The Dave Brubeck Quartet: “The Golden Horn” (Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, 1958)

Yesterday, we lost Dave Brubeck, a day shy of his 92nd birthday. Pitchfork’s obituary headline today refers to him as a “jazz titan,” which is perfectly apt. The man’s influence was huge, and he made a few of my very favorite albums with his excellent quartet from the late 50s into the early 60s.

The thing that triggered that run of greatness was a world tour organized by the State Department in 1958. The classic quintet lineup of Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on sax, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums was cemented on this tour, and the music they heard as they traversed Asia and Europe deeply affected the band’s music.

Brubeck and Desmond began to build their compositions in a wide variety of unusual time signatures, and they expanded their harmonic concepts, already indebted to modernism and neo-classical music, to reference the music of other parts of the world.

Brubeck’s open-armed embrace of music that challenged his existing notions and constant desire to push the boundaries of his own music are two of the things that most endear me to him. He was among the first jazz musicians whose music I warmed to, in part because the transition from progressive rock to his odd time signatures and complex harmonic ideas was a fairly smooth one. My love of Brubeck’s music helped kick down the door to a broader love of jazz. I owe him for that.

The run of albums that sprang from Brubeck and his band’s overseas awakening is among my favorite bodies of work by anyone: Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, Time Out, Time Further Out, Countdown—Time in Outer Space, Time Changes, Jazz Impressions of Japan, and Time In are all wonderful records. His piano style on these records is distinctive and spry, and his penchant for patterns dovetails with his rhythmic experimentation to lend the music exquisite math.

Brubeck impressed me as a person, too. He was embarrassed when TIME put him on the cover in 1954, because he thought it should have been Duke Ellington instead (he understood racial politics humbly enough to recognize, even at the time, the likely reasons TIME had favored him for the cover). He managed a feat rare for jazz musicians when he landed “Take Five” (a Paul Desmond composition) in the Top 40, and his music’s accessibility made him enduringly popular, but I’ve read interviews with the guy from near the end of his life, and it didn’t seem to go to his head. He was still kind of taking it all in, in the way he did.

I know who I’ll be listening to all day.

Meet Me on the Moon: Space Age Music for Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)
Download link. 
1. Orchester Roland Kovac: Space Station 12. Dick Hyman & Mary Mayo: Space Reflex (Blues in 5/4)3. Os Brazões: Modulo Lunar4. Russ Garcia: Birth of a Planet5. The Tornados: Telstar6. Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman: Mist o’ the Moon7. Ferrante & Teicher: Man from Mars8.  Joe Meek/Rod Freeman & the Blue Men: Valley of the Saroos  9. Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra: Raumpatrouille (Space Patrol) 10. Pink Floyd: Moonhead 11. Tom Glazer & Dottie Evans: Why Go Up There? 12. Les Baxter: The Other Side of the Moon 13. Alain Goraguer: Les Fusees 14. Daniel J. White: Mer de la Tranquillite 15. The Ventures: Moon Child 16. John Keating: Unknown Planet 17. The Ames Brothers: Destination Moon 18. Perrey-Kingsley: Carousel of the Planets 19. Bernard Herrmann: Prelude/Outerspace/Radar 20. Tom Dissivelt & Kid Baltan: Song of the Second Moon 21. 101 Strings: A Disappointed Love with a Desensitized Robot 22. Louis & Bebe Barron: Forbidden Planet Main Title 23. Akira Ifukube: The Mystery of Planet X 24. Delia Derbyshire: Planetarium 25. Ernie: I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon

Meet Me on the Moon: Space Age Music for Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Download link. 

