Saturday, February 26, 2011

Whose Land?

"Feb. 23, 1940"--that's the date Woody Guthrie penned at the bottom of his single-page, original handwritten draft of the song eventually to become known as "This Land Is Your Land." As can be seen in the photo of that momentous sheet of paper (posted at recently), the original title and repeating refrain was "God Blessed America" completed by "... for me." But Woody crossed out all the God lines, and though there was no replacement refrain added, up top he did scribble a new title: "This Land Was Made For You & Me."

I wonder what Woody would make of the current on-going crisis crippling our nation, as the Supreme Court declares that corporations are "citizens," so the richest corporate thugs (American demi-oligarchs like the Koch Brothers) by their huge contributions now can buy state governors and state congressmen and our national Congress too; and the banksters and Streetists steal the wealth of investors big and small; and the rich folks and corporate rulers escape paying taxes altogether but still outsource as many manufacturing jobs as they can, while regular folks get taxed and taxed again--but even so, there's no money for all the physical and social infrastructure repairs and improvements desperately needed in 2011. And thus the Right Wing Repugnants proceed on several fronts with their longterm plan to dismantle unions and collective bargaining, workers' pension plans and Social Security and any other safety net program for ordinary citizens in need... and so destroy the working middle class of these dis-United States, land of the service fee and home of the minimum wage slave.

Folk-country musician and singer Steve Earle has a great political song called "Christmas in Washington" that touches on this, and part of his lyrics are a request:

So come back Woody Guthrie come back to us now
Tear your eyes from Paradise and rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus maybe He can help you out
Come back Woodie Guthrie to us now...

There's foxes in the henhouse, cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio you'd think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know it's goin' straight to hell.

Woody's own signature song, 71 years young, is often put forward as a strong (and actually singable) replacement for our increasingly obscure, seldom-sung National Anthem; and Guthrie's lovely, stirring images of redwood forests and Gulf Stream waters, diamond deserts and wheatfields waving amid ribbons of highway--his heartfelt, heartworn love song to this wonderful and shameful country--certainly would be a step up from the martial manipulation that blats like an amateur's trombone for "the twilight's last gleaming," "the perilous fight," and that yet-waving "star-spangled banner."

But my own favorite stanza of "This Land" hints at some slight civil disobedience, a minor version of what the infamous I.W.W. "Wobblies" of the Northwest woods and Montana mines called "blackcatting"-- which meant to interrupt the efficient flow of things by a work slowdown (sometimes by tossing a real monkey wrench into the machinery!) rather than a complete stoppage or walk-off-the-job strike. Woody's rarely sung words, with his punctuation:

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property.
But on the back side it didn't say nothing--

...which was polished a bit later and a fourth line added, by Guthrie or friend Pete Seegar or maybe Woody's son Arlo: That side was meant for you and me.

The two-part question for Americans now is simple:

Whose land is this?
Which side are you on?

(I have another Guthrie post to write soon, but for now let this stand as my tribute to the threatened teachers and police and firemen and other unionized workers, in New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, and too many other Right Wing-infested states, but especially Wisconsin, whose valiant 14 state senators are fighting the good fight even if from a distance. And a tip of the hat to radio/TV host/talker/commentator Ed Schulz for spreading the word first, and then far and wide. And I ask with others, Where the hell is the President, our smooth-talking, nothing-doing, sadly corporate-centrist Democrat in all this? He should be marching and speaking out. Shame, Mr. Obama!)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Devil Take the Hindmost

When I wrote about Cajun albums a few weeks ago, there was an unplanned but handy connecting thread. Each CD included a version of the tune "Les Flammes d'Enfer"--yes, "The Flames of Hell," a potent image for such a lively piece of dance music--which must be some sort of remnant of Catholicism's hold on early Acadien settlers and New Orleans Creoles. But since then I've been instead pondering the disappearance of the Devil from our culture. With so many Christian fundamentalists, so many followers of the Rapture and the "Taken Away" books, so much hellfire-and-brimstone talk, what's happened to Satan himself? ("Satan is real," sang the Louvin Brothers in 1958, "You can see him and hear him each day.")

The answer I've come up with is this: since we now ("we" meaning large chunks of the American populace) are rapidly and rabidly demonizing swarthy Arabs, Mexican immigrants, union workers and collective bargaining, women's-choice physicians, election opponents and rival political parties, Supreme Court (un)justices, and even the President himself... well, there's just no need for some master Lucifer to be manipulating the citizenry, because we're doing just fine by ourselves--we've already gone to the Devil--violence and vituperation outyelling and outselling mere outmoded venality and vice. Do banksters and Wall Street criminals escape with a slap on the wrist and a fine? Do the wealthy and undeserving get a pass on taxes while the Middle Class gets beaten down into the dirt? Do our stupid celebrities spend more time in rehab centers than they do in shopping malls? Oh, they're just so lovable and watchable and forgivable, all these victims of disfunctional or abusive families, troubled by their demons within. No one would ask, "What the Devil got into you?" now because no one's to blame. No Devil need apply.

