Now's The Time

Herbie and the Reverend

Two of the brightest stars in the “Now’s the Time” firmament celebrate birthdays in the days ahead: the Reverend Al Green, born 13 April 1946 in Forrest City, Arkansas, and Herbert Jeffrey Hancock – named in honor of vocalist Herb Jeffries – born 12 April 1940 in Chicago.

Accordingly, the 10 April broadcast will be devoted to marking these happy anniversaries, with lots of music from both musicians, big hits and little-known rarities alike. That, and our April featured albums by Ambrose Akinmusire, the Souljazz Orchestra, and Miles Davis live at the Fillmore East in June 1970.

If this were a round-the-clock radio format, I would listen to nothing else. You can experience it for two hours, if you join me this week.

In February and March, Hancock was the 2014 Norton Lecturer at Harvard University. Check out the first of his lectures – “The Wisdom of Miles Davis” – here.

And here’s Green performing “Jesus is Waiting” on Soul Train:

April Records


April brings three new releases from solid-gold “Now’s the Time” favorites. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire‘s third release (his second on Blue Note Records), comes nearly three years after its extraordinary predecessor, When the Heart Emerges Glistening. The new disc, the imagined savior is far easier to paint, meets the high expectations that awaited it. There are elements of continuity – most of the telepathic ensemble from the previous record is back, burning with the same incendiary musicality on the long, live closing number that will recall Akinmusire’s transcendental set at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2012. There are innovations, too — guitar, strings on a pair of numbers, three (very varied) vocalists. This is a record to throw excitedly into the CD player, but also a record to savor slowly and in small doses. We’ll do both this month.

Ottawa’s Souljazz Orchestra follows their 2012 globetrotting Solidarity with a more jazz-oriented Inner Fire. Their steez (as Gangstarr would put it) remains a unique capacity to meld world styles without smoothing out the edges. This outing sounds more rooted in the Afrocentric, spiritual, seventies jazz mold of artists like Pharoah Sanders, the Pyramids and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, some of whom we will play alongside the new release.

Finally, this month’s Miles Davis record is also a new release: the complete concerts recorded at the Fillmore East in New York in June 1970, spread over four compact discs. These concerts were originally released in 1970 in a severely edited form on two vinyl LPs, under the evocative title Miles Davis At Fillmore. The group includes saxophonist Steve Grossman, duelling electric keyboardists Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and percussionist Airto Moreira. I’ll have more to say about this one in this space, if I can find the time!

Join me, I beseech you, for fine late-night music.

Geri Allen’s Back Pages

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This month I’ve been playing a lot of pianist Geri Allen‘s new record Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations, which provides the pretext for playing a whole bunch of the material she covers on the disc, by artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Marcus Belgrave.

It’s equally a pretext for diving into Allen’s back catalogue. In addition to a long string of acclaimed albums under her own leadership, Allen is one of contemporary jazz’s most distinguished sidemen (sic). Therefore, on the 27 March broadcast, I’m going to weave in a bunch of her sideman (sic) appearances, most of them from the mid- to late-1980s.

There are fine records by Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, Buddy Colette, Steve Coleman, Dewey Redman, Charles Lloyd and more and together they paint an interesting portrait of the state of adventurous jazz at the time. Check out the playlist column at the right-hand side of this page to see how many of these records I was ultimately able to fit in.

The Wheels of Steel

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Browsing through the vast vinyl vaults of KUSP after a recent show – a pleasure I’ll never tire of – I came across a real jewel: the original twelve-inch single of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five‘s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” released on Sugarhill Records in 1981. It’s not a rarity – it’s easy to find the cut on iTunes and several CDs, and used copies of the vinyl single are probably not hard to find from the right vendors. But finding the single here at the radio station excited me nevertheless, and reminded me of those early days when hip hop was just bursting out of the South Bronx and onto a global stage. We’ll spin the record on the 13 March broadcast of “Now’s the Time.”

