Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What I'm Listening to...This Week...

Still listening to the classical (but occasionally veer off into experimental funk and r&b gospel), right now it's Richard Goode Plays Brahms: Piano Pieces Opp. 76 & 119/Fantasies, Op. 116. Reportedly Richard Goode tends to hum along with his playing (similar to pianist Glenn Gould (?)) on a number of these tracks but I couldn't hear it.

The Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116/4 features some of Goode's renowned lyrical playing, but he also can play with a lot of power, as well as giving particular phrases great weightiness which is also apparent in this piece. I like the narrative arc of this piece--there seem to be all these stops and starts in the flow, which mirror moments of engagement, then reflection, then retreat, then re-engagement and finally resolution. I had thought of intermezzos as these little jocular interludes in between two main segments of a longer work. But composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897; pictured above left as a young man) gives these pieces (the previous piece as well as Intermezzo in E Minor Op. 116/5 and Intermezzo in E Major Op 116/6) considerable personality, and they aren't quite the interjection of something light to clear the auditory palate that I would have thought. There's a nice little minor ascension motif of three notes in the right (treble) and then the left (bass) hand, which resolves somewhat ambivalently as though a conversation in which no one got to say what they really meant. The Capricco In D Minor Op 116/7 that rounds out the pieces selected from that Opus, is one of the more aggressive works (not really capricious) but short and deliberate which feels almost abrupt after the more complex give and take of the prior Intermezzos. Known as a major composer of the Romantic period of classical music (approximately 1815-1910) mood and color are quite important in these works, they often feel moody, speeding up, then quickly slowing down and lowering dynamics, and working within the delicacy suggested by pianissimo dynamics to create another mood. Variations in dynamics are much more of a factor in Brahms works than say those of Haydn who was composing during the Classical period (yes, the classical period of classical music, ie. the canon of the canonical, right? Hey, I didn't define this stuff I'm just trying to understand it like everyone else). Now what's funny about Rhapsody In E-Flat Major, Op. 119/4 is that it was clearly inspirational for some compositions for silent films--you can hear what presently sounds like overwrought romanticism, and the rapid (allegro?) arpeggiations that suggest high states of excitement as well as the heavy-handed percussive elements that often suggested the presence someone of great importance, with tasks of equal importance awaiting them, having entered the center of the frame.

Took a little break to check out Mavis Staples' latest, We'll Never Turn Back, produced by guitarist/composer/archivist Ry Cooder as well as to revisit Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber's underground masterpiece Blood on the Leaf - Opus No. 1. Yep, to me it's a masterpiece, and according to band leader/conductionist Greg Tate it is as well. Here's his statement from the liner notes:

"So this is our bitches brew. Our my bloody whirled axe quartet. Our belated elegy for Eddie Hazel, A.R.Kane, and the black lesbian we once claimed to have buried in our bones. Our crude impersonation of a Butch Morris conduction. Our stab at signifyin' funk electronica. we've got Rene Akan, our applejack tossed into yon whither the future of the phunk ring. Our anachronistic bid for 1983 a merman I will be status. A wink and a nod to Mwandishi, sun Ra, the Motor Booty Affair, Drexciya and Kodwo Eshun.

"The music on this album, with duly noted exceptions, was recorded in a single four-hour session on December 19,1999. Except for Blood on the Leaf, nothing was rehearsed or prearranged but the electric bass parts. Meaning anything that sounds like it was orchestrated beforehand was actually improv-ed and conducted into being on the spot, on the fly, off the cuff, in the raging, bloody-impromtu moment..."

Upon listening I was seriously impressed, although having had the privilege of listening to much of Lawrence Butch Morris' Testament: A Conduction Collection I knew that
conduction compositions could be complex sensical affairs that didn't devolve into a standard bag of improvisational riffs. Still the cohesion of this recording session is profound to me demonstrating a superlative commitment and focus on the part of the participating artists and Tate. Imaging collective composing through conducting a group of musicians for 4 hours straight. Hmph. Gives me pause anyway. There are repeated motifs, but that's not atypical for a work operating within the grammatical forms of the classical tradition which I take the inclusion of "Opus" in the album's title to be referencing. That motif didn't get tired for me at all. A piece might mine it for it's entire length or just begin with the motif and then move into attendant territory.

The work has soaring guitar sonics ("mandarinsprechen guitar") from Rene Akhan; "badmuthshutyo guitar" from Morgan Michael Craft; "unstemmed crimson tide guitar"
from "Captain Kirk" Kirk Douglass (of The Roots, not to be confused with him or him, although Douglass' guitar is featured on the track "Spartacus Free the Slaves"; pictured right, photo David Mitchell/Plastic Jesus); chill-out, and percussive acoustic piano grooves from Vijay Ayer (pictured left); on synthesizer Bruce Mack; double bass work from Jason Di Matteo; mid-frequency and accented electric bass work from Jared Michael Nickerson; three different drummers with three different styles listed (Breakbeat Drumming, Swiss Chris [pictured below left]; Freestyle Drumming, Eric Eigner; Vedic Drumming, Qasim Naqvi [pictured below right]); the ever-versatile ("sangin scattin whistlin") Eisa Davis on vocals; and Simmie on electric violin.

(pictured right, singer/actor/playwright Eisa Davis)
There are two exceptions to the 4 hour session "recorded live December 19, 1999, 7:30pm": tracks 1. "Steals A Kiss from the Merman" and 6. "04.29.92 Justice X On the Flex" which were both recorded Winter 1998 by Moomtez (an earlier Greg Tate
improv band, which at one point included Alice Smith as a backup singer) with Rene Akhan and Greg Tate, guitars; Maximina Juson, bass (pictured left); Trevor Holder, drums; Justice X, Alice Utley, Tabla Suphala, vocals.

