Archive for August, 2007

On the road with the Talking Heads

August 29, 2007

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense

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For those of you with long attention spans, you may remember that I discussed this album sometime back. Unfortunately, that post was one of the victims of the Boombox originally only being a page instead of its own full-fledged blog. This is one of my favorite rock albums of all time, so I thought it deserved revisiting.

This has been our summer in a car. We like road trips. A lot. But just this summer, we’ve been to St. Louis once and Michigan twice—two different areas, one trip involving nearly 2,000 miles in four days. And when we go back to St. Louis this weekend, it will be the third weekend in a row on the road. Whew.

If anything can help those miles go by, though, it’s music. Before any trip—often minutes before—we run around grabbing music we want to hear. This used to be cassettes. Now it’s CDs and playlists on iPods.

The music runs the gamut and then some. Jazz [from straightahead bebop to avant garde to the occasional big band and jump jazz]; classical and opera [the overture to Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries is quickly put into play when we pass big, billowing smokestacks just outside Springfield, Illinois, on our way to St. Louis]; occasional blues; a single track from an EP of rai music that Marion picked up in Paris [rai began in the early 1900s in Algeria as a combination of popular music and traditional Bedouin desert music, and in the early 1980s, transformed into a blend with modern pop sounds]; and a healthy dose of rock & roll.

This disk always makes the trip. For me, it is one of those desert island recordings: “If you could only take…” Yeah, I could listen to it that much. It is smart and dark, both in lyrics and sound, but it is also definitely music that gets you moving. The kind of music that naturally came from the art rock/punk rock/new wave vibe whose epicenter was New York’s legendary CBGB. And, of course, from the mind of front man David Byrne.

It also has the driving energy of a successful live recording. The album is the soundtrack to the concert film by the same title, a wonderful record of the band’s talent, eclectic yet cohesive style and sense of music as performance art. I’ve heard studio recordings of some of the songs on this disk, fine in their own right, but the live performances are electrifying. The nine tracks include Psycho Killer, Burning Down the House, Girlfriend is Better and Life During Wartime and probably the best cover of Al Green’s Take Me to the River you’ll ever hear. And wherever you are when you put this disk on—including in your car exceeding the speed limit on some interstate—I defy you to sit still while you listen.

A cautionary note. I don’t know how you feel about remixes. I pretty much uniformly despise them. A new remastered special edition of this disk came out in 1999, with seven additional songs. Greedy guy that I am, I bought it. Remastered also meant remixed, with dance/techno/etcetera beats and assorted DJ magic added. It sucked. I returned it. Get the original.

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Adventure and subtlety: Remembering Max Roach

August 22, 2007

Drummer/composer/bandleader Max Roach died last week in Manhattan. He was 83. As New York Times editor Peter Keepnews said of him in his excellent tribute on August 16, Mr. Roach “was among a small circle of adventurous musicians who brought about wholesale changes in jazz. He remained adventurous to the end.”

He was adventurous from the beginning too, and talented enough to play after-hours gigs in a New York jazz club while still in high school—with Charlie Parker, no less. And he was one of the pioneers in developing bebop in the 40s and later, working with trumpeter Clifford Brown, morphed it into the harder edged hard bop. Keepnews calls him “both the most imaginative percussionist in modern jazz and the most influential.”

Max Roach could play faster and harder than just about anyone, but he could also do so with amazing subtlety. Melody was hugely important to him. He said that if you walked into a club in the middle of a drum solo, you should be able to guess the melody just from the drums.

mboom.jpgI was introduced to Max Roach with this album, M’Boom, at a party thrown by a jazz drummer, appropriately enough. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I immediately had to find the host, grill him about what we were hearing and, ultimately, leave the party with the borrowed album tucked under my arm.

M’Boom [an onomatopoeia pronounced mmmBOOM] is both the name of the album and the group of eight percussionists he formed in 1970. All eight, including Roach, were not only composers and arrangers, but could handle the entire percussion family—drum sets, marimba, tympani, xylophone, vibraphone, concert tom toms, bongos, orchestra bells and more.

