Saturday, August 20, 2016

Against Masterpieces

I find myself less than impressed with “masterpieces” and “classics” these days. They leave me kind of cold. I’m finding more pleasure in the simple “really good record”.  Which is an album that may be limited in some way, but that provides substantial pleasure, nonetheless.

Like that friend of yours who'll never win a MacArthur Fellowship, but is nonetheless pretty sharp, and fun, too.

So while I may look at my spreadsheet and see any number of albums that have gotten a lot of mentions from various Best of the Year/Decade polls, I also see genres that I’m either tired of, or that can only provide a limited amount of pleasure to the geezer I am now.

Or records that I suspect will impress me with their skill but leave me uninspired or a little down. Which is not to say I don’t like being depressed, just do it well. Mean to do it instead of just ending up doing it because I find you kind of, well, depressing.

So that’s why this record is such a pleasure:

That Petrol Emotion: Babble (1987)

So how did I come across these guys? Well, they were lurking in that spreadsheet but with not as many mentions as some other records I’ll not name (or buy).

I had heard about them back in the eighties. That is a cool name, after all. But since I’d never gotten to hear an actual song I relegated them to the “bands with a clever name and not much else” category.

It turns out that they have an actual history. They rose from the ashes of the punk band the Undertones (another band I’ll have to check out now).  TPE, though, evolved their sound into mostly mid to fast-tempo rock and roll, with lots of chunky guitars and a voice that shouldn’t work, but does. And there’s more melody than one would typically find in such a mix.  The formula is pretty consistent throughout. And why not? It works.

They’re an Irish band that’s darker and rockier than U2. Thank god.

And while no one song completely bowls me over, every single one makes me smile.

At the risk of damning it with faint praise, I'll say that, overall, this a very, very good record.

So the lesson here is to forget about those “masterpieces” and just try to track down those “really good records”.

And who knows?  After a few years, what will I think of it? Will it stay the same in my estimation, or will my affection for these songs continue to grow?  In other words, will I say:
Oh, yeah, that’s a really good record? 
Wow, that’s a masterpiece?  

Who knows?

Who cares?

After all, that friend who actually does win the MacArthur Fellowship is a little too full of himself anyway.



Saturday, August 13, 2016


The Little Plastic Vinyl Case:

We recently had some major renovations done, and in the course of throwing some things away and losing others, you also find some things.

Like an old, tiny vinyl carry case containing a bunch of cassettes. Some tapes were pre-recorded albums and the rest were “mixtapes”.

1963 PB (Pre-Beatles, or Pretty Boring):

If you asked me - at age 6 - what I liked, I might have answered toys or games. I would not have said girls or music.

Why would I like music? Perry Como, Andy Williams and their ilk dominated TV variety shows and I was too young for Elvis to make an impression on me.

And since both of my parents were from Ireland, the only music coming out of the Victrola was by Paddy Noonan, Bridie Gallagher or Mary McGonigle, who, in retrospect, are very good. But not at the time.

So neither television nor the living room was providing any musical inspiration.

Instant Gratification: AM Radio 1964-1969:

And how could it, especially when the Beatles finally arrived?

From 1964 on, turning on the radio meant instant gratification. You’d hear the radio playing on someone’s stoop, or from a passing car. But it always sounded great.

And in the rare moment when you didn’t like what you heard on WABC, you’d simply switch to WMCA and you’d be fine.


But as good as radio was, you’d still buy your favorite singles. And when you had enough of them, you and your friends would play them - one after the other - on the stoop with your portable turntable. (I once saw a bunch of older kids marching down Fifth Avenue with their portable turntable in their arms playing a single as they went.  Sooo cool!)

To me, these hours-long singles sessions were the beginnings of the mixtape. We had begun to program our music.


By 1970 AM radio was getting increasingly frustrating, and the cool kids were moving to FM. But by its very nature it was more exploratory. So for each heavy revelation, there’d be at least a few minutes of boredom.  So we hadn’t given up on AM. Yet.


But we were getting into albums by then. But albums - because of their variety of tone - often played better in the solitude of your bedroom than on the stoop or at a party.

So who could resist the urge to take the best of everything and put it all together in one place?