Grandmaster Flash released two epochal singles in 1981 – this one, and the socially conscious “The Message,” featuring the sardonic rapping of the great Melle Mel. Taken together, the pair of recordings constitute a kind of manifesto – I would argue one of the most audacious and revolutionary manifestos in the Americans arts of the twentieth century. Audacious aesthetically, but also commercially. These South Bronx rappers and turntablists sought to get rich making uncompromising underground art.

The rap part – the amazing wordplay and dexterity; the mixture of boasting, bravado, social consciousness and vulnerability – was hugely influential and perhaps the most obvious part of the manifesto.

But the production side, represented by “…Wheels of Steel,” is arguably more revolutionary still. It’s hard to convey just how radical it sounded to hear someone scratching the stylus back and forth over the record in 1981: scratching as a sound texture, scratching as a percussion instrument, and scratching as a way of calling attention to the fact that the recording was made out of other recordings. Grandmaster Flash – the star of this record – turned attention away from musical performance (the artifacts from which the record is constructed) and toward post-performance collage. To draw a jazz analogy, this record says that the star of Bitches Brew is not so much Miles Davis, but producer Teo Macero, who assembled the hours of tapes into the final product. But Flash, unlike Macero, compiles the materials before your ears, in real time – like the very jazz soloist that hip hop production demotes to a secondary role.

Decades later, hip hop has gone global, and evolved. But the role of the producer, laid out by Flash, remains central to the criteria that define a great hip hop record, as much or more so than the flow and skills of the rapper.

I hope you’ll join me to enjoy the hiss and pop of this revolutionary disc, which still sounds fabulous. That, and a bunch of versions of Bob Marley‘s “Redemption Song.” But that’s another story.

March Rides in, Playing a Piano

Two surprising new solo-piano records will be amply sampled in March on “Now’s the Time.” On Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations, the great Geri Allen pays homage to Detroit, with plenty of Motown covers. But she also remembers the Tribe Records collective that fluorished there in the 1970s, including trumpeter Marcus Belgrave (heard here on a pair of duets with Allen). And there’s a sideways tribute to Aretha Franklin, daughter of a Detroit preacher man, via the interpolation of Aretha’s piano lines from her version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” into Allen’s version of the Beatles‘ “Let It Be.”

Bernie Worrell, whose fierce, dense mini-Moog playing undergirded the profound sound of Parliament-Funkadelic, offers Elevation: The Upper Air, a spare, solemn recital of covers of jazz and soul hits, as well as a handful of originals that are sparer still. Producer Bill Laswell has called this record “Black Ambient,” and I’m not sure what that means. But I know where it fits – on our late-night radio program.

Thinking about piano, I chose this month’s Miles Davis record to highlight a pianist with whom Miles enjoyed a telepathic empathy: Wynton Kelly. His playing is among the highlights of the 1961 recording Miles Davis In Person Friday Night at the Blackhawk, San Francisco. At least two other Miles pianists I hold in higher esteem: Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. But few delights exceed the interplay between Miles and Kelly during their relatively brief time together, and these 1961 San Francisco club dates are especially rich. This is what the indispensable Richard Cook and Brian Morton had to say about the Blackhawk records:

These are the proof that Miles could cut it as a hard-blowing and straightahead jazz musician, terms which he probably regarded as demeaning even as he picked up his campaign medals… The Blackhawk sessions do not present a great jazz musician as ambitious auteur, but as a passionate exponent of a great vernacular art form… They don’t mark a transition in Miles’s career so much as reassert some basic principles that for much of the rest of his long and productive life were left unspoken and too often went unheard.

De-Lovely De La Soul: An Appreciation

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Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, the hip-hop trio De La Soul briefly made available (almost) their entire back catalog for free at their website: 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), De La Soul Is Dead (1991), Buhloone Mindstate (1993), Stakes Is High (1996), Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000), and AOI: Bionix (2001). Also included, the bonus disc of alternate versions and remixes of 3 Feet High…, the two-disc Best of De La Soul, with plenty of alternative versions, the DJ disc Clear Lake Audiotorium, the instrumental version of AOI: Bionix (the last two previously vinyl only).

