Friday, December 28, 2007

Brandon Ross' "Theorema" @ Jalopy 12/28/07 + URB ALT (Oops) + Upcoming...Incoming NYC/Philly

I arrived late to the show; bridge and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway(BQE) traffic slowing things down. Plus there's the trick of getting to Jalopy aka Jalopy Theatre and School of Music (despite the somewhat institutional sounding name, it looks like a well-loved funky club, both inside and out). You can't trust the directions from either Mapquest or Googlemaps as they will get you to the wrong side of Columbia Street, looking woefully at the BQE and wondering how to get to the other side. You've got to keep going up Hamilton and then turn left, going under the BQE, and left again to get to Hamilton going the other way. Then you'll end up on the side of Columbia Street that houses Jalopy almost on the corner. It's a great club, with old-style wooden church pews and folding wooden chairs, hardwood floors, and a bar with alcohol (and I think some juices), a string instrument rental display, and an intimate stage space framed by heavy red velvet curtains.

I want to write about how thought-provoking, engaging, and rich-sounding this show was in some kind of specific detail, and I find myself at a loss. Even while I was sitting in one of Jalopy's the center row pews, I was occasionally thinking 'how am I going to write about this so I remember it?' I mean I could talk about harmonics, and rhythms which were so key to the music played, but it wouldn't give the most embodied portrait. Key for me were the ways that bodies at play created sounds; the flesh-and-bone interactions of this show which was a mix of improvisation and notated work. I didn't get to see the notation so I don't know what Ross' scores looked like. I know there were a number of instances when bassist Stomu Takeishi looked as though he was reading the score very closely.

Tonight I didn't have a camera, still I felt myself watching intently the process by which each musician played their instrument, drew sound from it with their whole body. It was a frame-by-frame recording experience to be sure. What my uncle would call making "memory pictures." This was more obvious with the playing of Stomu Takeishi whose bodily invocations communicated so much as to the route of sound through his body--bubbling up from his shoe-shorn feet, toes curling around pedal knobs, knees bending as his torso extended forward and then back. The music percolated through his chest as he moved his shoulders never losing contact with the bass which didn't seem to hold its solid wooden form against these movements. Although Takeishi's music stand obscured some of the view of his electric bass--a really beautiful instrument by the way--its body was a part of these ambulations ultimately as resonator even though Takeishi wasn't playing an acoustic body this evening. Most evocatively, the sound would pop into one of Takeishi's cheeks and he'd hold it there, looking like he had a big rubber ball between cheek and gums, waiting for the moment to play a note. You could almost feel the tension of someone saying, "Wait...wait for it, wait for it...Now!" Then he'd pluck or tap a string and the cheek would deflate and the cycle would start anew. It's a really amazing experience to be allowed to witness that aspect of someone's creative trajectory. I had been moved previously by Takeishi's commitment when I saw him play at Rose Live Music, with the Out On A Limb All-Stars conducted by Lawrence "Butch" Morris, as part of the curated series Brandon Ross put together in September of this year (Takeishi and Ross have played together as an acoustic duo For Living Lovers, as well as in Henry Threadgill's and Butch Morris' respective ensembles). In the former instance even though he was sitting I could still see his embodied expressiveness. I don't know how it feels to him, but watching Takeishi I felt I was seeing an artist willing to fully give himself over to the process of achieving particular sounds. For vocalists I suppose the equivalent for vocalists is the "ugly face." (Rachelle Farrell's performance ethos is a good example of this.) (Takeishi pictured above left in 2005 playing with the Sax Pistols in Italy; no offense to F. Truono but this image doesn't fully capture the energy circuitry I described above, though you do get to see those cheeks bursting with channeled sound.)