1. Orchester Roland Kovac: Space Station 1
2. Dick Hyman & Mary Mayo: Space Reflex (Blues in 5/4)
3. Os Brazões: Modulo Lunar
4. Russ Garcia: Birth of a Planet
5. The Tornados: Telstar
6. Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman: Mist o’ the Moon
7. Ferrante & Teicher: Man from Mars
8.  Joe Meek/Rod Freeman & the Blue Men: Valley of the Saroos 
9. Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra: Raumpatrouille (Space Patrol)
10. Pink Floyd: Moonhead
11. Tom Glazer & Dottie Evans: Why Go Up There?
12. Les Baxter: The Other Side of the Moon
13. Alain Goraguer: Les Fusees
14. Daniel J. White: Mer de la Tranquillite
15. The Ventures: Moon Child
16. John Keating: Unknown Planet
17. The Ames Brothers: Destination Moon
18. Perrey-Kingsley: Carousel of the Planets
19. Bernard Herrmann: Prelude/Outerspace/Radar
20. Tom Dissivelt & Kid Baltan: Song of the Second Moon
21. 101 Strings: A Disappointed Love with a Desensitized Robot
22. Louis & Bebe Barron: Forbidden Planet Main Title
23. Akira Ifukube: The Mystery of Planet X
24. Delia Derbyshire: Planetarium
25. Ernie: I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon

Jack Medell & His Orchestra: “Umbe” (United U-213, 1957)

If you’ve ever followed conversations about music, you know that one topic that rears its head fairly often, no matter how many times we think we’ve banished it, is authenticity. The debate around Vampire Weekend was soaked in various interpretations of and reactions to this notion, to name a recent example, but it rears its head more subtly, too, all the time.

I hate this line of debate. Not least because it has the effect of positioning the debaters as arbiters of other people’s sincerity and qualifications to sound or act a certain way, but also because, frankly, a lack of authenticity, however defined, doesn’t mean a piece of art can’t be awesome and fulfilling, for the artist and the experiencer of the art. 

One of my pet genres, one I’ve always collected in the background of my various obsessions with prog rock and Afrofunk and post-rock and soul and all the other things I’ve dove deeply into, is exotica, which is in some ways built on inauthenticity. It’s not real African or Latin or Asian music, it’s a simulacrum of same, or at least somebody’s second-hand idea of it.

But it’s more than that, even. Surely a lot of it was garbage, uninspired cash-in trash that rightly moldered in people’s basements for decades after the hi-fis got put away.

But at its best, exotica was inspired, and in the hands of its most creative practitioners, like Les Baxter, it became an imaginarium where borrowed rhythms from locales its creators and listeners might never visit collided with early stereo experimentation, new-fangled electronic noisemakers, unusual harmonic and arranging decisions, and a spirit of adventure and excitement at the new that dovetailed nicely with the Space Race that kicked into high gear at the end of the 50s, exotica’s peak decade.

"Umbe" was recorded in Chicago in 1957, the year that physical exploration reached beyond terrestrial destinations for the first time with the launch of Sputnik 1. Little is known about Jack Medell, the bandleader of the recording, and it doesn’t appear that he had any releases beyond this, which was paired on a 45 with a tune called "Enchantment."

United released mostly blues, gospel, and r&b, and I wonder at the circumstances that led them to put out a moody orchestral instrumental that opens with a chant that may or may not be based on something actually found within Afro-Cuban music. It sounds like it could be, which is the kind of blurriness that makes exotica compelling to me. One thing that definitely is real is Dom Garaci’s fantastic trumpet solo. I particularly love the way he slinks away after stating the main theme with that series of rough, descending notes before the strings and then piano move forward (just guessing that it’s Medell on piano). Geraci may also have played on this LP.

I don’t know who the singer was or what he’s saying, although I think he does say “incendio” in the intro, which means the lyrics have something to do with fire, a not uncommon element of the imagined rituals of exotica. Regardless, his performance matches Garaci’s for intensity, and between the two of them, they elevate this from a humid little mood piece into something captivating that earns all the motion in its rhythm section. 

Does it exploit ignorance and the ideal of the exoticized Other in the hopes of selling a few records? Probably. Does it sound exciting and full of vitality almost sixty years after it was recorded? Absolutely. “Umbe” is ersatz Afro-Cuban music with enough fire in it to claim a personality of its own. It’s not authentic world music, but to me it sounds authentically awed by the possibilities of the world outside immediate experience, and that makes it worth listening to.

