through in the rocksteady era with gigantic hits from The Melodians, The Gaylads, Ken Boothe, Stranger & Patsy and Delano Stewart. In the seventies she delivered excellent productions by Culture, Marcia Griffiths, Justin Hinds, Bob Andy and Big Youth. In 1985 she left the business. Sonia Pottinger died at her home in Kingston on 3 November 2010.

In 1968 she released an instrumental album by Roland Alphonso, “ABC Rocksteady”. The original liner notes reveal the motivation behind the making of this album: “It came about as a result of four months of intensive and extensive study by the producer – the need for proper orchestration was the first consideration – the lack of that “something” in most rocksteady arrangements, made it necessary to select a group of musicians who apart from their individual ability, could together provide unequalled harmony.” The album was known as “Roland Alphonso With The Originals Orchestra – ABC Rocksteady” and appeared on the Gay Feet label in Jamaica, in the UK it was issued by High Note Records with a different sleeve. The Original Orchestra were Aubrey Adams on organ and Lynn Tait on guitar. Bass player Boris Gardiner arranged and conducted the project at West Indies Studios with Lynford Anderson aka Andy Capp as engineer.

Roland Alphonso aka “The Chief Musician” (12 January 1931 – 20 November 1998) was a Jamaican tenor saxophonist, and one of the founding members of the Skatalites. Born in Havana, Cuba, Alphonso came to Jamaica at the age of two with his Jamaican mother, and started to learn saxophone at the Stony Hill Industrial School. In 1948 he left school to join Eric Deans’ orchestra. In 1956 he first recorded for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, although these early recordings were lost before they were mastered. He became a regular member of the in-house band of session musicians for producers Clement Dodd and Duke Reid. He also acted as arranger at many of Dodd’s recording sessions.

By 1960, he was recording for many producers on the island and he took part in the creation of The Studio One Orchestra, the first session band at Dodd’s newly opened recording studio. This band soon adopted the name of The Skatalites. When the Skatalites disbanded by August 1965, Alphonso formed the Soul Brothers (with Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, and Jackie Mittoo) to become The Soul Vendors in 1967. During the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, he kept on playing on numerous records coming out of Jamaican studios, especially for Bunny Lee. He was awarded Officer of the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in 1977, and started to tour more often in the US. He took part in the reformation of the Skatalites in 1983, with whom he toured and recorded constantly until he suffered a burst blood vessel in his head during a show at the Key Club in Hollywood. He died on 20 November 1998 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.”

Below is an interview with Roger Steffens, where Roland Alphonso speaks in depth about his career on “The Reggae Beat”show. It also includes a live performance from 1985. Steffens starts by asking one of the “most controversial questions” in reggae history (relating to Coxsone Dodd and the Skatalites) to get a crazy-sounding laugh from Alphonso in reply as he shares his knowledge.

“Hop Special” (Whiter Shade of Pale)” was released as a single; the other side was “On The Move” - the accompanying musicians were Lynn Taitt & The Jets. To close then here’s one of their greatest - and funniest - tracks, “Soul Food” from 1968:

“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.

Within jazz, Eric Porter writes on his insightful essay “Jeanne Lee’s voice”  - first published in Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Vol 2, No 1 (2006) and then People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz is Now! (2013) - critics often encouraged a binary opposition between the jazz vocalist (woman) with the jazz musician (man/artist).

Yet as Porter notes, Lee’s work upset this binary opposition in various ways. First and perhaps most importantly, Lee challenged conventions of what a singer is via her particular brand of improvisation, her use of her voice as an “instrument.” But her innovative re-interpretation of standards and the way she positioned herself as a singer within the group are also important, I’d suggest. In one interview Lee stressed that she was not an add-on, the called-in singer, but a musician of equal importance to the others on stage. She performed alongside them.

Porter writes:

"By disrupting the close relationship between jazz singing and the feminized sphere of popular vocal music, and by bringing a level of technical virtuosity to their work, (Abbey) Lincoln and Lee challenged the idea that female vocal jazz artists, while an important element of the jazz tradition, did not quite measure up to the artistry and genius of male instrumentalists and were a secondary class of performers.

That Lee was able to disrupt this dichotomous juxtaposition of female vocalist bodies with male instrumentalist minds is evident in the critical responses to her by some European jazz writers who commended her improvisational skills. As one of them put it: “Miss Lee, as far as I know, is the first to fulfil 100 percent what most jazz singers wish for in their dreams --namely a complete disregard of the former borderline between the human voice and an improvising horn.”