The Beach, or the Mixtape is Born:

By the mid-seventies, while others were still bringing radios to the beach, I’d already switched to just a tape player. I was doing my damnedest to minimize the chance of something awful coming on.

But if you did this, the music had to be energetic. It couldn’t be too slow or too mellow.

Oh, you could get away with middle period Beatles (Revolver, Rubber Soul) later in the afternoon when everyone was getting a little mellow anyway, but otherwise, that music had to move. And flow.

It was pretty challenging because we were no longer agreeing on what music was great.

When I Was Your Age!:

I can finally say that now.  But not about walking to school in the snow, or being without Netflix.

I’m saying it because, back then, it was a pain in the ass to make a mixtape.

At first, you’d simply play a record and try to record it with a microphone, and hope your mom didn’t shout for you to come down for dinner. Thank god they started putting in plugs so you could connect directly to the source.

But it still usually took about 3 hours to do a 90-minute tape. You had to have the right connections between your stereo and your tape player.  If you were very lucky, the tape player would record everything at the same volume. If not, you were subject to the sudden drops and rises in volume from song to song, based on how they were recorded and mastered.

If you were very lucky you had a pause button, which helped you edit out the sound of the tone arm being raised or dropped. Which could otherwise sound like a car crash.

Mixtape as Art: 

But that was the mechanics of it.  Once you had that down, you could do a fairly amateurish tape which had songs you liked in the order you happened to place them on the tape, and that ended simply when you ran out of room on it.

If you were lazy you wouldn’t worry about how much space was wasted at the end of each side. If you were like me (ie, didn’t have a girlfriend) you spent time on such things.

On the other extreme, you would try to build a sequence that naturally segued from one song to the next, and there would be a flow to the entire tape, hopefully with it ending in some sort of climax.

This required the math to calculate how much you could fit on the tape - and on each side of the tape, too.  Which meant editing on the fly when you got it wrong.

Aesthetic Differences:

I didn’t like it when someone would go to the trouble of putting a very popular song on a mixtape. Why go to that trouble when you were likely to hear it on the radio anyway?

There was a bit of snobbery at work here, too. If it was popular, I probably hated it.

So you’re songs had to:

  • Not be overplayed
  • Be recognizable, or at least very very catchy
  • Have decent sound quality, either in volume or overall dynamics.

Tapes Lost:

But then you get married and have kids and who has time for all that?

And there were a lot of tapes that were lost or went down with the cars.

I can think of dozens of songs that made it onto those tapes that have since been lost. This is a real shame because by then the whole pacing thing got easier. But I’d have to have the original playlists to put them back together.

Old, lost tapes, I salute you!

Tapes Found:

But I did find that vinyl case, and a few tapes survived.

The first one - from about 1987 - was pretty simple: All REM. It was relatively easy to make because it consisted almost entirely of  Chronic Town and Murmur with smatterings of later albums added and edited in along the way.  And all coming from vinyl.

And it still sounds very good.

But even I realized we couldn’t just listen to REM all day, so I’d made another one, which also survived.  And after almost thirty years, it holds up pretty well. I made it in about 1989, and reflects what we were listening to at the time, so it’s almost all music from the 1980s as opposed to “eighties music”.

I tell people I hated the 80s. Mrs. Jaybee says I'm full of sh*t. This tape is proof that we're both right. This tape is virtually hit-free! Just a bunch of relative obscurities that made the decade bearable for me.  This one must have been made in the fall. It just sounds that way.

David Bowie - “TVC15”, from Station to Station, which we’d only recently gotten. This is such an infectious song and a perfect opener. Never has Bowie been so damned playful.

The Bangles - “September Gurls”, from Different Light. This is the song that pretty much defines the tape.  El got Different Light for Christmas that year and this is probably the most Beatle-y cut of a very Beatle-y album. Very pretty and autumnal, naturally. I heard this before I ever heard the bonkers Big Star version. And the beat is ever so slightly faster than “TVC15”.

Neil Young - “Hold On To Your Love”, from the much-maligned Trans. I had the weird experience of hearing this for the first and second time in public on the very same day - once in a record store in Manhattan and then again that night at Adventureland in Long Island. I found it so pretty I had to have the album. I should have - and may have originally - put this before the Bangles given the slightly sci-if sound, but beat wise it’s in the right place.

