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Archive for the ‘Sun Ra’ 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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SOUNDTRACK: GOLDEN DAWN ARKESTRA-Tiny Desk Concert #761 (June 29, 2018).

They came marching in from off stage in robes and masks, with instruments and face paint, in more colors than have ever been in one place.

And they began the first song with a cacophony of keyboards and percussion before playing the discofied funk of “Children of the Sun.”

There’s horns from “Malika” (Sarah Malika Boudissa–Baritone Sax, Vocals), and “Zumbi” (Chris Richards–Trombone, Vocals) who set the melody going while the percussion from “Lost In Face” (Rob Kidd–Drums–who does indeed have a mask covering his face) and “Oso the Great” (Alex Marrero-Percussion) keeps things moving.

There’s a slowdown in the middle with just bass “Shabuki” (Greg Rhoades-Bass), and keys from the leader himself “Zapot Mgawi” (Topaz McGarrigle-Vocals, Organ, Synth).

Throughout the songs you can hear some wah wah guitar from “Yeshua Villon” (Josh Perdue-Guitar) and vibes–a persistent instrument which sounds otherworldly and perfect.  They come from “Isis of Devices” (Laura Scarborough-Vocals, Vibraphone).  Behind her, dancing throughout the song is “Rosietoes” (Christinah Rose Barnett-Vocals, Tambourine).

So what do we know about this band?

The blurb says:

It was a late night at an unfamiliar club in Austin, Texas when the spirit, sound, lights and costumes of the Golden Dawn Arkestra put a huge, dreamy smile on my face. It took more than three years to get ten of the players and performers in this band (there are often even more) to my desk. I tried to transform the bright daylight of the NPR office with some of my handy, previously used holiday laser lights. But honestly, it wasn’t until their psychedelic jazz kicked in that the office transformation felt real. Band leader, Topaz squawked through his megaphone to join them on their journey, while singing “Children of the Sun.”

Topaz told me that the band’s inspiration for both the name and the spirit of the musicians is loosely based on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The organization, devoted to the study of the occult and paranormal activities, has been around since the 19th century.

Both of Topaz’s parents were heavily into spiritual movements and what happens here falls somewhere between high art and a circus, with music that feels connected to Sun Ra’s jazz, the extended musical adventures of The Doors and the surprise elements of Parliament-Funkadelic. You can dance and/or trance, or sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Before “The Wolf” he apologizes for an outbreak of cold on their planet.  But he wants to remind us that we are all human beings from the same planet and that we are all from stardust and vibrations. Together we can change the planet.

We would like there to be more light and love in the universe.  We must all stand together.  This is our fight song for that.

It moves quickly with the horns playing away and t he percussion flying.

The final song “Masakayli” opens with bongos from “Oso the Great” and clapping from everyone (including the audience).  The horn melody sounds a lot the theme from S.W.A.T. (there’s nothing wrong with that).  I feel like the guitar was kind of quiet through the other songs, but you can really hear “Yeshua Villon” on this one, especially the guitar solo.

This song ends with the jamming circus atmosphere that really takes off with a trippy keyboard solo from Topaz as “Rosietoes” plays with a light up hula hoop and “Zumbi” parades through the audience trying to get everyone hyped up.

It’s a tremendous spectacle and should bring a smile to your face.  Next time these guys are in town, I’m there.

[READ: February 2, 2018] “Always Another Word”

These are the same remarks that were included in Five Dials Issue Number 10.

But since it has been some time since I posted them and since I am being a completist here, and since it has been nine years since Infinite Summer, I’ll cover these four in somewhat more details

Michael Pietsch
speaks about being DFW’s editor. He says that Dave loved to communicate through letters and “the phone messages left on the office answering machine hours after everyone had departed.”  He says he loved Dave’s letters and tore into them hungrily.  He gives examples of some communiques about cuts and edits of Infinite Jest.

I cut this and have now come back an hour later and put it back

Michael, have mercy.  Pending and almost Horacianly persuasive rationale on your part, my canines are bared on this one.

He continues that David’s love affair with English was a great romance of our time.  How he was so excited to be selected to the American Heritage Dictionary‘s Usage panel. But that was surpassed by his own mother’s excitement about it,

Michael thinks he may have tried to use every word in the dictionary at least once.  When he, Michael, suggested a book that opened with the word “picric,” David’s instant response was “I already used that!.”

Zadie Smith
addresses the critics of BIWHM who thought the book was an ironic look at misogyny. She felt it was more like a gift.  And the result of two gifts.  A MacArthur Genius grant and a talent so great it confused people.  His literary preoccupation was the moment the ego disappears and you’re able offer your love as a gift without expectation of reward.

