Now's The Time

Porgy and Bess and Miles

This month of March 2015, we’re listening to Miles Davis‘s Porgy & Bess (1958).

Franck Bergerot nails it with characteristic accuracy and terseness in his Miles Davis dictionary:

Recorded in stereo with personnel and under conditions similar to those present for the Miles Ahead sessions (a hard-to-read score, recordings after scant rehearsals, abundant edits), Gil Evans produced a veritable masterpiece and one of Miles’s best-selling records.

Amiri Baraka, jazz poet and more

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28BOOKBARAKA-master180 Regular listeners know that most weeks, you get a poem on our little radio program, at no extra charge. For the last couple weeks, I’ve been dipping into the voluminous compendium of poetry by the late Amiri Baraka (1934-2014, né LeRoi Jones). The newly published collection is entitled S O S Poems 1961-2013, and is edited by Paul Vangelisti.

Baraka’s poetry is almost ridiculously multivalent – shifting voice, tone, mood mid-line. It’s political, it’s critical, and it evokes, implicitly and explicitly, jazz.

Here is a short poem called “Buddha Asked Monk”:

“If you were always right
would it be Easier

or more Difficult
Living In The World?”

“I knew you’d ask that!”
Monk said, Blue and
Invisible.

Baraka’s jazz writing – especially the books Blues People (1963) and Black Music (1968) – has been fundamental to the way I think about jazz, and about music in general. Like this paragraph about John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, from Black Music:

Coltrane’s music takes its impetus and shape from the repeated chords that harmonically fix the tune. In fact, he plays sometimes as if he would like to take each note of a chord and sound it singly, but at the same time as the overall chord. It is like a painter who instead of painting a simple white, paints all the elemental pigments that the white contains, and at the same time as the white itself. But Ornette Coleman’s music has been described as “non-chordal.” That is, he does not limit his line to notes that are specifically called for by the sounded chord. The form of a Coleman solo is usually determined by the total musical shape of what he is playing, i.e., the melody, timbre, pitch and of course, the rhythm – all of these moved by Ornette’s singularly emotional approach to jazz, in music the sam way as the older, “primitive,” blues singers produced their music.

Or this account of a set by Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot in 1963:

One evening after the last tune of the set, Monk leaped up from the bench, his hands held in the attitude he had assumed as he finished the number, and without changing that attitude (hands up and in front of him as he lifted them from the keys) he wheeled off the stand and did a long drawn out shuffle step from the sand completely around the back of the club. Everyone in the club stopped, sort of, and followed him with their eyes, till he had half circled the entire club. Monk brought the semicircle to a stop right at the center of the bar, and without dropping his attitude or altering his motion he called out to the bartender, very practically and logically, “Give me a drink.” Somebody next to me said, to no one in particular, “Now, you get to that.”

Strewn from the hands of the gods of the winds of March

March brings two new forthcoming releases, each imaginative, each distinct, and both intersecting in the light of midnight.

Vastly resourceful tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin – originally from Santa Cruz, now NY-based – will release Fast Future at the end of March. It’s his first new album since Casting for Gravity (2012). The band is the same – Jason Lindner (keyboards of every stripe), Tim Lefebvre (electric bass), Mark Guiliana (drums), joined by producer David Binney on synthesizers and vocals (I’m serious). The musical concept, too, follows the logic of the earlier disc: McCaslin explores the overlap between the adventurous acoustic jazz that he mastered on earlier albums and electronica as purveyed by artists like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada. If Fast Future differs from Casting for Gravity, it’s because the newer disc has a lighter touch, a slightly less frenzied heartbeat.

I interviewed McCaslin for All About Jazz in early 2013, following the release of Casting for Gravity: he spoke thoughtfully about electronica, tone, Santa Cruz and his influences as a saxophonist.

German pianist Julia Hülsmann returns with her quartet – rounded out by Tom Arthurs on trumpet and flugelhorn, Marc Muellbauer on double bass, and Heinrich Köbberling on drums – this time joined by vocalist Theo Bleckmann, on an April 2015 release called A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America. Hülsmann presents a strong program of songs by composer Kurt Weill, not limited – in spite of the record’s title – to his output after fleeing the Nazis and coming to the US. The songs are frequently subjected to surprising but not jarring harmonic modifications, rendering them slightly less familiar. “Mack the Knife” is remade into a kind of modal exercise, for example, far removed from Sonny Rollins’s rocking version. Vocalist Bleckmann has a high, crystal clear sound, more redolent of theater than jazz – though many jazz musicians have invited him in to great effect: John Hollenbeck, Ambrose Akinmusire, and now Hülsmann.