The B52s - “She Brakes for Rainbows”, from Bouncing off the Satellites.  Continuing the spacey theme. But not as kooky as you’d expect from the 52s. Sweet, melodic, forgiving.

‘Til Tuesday “Voices Carry” – Probably the only hit here. A good segue from pretty to ominous. Aimee Mann’s voice and the 80s synthesizer are not embarrassing at all.

The Rolling Stones - “Child of the Moon” - Don’t know why I forced this one in here. Probably because it’s got that lovely guitar and melody.  It probably should have gone after the Bangles.

‘Til Tuesday - “Maybe Monday” because I did such a lousy job with the editing, I cut off a second or two of the beginning and this just explodes at the start. My favorite song by them.

U2 – “In God’s Country” - The guitar here picks up from where “Child of the Moon” left off but what the hell. And for once, I can take them without a grain of salt. It’s pretty enough and fast enough to carry the weight Bono puts on it. And with some memorable phrases, (Punch a hole right through the sky...every day the dreamers die...Sad eyes,crooked crosses, in God's country.) It almost makes me cry.

The Replacement’s great one-two punch from Let it BeSatisfied/Seen Your Video”. The first with the brilliant acoustic guitar intro, loud bang, shout to get things rolling, and great vocal.

And then “Seen Your Video” to take it out with a little comedy and a lot of rock and roll. It  starts off with a minute of a sleak show-business-y instrumental theme, and then changes to a rockier, guided-missile theme, and then, finally, the words arrive to tell you they’ve seen your video (you’re another band, you see) and they hate it. (Seen your video! Your phony rock and roll! We don’t wanna know!) Just what I wanted to hear in the mid-eighties

The B-52s “Wig” from Bouncing off the Satellites and one of the best tracks of the 80s, off of one of their lesser known but still quite good records. Never has a record started off so completely off-kilter and random and ended so focused and powerful. Along the way it gets funny, and then, between Fred’s and Kate’s vocals, builds and builds until the drumming – which seemed goofy at the beginning – is now joined by some power chords to bring it all to a stunning close.

And now from the ridiculous to the sublime, Kate Bush -” Hounds of Love” – from The Whole Story My favorite KB song. The dynamics on this are wonderful. It opens with someone announcing “It’s coming! Through the trees!” And the drums make me believe him. And it turns out to be Kate - or at least her voice - swooping down from heaven, and then sweeping back up again. Whatever religion this is, I’m joining it.

And that's it for side one.

Side Two:

Blondie “Picture This” One of the many gems on Parallel Lines. Debbie Harry is one of the realest singers ever in that she sings like people talk. Oh Yeah!!!!

The Divinyls - “Don’t You Go Walking” from What a Life! - So the Divinyls came and went and somehow we got their second album, supposedly not as good as their first.  So why do I think side one is one of the best of the decade? Which is why I put almost all of it on this tape, minus the actual hit, of course.  This one is kinda fast and kinda loud.

“ Good Die Young” They slow it down a bit but add emotion and it’s wonderful

“Sleeping Beauty”, and even slower, even more emotion,

“Motion”, okay, enough of all that. Now it’s back to fast and loud and not so much a vocal as a roar. A great, great rocker.

Peter Gabriel “Red Rain” - I don’t know. I guess I should have ended the tape with the Divinyls. Now I have nowhere to go but back down from here. So I start over with my third favorite PG song. A nod to Prince maybe?

Human Switchboard - “Who’s Landing in My Hangar?” Yeah, just try finding this album. So we go from the lush “Red Rain” to the plain tacky “Hangar”, but it’s worth it for the title alone, but also because of that rough guitar and messy farfisa organ.

The English Beat - “Best Friend” The first of two absolute classics by the Beat. The first, with a twelve string electric guitar combined with speeded up ska.

“Two Swords” - This time, punk guitar and ska. Intense and heartfelt. Two swords slashing at each other, only sharpen one another, and in the long run even he’s your brother…

Talking Heads “Pulled Me Up” This song answers the question What if Psychokiller (the prior cut on Talking Heads '77 was brought up right? Never has gratitude ever been quite so… scary.

