Category: nostalgia

Talking Bout My…

I ran across an innocuous-yet-aggravating-anyway argument on the Twitter machine this week.1Say not so! In this instance, a member of one so-called GenerationTM took offense at someone from another GenTM who claimed that theirs was indeed the best of all possible GTMs – because look at all the wondrous innovations theirs could claim – while the other GTMs were a bunch of wankers due to their inclination to war, racism, laziness, lousy taste in music/film/etc., and other particulars. The exchange was lively, generally pointless, and, as these things do, escalated into name calling of all sorts. read more


Ears Embiggened: 50 Years of ECM

Codona: A typically lovely ECM cover design.

(The first in a series of preview posts as we count down to the
2019 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN.)

Back in the old days – way before the internet machine made hearing just about any recorded piece of music in the world as easy as finding a homemade porno of some celebrity and/or politician – finding out about music beyond the typical commercial channels took some real work. Much of this involved poring over publications of varying literacy levels to find out who was playing with who, where, and how often.1God bless the Village Voice. You had to spend time dialing in college and alternative radio stations (no internet radio! You had to be within hailing range.) and hoping against reason that the stoned DJ 2I resemble that remark. might remember to announce the name of the track you were dying to identify. Often, you would listen to six or eight more songs in a row, only to have the hapless jock (mea culpa) announce only the last two because, well, he forgot, man.

You had to haunt the record stores. There used to be mammoth stores – stores like Peaches and Turtles and Virgin – aisle after aisle of record bins sorted by genre, carefully filed in alphabetical order. This was for the new, sealed releases. Very expensive, at least 5 or 6 bucks a record.

Then there were the used record stores, meccas for music geeks where you could stand for hours flipping through the stacks hoping to find a gem that you could make off with for two clams, three if it was a double disc set. You could drop 20 bucks on a pile of records just on whim. Maybe you saw a name you recognized, or the album cover was cool. Whatever. If you liked it, you win. If you didn’t, you could bring it back the next week and trade it in for a dollar credit. A buck for a listen or two seemed like a deal.

After a while, you spent lots of time with the album covers, checking out the liner notes and musician credits. Patterns emerge. You start to recognize more names, and not just the players. Engineers and producers start turning up again and again – Rudy van Gelder, Bob Thiele, Teo Macero. You start to keep an eye peeled.

You learned to recognize the record labels. You started to realize that any Blue Note album was worth the 2 bucks. Same for anything on Impulse. Specialty labels like ESP Disk were always worth a tumble, even though you might end up with a squabbling wall of artifactual noise that all but obliterated whatever the music was trying to be.3Many Sun Ra albums, especially on his El Saturn label, were like this, but you learned to buy them anyway because you just never knew what you might find.

And then there was ECM. Pretty standard rule of thumb: If you saw an ECM in the cutout bin, you bought it. If not for you, then for one of your pals. Don’t recognize the Scandinavian cascade of consonants and diacriticals? Don’t worry, just buy it. If it had Manfred Eicher’s seal of approval, it was worth the candle.

By the time I got serious(ly addicted) about vinyl collection and music that could be safely characterized as out-of-the-mainstream, ECM was a ten year old label with a solid reputation for attention to detail in curation, design, packaging, and recording quality. The covers were thick paper and beautifully printed, the liner sleeves a refined, no friction material, never rough paper. No cheap, junked vinyl here; the discs were heavy and thick, an obvious cut above the major labels pressings on horse chips. They had to be, you see: the ECM sound would not survive the surface noise of standard-issue vinyl.

What about that sound quality? The first few years of releases had varying sonic personalities, but by the mid-70s the characteristic ECM Sound was firmly established, notable for its cultivation of audible space and silence. Even on recordings that were somewhat wall of sound-ish (e.g., Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians) Eicher’s close attention to microphone selection and placement provided clearly defined separation of instruments in the mix. Add to that a well-articulated stereo image and a layering of reverb that served to build a concert hall in your living room. And no matter who was playing, it was the same concert hall every time.