Flatt & Scruggs: “Flint Hill Special” (Foggy Mountain Jamboree, 1957)

A few years ago, my wife and I started listening to bluegrass. Not in any systematic or particularly directed way—we just found that we liked this music a lot. We came about it in possibly the most stereotypical way possible for a couple of Northern, liberal intellectuals: we had been listening to A Prairie Home Companion, and got to talking about how great the “Powder Milk Biscuits” theme song was. For Christmas, I got Andrea a ton of bluegrass CDs, including a big boxed set, and the phenomenal 2003 album The Three Pickers, featuring Doc Watson, Ricky Scaggs and Earl Scruggs.

Hearing that sent me back in time, looking around for more places to hear the amazing banjo picking of Earl Scruggs. Scruggs played a five-string banjo, and when he joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1945, no one had really heard anyone play it the way he did, in a wild and intricate, three finger plucking style that was so innovative and distinctive people today actually call it Scruggs style.

Scruggs met guitarist Lester Flatt playing in Monroe’s band, and in 1948, the two of them set out on their own, ultimately deciding to perform under their own names after a brief period calling themselves the Foggy Mountain Boys. The 1957 LP Foggy Mountain Jamboree is outstanding, a half-hour of mostly instrumental jamming that is so full of joy I don’t think it could ever fail to lift my mood.

There won’t ever be another Earl Scruggs, but there doesn’t have to be. We got the real thing for 88 years. 

First Five On The Shuffle 2

Dennis Wilson: “Love Remember Me” (Bambu (The Caribou Sessions), 1978)

I’ve had Bambu hanging around on my hard drive for a long time but have never listened to it. So this is the first bit of it I’ve heard, and I guess I can see the potential of this material, but in execution, it’s pretty rough. There’s something innately powerful about the big, repeated chorus with all its layers—the phrase “love comes tumbling down on you” could be read a lot of ways, but Wilson’s fried lead vocal makes me think he’s either headed to a dark place or already there. It could have done without the bombastic lead guitar, certainly. It’s hard to reconcile this Dennis Wilson with the quite surfer and beach bum that he was in the 60s. He was the only surfer in the group when they formed, but died at 39, drowning while diving to find things he’d thrown off his boat. This is one of those recordings that just feels a little too close to someone’s personal deterioration for me to listen to comfortably.

The Louvin Brothers: “Don’t Laugh” (Handpicked Songs 1955-1962, 1955) 

Dennis Wilson’s life had its share of strife (I didn’t mention the chapter starring Charles Manson above), and strife was also familiar to the Louvin Brothers. Charlie passed away last year after a long, productive and pretty stable life, but the other Louvin Brother, Ira, was the complete opposite, a drunk who died in a car accident in 1965 after being married to four women, one of whom shot him after becoming fed up with his abuse. Together, they made some really great music, and “Don’t Laugh” is a really fine song. Recorded in 1955, it wasn’t released until 1968; my mp3 is from Light in the Attic’s recent Louvins compilation, and it was chosen for the set by the Byrds’ Chris Hillman.

Cortijo y Su Nuevo Combo: “Tum-Bin” (Champions, 1975)

Rafael Cortijo was a Puerto Rican percussionist about whom I know very little aside from his origins and the fact that he lived from 1928 to 1982. Oh, and that this is a bright and fleet-footed song with great horns and a totally infectious rhythm. My mp3 has “salsa” as the genre, but I think a more correct tag would be bomba, though I’m not really an expert on Puerto Rican styles and could be wrong—it’s just that salsa’s more of a catch-all term than a true genre designation. Anyway, that’s hand-wringing. This is hip-shaking.

Pink Floyd: “The Amazing Pudding” (Broadcasting From Europa 1 bootleg, 1970)

Ah, yes, “The Amazing Pudding.” This is really just another title for the “Atom Heart Mother Suite,” and is usually applied to versions played only by the four-piece band, without the choir and the horn section. Generally, I like these versions more than the orchestral/choral ones, because one of the best things about Pink Floyd in the late 60s and early 70s was their improvisatory inventiveness and the way they made the same six or seven pieces of music into something different each night. They always sound hamstrung playing with that orchestra and choir, but these four-piece versions of that piece of music open right up. This is one of the very best recordings of “The Amazing Pudding,” taped for radio broadcast in France at the Theatre Champs-Elysees in Paris on January 23rd, 1970. I love what Rick Wright does with those ponderous horn parts when he transposes them to the organ. Incidentally, the Broadcasting from Europa 1 bootleg also includes an orchestral version of the suite and is worth tracking down (it’s available on quite a few blogs).

