Japan

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

Personnel: piano, Mal Waldron, alto saxophone, Kohsuke Mine, bass, Isao Suzuki and drums Yoshiyuki Nakamura

While at Prestige Mal Waldron estimated he wrote up to 400 compositions, the most famous being ‘Left Alone’ written for Billie Holiday and the John Coltrane destined ‘Soul Eyes’. First recorded by Coltrane for his Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors (1957), the musician loved the piece that would become of the genre's classic songs so much he recorded it three times with different ensembles.

‘Left alone’ became known as Waldron’s ‘signature tune’, even though the lyrics were written by Billie Holiday. Holiday never released her version; it was one of the seven songs she wrote but never recorded, as she said she was meant to but would 'always forget the damned sheet music.' This absence is deeply poignant and powerful. The fact that there is no record of her singing something so indelibly hers, transforms her absence into a presence in an almost ghost-like way. With this in mind; it is striking how often Waldron recorded versions of songs from Holiday's repertoire throughout his his career. It's as if he were continually seeking out some connection with her.

As heard in the interview extract with Waldron included at the bottom of this piece their bond was a tender one, he likened their relationship to one of brother and sister. It is affecting to hear him speak of Billie Holiday in this way, especially when he remembers her as relaxed and warm (she was the godmother of his child). Perhaps especially because Holiday is so often represented and remembered in a fashion that emphasises the brutal nature of the circumstances of her death and difficult life and by so doing erases her complexity as a woman and artist. Waldron speaks of how Holiday taught him to value words, in themselves, and how this shaped his phrasing as a musician.

Here’s Waldron’s recollection of how the song was written/composed, taken from the 2001 Ted Panken interview:

'In the previous set, we heard Mal Waldron with two great divas of the generation that grew up listening to Billie Holiday.  Mal Waldron played for several years with Billie Holiday.  I wonder if you can talk about how that happened and address the experience.

It was really an accident.  Because her pianist… She was working in Philadelphia, and her pianist just conked out, he couldn’t function any more.  So she needed the pianist.  So she asked Bill Duffy, who had written the book with her, to find a pianist, and Bill asked his wife, Millie Duffy, if she knew any musicians, and Millie asked Julian Euell, who was one of her friends, and Julian Euell asked me, and I said “The buck stops here.”  I got on a train and went there.  So it was an accident, but it was a beautiful accident for me.

Were you always a fan of her music?

Oh yes, I was a fan of her music, but I had never played it.  But I got a crash course!

And “Left Alone” was written for her?

Yes.  She wrote the words and I wrote the melody.  We were on a plane going from New York to San Francisco.  It took more time than it does now because they were propeller planes.  She just wanted to write tune about her life, so she wrote those lyrics, and I wrote the melody.  By the time we got off the plane, it was finished.

What was she like with the band?

She was very relaxed.  In fact, she didn’t make rehearsals.  She didn’t like to make rehearsals.  She just came on and did it.  So I had to rehearse the band!' 

Here is the Abbey Lincoln version of 'Left Alone' from 1961, recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Mal Waldron and Max Roach for her album Straight Ahead. It’s an extraordinary performance by Lincoln, her bold style perfectly suits the lyricism's direct nature. The fact that she sings it so straight makes it all seem even more tragic. She sings the lines as if recounting something factual, a weather report or something of that kind.

Lincoln's interpretation appeals to me because it feels honest, real. Something I really dislike in singers is the way they over-dramatise tragic material, or do something stagey (slow it down, stretch words or whisper parts of it, pause for drama etc). Such mannerisms only emphasise their lack of knowledge. When I first heard the Abbey Lincoln interpretation of this song I thought it was a bit strange, the forthright tone of it all and the distance (I was imagining how Billie Holiday might have sung it, how she might have used her trademark brittle elongation of words and sounds).