Unless you’ve heard this actual album, you’ve not heard anything like it. Eight percussionists sounds like a recipe for chaos—or at least cacophony. Instead, M’Boom is brilliantly, beautifully melodic. Often highly energetic, but at times, lyrical. More than anything, parts of it remind me of the gamelan music of Indonesia.

Which brings me back to his adventurousness. Yes, he was a jazz drummer—in fact, 100 jazz critics voted him the best jazz drummer of all times. He constantly shaped jazz and redefined it, with his playing, his composing and with the groups and projects he put together over his career. But he experimented far outside the world of jazz too.

The YouTube video below beautifully demonstrates his range. It includes clips of him playing with M’Boom, with his double quartet [his regular jazz quartet plus a string quartet] and with rapper Fab Five Freddie.

Thank you, Max Roach, for so much amazing music for so many years.

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Delta blues from a well schooled practitioner

August 15, 2007

Leroy Jodie Pierson: Country Blues
Gravel Road Music, 2007

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On our way out of town to go camping last week, we stopped by our post office box downtown to pick up the mail. Perfect timing. Our friend Don in St. Louis had mailed us Leroy Pierson’s excellent new CD, Country Blues. By the time we got onto I-94 on our way to Michigan, the pure, clean notes of his National steel slide guitar filled the car. Well, that and people and pillows and reading material and maps and binoculars and… We could tell we were in for a great road trip.

I wrote about Leroy a while back when we’d seen him live in St. Louis. Scroll down a bit here and you’ll find a little more about him and his music.

Leroy comes by his considerable blues skills honestly. He’s studied and played with the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines, Son House, Brownie McGhee and St. Louis blues legend Henry Townsend. And it shows—in his flawless guitar and his soulful vocals.

Country Blues is just what the name says. Music from the cotton fields, sharecropper farms and roadside juke joints of the Mississippi Delta. Whether acoustic or electrified, this is music that hasn’t made it up to Chicago and been citified into urban blues. And Leroy strips it down to its essence here. On six of the twelve tracks, it’s just him and his guitar, either a vintage Style-O National steel guitar or his National Resolectric. On the other six, he’s joined by guitarist Ken MacSwan. Ken’s subtle, understated playing blends beautifully with Leroy’s guitar work. Close your eyes and you could be on the front porch of some shotgun shack along a stretch of Highway 61.

Perhaps the most haunting track on this deceptively simple, stellar disk is Mance Lipscomb’s God Moved on the Water, the story of the Titanic told so plainly, so heartbreakingly: “The fourteenth day of April, the year was 1912, when the Titanic struck the iceberg. It’s almost too sad to tell.”

Many promising bluesmen have ventured off into more lucrative but less interesting genres. Keb’ Mo’ comes to mind—his occasional blues tunes are breathtakingly beautiful, but his albums are increasingly filled with forgettable singer songwriter dross. Not Leroy. He faithfully carries the blues torch—and it burns brightly here on Country Blues.

Listen to some samples through his website. Then buy it. Better yet, catch him live in St. Louis at BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups and buy it from the man himself.

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The “First Lady of Song”—no argument here

August 8, 2007

Ella Fitzgerald: The Cole Porter Songbook, Volume 1 and Volume 2
Polygram Records, 1990 [originally released on Verve, 1956]

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Let me start by getting a little blasphemy out of the way here. Billie Holiday does pretty much nothing for me. Yeah, tragic life, career cut short, blah, blah, blah. If you’ve read more than a few of the boombox posts, you know I’m a fan of darkness in music. But Lady day’s relentlessly downer songs, delivered in her trademark warble, just depress the crap out of me.

Of course, Marion and I are notoriously cranky about jazz vocalists. We pretty much think they should just shut up, sit down and let the musicians play. There are a few rare exceptions, though, and none is rarer than “The First Lady of Song”—Ella Fitzgerald.

