July 31, 2010

Playlist Week of 7-31-10

* Buxtehude: Seven Sonatas, Op.1 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* Buxtehude: Seven Trio Sonatas (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* Buxtehude: Six Sonatas (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Veracini: Sonatas (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (ECM CD)
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics 2CD)
* Messiaen: Visions de l’Amen (Bon/de Leeuw) (Montaigne CD
* Messiaen: Chronochromie, etc. (Chicago Symphony/Boulez) (DG CD)
* Henry Cowell: Piano Music (Smithsonian Folkways CD)
* John Coltrane: Fearless Leader (d.5) (Prestige 6CD)
* Sun Ra: Life Is Splendid (Ann Arbor 9-9-72 (Alive/Total Energy CD)
* Sun Ra: Space Is the Place (Impulse! CD)
* Marshall Allen & The Vertical Dogs: The Fridge, Washington, D.C. 2-27-10x (AUD CDR)
* Andrew Hill: Eternal Spirit (Blue Note CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Cecil Taylor Unit (New World CD)
* Cecil Taylor Unit: 3 Phasis (New World CD)
* Matthew Shipp Quartet: Pastoral Composure (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Matthew Shipp’s New Orbit: New Orbit (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Headhunters (Columbia CD)
* Herbie Hancock & Headhunters: Thrust (Columbia CD)
* Herbie Hancock & Headhunters: Flood (Sony – Japan CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Directstep (Sony –Japan CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: Offramp (ECM LP)
* Pat Metheny Group: First Circle (ECM LP)
* Pat Metheny Group: The Road to You (Geffen CD)
* Marc Johnson: The Sound of Summer Running (Verve CD)
* Tortoise: A Lazarus Taxon (d.1-2) (Thrill Jockey 3CD+DVD)
* Rolling Stones: Satanic Majesties Request (selections) (ABKO SACD)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 9-24-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks, Vol.17 (Boston Garden 9-25-91+) (GD 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: Deer Creek Music Center, Noblesville, IN 6-21-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Deer Creek Music Center, Noblesville, IN 6-22-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* Bob Dylan: A Tree With Roots: The Genuine Basement Tapes, Vol.1 (fan/boot 2CDR)
* Yes: The Yes Album (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* Can: Saw Delight (Spoon SACD)
* Yo La Tengo: Wiggins Park, Camden, NJ 7-17-10 (FM CDR)
* Robert Pollard: Moses on a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Flaming Lips: Soft Bulletin 5.1 (stereo) (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Animal Collective: Spirit They’re Gone…/Danse Manatee (Fat Cat 2CD)
* Animal Collective: “Peacebone” (tr.2) (Domino CDEP)
* Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino CDEP)


The big news this week was getting to see my old friend and bandmate, Sam Byrd, yesterday. It’s always such a pleasure to see Sam again and make some noise here at Heeltop Home Studio (photo). Sam is more passionate about music than just about anyone I know and I always learn a lot just hanging out with him. And getting to play music with him really brings back the good old days (even though I am no longer the musician I used to be). I’m still going through the (somewhat inebriated) recordings but, who knows, maybe I’ll post some of this stuff to the Internet Archive. We sure had a lot of fun! Thanks for the inspiring visit, Sam!

July 25, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Solar Myth Arkestra: Life Is Splendid (Alive!/Total Energy CD)

On September 9, 1972, Sun Ra and His Solar Myth Arkestra performed for more than 12,000 people at the First Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, conceived and produced by the Sixties counter-cultural icon, John Sinclair. The suitably eclectic bill included, among others, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Junior Walker & The All Stars and the legendary Howlin’ Wolf. The proceedings were recorded by Atlantic Records and a 2-LP sampler of the festival (including an edited version of Sun Ra’s “Life Is Splendid”) was released in 1973 as Atlantic SD2-502 (and later reissued as ATL 60058) (See Campbell & Trent, p.189). I have not heard this record but it should be noted here that the Art Ensemble’s set was also released by Atlantic and entitled, Bap-Tizum—it is excellent.

Sadly, the original 16-track masters were lost in a fire, leaving only this two-track reference tape of Sun Ra’s performance which was finally released on CD by Sinclair’s Alive!/Total Energy label in 1999. The sound quality is not great, but it’s not terrible either—certainly way more listenable than many of the audience recordings we’ve been listening to lately! Unfortunately, the tape is incomplete: According to Sinclair’s liner notes, the first several minutes of the set are missing because “a proper mix could not be achieved.” Given the 20+ member size of the Arkestra, I’m sure it was a challenge! It’s a pity since we’re apparently missing the usual opening improvisation and the (possibly) more exploratory material performed that evening. The Arkestra’s sets had by this point become somewhat routine-ized with the latter half of the set devoted to cosmical space-chants, singalongs, and dance/percussion workouts. Quite a spectacle, I’m sure—but not always compelling listening (or maybe I’m getting tired of this project).

Anyway, another annoying thing about this CD is the total absence of indexing; it’s just one thirty-seven-minute long track, making it impossible to isolate the individual compositions. Put it on and you’re committed. Oh well, so it goes with Mr. Ra's records. The tape picks up with the usual “Enlightenment”, complete with flute choir and muted trumpets accompanying June Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices. Despite the unbalanced sound, you can tell the Akrestra is luxuriating on a spacious stage in front of a large, receptive audience. But Ra keeps an accordingly tight leash on the band, making sure they deliver a carefully choreographed version of the “Cosmo Drama” for mass consumption. This is probably to be expected given the heightened circumstances (and after all, Ra's music was about discipline), but it results in a less than totally satisfying recording.

Sonny’s gritty organ self-propels the afro-space-groove of “Love in Outer Space” but doesn’t go on long enough to get airborne. “Space Is the Place”, other hand, is much more expansive, exuberantly sung with lots of squealing horns and Ra’s spacey barbeque sauce holding it all together. The conducted improvisation that follows contains everything you could want from a Sun Ra jam: roiling drums, battling altos, a jaw-dropping Gilmore blow-out, and some super-freaky electronics from Sun Ra—but hyper-compressed into a handful of minutes. “Discipline 27-II” supports a series of pontifical declamations, including “What Planet Is This?”, “Life Is Splendid” and “Immeasurable” delivered with a stagey theatricality. The full-bodied Arkestra sounds supremely confident on the languid, flowing arrangement, improvising laughing riffs here and there in response to the hysterically antiphonal vocals. But again, Sonny cuts things short with a dissonant organ cluster to signal the inevitable “Watusi.” The Arkestra swings right into full-throated statement of the head but then it’s the standard percussion workout led by Lex Humphreys and (mysterious multi-instrumentalist) Azlo Wright on drums (Jarvis is notable for his absence at this high-profile gig.) The clattering and banging, dancing and carrying on is allowed to build up a good head of steam but Ra suddenly cues up another bit of out-there improv before a cursory verse of “Outer Spaceways Incorporated”, sung by Tyson. Some rocketship synthesizer noise ends the set amidst shouts of “Space is the Place” and thoroughly enraptured cheering and applause.