I had never seen drummer Gerald Cleaver before this evening. (I actually didn't get to see much of him this evening either due to the combination of Jalopy's raised stage and the angle of the kit set up vis-a-vis my seat view.) The "" bio I read (and link to here) cites his playing as "powerful and tasteful." I get the "powerful," but have no idea what was meant by "tasteful." All the restrained, self-conscious politeness I would associate with that adjective wasn't in evidence tonight. But if the writer meant to say Cleaver can be powerful without overpowering and playing over the rest of an ensemble I could see that. He certainly is inspired and creative. There was one moment of soloing when he seemed to get carried off on an improvisatory thread, but Ross did seem to be intentionally giving Cleaver the musical space to do just that at particular moments (for example in one case where he looped ambient feedback that played under Cleaver). Cleaver was massaging, striking, hammering and shimmering sounds from the drum kit. In various instances he pulled a drumstick across a the edge of a cymbal; tapped and stroked the floor tom, snare and symbols with his fingers--something that has become ubiquitous for some players. But Cleaver sounded like he was talking, having a conversation, or sneaking into the conversation that Takeishi and Ross had already started, or cajoling and teasing them into having a conversation with him. Some other interesting moments: Cleaver played the snare with a regular drumstick and the floor tom with a drumstick with a percussive attachment adding a subtle polyrhythmic element; he played this stick alone a few times and its tone sounded like a shaker filled with seeds, or a cabaça. Going further with this layering of simultaneous percussive timbres, he played the snare with a what looked to be a bass mallet, and the floor tom with a regular drumstick, and then the floor tom and snare both with bass mallets during one piece where he repeated a rhythmic pattern until it was its own chant, or maybe a ring shout. (Cleaver pictured above right playing with David Torn during 28° JazzFestival Saalfelden [24/8/2007]; photo: Claudio Casanova/AAJItalia]

I missed the introduction and explanation of Theorema, that is the specific meaning for Ross, aside from a more elegant and open way of referencing theory/theorem/concept which I had already kind of hypothesized. As it turns out Theorema is in process, which somewhat harkens to a scientific read of the term, as in "testing a theory." Everybody should be so fortunate to have their process sound this compelling. Some improvisation, or working through of concepts, can be quite cerebral; someone playing with an algorithm, or attempting to work through intervals via some randomized system. These efforts meant to free a performer/composer from the constraints of their traditional (read= History of Western Music) compositional knowledge can become another kind of prescriptive for the creative process.

Ross' compositional work has a consistent cerebral element, it also has considerable sensuality. This union becomes apparent when watching him play. Tonight he solely played his Klein electric headless guitar, with which he has an extensive and unique rapport. Something about this melding of the cerebral and sensual reminds me of Jason King's article on Roberta Flack in Listen Again, Experience Music Project's latest collection of presented papers from its Annual Pop Conference. There's a great quote from by Flack where she calls her music a mixture of science and soul; I believe she's talking about her arranging style having been honed both in the gospel and classical music training of her youth and the way in which she applied the chordal and counterpoint grammar of classical music to the arrangements of the soul, pop, gospel and folk music she recorded. from a 1977 radio interview that King cites "Flack is asked to explain what she leared from classical training. She responds that she likes 'to stay involved in the structure of music' in a 'scientific and soulful way." [182] Ross has also cited an engagement with diverse "folk" musics (he places folk in quotation marks in his description) of which he's pushing the boundaries by purposeful employ of considered compositional approaches.