Two points to make here: my aim is not to “recover” Jeanne Lee as part of a feminist project, even if that might be a worthwhile task, I am not the woman, or person to write it (and besides, those who know about jazz already hold her in high esteem, obviously). Second, to understand her significance as a Black woman and artist, I’d recommend Porter’s essay, particularly for the way it situates Lee’s work within her broader cultural and political context, while being acutely alert to what makes her art so distinctive then and now.

I particularly appreciated the way Porter detailed Lee’s own perception of her work and its importance, see, for example, how in the late 1970s she referred to herself as a “voice environmentalist,” as quoted in Porter’s essay:

"I look at myself as already an environment, the environment is there and it comes through me in sound. In turn the music is created as a total environment to the audience. I’m always trying to allow the environment to manifest itself through me [. . .] when I’m working with a musician I’m trying to deal with the sound. When I want to direct the music I create a poem and then there’s a more deliberate environmental frame and we all work within that."

This self-perception corresponded with work by her contemporaries, such as Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith, who Porter writes shared a “Black Arts Movement commitment to community-building through creative educational projects while recognizing the limitations of narrowly conceived identity politics and the necessity of creative exchanges across cultural and national boundaries.”

Seeing herself and her art as part of an “environment” reflected her desire to create work that was not hierarchical, but depended on the interpretation of the audience for its meaning in a way that echoed the Fluxes ethos, and Happenings as as well as that of Black American “AACM and multi-instrumentalist Marion Brown, on whose Afternoon of a Georgia Faun Lee performed”

Porter’s essay begins with Ntozake Shange’s evocation of a 1981 performance by Jeanne Lee at Soundscape, New York:

On 52nd Street I realized Jean [sic] Lee is clothed and fed by her voice. That’s the same street my aunts and uncles were born and black on, so 52nd and 10th means something to me – like a people who come out with what they can carry: love, sweat, blood and song. Though everything we know is wonderful and rich, we, as a people, hide, to keep it safe. Jean Lee don’t. [. . .] Aretha addresses God, Billie Holiday seduced him. Tina Turner made the devil think twice/but Jean Lee is mingling among us. [. . .] She is not afraid of all this body that moves so sweet I dare you/ and isn’t this more than you ever imagined; her body is song. [. . .] We got a woman among us who isn’t afraid of the sound of her own voice. She might lay up nights, wondering how are we staying alive ‘cause we didn’t hear what she just heard/or sing it. Well. Did I hear the congregation say Amen.
She sings.
Jean Lee/She sings

Porter's analysis hinges on the striking collaboration between Lee, Andrew Cyrille and Jimmy Lyons from 1979, “In These Last Days" from Nuba released by Black Saint Records:

Porter notes how Lee’s poetry prefaced her identity as an artist, a Black woman and a mother.

 

In these Last Days

                                                                of Total

Dis-in-te-gra-tion,

                                                                 where every day

Is a struggle

                                                                against becoming

An object in

                                                                someone else’s

                                                                                nightmare:

There is great joy

                                                                 in being

Naima’s Mother

                                                                and unassailable strength

In being

               on the Way

 

Porter writes: “The words/lyrics “these Last Days/ of Total/ Dis-in-te-gration/ where every day/ Is a struggle/ against becoming/An object in/ someone else’s/ nightmare” are improvised and repeated in different registers, across varying ranges of intervals. There is particular focus on the word “struggle,” which is elongated and distorted, ultimately becoming a scream.”

But there is also optimism to be found here, as Porter notes, in the final lines when Lee mention the “great joy” to be found in her role as mother, as well as the notion of transformation.

What strikes me about Jeanne Lee’s work in the 1960s particularly is how modern (and radical) it still sounds. The poetry she performs on Archie Shepp’s 1969 "Blasé” is astounding, her debt to Abbey Lincoln can be sensed in her delivery, but the intensity and the content of her verse have no obvious point of comparison.

Spoken-word before it existed, a revolutionary poetics with a disassembled soundtrack: one woman’s lament, a deconstructed Song of Songs, held close.

Musically, it breaks convention just as you would expect from Shepp, but the drumming in particular by Philly Joe Jones stuns for its broken, unexpected counterpoint. (Note the small error in the lyrics transcription in the video: “I gave you a loaf of sugar and you took my womb till it runs.”)

II.