Despite its flaws, Life Is Splendid is a welcome (if fragmentary) document of Sun Ra’s historic appearance at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. The sound quality is decent and there are several fleeting moments of truly inspired music-making to be found here. Who knows, it might even be a great introduction for the novice with its concise and flawless executions of Ra’s working repertoire of the time. But to me it sounds almost too restrained, too self-consciously playing to the crowd, never letting things get too "out."

Then again, maybe I’m just getting tired of this project, or at least tired of the rather repetitious and bad-sounding live recordings we’ve been listening to recently. Fortunately, dear reader, Sun Ra returned to the recording studio in the fall of 1972 and dropped two-LPs of amazing material. The deal with Impulse! was starting to bear fruit and some of the most outrageous music of Ra’s career would be forthcoming. So, I can’t stop now—in fact, I can’t wait to get into it. But I cannot keep up a weekly schedule and hope to do this music justice. So Sun Ra Sunday will continue with poetry and videos for a few weeks while I get my ears around this next phase in Sun Ra’s multi-faceted career. Stay tuned.

July 24, 2010

Playlist Week of 7-24-2010

* Arte dei Suonatori: [Telemann], Cieszyn, Poland 1-15-08 (FM CDR)
* J.S. Bach: The Works for Lute (Kirchhoff) (Sony Classical 2CD)
* Sun Ra: South Street Seaport Museum, New York, NY 7-09-72 (AUD CDR)
* Sun Ra: Life is Splendid (Ann Arbor 9-09-72) (Total Energy CD)
* Sun Ra: Rehearsal 12/74 (AUD 2CDR)
* Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant: Hemlock Tavern, San Francisco, CA 10-14-04 (AUD CDR)
* Mary Halvorson’s Crackleknob: The Local 269, New York, NY 6-21-10 (AUD CDR)
* Mary Halvorson’s Crackleknob: Barbés, New York, NY 6-30-10 (AUD CDR)
* Kip Hanrahan: Piazza della Riforma, Lugano, Switzerland 7-03-10 (FM CDR)
* Rolling Stones: Genuine Black Box 1961-1974 (Scorpio/boot 6CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, CA 3-29-68 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA 4-11-78 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 9-20-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 9-21-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 9-22-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Chicago: VI (Columbia LP)
* Yes: Close to the Edge (Expanded Edition) (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Genesis: Duke (Atlantic LP)
* Genesis: Abacab (Atlantic LP)
* Genesis: Genesis (Atlantic LP)
* Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Almost Blue (Columbia LP)
* Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Imperial Bedroom (Columbia LP)
* Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Punch the Clock (Columbia LP)
* Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Goodbye Cruel World (Columbia LP)
* Elvis Costello: King of America (Columbia LP)
* Echo & The Bunnymen: Ocean Rain (Sire/Warner Bros. LP)
* Tears For Fears: Songs from the Big Chair (Mercury LP)
* Wilco: (the album) (Nonesuch CD)
* Robert Pollard: The Crawling Distance (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses On a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Tortoise: TNT (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Animal Collective: “Grass” (Fat Cat CDEP+DVD)
* Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: “Peacebone” (Domino CDEP)
* Animal Collective: “Water Curses” (Domino CDEP)
* Panda Bear: “I’m Not”/”Comfy in Nautica” (Uunited Acoustic CD single)
* Panda Bear: Person Pitch (Paw Tracks CD)


Is Imperial Bedroom the best album Elvis Costello ever made? Is it one of the best albums of all time? Maybe. It is certainly the most deliriously ambitious record Costello had released up to that point and it had a curiously huge impact on me when it debuted in July 1982. I still have the original LP after all these years, as shown in the photograph. I still adore this album.

After five increasingly polished LPs produced by Nick Lowe, Costello was by the early Eighties well established as some sort of New Wave icon; but his rapidly maturing song-craft combined with the natural eclecticism of The Attractions was beginning to belie such easy categorization. 1981’s Almost Blue seemed like an almost deliberate affront to lazy critics and fans alike with its collection of classic country-and-western songs produced by Nashville legend, Billy Sherrill. It’s a pleasant listen, but sounded more restless than self-assured.

For Imperial Bedroom Costello pulled out all the stops, booking a leisurely twelve weeks at London’s AIR Studios with (co)production to be handled by none other than Geoff Emerick, known for his spectacular engineering feats on many of the Beatles most experimental tracks. While not originally conceived as some sort of orchestral pop masterpiece, Imperial Bedroom was to become an un-ironic homage to Sixties pop production styles, from the Beatles and the Beach Boys to the cha-cha, Burt Bacharach and beyond.

After a brief unsuccessful stab at recording Costello’s new songs live in the studio in the usual fashion, each song began to dictate its own perfectly exquisite orchestration, evolving into a fifty-minute sequence of elaborate vignettes that somehow coheres. In the process, the prodigiously talented keyboardist Steve Nieve revealed himself to also be a top-notch arranger, even conducting the 40-piece orchestra assembled for the album’s centerpiece, “…And In Every Home.” Costello described the atmosphere in the studio as one of delightful self-indulgence:

If we needed a harpsichord or Mellotron, we hired one; if we required a 12-string acoustic guitar, marimba, or accordion, we went out and bought one; if we heard strings and trumpet and horns, we booked the musicians and Steve began writing out the parts.


Another feature of the recording was the use of additional instruments which we attempted to play ourselves. Some were layered in ways that might have been bewildering without Geoff's expertise. On other occasions instruments were adapted in unlikely ways; a twelve-string Martin guitar was "bugged" and run through a Hammond Leslie speaker on "Shabby Doll", while a National Steel Dobro was used for the sitar-like line in the introduction of "Pidgin English" [which also includes a brass and woodwind section arranged by Nieve] while a Danelectro Sitar-Guitar was used like an electric harp on "Human Hands". A beautiful harpsichord was hired in for "You Little Fool", although its effect was subverted in the closing choruses when the part was redubbed using the backwards-tape technique. Most ridiculous was the accordion part on "Long Honeymoon" which it took three of us to play; Steve at the Keyboard (which we lay flat across the table) Bruce to work the bellows and myself to wrestle with the beast and stop it from crawling onto the studio floor.

Costello’s dour and virtuosic wordplay eloquently expresses the heartache and frustration of lost love, making this one of the great break-up albums of all time. Yet the baroque productions elevate them into a kind of pop-art song cycle that feels ultimately uplifting (making this one of the great break-up albums of all time). Moreover, Costello’s fecund melodicism is matched with his most supple vocal styling, fearlessly executing ultra-wide-interval leaps infused with a jazzy harmonic sensibility on nearly every song, even the more overtly rockish numbers like “Beyond Belief”, “Man Out of Time”, and “You Little Fool.” Still it’s the overtly maudlin ballads that make this album so incredibly affecting. Indeed, “Almost Blue” has become a veritable torch-song standard:

It was written in imitation of the Brown/Henderson song “The Thrill Is Gone”. I had become obsessed with the Chet Baker recording of that tune, firstly the trumpet instrumental and, later, the vocal take. It is probably the most faithful likeness to the model of any of my songs of this time. It has become my most covered composition.

