Posts Tagged ‘Duke Ellington’

Soaking up the rootsy atmosphere at this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest (often to saturation point), I began thinking on music and the notion of authenticity. To be honest, I began to get a little irked by the relentless barrage of worn leather, road-dusted denim and sweat-ravaged Strats used in the style-language of this music.

Ben Harper, modern roots superstar

Ben Harper, modern roots superstar

There is a division of Fender Guitars, the iconic US manufacturer of the Stratocaster whose job it is to create a patina of age and wear on factory-new instruments. The ‘Road Worn’ range comes complete with distressed paintwork, rusted hardware and, apparently, built-in ‘history’. It really is a bunch of bullshit in anyone’s language, but of course they sell like hotcakes (or maybe out-of-date cheeseburgers).

The unstoppable Buddy Guy, generation-spanning blues guitar master

The unstoppable Buddy Guy, generation-spanning blues guitar master

And I often wonder if the same can be said of the very notion of ‘realness’ in 21st century Roots music.

Roots music – like World Music, a catch-all term invented by marketing/media to weave a saleable genre out of multiple disparate threads – comprises Blues, the less airbrushed forms of Country and the more earthbound elements of Jazz. A prerequisite seems to be that it appeals to everyday people and usually conjures up either elation or deep emotion – ‘good times’ or ‘blues’. Roots also prides itself on its ‘realness’.

I love Roots music deeply and its innovators and artists – both old and new – I hold in the highest regard. But is Roots music any more real than any other form of music? Is it any more real than Punk, or Hip-Hop, or Black Metal?

If a music’s level of ‘realness’ can be measured by the importance it has in a person’s life then the music of Dance-Rave people is easily as important as Roots – they live their musical culture minute by minute. If the question of history comes up – the longevity and historical development of a music in years – then J. S. Bach is the rootsiest muthafucka on da block.

If the idea of authenticity is where ‘realness’ comes from – music woven like veins or DNA helices into the fabric of a culture, inextricably – then I direct you back to the above para about Fender USA’s factory-made ‘soul’. These days, ‘rawness’ and authenticity can be bolted on, as skilfully and easily as a (factory-)‘rusted’ Strat tailpiece.

And it appears to be something Roots fans are all too ready to believe. Maybe because there is so much plastic fakery about, we imbue the lesser fakes with at least some hope of Truth.

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With these cogitations swirling in my mind, I decided to ask some people, way wiser than I, for their thoughts on Roots, ‘road-worn’ and realness. They are Johnny Cass, blues-guitarist and vocalist extraordinaire, DJ/producer Marc Scully, known to Australian dance-music fans as Omegaman and Jim Woff, man-about-town and bass-player with Sydney band Crow.

Titan of the blues, the larger-than-life Howlin' Wolf

Titan of the blues, the larger-than-life Howlin’ Wolf

Here are their responses:

What does the term ‘roots’ music mean to you?

Johnny Cass: A derivative type of music. Just like the roots of a tree, genres of music grow from a base and then branch out into other genres.

Marc Scully: To me its about tradition – blues, country, reggae etc – some acoustic element, a certain heartfelt rawness, echoing back where it all began… back to basics…. at a grass roots level

Jim Woff:  Someone once asked Thelonious Monk what he thought of folk music, he replied “all music is folk music”.  The rural blues of the twenties and thirties sprout country and jazz, while the blues itself mutated countless ways using the same three or less chords. If we’re talking about how “roots” earnt it’s inverted commas, that seemed a 21st century thing. Good when it was Gillian Welch, not so hot when it was hippies with dreads and acoustic guitars and rich parents. The soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou was significant.

Does ‘roots’ music need to have a historical/traditional element to it?

Cass: Yes. The term roots has been overused and has lost its definition.To understand Roots music you must know its history and the struggles of the people of that time.  To keep true to it meaning ‘roots’ music must have strong similarities to the roots genre it claims to be from. Those elements would be chord progressions, tonal qualities of instruments and melody.

Scully: I think so, an element of nostalgia and instrumentation is required, a nod to the past, you would not be playing a certain style if it weren’t for what came before you, something that inspired you to dig deeper, caught your ear in the first place – something styles don’t need re-inventing.

Woff:  I think so. The historic/traditional aspect doesn’t necessarily have to be old, electronic music has a relatively short history for example. The work of the German bands in the seventies is a “roots” music, it’s been incredibly influential.