“Soul Eyes”

"A soul, I'm told Can be both hot and cold/So how is one to know Which way to go?/ The soul is mirrored in the eyes/But how is one to know When the whole world is full of such lies?/So darling, watch those eyes And even more, those lies/And when you see them smile/For a long, long while Then you know you've found the one/ Who'll always, always be true I know, that it is how I found you"

From Mal Waldron: Soul Eyes (BMG, 1997)

From After Hours (Owl, 1994)

III.

In an interview Jeanne Lee recalled how she first met Ran Blake at Bard College, “I met Ran the first day I was in college, I heard this sound, we were all standing in line to get our classes, we were all freshmen, the sound was Ran Blake playing the piano in the Chapel. We’ve been friends ever since.”

Winning the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night competition led to an album contract with RCA, The Newest Sound Around and a tour in Europe, where as the New Music USA obituary quotes Ran Blake: “She created such a sensation – they called her the heir of Billie Holiday.”

But if you listen to Lee’s 1966 recording of the standard “Night and Day”

her expressive, experimental leanings can be heard, in a way that differs strongly from the classic Billie Holiday recording of 1939. There are similarities, certainly, in the phrasing (both singers emphasise words you wouldn’t expect, for example, “are” as in “you are the one”) but the differences are marked. Whereas Holiday’s performance is all about her remarkable voice, especially in that moment it becomes fragile when she sings of her “hungry yearning” for her absent love, it remains contained and extremely controlled, her signature as an artist.

In contrast, the Jeanne Lee performance is radically exposed, as she breaks down the song into parts, greatly assisted by Ran Blake's piano accompaniment. If you listen to their approximate contemporaries – Helen Merrill in 1961 or Anita O’Day  in 1959, or Ella Fitzgerald in 1956 – you can hear how different their approach is. Whereas Merrill, O’Day, Fitzgerald keep the “swing” of the song, the original speed and verve of it, the Jeanne Lee version, which was released on Free Standards: Stockholm, 1966 is slowed down dramatically, and kept expressionistic as if she is daubing colours of paint, playing with sonic fragments. It’s all about the purity of the sound, the phrasing. (Also on the album two very surprising, if sexy/sensual, covers of Beatles’ songs: “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Ticket to Ride”).

This style of singing is relatively common today, so it’s difficult to imagine how new this would have been to the audiences of the era. That said Ran Blake’s highly expressive style of playing the piano still sounds brave decades on. Listen to this similarly wonderful version of “A Taste of Honey” from the same album:

Or “Summertime” from her RCA début with Blake, The Newest Sound Around from 1961

Notice just before 1’30” when Blake kicks into it as if it were some kind of raw honky tonk piano groove, counter to the typical approach of holding back and being “respectful” (see Mal Waldron, or Tommy Flanagan or any of the other greats in this regard) to the vocalist. You would expect that this would be obtrusive, but in fact it works perfectly with Lee’s deeply harmonious vocal style, adding some definition and perhaps encouraging her also to develop more of an edge to her delivery.

Needless to say the above Lee/Blake interpretation from the “Jazz on the Screen” footage is light years away from the Sondheim/Bernstein original from West Side Story (1961).

Found in this performance are the roots of her more experimental vocal work/interpretations. Ben Ratliff wrote in his New York Times obituary that Lee had two radically different styles and that the first was “dry, slow and breathy, influenced by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.” Lee, in fact, cited Abbey Lincoln as an important early influence, you can hear this particularly in her performance of “Summertime” above.

As Eric Porter writes:

"One of the striking things about the album is Lee’s engagement with Abbey Lincoln’s music. Lee’s vocal inflections resemble Lincoln’s and she builds upon Lincoln’s explorations of the instrumental qualities of the voice through improvised, non-verbal vocal lines. Lee also performs at the session material written and/or included by Lincoln on her own 1961 album Straight Ahead: Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” for which Lincoln had written lyrics; the Billie Holiday/Mal Waldron composition “Left Alone”; and the title track, with words by Lincoln and music by Waldron."

During these sessions Lee also recorded "Straight Ahead” – the title track of Lincoln’s foundational 1961 album, the song written by Lincoln, Earl Baker and Mal Waldron. Porter writes:

"Lincoln’s work on Straight Ahead represented a critical moment in her flight from the musical and ideological baggage associated with material available to jazz singers. During the late 1950s and early 1960s Lincoln made an effort to move away from romantic ballads that spoke of abusive and dysfunctional heterosexual relationships; she began performing material which described healthier relationships between men and women, provided varying degrees of social commentary, and demanded a more “instrumental” approach to singing. Moreover, Lincoln’s shift in material also spoke to her commitment to the mutual liberation of black men and women in the political context of the black freedom movement."