The Ventures: “Western Union” (Super Psychedelics, 1967) 

After sixteen minutes of Pink Floyd’s monumental take on psychedelia, I get a little bit of whiplash taking in the Ventures’ bouncy idea of the same thing. Really, this just signals that the Ventures were groping for a way forward as psychedelia passed them by. Which is not to say it doesn’t have its brightly colored charms, because it does (really, it’s like a sonic equivalent of a Runts dispenser). The Ventures were past their prime when they recorded this, they were still a good band,and this is fun stuff to have around.

Hear these tracks here.

First Five on the Shuffle #1

With less time to devote to blogging, I need an easy topic generator to get me going , so here a new series: First Five on the Shuffle. I have a huge mp3 library, with a lot of tracks I’ve never heard or only played once (and maybe didn’t even hear them when I did), so refreshing the shuffle on iTunes almost always brings up stuff that’s still new to me. So I’m going to react to the first five things that come up when I hit refresh, whether I’ve heard them before or not. You can listen for yourself by following the link at the bottom of the post.

The Ex: “Sucked Out Chucked Out #8” (The Dignity of Labour, 1983)

I love the Ex, but I haven’t gotten round to listening to The Dignity of Labour,  which has eight tracks, all with the same title. This is the last of them. It’s not the most bracing thing in their catalog by any means, but it has enough of their rhythmic insistence and pointed noise to work. Which I guess is a pun. Oops.

Hungarian Ensemble: “Rollin’ Rollin’” (Koncert A Marson, 1970)

I have an absolute ton of 50s and 60s rock and roll from outside the West; in this case, that means Hungary, which was on the other side of the Iron Curtain when this was recorded. Hungary had a much more vibrant recorded music industry and pop scene than a lot of its Warsaw Pact neighbors, which is not to say that there was a ton of innovation. There certainly isn’t on this track by one of the least creatively named rock groups ever, but it’s still a very enjoyable little record, splitting the difference between 50s rock and roll and 60s bubblegum with a tiny dash of 70s hard rock. Honestly, I was hoping it’d be a mis-titled cover of “Rawhide.”

Nicolas Sosa: “La Petenera Jarocha” (Harp Music, 1950)

At forty five seconds, this is a very brief demonstration of Mexican folk harp styles (and by harp, I mean the big, stand-up string instrument), but it’s quite lovely. The harp played a big role in a few Latin American folk styles (Venezuelan llanero music is sublime), which has always been interesting to me because the instrument is so unportable. You can’t exactly sling it over your shoulder and jump on your horse, you know? I don’t know anything about Nicolas Sosa, but I can tell you he played the harp wonderfully.

Lonnie Johnson: Jersey Belle Blues (my mp3 is from Jonathan Bogart's 100 Great 1930s Records For The New Depression, 1939) 

This is a blues tune, and sort of a weird one at that—a piano and acoustic guitar are both used in the accompaniment, and there are parts of the song where they both play lead instead of trading licks. As for the Jersey Belle… well, that’s a type of cow, but you know this is a double entendre, because that’s what almost every 1930s blues song that wasn’t about murdering someone was. I can just imagine Johnson grinning into a big old microphone as he deadpans “she’s a mighty tough titty” as though he really is talking about a cow. He doesn’t really try very hard to mask the raunchiness anyway. The first verse remarks that his bedroom is lonely since his Jersey belle is gone, and if you took it as literally about a cow, well, that’d be a totally different kind of song, wouldn’t it?

Ache: “Cyclus 7 Introduction” (Pictures from Cyclus 7, 1976)

This is the opening track of what appears to be a concept album about… I think Cyclus 7 is supposed to be some sort of phase of man, like Aquarius? Ache was from Denmark, and this is fairly bland prog rock. The sudden tempo shift in the middle of the song is competently handled, but the rhythm section is too straight ahead with its plodding rock beats. I do like the waves of Leslie-soaked guitar that sweep across the stereo field during the slow bits, though. I dunno. Is it really necessary to start your concept album by explicitly stating that you’d like to sing to your audience about what you’re about to sing about? Probably not. The album also contains a track called “Outtroduction.”