Ross' performance physicality is more internal than Takeishi's; instead of movements of several inches, his gestural changes were contained in a minimum of inches and millimeters. You could watch as some element changed in Ross' face, or in the manner of his frequent leaning into the score, or within the literal space between himself and where the music was traveling--you could call that sound, or energy, or air molecules. With that leaning, in the instances where there was no score, I found myself wondering if Ross was was listening for progressions that were coming to him as he played, or for the changes that Takeishi and Cleaver were creating, or if something else entirely was happening. (Obviously, I have an ongoing fascination with the creative process as it's experienced by different folks) There would be changes in the music that were telegraphed a second before in some minor shift in Ross' posture, or the expression on his face. Interestingly, I noticed the facial expressions weren't just visual shifts, but you could feel a shift of energy with those subtle ripples as well. During the improvisatory moments (no one called out songs until the final number when Ross announced an Ornette Coleman cover) Takeishi looked at Ross intently, both at his face and where his fingers were on the fretboard, seemingly reading when to answer a note and what harmonies he might consider. Recently, I had been listening to a lot of Ross' recorded work and there were a couple of moments when I was stunned by how close to the recorded sound of his guitar this live work was. Despite working in the electric frame it's not a given that with direct line in a musician will be able to achieve the sound that he/she hears in her/his head or in a live context, given the vagaries of room sound and various mics, etc. In one really beautiful moment I recall, Ross was playing softly but with great articulation and rich tone, then he slightly increased his volume and played for a few more measures at which point Takeishi and Cleaver joined him. The power of quiet intensity has been coming up in few places for me recently; in the aforementioned Jason King article, as well as in a Victor Wooten video tutorial a friend sent me where Wooten talks about how Curtis Mayfield would play his electric guitar very softly and very intensely, in live contexts, clubs where people were talking and eating and people would get quiet in order to hear him. Not just because he was Curtis Mayfield, but because of the quality of that quiet voice, the kind of power it imbued. Similarly Ross' quiet intonations have that quality of power as well as startling clarity and color, all of which makes you want to hear what he's saying musically. (Ross pictured above left in a fairly similar representation of his "conscious listening/responding" stance--I'm just gonna call it that for now, to mark the posture)

It was a sweet night, with the pews filling up by the middle of the set as more people found their way to the Jalopy end of Columbia Street. It kind of reminded me of Bold As Live's The Family Stand event because Ross had family there ('tis the season), similar to V. Jeffrey Smith's kinfolk showing out--oh, now wouldn't it be great to see a Bold As Live conversation with Harriet Tubman (Melvin Gibbs, JT Lewis, Brandon Ross)! (Mr. Fields are you reading this? Wouldn't that be a richly diverse series of conversations given the musical history of those three instrumentalists?). So in evidence were his nephew photographer Bayaté Ross Smith, who currently has work in the quite interesting looking Face Off show at the Rush Arts Gallery & Resource Center in Chelsea (hoping to check that out soon). Also present, family friend and photographer Hank Willis Thomas a really gifted conceptually driven artist as well as, hmm, I think artist/curator Shane Aslan Selzer, but we didn't officially meet.

• From Patricia Lay-Dorsey's October 2007 Photo-A-Day Gallery: image of Gerald Cleaver "playing his drums and cymbals using two rolled-up sheets of paper...appropriately enough, music scores. And it worked! The whispery sound he created was just what was needed to set the tone for Andrew Bishop's experimental composition in four movements, "'Metaboles.'"

• Intensely enthused All About Jazz review of Cleaver and his ensemble Veil of Names' 2001 release Adjust

I got out of Jalopy at 11am. I had planned on running uptown from Brooklyn to get to The Shrine in Harlem for the last of the URB ALT 4.5 show. But URB ALT had started at 8pm, and I had the idea that it would only go for 3 hours because a previous Shrine show seemed to be on that clock. So I figured it was a no go. I was wrong, wrong, so wrong. URB ALT didn't finish until 1am! Next time I'll put in a call to confirm what's up, cause I missed a chance to hear some funk-filled improvisations and get my dance on--and we all know how important that is, whatever the time of year! The night featured Meera, a Pakistani band; Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Felili--both Meera and Felili dedicated songs to the recently assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto. They along with MuthaWit and special guests saxophonist/singer/keyboardist Micah Gaugh and guitarist Soul Product turned the joint out. You can read about the URB ALT 4.5 show (for a limited time, cause MySpace is on limited server space, people) on the MuthaWit blog.

Upcoming...Incoming...January 2008

BAMcafé Live: FREE! 9pm
Friday, January 4th: Nora York, whom I first heard at the Tom Terrell Benefit 9/11/2006.
She's performing excerpts from her new project Furtiva Lagrima.

Saturday, January 5th: Anna Fiszman & Marc Landesberg with Felili
Boston Fielder has predicted that Felili is going to break bigtime soon. If you listen to her work you can see why. Run, don't walk to see her in the near future.

At the Kiswick Theatre (Glenville, PA, right outside Philly)
January 11th
Sister Rosetta Tharpe Benefit, featuring The Dixie Hummingbirds, Willa Ward with the Johnny Thompson Singers, Marie Knight, Odetta and The Huff Singers. A Fundraiser to purchase a headstone for Tharpe's gravesite.