In a 1999 interview with Home Studio Magazine, Eicher explained that he

…listened to a lot of jazz records, mainly Impulse! Or ESP releases; I found the music very interesting, but I didn’t like the way it was produced, mainly because I felt something was lacking, a part of the message had disappeared. My main concern, when I founded ECM, was to respect every aspect of the music. That meant be able to hear every nuance of the instrument, every colour, and respect the dynamics of sound, as given by the musician. This was quite a different way of recording jazz, and public was sensible to it.”

Some of this attention to detail no doubt grew from his experience at the classical Deutsche Grammophon label, long admired for its close attention to audio excellence. 4DG is another label, like ECM, that has somehow managed to maintain fierce fidelity to its guiding principles and pursuit of quality, still going strong 120 years after its founding. Maximum Respect! But there is a marked difference between the ECM and DG sound signature. Eicher was drawn to the atmospherics of reverb – both natural and simulated – where DG cultivated a drier studio sound. One is not necessarily better than the other. Vive la difference! But one thing is certain: You could identify an ECM project within a few seconds of listening.

These days, that ECM aesthetic is more widespread, signal of the influence ECM has had on the way we record and listen to music in the wake of their example. (For better or worse, the whole “New Age” genre pretty much owes its existence to ECM and Eno’s Ambient Music releases.)

The sound – the company motto calls it “the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence” – took some critical shots from those who found it icy, cold, antiseptic. Because Eicher, and many of his favorite artists, were from Scandinavia, the label was dubbed “fjord music” and “the Great Northern Sound”. As with too many critical shorthands, the jibes are better as provocative copy than accurate description.

Still, the sound was an ECM signature, and on some releases (like Eberhard Weber’s 1979 Fluid Rustle, which happens to be the ECM debut of Bill Frisell), the sound itself is often more notable than the performance. Descriptions of ECM as the “beautiful music” label emerged, and not in a kind context. To be sure, there were more than a few releases that were just perfect for those 3 a.m. oh-god-I-just-can’t-come-down episodes, times when an ECM record provided just the right amount of sonic-envelopment and gentle massage. This aesthetic would find broader – and less satisfying – expression with the emergence of so-called New Age music from labels like Windham Hill in the 80s.

But the perception is at odds with the reality. Close listening to something like Fluid Rustle offers satisfying elements of compositional innovation, and the performances are superbly delivered. I won’t likely spin this one often, but there is more there, there, than meets the ear. And on balance, the ECM catalog is studded with recordings that are definitional in their realm, with ambitious releases from the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Dave Holland, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Arvo Part, &c. that more than make up for those releases that one might be tempted to dismiss as sonic wallpaper. More than a few people have told me in no uncertain terms that Reich and Part are really just fancy-pants Muzak. For myself, I had long considered Keith Jarrett’s Sun Bear Concerts, a ten-album set of solo improvisation recorded live in Japan in 1978, little better than background hum. Yet here I am, about 3 hours into the box’s roughly 7 hours of music, and I find myself in a serious re-evaluation of my opinion of Jarrett overall and this recording in particular. YMMV.

With the Big Ears Festival’s celebration of ECM’s 50th anniversary less than a month away, I find myself immersed in the ECM catalog, revisiting so much music that has fallen out of my regular listening rotation. Most of the label’s 1500 or so releases are available via your favorite streaming service. 5This is ECM authorized streaming, so you can listen guilt-free, though you should buy some of the recordings anyway. Streaming fees are not enough to keep them going for 50 years more. This is some deep nostalgia for me, a traipse through the soundscapes that helped establish my overall aesthetic philosophy about what music – and art in general – can accomplish in a world in need of healing action.

How I think about music, how I respond to certain creative gestures and techniques, owes much to the ECM ethos. (Especially to my favorite of their roster of artists, the Art Ensemble of Chicago.) My interest in music that comes from other realms and cultures, music that defies easy categorization, or music that can appear harshly repellent or deceptively beautiful at first listen but that reveals more and more depth with every listen. Music that asks us to open our ears to the unfamiliar, to the possibly difficult and challenging. This aesthetic informs my engagement with pretty much all creative work, both my own and from other artists.

If you get right down to it – and apologies for presuming to speak for the Big Ears director – I expect that this is similar to the formation of Ashley Capps’ aesthetic, too. We came of age around the same time and around a lot of the same music. (AC and I met at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville in 1980 at his presentation of the Art Ensemble, one of his first shows.) We both were college radio geeks, the kinds of people who would spend hours flipping through the cutout bins in search of some holy grail recording of someone only we knew about.