She says that she taught students to read BIWHM alongside Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

The most impassioned recommendation he gave her was Brain Moore’s Catholics, a novella about a priest who is no longer capable of prayer. Don’t think of David as a God-botherer–think of it as ultimate value.

You get to decide what you worship, but nine time out of ten it turns out to be ourselves.

For David, Love was the ultimate value, the absurd, the impossible thing worth praying for.

George Saunders
speaks of reading BIWHM and finding that it did strange things to his mind and body.  He says it was like if you were standing outdoors and all of your clothes were stripped away and you had super-sensitive skin and you were susceptible to the weather whatever it might be–on a sunny day you would feel hotter; a blizzard would sting.

The reading woke him up, made him feel more vulnerable, more alive.  And yet the writer of these works was one of the sweetest, most generous dearest people he’d ever known.

He met Dave at the home of mutual friend in Syracuse.  While he feared that Dave would be engaged in a conversation about Camus, and he would feel humiliated, Dave was wearing a Mighty Mouse T-shirt and talked about George and his family, asking all about them.

Saunders says that in time the grief of his passing will be replaced by a deepening awareness of what a treasure we have in the existing work.  The disaster of his loss will fade and be replaced by the realization of what a miracle it was that he ever existed in the first place.   But for now there is just grief.

For now, keep alive the lesson of his work:

Mostly we’re asleep but we can wake up. And waking up is not only possible, it is our birthright and our nature and, as Dave showed us, we can help one another do it.

Don DeLillo
says that Dave’s works tends to reconcile what is difficult and consequential with what is youthful, unstudied and often funny.  There are sentences that shoot rays of energy in seven directions.

It’s hard to believe that in September, he will be dead ten years.

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[LISTENED TO: March 2017] The Organist

organistAfter really enjoying The Organist in 2015, the season ended and I hadn’t heard that there were going to be anymore.  So I stopped looking for them.  And then the other day I got an email reminding me about recent episodes.  Well, sure enough there had been an entire season last year and they were already part way through this year’s season.

So I’m playing some catch up here.  But they are timeless, so it’s okay.

Each cast has a section in brackets–this text comes from the Organist’s own site.  The rest is my own commentary.

The Organist is a free podcast from KCRW & McSweeney’s.  As of this writing, they are up to episode 82. (more…)

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homesSOUNDTRACK: LULLABYE ARKESTRA-Ampgrave [CST044] (2006).

ampgraveI’m not sure what’s up with the spelling of Arkestra (Sun Ra tribute, perhaps?), but “Lullabye” is certainly a misnomer.  “Ampgrave” on the other hand is a pretty good summary of the music on this record.

The band is basically a drum and bass duo.  And yet, they are so much more.  The bass runs the show, with the bass lines being loud and furious.  There are also several guests who provide horns, organ, violin and my favorite addition: “screaming.”  This complete package makes for a loud, bruising, soulful unholy mess.  And it’s really fun.

The disc won’t appeal to everyone. The opening track “Unite!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” is where the “screaming” really comes to the fore, and will certainly scare off the weak-hearted.  Which is a shame, as track 2 mellows out with some good soulful tunes (albeit utterly distorted, let’s not forget). There’s some other weird and wonderful tracks.  “Y’Make Me Shake” is a great rocking track with excellent horns to provide nice moments of melody.

The disc ends with a great one-two punch of “Bulldozer of Love” and the wonderfully titled “Ass Worship” two noisy, chaotic tracks that find a killer melody under all that distortion.

I hate to use the White Stripes as a frame of reference because it’s kind of lazy, but they are a two-piece playing soulful, distorted rock.  But the White Stripes are practically bubblegum pop when it compares to the racket these guys make.  It’s a lot of fun, if you like your fun noisy.

[READ: March 31, 2009] This Book Will Save Your Life

While it didn’t save my life, I enjoyed this book very very much.

This book follows the life of Richard Novak.  As the book starts, Richard seems like a type A workaholic who is too consumed with his work and routine to really enjoy anything.  When he gets an inexplicable yet frightening pain, he calls 911 and is taken to the hospital.   And this rather mundane opening leads to a hugely complicated back-story and a hugely complicated fore-story (?) in which all aspects of Richard’s life meet in a house in Malibu.

For, you see, Richard was something of an asshole.  Richard’s ex-wife, is another Type A personality who is as absorbed in her work as he is in his.  When he is offered a job in California, requiring him to leave New York, his wife said, go if you want to.  And he did, leaving his wife and his son Ben (seven at the time) with minimal contact and, eventually, little participation in his son’s life. (more…)

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