More on this and other
Burnt Sugar recordings from Daniel Garnett @ Compulsive Reader.

On We'll Never Turn Back, singer Mavis Staples revisits songs from the Civil Rights Movement, but more than that she recounts tales of growing up in Mississippi during Jim Crow and the loving parents and grandparents who instilled in her a greater sense of self that what was offered via a "Coloreds Only" sign. The legendary slide guitar of producer Ry Cooder appears on a number of cuts, and co-wrote a number of the original songs with Staples. Cooder's arrangements are instrumentally spare, I'm guessing that Staples and he wanted to focus on what this music primarily was for people during that era-vocally driven. Songs you sang while riding to a protest on a bus, or at a march or rally, or while being driven away in police vehicles. On the first three tracks "Down in Mississippi," "Eyes on the Prize," and "We Shall Not Be Moved," Ladysmith Black Mambazo provide backing vocals. There's a richness to their vocal mix that almost overshadows the instrumentation.

But it was "In the Mississippi River," that really got me. I had never heard this song before, or I
felt like I hadn't even though I'm pretty sure I've heard it performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Staples' version starts out a cappella with vocalist/activist Charles Neblett singing out, "In the Mississippi River," with a harmony just underneath followed up by the plaintive soprano cry of probably singer/activist Rutha Harris, answering back "Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord!" then moves into an ominously rhythmed counting song, with Neblett's baritone chanting, "well, now you can count them one by one," followed by Staples' alto rhythmically intoning, "it-could-be-your-son." Neblett continues, "and you can count them two by two," and Staples is right there with, "it-could-be-me-and-you," and finally she repeats "well, into-the-river-they-go, into-the-river-they-go." Neblett calmly chants, "now you can count them five by five," to which Staples responds "now-they-don't-come-out-a-live." Neblett gets to six, and Staples gives a rueful laugh, "in-Mississippi, they-got-it-fixed." To Neblett's "seven by seven," she sings "Mississippi, it-ain't-no-heav-en" and to "eight by eight" she sings more fully, "and-they-were thrown-in-because-of-hate." If you hadn't already figured it out, by now it's clear that the song is about the numerous bodies of murdered African Americans that were dumped in the Mississippi River during the Civil Rights Movement. The Mississippi River is the second longest river in the US and travels through ten states--Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Minnesota--the last two of which are at the forefront of most recent associations with the river: the construction failures of levees and a bridge respectively, along with the temporary closing of the Mississippi River Bridge in Memphis, TN due to structural concerns. But prior to those events, the history of loss associated with the river had to do with it being a place where a number of black bodies had disappeared at the hands of white killers in the southern states it runs through, particularly Mississippi, as well as Tennessee. (above right, Mavis Staples; photo Paul Natkin; above left SNCC Freedom Singers from Albany, GA; l-r Neblett, Reagon, Matthew Jones[?], and Rutha Harris)

Neblett was a SNCC field organizer and member of the SNCC Freedom Singers along with Bernice Johnson Reagon, Rutha Harris, and Bettie-Mae Fikes, the latter two, with Neblett, offer backing vocals on much of the album. "In the Mississippi River" was written by Marshall Jones, another member of the SNCC Freedom Singers who was involved in the movement as a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Apparently, Jones composed the song to honor the slain Civil Rights workers Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney (Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Earl Chaney, murdered in 1964) and "all the others" who lost their lives in the struggle.

I had something of a surreal experience while I was listening to Staples' album. At the same time because of research for an unrelated project I'm working on, I was going through all the Jet Magazines for 1968. It was so overwhelming I had to stop and haven't yet gotten back to it. That year witnessed a lot of grief over the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. . I could see why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had reportedly given the weekly publication quite high praise for its reportage of the Civil Rights struggle. Along with every week's legendary/infamous social scene and entertainment gossip and two-page bikini model photo, Jet gave considerable space to the coverage of various aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. Notably neither the issue devoted to the assassination of Dr. King, nor that of Robert Kennedy included the bikini spread. Back then Jet featured a two color background cover with a white and black photo in the foreground, and black and white inner pages. Going through the months of Jet for the first half of 1968, I'm embarrassed to say was the most I had ever read about the multi-ethnic effort of the Poor People's Campaign, and the construction of Resurrection City on the Washington Mall, in Washington, D.C., led by "Mayor" Hosea Williams and Dr. King's successor as SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) leader, Ralph Abernathy. (above left "Resurrection City at dusk"(1968); photo by Ollie Atkins) Because Jet published a lot of photos in its coverage, all black and white, some, as with the Kennedy and King assassinations, almost creating a time-lapse succession of images of tumult and grief, I found myself having one of those experiences of being not quite in the moment you're looking at, but simultaneously not being in the present historical moment you're in. I'll always remember the images of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner from that FBI missing persons poster because a political illustration based on it hung in my home, and I looked at it every day when I was growing up. I would have that same feeling in those moments as well.

What can I say. I don't really have words for an album that can make you feel all that just half way through its 12 tracks. Just go listen.

Here's a sample: The music video for Mavis Staples and Ry Cooder's arrangement of the traditional "Eyes on the Prize." Staples, backed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo: background vocals, Ry Cooder: slide guitar, Mike Elizondo: bass, Joachim Cooder: percussion.


At 2:48 AM, Blogger BronzeBuckaroo said...

...I found myself having one of those experiences of being not quite in the moment you're looking at, but simultaneously not being in the present historical moment you're in.

I can understand the feeling. I can also understand your descriptions of those ancient Jet magazines. I own an issue dated June 1967. This particular issue is kinda important to me because of what is printed inside.

You wrote this post with such passion that I am interested in purchasing this cd. I will certainly never think of the Mississippi River the same way again--but this is a good. There are some things which never should be forgotten.

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