Two years later, when Chet Baker came into the studio to play the trumpet solo on our recording of “Shipbuilding”, I gave him a copy of this album and suggested that he might listen to one track in particular. Although we met up again at his subsequent London engagements and even worked together on one occasion, he never mentioned the record again. It wasn’t until several months after his death that I found out that he had been including “Almost Blue” in his later sets and that it would feature in photographer Bruce Weber’s documentary on Baker, Let’s Get Lost. Chet’s performance of the song, before an indifferent film festival crowd, makes for very uncomfortable viewing, but there is a wonderful version, featuring an extended trumpet solo, on a late “live” album from Japan. He finally seemed to get what I hoped he would recognize in the composition.

The album concludes with “Town Cryer,” another self-pitying lament, this time leavened by a slick Philly-soul-style brass & string section (arranged by Nieve). Profound sadness is once again made bearable by the artist's boundlessly exuberant creativity. A perfect ending to a perfect record. Predictably, Imperial Bedroom yielded no hit singles. Even so, it went top-30 and has been in print (in several different CD formats) ever since. For me, this is the one Elvis Costello album I will always return to. Beyond the hyper-luxurious production, it is the songs themselves that are so compelling. This is conslusively demonstrated by this intimate acoustic performance of “Town Cryer” (thanks for the link, Liz!).

July 18, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Universe Sent Me (Lost Reel Collection, Vol.5) (Transparency CD)

Between the Arkestra’s appearances at Slug’s Saloon in June and August, they also performed en plein air at the South Street Seaport Museum in lower Manhattan on July 9, 1972. Twenty minutes of this concert was recorded from the audience and the tape was recently exhumed and released on Transparency’s Lost Reel Collection, Vol.5 CD. What’s most notable about this recording is that it is in stereo (still a rarity in 1972) and the outdoor ambience makes for very enjoyable sound quality indeed—for as long as it lasts anyway.

The tape picks up mid-set with a smattering of applause and Sun Ra’s organ introduction to “Outer Spaceways Incorporated.” Tyson and the guys chant the song a handful of times while Gilmore adds some scribbly saxophone obbligato. Then Sonny cues a big blasting space chord that launches the pummeling free-jazz group improvisation led by Jarvis’s hyperkinetic drums and the two high-wire trumpeters, Hadi and Ebah. After a few minutes of this sort of thing, Sun Ra cues a break and takes over with low-register synth and organ squiggles with Gilmore providing out-cat commentary. Eventually, Gilmore is left alone a cappella to deftly wield his knife’s edge tone and execute massive, teeth-rattling multiphonics on his ostensibly monophonic horn. Classic Gilmore solo! After another quick organ interlude and reed-splitting libflecto outing from Thompson, we get another early performance of “Discipline 27-II.” Basically consisting of the main riff from “Discipline 27” slowed down to a dreamy sway, the ensembles gradually metastasize through endless repetition. Usually this was accompanied by a hortatory declamation from Ra (e.g. “What Planet Is This?” and/or “Life is Splendid”), but here we have a purely instrumental rendition and the spacious stereo recording allows one to really hear the subtle shape-shifting of the instrumental textures. Unfortunately, after about seven minutes of bliss, our recordist experiences technical difficulties and the sound quality deteriorates markedly, with suddenly distant sound and intermittently violent tape warbles. It could be the venue itself was experiencing electrical problems as someone right up next to the microphone says, “He ain’t got no power either! The music—.” A few seconds later the tape cuts off. Not sure what happened there, but oh well. So it goes with Sun Ra’s “unofficial” discography!

The remainder of the Lost Reel Collection, Vol.5 is redeemed by a fifty-minute audience recording from Paris on September 8, 1973. It sounds pretty good but we’ll get to that one in due course.

July 17, 2010

Playlist Week of 7-17-10

* Biber: Unam Ceylum (Holloway/Mortensen/Assenbaum) (ECM CD)
* Corelli: 12 Concerti Grossi, Op.6 (English Concert/Pinnock) (Archiv Prod. 2CD)
* Handel: Solo Sonatas, Op.1 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Handel: Trio Sonatas, Op.2&5 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* John Coltrane: Impressions (Impulse! CD)
* Wayne Shorter Quartet: Park Den Brandt, Antwerp, Belgium 8-14-05 (FM 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Slug’s Saloon, New York, NY 8-19-72 (AUD 3CDR)
* Sun Ra: Rehearsal 9-76 (AUD CDR)
* Sun Ra: South St. Seaport Museum, New York, NY 7-09-72 (AUD? CD)
* Lowell Davidson Trio: WBRS-FM Brandeis University 5-08-86 (Pre-FM 2CDR)
* Anthony Braxton 12+1tet: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (d.6) (Firehouse 12 9CD+DVD)
* Matthew Shipp Trio: Old Customs House, Tampere, Finland 11-03-07 (FM CDR)
* Kip Hanrahan: A Thousand Nights and a Night (American Clavé CD)
* DJ Shadow: Preemptive Strike (Mo Wax/A&M CD+CDEP)
* Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (Motown/MFSL SACD)
* Bob Dylan: Planet Waves (Columbia SACD)
* Lucinda Williams: Sweet Old World (Elektra CD)
* Grateful Dead: Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA 4-10-78 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-17-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-18-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Yes: The Yes Album (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* Yes: Fragile (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* Yes: Tales of Topographic Oceans (Atlantic 2LP)
* Genesis: Paris Theatre 3-2-72/BBC 9-25-72 (Pre-FM CDR)
* Genesis: Convention Center, West Palm Beach, LF 1-10-75 (SBD 2CDR)
* Genesis: Empire Pool, Wembley, London 4-15-75 (Pre-FM DVDR-A)
* Peter Gabriel: [2] (a/k/a “Scratch”) (Atlantic LP)
* Steve Winwood: Arc of a Diver (Island LP)
* Can: Landed (Spoon SACD)
* Can: Flow Motion (Spoon SACD)
* Neu: Neu! (Astralwerks CD)
* Uncle Tupelo: Still Feel Gone (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Uncle Tupelo: March 16-20, 1992 (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch CD)
* Radiohead: Gofferpark, Nijmegen, Netherlands 9-16-00 (FM 2CDR)
* Radiohead: Hail to the Thief (Capitol CD)
* Radiohead: “There There” (Capitol CDEP
* Radiohead: “Go to Sleep” (Capitol CDEP
* Radiohead: In Rainbows (TBD Records CD)
* Panda Bear: “I’m Not”/”Comfy in Nautica” (Uunited Acoustic CD)
* Panda Bear: Person Pitch (Paw Tracks CD)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)


* Glenn Kurtz, Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (Knopf 2007)

I sort of knew Glenn Kurtz when we were both students at The New England Conservatory of Music back in the mid-1980s. I didn’t know him well at all – he was one of those serious classical musicians who spent most his time in practice rooms while I was basically a slacker and a fraud, taking brief refuge in the quirky and nebulous Third Stream Department. But I hung out a lot with some of the characters who populate Kurtz’s memoir and reading it evokes the hothouse environment of the Conservatory with a discomfiting vividness. Moreover, his tale of bitter failure and painful reconciliation hits particularly close to home.