What did I mean by “both intersect at midnight”? Moccasin’s disc features a beautiful ballad called “Midnight Light,” while Hülsmann’s title track is “A Clear Midnight.” And the two tracks actually sound pretty nice back to back. And we’ll hear as much of both records as we can this month of March on the program.

Our Miles Davis record for March is Porgy and Bess. More on that later.

The title of this post is from a pretty old-school poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne about the advent of Spring.

Reading about Tutu

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This month’s Miles Davis record is Tutu (1986). Some of the background for the on-air chatter I might do about it comes from two fine texts. French music journalist Vincent Cotro published a short and handsomely illustrated book (in French) about the album in 2013. And there is a long chapter on the Tutu album and era in the late trumpeter Ian Carr‘s excellent biography (check out the hugely expanded second edition from 2006). Here’s a little of what I learned from Cotro and Carr.

The basic story about Tutu revolves around bassist-impresario Marcus Miller. Miller had worked with Miles in the trumpeter’s immediate post-retirement period: it’s Miller’s fantastically funky bass you hear on the telluric “Fat Time” from Miles’s comeback record The Man With The Horn (1981), for example. Miller, so the story goes, single-handedly created the multi-instrumental musical environments, heavy on Prince-era funk; Miles came in and played his trumpet parts atop the pre-recorded backdrop, Miller pointing at him when it was time for the trumpet.

This creative process is both ingeniously inventive and the source of some of the criticism that’s been leveled at the record. By design, the music is not as interactive as a genuine, live group performance: like, say, the Miles quintet recorded at San Francisco’s Blackhawk in April 1961. (The pianist on those great Blackhawk dates, by the way, is Marcus Miller’s cousin Wynton Kelly. Just so you know.) Miles’s solos are wonderful and react to the Marcus Miller musical treatments, but the musical treatments do not, in turn, react to Miles the way a live band would or could.

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Perhaps. Then again, the Miller approach mirrors that employed by Miles’s greatest musical partner, Gil Evans. Evans created orchestral backdrops against which Miles would solo and improvise, and they are clearly among the masterworks of the trumpeter’s œuvre: Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), Sketches of Spain (1960). Ian Carr likens these recordings to trumpet concerti, in which there are two, and only two, voices: the orchestra and Miles’s trumpet. Carr furthermore points out that the very different Bitches Brew (1969) is similar in this respect: Miles is the lone solo voice against a backcloth of oozing electronic sound. In this sense, Tutu is closely linked to a longstanding practice in Miles’s artistry. Miller sagely saw the connection with the earlier Davis-Evans collaborations.

And there is more interaction than the description above might suggest, particularly between Davis and Miller. Miller recalls the sometimes unpredictable atmosphere created by Miles-roshi:

‘Portia’ on Tutu was a first take. I showed him the melody on a soprano sax I had, so he could relate to another horn, and then we started running tape. I was sitting there while he was playing, and he picked me up by my collar and pushed me up to the microphone to play the melody with him. I’d never played soprano on a record before, and we were both going on to the same track. He was playing so great that I was afraid I was going to make a mistake and ruin everything Miles played. That was one of the most tense experiences I’ve ever had.

The Marcus Miller-based story is not the whole story, either. At the origin of the Tutu sound is the late keyboardist George Duke. Duke was asked by Warner Bros. producer Tommy Lipuma (for whom “Tomaas” on the record is named) to produce a background musical treatment before any of the Marcus Miller material ever happened. He recorded a demo for the track that became “Backyard Ritual” (we’ll hear it on the 19 Feb broadcast). Davis, rather than convening a band to perform “Backyard Ritual,” instead simply recorded his solo over the demo, and that’s what appears on the album. Miller, in turn, was asked to provide more songs that resembled the Duke track. He did, and the rest is musical history.

That naked integrated music

Regular listeners of Now’s the Time – and there are literally tens of them – know that most weeks you get a poem on this program, at no extra charge. During a January broadcast, I read Muriel Rukeyser‘s “A Certain Music,” which begins

Never to hear, I know in myself complete
That naked integrated music;

I like that phrase, “naked integrated music.” It’s a nice way to think about the music I feature on the show: naked in its honesty and directness; integrated in its hybrid enthusiasm to draw upon multiple traditions, temperaments and terrains.

