Saturday, January 30, 2010

Three to Get. Ready?

From the ridiculous (see previous post) to the sublime...

Almost every fan of pop music (or jazz, or blues, or whatever genre) has his or her special favorites--not the big worldwide hits that every listener knows, and not the lesser albums by major artists, but those unknown works that seem like secret messages no one but the single lucky listener has discovered, brilliant works created by little-known performers laboring in obscurity.

No doubt someone will nominate a particular disc by Mink Deville, for example, or soulman McKinley Mitchell, or pop band Blue Ash maybe (I might on a different day), but I'm thinking at this moment of three other LPs, all dating from the late-Sixties/early Seventies. Two of them are actually underground classics in some circles, praised by "those in the know," while my third choice may cause some raised eyebrows--but, hey, I know a classic album when I hear it!

First up is that deft last one, dating from 1973: Loving & Free by Brit vocalist Kiki Dee, produced by Elton John as part of his private label (Rocket Records) deal with MCA, but better than many of Elton's own releases from that period, thanks to the canny selection of tunes (two by hit masters John/Taupin and four gems written by the singer herself), the use of several top English sessionmen (Paul Keogh and Davey Johnstone on guitars, Dave Mattacks, Gerry Conway and Nigel Olsson on rock-solid drums, Elton himself on keyboards, etc.)--and the wonderful white-soul vocals of Ms. Dee. John continued backing Dee on subsequent efforts too, shaping her hit single "I've Got the Music in Me" and then duetting beautifully with her for the massive hit "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," but it was her debut album that received the most loving attention, and subtler production too.

Elton found a variety of ways to support Kiki's warm and caressing voice--a smidgin of Mellotron and sax, a couple dashes of organ or pedal steel, some elegant strings (on two tracks only), and Elton John-styled piano almost everywhere else. But Dee and her sweet & soulful backup singers (including Lesley Duncan) had no trouble floating along or rising above each--hear "If It Rains," "You Put Something Better Inside Me," and "Sugar on the Floor" for the proof; and the latter two are just as warmly sexy as their titles suggest. Elton's piano kicks "Lonnie and Josie" like a sequel to his sorta-Western album Tumbleweed Connection, and Jackson Browne's "Song for Adam" gets a gorgeous, rhythm-spiked makeover. And there's room for some tougher rockers too--a blues-hot redo of Free's "Travellin' in Style" plus the fun, Elton-fueled, faintly generic "Supercool." But the lady will melt your cold, cold heart with her harmonized vocals on the post-coitus "Amoureuse" ("Strands of light upon a bedroom floor") and her title-tune original:

"Bound, I am bound like the knots in a string,
Eager to be where my life can begin.
Out of the shadow and into the sun,
So many things I should have done...
I will untangle myself,
So that I can see;
I will untangle myself,
Everything will be
Loving and free..."

Second of the three is the best Bob Dylan album that Bob didn't participate in, meaning Lo & Behold, the great homage-to-Dylan disc by Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint--English sidemen and session dudes ex- of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Manfred Mann group (he helped produce) and other fine bands--offering a dozen Dylan songs that hadn't yet been taken up by Bob or others, gleaned from demos and the readily bootlegged Basement Tapes. (There were only ten tracks on the 1972 Lo & Behold LP, but the current CD has added two B-sides from singles, plus an alternate mix, so the version shown has 13 cuts total.)

Ironically the CDMF versions often are better than those sloppy-casual ones Bob and the Band laid down in the basement. Dennis Coulson has a good strong voice, and the guys together (with some extra session help) play 17 or 18 different instruments, enriching the arrangements nicely. Some tracks are still jokey ("Open the Door Homer," "Odds and Ends"), while others remind us of Dylan's plainspoken protest days ("The Death of Emmett Till") and soon-to-come religious time ("Sign on the Cross," which starts out strong and then builds inexorably to a seven-minute gospel shout).

There are two stunningly beautiful numbers that manage to turn musician-as-troubador images into something unique, going beyond ordinary love songs--"Eternal Circle" ("But my song it was long, And there was more to be sung") and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" (acapella lead and chorus, then harmony with on-rushing piano and electric guitar: "And rest yourself 'neath the strength of strings No voice can hope to hum"). Blending English brass band, music hall jollity and a round-singing quartet of voices, "Don't You Tell Henry" is a wonderful one-off... but given a run for its money by the rollicking, off-beat arrangement (spiked by "Susie Q"-styled cowbell) of title track "Lo and Behold."

