Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Five Albums That Are Currently Driving My Musical Taste

Lately I've been hearing a sound in my head. That may sound a little crazy, and it is. Instead of ignoring this sound I've gone looking for it.

With Spotify and other digital resources, a person like myself can binge on music the way others can binge a TV show. (I can do that too).  One pratfall of this wormhole is overcoming the ephemeral anxiety that it might be a bottomless well.  You can take the view that there is no edge or limit to our musical world, or you can come to the conclusion that this world is a round one, not flat. It all comes back around.

On the flipside of digital, the return to good old analog vinyl as a music resource can serve as a reminder to slow things down and try and make connections in a more organic way. Vinyl can get costly so you have to be a little selective. I might do loads of crate digging research online, but if I'm going to pull the plug on a $20 or $30 record from a merchant I ought to have a pretty good hunch that it's worth it.

Out of that vinyl foundation, these five records are helping to feed that endless search for the sound.

Sun Ra - Exotica
Exotica is a word that gets used to describe a certain kind of music. You know it when you hear it. Other terms that mean similar things include Lounge, Space Age Pop, Bachelor Pad Music, Tiki Music or Cocktail Music. Exotica was popular in the 1950's and 1960's among a certain demographic that was probably opened up to a post WWII sense of wordly culture and prosperity -- a rapidly expanding awareness of other countries, flavors, rhythms and spices which overlapped with the expanding hi-fi stereo technology that was also tied into the larger world of booming, rapid technology - like the idea of going to the moon in a rocket.  Keep in mind this was all still filtered through a white, middle-class, Disney-like, pre-LSD perspective.

If you start to research Exotica you come across names like Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny. I've dabbled into these guys' recordings and it might not be what I'm looking. The only reason I'm familiar with those names at this moment is because they are mentioned in the liner notes to the new Sun Ra Exotica compilation.  Honestly, I'd rather just continue listening to Sun Ra's take, which is really just a fantasy-island in the sun among the larger Sun Ra oeuvre.  However, the more I listen to this I think that the folks at Modern Harmonic who put this collection together really hit the nail on the head by calling out Sun Ra's connection to Exotica.  He's not usually recognized as a member of or contributor to this style of music, but you can certainly hear an exotic thread there.

An association with Sun Ra can only help to elevate the neo-coolness of Exotica.  I probably wouldn't be writing about it right now had it not been for this collection.  Thankfully, Modern Harmonic has now released this collection as a 3-LP set on regular old black vinyl for folks who want the luxury of listening to this excellently remastered music on a turntable, but don't want to pay the Black Friday hyped extra cost that colored vinyl brings.

So where does this album lead?  Like anything else once you get to where you want to be you find suitable offerings that open entirely new doors.  Through this Sun Ra compilation I've happened upon the Brazilian organist Walter Wanderly (Rain Forest) who could actually lead around and into the Bossa Nova records of Zoot Sims and Gene Ammons.  There's also a guy named Robert Drasnin who did some delightfully straight-up Exotica (Voodoo I, II, III), as well as more contemporary artists who work out of an Exotica-like base, including Les Hommes, Monster Rally and Creepxotica.  I'm basically a sucker for anything tropical with a vibraphone in it.  I can kind of see how vintage Exotica could morph nowadays into a trippy form of instrumental hip-hop, but that's another story.  Come to think of it, Nels Cline's Lovers double LP (a favorite from 2016) could be seen as a loungey form of Exotica.

Mulatu Astatke - Mulatu of Ethiopia
I found this album by sampling through the many great offerings of Strut Records.  This is African music, but not the African music of King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti or Manu Dibango. Technically this is Ethiopian-Jazz, which you just know is going to be cool even before you hear it!  "Yeah man, I've been listening to a lot of Ethiopian Jazz lately".  Back in the 1960's this guy Mulatu basically invented a distinct style that came to be known as Ethio-Jazz -- similar to how you can attribute Bluegrass to Bill Monroe or Reggae to Bob Marley.

Mulatu's music could also be pigeonholed into that "world" music category, but ironically it's much more universal than that.  Ethiopian Jazz (AKA Mulatu's music) certainly has its roots in Addis Ababa, but it also has tentacles stretched out to London, New York, the Middle East, and South America.  There's definitely a sophisticated awareness of Modal and Latin Jazz that gets paired with a deep understanding of traditional Ethiopian modes and melodies. At the same time it is the product of a singular vision that was not overly concerned with what was going on with other trends of the time.  It sounds the way Ethiopian food tastes.

Mulatu had few contemporaries. That almost generic Afrobeat/Highlife/Juju type sound that people associate with African music does not sound like Mulatu.  Hailu Mergia's name comes up as a fellow Ethiopian instrumental musician but what I've heard of Hailu is good but not quite the same. Abdou El Amari of Morocco is also awesome but not really related to Mulatu.

It's taken decades but now there are a bunch of bands making music influenced by Mulatu. As a listener, the hard part is distinguishing between what is simply derivative and what is actually unique and inspired interpretations.  So far I like these artists: Atlantis Jazz Ensemble (Canada), Akale Wube (France), Black Flower (Belgium), Pyramid Blue (Spain), Yazz Ahmed (England), and Invisible Astro Healing Rhythm Quartet (California).  Richmond, VA's own Afro-Zen All Stars are a great band that is also directly influenced by Mulatu.  Some more yet to be name-checked Ethio-Jazz inspired bands are on my list to suss out.

Arthur's Landing - Arthur's Landing
Even nerdy music geeks might be asking who/what is this?  Arthur's Landing is actually another product of scrolling through Strut Records' releases.  Arthur's Landing is a loose ensemble of musicians all associated - in one way or another - with a musical pioneer named Arthur Russell.  Who is Arthur Russell you might say?  A year ago I would have been asking the same thing.  The music on this album captivated me so much that I recently took it upon myself to find out.