At Joe's Pub
Friday, January 11th
Abigail Washburn featuring Bela Fleck
Multi-lingual roots music singer-songwriter/ banjo player with legendary Bela Fleck

Saturday, January 12th, 7pm The Carolina Chocolate Drops/ Catherine Russell.
The Drops just got featured on The Great Debaters soundtrack, featured on Oprah, and tapped by rock critic Kandia Crazy Horse, yeah, unh-hunh.

... and somewhere in Brooklyn
January 15, 2008
URB ALT 5.0 - Annual Dr. King Tribute
Time, Place, & Artists to be announced


...back at BAM

BAMcafé Live: FREE! @ 9pm
Friday & Saturday, January 18-19
Black Rock Coalition's Children of the Revolution Part II

@ BAM but not free
January 22
Mavis Staples

In February....
Harriet Tubman @ BAM
sho' nuff!



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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Upcoming...Incoming...NYC area: URB ALT 2007 Finale + Brandon Ross' Theorema + Hanifah Walidah's U People

Well if all you wanted for Christmas or Kwanzaa, or Boxing Day (Canada) was some great music you got it!

Pianist/composer Vijay Iyer (right) has been curating the shows at the Stone for the month of December, and he's included a number of past collaborators and old friends.

Wednesday, December 26, 10pm
Drummer Qasim Naqvi (who played with Iyer on some Burnt Sugar Arkestra recordings) Taylor Ho Bynum (trumpet, cornet) and Brandon Ross (guitar)

Thursday, December 27, 10pm
Guillermo E. Brown (who played with Iyer and Mike Ladd at their Still Life with Commentator, BAM production last year) on electronics, voice and drums plus special guests.


Friday, December 28, 8pm @ The Shrine

URB ALT 4.5 : Every goodbye ain't gone, turn out for the last URB ALT jam of the year! And it's FREE! URB ALT returns June 2008.

Singer/songwriter Felili, who has a voice like liquid amber--golden and languid like a summer sunrise, with little hidden textural treats-- and an intriguing way of working the harmonies in her piano-based melodies will play a set. Following her will be the ongoing mystery that is MuthaWit--never know what you'll hear just know you shouldn't miss it! The night's emphasis will be on improvisation...

Some special guest artist are also slated to appear, and there'll be a jamfest closing out the show. MuthaWit leader & URB ALT co-organizer Boston Fielder has invited everyone to join the jam:

"Any and all of you that play/sing/chant/dance/orate are welcome to join us onstage during the jam session and do your THANG. This show is about YOU(audience and artists) and thanking YOU for your support in 2007."

The Shrine, 8pm
2271 adam clayton powell blvd
(133-134 st)
new york, ny 10030
FREE! (donations accepted)

Friday, December 28, 9pm @ Jalopy
(same date, but over in Brooklyn...)

Brandon Ross (guitar, banjo) and Stomo Takeishi (bass guitar) present Brandon Ross' "Theorema" with Gerald Cleaver, drums and Rubin Kodheli on cello. (below, Brandon Ross; photo: Michael Kurgansky)

315 Columbia St.
Brooklyn, NY

...little more from Brooklyn...

Saturday, December 29, Door: 8pm - Show: 9pm @ Solomon's Porch Cafe
U People Film Fundraiser
for the U People film by Hanifah Walidah & Olive Demetrius.
performances from the women of the U People Soundtrack
Hanifah Walidah
Shelley Nicole
Honey Larochelle
Gloria Bigelow

Donations of $50 or more are tax-deductible. Fiscal Sponsor: Women Make Movies

Hanifah & Olive are some kind of marketers, they've got the website, the podcast, the Myspace, the Myspace Videos, etc, etc, and they are working the networks. This fundraiser is to help them with festival fees, particularly the international ones. Since the dollar has gotten increasingly weak (e.g. USD 1 = GBP .50, yikes!) those fees are fairly formidable. This promises to be off tha chain, as the folks say.

