Tito Puente and his Orchestra: Dance Mania Vol. 1
Number 987 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Truth be told, this record is a major part of the reason why I haven’t posted in so long. I have a mountain of new music that I’d love to write about but I felt somewhat guilty that I have very little to say about this record.
I guess I want to feel much more engaged with a lot of this older music than I actually do. I want the history of music to send shivers up my spine the way more recent music does. Which is unrealistic because, of course, not all recent music affects me that way either. But still, a record like Dance Mania bores me to my core.
These Mamba jams seem vacuous like the current glut of top 40 music. Void of emotion, and destined for ballroom dance competitions. Sequins, hair spray, fake tan and coral eye shadow. Shoulders back, fake grins and sashaying hips. Is this really what everyone was listening to in the clubs back in the day? I guess the tempo and joy and were infectious.
For me, everything that’s happened in music since 1958 makes it difficult to accept Dance Mania for what it was during its time. I’ll probably never listen to this record again.
Number 989 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Frank “Machito” Grillo is credited with merging afro cubist rhythms and Big Band jazz to create both Cubop and Salsa Music. I encountered the Cubop vibe back on the Sabu record but where that sound was sparse and primal, Kenya is a different organism. Trumpets and saxophones stab, wail and croon around a syncopated hustle of bongoes, maracas and drums. Melody is used as a mere support for the rhythm section that propels Kenya through space, time and dance floors.
I had originally written this whole review based on how much Kenya reminds me of 1960s cinema; where white men and women were always dancing out complicated mating rituals to a sultry pastiche of percussion and jazz. Movies where a soundtrack of horns and bongoes accompanied criminals outrunning cops and lengthy car chases through downtown America. That weirdo cultural appropriation (exploitation?) thing that went with movies from that era.
But what strikes me most about this record are the uptempo numbers like Wild Jungle and Cannonology which burst with syncopated percussion just like the UK’s Jungle scene of the 90s. Kenya shares the same rolling but jittery rhythms, the same urgency, the same staccato vibrations. It’s a sound that somehow manages to be frantic and spacious at the same time. I wonder why Cubop and Salsa isn’t referenced more often in relation to the Jungle and Drum n’ Bass scenes? Miles Davis gets mentioned as an influence on these artists and perhaps that’s in relation to his 60s and 70s ‘funk’ works, a period in which he definitely lifted plenty from people like Machito.
The majority of Kenya plays out at half the pace, exhaling a smoky romance. Percussion is still key but the frenzy has been dialled down to a rushed waltz. The vibe remains cinematic though and it becomes clear to me why contemporary musicians like Mike Patton have mined the quirks of this genre to create their own weird and wonderful atmospheres (Faith No More’s Caralho Voador, and pretty much anything from Mr Bungle are good examples of this).
Will Kenya be something I listen to regularly? I’m not really sure. It’s taken me almost a year to get through the first 12 records in this 1001 Albums exercise, and what I’m learning is that these older records have almost been tarnished for me by so many different factors. It’s difficult to step away from how artists have appropriated and reconstructed early musical genres over the years, and too often a record that must have sounded fresh and cutting edge back in the day sounds far too familiar to my ears today. While Kenya is definitely not forgettable, I’m not sure I’ll be dusting it off and playing it again any time soon.
Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool
Capitol Records (1957)
Number 991 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Jazz is a mysterious, often esoteric thing. It has similarities to Metal in that its fans can be rabid, and its walls can be difficult to penetrate. My knowledge and understanding of Jazz is limited, but if the 1001 Albums list is confirming anything for me it’s that Jazz has been a huge influence on the evolution of popular music. And there probably isn’t a name more popular in the genre than Miles Davis.
I have to confess that despite being a seminal release in the genre’s history, Birth of the Cool is slightly lost on me. The record’s title in particular misleads my uneducated mind: this doesn’t doesn’t sound ‘cool’ to me. It sounds like Miles making music for elevators, cafes and candlelit dinners. It’s not bad, just inoffensive and safe. Birth of the Cool feels like your favourite t-shirt, all warm and familiar. And yet, each time the record finishes all of its melodies slip from my consciousness.
Scrolling around the internet I can read about the distinct lack of vibrato in Miles playing, and the use of multiple melodies played together at once which was considered unusual at the time. I can read long lists of famous musicians who played on this record. But the truth is I much prefer the 70s and 80s versions of Miles. Coked out freak-fests like Bitch’s Brew and On the Corner are much more exciting albums that illustrate the man’s talent for truly pushing the genre into new territories.
Perhaps I’m just too young to appreciate Birth of the Cool.
In comparison, I’m still listening to Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners (number 992 of the 1001 Albums). That record fascinates me and each time it finishes I want to hit play again. It’s melodies will be stuck in my head forever. Brilliant Corners’ odd time signatures and unusual tones are so fucking cool, suave, fresh and fearless in comparison to the casual comfort of Miles’ debut record. For me, Birth of the Cool bears few signs of what Miles Davis was to become.
Thelonius Monk: Brilliant Corners
Number 992, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
From the opening moments it’s clear Brilliant Corners is different to the Big Band stylings of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, which I’ve written about previously in this series. Thelonious Monk opens the record tinkling on his piano. His diminished chords sound completely wrong on first listen, strange, jarring and discordant. The rest of his band joins in a herky-jerky passage that bumps up and down the stave. Suddenly we’re off on a groovy jazz shuffle, saxophones freestyling over Monk’s off kilter notes, but just as quickly things slow back to half time. And then speed up again. Rinse and repeat.