For some observers, this was a publicity stunt that backfired. Some complained that the group’s website was less responsive than healthcare.gov, and others claimed that De La Soul had sourced pirated mp3 versions of the albums. Perhaps. I was able to download all the records they were offering and have been listening to them more or less non-stop since.

SCAN0214The groove! The jazz! The flow, the wit! A sampled children’s record tells us “A big dic-dictionary/is very necessary,” which works at least a couple ways for this group. The color of money is described as “Bill Bixby green.” I could go on. Then there’s the extended musical family that wanders in and out of these records: Monie Love, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip and Phife of A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, Redman of the Wu-Tang Clan, and early work by the very young Cee-Lo and Mos Def.

The three members of De La Soul – Kelvin Mercer (a.k.a. Posdnuos, Mercenary, Plug Wonder Why, Plug One), David Jude Jolicoeur (a.k.a. Trugoy the Dove, Dave, Plug Two) and Vincent Mason (a.k.a. P.A. Pasemaster Mase, Maseo, Plug Three, Baby Huey) – produce music about parties, parenthood, social malaise, poverty and prosperity, fame and failure; it’s dark, mordantly funny, intelligent, and consistently hyper-musical.

I was particularly delighted by a bunch of album cuts I missed the first time around, and I’m going to play a handful of them on my 27 February broadcast, in amidst all the Monk, Newk and Sarah Vaughan, and whatever else we can fit in the program! Check this music out.

Ife

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This month, we’re listening to Miles Davis’s double live album Dark Magus, recorded 30 March 1974 at Carnegie Hall. It features the loud, funk- and rock ‘n’ roll-infused, long-form performances that dominated the trumpeter’s work in the 1970s prior to his half-decade sabbatical. Among the compositions is “Ife,” which, in its evolving form over the 1970s allows us to gain some insight into Miles’s musical conception. “Ife” is named after the Nigerian city, which according to the Yoruba people, is the site of the origin of creation.

Ife1“Ife” was first recorded by Miles in June 1972, with a band that included Carlos Garnett on soprano sax, Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet, Lonnie Liston Smith on organ, Harold I. Williams on electric piano and synthesizer, Michael Henderson on electric bass, the redoubtable Al Foster, “Jabali” Billy Hart, James Mtume Forman and Badal Roy on drums and percussion. The 1972 studio recording would appear on the album Big Fun (Columbia, 1972). The session marked an important inflection point between the initial fusion experiments of Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) and the darker, more mysterious style featured on albums like Dark Magus.

Peter Losin’s indispensible on-line Miles Ahead discography identifies a large number of live recordings of “Ife” over the course of the ’70s. Only four are more or less “officially” released, the others being featured on bootlegs of varying quality levels and availability:

BigFun-CD1-1- a September 1972 recording from Lincoln Center, released on the album In Concert, and identified as “Part III”;
- the March 1974 version on Dark Magus, identified as “Nne, part 1″‘
- two versions recorded the afternoon and evening of 1 February 1975 at the Festival Hall in Osaka, Japan; the afternoon version appeared on the album Agharta, labelled as the second part of “Interlude” and the first part of “Theme from Jack Johnson”; the evening version appeared on Pangaea, where it is identified as the first part of “Gondwana”.

On the 13 February broadcast, we’ll listen to the Dark Magus version, as well as the original studio recording from 1972. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Miles innovated so relentlessly that performances only months apart can reveal striking differences. That’s what inspires this particular compare-and-contrast. Losin notes the following about Miles’s changing conception of “Ife”:

“Ife” evolved as it was performed during this period: the jaunty ten-note ascending-descending vamp that is the basis of the tune here was supplemented (and soon replaced) by a simpler four-note riff. In 1972 live performances, the tune typically begins with the latter riff and shifts to the former. By early 1973 the simpler riff (with a slower tempo) has replaced it completely.