Kutz’s disarming honesty and elegantly crafted prose captures the complex and fraught relationship a musician suffers with an instrument and with music itself. Playing music is (or can be) fun; practicing is no fun at all:

Practicing is striving … a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill to equal my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better. Yet every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time (p.9).

This is how every musician feels as they sit down to practice. It only seems worth it if your love of music and dream of becoming an artist remains intact. For Kurtz (as for many others, such as myself), the dream was cast upon the rocks of a harsh reality and the only response is to just stop playing music altogether:

Like so many people who practice an art in their youth, I couldn’t reconcile my love for music with the demands of adult life or the professional realities of earning a living from art. Perhaps I lacked the talent; perhaps I didn’t work hard enough. Whatever the case, quitting was a catastrophe. For ten years afterward my hands and my habits—the whole history of my playing—seemed like obstacles to music. I lost faith in the power of practicing to lead me forward. The one thing I loved most in life became a torture. It was a devastating loss (p.12).

I can relate to this, even though I lack Kurtz’s talent and worked nowhere near as hard as he did. I took a slightly different path but still achieved a modicum of success playing a kind of punk rock/free jazz hybrid that a few critics and hipsters might adore but most people can’t abide. I never made any money and never would. As I got older this crushing reality become impossible to ignore and my dream of being an artist collapsed in a fit acrimonious self-incrimination. After graduation from NEC, Kurtz traveled to Vienna, hooked up with fellow alum with whom he developed a nightclub act that managed to be moderately lucrative. But it wasn’t satisfying to Kurtz, whose dream was to be another Segovia, a superstar concertizing in prestigious concert halls. For both of us, making a living and making art wound up being mutually exclusive and when we gave up that dream, we gave up on music itself. Playing music became an exercise in futility so we simply stopped doing it.

At music school it is assumed that music is sublime; why that is so is not a subject of study or even serious contemplation. It therefore remains a mystery even to those entrusted with its performance. Indeed it would appear that the power of music is unexplainable and thinking about it too much can be a mortal danger to the professional musician. Kurtz describes an early crisis of faith he experienced while at NEC that he attempted to remedy by going to the library and studying various philosopher’s definitions of what makes music meaningful. Not surprisingly, he came up empty handed despite scholarly investigations dating back to Pythagoras:

For all of these music lovers, music was something other than music. It might be different for each one. But it was always the thing they loved the most. To the astronomer, music is disguised astronomy. To the mathematician, it is disguised mathematics. Leibniz, who invented calculus, was quite certain that “music is an unconscious exercise in arithmetic in which the mind doesn’t know it is counting.” The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was equally convinced that “music is an unconscious exercise in metaphysics in which the mind does not know it is philosophizing.” Among my friends at the Conservatory, we took for granted that music recounted the narrative of our emotional struggles. In Susanne Langer’s phrase, music was “our myth of the inner life.” Langer quotes the eighteenth-century theorist J.A. Huller, who expressed our belief, writing, “’Music has fulfilled its mission whenever our hearts are satisfied.’” This sounded right. It still didn’t explain music’s power. But it described how music comes to be the pure metaphor for our desire (pp.91-92).

In the fleeting instance of its sounding, music imposes an illusion of universal harmony and cosmically ordained order within our chaotic and seemingly irrational earthly existence. This is what makes music the most ineffably sublime of all the arts. But how music does this remains wholly speculative. As Katz observes, “We can’t prove our theories of what music means. But each theory reveals what we long for; it proves the truth of our longing” (p.93). A musician aspires to be the vessel of this mystical transubstantiation, but music school does not offer classes in aesthetics, much less alchemy. After all, how do you teach someone to turn a performance into a “metaphor for pure desire”? This is up to the performer alone and the best musicians do it unthinkingly. But as Kurtz flatly admits: “The essence of music is revelation … The essence of life, however, seems to be disappointment … once the music ended, the experience slipped away. Harmony is not eternal, though our need for it may be” (p.99).

For most young musicians, no matter how technically gifted or rigorous their practice regime, the task is too great, the goal will be forever beyond their reach. The wrenching painfulness of this realization one day causes them to quit playing music forever and wonder whether all that effort was for naught. Or they surrender to the exigencies of the marketplace, peddling meaningless aural wallpaper for people willing to pay for it. At one point, Kurtz contemplates a career as a wedding musician, “making pretty, classical-sounding noise to decorate the occasion”:

I could perform Beethoven or I could play scales. Either way people would tell me that it sounded lovely. Maybe that was enough … I shuddered at the thought. A life of loveliness. This was the opposite of everything I wanted. “Lovely” was nothing. It described prettified music drained of all power, of everything that made music great … If there was still the chance I could make great music, then settling for a life of “lovely” would be an unbearable betrayal (p.135).

What Kurtz feared was a “life of insignificance” (Id.) which is, of course, what everyone fears and a fate (almost) everyone nevertheless comes to endure. Coming to terms with this brutal truth is not just the problem of failed musicians, but they tend to feel it most intently. While Kurtz enjoyed playing the “mongrel” music he performed in Viennese cafés and bars, this was really no better than playing weddings in the states. He was an entertainer, not an artist, a musician’s best worst fate. And he comes to realize that his goal of becoming a star soloist was indeed just a shattered dream:

It takes courage to play new music; it takes courage to be a musician at all. But it takes more, so much more, to remain a musician, to let yourself be shaped by music however it speaks to you. Since I was twelve years old, I dreamed of living the life I heard, living an artist’s life. But I’d misunderstood myself, my desires, my ambitions. I misunderstood what it meant to be an artist.

In fact, I was just beginning, just learning how to conduct myself as an artist in the world. But it wasn’t the world I’d been working toward. And in that moment I saw that the distance between where I was and where I wanted to be was impossibly long. It sank in that I wasn’t ever going to arrive, and so it suddenly felt like I was nowhere. All the pent-up bitterness of a desire endlessly deferred broke loose. It devastated my dream world of music. My fingers hadn’t failed me; my technique and talent were not to blame. I’d just imagined the artist’s life naïvely, childishly, with too much longing, too much poetry and innocence and purity. And this image ruined music for me … the guitar had been the instrument of my dreams. Now the dream was over (p.193).