And that is likely why Big Ears resonates so strongly for me. When I look at the lineup, it is as though I had just sat down and made a list of the artists I really want to hear and see. It rings the bells that Manfred Eicher started pealing in my head 40 years ago, bells that have shaped much of my life since.

ECM was not the first label to establish such a distinct personality, nor the last. Labels like India Navigation, Soul Note, Black Saint, hatHut, and dozens more have since created powerful catalogs of work in the jazz realm, and Nonesuch is prominent in its delivery of important creative music after its humble origin as a discount bin classical label in 1964. But not many labels have the longevity of an ECM: Fifty years on, Eicher’s vision remains intact (albeit expanded to embrace more classical music since c. 1985) and the company’s business model presumably solid. Hell, 50 years in the recording industry is about three lifetimes. Certainly such a thing is impossible.

And yet, they persisted. Happy birthday, ECM, and thanks for everything.

(Credit to the Home Studio Magazine interview with Eicher and Tyran Grillo’s superb website, a heroic labor of love from a guy who just wanted to write a thoughtful review of every album ECM ever released. And immense thanks to the Big Ears Festival
for throwing ECM a big ass birthday hoolie this year.)
read more


The Greatest Thing That Ever Lived

Tommie Smith and John Carlos -- American Patriots
Tommie Smith and John Carlos — American Patriots

By the time I could pay attention, The Greatest had already rejected his slave name, embraced the Nation of Islam, and refused to serve the armed forces of the United States.1He was not a draft dodger. He just said fuck no, put me in prison if you have to, but fuck. No. That ain’t no dodge.

By the time I could pay attention, I remember adults in my orbit still calling him Cassius Clay, declaring they would never call him by that n****r name, that he had gotten way above his station, that he was a traitor, that he refused to appreciate everything “his” country had done for him, just another shiftless ingrate who didn’t know his place.

I can’t say I was carefully taught. But I was taught. I was taught that James Brown was barely more evolved than an ape or a gorilla, that MLK was one “one of the good ones, mostly” and that those animals were burning down “their own” neighborhoods.

But by the time I could pay attention, none of this stuff squared with what I was seeing with my own lying eyes.

By the time I could pay attention, MLK went from alive to dead, a victim of the racism that my people all wanted to believe was not as bad as “the bad ones” would suggest. You know, the bad ones. Like these guys.

By the time I could pay attention, James Brown was the guy who made some of my favorite music, a thrilling force of nature.

By the time I could pay attention, the futility and inherently racist cruelty of the Vietnam War was all too clear, even to this ten-year old. A 4th grade friend and I got in big trouble for refusing to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, reasoning that there was no way in hell that we would ever fight in Vietnam, so pledging allegiance would be nothing but a lie.

We stood with Muhammad Ali. Even if we didn’t know it.

(That week, in an odd turn, Jose Feliciano performed the National Anthem at the World Series. His performance was an outrage, a provocation, yet another example of one of Those PeopleTM showing ingratitude at how much “their” country had done for them. His crime? Singing a British drinking song with a Latin feel. So the next day, the entire 4th grade was summoned to the classroom of one Miss Loretta Karp, a stooped skeleton from hell in high heels, with impossibly bright red hair, a woman who would have been six foot three if she was not in a constant hunch. She was mean as a wet cat whose bright red lipsticked smile existed only to signal impending cruelty. She began by noting that there had been some “unpleasantness” in school lately with “certain people” showing “poor patriotism by refusing to honor Our Flag”. She then went on to note that the World Series had been forever blemished by the desecration of the national anthem by a “foreigner. But by God,” we were going to fix that by having the entire 4th grade “stand together and sing the Star Spangled Banner as God meant it to be sung”. My pal and I got the giggles and could not stop. We got in trouble again. Such wabble wousers!)

Sure, we were risking nothing more than a stern talking to from our parents and disapproving looks from teachers and staff. Our courage was nothing, a flea fart in a hurricane. But still. We stood with Ali, two dopy white boys in the Connecticut suburbs who basically knew shit from shinola. But we knew that everything we were being taught about the war, about the way our nation was structured, did not square with things we saw on the electric radio picture box every night at dinner, pass the biscuits please. By the way, why are they burning down that village?