Basically, Arthur Russell was a guy from Iowa. Ha! Born in 1951, Arthur learned to play the cello as a teenager and yearned for more culture and enlightenment than prairies and grains could offer. He was an Allen Ginsberg or a John Cage trapped in a farmboy's body and existence.  So he ran away from home; first to San Francisco and then to New York where he arrived smack dab in the middle of that early 1970's muck and nirvana that HBO's The Deuce is trying to capture on TV.  Living in New York gave Arthur a concrete backdrop and access to an artistic community that allowed his musical potential to really develop.

From what I've been able to tell, Arthur did his composing and production in the form of written notebooks and lo-fi demo recordings.  His work is strewn across various different short-lived projects, unfulfilled collaborations and pseudonyms.  My guess is that during his creative life Arthur would rather write a new piece of music today than polish up and put out a song written yesterday.  Add to that the fact that Arthur Russell died in 1992 at the very young age of 40 and you have all the makings of a musical guru.

What Arthur Russell did really, really well is he took the common, amped-up bubblegum nature of danceclub Disco and fused it with the high-brow abrasion of New York's experimental music scene.  He did this much to the chagrin of his NYC peers.  A lot of the music Arthur made himself has been coming out posthumously, but where the band Arthur's Landing comes into the picture is they assembled in 2008 for the purposes of presenting Arthur Russell's music in a new light.

On this 2011 recording they really capture the essence of that dance music meets heady music partnership.  The first time I heard it - which was last fall - I was hooked.  It was my official introduction to Arthur Russell by way of musicians who knew him, understood him, respected him, and could do his music justice.

For some reason I thought I might be let down by the real thing so it took me a few months to even check out any actual recordings by Arthur Russell.  I finally listened to Love Is Overtaking Me and it was also a pretty life changing instant.  It didn't sound anything like Arthur's Landing!

Love Is Overtaking Me seems to be the music of a very elite brand of singer-songwriter.  It can be appreciated in the same way that John Prine, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch can be appreciated.  There is no real connection to the disco or "new" music that Arthur is known for.  You have to dig farther into Arthur Russell's catalog to find that.  That search is now starting to turn up some bands like Liquid Liquid, ESG, Konk, and Bush Tetras - and I am having fun listening to these groups!  Kind of like a less commercial Talking Heads, I guess.

I'm really quite happily baffled by Arthur Russell!

Those three albums - Sun Ra "Exotica", Mulatu Astatke "Mulatu of Ethiopia" and "Arthur's Landing" - cover the majority of the sound I've been drawn to lately.  Some additional frenetic energy can be bottled up in the following two selections.

Kenny Graham and His Satellites - Moondog and Suncat Suites
This is another case of a band interpreting and arranging a composer's music.  The band in question is Kenny Graham and His Satellites - a group put together by British jazz saxophonist, arranger and composer Kenny Graham for the purpose of playing the music of Moondog, who at the time (1956) was an eccentric, obscure street musician who in-the-know jazz tape traders were just becoming fascinated with.  Prestige records put out official recordings of Moondog in 1956 but those came out after this recording was made.  Interesting.

In the 60+ years since those days, Moondog has gained cult-hero status.  His music can come across as weird at first - and it is perplexing - but it's actually built around pretty simple harmony lines.  Moondog's compositions primarily treat each instrument as independent voices with no traditional chords.

What I like about this Moondog and Suncat Suites LP is it takes Moondog's music and places it in a pretty easily digestible format.  The instruments used include vibraphone, bass clarinet, cello, and tympani drums.  You wouldn't really call this jazz ala 1956 because swing and improvisation are mostly absent.  The time signatures, rhythms, contrapuntal melodies and a general sense of kitsch are at the forefront here.  The 2nd half of the album is Kenny Graham's original music written in the style of Moondog. It holds up quite well, actually.

I definitely hear the influence of Moondog in the band Tortoise, especially their TNT album.

Moondog and Suncat Suites is almost tied back to Exotica.  Moondog and Sun Ra are related in a way - atmospherically if not cosmically.  Another band that has interpreted Moondog's music is Hobocombo.  This Italian trio is worth checking out.  They add a modern twist to Moondog's timeless music.

Augustus Pablo - East of the River Nile
This is not a new one to me.  I had it on CD many years ago and it was one of the first vinyls I got when starting an LP record collection.  I just listened again yesterday and boy the Side A of this record is strong!!!  Augustus Pablo certainly knew what sound he was going for - the heartbeat of the earth apparently.  It's not the most complex music, but it is very enjoyable.  His chosen instrument is the melodica, which you could put into a novelty category like the steel pan, kalimba or K-Board.  I can relate to that.

I haven't found much instrumental Jamaican/reggae music made before or since East of the River Nile that can match the essence distilled here.  I need to check out more Augustus Pablo.  Maybe also some Mad Professor, Dub Colossus, and Soul Sugar. There's a German(?) band called Bacao Rhythm and Steel Band whose album 55 is a bit of a jump but there is a connection to what Augustus Pablo was doing.

Those are the five albums.  This covers a lot but not everything, obviously.  There's a bunch of funk and groove type music in my ears recently that may or may not fit into anywhere mentioned above.  Bands like Bixiga 70, Soul Jazz Orchestra, Orchestra Baobab, Magic In Threes, Sure Fire Soul Ensemble, Ikebe Shakedown, Polyrhythmics.   Oh jeez, I've also been enjoying the old school Soul, Gospel, Rhythm and Blues of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and The Impressions.  Plus the music of Guadeloupe and Martinique.  That is most definitely not covered in the above.  Make it stop!!!!

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