Kurtz returned to America, obtained a Ph.D. in literature from Stanford and settled into a life of writing and teaching. He put his guitar away and didn’t touch it again for more than a decade. But then, still grappling with his feelings of bitterness and inconsolable loss, he began to practice again, but with a different agenda:

I returned to practicing not as a young, aspiring artist, but as a former musician, with a different sense of what it means to play the guitar … My first time through, I practiced badly, chasing an ideal that ruined music for me, turning what I had loved the most into torture. Now I’m pursuing not an ideal but the reality of my own experience. I began to practice again because I felt I could do it better this time (p.207).

Some years after moving to Nashville, I bought a Yamaha Clavinova, an electric piano that looks, sounds and (for the most part) feels like a real acoustic piano. While at the Conservatory, I had taken up the electric guitar even though all of my training to that point had been on the piano (and clarinet, but I never took it very seriously). At the time I was motivated not only by my love of the electric guitar, but by the fact that competition for practice rooms with a decent piano was incredibly fierce at NEC, making it difficult for me to practice, even if I wanted to (which I didn’t). Besides, I was not at the conservatory to study classical music and the piano was, in my mind, forever associated with the stultifying imperiousness of so-called classical music. I loved the guitar because I didn’t know how to play it; not knowing the names of the notes freed me to hear those pitches as music instead of marks on a page. It was punk rock. Amazingly, the Third Stream Department tolerated this approach, at least for a little while. But I abandoned the guitar after the collapse of the band and hadn’t played any music at all ever since. Even so, I still had stacks of sheet music, classical compositions for piano ready-made for the amateur home soloist and I thought taking up the piano again after decades of neglect might rekindle my love of playing music. I began to practice again, re-learning the pieces of my youth on an instrument that felt like a long lost friend. I gradually regained some facility but playing well was not the point. I was regaining a part of myself that had been strangled by the vicissitudes of life. I will never be a musician, but I can still play music – if I take the time to practice. My experience is exactly as Kurtz describes:

I may never again play as well as I did when I was seventeen or twenty-one, may never play as well as I think I could. My hands are not as flexible, and I’ve lost so much time not practicing. But each day now when I sit down, I try to give a performance, opening myself over and over again to what I love the most, knowing each time that I will have to let it go. To play better now means learning to continue, living through what slips away (p.210).

Ultimately, this is a useful lesson for anyone to learn and suggests that all our efforts to live out unrealizable dreams are not totally wasted. Practicing an instrument is like trying to live any kind of meaningful life, full of frustration and failure, but also full of opportunities to find true love and experience moments of transcendent beauty. As Kurtz puts it, practicing teaches us about our limitations, which enables us to improve ourselves:

I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love. For me, it was music. The guitar. But whatever “music” is for you, if you practice for real, eventually it will show you everything that is within you. Because as accomplished or as disappointed as you may feel now, you don’t know what remains concealed in your hands. Maybe you’ll never grasp it all. What you want may never yield to your touch. And yet maybe one day a performance will surprise you. Maybe today your music will reveal all the joy and disappointment, all the love and the fear you are capable of, your whole life, the true concord of your own heart (p.211).

Kurtz’s touching memoir is about more than just music and trying (and failing) to become a professional musician; it is about the loss of childhood dreams and the agonizing accrual of adult wisdom. It is about making peace with that loss and having the temerity to carry on practicing anyway because to do otherwise is to die.

July 11, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Slug’s Saloon, New York NY 8-19-72 (AUD 3CDR)

The Arkestra returned to Slug’s Saloon a month later and the August 19, 1972 performance was captured (almost) in full on a 180-minute mono tape recorded from the audience. The sound quality is both better and worse than the June 7 tape. There’s a bit less generational loss and more presence to the sound -- but perhaps a bit too much presence as when things get loud, the tape overloads and distorts badly, making for a sometimes difficult listen. Too bad, as it’s another excellent performance. The Arkestra is further enlarged with the return of Pat Patrick to the bari sax, Kwami Hadi re-joining Akh Tal Ebah on trumpet and a gifted trombonist (either Charles Stephens or, possibly, Tyrone Hill) fleshing out the horn the section and contributing several outstanding solos. Clifford Jarvis is unmistakably back on the drum stool, which makes for a driving rhythm section (but also lengthy and pointless drum solos) while the addition of a (barely audible) bassist (possibly Bill Davis) adds some bottom end to the ensemble. Finally, June Tyson is joined by The Space Ethnic Voices (Ruth Wright, Cheryl Banks and Judith Holton) on the big vocal numbers, making for (at least) eighteen musicians and singers crowding the tiny stage on this summer evening (see Campbell & Trent pp.187-188).

Sonny gets things started with a thoughtful Moog/organ solo that sets the stage for the first known performance of “Stardust from Tomorrow,” a jaunty swing number featuring glowing vocals and propelled by Ra’s up-front organ comping. From there, we’re immediately in “The Shadow World,” and it’s a rip-snorting version with bracing solos from John Gilmore, Omoe and Hadi, but Danny Ray Thompson brings down the house with a thunderous libflecto outing. The group-improv section features a big saxophone battle with some aggressive organ playing from Ra and a nicely articulated trombone solo thrown in before the first overlong drum solo of the evening. Without bothering a full reprise of the hyper-complicated tune, the band moves quickly into “Why Go to the Moon?”, a chance for Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices to strut their stuff. The rhythm section settles into a slinky groove, only to have Jarvis ruin the mood with another tedious drum solo. Why did Sonny put up with this? Because he was so good? Because good drummers are so hard to find? It’s a mystery. Tyson enters with a brief but nicely sung “Strange Worlds” while horns flitter and flutes twitter about. As the drums start to get heavy, Patrick cues up a composition last heard on the Space Is The Place Soundtrack (mis-titled there as “Discipline 33”). It is classic Ra with its cleverly interlocking horn parts set against that patented space age barbeque groove with a long-breathed, vaguely Arabian-sounding melody on top. Perfect. (But what is the correct title? And why did they stop playing it? Who knows!) While the Akrestra is busy riffing and vamping, Ra enters with a quasi-Biblical declamation: “At First There Was Nothing.” It goes on and on, punctuated with crazy-sounding stage-laughter and it’s hard to hear exactly what’s going on, but it sounds like some kind of crypto-cosmic theater piece. The Arkestra starts taking liberties, playing around with their parts, trading places, while chaos rages around them. Hadi and Ebah play high register games and -- what is it? A soprano saxophone? Who is that? Gilmore? Anyway, Ra returns to the organ bench to launch into “Angels and Demons at Play”, which churns and grinds with almost Milesian, dystopian darkness. Unfortunately, the intense volume levels cause the tape to distort badly until finally cutting off abruptly just as the audience starts to whoop and holler.