Too many things we were taught were just transparently wrong. This is not to cast full blame on our parents and teachers. They were themselves taught untruth, a set of lies that became matters of gospel faith. This was “their” country, and everyone else who was here needed to know their place.

So it’s easy to understand how my people, taught from birth that this was “their” country, would look at Cassius Clay’s declaration of “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived!” as not just braggadocio, but as a direct threat to their security and world view. For a colored man, such a thing was just not done.

And for him to embrace Black Nationalism the very next day, to clearly state uncomfortable truths about “their” nation, could only mean one of two things: one of them was lying. And it had to be, just had to be, that loud-mouthed boy.

And then, he rejected “their” war, “their” draft, “their” nation in terms that offered no comfort, no conciliation:

“I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger. They never lynched me or raped my grandmother. Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.” read more


All the Critics Love U in New York

If there’s any celebrity you can be sure you did not know in any significantly real way, it was Prince. Shape shifter, name shifter/eraser, master of every style you can name. Intensely private and essentially flamboyant. Exhibitionist. Hermit. You don’t know him except in the ways you think you do, and that has as much to do with what you wanted him to be as it does with which little pieces of mythologizing he wanted you to see at any given time. Like the classic Trickster of legend, he could present multiple faces at the same time, and the face you got to glimpse, briefly, depended on which side of the road you were standing on. If Prince had been around then, Kurosawa could have made this pint-sized product of Minni-freaking-sota the centerpiece of Rashomon. That would have been cool.

What do I know of Prince? We’re roughly the same age. He’s probably the most under-appreciated guitar player in like ever. Over the years that I have been heralding him as easily the best thing since Hendrix and sliced bread I’ve received more than a few puzzled looks and dismissive chuckles about me just being a contrarian. This week, many people were surprised when Billy Gibbons described his playing as “sensational”.

But even that is only a piece of it. From his textbook knowledge and respect for those who came before him – JB, Sly, Jimi, Miles, George Clinton, &c. – to his savage dance chops and ultra-sharp fashion sense, to his early adoption and mastery of technologies like the Linn Drum; the guy put a package together that was both historically intelligent and, somehow, way out in front of the coming surge of hip-hop and Michael Jackson/Madonna style pop that followed him by a few years. The man had his gifts. Add in an almost incomprehensible work ethic, and you have Prince.

How Prince helped me know myself comes down to this simple question:

How could anyone possibly fail to recognize such evident talent?

Probably the way that I did.

Because instead of listening, I reacted to the packaging cues that came with the Prince product. And because he hit the scene in the late 70s with a funky beat, puffy shirts, lots of synthesizers, and a (deceptively) silly reliance on lyrics about fucking, I saw him clearly for what he was: just another callow Disco Boy, a Travolta, a Bee Gee.

It’s hard to remember (or, if you are a little younger, comprehend) the degree to which DiscoSux fever encompassed the world of funky music. Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown, P-Funk: all these and more took their share of unfriendly fire from people who were essentially painting the entirety of black popular music as beneath-contempt shit.

DiscoSux fever was a symptom of reaction against gay and minority encroachment into the historically masculine world of rock and pop. This music was aimed at gender-fluid communities and urban black folk. For a generation of mostly white, hetero-norm critics and fans for whom rock’n’roll equaled priapic guitar stroking and golden-maned Dionysi sporting socks stuffed into spandex trousers, this was music that threatened the natural order. 1The pulse belonged on the 1 and 3, dammit, none of this 2 and 4 backbeat shit. Whaddya, Disco Duck? It was outsider art storming the academy. And I was a privileged, by-birth member of the patriarchal academy, though I didn’t even know that such a thing existed; such is the blindness of by-birth membership.

Prince said fk all that noise, and it was pretty clear that he was throwing down on, well, people like me.

Look out all you hippies, you ain’t as sharp as me
It ain’t about the trippin’, but the sexuality
– All the Critics Love U in New York

Hey. I resemble(d) that remark.

So I could “listen” to When Doves Cry or 1999 and quickly sort this alleged genius off into the “just another over-hyped fraud” bin.

In that same song, this upstart had the nerve to sing:

It’s time for a new direction
It’s time for jazz to die read more


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