I’m returning in 2012 with more idle thoughts about culture, food, and music … until then enjoy this cool performance of my favourite song composed by Jerome Kern … please note the Maltese falcon on the piano … cognac … cigarettes … way too cool …
Archive for jazz
The musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron – best known for his pioneering rap The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – has died at the age of 62, having fallen ill after a European trip.
Jamie Byng, his UK publisher, announced the news via Twitter: “Just heard the very sad news that my dear friend and one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, the great Gil Scott-Heron, died today.”
Scott-Heron’s spoken word recordings helped shape the emerging hip-hop culture. Generations of rappers cite his work as an influence.
He was known as the Godfather of Rap but disapproved of the title, preferring to describe what he did as “bluesology” – a fusion of poetry, soul, blues and jazz, all shot through with a piercing social conscience and strong political messages, tackling issues such as apartheid and nuclear arms.
“If there was any individual initiative that I was responsible for it might have been that there was music in certain poems of mine, with complete progression and repeating ‘hooks’, which made them more like songs than just recitations with percussion,” Scott-Heron wrote in the introduction to his 1990 Now and Then collection of poems.
He was best known for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, the critically acclaimed recording from his first album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, and for his collaborations with jazz/funk pianist and flautist Brian Jackson.
In The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, first recorded in 1970, he issued a fierce critique of the role of race in the mass media and advertising age. “The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning or white people,” he sang.
He performed at the No Nukes concerts, held in 1979 at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were organised by a group called Musicians United for Safe Energy and protested against the use of nuclear energy following the meltdown at Three Mile Island. The group included singer-songwriters such as Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and Bonnie Raitt.
Scott-Heron’s song We Almost Lost Detroit, written about a previous accident at a nuclear power plant, is sampled on rapper Kanye West’s single The People. Scott-Heron’s 2010 album, I’m New Here, was his first new studio release in 16 years and was hailed by critics. The album’s first song, On Coming From a Broken Home, is an ode to his maternal grandmother, Lillie, who raised him in Jackson, Tennessee, until her death when he was 13. He moved to New York after that.
Scott-Heron was HIV positive and battled drug addiction through most of his career. He spent a year and a half in prison for possession. In a 2009 interview he said that his jail term had forced him to confront the reality of his situation.
“When you wake up every day and you’re in the joint, not only do you have a problem but you have a problem with admitting you have a problem.” Yet in spite of some “unhappy moments” in the past few years he still felt the need to challenge rights abuses and “the things that you pay for with your taxes”.
“If the right of free speech is truly what it’s supposed to be, then anything you say is all right.”
Scott-Heron’s friend Doris Nolan said the musician had died at St Luke’s hospital on Friday afternoon. “We’re all sort of shattered,” she told the Associated Press.
The title track from his last album I’m New Here contains the line “I’m hard to get to know, impossible to forget”, which pretty much sums up the man and his music.
An interesting fact is that his father, also called Gil, or more properly Gilbert, played football for Celtic in 1951, becoming the first black player to play for Celtic and I think the second ever black player to play in the Scottish football league.
R.I.P. Gil Scott-Heron 1949-2011
On the subject of whether or not there’s such a thing as improvisation: in a lot of what seems to pass for jazz these days there seems to me to be precious little of it because once the “style” of a particular music is constrained to the extent that it often is, any spontaneity is so restricted as to be tokenistic. To me that’s not just “not jazz”, it’s more like “anti-jazz”. Spontaneity in improvisation is for me the most important thing given to the world (including other musics) by the jazz tradition. Most of the music I like best isn’t really jazz according to the dictionary definition but it wouldn’t exist were it not for that tradition. Grime is one example.
I’m not saying that jazz is dead, nor do I think that any such statement makes sense, I just wanted to say that some of its contemporary pseudo-practitioners actually have a lot less to do with jazz than do many exponents of free improvisation.
I don’t think anyone would claim that improvised music consists of pure spontaneity. Memory is as important to improvising musicians as it is to anyone else.
Personally I think that improvised music is where most of the most interesting and expressive and fruitful musical thinking is going on at the moment, and far from impoverished.
Eric Dolphy does things with a bass clarinet that Stravinsky never dreamed of. Charles Mingus wanders off during his solo.