February brings a new crop of naked integrated records that we’ll listen to carefully, together. First up is Montréal pianist Marianne Trudel‘s La vie commence ici, released last year on the excellent Canadian Justin Time label. This record slyly changes character each time you think you’ve got it pigeonholed. It is gentle, classical-inflected chamber jazz one moment; it is an adventurous charge along the boundaries of avant-jazz the next. Throughout, Trudel’s musical and lovely playing, improvising and compositions are a delight, and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen is an intrepid fellow traveller.

From further afield than Québec comes another late-2014 release. JÜ Meets Møster brings together Hungarian power-rock trio (I guess you’d call them a power trio) and Norwegian saxophonist Kjetil Møster. Talk about your naked integrated music. This fine collaboration on the always-satisfying RareNoise label reminds me of the under appreciated Last Exit, one of my favorite 1980s bands, which featured guitarist Sonny Sharrock and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. It’s that same marriage of soulful, loud rock ‘n’ roll textures with the abandon of the European free jazz scene of the 60s and 70s, rejuvenated for the new millennium. And it’s as eminently songful as Marianne Trudel’s acoustic piano quintet. I find myself grinning crazily (more crazily than usual) whenever I listen to it.

From the Miles Davis discography, an 80s classic – perhaps the 80s classic – and the trumpeter’s first album for Warner Bros. Records: Tutu (1986). This marks the freshest collaboration between Davis and the last of his eminences grises, bassist and producer Marcus Miller. Integrated jazz, funk, reggae and more.

January Recorded Wonders

A new month, a new year, a new slew of discs for our special attention. Two new records, two sets of reissued rarities. In and amidst the eclectic mixtape you’ve come to rely upon from Now’s the Time on KUSP.

D’Angelo‘s Black Messiah is mind-bogglingly rich, soul-satisfying music that reveals particular profundity in the jazz-and-not-only-jazz format of our program. No video as of this writing, but here’s a taste. Tune in for more.

Alto saxophonist Sarah Manning‘s Harmonious Creature is a January 2014 release that got past me. I learned about it from someone’s year-end list and want to share it with all of you, as much as we can fit in. Manning’s sound owes something to the rustic, acoustic groove I so appreciated on bassist Todd Sickafoose’s subtly epochal Tiny Resistors (2008). She’s joined by viola player Eyvind Kang, who listeners may know from his work with Bill Frisell, and by the standout guitarist Jonathan Goldberger.

In the reissues camp, we start with Spirit of Malombo, a marvelous two-disc overview of the work of South African-British musician Julian Bahula, whose bands fused jazz, South African pop and traditional musics and a lot more. We’ll hear from his late-60s SA outfit Malombo Jazz Makers, as well as the particularly delicious seventies sounds of London-based Jabula.

Finally, our Miles Davis album for January is a new release. All of You: The Last Tour 1960 brings together live recordings from six European dates in March and April 1960. Most of these recordings, often taken from radio broadcasts, have been spottily available as bootlegs in whole or in part; the new four-disc Acrobat set puts everything together very nicely. The key drama of these performances is the playing of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who was dragged kicking and screaming to accompany Davis on these dates. He can be heard working out his incipient sheets of sound approach to soloing, creating the sound that would mark his post-Miles musical identity so irrevocably. The fine liner notes by Simon Spillett point out that Coltrane’s experiments were not always well-received by the European audiences. At the same time, Davis can be heard developing a sound that would be, conceptually speaking, among the least ambitious, but for sheer jazz ingenuity, among the most rewarding, of his many musical identities: the rock-solid post-hard-bop sound that would truly flower on the 1961 recordings from the Blackhawk in San Francisco.

So Many Good Records in 2014

Tune into the program at quarter past midnight New Year’s Eve, until 2:15 am on the morning of the first day of 2015 as we will listen to some of my favorite records in 2014.