Apparently this opening track, named after the record itself, was recorded 25 times and pieced together from various takes because the band could never get through it in one go. So complicated is Monk’s composition. The thing is, the dexterity never comes off trite. The tracks don’t ever lose touch with reality. They’re just….different, and exciting.
Brilliant Corners gives us moments inspired by 12 bar blues (Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are), candlelit romance (Pannonica), and even a vaguely Ragtime take on Bing Crosby’s I Surrender, Dear played solo on the piano by Monk. The whole collection is stitched together by Monk’s unusual melodies and constant tempo changes. It’s a cool ride, man.
This record shows me a lineage to later, weirder free jazz recordings by the likes of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and even contemporary freak folks like Mats Gustaffson. You can sense a world of new noise was opening up. Likewise, it’s suddenly become clear to me why the Beat Generation was so enamoured with Jazz during the 50s. I could never envision them sitting around looking cool and listening to some excited Big Band. Instead, the cerebral and freewheeling Brilliant Corners paints a much more accurate (probably romantic) picture of Kerouac and his peers, hanging out in dive bars, getting drunk and rhapsodising about a new, free world.
The Crickets: The “Chirping” Crickets
Number 994, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Here’s another artist that was played a lot around my childhood home, although the name Buddy Holly was more familiar than his band “The Crickets”. I hadn’t heard any of these songs properly in years, but on listening to them recently I was immediately struck by how unusual Buddy Holly was, and still is, in the canon of rock and pop music.
These are tight pop songs. Succinct and no frills. But that’s not to say they aren’t intricate or interesting.
Holly’s voice is the first thing that grabs me. It’s varied and textured. His fallback is a just-in-tune swoon, limited in range but comfortingly familiar. He accessorises this with with a growl, the sound of his voice accumulating enough energy to reach the notes he’s striving for. Then there’s the vocal squeaks, sudden falsettos and hiccups that create tension in his performance. You may laugh, but I’m reminded of Michael Jackson.
I’m also struck by the guitar work. They’re spikey and anxious. Listen to a track like Not Fade Away and tell me the interplay between tribal rhythms and jangly fret-work doesn’t anticipate post-punk by some 30 years. Meanwhile, faster tracks like Tell me How and Rock me my Baby were an obvious influence on the likes of The Ramones. The Crickets were way ahead of their time.
Ultimately, though, Buddy Holly sounds innocent. He was only 21 when he wrote these songs. It was the late fifties and this sounds like an episode of Happy Days, where even the ballads have a bright and sunny vibe. Everything’s a metaphor for losing one’s virginity. Poor Buddy just wants to convince his girl to let him become a man. I’d normally scoff at this sort of stuff, but Buddy is also an endearing nerd. His black rimmed glasses have come to signify that, even if his look has been co-opted by Hipsters everywhere. And there’s something incredibly cool about nerds who know how to rock, isn’t there? We might not have had Weezer or Elvis Costello if Buddy Holly hadn’t done the nerd thing first.
Frank Sinatra: Songs for Swingin’ Lovers
Number 995, of 1001 Albums You Must Listen to Before you Die.
I’ve been avoiding this record because I just don’t have much to say about it. In the Wee Small Hours surprised me with smoky atmospheres and heart-on-your-sleeve emotions, but Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! is a cheesy butterball of everything that puts me off Frank Sinatra.
Sure, songs like I’ve got you Under my Skin and Anything Goes are bucket loads of fun to perform at karaoke, when you can pretend you’re a cigar smoking, whiskey sipping womaniser in a pie hat. But where’s the substance?
Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport
Number 996, of 1001 Albums You Must Listen to Before you Die.
Here’s another name I’ve heard mentioned time and again but haven’t listened to properly before. Although that’s changed in the past few weeks while I’ve been playing the shit out of this record. Ellington at Newport is billed as a live album, although apparently a significant chunk of it was redone in the studio because the initial concert recordings were of poor quality. That said, it definitely sounds and feels like a live album. The vibe is wild.
Things start out all smooth and smoky. Duke gently coaxes chords out of his piano, a clarinet solos quietly around the room. But it doesn’t take long for trumpets and alto saxophones to start screaming, wailing and moaning like crazy folk in the nut house. The sounds the band get out of their reeded instruments is frantic, almost like electronic effects. Seriously, if you sampled this shit over a 4/4 bounce and added some digital treatment here and there you’d end up with a fried version of Acid Techno.
In fact, listening to Ellington at Newport I can see the links between jazz and more modern, experimental music for the first time. As much as Ellington at Newport is about melody, it’s also about locking into a groove in the way that much electronic music works today. Those original DJs back in Detroit experimented with old Jazz records didn’t they? And the improvisation present in Jazz (of any era) has a distinct lineage through to more contemporary experimental music where the goal is to find euphoria while exploring sound. No wonder so many of today’s artists (Merzbow and Wolf Eyes being two examples) have collaborated with Jazz-influenced sonic terrorists. Look at Lasse Marhaug’s Jazzkamer project for example.
As the record progresses you can feel the vibe changing as both band and audience get carried away. The playing gets more emotive. The crowd cheers harder after every track until they’re almost in a frenzy, and as a listener it’s hard not to get swept up in it all.
I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by Ellington at Newport. I was expecting something far cheesier, and much more ‘marching band’. I also learnt that one of Duke Ellington’s drummers is credited with introducing the double bass drum approach that nearly every Heavy Metal band relies on today. That’s crazy! And, I have a new found respect for clarinets.