The tape picks up again at the beginning of the second set with a squiggly synth solo full of spacey bloops and whirrs like alien Morse Code broadcast from Mars – “Calling Planet Earth!” Everyone joins in the antiphonal chanting as the drums swell and an insistent one-note horn figure develops, only to devolve into free-jazz bashing and group improvisation, high trumpet on top. Sonny cues up “Watusi” and it’s the usual percussion fest, although with a heavy afro-urban feel quite different from the lighter, celebratory groove found previously and with Ra’s organ taking on a more menacing tone than usual. Of course, this also means another Jarvis solo. Oh well. When the rest of the band takes up hand percussion, it gets a little more compelling and then someone starts up with the space-vocalizing, declaiming, preaching, and politicking. Good lord! Who is that? It’s almost impossible to make out what he’s saying, but I suspect we’re not missing much. After a statement of the theme, Tyson is left alone to chant about outer space before another avant-jazz blowout that leads to an awesomely distorted and electro-fied libflecto solo (Thompson again, I presume) that leaves the audience in stunned silence. One person claps. After some more group improvisation, they move effortlessly into “Discipline 27”, a joyous big-band number full of classy riffs, close-cropped harmonies, and a swinging middle section for Hadi to play with. Patrick smoothly reintroduces the theme so that the ensemble can finish with an elegant reprise. “Discipline 27” would become a fixture in the Arkestra’s setlists for the rest of its career.

Tyson and the chorus inform the audience: “We’ll Wait for You” and after some skronky madness, Gilmore takes over with a short but intense solo on tenor. This acts as a prelude to another unknown (but extremely interesting) composition for contrasting concertinos: low reeds and brass. This is contrasted with conducted improvisations for pairs of instruments: bass clarinet and trumpet; tenor saxophone and trombone; oboe and trumpet. Jarvis turns up the heat and the intensity level rises as more and more instrumentalists join in the fray – and the tape distorts so badly it’s impossible to really hear what’s going on. But then Ra cues a ghostly, suspended chord that allows space for a hair-raisingly aggressive a capella tenor solo from Gilmore. Whew! After a brief pause, the Arkestra introduces “Discipline 27-II” a variation on the central two-chord theme of “Discipline 27” that would also become a concert staple, its floating harmonies supporting a mellifluous alto sax solo from Marshall Allen and a long declamation from Sun Ra about life and death, Tyson echoing his every line in tandem. They conclude that “Life is Splendid.” Meanwhile the band holds it all together by continuing to play around with the oscillating riffs of "Discipline 27-II" throughout the entire twenty-three minutes duration. In fact, the tape cuts out before they’re even finished. The Arkestra is obviously well-rehearsed and into it.

Tyson and Gilmore sing through “Theme of the Stargazers” before a breezy rendition of “Space is the Place” full of over-the-top vocalizing and a hilariously caricatured trombone solo. It’s all a bit silly, but Jarvis and a second drummer (possibly Gilmore) establish an almost Mardi Gras/Bo Diddley beat that makes you (well, me) want to get up and dance. Even so, at almost fifteen minutes, it gets a little boring. I guess you hadda been there. Indeed the audience loves the swirling synth/organ solo that emerges from “Calling Planet Earth”, but the sound is totally overdriven and distorted on the tape -- especially when the drums start really pounding -- making it hard to appreciate as much as they obviously do. You can tell it’s a good one, though. The volume level drops for a quick version of “Enlightenment” notable for its flute choir accompaniment but picks up again for “Love in Outer Space” which is its usual perky organ jam over percussion exotica. The tape ends with the first known performance of “Discipline 33”, one of the most fascinating compositions in Ra’s catalog. Ostensibly jazzy, it is thickly scored for grouped reeds and brass with piccolo, flute and oboe on top, but the trombone stomps off while the horns wander around in various time signatures. Meanwhile, ensembles come together and fall apart between short improvisational statements. Finally a coda consisting of impossibly beautiful harmonies floating above Ra’s wispy organ chords ends the piece with a contented sigh. Just lovely.

Both of the 1972 Slug’s Saloon recordings have been compiled into a six-disc box set by the Transparency label, purportedly with improved sound and additional material, but I have not heard it. Can anyone out there comment on this? In the meantime, I’m happy to have these widely-circulated “bootlegs,” despite their obvious flaws.

July 10, 2010

Playlist Week of 7-10-10

* Marais: Suite d’un Goût Etranger (Hesperion XXI/Savall) (Alia Vox 2SACD)
* Geminiani: Cello Sonatas, Op.5 (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics)
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (Holloway) (ECM 2CD)
* Berio: Corale, etc. (Ensemble Intercontemporain/Boulez) (Sony Classical CD)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Jazz Gallery, New York, NY 2-11-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Jazz Gallery, New York, NY 2-12-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Jazz Gallery, New York, NY 2-13-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Matthew Shipp: 4D (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Kip Hanrahan: Tenderness (American Clave CD)
* Bill Laswell: Imaginary Cuba (Wicklow CD)
* Lee “Scratch” Perry: Apeology (Trojan 2CD)
* Bob Dylan: The Basement Tapes (Columbia 2 LP)
* Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash: The Dylan/Cash Sessions (fan/boot CDR)
* Bob Dylan: Self Portrait (Columbia 2LP)
* Bob Dylan: Dylan (Columbia LP)
* Bob Dylan: New Morning (Columbia CD)
* George Harrison: Cloud 9 (Dark Horse/Capitol CD)
* The Mothers of Invention: Over-Nite Sensation (Discreet/Warner Bros. LP)
* Grateful Dead: Felt Forum, New York, NY 12-6-71 (d.1) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland June 1977: The Complete Recordings (bonus) (GD/Rhino 9+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-14-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-16-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* King Crimson: The Great Deceiver (Live 1973-1974) (d.2) (DGM 4CD)
* Chicago: V (Columbia LP)
* ELO: ELO’s Greatest Hits (Jet/CBS LP)
* ELO/Olivia Newton John: Xanadu (MCA LP)
* The Soft Boys: Underwater Moonlight (and How It Got There) (Matador 3LP+7”)
* ABC: Beauty Stab (Mercury LP)
* Prefab Sprout: Two Wheels Good (Epic LP)
* X: “4th of July”/”Positively 4th Street” (Elektra 7”)
* BR5-49: Bonus Beats (Arista promo-only CDEP)
* The Orb: Orbvs Terrararvum (Island CD)
* Robert Pollard: We All Got Out of the Army (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses on a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Circus Devils: The Harold Pig Memorial (Fading Captain LP)
* Circus Devils: Pinball Mars (Fading Captain LP)
* Circus Devils: Five (Fading Captain LP)
* Circus Devils: Sgt. Disco (Happy Jack Rock Records 2LP)
* Gastr del Sol: Mirror Repair (Drag City CDEP)
* Animal Collective: Feels (Fat Cat CD)
* Animal Collective: “People” (Fat Cat CDEP)
* Animal Collective w/Vashti Bunyan: Prospect Hummer (Fat Cat CDEP)
* Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino CDEP)


Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait is widely considered a horrible record and, by some, one of the very worst albums ever made. When it was released in June, 1970, Greil Marcus began his review in Rolling Stone with the obvious question: “What is this shit?” Indeed the opening track is utterly ridiculous, with its incongruous choir of girls chirpily intoning: “All the tired horses in the sun; how’m I supposed to get any writing done?” -- over and over and over, indicating that Dylan’s muse had clearly abandoned him. After a string of unequivocally brilliant and era-defining albums from Freewheelin’ through John Wesley Harding (and even the recently released and seemingly tossed-off Nashville Skyline), Self-Portrait pissed a lot of people off.

