Archive for January, 2008

Mouth noises as art

January 30, 2008


I have a pretty low tolerance for most of what passes for performance art. I think David Blaine is a self-serving, self-promoting charlatan, for instance. His so-called career can’t fade fast enough for me.

So when I got an email that beatbox artist Adam Matta was doing a performance at the new New Museum in Manhattan last Friday, I was thisclose to hitting DELETE before curiosity got the better of me. Okay, so it sounded moderately interesting, especially when I saw the YouTube link. For me, YouTube has become the “show me what you got, kid” source for cutting through all the hype and seeing what someone can really do. In Adam Matta’s case, the answer is a lot.

So what is beatbox? Here’s how that impeccable source of information Wikipedia describes it: “Beatboxing is a form of vocal percussion connected with hip hop culture [it has been called the “fifth element” of hip hop] although it is not limited to hip hop music… It is primarily concerned with the art of producing drum beats, rhythm, and musical sounds using one’s mouth, lips, tongue, voice, and more. It may also involve singing, vocal imitation of turntablism, the simulation of horns, strings, and other musical instruments.” Here’s what it sounds like, as practiced by Mr. Matta [keep in mind that he is making all the sounds you hear on this clip with his mouth—I particularly like the “turntable” stuff toward the end]:

In some ways, it feels to me like a more focused, more urban version of what Bobby McFerrin does. In fact, Matta has performed with Bobby’s son Taylor McFerrin, a hip-hop producer and performer building on his father’s tradition of one-man showmanship.

Matta is a visual artist too; he has studied and exhibited in Italy and New York. His media include painting, drawing and, not surprisingly, a performance-based medium he calls “bicycle drawing.” With paint on his mountain bike tires, he does bike tricks on canvas mounted on board. You can find out more about this part of his career as well as his music at his website.

The YouTube video below illustrates his art background. In addition to his voice, he uses a homemade instrument, an homage to one of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades, Bicycle Wheel, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Matta’s version utilizes a tape head and recording tape stretched around the wheel rim, allowing him to play samples with it.

And finally, a clip of Adam Matta and fellow performer Kimba. Kimba, a parrot, adds only a little to the vocals, but her rhythm is impeccable.


Is it jazz? Is it hip-hop? Is it rap? “Yes.”

January 23, 2008


Us3: Hand on the Torch

In 1991, London-based producer Geoff Wilkinson was summoned to EMI Music’s London offices. He had released a 12-inch dance single that was getting a lot of airplay, The Band Played The Boogie. On it, he’d sampled a jazz tune originally released on Blue Note Records, now owned by EMI. Instead of getting sued, he somehow managed to talk his way into Blue Note’s vaunted jazz vaults.

The result for Us3—Wilkinson and production partner Mel Simpson—was the groundbreaking Hand on the Torch, originally released in 1993. The result for Blue Note was its first album ever to hit Platinum [selling one million copies].

The whole idea of teaming with hip-hop and rap artists was a risky one for the venerable jazz label. “It was a brave decision by [Blue Note President] Bruce Lundvall,” Wilkinson said, “but he made me record some demos first, to prove I could do it.” One of those demos became the first track of the album and my personal favorite, Cantaloop [Flip Fantasia]. It combines heavy samples from Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island and a sampled intro from an Art Blakey album with vocals by rapper Rahsaan Kelly and trumpet by Gerard Presencer.

Simpson does all the keyboard work on the album; Wilkinson handles samples and scratches, and the two share programming credits. Other personnel include rappers Kobie Powell and Tukka Yoot, sax players Ed Jones and Mike Smith, trombonist Dennis Rollins, guitarist Tony Remy, pianist Matt Cooper and backing vocalist Marie Harper.

Blue Notes’ vaults provide the talents of the aforementioned Hancock and Blakey as well as Lou Donaldson, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Reuben Wilson and Donald Byrd, all jazz luminaries.