I miss Old Scratch, that surly bastard and shadowy fallen angel, poet John Milton's not-very-secret hero. Robert Johnson believed, singing, "Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go" (his "Me and the Devil Blues"). So did Peetie Wheatstraw, who billed himself as "the Devil's Son-in-Law." Those good old country boys, the Louvins put out a whole Satan Is Real album, with an infamous cover photo truer than expected, because the Satan photo set caught fire and so nearly did the Louvins. Speaking of such, I've found versions of "Les Flammes" not only by Mamou and Richard Thompson per the earlier post, but also by Austin Pitre, Jo-El Sonnier, the Balfa Brothers (great one! but why "Flemmes"?), BeauSoleil, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Zachary Richard, et quelques autres. The chorus says "Priez pour moi, Sauvez mon ame, Je suis condamne Aux flammes d'enfer." (In simple English, "Pray for me, Save my soul, I'm condemned To the flames of hell.")

Who was it first sang "Old Devil Moon," and who had "that old devil look in her eyes"? Was it Mitch Ryder who recognized the "Devil with a Blue Dress On"? (And comedian Flip Wilson who'd often wear one? "The Devil made me do it!" he'd comically claim.) Now add "Devil or Angel," "Devil Doll," and "Devil Woman" (two songs by that title), and a pattern of misogyny emerges, summed up by the sleazy '50s paperback titled Satan in Satin. But Lucifer isn't a woman all that often; think instead of "Sympathy for the Devil," "Friend of the Devil," and the banjopickers' anthem "Devil's Dream."

There are plenty of period songs from the folk and gospel traditions involving demonic possession, satanic acts, and devilish trickery. But I'm more interested in cueing up a few particular songs that demonstrate (watch out for the first two syllables there; the Devil's in the details!) how widespread belief in Beelzebub used to be. Yes, Satan was once commonly found in country and Cajun, blues and r&b, Jazz and pop, even Classical music--Mephistopheles in operas by Gounod and Boito, Mozart's third act Don Juan in Hell, the Mephisto waltzes, "Devil's trills" among violinists, Paganini and Liszt themselves--and Devil take the hindmost.

If Old Scratch found his way to Southwest Louisiana first, it was fiddler Charlie Daniels who finagled him to fame further east: "The Devil went down to Georgia, He was lookin' for a soul to steal; He was in a bind, He was way behind, He was willin' to make a deal." But this time he gets outsmarted--or, rather, outplayed--by a kid whose fiddle is smokin' hot. Daniels performs both parts, with amazing crazed dissonance for the Devil's still-musical sawing (a violint assault, so to speak), answered by powerhouse chicken-pluckin' and gut-struck, soul-saver bowin' from young musician Johnny. And the track became an unlikely yet huge hit on both country and rock charts. (Yes, bow down, Satan--you met your match!)

Forty years earlier, eccentric Bentonia, Mississippi bluesman Skip James recorded "Devil Got My Woman," which sounds definitely ominous, but turns out to be not so bad after all. James could play free-style piano, beautiful guitar, and sing ethereally; this cut, his debut on wax, has Skip on guitar, resentful but resigned, and pitching his voice up high, "I'd rather be the Devil than be that woman's man (Repeats), 'Cause nothin' but the Devil change my baby's mind." (In other words, not The War for Heaven and Earth, but the daily war between the sexes.) More significant are Skip's stylish picking and general text, both of which turn up a few years later when young Robert Johnson gets his chance in a studio, indicating some sort of influence, James to Johnson, whether via records, actual close contact, or a third party.

Jumping forward a couple of decades, another Miss'ippi lad sang an upbeat paean to another irksome, ever-fascinating woman. Tupelo's Elvis Aaron Presley (just a country boy, hunh) identified her, "You're the Devil in Disguise," exercising his vocal cords when exorcising her might have been more salubrious: "You look like an angel, Walk like an angel, Talk like an angel--But I got wise, You're the Devil in disguise, Oh yes you are..." Still, those simple repeating lyrics and the quick, swirling-rhythms arrangement produced a major Sixties hit for Electrifying El'; good thing he missed noticing "the Devil in her eyes" early on. (But what should we make of "Elvis" rearranging to become "Evils" and "Veils" as well as "Lives"?)