Solomon's Porch Cafe
307 Stuyvesant Ave (Corner of Halsey)
Brooklyn, NY
$10 online
$15 at the door


...back at the Stone...

Sunday, December 30, 8pm

Mendi (voice) + Keith Obadike (banjo, electronics)
Mendi + Keith Obadike

Sunday, December 30, 10pm
Latasha N. Nevada Diggs (another Burnt Sugar alum) voice, electronics; High Priest, voice, electronics; Kamala Sankaram, voice, accordion
Text + beats + bounce + norteño = yo no se nada

Peace, Happy Holidays & Enjoy The Music!!

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bold As Love: Best Black Rock Releases 2007?

Rob Fields/Bold As Love has got a little "Best of" list-mania going, and has decided to make it a community event:

"I was planning my roundup of what I thought some of the great Black rock /Afropunk/Ghetto Metal/urban alternative /progressive black music releases were this year, but then I remembered that this isn't really about me. Rather, I think it will be much more interesting to find out what you've been wearing out on your MP3 players. So, here's the deal:

"Tell me what you thought a few of your favorite releases were this year. The catch is they need to be by an artist or artists of color who fit somewhere in the above categories. As I get responses, I'll post them on here on the blog."

He's listed some of his already.

This year I haven't listened to a lot of releases from this year. I started off listening to James Brown's 40th Anniversary compilation (out-of-print), and am ending it listening to Roberta Flack's Chapter Two and Marian Anderson's Rare and Unpublished Recordings, 1936 - 1952 along with the offerings detailed below. I still haven't listened to the entirety of Faith's A Place Where Love Can Grow or Game Rebellion's Searching for Rick Ruben (which has an official release date of February 5, 2008 but is available now directly from the band) or Apollo Heights', White Music for Black People. Or even the singular Otto Fischer's Songs which might be a 2006 release (it was among the last recordings legendary free improvisation guitarist Derek Bailey agreed to before his death in 2005). But whatever, it's only available directly from INCUS Records in the UK, and I didn't hear about it until 2007...*

So my list is unofficial (hence its not being forwarded to Bold As Love), and short:

Mavis Staples, We'll Never Turn Back - This was quite a moving journey to take with Ms. Staples. Something of an autobiographical snapshot of the Civil Rights Movement, lived on the ground, through music--folk, R&B, gospel, blues, it has it all. I wrote about it here.

• Pattie Blingh (aka Georgia Anne Muldrow), Sagala - I had to hunt this down based on the track REALLYTHO which used to be on Muldrow's the worthnothings crew MySpace page. Wrote briefly about the joy of getting in the mail, and my plans to write about it in the future(oops!) here.

Nina Simone, Live at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1977 - Yes, it's from 30 years ago, but just became somewhat available in 2007. This is an amazing release, after hearing Simone's arrangements and piano-work from this concert you can't help but be undone. You can read New Orleans natives and music-heads Kalamu ya Salaam and Mtume ya Salaam of Breath of Life riffing on this release here.

Brandon Ross, Puppet - This was released in Japan on Intoxicate Records at the very end of 2006. Japan remains the easiest place to purchase it, as US distributors still haven't been able to comprehend the viable market for this work (in the words of Spike Lee: WAKE UP!!). Thus, I'm fortunate to have heard it myself before year 2007 ended. You can hear some of the album tracks on his MySpace page. You can hear Ross talk about this release, and other work, in an interview with David Garland on WNYC earlier this year here.

The Family Stand, Super Sol Nova. Only available as an import. My favorite track on this is, "Undiscovered Country." It's one of those mini-epic perfect pop/rock/R&B storytelling tunes you hardly ever get to hear anymore. Wrote about their Bold As Live interview & concert here.

Promo Single from 2007 that kept coming back to me after the first listen: Tenderhead's multi-genre "Goes 2 Show" which features the following sounds: unsettling ambient groove, guitar-driven acid-blues, soulful balladry, and makes the mix work. Oh, yeah, I wrote about it here.