Can the idea of ‘roots’ be applied to any form of music?

Cass: No. I don’t really think you can say that roots can be applied to Classical music. Roots music was spawned from the urban areas, city streets and small towns and communities. It was a way for the people to express themselves, Roots music was not born from the Aristocracy it was born from the worker, the farmer, the musicians on the street.

Scully: As long as there’s a traditional element, having said that really I can’t see glitch, dubstep or techno being termed ‘Roots’ music.

Woff:  Cave men blowing flutes, wandering minstrels on lutes, spreading the gossip and news from town to town… it’s all free reign, go nuts. I wish more people were as good as Beethoven but you can’t have everything.

Gillian Welch, folk-country artist whose music resonates with older forms

Gillian Welch, folk-country artist whose music resonates with older forms

Does the ‘roots’-iness of musics such as Country and Blues make them any more ‘real’?

Cass: I think the rawness of those musics keep it real. Acoustic forms are the most real. Those instruments don’t lie. The combination of flesh, wood and emotion really take aim at hearts. As the listener or the musician there is no room to hide. There is no wall of sound to get lost in, the message gets through, its more personal.

Scully: To me, yes… some artists can sound quite contrived, be real = be true. Raw, back to basics music played by real musicians – doesn’t have to be flash.

Woff:  Those early recordings… Louis Armstrong… Hank Williams… the Blind men of the blues, Willie Johnson, Lemon Jefferson, WiIllie McTell… Duke Ellington… all rather real. You could appropriate their sound but it wouldn’t be real. You have to make your own sound to be real.

Does the ‘roots’ factor of music such as Blues hold back its future development and evolution?

Cass: Musically, maybe. Lyrically, no. Roots music evolves into new genres as it branches out. The most pure form of the genre will always be respected. What may end up happening is roots music won’t be performed as much. Without the support of mainstream it becomes harder for roots genres to exist. Only purists will hold onto its legacy.

Scully: Not as long as artists still carry a torch in salute of what came before them, you have to acknowledge the past, the birth of a style – without that, there is no future.

Woff:  I’d argue that jazz hit the wall in the eighties but I’m sure there’d be plenty to take issue with that. Blues has never changed but it’s influence is a musical universe. From a young Jagger and Richards listening to Muddy Waters through Tom Waits reeling in Howlin’ Wolf to Nick Cave obsessing over John Lee Hooker, it’s all pervasive. Country hasn’t changed much.

What are your feelings on current ‘roots’ music in particular and the wider art/product of music in general?

Cass: Reality talent shows concern me. Their lack of integrity make music take the back seat. Those shows are not about the music, and they are not about the performer, they are about getting the most viewers and exploiting people’s dreams, disabilities and personal crisis. I understand that it gets some musicians a chance they would not normally get, but it’s fleeting. Viewers that sit at home and don’t experience the live factor of music. That is the real feeling of music. Watching music being made in real time in front of you, is like having your food cooked to order. It tastes better and feels better. That goes for music too.

The Coen Brothers' 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? invigorated interest in bluegrass music

The Coen Brothers’ 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? invigorated interest in bluegrass music

Scully: Some of the modern roots artists can sound a little contrived… that goes for all styles. You are either true to your art or you are following musical trends. Way too many producers out there that know how to use a music software program and call themselves artists… Be yourself, learn how to play an instrument, you don’t have to be the best at it, as long as you are passionate about what you do.

Woff:  “Roots” was a Noughties thing, wasn’t it? The good ones will continue to grow while the imposters are already considering another career path.

Guitarist and composer Jessica Green saved me.

Depressed after listening through a covermount CD that came with a recent Blues magazine, her new album Tinkly Tinkly put a big goofy grin right across my face. (Now, I love the Blues dearly but it all is starting to sound the same – new Blues artists seem so scared of losing market share they opt for the tiresomely obvious and the well-worn over new ideas. Can this be the same music that is stamped with the character of great innovators such as Hubert Sumlin and T-Bone Walker?)

Wearily replacing the covermount with Tinkly Tinkly I was sat straight up by the loping township jive of album opener ‘Bamako Youth’. For the next 11:12 I followed the track through chirpy sax motif, tough fusion solo from Green, a Paul Simon-ish vocal section (again by Green – great lyric!) and a coda of massed horns and Matt Keegan’s snarling outro solo. Unlike the drab Blues-by-numbers that had brought me down, this track told a story and took me willingly along its dusty African road.