A bunch of the albums are shown here – have I forgotten anything? And for those keeping score at home, here’s my Top Four, anyway…

1. D’Angelo, Black Messiah
2. Ambrose Akinmusire, the imagined savior is far easier to paint
3. Mark Turner, Lathe of Heaven
4. Flying Lotus, You’re Dead

Ḿbókò in December

David Virelles is a young (31 years old), Cuban-Canadian pianist now based in Brooklyn; he’s made a distinct impression as a member of saxophonist Mark Turner’s quartet in recent years. (Have a listen to this 2011 set from the Village Vanguard, broadcast on NPR, and hear for yourself.) Virelles’s new ECM Records release Ḿbókò is a conceptually ambitious album, rigorous in its execution, drawing upon the Afro-Cuban abakuá ritual society. The line-up is unusual: Virelles on piano; two bassists, Thomas Morgan and Robert Hurst, often providing a kind of drone sound foundation; drummer Marcus Gilmore from the Turner quartet on the jazz kit; and Román Díaz on the four-part biankoméko percussion ensemble. Díaz is the key here; he’s an adept of the abakuá tradition. The biankoméko creates sacred sounds for its practitioners, whose chants and terminology are delivered in still-recognizable Yoruba from West Africa. This is deep-down Afro-Cuban music, to be sure, and aficionados of conventionally conceived Latin jazz will recognize much of what they hear. But the experience of listening to Ḿbókò is akin to climbing back down the Latin jazz family tree, back to a common African root, and back up to a different branch in that vast tree, barely visible from the branches better known to Latin jazz listeners. We’ll sample the intense and meditative sounds of this record all through December.

I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969-70 anthologizes the surprisingly rich output of the short-lived Stone Flower record label, headed by Sly Stone. The album, released by Light In The Attic (the superb record label that brought us the Rodríguez compilation a couple years back), includes the five singles released on Stone Flower, from three artists signed by Sly: Joe Hicks, 6IX and Little Sister (led, in fact, by Sly’s little sister Vaetta Stewart). The album also gathers a number of unreleased Sly Stone numbers, many featuring the Rhythm King drum machine, which function as a set of sketches for the subsequent masterpiece There's A Riot Goin' On.

Last month our Miles Davis record was On the Corner (1972). Listening to it with you, I realized that here (and on 1970′s Jack Johnson) is Miles’s strong Sly Stone influence most audibly detectable. Given that we will be guided in part by Sly this month, I want to remain in this neighborhood of Miles’s discography. Accordingly, we will listen to a small sampling of the hours of music included on the six-CD box set The Complete On the Corner Sessions, released in 2007. I’ll focus on material released for the first time on that box set, and recorded within a year or so of the June 1972 sessions that were included on the tracklist for On the Corner. Nervous, dark, pensive funk — not unlike Sly’s music from I’m Just Like You.

The Mystery of Mr. Ra

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Alto saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen joined the Sun Ra ensemble – some might say what he joined was more like a mystical-political secret society – in Chicago in the early 1950s. He remained with Ra until the latter’s departure from Earth in 1993, and he continues to lead the Arkestra today, at age 90. In celebration of the centennial of Sun Ra’s arrival day in 1914 (Sonny didn’t like to refer to it as his birth), Allen has compiled a marvelous double-album sampling of Sun Ra recordings spanning more than a quarter century, though revealing only the tip of the iceberg of Ra’s enormous discography. Allen’s collection for Strut Records, In the Orbit of Ra, is one of the featured albums on Now’s the Time this month of November 2014.

I’ve played Sun Ra on the program before, but it wasn’t until this month that I realized just how completely the Ra Gestalt has pervaded the eclectic musical world I feature on the radio program every week. Ra influenced (or resonated with) contemporaneous jazz musicians from John Coltrane to Herbie Hancock. His Afrofuturism is echoed in the work of rap artists like Digable Planets and the Wu-Tang Clan, and in left-field R&B by Parliament-Funkadelic, Erykah Badu and more. He’s explicitly acknowledged as a forbear by Flying Lotus, whose new album You’re Dead is also featured this month. Listen and make the connections with me. This is going to make for great late-night radio.

In preparation for this month’s programs, I read John Szwed‘s revelatory Ra biography, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (1998), and the Ra sections of Graham Lock‘s Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (2000). Both are highly recommended.

Statistically speaking, you fall into one of two camps. Some of you know more about Sun Ra than I do – way more – and will find my observations on his mysterious and magnificent work to be ill-informed and jejune. The rest are likely to be weirded out by the whole Ra phenomenon. But somewhere in between, there is a sliver of open-hearted music lovers who will discover this unusual musical oeuvre through this little text. (Indeed, I am increasingly persuaded that the whole Now’s the Time venture is aimed at that sliver, wherever it may be.)