Then I came to really love it for those same reasons. As anyone who has heard someone speak like this of life, or love – or heard themselves perhaps speak like this – this is how such words are said, without self-pity or self-doubt. They are said as a statement of fact external to the speaker. Such words are a lament of the resigned, the broken. Then if you listen closely there are gradations in Lincoln’s performance, especially in this part, which is repeated:

Maybe fate has let him pass me by
Or perhaps we'll meet before I die
Hearts will open, but until then

I'm left alone, all alone

Something about the way she sings ‘perhaps’ as if there might be space for doubt is extremely touching. Waldron said that Billie Holiday wanted to write something of 'the story of her life.’ The fact that this song remains as her last testament is deeply sad.

Musically it’s a beautiful performance by the group: the Coleman Hawkins solo is moving, Waldron’s presence is so muted it can hardly be heard and I particularly like the way the music comes together, offering some kind of grounding or foundation for Lincoln to sing her truth, as she sees it. The music in terms of its performance feels deeply empathetic to me.

The live performance in Japan with Waldron with Kohsuke Mine (alto saxophone) Isao Suzuki (bass) and Yoshiyuki Nakamura (drums) is also very beautiful, a technically flawless performance, where Mal Waldron’s piano solo begins ever so gently, at points a a repetition of single notes. It is not so different from the first Waldron recording of the song from 1959 with Jackie McLean. The album description has it that Waldron is at the piano playing ‘the moods of Billie Holiday.’ Both performances have the same clarity, lacking perhaps the expression of something deeply felt, defined by a certain control.

Later performances, for example this one from 1986, when Waldron reunites with Jackie McLean and then in the one from the final year of his life, recorded with Archie Shepp are more emotional in the way they show a more expressive side of the pianist (the second one especially).

My favourite, along with the 1971 performance in Japan is this version Waldron recorded in February 2002, the year of his death (he passed away at the age of 77 the following December in Brussels). I understand that Archie Shepp’s sense of drama as a performer might not be to everyone’s taste, especially when compared with the other more formal renditions, but I always appreciate it. You sense something of his spirit when he plays. This quality I think encouraged Waldron to become more expressive as well, more lyrical, more present in his final performance of the song that defined his career.

Here is the interview where Mal Waldron speaks of what he learnt from Billie Holiday, the context of this, his most famous song which ended up becoming a dedication to the late artist throughout Waldron's professional life.

Versions: ‘Why don’t we do it in the road?’ cover, Lowell Fulson/m (1969? single/Jewel Records, In a Heavy Bag reissue Sundazed Music, 2006)

Guitarist Lowell Fulson/m, who for ‘contractual reasons’ also recorded under the names Lowell Fullsom and Lowell Fulsom, is described as the ‘most important figure in West Coast blues in the 1940s and 1950s’ after T-Bone Walker.

I love the drums on this song, the way they splash while remaining controlled and the guitar sound, especially so rich and resonant and the determined OCD-nature of the vocals. There’s a kind of whiplash effect to the way he articulates certain words. 

Fulson’s 1966 song 'Tramp’ has been sampled by Redman (‘Time 4 Sum Aksion’), Cypress Hill ('How I Could Just Kill A Man’) and is said to be the inspiration for the Salt-n-Pepa song of the same name.  

‘Why don’t we …’ is, of course a cover by a certain English group released on their 1968 The Beatles, ‘the White album’ – to quote Wik: 

.. (the song) is short and simple; 1:42 of twelve-bar blues that begins with three different percussion elements (a hand banging on the back of an acoustic guitar, handclaps, and drums) and features McCartney’s increasingly raucous vocal repeating a simple lyric with only two lines   

The original eludes me online, but it is surely imprinted on our universal consciousness so no great loss, we’ll have to make do with this cover by a guy with an accent that is part Scottish-part Macedonian, or as it turns out Japanese, replete with trilling shriek effects, the bassline is nice though. 

This version, meanwhile, is described as a ‘funky version cover’ (no date, though my guess would be the 90s) by the Banana Ships, despite the Black (American) men in the video it seems to be another example of Japanese-fandom-weirdness (something residents of that nation definitely excel in) see the personnel listing: bass-Forii (Bible) Shinichiro/ Drums-Saito (AlrightDaiju) Vocal&Guitar-Ishiyama (Heifetz).