The Eagles “Tryin”, courtesy of Randy Meisner, back when fame and cocaine hadn’t yet gone to their heads. A fine rock and roll song.

Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns “Don’t Bug Me Baby” from their first record. Joe takes up the mantle of Doug Sahm and Sam the Sham, but adds amphetamines. So we go out on one of the great themes of Western Civilization, at least from the male point of view. But then again, there’s no reason a woman couldn’t sing this song, too.

So that's it. Probably my favorite mixtape of all.  But there are others.

You've been warned.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

World History Project, or Ahh Bach!, Part One:

Sometimes I think I’m overestimating my capacity to hear new music.

It would be nice to think - like I once did - that there is no theoretical reason for me to not like any CD, something unless there was definitely something wrong with it. In other words, I should have been able to go to any genre and enjoy whatever was good in that genre.

I remember borrowing a CD of Armenian folk music from a co-worker and enjoying it. (Even he didn’t like it that much.)

But my musical arteries seem to be hardening.  I’ve come to find I like hip hop (and dance music and dubstep and electronica and...) only so much.

It’s Not Them:

Now, I’ve been hearing complaints about “those young people with their crazy music” since I was six years old, which was fine. At that time, they were talking about me.  But now it’s us talking about them.

To hear someone my age say it is pretty disheartening. After all, he/she probably went through the same degree of non-acceptance from his/her parents as I did, and should have been a little more aware when he found himself saying the same thing.

So I’ve been on the lookout for such non-acceptance for decades now.  And I’ve been pretty successful at keeping it at bay. Even when I ended up not loving something, I was smart enough to not dismiss it because there were lots of people who did love it. For you algebra fans (come on, I know you’re out there!) x number of y fans can’t be wrong, can they?  Well, technically, they can. I’ve heard some  terrible popular music, but I’m not going to let that distract me from the good.)

The bottom line is that those young people love that crazy music, so who am I to say it’s bad? What’s bad is my ability to absorb the constant changes music seems to go through.

It’s Me:

So I’m just like you and need to retrench sometimes.

So, what is my solution to this problem?

Why, going into the Past for music that I should be theoretically capable of understanding/enjoying,
Unfortunately, I’ve been hitting some of the same barriers here that I hit with current pop music: liking it but only so much.

My timing couldn’t be worse, either. Springtime is usually the best time to hear something energetic (loud) and joyful (guitars) and in a genre that’s close to one’s heart to begin with. And something brand new would be preferable. It makes you feel part of the present, and optimistic about the future.

I didn’t always know this. I’d tried Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos – gotten in the heat of summer -  and quickly put aside for the Velvet Underground.  It wasn’t bad, mind you, but I just preferred “Sweet Jane” in the heat of July to Concerto Number Two, which is pretty good, by the way.

Sensory Deprivation Chamber:

Adding to the general musical malaise was a general malaise malaise (hmmm, maybe one has something to do with the other?) and didn’t feel up for much of anything anyway.

So I decided I’d enter the old SDC.  And instead of energetic and loud, all I wanted was quiet.  Not nothing, mind you. Just something really really quiet.

And so the World History Project couldn’t have come along at a better time.  It just so happened that I was up to (really past) the Benedictine Monks (c. 800) and Monteverdi (c. 1638).

Originally, I found the Monks kind of boring and Monteverdi pretty good.  But now both records are so well suited to my mood.  Perfectly fine music for their time, they’re perfect for modern times when you’re feeling depleted.  I have to admit I never thought I’d be so depleted that the Chants would work for me, but there you go.

That’s how tired I am of new music. The chanting monks are sounding good!

But the WHP also brought me to another record that fit the mood:

Bach: Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites, Performed by Yo Yo Ma

This is one of Johann Sebastian’s earlier compositions (1717), and like the Monks and Monteverdi this is a 2 CD set. Who’da thought you could fill 2 entire CDs with just one guy - named after a toy - sawing away on what you and me and Jack Black all know is really a bass? They must have had all the time in the world back then.

Anyway, I won’t even try to describe this. The title really says it all. I’m too ignorant to note any huge changes of mood or tone. It all seems to stay in a zone of mild melancholy that I find to be so much fun these days.