Yet most exotically impressive of all (to my ears) is "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," another of Dylan's then astonishingly neglected songs; but the CDMF version not only rescues an overlooked masterpiece but presents it as some sort of East Indian rocker with distant vocal, semi-sitar (electric guitar strung loose, it sounds like) and pseudo tabla drumming, those played respectively by lead men McGuinness and Flint, who deserve a big tip of the hat. It's a damn shame there was no sequel to this brilliant album.

Finally, going back 50-some years, first there was Vince Martin with the Tarriers, briefly, then there was the duo of Martin & Neil, princes of Greenwich Village, then it was Fred Neil in the ascendent and Martin in eclipse, escaping to Florida. And then--hosanna!--for one glorious, unique moment in 1969 there was Martin's out-of-left-field (actually Coconut Grove via Nashville) LP, If the Jasmine Don't Get You... the Bay Breeze Will, the best folk-rock-country-jazz-raga album ever issued--still almost totally unknown today, a small-print sui generis footnote in music history.

Seems a group of Nashville cats (Kenny Buttrey, Charlie McCoy, Lloyd Green, Norbert Putnam, Henry Strzelecki, and two or three others) had just spent several days showing Dylan again how the professionals worked (shaping the stunted Nashville Skyline just as some of them had earlier built both Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding); and right then into town came producer Nick Venet and reclusive Vince to work on something that might reintroduce Neil's ex-cohort to the world. (Martin & Neil together had sounded fine partly because their duets came up from below, Fred's bass-to-baritone voice meeting Vince's tenor-to-baritone. Fred supposedly attended the new sessions but chose not to sing.)

The players were hot and Martin gruff-edged and cool, and the results were purely amazing--great instrumental jams on both familiar tunes and quickly invented originals, with Vince singing, scatting, soaring, and sailing free, smoother and less spacey than, say, Tim Buckley. Inexorably rolling tracks like "Snow Shadows" or the gentler, guitar-sweetened "Summerwind," both powerfully sung Martin originals; a train-time reinvention of "Danville Girl," associated with Jimmie Rodgers long ago; free-flowing longer numbers, "Yonder Comes the Sun" (instantly swept up into the currents of music) and the 13-minute title cut, with the musicians refusing to give over and Vince caught up and bound to keep roaming too, on into a kind of folk/jazz/raga--the bubbling bass and streaking guitar solos simply brilliant... Indeed every cut acoustically balanced, richly nuanced, distinctly unique, well-nigh perfect.

I've bought a half dozen copies of Vince's masterpiece over the many years, and given each away to friends; and the response every time was a stunned "Wow!" Do yourself a favor... find the current CD of Jasmine, and then hoist sails with Martin ("like a wild bird flyin' blind") and those Nashville cats ("play smooth as country water"); let the salt air ("Talk about the bay breeze!") and the scent of jasmine and the acoustic country jazz take you away.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Judicial Activism of "Our" Supreme Court

I want to address in my own small way the goddamned stupid Court decision codifying corporations as equal to persons, and thus interfering with the rights of ordinary people to be particular, unique human beings. Now corporations have the same inalienable rights as people, according to the asshole majority-five Supremes, eradicating precedent and common sense and established law and even all previous understanding of the Constitution!

Fascism has become the new fifth "freedom."

What a crock of shit. Those treasonous bastards have no cogent justification and no right--no matter how narrowly "legal" nor broadly defined--to destroy our established freedoms, eradicate the middle class, fill the airwaves and the media with Right Wing propaganda, speed up the collapse of our Democracy, already underway thanks to Republicans and NAFTA and Wall Street "banksters" and Halliburton-Blackwater-whatever and... well, fill in the blanks. I was already bothered and sometimes ashamed to claim my rightful United States citizenship. Now I am ready to join the new, necessary Revolution that is suddenly brewing...