JessGreensBrightSparksSepia SIMA

The next track ‘Orange Rock Song’ was equally thrilling in its twists and turns, its unexpected rhythms, horn voicings and snaky riffs. Unlike the Blues-under-glass, this track and every one that followed showed Green and her band – the aptly named Bright Sparks – willing to experiment, take chances and strike out for the unknown.

I hear this a lot now in Australian jazz: younger players such as The Alcohotlicks, Aaron Flower, Tim Willis in Melbourne and anyone named Hauptmann (James and Zoe are two of the Bright Sparks on this album) taking the freedom and chops of Jazz as a starting point and filtering it through the kaleidoscopic lenses of rock, electronica, bluegrass, trip- and hip-hop. These mongrel musics – as in nature – cannot help but strengthen and invigorate the music nominally called Jazz.jess green 1

The title track ‘Tinkly Tinkly’ is a good case. Starting with percussionist Bree van Reyk’s glockenspiel-like intro, a building eighth-note lattice of harmony is built until a heavy guitar solo from Green pushes the tune over its tipping point into a jabbing 6/8 riff that could be a cousin of Weather Report’s ‘Boogie Woogie Waltz’. It all hangs beautifully together in a deceptively simple manner, but you are always aware there is a shrewd compositional mind behind it.

The moody blues of ‘The Alias’ transforming into a lop-sided oom-pah under Dan Junor’s alto solo; the ambience and snaggle of ‘Rothko’ (I could see the painter’s glowing colours at times here); the ominous leaden riff of ‘Postcard for Alice’ reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s ‘Filthy Habits’ leading into a sprightly latin 6/8 under Simon Ferenci’s spitting trumpet and back again; the hilarious high-spirits of party-jam ‘Dear Mr Cave’; transformation, play, smart decisions, seeking and finding – wonderful stuff from a bright spark.

Thanks for saving me, Ms Green, from a fate worse than deaf.

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Prior to posting this review I asked Jessica Green a few short questions. Here are her responses:

1. You have recently completed your new album Tinkly Tinkly. What was the moment that told you now was the time to record?

Well the first session was 4 years ago, so it’s hard to actually remember! This project is way overdue really, we’ve had a bunch of new good tunes kicking around for ages, more appropriately the question might be “when did I know it was time to release” which was having a good tax return to fund it!!

2. Jazz nowadays – especially releases by younger players – seems to really stretch the genre thing. Tinkly Tinkly has heavy Zappa-esque rock grooves quite happily cheek-by-jowl with New Orleans joyful blues; what is it that you enjoy about mashing (and even utterly ignoring) genre divides?

Well I suppose it’s difficult for me NOT to mash up. This is how I hear music. I am heavily influenced by Zappa (I played in Sydney Zappa band Petulant Frenzy for a year) but also I’ve grown up listening to so much different music. I like to tell a story that leads the listener to unexpected places.

3. Your Bright Sparks really are quite a cast of the best and the brightest – how do you settle on your players?

Well this band had been around for a while. I loved their originality and talent right from the beginning, and at that time I was relying on recommendations. I’m just lucky they keep agreeing to play with the group!

What makes a lot of the songs work is their unique personalities coming through, I’ve always aspired to this sort of band, right from first hearing and reading about the way Duke Ellington worked. He wrote for each player.

4. As a guitar player myself, I am always interested in what makes a player settle on a particular weapon of choice. You seem to have your beautiful Telecaster Thinline in every pic i have seen of you – why the Tele Thinline?

The Thinline was a recommendation from James Muller. I was trying to find a lighter guitar and when I tried this one I was hooked!

It’s such a versatile guitar which suits my music. It can be warm as well as have lots of bite!

5. What are your thoughts on jazz on Australia today?

Seems pretty healthy to me! There’s a lot if experimentation but also it’s great to see a lot if younger players embracing some of the earlier styles of jazz and blues and making it their own.

6. What are your thoughts on today’s music outside of jazz?

Mmm I do listen to a lot of cross over indie pop/rock. I love what bands like St Vincent, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear are doing and also groups that are under the New Music banner. Particularly in Australia there is some really interesting music being made.