It’s one of the great ironies of the classical concert experience – the most explosive, exhilarating music is often greeted by total silence. Let our applause be heard, says Alex Ross, who gave the Royal Philharmic Society lecture at the Wigmore Hall, London.
I have a lot of time for Alex Ross, and I say that as someone not massively keen on music journalism. He is a tireless champion of cutting through all the tiresome “traditions” that permeate the environment of “classical” music performance, and which seems so beloved of dullards everywhere. When to clap? What should I wear? And so on.
In “The Rest is Noise” I like the connections Ross makes with jazz and so-called “difficult” modern music. He’s not on virgin territory here: Wilfrid Mellers’ “Music in a New Found Land” pioneered this approach, albeit to American music only. That book however was a drier read; I finished Ross’s book even before it had been published in the UK, and found it to be one of the most readable music histories I’d encountered for a long time.
However, I find myself at odds with his point about how ubiquitous some elements of modernism has become. Whilst he’s not wrong to suggest many modernist touches have become a staple of horror film soundtracks, I think it’s a dangerous route to go down. It gives the impression that much 20th century music is designed simply to be eerie and unsettling. Some of it surely is, but we only need to hear the use of Bartók in Kubrick’s “The Shining” to see how great music can be damned by excursions into popular culture.
Soprano Renée Fleming has learned “a completely different style of singing” for a forthcoming pop album, which features covers of Muse, Arcade Fire, and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. “This album is NOT a crossover,” the American singer insists. “There’s not a hint of ‘middle ground’. It’s completely at the other extreme of the spectrum.”
This isn’t the first time Fleming has let her hair down on a recording – she released a jazz album in 2005, and sang in Elvish for The Lord of the Rings soundtrack. But this is Fleming’s first foray into the fearsome, pierced world of actual rock and pop.
“In classical music, we perform unamplified in halls that seat up to 4,000 audience members, plus we’re required to project over large orchestras and often a chorus,” she explained. “We’re kind of the weightlifters of singing … [Here, I had to] sing in what often felt like a whisper. I was recording in a small, acoustic booth in this intimate style, which is the complete opposite of how I usually sing. [Producer] David [Kahne] worked with me closely so that there was no hint of drama, cheesiness, or ‘Las Vegas’, as he would call it.”
Of course, Fleming isn’t exactly covering the Misfits. Her version of Tears for Fears’ Mad World is much more Gary Jules than new wave, and that old chestnut Hallelujah won’t blow the spectacles off any grannies. The project was conceived by Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein, whose management company represents Muse, Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Inspired by a bus poster featuring the soprano, Mensch “badgered” Fleming’s record company “once a year for years”, he told the New York Times. When Fleming finally capitulated, the pair gave her 40 songs to listen to – and an Excel spreadsheet on which to indicate “Love it”, “Like it”, “So-so”, “Not my cup of tea” or “Would love to sing it”. It was “mostly … indie-rock bands,” Fleming admitted. She took the music on holiday with her family, only to discover that the artists were some of her daughters’ favourites. “It really grew on me, but I still don’t think anyone knew how my voice could possibly combine with this music,” Fleming said.
“We all agreed she wouldn’t sing like a standard soprano, like Katherine Jenkins or Susan Boyle,” Mensch explained. Instead, Fleming had to find that new voice – and become comfortable singing these songs. “I was especially fascinated by the Mars Volta song, With Twilight As My Guide, which is operatic in its scale and musical complexity. I was, however, a bit concerned about the text, specifically the reference to ‘devil daughters.’” Fleming wrote to the Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala, asking permission to change the lyrics. “Sure, she can change it,” Bixler-Zavala replied, but he said the lyrics were “sarcastic” – “one huge metaphor for the [poor] way women are treated in Islamic society”. Fleming was satisfied: “This explanation was enough for me.”
Dark Hope will be released by Decca in the spring.
1 Endlessly (Muse)
2 No One’s Gonna Love You (Band of Horses)
3 Oxygen (Willy Mason)
4 Today (Jefferson Airplane)
5 Intervention (Arcade Fire)
6 With Twilight as My Guide (The Mars Volta)
7 Mad World (Tears For Fears)
8 In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel)
9 Stepping Stone (Duffy)
10 Soul Meets Body (Death Cab for Cutie)
11 Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)