What could have been a musical trainwreck is instead a brilliant conversation between two very different music genres. The music video above [thank you, YouTube] of Cantaloop [Flip Fantasia] demonstrates the careful intertwining beautifully. As with many music videos, though, the visuals don’t live up to the music. You’ll probably get more from the music if you close your eyes. Seriously.

Throughout Hand on the Torch, the musicians show a real sensitivity to the jazz samples. They bring some nice surprises to it too. On the cut Eleven Long Years, they actually uncover a reggae-friendly rhythm in Horace Silver’s Song for my Father. The result is electrifying.

Maybe it’s because this album is already nearly 15 years old, but the lyrics show refreshing restraint when it comes to glorifying violence and the gangsta lifestyle. The subjects are there, of course—they’re part of urban life. But tracks like Just Another Brother are typical of their take on the topic; it tells stories that show how whatever circumstances brought someone to violence, the result is always the same—he becomes “just another brother on lock-down.” The bragging and posturing inherent in much of hip-hop and rap is of course there too, but even this is mostly and refreshingly free of misogyny.

There’s also a two-disk import version of The Hand on the Torch; the second disk contains the original jazz tracks that Wilkinson and company sampled. As much as I love jazz, I have to think that hearing them might be like having a magician explain how he does a trick. We always beg to know the secret, but when the magic is explained, we’re always disappointed.

Bob Dylan, when unplugged just meant acoustic

January 16, 2008


The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Accounts vary wildly as to what transpired the night Bob Dylan took the stage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. At least one promoter of the event insists to this day that nothing unusual happened. A few behind-the-scenes people claim that famously mild-mannered folk legend Pete Seeger threatened to take an axe to the sound cable, an allegation he later denied. Most journalists who were there, though, agree that when Dylan started playing, people started booing. The booing and protests grew with each song, and after three numbers, Dylan left the stage. What had caused the crowd to turn on the popular rising star, seen by many as the heir apparent to Woody Guthrie? He had played an electric guitar. With an electric back-up band.

After some coaxing by fellow musician Peter Yarrow, Dylan came back on stage solo, with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. He did two more numbers that calmed the crowd and got them applauding again. But the message to folk purists that night could be summed up by the last song he chose to play: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

By the time I discovered Dylan, all this brouhaha was music history—and amusing history at that. I had no problem with his harder edged, electrified music. Like A Rolling Stone is one of my favorite Dylan tunes, as are the driving Subterranean Homesick Blues and angry Positively 4th Street.

That said, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his breakthrough second album originally released in 1963 when he was not yet 22, remains my favorite. All thirteen tracks are Dylan himself—his words, his raspy young voice [still the quintessential Dylan sound to me], an acoustic guitar and an occasional harmonica [seemingly always at the ready in the holder slung around his neck]. This is the Bob Dylan you would have heard in Café Wha? or some other Greenwich Village club.

When the music is this stripped down, there’s nowhere to hide. Everything has to work. What strikes me most when I get beyond the lyrics and the iconic Dylan voice is the masterful guitar playing. From the mournful delta blues sound on Down the Highway to the lyrical picking on Girl from the North Country and the hard, expressive strumming on Masters of War, his playing is a perfect blend of technique and emotion.

But in the end, it is the lyrics, it is the songs. Protest songs like Blowin’ in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall and the aforementioned Masters of War all feel chillingly relevant today with the likes of Hurricane Katrina and Iraq. The timely social satire of Talkin’ World War III Blues and inspired goofiness of Bob Dylan’s Blues evoke both Woody Guthrie and one important part of the whole folk music idiom. And Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right is about as eloquent and sad a break-up song as you’ll ever hear.

In this YouTube video of Dylan’s song Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, You’ll hear some of the songwriting and great skills as a performer that made Dylan so important so early on. The music is laid over a montage of footage, some of it very cool, a little bit of it just plain goofy. What is it with guys with editing programs and too much time on their hands?

Got a lot of Dylan in your collection? Got none? Doesn’t matter. If you don’t have The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, you need it.

What rap could have been—and still could be.

January 9, 2008


Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron has been called the godfather of rap. To listen to this album is to understand what rap could be.