If you’re feeling brave, check out this Goth-excess from Lydia Lunch/Clint Ruin; the patron saints of the 90s underground scene and archetypal kohl-eyed star-crossed lovers, howling and writhing …

There is something about this song that attracts the ‘unconventional’ let’s say (even Meat Loaf covered the song on his two-disc album, Hang Cool Teddy Bear in 2010), I could go on adding increasingly stranger versions, many of them high on the histrionics, but will spare you. Having said that I like the Lowell Fulson cover, no games. 

Versions/Live Recordings: 'Sunny' Bobby Hebb (Sunny, Philips, 1966)

Live performance from 1972, with Ron Carter

Written in the 48 hours after a ‘double tragedy’ in 1963 - the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the murder of Hebb’s older brother, Harold who was stabbed to death outside a Nashville nightclub’ (source, Wik), ‘Sunny’ is one of those key touchstone tracks whose success has eclipsed all the other work by songwriter, Bobby Hebb.

Hebb claimed that he wrote the song as an expression of a preference for a 'sunny' disposition over a 'lousy' disposition following the murder of his brother and that his goal with the ‘optimistic’ lyrics was to express the idea that one should always ‘look at the bright side’.

All my intentions were to think of happier times and pay tribute to my brother – basically looking for a brighter day – because times were at a low. After I wrote it, I thought ‘Sunny’ just might be a different approach to what Johnny Bragg – from the Prisonaires -was talking about in ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain.’ 

Though if you listen to the Prisonaires’ track there is little obvious point of connection between the two: ‘Sunny’ appears to be a straight-up love song, while ‘Just Walkin’ is an expression of hopelessness. It was released on Sun Records in 1953, while the group was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville – here is some info on the group that included one member on a 99-year prison sentence. They were given day release to perform across the state and became famous during their time. 

The dark inspiration for the song’s composition – the two murders – and the reference to the imprisoned singers fascinates me, as it disrupts what would arguably be the most common associations with the song, as a ‘simple’ expression of love and feel-good, light-hearted entertainment, aka Boney M groovin' & movin' in sequins. 

Without wanting to over-state this too much, I like to think that this song holds this complexity and depth – as code – within it; you can feel it in the live version above, with Ron Carter, where there is an element of threat, or menace in the way Hebb enunciates and the music builds. You can sense it in the lyrics too that strike me as surprisingly non-specific for a straightforward love song:

‘Sunny
Thank you for the truth you let me see
Sunny
Thank you for the facts from A to Z
My life was torn like wind-blown sand
And a rock was formed when you held my hand (oh, sunny)
Sunny one so true, I love you.

Sunny
Thank you for the smile upon your face
Hmm, sunny
Thank you, thank you for the gleam that shows its grace
You're my spark of nature's fire
You're my sweet complete desire
Sunny one so true, yes, I love you

‘Thank you for the gleam that shows its grace/You're my spark of nature's fire ..’ aside from being wonderfully poetic it sounds far from human, is Hebb encouraging us to think that he is, in fact, referring to something more abstract, without spelling it out in fixed terms. This notion bewitches me a little; pop transcendence, hidden in plain view.    

The raw intensity of the live acoustic performance is missing in the original recorded version that has a sweet self-exposure and vulnerability, in the way it starts and falls away from time to time. Hebb’s 1966 album is really consistent, with some equally impressive songs; see, for example, I am your man and You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until You Lose It

Within the year and soon after, well-known artists were releasing their takes, most notably, Marvin Gaye and this superb version from the Stevie Wonder Live record – bassline paradise forming ...

'Sunny baby yeah ...'

Here’s Ella Fitzgerald/Tom Jones with the Welsh crooner tapping out the beat on a rocking chair, and even more surprisingly the film noir icon Robert Mitchum in 1967 offering his rendition as well. Jazz musicians also got involved in the celebration: notably, this classy and restrained Stanley Turrentine 1966 interpretation, but here is my preferred, as always, the passionate Les McCann exorcising spirits: 

Though the two versions that really strike me come from two non-Anglo women, first the Italian Luisa Casali – again from 1966  and this stunning rendition from Mieko "Miko" Hirota who has been called the "Connie Francis of Japan". Really love what she does here, encapsulating the erotics of the unhinged, while sounding completely committed.  

