Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Songs From Liquid Days

Everything connects.

There are some record albums that stand out as landmarks, and often these great albums involve inspired collaborations.  Notwithstanding the controversy around it, one such album is Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland.  Paul Simon's smart, sharp songwriting was imbued with the sounds of Africa, to make a set of songs that has stood and will continue to stand the test of time.  One of the contributors to that sound was the great guitarist, Ray Phiri, as heard on this live performance of Call Me Al.  Three years later in 1989 Ray also appeared on another landmark album, Laurie Anderson's Strange Angels: listen for that characteristic African guitar on The Monkey's Paw.

I delight in discovering these little connections, I smile that Ray Phiri worked with these two artists so strongly associated with New York.  And we can start playing a kind of "Six Degrees of Separation" game, chaining from one artist to another.   So let's see where this leads us, and pick out some favourite pieces of music along the way.

So ... Laurie Anderson is married to Lou Reed (and they worked together from time to time e.g. on this), Apart from Lou Reed's solo masterpieces (I can't omit this astonishing track from Magic and Loss), he connects us to the Velvet Underground (Sweet Jane could lead us to Cowboy Junkies if we wanted to go that route), and connects to Andy Warhol ... but we can't follow all the leads.

Right: so Laurie Anderson worked with Brian Eno on the album Bright Red: listen to her lyricism matched to Eno's precision in Poison.  And Eno? well Eno seems to have worked with everyone.  From Roxy Music to U2, Talking Heads, David Bowie, Robert Fripp of King Crimson, and including, by the by, an album with John Cale, ex-Velvet Underground.

Taking just a couple of these threads, Eno's collaboration with Talking Heads frontman David  Byrne gave us the astonishing and influential album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, while his work with David Bowie on the album Low was picked up by Philip Glass and turned into the Low Symphony.  Philip Glass wrote a soundtrack to the silent movie Dracula, which was recorded by the Kronos Quartet, who have also done an Africa-inspired album, Pieces of Africa.  (The Kronos Quartet would be another very fruitful branching point for launching new explorations.)

Now let's pick up one thread again from our starting point: one of the vocalists on Graceland was Linda Ronstadt, in Under African Skies.

We have the pieces in place ... and now, like a magician, I reveal from under my cloak, the one that ties all together:  Songs from Liquid Days, an album with Philip Glass's name on the sleeve, but ...
  • Paul Simon wrote the lyrics for Changing Opinion
  • David Byrne for Open the Kingdom
  • Laurie Anderson for the sublime Forgetting
  • which was sung by Linda Ronstadt, 
  • and performed by the Kronos Quartet.
  • ... oh and Suzanne Vega is in there too. She did lyrics for Freezing...  
A landmark album indeed.

Everything connects.  I love it.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

I Hear My Train A-Coming

Nothing deeply profound here, no big questions, just one small one: why are there so many great songs about trains?

Take Jimi Hendrix waiting acoustically on the platform here, determined to make it big.  And he's not alone in singing on the station platform.  Jimi's leaving home, but when Paul Simon wrote his tune he was Homeward Bound, and these folk from Belgrade are making a return visit back home on a Sentimental Journey (stick with it, some lovely performances there).

Perhaps that's part of the answer: the emotional journey.  For the songwriter scratching for a theme, the train is a natural choice: a big journey that marks a transition in life, an emotional peg on which the song can be hung. In fact as Paul Simon explains in Train in the Distance, it's all about the hope that comes with a journey, real or imagined: "The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains". (Aside - there is no-one quite like Paul Simon for writing literate lyrics that look like prose but still work as song).

Then, for some train songs it's all about the rhythm: Choo choo ch'boogie - "I love to hear the rhythm of the clicketty clack". How about Chattanooga Choo choo, not to mention the shuffling madness of Locomotive Breath, or the skiffling Rock Island Line?

Hmm, did I hear a train whistle in that?  It's not the only song to want to emulate that evocative sound.  I'd include in my count, Night TrainTake the A Train, and many more. 

But of all these train songs, for my money, there is none more moving or expressive than Hugh Masekela's Stimela.  It has it all: the emotional journey, the rhythm, and a very fine train whistle.  

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Nina Simone: Little Girl Blue

No other place to start but here: My Baby Just Cares For Me.  Hearing this for the first time was my introduction to the work of Nina Simone.   Go on, watch it through to the end.  And then once more if you like, I can wait.  Seeing this perfectly crafted little movie I too wanted to watch it over and over again.   Knowing a little more about music now, I can feel/hear the structure of it, how the solo matches the tune in length, tempo, and chord progression.  Knowing more, helps me understand more.

