Archive for November, 2007

Where John Coltrane went first

November 28, 2007


John Coltrane: Interstellar Space

I thought I knew how much avant garde jazz musicians owed John Coltrane. From the intricate, sometimes challenging, almost always breakneck-paced solos he would weave around the melody, even on ballads. And from the way he would suddenly veer off from the melody completely and leave you wondering where he’d gone until he just as suddenly returned, showing you where he’d been.

Yeah, I thought I knew. Then I heard this album.

Interstellar Space, recorded just months before Coltrane died of liver cancer, shows just how far he pushed the free jazz envelope. And just how much everyone since owes him.

As he ventured more and more into experimental improvisation, his renowned 60s quartet fell apart, with veteran sidemen leaving the group, most notably legendary drummer Elvin Jones. In response, Coltrane retreated into the studio where, as jazz critic Stuart Broomer puts it, he “reduced the idea of the group to its absolute minimum, a duo with drummer Rashied Ali. Without the fixed harmonic frame of reference provided by piano or bass, Coltrane takes each of his brief themes and submits it to extended testing—repeating, contracting, and expanding phrases until they melt into a new inspiration.”

That lack of a “fixed harmonic frame of reference” makes Interstellar Space a challenging disk, especially the first listen or two. It is all out and out experimentation, with no melodies or refrains or ensemble playing to push against—or to be anchored by. But on multiple listens, even my less than trained ear picked up on the patterns, rhythms and structure in the pieces here. Another reviewer described it thus: “In some parts, Coltrane is conducting a saxophone dialogue with himself.”

And drummer Ali was every bit the match for him. Often, a piece would begin with Coltrane giving him a bit of a melody and telling him he wanted to go in and out of tempo. Then they would begin. Ali described how all this experimentation still managed to hang together compositionally: “I’m not playing regular time, but the feeling of regular time is there. I’m thinking in time.”

The six tracks on Interstellar Space range from fierce to lyrical. And though recorded some 40 years ago, they remain as fresh, as challenging, as exciting as anything I’m listening to these days.


Music to go

November 21, 2007

What music gets you going when you’re driving? Makes you tend to push the speed limit on the open road? Makes you dance in your seat at stoplights? Maybe even makes you, God forbid, sing along? Join the discussion in the comments below.


We always overpack for road trips, especially when it comes to music. And since we were flying to San Francisco before actually hitting the road, that meant cramming stacks of CDs—jazz [of course—including West Coast Jazz icon Stan Getz], classical, opera, rock, blues… And this mix CD.

I used to obsess over mix tapes for parties we’d throw, recording, erasing, rerecording until I got them just right. This CD was much more haphazard than that, thrown together last minute from our iTunes library, a spectacularly eclectic collection of music styles, tastes and sources, including music burned from our equally catholic vinyl collection.

A touch of the obsession remains, though. I bought one tune the night before we left that had to go on the disk. Had to.

So here it is, tune by tune, the first disk we popped into the rental car sound system as we left San Francisco. And it worked. When it started playing through a second time, we just let it.

1. On The Road Again, Canned Heat. This was the tune I had to buy, perhaps the ultimate road anthem by the ’60s California blues/rock band, with its harmonica-driven boogie over a drone borrowed from Eastern music for a perfect mystical touch. Not to be confused with the very different Willie Nelson hit. This YouTube video will give you a taste of their music—and of some of the dreadful psychedelic camera effects of the time.

2. Don’t Dream It’s Over, Crowded House. I don’t even remember how this ’80s tune found its way back into our consciousness this year, but its dreamy quality makes it a perfect track to follow Canned Heat.

3. Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones. Probably my favorite Stones song—nice and dark and dangerous, as much of the best rock & roll is.

4. Mystery Girl, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Sexy punk from this New York band fronted by the alternately tough and girly Karen Oh.

5. Right About Now, The Mooney Suzuki. More New York music from this reliably fun garage punk band—almost as much energy as they deliver live.