Schaum, Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek (Faitiche, 2016)

Heat that has a liquid quality, building forever in its intensity – to engage with, to recreate the Tropics. German producer, Jan Jelinek has said of this album:

'I have long been obsessed with the Tropics. This obsession involves a mental image of a specific quality of landscape: deliriously extravagant unstructuredness, hostile to life but also excessively productive. I am fascinated by the idea of installing clear minimalist forms amid such luxuriant tropical growth. Perhaps my image of the city of Brasilia is a good example: the utopia of elegant and ascetic modernism, surrounded by rampant vegetation.'

Jelinek continues that the idea of the

'Tropics is fascinating as a nervous jungle phantasm that openly indulges in exoticism at the same time as deconstructing it. In this way, the main character’s adventure becomes a journey into the subjective. It resembles a feverish inner delirium, exposing exoticism as a simulated, utopian perspective. What it boils down to is insubstantial, nothing but foam and froth.'     

The record title, Schaum means ‘foam and froth’ in German.

This is the second release from Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek, following Bird, Lake, Objects, Faitiche, 2010. Again, from the promotional material: 'Japanese vibraphonist Masayoshi Fujita prepares his instrument with various percussion elements as well as metal objects and toys, while Jan Jelinek layers loops made using small-scale electronic devices.'

What is particularly fascinating about this music is the way it allows for enormous warmth to come through; you can almost feel the heat, the damp and the sense of being enclosed by the clotted, putrid vegetation. This heat helps elide what could have made this idea ‘corny’ and overly manufactured, this notion of recreating an exotic environment. This music retains a physical, felt quality rather than simply becoming a purely abstract exercise.

I love all of this record, from start to finish, but the track ‘Botuto’ is particularly impressive in the way the sinister aspect is never over-played, it remains delicate and moving. I also appreciate the way the jazz references are there, but again allowed to merge with the contemporary aspect. It's modern and old. Schaum is a very distinctive and powerful release that retains a core intimacy to it as it explores the sensual world.      

Check out this Resident Advisor interview, ‘Sampling matters’ that unpacks the ‘sprawling career of Jan Jelinek, the highly adventurous German artist who's about to reissue Loop-finding-jazz-records, one of the best electronic music records of all-time.’

Coda:

The German musician patches together a mix inspired by his summer in LA, put up last year.

'Werdz'/'Unmentionable' Flying Pupa, from 12" single (Guntez Records, 2000) & Miles Davis 'Sweet Pea'

Bringing together three well-known Canadian MCs – Kardinall Offishall, Choclair, Saukrates – and two Japanese producers (Dj Ando and DJ Yujiro) these two tracks from a 12” single offer up interest in the way the music purposefully under-uses the various elements.

For the opener, the lower notes receding, there’s a kind of sleepiness to the sound, despite the dominance of the beat and an overall gentleness to the production despite the lyrics (which are kind of straight-forward, very familiar - reflecting an era, a style, a way of presenting - appropriate and what you’d expect with so nice touches, like the play on ‘stereo’ and the line: ‘work, vision, innovation, sensation’).

But I especially like the way the producers allowed the trumpet to be barely there, using a Miles Davis sample ‘Sweet Pea’ from his 1967 Water Babies album …

in a way that favours modesty and a very smooth lack of momentum, allowing the music to just be there. Track two: the instrumental ‘Unmentionable’ is really lovely for me, meditative and surprising in parts.

Take, for example, the section that runs from 5’20” onwards; the beat and three-note sample is allowed to take centre-stage, to be joined by a kind of submerged swirling sound and the piano that when it re-appears seems disorganised, lacking focus and messy. Found in all of this is a manipulation of notions of density and lightness right up until the end.

Music for Nine Postcards, Hiroshi Yoshimura (Sound Process, 1982)

Notice the space around the sounds, how the composer is conscious of the way sound exists within an environment (a heard environment) drawing our attention back to the act of listening, being present with the music.

The stillness of this music is so affecting, but has a determination about it and confidence. All those ‘relaxation music’ CDs, with the tinkly sounds of waterfalls strike me as claustrophobic as with these constructed soundscapes everything is so manufactured and decided for you. Here, the music allows you to interpret it for yourself, rather than direct you somewhere: it has a kind of faith about it.