What have I learned about Sun Ra? Here are, pell mell, four characteristics of the Ra musical universe. Along with lots of music from the new Ra compilation, we’ll listen to expressions of these four axes by plenty of other artists in the broadcasts this month.

space-place-sun-ta-egypt11. Egypt/Africa. Lock’s book argues that Ra sought to create a new mythic past for African-Americans, rejecting their identification with the Biblical Exodus story, and rooted instead in an identification with the grandeur of ancient Egypt. These themes are often musically expressed in a kind of pan-African obsession with rhythm (little of it explicitly linked to contemporary Egyptian music).

fletcherhenderson2. The Big Bands. Another element of Ra’s creation of a new mythic past, one that affirms African-American beauty, is his love of the music of the big bands, particularly Fletcher Henderson (for whom Ra worked in Chicago for about a year in the mid-40s, long past Henderson’s prime) and Duke Ellington, and also including a host of lesser-known groups from the 1930s (like the Cotton Pickers). In his later years, the Arkestra included generous doses of classic big-band swing material in their concerts. Ra saw in these groups a demonstration of the profound things African-American men could achieve if they acted collectively and with discipline, an inspiration for the communal ethos of his Arkestra. He also claimed that the beauty of this music acts as a shield protecting Earth from potentially malevolent forces. This I believe.

secondstopjupiter3. Space. Alongside the construction of new mythic pasts, Ra charted a new mythic future, based on the promise of space travel and technology. There are strong elements of kitschy 1950s-era science fiction in his work, matched with a genuine hope in the transcendent possibilities of intergalactic space. Szwed and Lock make connections between Ra’s space optimism and older traditions of Baptist oratory.

4. Free Jazz. What a difficult phrase, “free jazz.” The first problem here is that Ra repeatedly spoke out against freedom: “There is no freedom in the universe. If you were to be free you could just play no matter what and it doesn’t come back to you. But you see, it always does come back to you.” He preferred to encourage discipline as a guiding aesthetic principle. Nevertheless the Arkestra was an innovative contributor to what is often called, as a convenient shorthand, free jazz: collective improvisation that moves away from conventional practices of harmony and rhythm. sunrasynthRa’s notion of freedom – and indeed the idea of freedom encoded in free jazz – must be distinguished from right-wing, libertarian notions of freedom. (On this, read Scott Saul‘s Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, 2001).

There’s so much more. Electronics, for example, and unusual instrumental sounds. Theater, costumes, whimsy. His poetry! Let’s see just how much we can listen to!

November in the Orbit of Ra

Every month on this program I highlight two new records and one disc from the Miles Davis catalogue. This allows me to listen intensively, in your company, to a few new releases that have captured my interest. Any given month’s selection inspires other musical choices, old and new, and gives a particular character to the episodes. When we’re really lucky, the combination of the three featured albums creates a musical world all its own, with its own customs and character. Such is the case this November.

The centerpiece of our offerings is a magnificent new collection of the music of Sun Ra (1914-1993), compiled by his longtime collaborator and the current leader of his Arkestra, saxophonist Marshall Allen. Entitled In the Orbit of Ra, it is a marvelous introduction to Ra’s extraordinary musical universe.

You’re Dead! A new record by Flying Lotus featuring guest spots by Herbie Hancock and Kendrick Lamar seems almost, but not quite, too good to be true. And this rhythmic and atmospheric suite of short musical soundscapes turns out to be a worthy complement to Sun Ra. It is furthermore a reflection on what death means – a fascination for artists for centuries, but in particular a concern of Sun Ra, who implored us not to give up our lives for a cause, but to give up our deaths. We’ll talk more about all this on the program this month!

What Miles Davis disc would furnish the perfect third vertex of this musical triangle? It’s not immediately obvious. I’ve opted for the much-maligned but ultimately magisterial On the Corner (1972): it highlights the collective improvisation and the funk present in the other two discs.

With these three guideposts in place, expect to be transported: Earth, Wind & Fire, Digable Planets, Erykah Badu, Albert Ayler, Pyramids, Alice Coltrane, Souljazz Orchestra, GZA… just some of the artists that can fill in the interstices, the void between the stars.