Finally, taking another cue from the Louvins' album, I offer "Satan's Jeweled Crown," sung spectacularly in 1975 instead by the then-littleknown Emmylou Harris. If there's another 40-year mistress of rock and country more worth sinning for, more worthy of risking one's starry crown over... well, I sure can't name her. Gingerly and tenderly supported by her friends, resonator-guitar ace Mike Auldridge and D.C. area Bluegrass vocalists John and Fayssoux Starling, Emmylou reaches for the heavens, turning an old-style gospel hymn/sermon into something rich and strange:

If I could be queen and ruler of nations,
Wear jewels and diamonds profound,
I'd rather know that I have salvation
Than to know my reward is Satan's jeweled crown...

Satan's jeweled crown, I've worn it so long
But God for my soul has reached down;
His love set me free, He made me his own,
And helped me cast off Satan's jeweled crown.

The lovely Emmylou is jewel-crowned queen of country harmony vocals, and will remain such long past her active performing years. Any belated attempt by Beelzebub to alter that set-in-stone fact will just fall flat.

Better the Devil you know than... what? Start talking about Lucifer, open those floodgates wide, and you might suddenly have a devil of a time getting the demon back in the box. At the geologic level there's Devil's Canyon, Devil's Tower, Devil's Island, Devil's Cauldron, and more than one Devil's Anvil. Cast a wider net, and you find From Hell to Texas, Duel at Diablo, The Demon Seed, and a spectrum of notions ranging from The Screwtape Letters to Their Satanic Majesties Request, from Hell Is for Heroes and Sartre's Existential play No Exit ("L'Enfer--c'est les autres") to Spielberg's early, eerie TV movie Something Evil.

Go to the Devil, then--get back to the original creature again--with "The Devil's Right Hand," "The Devil Came from Kansas," and The Devil Walks at Midnight... and that's probably because he's starved for deviled eggs, devil's food cake, and a ration of demon rum. The increased number of the Beast must be 666 at least!

Clearly I need to stop obsessing over the many-named Mephisto ("Get thee behind me, Satan!") and focus my mind on healthier, happier matters. Hmm, maybe some Ellington on the CD player... "Satan Doll," perhaps...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


George Shearing has died at age 91, and though I can't pretend to have listened to more than a dozen of his, what, hundred albums, I always heard something to admire, whether he was playing solo or in numerous duet and trio settings; backing some vocalist, or leading his early, ever-fluid, boplight quintet (George with his so-called "locked hands" approach, his sidemen on vibes and guitar each doubling a hand); recording with too many strings attached, or simply larking about--as was his wont occasionally--as jovial emcee and NonZensical blind master of all he surveyed (using some sort of uncanny radar). I felt particularly inept when I realized I'd omitted him from the "oldsters riding high" post I wrote a couple of months back.

George was funny and droll, skillful and quietly proud, sometimes reticent and yet always friendly, or so it seemed. Over the many many years, he famously backed Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, Nat Cole, Dakota Staton, Mel Torme, and no doubt more; introduced Cal Tjader, Toots Thielemans, Gary Burton, Brian Torff maybe, plus several Latin percussionists of note; and shared the stage (and/or album sessions) with Marian McPartland, the Montgomery Brothers, Hank Jones, Red Norvo, Ray Brown, and others I'm forgetting.

Of certain, sure-swinging interest was his too-brief quintet with both young Gary Burton and brilliant New Orleans-born drummer Vernel Fournier. That fine five (completed by guitarist John Gray and bassman Bill Yancey) in 1963 laid down at least one terrific LP, the classic live set simply titled Jazz Concert, offering great solos and interaction on "Walkin'," "Love Walked In," and a Ray Bryant original, "Bel Aire." With the album's total six tunes lasting just 40 minutes, now I'm wondering if there might not be more tracks from that concert worth hearing, still languishing in the Capitol vaults. George's passing might just lead to some intelligent reassessing and reissuing.

Specifically, Capitol, Concord, and MGM control the lion's share (so to speak) of his best recordings, and Capitol the worst of the plentiful, M.O.R. supperclub albums with strings. I suppose Shearing thought of himself as, not strictly a Bop/Jazz pianist, but a more rounded "entertainer" in both the English concert hall and Fats Waller/sui generis manner, and maybe a bit of an interloper as an immigrant-Brit, blind white man working to claim his niche in the world of mostly Black Jazzmen. But if for nothing else, he'll always be remembered for composing "Lullaby of Birdland." (It might be a fair observation that even his choice of the word "lullaby" suggests those Bop-made-beautiful piano stylings. Anyway, I can't name another Shearing original even though he composed a few hundred!)