Information from the liner notes for the 1999 CD

'The first edition of this album was released in 1982 on LP. I composed "Music for Nine Post Cards" while catching the waves of scenery out of the window and feeling the sounds form. Images of the movement of clouds, the shade of a tree in summer time, the sound of rain, the snow in a town, with those rather quiet sound images, I sought to add the tone of ink painting to the pieces.

Differing from the minimal musical style in my former piece" Clouds for Alma- for two koto harps" (1978), in this music a short refrain is played over and over while it changes its form gradually just like clouds or waves, based on the sound fragments noted on the 9 postcards. I put the first fragment of the sound, a seed or a stone as it were, to seek the "prime number" of the sound.

One day when I was composing this piece, I visited the brand-new contemporary art museum in the North Shinagawa area I took to its snow-white Art-Deco style, but not only that, I was also deeply impressed and moved by the trees in the courtyard which can be seen through the museum's large window. At that moment, I imagined how it would sound if were to play my developing album there. Could it possibly be one of the best sounds that fit this environment? This idea developed into the strong desire to carry it out.

Finishing the mixing, recording it on cassette tape, I visited this museum again. They gladly accepted such an unknown composer's request and said "OK, let's try to put it on in the museum." That made me so happy and encouraged me. After a few weeks, 1 received a phone call from this museum, where staff were often asked by the visitors "Where can I get this music?" On hearing those words, my desire to publish a record with those sounds was getting stronger and stronger. I decided to consult with Mr. Ashikawa about this. He said that he would start up a record label to present this new sound. in this way, "Music for Nine Post Cards" was released as the first LP record of the "Music Notation for waves" series.

This was followed by Mr. Ashikawa's "Still Way". This label's first attempt to present environmental music in Japan was taken up in many magazines. Although this album was a small publication by a minor label, I am very happy that not a few people still remember it. Now this album is being reprinted. I'm looking forward to the reaction of the people who are going to listen to this music for the first time. The Nine Post Cards which were sent from outside of a window. I hope this sound scenery makes quiet ripples.'

Translated by Misako Matsuki  

Found on a very interesting website, ‘fromheretillnow’ based in Zurich, devoted to 'obscure and unconventional music since 2012'. The site description continues: 'in a world of abundance of things and choices, fromheretillnow offers guidance through its hand-picked musical selections and its carefully conceived podcasts. we let you discover obscure music and genres as no wave, experimental, avant garde, drone and lo-fi. get lifted by never-heard before pop-not-pop music: beautiful to listen to, yet miles away from the mainstream.'   

Here is an article on the work of Yoshimura (and two other Japanese composers) on a site called 20funkgreats (?) Yoshimura is considered to be a ‘pioneer of ambient music in Japan’ and one of the country’s great post-war composers. The article says how this music could have ‘perhaps been driven by a subconscious impulse to find refuge from nasty reality ....

Many of these records have natural or organic themes, which could well reflect the artists’ own search for spaces of serenity amidst the hyper-accelerated lanes of late-era capitalism. Today we bring you a selection of tracks with that vibe, hope that you find them as soothingly beautiful as we do, and also that when we get together this time next week we don’t have any more reasons to want to escape reality.

We cross our fingers, hard.

Related article: Cage

'Still talking to you' Nujabes (Hydeout Productions, First Collection, 2003)

Soul-searching

ˈsəʊlsəːtʃɪŋ/

noun

  1. 1.

    deep and anxious consideration of one's emotions and motives or of the correctness of a course of action.

    "my conclusions required a great deal of soul-searching"

adjective

  1. 1.

    involving or expressing deep and anxious consideration of one's emotions or motives.

    "after a long, soul-searching conversation, they were finally reconciled"

 

(The above definition came up unintentionally, but it’s nice; so let’s keep it here).

When listening to a playlist, rather than an album of Soul Searching on YT one song title soon became another and then another and yet another as I wrote down the names of songs that stopped me. The first on that list though is ‘Still talking to you’.