Ella’s incredible vocal range is a perfect match for Cole’s equally wide-ranging lyrics, moving effortlessly and unerringly from funny to sad to sultry to swinging. And the lyrics are nothing short of brilliant, no matter the mood. As music critic Douglas Wolk puts it in his review on Amazon, “There have probably never been a singer and a songwriter as perfect for each other as Ella and Cole, and this delicious, inexhaustibly delightful album is the pinnacle of Fitzgerald’s career, not to mention one of the most likeable records ever made.”

As proof of that likeableness, let me offer up a little personal history. Older daughter Claire was what’s known in the trade as a colicky baby. If she was being fussy and the problem couldn’t be fixed with a dry diaper, a nap or being fed, you were pretty much hosed. We tried everything before accidentally lighting on the one thing that would work on a fairly reliable basis: We would dim the lights in the apartment, put on Ella singing Cole Porter [the original two-record vinyl set that got broken out into these two CDs] and dance with her. It almost always worked like a charm. Soon, a quiet, contented Claire would be curled up on a swaying parental shoulder.

From time to time, just out of curiosity, we would experiment with other vocalists. Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Edith Piaf… even Judy Garland. No dice. It had to be Ella, and it had to be Cole. And in all those many, many, many nights of dancing the fussy Claire to calmness, we never tired of this album.

We still have the vinyl. I pulled it out recently when I thought about posting it on the boombox here. We’re still not tired of it.

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Lost sleep and no regrets

August 1, 2007

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There’s just something about seeing music played live, especially in an intimate setting. Up close, you can catch all the nuances—musicians coaxing sounds from their instruments, interacting with one another as solos are handed off, feeding off each other’s direction and energy. Sure, you can sometimes sense this in recorded music, but there’s something absolutely magical about watching it happen.

So when I got an email that there was going to be a concert at the Jazz Loft, I was ready. The Jazz Loft isn’t a full time music venue—actually, it’s some guy’s Wrigleyville apartment. In the couple/few years we’ve been seeing shows there, the place has changed hands a couple of times. But each time it’s rented to someone new, there’s an understanding that jazz shows will occasionally happen there.

The shows themselves aren’t so much concerts as they are jazz parties. There’s no cover, it’s strictly BYOB, and the scheduled start time for sets is really more of a suggestion than a hard number. The music is always avant garde and usually features local musicians. But sometimes, touring musicians in town for a paying gig will be included in the line-up.

There were two acts scheduled for this past Saturday’s show. I got rolling later than planned and ended up trawling for parking for more than half an hour. So by the time I made it to the Loft around midnight, I’d missed the first set. The second act, The Engines, was just setting up to play. The members of this quartet are all major figures in Chicago’s improvised music scene, playing in numerous groups and projects and, especially in the case of saxophonist Dave Rempis, organizing music events such as those at the Jazz Loft and Elastic. Trombonist Jeb Bishop, drummer Tim Daisy and bassist Nate McBride round out the group.

The Engines’ set was a satisfying mix of apparent chaos and intricate structure, with energetic outbursts and quiet, introspective passages. Sometimes the Jazz Loft parties are packed. At this one, the audience barely outnumbered the musicians—but everyone there was totally into the music.

The show was being recorded. After the set, D Bayne, former Loft tenant and continuing host of the parties, told me it would eventually be released as part of an ongoing project of his. He’s doing small pressings—just 100 disks each—of ten shows. An artist friend is hand painting the CD clamshell cases. This fact alone could launch me into a discussion of how increasingly cheap, increasingly sophisticated hands-on technology is making such cool things possible, but I’ll save it for another time.

After the musicians had packed up, no one was quite ready to leave. Various conversations swirled around the room, sometimes overlapping and converging, much as the music had done earlier. When I finally headed out, it was around two in the morning. I had a ten-block walk back to my car ahead of me and knew we had plans for a family breakfast out in about eight hours that would mean no sleeping in [as if we ever sleep in]. All in all, it sounded like a fair price for the night I’d just had.

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