At least three excellent covers of “Ife” are out there: by guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, from their album Yo! Miles (Schanachie, 1998); by trumpeter Wallace Roney and a cast of thousands on Bob Belden’s excellent Miles in India (Four Quarters, 2008) – in fact, they do both the “fast” 1972 and the “slow” 1975 versions; and most recently by saxophonist Chris Kelsey‘s group What I Say, on The Electric Miles Project (self-produced, 2013).

The late-night hour of our radio program provides a little freedom and space, a little meditative attention, to consider new and unusual sounds, and to consider longer performances like these. I hope you enjoy as much as I do this freedom, and I hope you’ll tune in to hear these versions of “Ife”.

Ping, Jimi, Magus: Music for February

This month, Now’s the Time will feature three live albums: raucous, joyous and perfect for long, clear cold winter nights.

Many French critics placed Ping Machine‘s Encore – recorded live in Tours in March 2013 and released late last year on the German Neuklang label – atop their best-of lists. Their gesture smacks of sentimentality: it’s hard not to feel kindly toward a fifteen-piece band, playing new and unknown compositions, live, in a provincial French city. I’d give them an “A” for effort. But then you listen to this remarkable album – described in Lionel Eskenazi’s liner notes as an amalgam of Olivier Messiaen, Frank Zappa and Gil Evans – and you’re transported by the audacity of the enterprise. Led by composer/leader/guitarist/Minimoog guy Frédéric Maurin, the large ensemble gambols through two long suites, “Encore” and “Trona,” as well as a shorter piece (at thirteen minutes!) called “Grrr.” The compositions and arrangements are consistently imaginative, and the solo interventions by saxophonist Julien Soro and trumpeter Quentin Ghomari stand out. As does Rafaël Koerner‘s energetic drumming throughout. It doesn’t make sense to chop up the longer suites, so I’m telling you now that we’ll listen to “Encore” on the 6 February broadcast, at around half past midnight. And we’ll hear “Trona” on the 20 February show, also around 12:30. Mark your calendars. This is music to restore your faith in jazz as a global language, in the merits of collective action – and it swings. Would that they could come to Kuumbwa!

The Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s May 1968 performance at the Miami Pop Festival – featured in part in the recently broadcast “American Masters” documentary Hear My Train A-Comin’ – was also released late in 2013. Seasoned by a punishing touring schedule, the trio sounds more convincing as a unit to me here than they did on their first two studio albums. I’m in the minority of Hendrix admirers who thinks the Band of Gypsys was a better vehicle for Hendrix’s musical vision. But check out how closely Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell listen to each other on the fantastic “I Don’t Live Today” in the Miami concert. Best of all, by far, is hearing Hendrix play the blues – several long, definitive solos on “Red House,” “Hear My Train A-Comin’,” and “Tax Free.” We’ll hear as much as we can during the February shows.

Finally, our monthly Miles Davis album goes where I have not yet dared to venture: the mid-70s tectonic electric live albums that preceded Miles’s long sabbatical. This month, it’s Dark Magus, recorded at Carnegie Hall on 30 March 1974. I know it’s a minority view, but I’ve long felt that the series of long, slightly scary double-live albums that Miles released in the mid-1970s are among his best work. They are the albums I go back to more than any other period of his long discography. During this phase, Miles managed to assimilate the rock and funk elements he admired from Jimi, Sly Stone and James Brown; he also claimed that his objective was to eliminate all the “European sensibilities” from the music. What emerged were long slabs of sound collage, rocking and funky. Sometimes bright and fast, with Miles playing his trumpet through a wah-wah pedal to emulate the sound of Hendrix’s guitar; sometimes mysterious and murky. On Dark Magus, Miles is joined by the aggressive saxophonist Dave Liebman, funk bassist Michael Henderson, and best of all, the triple-guitar knockout punch of Reggie Lucas (very Hendrix-blues), the late Pete Cosey (supersaturated psychedelia) and Dominique Gaumont.