Like those other times of depression when I could only handle Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Vol 2, this one fits perfectly into that low-input frame of mind.

For a while, when I’d play this it would simply slip past me, because I was awaiting more sensory input.  But when you aren’t up to all that, this is perfect.

I won’t lie and say I absolutely love it. Something would have to enthrall me on a sustained basis to get that reaction.

But there must be a category of music representing what you normally wouldn’t immediately reach for, but under certain circumstances is fantastic.  In which case, this would be an A+.

For your first classical album, you could do a lot worse.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

The World History Project, or the Mother of all Recycles

It Always Starts With Music:

Remember my post about recycling? Sure you do! (NOT for the boring environment, idiot! That doesn’t exist anymore!)  I mean to listen again to every single record I own! Typically in the order the music was made.

I do this every so often. It helps me re-appreciate some under-listened-to or haven't-listened-to-in-a-while music. It helps me remember the time when I first heard it.

So why do it again?

Well, it’s time. I last did it around 2000-2002. (Yeah, it takes that long.) In 1977, when I only had about a hundred albums, it only took a few months.

And this will probably be the last time I do it. I’m pretty fatalistic, so I imagine I won’t get another decade to do it again.

Oh, don’t cry. Hypochondriac that I am, I’ll probably outlive everybody. (The key to a long life is to not enjoy it!) The point is that I’d never presume to do so.

But the “real” reason I’m doing it has to do with my World History Project.

Birth of a Dumb Idea: Novels

This will go down as one of the dumber things I’ve ever done, but I like my little cheap thrill projects. They simulate real life, which I’m somewhat averse to.

Anyway, the World History Project is where I read Important Books in Chronological Order.

Now, why would I do that?

I think it started with a funny column by Ian Frazier in the New Yorker. It was sent to me by Roommate and Friend Mike back in the 1980s.  It’s about Great Novels. He mentions Remembrance of Things Past, Bleak House, Ulysses, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks and War and Peace.

Always one to want to read The Great Books, hear The Great Albums, see the Great Movies, eat the Great Pizzas. use the Great Bathrooms, etc…, I was intrigued.

So, armed with a gift certificate (remember those?) for Barnes and Noble (remember them?), I bought some Great Novels I seem to remember getting:
Moby Dick
Don Quixote
Bleak House
War and Peace
The Brothers Karamazov

All of which I’ve since read (No big deal, it’s been thirty years.) except Buddenbrooks.

But did I just read them?  Of course not.

Never one to leave well enough alone, I began to think that the best way to read them would be in chronological order. Better to see the “development of the novel” (Like I’d know it when I saw it, but whatever.) The real reason is that I can’t just do something. It’s got to be planned, pre-meditated fun. Yes, I’m the original Buzz Killington.

Then, it occurred to me that if I were to really do that I’d have to include a lot more books than I actually owned. But which ones?

Well, I’d already started keeping a list of books I wanted to read. And then I’d keep my eyes open for articles that recommended books. And thus the Book Spreadsheet was born.  Yes, another spreadsheet.

So I read and read and read, making my way from Don Quixote (1615) to The Way of All Flesh (1884).

Then something happened.

Nine F*cking Eleven, or Don’t Know Much About History:

I continued to read over the fall of 2001, but like a lot of other ignorant Americans, I realized I needed to know more about history.

I decided to start over again.

But this time, I’d include history. And after scouring my own bookshelves and libraries, I found myself back around 1000BC, reading about Rome, Greece and anything momentous from elsewhere.

Despite my best efforts, my focus ended up being Western history, which in a way defeated my original purpose of not just learning about it but of also getting outside it. I’ll still allow myself the odd tangent here and there. (Yes, in my limited brain, the entirety of non-Western history constitutes a tangent. Call me what you will. Just not Steve King, okay?)

At the Movies:

And now I realized that I didn’t have to limit myself to books.  Sometimes a movie could cover some important time period or event in a relatively short amount of time, that a book would otherwise take weeks to get through.

And while I’m at it, why not include movies that aren’t strictly historical?  If they were Great Movies (see above) I should seem them. And if they weren’t historical Great Movies, I’d just watch them when I got to the time period in which they were made. Of course, this would mean that they wouldn’t start showing up in the WHP until the twentieth century.