I can also marvel at how Nina crafts her solo: how she builds up from very, very simple phrases, increasing in complexity with complete precision and assurance until it feels like she is about to run out of road, but in in the nick of time she pulls up and returns to the simplicity.  Not once, but twice in that very short solo.  A trivial song? - yes, maybe - but done with poise and panache: beautifully sung and craftily performed.

Now look at/listen to this one: Love Me or Leave Me.  Such intensity - such a look!.  She plays with great precision, and I just love how that solo very soon morphs into something with very clear baroque influences, almost Bach-like.  

Here's a contrast: Summertime.  I am in awe of her jazz musical sensibilities here.  This is just so delicately judged, dark, almost hypnotic.  Some people see "Summertime" as an optimistic piece: I don't - I see it as ironic, the reassuring lyrics undermined by the melancholy melody.  As Nina Simone plays it, her piano work allows me to feel the atmospheric heaviness of the building up of a summer storm: even summertime has its dangers.

And perhaps this is the key to why I find her music so fascinating.  There is a sense of depth there, of complexity - even in the simple tune we started with, the frivolity of the tune is tackled with complete professionalism.  In other tunes there is a sense of the strength born of survival, the joy that comes from pain endured:

Try this: Feeling Good.  "It's a new dawn / it's a new day / it's a new life for me ... and I'm feeling good".  Of course these are optimistic words, but her voice doesn't quite tell the same story - it's a voice that has just been through a trial:  it's a new life because the old one has had to be left behind ...

This blog is about the music, but of course Nina Simone was also very involved in the civil rights movement: how could she not have been, being Young, Gifted and Black at that time and place?

What engages me especially in her music is that throughout all these tunes, whatever the style, there is evidence of an intensity, an intelligence, a willingness to tackle everything, even playfulness, with complete seriousness of intent: Like these: Ain't Got No ...,  How it Feels to be Free and of course Little Girl Blue

Inspiring stuff: may it never be forgotten.

PS. Just found  this and this: "it's meant for a queen, and I am a queen."  Yes indeed.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Music for Helicopter Pilots

This is about a change in perspective: a shift in how I see the world. Maybe it's just about getting older, but actually this shift was triggered by my reawakened interest in music. Some of these ideas are still slippery in my mind but I'll see if I can catch one or two and lay them before you. Tell you what, here is something to listen to while you read: Nothing Really Blue. Take the tempo down a little.

A couple of years ago I did a lot of reading around the history of jazz (this recommended). What really struck me was how quickly things were moving at the start of the 20th century. The first few decades of jazz saw the music develop hugely.  And that early jazz period which had seemed so far away, so sepia-tinted, suddenly seemed accessible to me, available for me to explore. I was starting to play some of these tunes: no longer were they museum pieces, but living things.  And with services like youtube and spotify, that music had become so easy to find and hear.

Sometimes we categorise ourselves too easily: things are "before my time", or "not my style". Musically,I had by and large stayed locked in what I learned to like in childhood and young adulthood. Now I was discovering music from before my time, and finding it to be fresh and inspirational. My horizons were broadening: as if I were going up in a helicopter, able to see how my familiar territory fitted within a larger landscape.

Our Love is Here to Stay suggests: "The radio and the telephone / And the movies that we know / May just be passing fancies / And in time may go". Well even if those then-newfangled gadgets have transformed out of all recognition, the ideas of them have certainly stuck around. Some things are passing fancies, but some things endure.  I love my Android smartphone that gives me all the backing tracks I could want,: but my sax of bronze and leather and cane is far more satisfying as an object, and will endure far longer. And increasingly the things that will endure should be where my attention is focused.

I know that these are ideas I will keep returning to.

For me, the music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra has this quality of wide horizons. Their music is unmistakably their own, but it has echoes of many cultures, and many times.  It feels somehow universal, timeless, as in Perpetuum Mobile, Air a Danser and Music for a Found Harmonium. Now the PCO has been reborn as plain "Penguin Cafe": note the comment someone made on That, Not That: "I suppose the Penguin Cafe is a music that can last for ever.I suppose it can.

And the title of this blog entry? Enjoy Music for Helicopter Pilots.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Walkin' After Midnight

The Blues Brothers, on arriving to play a gig out in the sticks, are told "We got both kinds [of music]. We got country *and* western."  Not to Jake and Elwood's taste, but they give it their best.  It's not to my taste either: I'm not ambivalent about it, I don't like country music.  And yet, sometimes we come across specific instances that make a nonsense of our prejudices based on generalisations.