Hear these tracks here.

The Bill Evans Trio: “When I Fall In Love” (Portrait In Jazz, 1959)

As the year ran out and I lost control of my personal time, three deaths occurred that I wanted to take time to mark, and now that 2011 is almost in the bag, I figured I’d give up on my scattershot attempt to catalog or make sense of the year and get down to the business of honoring three people I wanted to honor earlier.

The first is Paul Motian, who died on November 22nd, was one of the great jazz drummers. He led his own groups and played with a huge who’s who of other great musicians (for one odd example, he was in Arlo Guthrie’s band at Woodstock), and he was one of a handful of drummers who helped break the instrument free from just keeping time.

My favorite recordings of Motian’s—and this is not really all that unique—are the ones that brought him to prominence, with the Bill Evans Trio. He, Evans, and bassist Scott LaFaro (who died far too young in 1961) had the kind of simpatico you only hear a few times in a lifetime. They played together as one mind, and Motian, well, he painted with the drums, his playing as dappled and impressionistic as anything by Sisley, Morisot or Degas.

This year has drained the words right out of me—I don’t have much more to say about it than that. Paul Motian lived 80 years, and he gave us this before he turned 30, and if he’d never done another thing, it would have been generous enough.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: “Little Demon” (Okeh 4-7072, 1956)

A little Halloween mayhem for you on this October 31st.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, his band, and their engineer were all raging drunk when they recorded this, which was originally released as the b-side to his million-selling breakthrough “I Put A Spell On You.” They were drunk recording “Spell,” too. This was fortuitous, because Hawkins had been a pretty average blues singer up to that point, and these two weird songs they came out of the session with remade him in a completely new mold. He added “Screamin’” to his stage name, and the rest is, well, you know.

Screamin’ Jay went on to have a long, fruitful, and totally bizarre career, making records to varying degrees as wild as this one. He also went on to father a legendary, and still undetermined, number of children out wedlock. They even had a reunion in 2001.

Marv Johnson: “Come To Me” (Tamla 101, 1959)

In 1981, Esther Gordy Edwards looked out the window of 2648 W Grand Blvd in Detroit to see a large group of British sailors standing on the lawn. They’d come to see the house, the one-time headquarters of Motown Recording Co. and the home of the Snake Pit, the studio where many of the label’s best recordings were made.

This gave Edwards pause. She’d kept a small-scale operation going at the house on Grand ever since her brother, Berry Gordy, had pulled up stakes and moved the company to L.A. Edwards was married to a Michigan state rep, George Edwards, and was a Detroit partisan who refused to go west with her brother.

Four years later, Edwards opened the two-house complex on Grand as the Motown Historical Museum. The studio and most of the offices had been preserved fairly well since the recording operation’s departure, and even before the company had taken off, Edwards had begun a collection of memorabilia—it’s a measure of her faith in what the company could achieve that she was preserving its history before it was apparent to anyone else how historically important it would be.

The irony of this is that it was Edwards who very nearly prevented Motown from happening. The Gordy family was well-stocked with business-savvy minds, and had established a lending co-op, through which family members could provide loans to each others’ business ventures. Berry had asked the family for $800 to start his record company, and Edwards was the loan holdout.

Edwards grilled her brother on his plans for days before finally agreeing to allow the loan. Berry brought her on at the label to watch its finances—she’d been tough on him, so he figured she’d be tough on the company, too. Edwards was a much bigger part of Motown’s success than that, though. She mentored artists, chaperoned the young female acts, and generally became the mother figure of the label.

The $800 investment paid off pretty well. Berry Gordy bought the house on Grand and put up his presumptuous but ultimately accurate Hitsville U.S.A. sign. The first single he issued was this one, “Come To Me,” by Marv Johnson, on Tamla 101. It blew up regionally and caught everyone at the fledgling label off guard. Gordy licensed the song to United Artists, whose re-release became a national hit—the royalties helped pay the bills while the label got its act together.