And did I mention that this also goes for Great Television?

Care to guess how many DVDs are in my Netflix Queue?

And Art, for Art’s Sake!:

And as long as I was going back that far, I’d also read things like the Gilgamesh, The Canterbury Tales, The Inferno, some Shakespeare  and even the Bible.

But I also found Janson’s History of Art amongst my books, and realized that since I was making room for plays and poetry why not Art?  The history would add context to the art I had trouble understanding before.

My Own BC and AD - Pre and Post 9/11:

Now, one weird aspect (one Jaybee?) of this process is that I split everything into pre and post 9/11. And I will read the former in order. Why?  Well, I got it into my head that it all leads up to that moment.

I’ll allow myself to read post 9/11 things. I can’t live my entire life in the past now, can I?

The Last Great Recycle, or It Always Ends With Music, Too:

And what does that Recycling I was talking about before have to do with all this?

I was going to do the Recycling thing anyway, so why not do it in the context of the WHP? I was going to listen to the music when it was composed anyway.

And it’s already started.

My “earliest” album used to be  a cassette tape from Friend Joann, containing all sorts of oldies-but-goodies running from 1700 to 1900 or so by the Academy of St. Martin-In-the-Fields.  It has since been replaced by Chants by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, which I place at about 800 AD.

Then I jump to Monteverdi’s Madrigals which show up around 1638 AD.

I’m sure there were a few tunes hummed during these intervening 838 years but I may never hear them.

As you can see, things are a bit hit or miss here. Again, with the odd exception I’m pretty confined to Western Music,

And Classical music in particular. There’s a case to be made for including all kinds of folk music, but I honestly wouldn’t know where to begin. I’m hoping that some of that will make its way through Celtic and British bands like Fairport Convention.

So why am I telling you this?

To explain why I’d get an album of Chants or Madrigals in the first place, I guess. But also why I’ve recently gotten Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Handel’s Water Music, which I’ll deal with later.

So where am I now?

Oh, about 1726.

Book: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Movie/TV: Nothing at the moment, but I’m considering “Outlander”, which starts around 1743.
Music: Handel, Vivaldi, Bach

The Last Great Recycle, or Running Out of Time:

So you can see the size of the useless and futile task I’ve set for myself.  It will encompass books and art and music and film.  This music recycle will take MUCH longer than usual since my progress on reading will hold things up.

If 1977 it took a few months, 2000 a few years. This will take, well…

So I’ll be checking in periodically on this, writing posts filled with my incomprehension of Classical music, treating Bach no better than Beck, and vice versa.

Back when I was about 18 and joined a book club (remember those?), I looked at my now crowded bookshelf and realized that I would be dead before I actually read all of these books.

Now that I’m 58, this has become much truer, and it applies to my records, too.

So, this recycle will give me a chance is to hear everything one last time.

Does that sound pessimistic?  I think it sounds optimistic that I think I’ll make it all the way through.

Hmmm. Maybe the real reason I’m doing it is because I secretly think it will keep me alive…

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Jazz for a Rainy Day

Saturday morning. 1980, I think. Summertime. Didn’t seem like it, though.  It was cool, raining and windy as hell.

It was closing in on noon, and we (me, Roommate Mike, his brother and whoever slept over from bar-hopping the night before) were just getting up. And what, with the weather being what it was, no one was in a hurry to go anywhere.

So we decided to have breakfast, which at that time, meant an omelet for some reason, which was a big production.

Now there were a lot of things about this morning that were a just a little weird.

We usually made the omelets on Sunday. That’s when we would be recovering from a very late Saturday night out. Friday nights could be pretty late, too, but if you got up for working that morning, that seemingly bottomless supply of youthful energy was at least somewhat dissipated. So Saturday nights were usually the later ones.

Plus, there were usually things that had to get done on Saturday. But like I said, due to the weather, no one was in a mood to go out and do them.

And the very non-summery weather itself.  The rain was moving sideways. Like a mini-hurricane.

There were too many of us to fit in the kitchen, and since we wanted to see the weather anyway, we set up a table in the living room.