Some years ago I was pointed in the direction of the Cowboy Junkies, and in particular their breakthrough album, The Trinity Session, which starts with this track.  Well, the "Cowboy" in the band's name notwithstanding, I listened and I was won over.  Find it, listen to it, it is a modern classic.  And that's the closest I have come to liking country music (and part of me still says the Junkies are not real cowboys).

Now the closing track of The Trinity Session is "Walkin' After Midnight", originally recorded by Patsy Cline.  As you can see, you can't get much more country than Patsy (or should that be western?), and as she sings it, it is pure C&W.   But hold on, even in Patsy's take, is there a hint of a bluesy feel there?  A note that flattens by a semitone in bar 3 of the melody ("out in the moonlight"), coupled with that strange lyric that tells of obsession.  Perhaps this tune can stray a little too, go out walking to some different places:

All of which leads me think about the labels we like to place on musical genres, and ask if these are simply lazy assumptions that may be keeping us from richer experiences. By saying "I don't like that sort of thing", I might be filtering some good stuff from my experience.  After all, music has always been about cross-fertilization and as ever, the most interesting places are always edges and boundaries.

Other versions of "Walkin'" that I found along the way and liked:


  • Melissa Lauren Pisarzowski (the upload post makes my point "Patsy Cline tunes are great to sing on a gig. Sometimes we do them really bluesy, sometimes really country...")

But of course, I always have to come back to the Cowboy Junkies version: Margot Timmins' dreamy, floaty voice over that muscular, somewhat grungy guitar, laid back but still insistent.

And of course, I'm fooling with this on my tenor sax, and, well, here's how it's going ...

Sunday, 6 May 2012


Deep inside me are the rhythms and cadences of South African Jazz.  I grew up in South Africa in the depths of the apartheid era, and I have very early memories of hearing the music from the "black" radio stations (even radio was segregated).  Only much later did I discover the genius and subtlety of much of this music, the distinction between kwela and marabi and mbaqanga and the rest, and learn about the heroes of SA Jazz (Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, et al).  Even now my knowledge is only sketchy. But however much or little I have learned, the foundation on which this later knowledge has been built is that deep emotional "feel" of the local jazz:  the relaxed, easy, sprung rhythms, and the yearning quality of the melodies.

It's difficult to write about this stuff: it's so close that it is hard to see in the round.  Like so many others, I left South Africa a few years after I finished university.  And like so many others, my experience is that Africa clings to you in surprising ways: tastes, smells, colours, but especially music.

To hear an iconic piece like Abdullah Ibrahim's Mannenberg is to undergo an internal shift.  Go on: click the link and start listening:  when I hear those opening piano phrases it takes me to a different place.  Those easy rolling rhythms become the rhythms of walking down a gently curving road, in the cool of the early evening, with home waiting at the end of the day's work.  The call and response of the piano and sax are saying "it's ok - life is hard, but this is a time for peace, this is home".  There is deep sadness but also joy: the music is a solace.

I feel that this music has a "rightness" about it.  It has a quality of inevitability.  Perhaps it's just familiarity, but for me, every phrase in that sax solo seems irreplaceable: gently building, telling a story, drawing you in.

Now, no one could say that my life was hard: I have comfort and luxury and  opportunities that would be unthinkable to 90% of the world, and unimaginable to someone even 50 years ago, at the time when those rhythms and sounds were imprinting themselves on me.  My life is easy. And yet...

And yet there are feelings of loss, and regret, and sadness, and a sense of time passing and things passing from one's grasp and one's view.  And there is anger, at time wasted, and opportunities missed, and moments that have slipped by with insufficient appreciation.  And these are some of the feelings that come when "Mannenberg" starts to play.  There is the ache of being away from home, from a time and place long gone and out of reach.  But the music seems to say "it's ok, this is your  home, this music".  And maybe it is ok.  Maybe if that music calls and resonates so strongly within one, it really is ok.

All this reflection is prompted by the arrival in the post yesterday of "Cape Jazz Collection" a book of sheet music of original tunes by South African composers.  I've been picking out some of the tunes on my alto, searching for that quality that draws out these strong emotions.  And it's unmistakeably there: "Bo Kaap" by McCoy Mburatha, "Umlazi" by Basil Coetzee, "Cape Town" by Merton Barrow are the pieces I will start with.  In each of these, I find that hook, that pull that says "homecoming".  Perhaps intellectually I will learn what it is, perhaps it will remain elusive.   All I know, for now, is that my musical adventure has taken another step, I feel the bittersweet emotions of that music: hardship, yearning, and yet filled with joy and acceptance.