Using the spoken word mixed with music, humor, anger and genuine outrage at the status quo, Scott-Heron delivers powerful messages that rail against ignorance and injustice. And no one gets away unscathed, especially in the title track, the best piece on the album. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a call to arms for African-Americans to step up and take part in “looking for a brighter day.” It attacks corrupt, uncaring government, racism, apathy, white liberals and opportunistic African-Americans alike. Most of all, though, it is a brilliantly biting indictment of a shallow, consumer-driven society and the media that both feed it and feed upon it.

Other tracks carry strong messages too. No Knock speaks out against the Nixon-era use of “no-knock” raids on political radicals; Black Panther leader Fred Hampton died in a no-knock raid. Whitey on the Moon questions the financing of this endeavor in light of rampant poverty right here on Earth. And Brother challenges “would-be Black revolutionaries” to stop posturing and start delivering:

Show that man you call an Uncle Tom just where he’s wrong.
Show that woman that you’re a sincere Black man.
All we need to do is see you shut up and be Black.
Help that woman, help that man.
That’s what brothers are for, brother.

All of which brings me back to what rap could be. Yeah, a lot has changed since the 1970s when this music first appeared. But unfortunately, a whole lot is just the same. How many songs do we really need about bling and violence, bitches and hos? With few exceptions, rap music has become like Irish music for me, one long, monotonous song cut up into song-length pieces.

Scott-Heron himself has called on the new generation of rappers to speak for change rather than perpetuate the current social situation, and to be more articulate and artistic: “There’s a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music. There’s not a lot of humor. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don’t really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing.”

All this said, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a wildly uneven album. In fact, it’s almost like two completely different albums in one, with more conventional songs outnumbering the uniformly excellent spoken word tracks. A couple of the songs work well too, most notably The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues and Pieces of a Man. But most are earnest, heartfelt, unfortunate exercises in bad 70s poetry.

All that said, though, the title track alone is worth the cost of admission.

Oscar Peterson: Grace and elegant virtuosity

January 2, 2008


Oscar Peterson: Summer Night in Munich

When I heard that jazz piano giant Oscar Peterson had died recently, this was the album I wanted to hear to remember him by. I had first heard part of it the night the death of Peterson’s longtime bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was announced on a local jazz radio station. The dj played the third track of the album, Nigerian Marketplace, because it began with a long bass solo. I was in the car at the time and had just gotten where I was going when the tune started. I sat there in the car until it ended nearly ten minutes later.

Like much of Peterson’s vast library of recordings, Summer Night in Munich is a stunning display of technical mastery and eminently listenable jazz. Peterson rarely pushed the envelope stylistically. As the New York Times obit points out, “rather than expand the boundaries of jazz, he used his gifts in the service of moderation and reliability, gratifying his devoted audiences whether he was playing in a trio or solo or accompanying some of the most famous names of jazz.” Some critics felt that he traded virtuosity for emotion or tension in his playing.

Listening to this disk again this week [and again and again], I’ll have to admit it doesn’t challenge me, doesn’t stretch my ear as free jazz—or even some old school be-bop—does. But the music has such grace and polish and elegant, intimate conversation going on among the musicians that I don’t miss the challenges.

Peterson suffered a stroke in 1993 that diminished the skills of his left hand. He responded by finding ways to make his right hand do more. It is evident in this 1998 recording. You don’t hear a lot in the way of the lower notes of the left hand; the piano is a bright, lively presence made up mostly of the higher register notes of the right. But bassist Pedersen steps up beautifully, supplying not only the stellar bass technique he was known for, but occasionally adding almost pianolike playing, particularly on the ballads. Drummer Martin Drew and guitarist Ulf Wakenius round out the quartet.

Seven of the eight tracks are Oscar Peterson compositions. For me, these are the best work on the disk. But even his take on Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll satisfies. No, Summer Night in Munich doesn’t take jazz in any new directions. But it shows how, with the right musicians, there’s still much to be explored in the places jazz has already been.