I was always the one putting on music, and now that the omelet was in progress, I’d have to find something suitable for the fragile sensibilities of hungover twenty-year-old white guys.

But it was such a weird day it was hard to find anything that felt right.

Mike and I had combined our record collections when we moved in. Mike’s collection was pretty respectable, and he inherited some albums from his uncle, which gave us some needed breadth. When I’d go through those records (btw, if you ever invite me to your house, I’m going to go through your records, and judge you accordingly), I could usually identify the artists, even if the music wasn’t in a genre I loved.

But there was this one record I didn’t know what to make of. The cover had a picture of a young woman (in pre-1960s style dress) standing on the rocks of a beautiful seashore, with her arms extended over her head in celebration. The record was called "Concert by the Sea".

What kind of music could this be?  Not muzak, certainly, as I assumed that it was painful enough to record that crap the first time around, why would anyone take the trouble of playing it again, in public no less, where rocks could be thrown?

Thus eliminating that genre as a possibility, and noting the overall weirdness of the day, I said, what the hell, and put it on.

And how was it?
Well, it wasn’t the dreaded (to me) overly familiar.
Nor was it an artist some of us (everyone but me, that is) loved but that the rest of us (me, that is) hated.
It didn’t have the taint (to me) of nostalgia since none of us had heard it before.
It didn’t contain any overplayed radio hits.
It wasn’t even the beloved familiar, which would not have fit this particular situation.
But what it was, was perfect.

“Wow, what is that you put on?” Mike asked from the kitchen.
“It's one of yours.”
“Oh, yeah? Who is it?
“Erroll Garner.”

Okay, some of you may recognize the name. Mr. Garner wrote “Misty”,
after all. But what did I know at the time?

But when Erroll starts to play, there’s no stopping him. The music just flows effortlessly for 45 wonderful minutes.

The recording was not of the best quality, and the record was scratched. Yet this added to the overall otherworldliness (to us) of the music. If we put on anything else that morning, I have no recollection of what it was.

For some reason, this older African American pianist (accompanied by bass and drums) playing jazz versions of songs from the American songbook that I didn’t even know at the time, on a sunny beach in California in 1955, magically transfixed five hung over white guys having breakfast during a stormy Saturday morning (or by now, afternoon) in 1980.

From what I understand now, Errol was considered somewhat of a sellout. Jazz was getting very adventurous around 1955, and this record was probably very commercial sounding compared to what other jazz artists were doing.

But to someone like me it was completely new. I had already gotten Kind of Blue so Concert by the Sea wasn’t my first jazz album.  But KOB was easier to absorb because it used some very simple modal themes that even a rock n roller could absorb. CBTS however, is filled with standards that I didn’t know, so there was the parsing of the songs themselves, then the arrangements, and finally the improvisations. There was a lot to hear and learn, but it was played in such an entertaining way, I kept going back to it.

After Mike moved on (and out) I had to buy my own copy – this time with a slightly altered cover and a “Jazz Masterpieces” sticker on it and the bright colors replaced by a monotone one that was supposed to be an improvement. The sound quality was only improved by the lack of scratches.

Erroll Garner: Concert by the Sea 

And while it was all still quite enjoyable, I never captured the magic of that first listen.

That’s okay. There was plenty of magic still to be had. And now there’s more.

The original record was a single disc with 11 songs, so it obviously was an edited version of the show. Recently, however, the Garner family discovered tapes containing the entire concert, which has now been released.

Erroll Garner: The Complete Concert by the Sea

This version consists of three CDs: the first two of which comprise the entire concert, and the third containing the original album plus a long (and  unnecessary) interview.

And the original cover has been restored in the best possible way. The bright colors of the shore are back, but now the young lady is African American. Why? Probably because at the time it was originally released record companies were reluctant to put non-white women on jazz album
covers. They didn’t want to scare away the white customers, who I'm sure weren't racist.

Anyway, the expanded version is better, if less intense, than the original. There’s more room for variations of mood and pace. And the cool thing is that if you don’t have time for the entire concert, you just put on the third disc. This is one of those rare instances where more is better.

I had no idea what to expect when I first put this record on, but it provided the perfect soundtrack to that very weird day. And now it’s back and almost as good as that first time around.