The apotheosis of this phase in Miles’s development would be the albums Agharta and Pangaea, both recorded on a single day in Japan eleven months after Dark Magus. The albums’ titles call to mind the pre-historic continental formations. Funk’s power may derive from its connection to the bedrock of the earth, the grounded nature of the beat. Miles reminded us that even the earth shifts. He went deeper. Within months, sick, exhausted and artistically at an impasse, he would go into his New York brownstone, draw the shades, and not emerge for six years.

Taking Stock of 2013

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A couple weeks back I selected my top picks for 2013; you can see the full list here. It’s hard to claim that this list authoritatively culls the very best of the year in recorded music. I still haven’t listened to 2013 records by Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Pat Metheny or Earth Wind & Fire that I heard good things about; and I neglected to include new releases by Cécile McLorin Salvant, Aaron Parks or Naked Truth that I really liked. Nevertheless, this list represents a cross section of records that I listened to a lot, and most of which I played frequently on the radio program.

Taken as a whole, the records on my list make the case that I try to make with the radio program week after week: that there are hidden connections – musical, historical, emotional, thematic – among stylistically far flung musical selections. And when we put those pieces together carefully, something emerges that’s not immediately apparent when we listen to any one record individually.

Look, there’s kora music by Ballaké Sissoko, piano jazz from Mike Wofford, hip hop from Chance the Rapper: and then there’s Herbie Hancock‘s reissued kora hip hop jazz from the mid-1980s, putting all the pieces together.

On the 2 January broadcast, I’ll try to fit in as many of these records as possible, and make sense of it all one more time. That, plus a New Year’s poem by Kenneth Patchen. Join me!

The Groove, Already Deep, Deepens Further

December 2013 marks the one-year anniversary of “Now’s the Time.” Fifty-two programs, 104 hours of radio gold. Well, mostly gold, though there was probably some radio aluminum and radio lead in there from time to time. You be the judge.

In December, two very compelling new records will be featured. The Robert Glasper Experiment, fresh off the Grammy victory for Black Radio (Blue Note, 2012), inevitably have a follow-up, Black Radio 2. Some sectors of the jazz commentariat have their collective noses a bit bent out of shape by the record. The pianist, obviously a jazz heavyweight (as we will hear by dipping into his back catalogue, long a favorite of “Now’s the Time”), doesn’t go in for too much explicitly jazz soloing, even as he welcomes even more big-name guests (including Snoop Dogg!). Sounds like a great candidate for this radio program, where we emphasize doctrinal purity less than aesthetic quality. Is it a good record, whatever its genre? By the end of the month, you will have heard enough to make up your own mind.

The harping about Glasper selling out, by playing lots of electric keyboards and delivering radio-friendly grooves, might remind you of controversies that have surrounded the mighty Herbie Hancock in decades past. How fortuitous, then, that Sony has just released a mammoth box set of the pianist’s output on Columbia Records from the 70s and 80s. A good chunk of these records were never released in the US before, or have dropped out of the catalogue. I’ll plan to draw on these relatively rare sides in the box set during December, and we’ll all note the similarities between the trail blazed by Hancock and what Glaper is doing today.

Of course, the granddaddy of swirling controversies of electrification and selling out is Miles Davis, from whom we highlight one disc every month. I had the urge to spotlight an A-list masterpiece by the Prince of Darkness this month, after featuring less well-known titles in the recent past. Few rank more highly in anyone’s lists than 1958′s Milestones. No electric instruments, but lots of great moments with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and smokin’ drummer Philly Joe Jones. Pianist Red Garland quit the band during the recording of this record – one result is that Miles plays trumpet and piano on “Sid’s Ahead” – but not before recasting Miles’s 1945 solo on “Now’s the Time” for piano during “Straight, No Chaser”. (You’ll see what I mean.)