Dylan’s motivation in making (much less releasing) Self Portrait has remained inscrutable, with the bard himself offering a series of conflicting rationales. Initially, he insisted on the sincerity of the album’s title and professed a genuine affection for the repertoire of MOR covers presented on this album (which sit rather uncomfortably with a handful of originals and a smattering of live tracks). Years later, perhaps in response to the vicious critical savaging the album received in the media, he dismissed the record as a deliberate attempt to destroy his messianic public persona and escape the prison of celebrity. He disingenuously hoped to accomplish this by drastically lowering the expectations of his most rabid fans. As he told Rolling Stone in 1984:

I said, “Well fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t givin’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to someone else.” But the whole idea backfired. Because the album went out there, and the people said, ‘This ain’t what we want,’ and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, “Well, I’m gonna call this album Self Portrait.”

Then again, Dylan told writer Cameron Crowe in 1985 that the album was a response to the rampant bootlegging of his music he was experiencing at the time:

Self Portrait was a bunch of tracks that we’d done all the time I’d gone to Nashville. We did that stuff to get a studio sound. To open up we’d do two or three songs, just to get things right and then we’d go on and do what we were going to do. And then there was a lot of other stuff that was on the shelf. But I was being bootlegged at the time and a lot of stuff that was worse was appearing on bootleg records. So I figured I’d put all this stuff together and put it out, my own bootleg record so to speak. You know, if it actually had been a bootleg record, people probably would have sneaked around to buy it and played it for each other secretly.
Ultimately, Dylan disavowed the album, but forty years later, the record holds up a lot better than you might have been led to believe. And, despite Dylan’s protestations to the contrary, Clinton Heylin’s examination of the session documentation reveals that Self Portrait was, at least initially, an earnest attempt to make a “real” album, preliminarily entitled, Nashville Skyline, Vol.2. Dylan was quite enamored with Nashville, ever since recording Blonde on Blonde there in 1966. By the spring of 1969, he was actively looking at property in the Nashville area, wanting to escape the increasing chaos surrounding his then home in Woodstock, New York. While Dylan was spending most of his time checking out the local real estate, producer Bob Johnston booked three sessions at Columbia Records’ Music Row Studios on April 24, 26 and May 3. Surrounded by the cream of Music City’s session-men, Bob crooned his way a la Elvis through a bunch of hoary chestnuts including “Let It Be Me”, “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know”, “Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go)” and “Blue Moon” along with a slight original entitled “Living the Blues.” Dylan’s voice still evinces that Nashville Skyline-style smoothness and he sounds relaxed and the band sounds like they’re having fun. It’s not serious, but it’s still sincere.

Ultimately, Dylan decided not to move his family to Nashville and instead bought a house “sight unseen” on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village near where he’d come up as a folksinger in the early sixties. He later admitted to Rolling Stone (1984) that this was a big mistake: “Lookin’ back, it was a stupid thing to do…The Woodstock Nation had taken over MacDougal Street also. There would be crowds outside my house.” Um, what did he expect? Consequently, it is interesting to speculate what might have happened if Dylan had instead relocated to Tennessee in 1970. It’s possible he could have found the privacy and peace of mind he seemed to crave. In any event, he didn’t return to a recording studio until almost a year later -- this time Columbia’s Studio A in New York and in the company of old cohorts, Al Kooper, Dave Bromberg and Ron Cornelius. At this point, things took a turn for the weird, including a bizarre version of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” wherein Dylan duets with himself: one track the clean-cut Nashville Skyline voice and the other in the shouty, nasal whine that would define his seventies singing. Other songs are subjected to later overdubs by the Nashville rhythm section of Charlie McCoy and Kenneth Buttrey (and occasionally swooning strings and superfluous backup singers), apparently in an effort to return to the album’s countrypolitan roots. But the effect already feels a little bit forced and not altogether convincing. Even so, it all comes together on “Copper Kettle”, an ode to moonshine and tax resistance penned by Alfred Frank Bledoe in the nineteen-forties. The lush (and not a little bit cheesy) arrangement frames one of the most subtle and affecting vocal performances of Dylan’s career.

What really makes Self Portrait such a schizophrenic listen is the addition of three live recordings from the Isle of Wight Festival on August 31, 1969. Not that they’re bad performances, it’s just that hearing a relatively desultory delivery of “Like a Rolling Stone” within this context undermines the album’s very purpose (such as it is) and diminishes Dylan’s aspiration to somehow reinvent himself. As Heylin observes:

If it had been Dylan’s intention to put together a pleasant single album of country/folk standards, a handful of the New York recordings could have been slotted in with the best of the spring ’69 material. It was his decision to integrate cuts from his Isle of Wight appearance (scrapping the planned Isle of Wight album) and to persevere with the covers process that ultimately condemned Self Portrait to its brutal reception on release.
More material from this period later appeared on Columbia’s so-called “revenge” album, imaginatively titled, Dylan, which was released in retaliation for his (briefly) signing with David Geffen’s newly-formed Asylum Records in 1973. This album is generally considered to be even worse than Self Portrait (if such a thing is possible), given the fact that Dylan had less than nothing to do with its compilation. Nevertheless, there are some interesting performances here, including covers of two of Elvis Presley’s signature tunes, “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, and “A Fool Such as I”, along with Jerry Jeff Walker’s hit single, “Mr. Bojangles” and Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Sure, it’s all pretty ludicrous, but honestly, Dylan has made worse albums since then.

Whether intentional or not, Self Portrait was more revealing than it at first appeared. Like The Basement Tapes, it provides a disconcerting but necessary step in Bob Dylan’s mercurial evolution during the late sixties and early seventies. In a very real sense he succeeded in destroying the mythical Bob Dylan by releasing a bunch of “bad” albums. But at the same time, he succeeded in liberating himself from the unwanted role of “spokesperson of a generation.” This enabled him to survive the ensuing decades and now at almost seventy years old, Dylan continues to make good-to-great records and tour the world as an indefatigable troubadour. This would not have been possible without the supposed disappointment of Self Portrait. So, for this, it should be duly appreciated.

July 8, 2010

New Eyeglasses

I was overdue for a new set of glasses. Oh, I used to have perfect vision when I was young; but when I turned forty, my eyesight began to slip. After a year or so of progressively stronger cheapo reading glasses, I finally had to get a prescription. But that was almost three years ago and my vision had gotten noticeably weaker over time. Gosh, it’s nice to be able to read the fine print on my CDs again!