Short Film Soundtrack from 2007 that got under my skin: Melvin Gibbs' (as yet uncredited) polyrhythmic-marrow-twisting rumbles for the Malik Hassan Sayeed/Arthur Jafa directed film She Walked Calmly Disappearing Into The Darkness.

Endnote I:
*...or Bettye LaVette's Scene of the Crime; or Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings' 100 Days, 100 Nights; or Marva Whitney's I Am What I Am; or Otis Taylor's Definition of A Circle; or The Carolina Chocolate Drops' Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind; or The Smyrk's New Fiction; or The Noisettes' What's the Time Mr. Wolf (despite having seen them live this year); etc., etc., etc...all from 2007, so I've got a lot of catching up to do...

Endnote II:
Notable year-end lists from elsewhere:
Mark Anthony Neal's Critical Noir Blog: The 2007 Playlist (ver. 1.0)

Monday, December 17, 2007

James Brown Symposium at Princeton University November 29-30: Part II

For Part I see here

Just when you thought there couldn't be any more, Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr. came out to introduce his mentor, Professor Cornel West. Glaude is accomplished in his own right, already a full professor and I don't think the brotherman is yet 40 years old (a Morehouse (BA), Temple (MA), Princeton (PhD) combo). More importantly than all the degrees, and where he got them, is his forward thinking ideas about the current state of African American leadership and religion in African American life, check out Endnote below). Glaude gave a rather energetic introduction, to West, e.g."He's an ardent fan, an incomparable channeler of James Brown!"; and "His lecture on black music classic moments includes a James Brown moment in which he recollects 'wanting to read and write the way James Brown and Aretha Franklin sang'"; and noted West's ability to combine "philosophy and the funk of life."

[This is also my way of saying I couldn't get an in focus photo of Glaude (pictured left) using an aperture that didn't require a flash (the Symposium location didn't allow flash photography). This was a problem during the whole symposium]

Then West came out and began by rendering his own autobiography in brief as a reflection of key revelatory moments courtesy of James Brown's creative and social consciousness. A key quote from this section inluded: "Never confuse a vision with a stare. The stare is the copy." I can't remember if this is West paraphrasing Brown, or channeling a particular philosophy he encountered through his experience of Brown, either way, the language is James Brownsian--concise and on point. (pictured right, Cornel West recreates a aural memory of James Brown)

West also spoke in a profoundly moving way about how Brown was stillborn and this beginning, that made him profoundly aware of death "at the physiological and biological level" before he even experienced the breath through which he could utter such a thing. West opined that Brown "was wrestling with death" as a constant throughout his life, and "often times those who are the most cheerful in their disposition are the most sorrowful in their soul." Brown was brought to life by a tenacious aunt who kept breathing into his lungs until the baby started breathing on his own. Hearing of his son's birth his father Joe walked some, hmm was it 30 miles (or am I remembering a Miles Davis, grandfather-son story*)? to get to his son and give him his name. A name which actually belonged to the woman who raised Brown's father, whose name was Gardner. But of his own volition the father took her name, Brown, and then passed it on to his son. Joe Brown worked 16 hour days for the first 6 years of James Brown's life, during which time Brown was not in school, so he spent those hours alone--what West called "the loneliest time."

As a result of the legacy of his mortality-infused birth, West suggested that Brown was "born in a minor key," and he was "almost a blues man before he was born." Considering how Brown felt about the Blues, I would imagine the emphasis in such a declaration would be on "almost," as Brown considered the rhythms he originated, which would become known alternately as r&b, soul, and funk, as the spiritual and sociological antithesis of the blues.