So listen up, government punks. I am out loud and in print advocating every imaginable action: Recall, Impeachment, Constitutional Amendments, a Consitutional Convention... and when those fail, national and international boycotts, a March on Washington, resistance in the streets, "black-catting" and eco-terrorism aimed at any buy-or-bribe corporation--yes, revenge where it should be directed, straight at those odd incorporal beings and their minions whether they be banks, Congress, or the Courts--and as the last resort, even violent Revolution. I have never advocated violence against any living thing before except spiders and snakes, but I am now willing to expand the definition of pests needing to be eradicated.

Yes, I am madder than Hell and over the edge and ready to go to jail if necessary. This Judicial Activism will not go unavenged.

By an ugly, unwelcome coincidence, my wife and I have been viewing DVDs of the television series called Jericho, now defunct. A stealth attack on the United States, nuclear bombs destroying many cities, the terrorists probably homegrown and intending to destroy the nation, a small town in Kansas trying to cope with radiation, refugees, frightened greedy citizens, a lack of medicine, food shortages, other supplies dwindling to nothing, neighboring towns suddenly become suspicious enemies, and much much more. Brilliant, mesmerizing, thought-provoking, ultimately terrifying.

Well, our five quislings, our five Right Wing stooges, our five new Timothy McVeighs, are revealed and clearly in sight now.

Yes, the post-decision, reimagined Book of Eli is suddenly doing box-office business.

Only believe... Retribution will come.

Friday, January 15, 2010

King's Gon' to Trouble the Water

I've been thinking lately about Martin Luther King, Jr., great leader and imperfect man--gone for decades but still a central inspiration to anyone seeking civil rights, or spiritual reawakening, or an end to war.

My family was living in Montgomery, Alabama, when the Bus Boycott of 1955-56 introduced King (and quiet Rosa Parks) to the world; and his ability to speak and inspire became quickly apparent even to me, shallow 12-year-old white boy. African-Americans, still willingly identified as "Negroes" in King's time (though his actions and assassination helped usher in the starker adjective/noun "Black"), immediately embraced his metaphor-rich sentences and Southern bible-preacher style; and in the half century since, millions of writers and orators and world leaders have quoted his words.

Black poets too draw some from King, and I want to celebrate his holiday by presenting a few short poems written in the post-Boycott era. It may well be that any poem by a Black writer takes race as a central tenet, whether submerged or overt, but I hope these pieces demonstrate sufficient variety as well as any debt to the Reverend M.L.K....

From Stanley D. Plumpp, who usually writes lengthy, short-line poems packed with music references, I've pulled this compact one given the numeric title "190," taken from his book Blues: The Story Always Untold (published 1989):

Here as in any place I can
breathe. Talk and I see
with my ears. Follow the
Drinking Gourd of Ancestors:
Elmore, Sonny Boy, Muddy Waters.
Pain and memory/is all I couldn't
lose. I mix'em up to give you
the blues. The small window in
my soul/you can see eternity
through. Here as in any place
I can dream. Talk and I see
with my skin. Neckbones cracking
under weights, flesh melting in
grips of fire, screams injecting
poison in my veins. And I follow
callings in my blue-striped winds
of pain and memory.

Carolyn Rodgers' sparely punctuated "how i got ovah" is the title poem of her ...New and Selected Poems (from 1975) and possibly faintly echoes King's words as well as old spirituals and Langston Hughes' famous "The Negro Speaks of Rivers":

i can tell you
about them
i have shaken rivers
out of my eyes
i have waded eyelash deep
have crossed rivers
have shaken the water weed out
of my lungs
have swam for strength
pulled by strength
through waterfalls with electric beats
i have bore the shocks
of water deep deep
waterlogs are my bones
i have shaken the water free of my hair
have kneeled on the banks
and kissed my ancestors of the dirt
whose rich dark root fingers rose up reached out
grabbed and pulled me rocked me cupped me
gentle strong and firm
carried me
made me swim for strength
cross rivers
though i shivered
was wet was cold
and wanted to sink down
and float as water, yea--
i can tell you.
i have shaken rivers
out of my eyes.

I believe Rita Dove won some major honors for her lovely collection titled On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), and from that particular sequence of poems, here is the brief lyric specifically titled "Rosa":

How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.

That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.

Doing nothing was the doing:
the clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.

How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.

