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Archive for the ‘Sun Ra Arkestra’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: MELANIE CHARLES-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #165 (January 4, 2021).

I had never heard of Melanie Charles and boy was I in for a treat with this being my first exposure to her.

A Brooklynite proud of her rich Haitian heritage, Charles is conscious of the giant shoulders upon which she stands and takes steps to both honor and advance this music. Behind her, smiling pictures of her guardian angels, Mary Lou Williams and Billie Holiday, encourage Charles while she and her musicians blend the mystique of Haitian folk music with the sorrowful optimism of negro spirituals and the free space for elevation that jazz improvisation allows.

The video opens on a dark screen with samples being manipulated and twisted.  It’s amazing to have the camera fade from black into this really old-fashioned looking scene–upright bass, snare drum and a nearly sepia filter on the video.  And then there’s Melanie Charlie dressed in a beautiful but old-fashioned looking ensemble manipulating all of the sounds.

She is playing from the

Williamsburg Music Center, one of Brooklyn’s last surviving black-owned jazz venues… This performance was a full circle moment for Melanie Charles. The Williamsburg Music Center is owned by Gerry Eastman, a celebrated musician and composer who taught the jazz class Charles and her brother and saxophonist, Rogerst Charles, attended when they were in high school. According to Charles, Eastman “represents a special era of Brooklyn jazz musicians” and created a space that gave these artists a place to perform when all other doors were closed to them.

Then she starts singing French while Jonathan Michel plays a bass solo /melody.  This song is

“Damballa Wedo,” [in which] Charles channels her Haitian roots and delivers a modern twist of a traditional vodou song by Toto Bissainthe. She sings that when we seek transformation, we may become someone who those around us no longer recognize, but that the change is necessary and part of the ancestors’ divine plan. “C’est bon, c’est bon,” she sings.

Up next she offers a little Sun Ra vibration.  She plays a sample and dramatically shuts it off as it loops.  The starkness of the silence is very dramatic.   Then she starts singing

Charles’ arrangement of “Deep River” is inspired by her admiration for Sun Ra. The biography of the eccentric composer, arranger, musician, and early pioneer of Afrofuturism, Space Is The Place rests on a stand behind her. By really digging into his approach and arrangements and using his “spaceship setup as a performance guide,” she breathes new life into this spiritual, injecting it with a potency that is simultaneously somber and otherworldly.

While the sample continues the band picks things up.  The bass and sax play the main melody while Melanie plays some sharp and cool flute accents.

And what a voice!

Before the final song, she introduces the band:

Jonathan Michel: who looks like an upright bassist–he’s got that Ron Johnson turtleneck.  Shout out to Ron Johnson.  On drums, Diego Ramirez: coming in at the last minute and learning the songs over night.  On saxophone, Rogerst Charles, my blood brother, my heart.

The final song is “Dilemma.”

She finishes the set with “Dilemma,” a new song written to find the balance between self-care and showing up for those you love amid the cries for justice during the first summer of the pandemic. On our phone call, Charles explained that the song is an anthem that reminds us to not to “dim your light for anybody” and “remember how vibrant we are, despite what we as black people had to deal with in 2020.”

She plays keys and sings a soft song until the whole band joins in.  After a couple of minutes she she sings a high note and the sax plays the same note a wailing harmony of greatness.

With about two minutes left she starts singing the coda “we’ve been doing alright be we still shine bright.”  The band sings along and she interjects:

We’ve been doing alright
even though we didn’t get our stimulus.
But we still shine bright.

[READ: March 31, 2021] Only Righteous Fights

On December 31 of 2020 I donated some money to Elizabeth Warren (I’m not actually sure to what end it was used–presumably her Senatorial campaign?) to pre-order this collection of speeches (and get a laminated bookmark!).

There are few things more disappointing than reading amazing, inspiring and truly moving speeches by a person who lost a candidacy.

Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren were my number 1 and number 2 choices for President.  I didn’t have to worry too much about which one I would ultimately choose, I was just happy they both were so successful (until they weren’t).  Having Harris as V.P. is pretty awesome, and I will acknowledge that Biden (who was my last choice) has been doing a good job thus far (apparently having taken ideas from all the other candidates…which is rather a good idea).

But reading this book and seeing how genuine Warren was (or came across) and how much she cared (or appeared to) for the people she spoke to and about, it is crushing that her campaign didn’t last.

There are five speeches in the book as well as lots of photos.  There’s a few smaller sections as well, like photos from the Selfie Line, Letters to Elizabeth and Pinky Promises.

What’s impressive is how she manages to hit all of her main bullet points and yet how each speech is quite different. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CECIL TAYLOR-Jazz Advance (1956).