What Nujabes can teach us, those of us who want to hear it (and there seems to be a veritable army out there) is the value of sound as texture. Here we find the jazz-hip-hop nexus in its purest, most intelligent form. Often I feel like some kind of quixotic figure battling windmills, ie my own points of irritation and it’s true the whole hip-hop sampling jazz bothers me on some level, as even though I’d never profess to be some kind of guru, jazz, it seems to me, can’t just be spliced up because ‘it sounds cool’ the essence of the genre depends on the way the elements work together, interweave, come forward and recede.

Nujabe gets this, of course. Listen to this amazing piece of music and in particular the way he uses the various sounds together – at the same time – encouraging us to make connections because of the sound’s like, unlike texture. The layering effect is so similar to the way jazz musicians feel their different parts within the whole (allowing their points of individualism, their personality to come through without overshadowing the contributions of the others).

And Nujabes throws in another wonderful element to the mix, often in this track it sounds like he’s scratching, but again he plays with this common trope in hip-hop that usually works as just another sample and is seen to be separate from the rest: he scratches across all the elements over an extended period of time, again to add texture, a kind of under-current.

From about 1’57” - precise, hey? - it’s pure magic, especially around 2 mins where there is this jagged, repeated effect (playing with the beat) and then from 2’20 it’s a truly beautiful play between the elements where they build but don’t resolve until about thirty seconds later. I’d love to have this part on loop, just this to be played in my ears as I go about my daily business. There’s nothing better. And then to close the exposed heartbeat of the drums.

Yes, there is a sweet piano sample. It’s pretty. But what is interesting and smart about this music is the way it enacts, it seems to me, the jazz aesthetic rather than simply sampling it; and all in an understated, highly modest way.

A lesser producer would have been tempted to play all of this for effect, to work on deepening the contrast to make it more obvious. Nujabes doesn’t and this is why I respect his work, even though to be honest at the beginning I was a bit sceptical, thinking it was the ‘easy listening’ lounge thing that I find a bit empty, but in fact it's the total opposite. It's full of feeling. 

Rising Son, Takuya Kuroda (Blue Note, 2014)

Sometimes that entire fusion thing can be close to unbearable to listen to; I have memories of watching a group here in Paris that was made up of super-enthusiastic types playing a 'musical mix' inspired by Af-ri-ka and felt so tired just watching them and their high energy antics (so left early). The trick, I think, is to underplay the influences, keep it low-key: serve it cold.

In this sense, this debut offering from Kuroda works beautifully. The first three tracks on this 2014 album are some of the best jazz, influenced by other genres, that I have heard for a long while. The first track - the title of the record, 'Rising Son' in particular hooked me as soon as I heard it, mainly because of the pretty strange, in some ways, production/recording. It seems as if the bass is brought forward so much it almost slips into distortion, it's a heavy and excessive sound that overpowers the rest, keeping the trumpet quiet, almost forgotten. I find this surprising and fresh. Similarly, the plastic-fantastic start is lovely and the stumbling, falling over your feet beat is nice too.

The next two tracks show their influences more clearly, but still with a kind of graceful gentleness that works. Interestingly, Kuroda cites Lee Morgan as a key influence on his latest record, Zigzagger (released in October this year), an artist I've been discovering and rediscovering a lot recently, for his ability to pre-empt new directions, in an under-stated way. There is a similar modesty in the approach of Kuroda, which is welcome.

A description of Kuroda's approach, influences, with reference to his most recent record from his website :

Whether moving from Japan to the U.S. or navigating between the influences of jazz, soul, hip-hop, Afrobeat and electronica, trumpeter/composer Takuya Kuroda has never followed a straight path. On his fifth studio album and Concord Records debut, the aptly named Zigzagger, Kuroda darts between those wide-ranging interests with a funky swagger and an intensely swinging vigor. The deeply infectious album, due out October 7, 2016, finds the trumpeter snaking his way around the opposing poles of acoustic and electric, bristling grooves and blissed-out vibes, punchy brass and fluid synths, carving his own distinctive sonic path along the way.

“Life is sometimes not that easy, sometimes not so difficult, and it should never go straight,” Kuroda says. “It’s always zigzagging. So I put my soul and spirit into that word.

Here's a taste of a track from Kuroda's most recent record ...