Jeanne Lee was explicit about her creative debt to Lincoln and respect for her work, as quoted in Porter's essay: 

"The person who left the most impression on me in terms of life-situations as well as what she was doing with her voice was Abbey Lincoln. From the credibility of her craft and her own reality and not so much as a “style.” It was like using the energy as a painting. Billie Holiday too, but she comes from another era, Billie has the same kind of thing musically, but Abbey advances that type of understanding, [. . .] Abbey is more human, it’s not just a woman who’s a victim of her role. Again speaking about Lincoln, Lee said: “this woman made it possible for me to have faith in the fact that I am a poet and I did not have to sing standards in order to be a jazz singer. I could find a way of putting my own perception into musical terms”

***

Personnel: Allan Praskin, clarinet (B2) Perry Robinson, clarinet (B2) Mark Whitecage, alto clarinet (B2) Jack Gregg, bass Steve McCall, drums Gunter Hampel, flute, piano, vibraphone, alto and bass clarinet Sam Rivers, soprano and tenor saxophone, flute Marty Cook, trombone (B2) Ensemble tracks recorded by George Klabin, Sound Ideas Studio, New York, February 1974.

No words, only a feeling
No questions, only a life
No sequence, only a being
No journey, only a dance

Here is some more from Ben Ratliff’s New York Times obituary:

"Because Ms. Lee performed in two radically different styles, her singing was difficult to categorize. One of her voices was dry, slow and breathy, influenced by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.

In 1961 she and a classmate from Bard College, the pianist Ran Blake, performed as a duo at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night contest. They won, and the album they later recorded, ''The Newest Sound Around'' (later reissued on CD as ''The Legendary Duets''), has remained a cult favourite.

In jazz standards and Thelonious Monk tunes on the album, Ms. Lee and Mr. Blake subtracted swing, but added intellectual coolness, abstruse piano harmonies and vocal influences from Holiday and Washington; the record is a series of minimalist dreams. (In 1989 she and Mr. Blake recorded a duet album in the same style, ''You Stepped Out of a Cloud.'')

In her other vocal style, Ms. Lee approached words as sounds; this voice was harsh and booming, and she used her teeth, lips and tongue to wring drama out of each syllable, presaging singers like Diamanda Galas. In the mid-1960's she was a multidisciplinary artist, writing music with members of the Fluxus school like Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins, and gradually becoming more aligned with the rest of the late-1960's avant-garde in jazz."

While it is true that some of Jeanne Lee's work in the 70s particularly played with conventional song construction, I don’t recognise the “harsh and booming” quality that Ratliff refers to above as being a key element of Jeanne Lee’s work, if anything there is a lilting softness which reoccurs in various ways. See, for example, the wonderfully playful “Angel Chile” from her Conspiracy record (Earthforms Records, 1974).

Or what might be my favourite piece of music of hers, “Your Ballad” from the same album:

Where to begin with this music, with its capacity to hold on to apparent opposites and make them cohere, the simple joy and excitement that plays against deep contentment, music that is slow and leisurely and impatient at the same time: the sweetness of it all.

Added to this are the various personalities of the instruments providing the foundations for Lee’s remarkable vocal performance. The ponderous and heavy nature of the bass line and I’m not sure which part it is, most probably the alto clarinet, but it sounds like horns that suggests partial movement, but instead circles as if waiting for direction from the vocalist. Then just before two minutes in it stops to build once more; something similar occurs three minutes later. There is such beauty in this music, each time I hear it it touches my heart.

There are too certainly too echoes of the standard “Lover Man” in this song, the un-sung melody of “where can you be?“which Lee recorded with Ran Blake on her first album, in a typically personal style:

To finish, here is a live performance of Jeanne Lee from 1970, performing with her husband and musical collaborator Gunter Hampel:

(This essay is dedicated to the memory of my late mother and my sister, neither of whom listened to jazz. Jeanne Lee’s music has recently helped me in my efforts to come to terms with their absence ... and to all those seeking solace in music)

Related article: Mal Waldron ‘Left Alone’ (Mal Live 4 to 1, Philips/Japan, 1971; Left Alone ‘86, Paddle Wheel, 1986; w/ Archie Shepp, Left Alone Revisited, Enja Records, 2002) & Abbey Lincoln published 8 July, 2018

for other pieces of writing on Mal Waldron, Archie Shepp and jazz, follow the tags