6. Rehab, Amy Winehouse. Yeah, I know—I’ll bet she wishes any of her other songs had been her breakout hit. But even if her personal life is a trainwreck, there’s no denying the power of her voice. The song is also a great example of how Brits are keeping 60s-style American soul music alive, long after our own country has turned its back on it.

7. Bang The Drum All Day, Todd Rundgren. The only decent thing Rundgren ever recorded, but it is soooo good. Whenever it comes on, we always crank the volume.

8. I Only Have Eyes For You, The Flamingos. Okay, this is the one unabashedly, uncomplicatedly romantic tune on the whole disk. We love it.

9. When The Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin. Another gift from the Brits: They gave us back blues music, yet another uniquely American art form we’d walked away from.

10. Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Bauhaus. Call them goth, glam, post-punk or whatever, this dark epic [almost 10 minutes long] would be an impressive debut for any band.

11. Breakdown, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. One critic called Petty’s debut album “tuneful jangle balanced by a tough garage swagger.” This song is what that sounds like.

12. Let’s Work Together, Canned Heat. When I was buying On The Road Again, I saw this one. I couldn’t resist.

13. Ex-Lion Tamer, Wire. I’m always a sucker for Brit punk, and these guys do it right, fast and loud. This is a track from their 1977 album Pink Flag—it blasts through 22 songs in less than 37 minutes.

14. Ecstasy, Rusted Root. More trippy hippie music, perfect for a California road trip, by way of… Pittsburgh?

15. Chains, The Cookies. Any good mix CD can always be made a little better with some ’60s girl group music.

16. Bye Bye Blackbird, Joe Cocker. Leave it to Mr. Cocker to turn a bouncy 1920s pop tune into a soulful, melancholy love song. Beautiful.

17. Sweet Dreams, Roy Buchanan. A wonderfully haunting solo guitar version of the Patsy Cline standard. We first came across it playing over the closing credits of the Scorsese film The Departed.


Okay, your turn. What are your favorite tunes to go? Music only, please. No talk radio, not even [and perhaps especially not] NPR.

Hot jazz, cool Paris vibe

November 14, 2007


The Best of Django Reinhardt

A few weeks ago, we went to the Green Mill and caught part of a set by Alfonso Ponticelli and Swing Gitan. Two amplified acoustic guitars, a violin, upright bass, drums and an accordion—the musicians were all twentysomething [or thereabouts] guys except the accordionist, and they were doing spot on Django Reinhardt-style gypsy jazz. Absolutely authentic and very lively—it transported the already historic Chicago jazz club back to Paris in the ’30s.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, here’s a little sample of an actual set at the Green Mill. Although bandleader Alfonso plays lead guitar, the videographer was obviously a friend of violinist James Sanders. But the clip will still give you a sense of the music and the moment and the place.

That lovely evening of course sent me in search of some actual Django Reinhardt music. The music snob in me generally causes me to ignore “Best Of” albums, but in the case of this one, they mostly got it right.

Django Reinhardt was born in a Gypsy caravan in Belgium in 1910. He started playing guitar when he was 11; by the time he was 13, he was playing professionally in working-class cafés. He eventually discovered jazz and in the 1930s, teamed up with French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. And that led to what I think of as the classic Django Reinhardt sound—hard swinging jazz, often with rapid-fire guitar work, usually teamed with Grappelli’s violin, always up to the challenge of Django’s masterful playing.

Decades after his untimely death in 1953, he remains arguably the best jazz guitarist of all time. In fact, that was the basis for an interesting Woody Allen film, Sweet and Lowdown, in which Sean Penn’s character considers himself the second best guitarist in the world, second only to Django.

Again thanks to YouTube, here is a wonderful clip of Reinhardt and Grappelli performing together. The music gets going in earnest after a stagey little newsreel bit.

The tracks that work best for me on The Best of Django Reinhardt are the smaller settings—quintets, duets, even solo pieces. They let the amazing guitar work shine through. On the couple/few tracks that feature a full orchestra, the guitar becomes more of a featured player than a leader. More important to me, at least, it loses that Paris jazz club vibe. Still, with a total of 18 tracks, there’s plenty to love here.