Finally, I recently read about, and tracked down, the debut book by young poet Sean Hill, titled Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (2008); through this seemingly random-chronology series of poems about fictitious man Silas Wright, Hill tells the story of his own family and the Black community of Milledgeville, Georgia. The individual pieces range from a few lines to several pages, but I like the idea of ending this quick survey with the dramatic monologue "Boy" (wise elder Silas addressing maybe a nephew):

Boy, let me have a taste of that Mister Misty.
No, they brought it out around the time you
were born in sixty. I like the way it swish
in the cup. Sound like Sammy Davis Jr.
doing the soft show shuffle. They call
that the sand dance. Sound like shifting grains
or a fast train. Them little bits of ice
tap your teeth, and you can chew on that sweet
mouthful of cold melting to nothing before
you swallow it down. First time I had one
of these, I drank it too fast, crystals in syrup
dancing around and down my throat chilled
like Christmas and New Year's cold breath moving
down to my chest. And if that wasn't enough,
then I felt like my head was about to split
right open. Thought my forehead was gon look
like a gash. You know, they ice cream got nothing
on your mama's pineapple ice cream. Theirs
ain't nothing but soft light ice milk. They build
it high like a steeple, but ain't nothing
to that either. You see your mama puts
a dozen eggs in her custard to make
it rich. The sound of the ice and salt shifting
in that bucket as it melts with that electric
churn's whining motor groaning as that ice
cream stiffens up sure is pleasing cause I know
that ice cream about ready. You know, there are
folks getting they heads split so we don't have
to go around to that side window no more.

Listen to Hill and the others. Each in his/her own way carries on Dr. King's fight for dignity and equality. As poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, he was himself "a prose poem" and "a warm music," and he spoke the one word... "Justice."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What's in That Satchel?

You has Jazz. That's the difference.

Not the VistaVision color footage and Cole Porter sophistication of High Society versus the black-and-white semi-screwball comedy splendor of The Philadelphia Story. Not the sly, debonair savoir faire of Cary Grant versus the casual, age-weathered bonhomie of Bing Crosby. Not the full-color, extraordinary beauty of "slim" Grace Kelly (born and bred in Philly) versus the jagged, airy, "Mainline-ish" mischief of Katharine Hepburn (who starred in the original play on Broadway, a role written for her). And not the All-American, genial-jughead earnestness of Jimmy Stewart versus the sneery, cock-o'-the-walk brass of Frank Sinatra.

No, what separates High Society from that earlier and wonderful classic--and just maybe lifts High above it--is the addition of near- and actual Jazz, thanks some to the hipper side of pop masters Crosby and Sinatra, but most especially to the remarkable presence of Louis Armstrong and his band of All-Stars (featuring skinny trombonist Trummy Young). Director Charles Walters** had actually wanted to expand Louis' role to make him the Cupid behind the scenes, but the MGM front office refused; it was 1956 after all, and segregation still ruled. (Barrett Deems, the white drummer surrounded by black players, must have given their ulcers a twinge.) But Armstrong still functioned as a sort of Afro-Greek chorus, opening and closing the film, dropping wry comments occasionally: "There's a dark horse in this here race, and my boy's running a slow third."

Louis' remark pins the plot nicely. Gorgeous Grace Kelly, as aristocratic "Ice Princess" Tracy Samantha Lord, is about to marry a priggish, self-made citizen, but ex-husband Bing (bearing up under the high-falutin' monicker of C.K. Dexter Haven) and unwelcome wedding guest Sinatra are pursuing her too. Both movies as well as the original Philip Barry play concern the frantic last-day-and-some leading up to the wedding, and the efforts to "thaw out" the frozen maiden, awakening in her a sense of humility and forgiveness of human frailty (with any pent-up sexuality a side issue... which is somewhat ironic given all the whispered gossip about gamboling Grace). Various complications and subplots, like the wounded-by-love photographer played wittily by Celeste Holm (Ruth Hussey in the earlier film), add to the merriment and confusion.