For more information visit: http://jessgreen.com.au/

To hear and buy the album, go to http://jessgreensbrightsparks.bandcamp.com/

Label: Yum Yum Tree http://www.yumyumtree.com.au

Published February 2103 on australianjazz.net 

Creativity transcends material. The truly creative artist can work with material that appears to have reached its final expression, reworking and reshaping the existing into new forms, drawing out detail and design that might be hidden from the rest of us. Look at the junk-art collages of Robert Rauschenberg or the Eastern European folk-song themes in Bartók or Stravinsky – or, closer to our line here, the recasting of the blues in the hands of Duke Ellington.

Sydney tenor giant James Ryan – as well as being a startling instrumentalist – is a truly gifted and, in a world where the word has been buffed clean of all its edge, a truly creative composer and arranger. He recently arranged a selection of Ray Charles tunes for his powerhouse big band, The Sonic Mayhem Orchestra, a collection of Sydney’s best and brightest and that rare bird: a large ensemble bristling with astonishing soloists that play as an ensemble, as one.

For their September 20 show at Blue Beat – a chic and funky nite spot on possibly Sydney’s most unfunky strip, Double Bay’s Cross St – The Sonic Mayhem Orchestra took on George Gershwin’s 1935 “American folk opera” ‘Porgy and Bess’.

Or rather, James Ryan’s 2012 take on Gil Evans’ 1958 take on George Gershwin’s 1935 ‘Porgy and Bess’. Creativity transcends material.

In 1958, Gil Evans and Miles Davis – after the critical and artistic success of the previous year’s ‘Miles Ahead’ – re-imagined ‘Porgy and Bess’ in a challenging and truly modern way. Evans’ idea of harmony and timbre took much from 20th century European classical music and stretched jazz writing out of shape, paving the way for the almost entirely impressionistic ‘Sketches of Spain’ two years later.

I was very excited to see how James Ryan, as uncompromising an arranger as Gil Evans himself, would cast Evans’ arrangements and harmonies.

The opening set began with a soulful chart from the pen of trombonist Dave Panichi and the power and cohesion of the band was evident – they ‘felt’ the colours and textures of that chart and those that followed almost preternaturally. As I say, a rare bird. The street-tough reading of Charles Mingus’s thrilling ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’ – with a bluesy solo-bass intro from Karl Dunnicliff and a rousing series of chase-choruses from alto players Kim Lawson and Aaron Michael – and the Eastern flavoured arrangement of ‘You Go To My Head’ – with bass clarinet musings from the almost-mystic Paul Cutlan – took my breath away.

The ‘Porgy and Bess’ set began with ‘Summertime’ – a smart choice as it is the most emblematic tune from the opera, but smart also because the arrangement showed how far Ryan had taken the music from its source. All that was left it seemed was Gil Evans’ rhythmic (and rhythmically displaced) horn section vamps behind the solos and a suggestion of melody here and there. It laid out the mission statement for what was to come.

The set was hung on a series of monologues from singer Trish Delaney-Brown, bridging the pieces with snatches of lyrics, spoken rather than sung. Delaney-Brown’s voice was also written into much of the music as a wordless vocalese ‘instrument’ which worked beautiful, adding ‘air’ to some of the phrases and brass block chords.

There were snatches of the Evans arrangements throughout but Ryan had taken what he wanted and re-built the music for his Band. And he had mixed up the earth with the ether – sure, there were gorgeously voiced, impressionistic pieces such as the lovely ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ and the street-joyous ‘There’s a Boat Leaving’ (with a burnished brass-choir intro; great writing!) – but, like Charles Mingus, he never shied away from a groove.

The Kim Lawson showcase, ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ swung with real soul and flow. Ryan’s own tenor feature, ‘A Red Headed Woman’ was as raw and intense as I have heard. Delaney-Brown’s fragment of lyric which introduced the piece mentioned one of the opera’s characters answering a devout chorus with ‘vulgar’ speech – and, yes, Ryan answered the Band’s ‘devout’ chorus with many Pharoah Sanders ‘vulgarisms’ but also sheets and sheets of Coltrane joy.

The set wound up with ‘Gone’, featuring drummer Nic Cecire who worked his way through the twisted mirror-maze of accents and grace-beats. (Even the drummer on the 1958 recording stumbles and trips on a few of these; it’s true – have a listen). His ease and passion was typical of the whole thing – Ryan and the band had really delivered a brilliant take on an already iconic work in Jazz. That James Ryan had not just charted the Gil Evans/Miles Davis arrangements note for note reinforced to me what Jazz should be about –moving ever forward, on the wings of the past.

 

Published September 2102 on jazz-planet.com