Already on this song, you can hear some of the people who would help define the company over the next few years. That’s James Jamerson on bass, Benny Benjamin on drums, Beans Bowles on sax and flute, and the guitars are played by Eddie Willis and Joe Messina (third guitarist Robert White would join them soon). Brian Holland is one of the backing vocalists, along with Gordy’s wife Raynoma and Robert Bateman.

All of these musicians already had connections to Gordy and each other. The early years of Motown were a family affair, both literally and figuratively. When Edwards stayed behind in Detroit and left her position as label CEO, she probably knew that the company’s move to the coast spelled the end of the camaraderie and creative cohesion of the company—Motown kept having hits, but it wasn’t the same.

Edwards was devoted to Detroit. She worked with the Chamber of Commerce and Bank of the Commonwealth, as well as a foundation that assisted students with tuition to Wayne State University, among many other philanthropic endeavors. She could often be found at the Motown Historical Museum, Hitsville sign still hung above the window, and if you were lucky, she might lead your tour of the museum herself.

Edwards was 91 when she passed away last week, and it’s likely that most people will never know quite how much she did for Detroit. From everything I’ve read about her, I don’t think she’d be bothered by that.

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton: “Hound Dog” (Peacock 1612/5-1612, 1953)

When I turned on the radio this morning, the first thing I heard was a story about the death of Jerry Leiber. Leiber and his longtime songwriting partner Mike Stoller were the creators of one of the great rock and roll songbooks.

This is one of their best-known songs, though most people don’t know this version. This is the original recording of “Hound Dog”—Leiber and Stoller were huge r&b fans and wrote it specifically for Big Mama Thornton. They were 19 when she recorded it in 1952 (it was released the following year)—Thornton claimed they’d written the song down on a paper bag.

Leiber and Stoller were East Coast kids going to school and living in L.A. when they entered the music business in 1950—they’d met at the L.A. record store Leiber worked at and bonded over their mutual love of blues and r&b. Leiber knew Stoller played piano, and pestered him about writing songs together until Stoller finally agreed.

The two were unsatisfied with the treatment given to their first few songs and produced “Hound Dog” themselves with Johnny Otis, a local r&b musician and impresario who also played drums on the track. Guitarist Pete Lewis and bassist Albert Winston rounded out the skeletal band, and they give Thornton plenty of room to work. Work she does, too, with a virtuoso’s flair. She changes up the feel, converses with the guitarist and generally wails.

The feel of the recording is miles away from the heavily produced and orchestrated music Leiber and Stoller would later make their trademark in their work with the Drifters and Phil Spector. In fact, much of the work they did through the mid-50s, after they founded Spark Records, had a certain rawness to it, even as they shifted the emphasis of their compositions to the theatricality of “Yakety-Yak” and “Charlie Brown.”

Another thing that’s miles from this track in feel is Elvis Presley’s much more famous version, which was #1 across the US in 1956 and introduced a nation to the singer’s pelvic gyrations on the Milton Berle Show. First of all, Elvis used a version of the song with lyrics altered by lounge singer Freddie Bell, which removes the innuendo and replaces it with goofball literalization: “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more,” is completely desexualized into, “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

Imagine what the network censors might have thought of the song if Leiber’s original lyrics had been left intact. Leiber naturally hated the new rabbit line, correctly concluding that it didn’t even make much sense. The fact that it helped make him more money than he probably ever imagined a songwriter could make probably eased the pain a bit.

Leiber and Stoller had a remarkable two-decade run as consistent hit-makers, but like many other Brill Building types, they were swept to the margin in the 70s when self-contained bands and singer-songwriters took over the charts. They stayed in music with lower profiles, and I’ve seen and heard a lot of joint interviews with the two of them over the years. I’ve always enjoyed watching them together and seeing the fluid, seemingly effortless rapport they have. Watching them talk together is almost as good as watching them writing a song together. They seemed to embrace being thought of as a unit.

Leiber suffered from health problems late in his life but was still a funny and engaging guy. I’m sure interviewers will still come calling on Mike Stoller, but it’ll be weird seeing him alone.