Over at An Overgrown Path (in a post tangentially about Igor Stravinsky and technology), there’s a thought-provoking quote from Jeff Greenwald’s The Size of the World that seems timely:
Arthur C. Clarke once suggested that the invention of eyeglasses (an event that occurred around 1350) may have actually launched the Renaissance by doubling the useful productive life of writers, artists and scientists.

This makes intuitive sense, even if it’s pure speculation. We take for granted such archaic technology and it is difficult to imagine what life would be like without corrective lenses. We certainly wouldn’t be zooming around at 80mph on the freeway talking on our cellular phones if we hadn’t first made it possible to see where we were going. (Not that this is a good idea in practice.)

So, even though as Bob Weir once said, wearing glasses is like “wearing a cage” (and it’s true), we should be eternally grateful for this ancient technology that allows us to see clearly, to read a book, to look at art, to drive a car -- even as we reach middle age and our eyes naturally begin to fail. Indeed our useful productive lives are doubled by this humble invention.

July 4, 2010

Hey, Baby, It's the Fourth of July

Sparkler 001, originally uploaded by Rodger Coleman.

I'm not all that into fireworks, but I thought it would be fun to pick up some sparklers and play around with the camera. (Plus, it would make for a timely blog post on this national holiday.) Special thanks to Lizzy for going along with the plan on a humid and buggy evening. This hand-held shot is one my favorites. Other experiments with long exposures are available on my Flickr page, if you're interested.

I hope everyone has a safe and fun holiday. Happy Birthday, U.S.A!

July 3, 2010

Playlist Week of 7-03-10

* Hesperion XXI (Savall): Orient-Occident 1200-1700 (Alia Vox SACD)
* Buxtehude: Sonatas, Op.1 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Da Capo/Naxos CD)
* Buxtehude: Sonatas, Op.2 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Da Capo/Naxos CD)
* Buxtehude: Six Sonatas (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Da Capo/Naxos CD)
* Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op.3 (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Beethoven: The Revolutionary (Orch. Revolutionaire/Gardiner) (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Stick-Up! (Blue Note CD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Oblique (Blue Note CD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Total Eclipse (Blue Note CD)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Medina (Blue Note CD)
* Sun Ra: Slug’s Saloon, New York, NY 8-19-71 (AUD 3CDR)
* Anthony Braxton 12+1tet: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (d.5) (Firehouse 9CD+DVD)
* John McLaughlin & 4th Dimension: Stara Salen, Uppsala, Sweden 5-08-10 (FM 2CDR)
* Aretha Franklin: Aretha Now/Lady Soul (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* George Clinton & the P-Funk Allstars: T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. (Sony CD)
* Jimi Hendrix: Valleys of Neptune (Experience Hendrix/Sony CD)
* The Yardbirds: Ultimate! (Rhino 2CD)
* Jeff Beck: Blow By Blow (Epic LP)
* The Who: By the Numbers (Polydor/Classic LP)
* Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed 2LP)
* Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: Nashville Skyline (Columbia SACD)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland June 1977: The Complete Recordings (6-09) (GD/Rhino 9+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI 12-03-81 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-12-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9-13-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Chicago: Chicago (II) (Rhino 2LP)
* Chicago: III (Columbia 2LP)
* Genesis: Live (Charisma – UK LP)
* Genesis: Seconds Out (Charisma – UK 2LP)
* Genesis: ...And Then There Were Three (Atlantic LP)
* Genesis: Three Sides Live (Atlantic 2LP)
* Phil Collins: Face Value (Atlantic LP)
* Peter Gabriel: [1] (a/k/a “Car”) (Atco LP)
* Peter Gabriel: Plays Live (Charisma – UK 2LP)
* Peter Gabriel: So (Geffen LP)
* U2: The Unforgettable Fire (Deluxe Edition) (d.2) (Island/Universal 2CD)
* U2: The Joshua Tree (Deluxe Edition) (Island/Universal 2CD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses on a Snail (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Circus Devils: Mother Skinny (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Water Curses (Domino CDEP)


I was seventeen years old when Phil Collins’s first solo album, Face Value, was released in February, 1980. I very vividly remember hearing “In the Air Tonight” for the first time on my dinky clock radio late one night in my upstairs bedroom. Even through its tinny one-inch speaker, the song was eerily captivating; but, wow, when that pummeling drum entrance came blasting through the bucolic Connecticut stillness, I was completely devastated. So were you the first time you heard it, weren’t you? Come on, admit it!

Genesis had enjoyed a moderate hit single with “Follow You Follow Me” in 1978, but nobody had ever before heard anything quite like “In the Air Tonight” on the radio. The next day, I was on a mission to somehow scrounge together the money to buy a copy of the album so I could hear it again and again and again! So, that’s what I did, me and a zillion other people. The record transformed Phil Collins into a mega-super-star -- and deservedly so. But while Collins (and Genesis) continued to enjoy phenomenal commercial success over the rest of the decade, “In the Air Tonight” represents his finest artistic achievement. In fact, it might have been a fluke. While Face Value is a fine album, most of it is middle-of-the-road, mass-market striving, sophisticated but maudlin MOR balladry and slickly polished R&B, worlds away from the artsy-fartsy, prog-rock roots of Genesis’s first several albums with Peter Gabriel (which is whole other subject).

“In the Air Tonight” is markedly different from your average radio-ready single. Let’s face it: it’s a pretty creepy little song; and when that drum break finally comes in -- no matter how many times you’ve heard it before -- it still feels as psychotically cathartic as ever. There is a menacing tone about it that makes it an unlikely smash hit, or so it would seem. Whenever I hear the song on the radio someplace, it sounds just as strange and out of place today as it did in 1980 -- yet also as immediately compelling. What is it about this song that makes it so widely popular? Is it just those 10 seconds of amazingly well-recorded drum thwacks? Or is it truly sui generis? Was it the result of mere cunning? Or just dumb luck? Or does the song somehow actually tap into our shared ill-defined paranoia and helpless sadomasochism and give it safe outlet for a few minutes so we can get on with our miserable lives? I don’t know the answers to these questions -- and the fact that questions like these can even be asked of this pop trifle makes me admire the song as a singularly powerful work of art. I do know one thing: while listening to “In the Air Tonight” on a nice big stereo offers a lot of hi-fi kicks, it will never sound as mind-blowing as it did when I was seventeen, hearing it for the first time on that crummy little clock radio.

July 2, 2010

More Pileated Woodpeckers!

This magificent male Pileated woodpecker looked like he was having a good time at the suet feeder this afternoon. I couln't help but take more pictures and share them with you.

July 1, 2010

I Love These Birds!

An entire family of Pileated woodpeckers came to our backyard feeder this evening: mom, dad, and baby boy. Amazing birds!