As the biography below states, Cecil Taylor was ahead of his time and harshly criticized for being so.  This was his first album and it made waves–as did his subsequent performance at Newport Jazz Festival (it’s like when Dylan went electric, but for jazz).

Since I’m not a big jazz follower, I’ll start with those who are.  Here’s some notes on the album from The Guardian.

A Taylor group comprised of Buell Neidlinger on bass and Dennis Charles on drums is augmented here and there by soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy; the repertoire mixes tunes by Ellington, Monk and Cole Porter with the leader’s fearlessly personal reinventions of the blues. Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” is played even more cryptically and succinctly, the lines breaking up into jagged fragments and jutting chords. Taylor’s “Charge Em Blues” is a 4/4 walk with a surprisingly straight Lacy sax solo, and “Azure”‘s lazily struck chords and delicate treble sounds might even remind you of Abdullah Ibrahim, until the cross-rhythmic improvised piano patterns clattering chords typical of later Taylor emerge. …  It’s a historic document that still sounds more contemporary than most jazz piano music being made today.

As I listened I first thought it didn’t sound all that shocking and I wondered if that was because I was listening in 2021 and not 1956, but around two minutes into “Bemsha Swing” he starts throwing in some atonal and dissonant notes.  You can tell that he knows how to play, but that he’s deliberately hitting either “wrong” notes or just letting his fingers fly where they will.   And it still sounds surprising today.

“Charge ‘Em Blues” sounds far more “normal” at least in the beginning.  Lacy’s sax solo is fun and bouncy.  Then around 5 minutes a back and forth starts with Taylor’s wild free-jazz atonal improv and a drum solo.

“Azure” is a more chill track although about halfway through the improv starts going off the rails.

About half way through “Song” the solo is all over the place–sprinkling around the piano and pounding out a few chords here and there.  It’s dissonant and off-putting, but seem more like it’s trying to wake up the listener. When Lacy’s pretty sax comes in and plays a delightful improv and Taylor is bopping around behind him, the contrast is stark.

“You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” is the only song on the record that I knew before and I never would have recognized it here.  As AllMusic puts it

At his most astonishing, Taylor slightly teases, barely referring to the melody of “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” wrapping his playful, wild fingers and chordal head around a completely reworked, fractured, and indistinguishable yet introspective version of this well-worn song form.

This is a solo piece and he is all over the place.  At no point did I recognize the original melody.

“Rick Kick Shaw” features some lively drums and walking bass while Taylor goes to town.  He plays some really fast runs which slowly turn experimental. I’m very curious if future renditions of this song were in any way the same or if all of this soloing was improvised each time.

“Sweet and Lovely” is very slow and more traditional sounding.  Without the speed of his solos, this song comes across as almost like a standard jazz song.  Although at the very end he throws in a few sprinkles of chaos just because he can.

[READ: February 2, 2021] The Musical Brain

I’d only read a couple of short stories from César Aira (all included here).  His novels are so short it almost seems weird that he’d write short stories, but some of these stories are very short indeed.  They do also tend to meander in the way his novels do which makes it seem like some of them don’t end so much as stop.

“The Musical Brain” was the first story I’d read by Aira, and what I wrote about the story has held true for pretty much everything I’ve read by him:

There are so many wonderful and unexpected aspects to this story that I was constantly kept on my toes.  This also made it somewhat challenging to write about.

“A Brick Wall”
I thought I had read this story before but I guess I hadn’t.  It begins with the narrator saying that he went to the movies a lot as a kid–four or six films a week (double features). He says he has an impressive memory for details.  He remembers seeing Village of the Damned decades ago.  A small village’s children are all born as zombies. The zombies can read everyone’s minds so the hero thinks–erect a brick wall.  He also remembers North By Northwest which was titled in Argentina: International Intrigue.  He and his friend Miguel loved the elegance of the movie. And they decided to become spies.  So they created a game in which they would “forget” that they were spies. They would leave notes for each other and then “discover” them so that when they came upon them they were new and exciting.  It was surprisingly easy to forget the game, apparently. (more…)

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[ATTENDED: September 29, 2019] Sun Ra Arkestra

I had intended to run upstairs to check out Foxtrot & The Get Down, but their set had already started and the Sun Ra Arkestra was supposed to begin before Foxtrot ended so I decided to hang around downstairs, look at merch and then get pretty close to the stage for the interstellar Arkestra.

So just what is the Sun Ra Arkestra?

