Billie Holiday: Lady in Satin
Number 986 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
The first time I listened to Lady in Satin I was struck by how sad it sounds. How lost and lonely Holiday appears among all those sorrowful strings and plodding rhythms. I avoided a repeat listen for quite some time. I just couldn’t face the music, so to speak.
It got me thinking about how often I’ve been told that my favourite records, by the bands I’ve admired and followed over the years sound maudlin and depressing. I’ve never understood those comments and in fact I’ve never thought of acts like Radiohead, for example, as making sad music. Instead they have always resonated with me as explorers of complicated moods and ultimately cathartic because they are willing to explore themes that the mainstream prefers to ignore. Brittany Spears and Justin Bieber, as examples, sound fucking sad to me because they’re completely synthetic and escapist.
This led me to think about the amount of sadness that was apparent in old recordings like this one by Billy Holiday. A time when all anyone seemed to sing about was how lost they were without a lover in their lives, as if independence was a faux par. And how all of this sadness seems to be overlooked by listeners because it’s smothered in schmaltzy and inoffensive music.
Now that I’ve braved many repeat listens there’s no denying the charm of Lady in Satin, Holiday’s final album made as she crumbled under the weight of heroin abuse, alcoholism and damaging love affairs. Her voice is strained and crackly, she sounds slightly desperate clinging to her stardom and somewhat aware that she wasn’t going to live for much longer (Holiday died less than a year after its release). At risk of sounding voyeuristic, it’s that emotional tension which elevates this record to a place that I can appreciate. I won’t pretend to be a fan of Jazz singers from any era. But much like Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Hours, this album has an edge over its competitors.
I now realise that Lady in Satin doesn’t carry as much sadness as I initially thought. Now I hear hear someone striving to carry on in the face of adversity. I hear someone struggling and I feel for her. Every time she strains for a note I want her to come out the other end a winner. I hear a thousand stories of highs and lows in her voice, and I want to listen again and again until I know every one of them by heart.
The Ghost: The Hole
Tombed Visions (2016)
I know next to nothing about The Ghost. I stumbled across a review in Tristian Bath’s consistently top-notch Spool’s Out column in The Quietus, which opened with a quote from Tombed Visions, the label that released this cassette: “This is the new Queer improv and it is unreal how fucking good it is.”
New Queer improv? I’m in!
This 40 minute avant-jazz freak out ain’t for the faint hearted. It’s restless and abrasive, and even its quietest moments are angry as hell, which is perfectly justified against an opening monologue warning that homosexuals will destroy the fabric of society. The Hole was released pre-Trump, but listening to it now this piece of 1950s propaganda supporting a white, Christian, heterosexual patriarchy strikes home harder than ever. Its fear mongering message could be applied to any group bearing the label of ‘Other’ – black, muslim, female, the list goes on….
Perhaps my favourite thing about The Hole is that you rarely hear such abrasive, experimental music being made by Queer artists. The scrunching sax, collapsing drum kit and junkyard rubble are a far cry from the spandex and mirrorball cheese of most ‘gay’ music. There is absolutely nothing Camp about The Ghost, nothing sexual either. Even Harsh Wall Noise artist Richard Ramirez, perhaps The Ghost’s closest sonic relative, cultivates a Tom of Finland aesthetic drenched in cheap thrills.
I realise I’ve done little to describe the actual sound of this tape, and to be honest I’m not sure sound is the main point of this release, but as a sonic reference point The Hole calls to mind Sun Ra’s wildest freak outs minus the funk. I’m reminded of the Art Ensemble of Chicago as well, but way, way heavier. The muscular Saxophone work of Mats Gustafsson is also present, without his sense of groove. The Ghost combine all of these references into violent cauldron of political revolt. And their protest is absolutely thrilling to listen to.
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.
Count Basie: The Atomic Mr. Basie
Number 993, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Research suggests that William James “Count” Basie is an influential figure in the history of jazz, particularly the ‘big band’ scene. But I can’t recall hearing his name anywhere before, which isn’t a surprise given that Jazz isn’t my strong point.
Based on the cover art I was expecting some wild, high energy freak outs. An explosion of reeded instruments and skittery drum work. But even at its most raucous the vibe here is restrained and composed. Tracks like Whirly-Bird feature some roller coaster brass lines and infectious piano work from Basie himself, yet there’s never any sense of danger. Each player knows what the score is and they follow it.
This is ‘Big Band’ though, right? At least that’s my understanding. This was music composed to get people up and moving in nightclubs, when nightclubs had tables with little lamps on them and people danced with an actual partner. I see the world in black, white and silver when I listen to this record. I slip into old Hollywood films filled with good manners and naive moral dilemmas. I feel too far removed from this era to appreciate the sound.
Oddly, the tracks that appeal to me most are the slower, slinkier numbers like Midnight Blue and After Supper. These are the soundtrack to Humphrey Bogart characters dressed in trench coats, with hat brims resting low on their brows, hiding from the rain in smoky bars and sipping from tumblers of scotch.
I can’t say that The Atomic Mr. Basie will be on regular rotation around these parts. I need my Jazz to be real loose, man.
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.