I don’t know exactly where this record stands historically – commercial sell out or jazz cornerstone – but I am sure I wouldn’t want to live without it.


"I Remember April"

Saturday, June 18, 2016

It’s Complicated

Although Grimes brought me pretty much up to the present, for the most part I’m dwelling in the past.

There is my foray into the 1970s - the Kinks, Roxy Music , Fairport Convention, etc.

Then there have been my retreats into ambient music where the amount of sensory input is limited, which, believe me, has its uses.

And then there’s the classical music I’ve been delving into, which I’ll get into another time.

And now, it’s 1940s blues. Why? No philosophical reason. It’s just because Barnes and Noble told me so, for $4.99.  Totally worth it, too.

Muddy Waters: The Plantation Recordings (1941)

This one fits most of the above criteria of what I need now.  Out of this current time. Limited sonic input.

On the first count, it brings us back to the 1940s. Yet that makes it way newer than the classical music I’ve also been listening to. And yet, much more “primitive”. (I like primitive, btw.)

Doesn’t that make it inferior to classical music? Yeah, bullsh*t. If anything, it’s a response to it. After all, the people creating and listening to classical music had the money and the education that enabled them to create and consume said music. And they got the money, etc by giving the blues to everybody else.

Whatever. Peace and love, etc. Back to Muddy.

On that latter count (limited sonic input, in case I lost you), it couldn’t be more different from Grimes, say.

At the time of this recording, Muddy was about the same age as Grimes was for Art Angels. But he sounds way older. By about a thousand years.

This record is mostly just him and a guitar, which is more than enough, usually. I will admit I slightly prefer his later electric sound. (Not many electric guitars on the plantation, you know.)

Muddy isn’t quite as exciting as Howlin’ Wolf  vocally, and Elmore James plays a meaner guitar. But he's probably the best overall.

And he’s full of seeming contradictions, at least to a clueless dolt like me. He sings about being poor but looks like a million bucks on the cover. (Where can I get a suit like that?) Then he’s singing about god on one song and then sin on the next. And love, too, and it’s sometimes bitter aftermath.  In other words, in a dozen or so "primitive" songs, you get life in all it’s complexity.

Okay, there are several interview tracks sprinkled throughout, but they’re not as annoying as you’d think.

So, not exactly rousing, but very, very down to earth. Literally.

Because of the low volume on this one, I count it as morning music. But it has to be a pretty bad morning.

But that’s okay, if that happens, you just begin to sing:

Woke up this morning…

And you take it from there.


“You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Older Men and Younger Women, or, Sometimes the Present is Actually Bearable

Despite my recent disappointments, some current music does occasionally work for me.

Grimes: Art Angels (2015)

“I’m surprised you like this” is something Mrs. Jaybee says whenever I get something on the poppy side.

And it probably looks a little ridiculous that a man like me - dangerously close to 60 years old - is listening to this very girlish sounding woman with tunes on the beat-y/dance-y - but pretty - side.

I usually do find this sort of thing annoying, but that’s not the case here.

I did get this too soon. This is Spring/Summer music if ever I heard it.  Meanwhile, I got it oh, back in January?  No problem, I now know to put some things away until the time is right.  And with Spring now here, this sounds just lovely. It makes you want to go out and enjoy the global warming.

And although she sounds very young, and is, what she says is a bit more grown up.

What I love about this:

  • She finds strong melodies and arrangements to best complement that voice.  
  • Although the music is on the dance-oriented side, she usually starts off with an electric guitar, and preserves its tone, texture and rhythm throughout the track. She likes to keep one foot firmly in the rock n’ roll camp.
  • All of the above elements are used to their best effect, and work together, so although there’s a lot going on, it never seems overly busy.

And the above is pretty much the definition - for me - of great pop music.

There are flaws, of course. She goes girly a lot, and the songs that are more purely dance-oriented aren't as original as the rest of the record.

But, to answer your question, Sweetheart, yes, I do like it.

I don’t know if I’ll play it loud in the car like that elderly fella on the motorcycle did the other day. I tend to attribute such things to mid-life crises. But it would appear he’s a little more secure in his manhood than I am.