Sun Ra was an experimental jazz composer and bandleader. He was a pioneer of Afrofuturism.  He was an early adopter of synths and free jazz. He also released a ton of music.  Quite literally.  He released over 100 albums in his lifetime.  At some point in his life (records are unclear), Sun Ra (born Herman Blount), traveled to Saturn, which obviously changed his outlook:

My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up… I wasn’t in human form… I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn… they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools… the world was going into complete chaos… I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.

In 1952 he legally changed his name to Sun Ra and started building the Arkestra, which had an ever evolving cast of (some very famous) jazz musicians who would come and go and then return. (more…)

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[ATTENDED: September 29, 2019] Philly Music Fest

For those counting, this makes four concerts in four nights, which is frankly insane (and thanks to my poor wife who tolerates such excesses).

But the whole reason I wanted to go this evening was to see Man Man (more in their own post).

But, in fact, the entire Philly Music Fest was pretty fantastic.  I would have certainly gone to three of the four nights if I could have.  This little festival is a testament to the amazing music that Philadelphia is producing, and they didn’t even include two of my favorite Philly bands, Mannequin Pussy and Control Top.

The first night I actually didn’t know any of the bands.

  • Wednesday 9/25 at Milkboy (a venue I haven’t been to yet)
  • Secret American
  • Sixteen Jackies
  • Ceramic Animal

The second night was an amazing line up! (more…)

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[ATTENDED: September 26, 2019] Bitchin Bajas

I was super excited to see that Stereolab was touring again for the first time in over a decade.  I wondered who they would have open for them.

I never imagined it would be a band called Bitchin Bajas, of whom I had never heard.

The band is a three-piece and is a side-project of Cooper Crane from the band Cave (who I also don’t know).

With a name like Bitchin Bajas, I assumed they’d be a kind of desert punk band, but boy was I wrong about that.

When I walked in, the stage was set with three keyboards.  The band came out rather quietly with little fanfare and sat down. (more…)

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mustcahe SOUNDTRACK: SUN RA ARKESTRA-Tiny Desk Concert #402 (October 31, 2014).

sunraSun Ra was a big band innovator who claimed to be from Saturn.  He died 20 years ago, but he would have turned 100 in 2014. And the Arkestra that bears his name keeps his spaced out spirit alive.

The band plays jazz, but most often that jazz is noisy and abrasive and seems to make no sense at all.  Sometimes it seems like it would just hurt to listen to it.  But when they gel, the music is trippy and cool.

The first song, “Along Came Ra”/”Zoom” opens with the group singing “When the world was in darkness and darkness was ignorance, along came Ra.”  And after a few times through this the chaos begins (that would be “Zoom.”  All of the horn players just start wailing on whatever.  The violin plays something, the keyboard is all over the place.  It is noise and chaos and probably hurt people’s ears there.

And then it stops and a proper jazzy song “Queer Notion” begins.   It has a catchy piano melody.  When the horns come back in, they feel slightly off somehow, as if deliberately not quite playing what you’d expect–but very close.  There’s even an electronic keyboard solo (set to a nice spacey sound).  The band leader (Marshall Allen, who is 91 and has been with the Arkestra since the early 1950s) play a “melodica” that has some kind of spacey processor on it.  And yet for all the craziness there is some real fundamental jazz beneath it.

“Angels and Demons at Play” has a trippy underlying riff with horns over the top.  The biggest surprise comes after a few minutes when the violinist sings the title slowly and dramatically.  The song builds and repeats over and over and then ends with chaos and drama.

The set ends and there is much applause and the band wishes everyone a Happy Halloween–the band came dressed complete with costumes inspired by Egyptian symbolism and science fiction.  And just when it seems like it’s over (and this surprises Bob) they start another song.

“Interplanetary Music” is a big fun sing along  with lots of clapping and it seems like the kind of thing they might end every show with.  So even though some of the music is crazy, there’s good fun at the heart of it all.

[READ: June 1, 2016] The Glorkian Warrior and the Mustache of Destiny

This Glorkian Warrior story was probably my least favorite of the three.  It felt really long, possibly because many of the jokes were repeated a lot.  I did get a kick out of how the mustache appears in the very first pages and then almost never makes a return appearance.

The best part of the story is that the Glorkian Warrior continues to be incredibly stupid.  When he says good morning to his coffee, super backpack says “good morning” and warrior thinks it is the coffee that talks back.  So he thinks, “I just invented talking coffee.”  He and the backpack argue for a few pages (my favorite parts are their fights because the backpack is smart and the Warrior…isn’t).

And then in cones a bunch of little kids (crazy Kochalkan characters, of course).  There’s Crazy Face, Doonky and Bronk (who only says Bronk).  The kids want to go on a mission with him but he says no. (more…)

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