Death has been thinning the Jazz herd a little too assiduously of late---Hank Jones, James Moody, Abbey Lincoln, Bud Shank, Billy Taylor, Lena Horne, Buddy Collette... We might have been spared this Shearing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

All-Star Game

On Super Bowl Sunday, Steve Provizer of the "Brilliant Corners" blog gave readers a brief respite from the day's football excess. He compiled a list of composers' sheet-music terms and selected a Jazz great to exemplify each word--for example, Andante character-ized Benny Carter and Prestissimo pointed to Bird. It was amusing but possibly mistimed--that is, Steve offered up a list that could run at any time, with absolutely no connection to football. Moreover, selecting each defining player in "speed" terms and nothing else didn't leave any room for argument. You could name some other musician as equally Moderato, but that wouldn't contest Steve's choice of Red Garland.

Then it occurred to me that one might take the positions available on a typical football roster and fill each with a familiar name "player" (of improvised music, that is), creating a team of Jazz All-Stars, with the placement of each musician definitely a matter subject to debate. Who would make the best Quarterback or the best Left Guard? (If I knew what a Nose Guard did, maybe I could think of a suitable candidate, other than Jimmy Durante!)

If this were a contest, the logical reasons for each placement might be important. But I'm frankly too lazy and too disconnected from the NFL today to mount those arguments. Instead, I'll just offer my roster and let anyone amused by the whole idea respond with his or her better choices or suggestions for more pertinent positions out on the gridiron. (Do football fans still use that word?) I looked at the Offense only, but I'll bet someone can offer persuasive reasons for choosing, say, Mighty Joe Young to take Mean Joe Greene's Defensive Tackle slot. (And who would be the Corner Backs of Jazz?)

Here's my half-fast selection:

Left End--"Lincolnesque" Lester Young

Left Tackle--Thelonious "The Mad" Monk

Left Guard--Max "Imum-Time" Roach

Center--"Sunshine" Ray Brown

Right Guard--Shelly "The Main" Manne

Right Tackle--Coleman "On-'Em-Like-a-Hawk" Hawkins

Right End--Bill "Plu-Perfect" Evans

Kicking Specialist--Count "ToeSwinger" Basie

Tailback (rotating plays in from bench)--Louis "Full Satchel" Armstrong/Clifford "The Kid" Brown

Halfback/Wide Receiver--Charles "High-Flying" Parker

Fullback/Tight End (rotating with Fullback/Blocking Back)--John "Nigh'Trane" Coltrane/ Charles "Fingers" Mingus

Quarterback--Dizzy "The Fox" Gillespie

Trainer--Adolphus "Take-Two-and-Call-Me-Doc" Cheatham

Offensive Coach--Art "Bop 'Em Harder" Blakey

Assistant Coach--"Indomitable" Dave Brubeck

Head Coach--Edward "Duke of Wails" Ellington

And holding down the Front Office, Stan "White Bred" Kenton (Acting General Manager) and Woody "New Math" Herman (Chief Accountant).

(But where are Miles, Getz, Rollins... all our other favorites?)

Okay, fine. Fantasy trades are encouraged.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Partial Mosaics

A few years ago, I had an interesting email exchange with Michael Cuscuna, Blue Note Records expert and historian, co-founder of Mosaic Records (the great Jazz reissue label), producer extraordinaire. I sent a suggestion to Mosaic, that the enterprising company should compile a definitive, multi-label box set documenting the late-Thirties to mid-Forties transition from Swing to Bebop, pushing beyond Bird and Diz to trace the changing sounds of Monk, Howard McGhee, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt; the orchestras of Billy Eckstine, Jay McShann, Boyd Raeburn, Woody Herman, Claude Thornhill, etc., with new-style arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, Ralph Burns, and others; modernist jam sessions at Minton's and Monroe's, and the increase of small combos in the clubs on 42nd Street; exciting developments on the West Coast, and much, much more. "A complex story has been oversimplified and needs to be corrected," was my claim, "preferably by the dedicated Mosaic group."

I was surprised to hear back from Cuscuna himself, that I had a fine idea which indeed should be explored, but that it involved too many small and large record companies, functioning or defunct, for even a Mosaic to accomplish. I responded that box sets from Europe--specifically a 4CD box I'd recently bought devoted to the early work of tenor Wardell Gray--seemed to be creating very interesting compilations by ignoring U.S. copyrights, or at least going by European rules rather than the excessively protective American ones.