Rather than try to better the original Story, the remake's plot wisely changed the location to the elegant mansions of Newport, R.I., tugging at the coattails of the first Newport Jazz Festival. The producers hired Cole Porter to provide clever songs and a sophisticated patina--then brought in Armstrong as add-on character "Satchelmouth" to lend musical credence and to pal around with Bing. Louis only got to sing two numbers, but they are the cream the cats were meowing for: the scene-setting "High Society Calypso" and a brilliant duet with Crosby, "Now You Has Jazz" (an uptempo update of the "Basin Street Blues"/"Birth of the Blues"-styled song).

Now think 1957... Racism rampant across the South. Trouble in Little Rock. "Jazz Ambassador" Satch unexpectedly calling Ike out on his failure to take Presidential action. The trumpeter's High Society role had been filmed some months earlier, and the movie had opened in later 1956 to mostly indifferent reviews. (A cynical observer could reduce the typical Society-vs-Story critical response to a couple of six-word sentences: "Should have remade a bed instead." And: "Like cows, some comedies are sacred.")

But Armstrong was a force of nature by then, the beloved entertainer supported by white folks even when he spoke out. Modern Jazz guys like Dizzy and Miles were taken by surprise since they'd been accusing Satch of "Tomming," condemning him for blithely entertaining his audiences and avoiding controversy. And just about then, too, came Louis' great first album of duets with Ella Fitzgerald (a Verve release), and the four-record Autobiography project on Decca reviving most of his old New Orleans numbers. Moreover, the movie-going audience ignored the naysayers and made High Society a financial success, discovering qualities the critics had missed.

Crosby/Dex, for example, sings beautifully, and separately, to his stubborn ex, "Sam" ("True Love" became a hit single) and her pesky young sister ("My Little One"), and essays a pleasantly sarcastic duet with carefully-inebriated Frank ("Well, Did You Evah?"), who otherwise romances Grace with songs and Jersey charm. Yet when compared to The Philadelphia Story the overall impression left by the newer film is of something lacking, some level of aristocratic torpor when measured against Cary Grant's wit and Stewart's eagerness and Hepburn's slow-burning anger and slowly awakening grace (so to speak). The laughs in Philadelphia pile up, and the variations on love become wholly believable. Stewart won his sole Academy Award for the film, while indomitable Katharine gained other accolades that revived her flagging career.

Still, in the end High Society has the piece that's missing from the earlier film: music, almost constantly present--Jazz music--and Louis Armstrong to put it across with a twinkle and a sparkling trumpet, some patented-by-Pops mugging and satchel-loads of gruff-voiced joy. From the opening, calypso-happy bus ride to Bing's mansion ("Man, dig that crazy rehearsal hall!"--answered by "Hey, Pops, how's the chops?"); to Louis and the guys jamming obbligato back-up music here and there (complete with his familiar, sweat-sopping handkerchief); to Crosby and Armstrong trading licks in that high-energy romp "defining" Jazz (Bing all finger-poppin' verbal, Satch blowing trumpet and scat-singing too):

"Well, you take some skins,
Jazz begins,
Then you add a bass--
Man, now we're gettin' someplace...

((the All-Stars get a turn to wail, each player named and soloing briefly; Louis goes last and then joins Bing to state that:))
"Believe it or not
(I do believe, I do indeed)
Frenchmen all
Prefer what they call
"Le Jazz Hot"...

((Bing swings the final verse:))
"From the East to the West,
From the coast to the coast,
Jazz is king
'Cause Jazz is the thing
The folks
((big instrumental finish))
Now, that's Jazz!"

And the fun continues right to the final scene, with the combo's last burst of New Orleans pizzazz suddenly jazzing up The Wedding March. Grace reacts, Bing shrugs sheepishly, and Satchelmouth quickly says, "End of sto-ray."

As should be apparent, pals Louis and Bing make for splendid foils throughout the film, with wiseguy outsider Frank languishing somewhat on the sidelines. Yet consider this: MGM managed to bring together in one film the three most important male vocalists of the early-to-mid Twentieth Century--and the three left Newport society, not to mention their regular fans, as high on the hijinx as Satch was on his muggles.

**This tale is repeated in Pops, Terry Teachout's recent big-success Armstrong bio, where Walters' name is mistakenly cited as "Walter." Meanwhile, Donald Spoto's craftily titled book, High Society: The Grace Kelly Story, also new, seems prudishly censored. The real story "still ain't half been told."