And Michael then quietly exploded, lambasting quasi-legal activities abroad, pirate labels avoiding royalty payments, the blind stubborness of U.S. corporations, the greed of Disney and Congress and artists' descendents, the poor sound of overseas sets compiled from records rather than original session tapes, the shady characters involved in such fly-by-night companies, and more. I commiserated in another email and apologized for touching on such a sore subject, but he didn't respond further.

Since then I've found more and more Jazz reissues, creative compilations, and exciting live performance CDs--all on relatively small non-U.S. labels--that seemed worth purchasing, so I did (as will be shown below). None of them was available, assembled thus, from an American record company. If the minimalist address information offered in CD credits can be trusted, then Gambit, Lone Hill, Fresh Sounds, and other Jazz entrepreneurs are manufacturing their discs mainly in Spain (on some rainy plain maybe), but most also with a possibly non-existent company headquarters located in the nearby tiny tax haven and copyright infringement-sheltered nation of Andorra, which consists of a few square miles of mountain terrain that most Americans couldn't find even with a talking GPS!

Yes, the companies are somewhat shady by U.S. legal standards, with a typical single CD offering the equivalent of two, related-in-some-way albums--good sound, "borrowed" liner notes, uncredited photos, and a nice layout combining angular design with cheap "press" type. These... well, I started to say "mini-Mosaics," but Cuscuna would surely take umbrage, so let's call them azulejos instead (handsome blue-and-white tiles,but limited to those colors only). By whatever name, the labels operate successfully within European boundaries--and they are releasing some very choice stuff.

Just to cite three recent acquisitions, I am happy now to own the never-before-issued Jazz Lips Music 2CD set titled Bill Evans Trio & Guests Live in Nice 1978, which actually offers full sets from festivals in both Nice and Umbria, played by an unrecorded Evans trio (Bill, Marc Johnson, and Philly Joe Jones). Even better, the Nice cuts add Lee Konitz for three long quartet tracks, Lee plus Curtis Fuller for a quintet performance, and Fuller plus Stan Getz as another unexpected group of five. Bill plays lyrically, of course, but Philly Joe's presence always lifts the Evans energy level too (somewhat ironic since both men were junkies). Anyway, a major live-album addition to the Evans discography!

Now consider this amazing package on Gambit: a 4CD box of the Complete Studio Recordings of the Jimmy Giuffre/Jim Hall Trio (with Ralph Pena, Bob Brookmeyer, even Ray Brown completing the uncommonly structured, changing threesomes), comprised of Atlantic's great classics The Jimmy Giuffre 3, Trav'lin' Light, The Four Brothers Sound, and Western Suite, plus Verve albums Seven Pieces and The Easy Way, plus outtakes, rejects, and miscellaneous other live trio or differently configured performances, adding up in total to about 300 minutes of clarinet-guitar-and-whatever brilliance--"The Train and the River," "Crawdad Suite," "Pickin' 'Em Up and Layin' 'Em Down," "Four Brothers," "Gotta Dance," "Down Home," and many many more, 61 tracks in fact and in excelsis.

And maybe topping that, another Gambit release, but of un-released Monk, officially titled Thelonious Monk Trio & Quartet Unissued Live at Newport 1958-59, but fortunately including three cuts from Newport 1962 as a bonus (and what a bonus!). Here's what's been unleashed on the Monk-craving world: from 1958, four performances by a threesome featuring Roy Haynes, with the pianist and the drummer having a high old time, very up and at 'em. (They be boppin' around!). Then, from the following year, a quartet of tracks by the now-foursome of Monk, Charlie Rouse, Sam Jones, and Art Taylor, but this is a heated and happy four, energetic, funny, loosey-goosey rather than fixed-fast and settled-in--very much not the later-Sixties, too-cool, shards-of-ice, heard-it-all-before sound of Monk, Rouse, and interchangeable rhythm.

Finally, the bonus tracks: in 1962, Monk sat in with the Ellington Orchestra (or vice versa!), and some enterprising fan taped them off the radio; and these two pieces of music ("Monk's Dream" and "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are") with light arrangements by Billy Strayhorn and a long verbal introduction by Duke constitute the big piece de resistance, a joyous once-in-a-lifetime 10 minutes of Jazz history, with bootleg-quality sound but the elegant Ellingtonians playing Music of The.Sphere's, and never the Strides again shall meet!

There are many more azulejo issues worth discussing, but I prefer just to post a visual selection for your delectation and delight and debate. Should these geodes of Jazz be forgiven their rocky path and trespass on copyrights? Are they acceptable because ultimately serving the elusive history and ephemeral artifacts of improvised music?