Brown was ultimately abandoned by both his parents. Apparently a sense of not having been meant to survive, not just as a black man in the United States, but as a human being on the earth stayed with him. West asserted that he lived as someone deeply aware of his own mortality and aloneness, and with as equally deep a sense of purpose and necessary accomplishment before he passed from this mortal coil. Perhaps feeling that his aunt had stolen/secured another chance at life for him he wasn't going to waste nary a minute of it. Brown had been arrested on a theft charge as an adolescent and was giving a sentence out of proportion with the crime, but the warden liked Brown. So it was by special arrangement that if a family was willing to take him in and he promised to"never return" to his adopted home town of Augusta, Georgia (he was actually born and spent his first 6 years in Barnwell, South Carolina) his sentence would be commuted. Hence the importance of Bobby Byrd's mother whom Byrd (pictured, right) convinced to sponsor Brown's parole, allowing for the emergence of the James Brown when Byrd mentoring Brown included him in his group The Flames, for which Brown eventually became lead-singer though Byrd arguably had the "better" lead voice, but Brown had the stage presence, and drive(the group eventually became James Brown and the Famous Flames). Byrd may have been his only real friend. Perhaps because of the isolation of those early years, and the subsequent ones spent living with an aunt who ran a brothel--during which he taught himself to be self-reliant in all things--James Brown was a profoundly lonely person who was always at work, never at rest. West's portrait of Brown didn't steer around the Godfather of Soul's inconsistencies. Speaking of Brown's concern with the U.S. Constitution West drew the link to Brown having lived under Southern Jim Crow laws which caused Brown to be disenfranchised until he was 31 years old, and further that today, without the pardon Brown received he might never have been able to vote. Clarifying an assertion implicitly figured in Robert Fink's presentation that radical African American social justice leaders were not conversant with the U.S. Constitution West pointed out the Black Panthers had also read the document and took seriously that the country was theirs to fight for. However, the Panthers focused on the aspect of the document that allowed for, even urged, the taking up of arms and overthrowing of the government if it was no longer truly representative of its people. Pay no attention to whatever dryness may be present in my attempt at a reporting poiesis: West's sermon, because that's what it was, was one of the most humane and poignant imaginings of the inner motivations and callings of this man we've long called Soul Brother Number 1 that I've ever heard. I was glad to be there.

Special Evening Q&A
A Conversation with legendary James Brown band members Pee Wee Ellis, Fred Wesley and “?uestlove” of the Roots. Moderated by Alan Leeds.

Yes, yes, this really did happen, and some young female student really did ask Fred Wesley if he could show us his dance moves, and Mr. Wesley really did oblige her. (pictured from l-r, Questlove, Alan Leeds, Fred Wesley, Jr., Pee Wee Ellis)

Enough of that though. The real great part of this was getting to hear Mr. Ellis (saxophonist) and Mr. Wesley (trombonist) talk about their own musical histories and their time working in the James Brown review, both came in as musicians and eventually became musical directors for Brown. At Alan Leeds' request they started with a bit of their own musical history apart from their respective JB Review tenures. Both were originally trained as jazz musicians, particularly Ellis. Wesley was involved with Funkadelic and Bootsy's Rubber Band following his time as James Brown's musical director. Ellis who had studied composition and arranging at Manhattan School of Music, had early on studied with Sonny Rollins, and did arrangements and was musical director for Van Morrison for about six years (contributing to some of my favorite Morrison albums). He had a choice of joining Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Tex or Esther Philips, he chose Philips because it gave him the opportunity to be the musical director. He also provided arrangements for numerous artists including, Freddie Hubbard, Grover Washington, Jr., George Benson, Hank Crawford, and for Ali Farka Toure's final album, and that's a brief list of his contributions. Ellis lives in the UK and continues to tour with his own group and other musicians. Mr. Wesley gave us a shorter biography, referring us instead to his book, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of A Sideman. It's well-written, highly informative, and entertaining to boot, so the directive makes complete sense. (above l-r: Ellis, Maceo Parker, Wesley)

I should contextualize the initial dance request. Wesley was hired by Ellis when the latter was Brown's musical director, and Wesley's solid build led Brown to ask, "can he move?" Move meaning dance, as all the musicians save the drummers were expected to be able to dance and play behind Brown and to have the stamina and breath to do both at the same time. Mr. Wesley did not disappoint, then or now. (Oh, you wanted the image where you could make out Wesley's low down moves. Hmm, you can already see what they did to the physics of time and space--sorry, I don't want to be responsible for unleashing that knowledge on an unsuspecting public.)

Some revelations that emerge from the evening were that Brown had arrangements with studios across the country, which allowed him to make use of his workaholic tendency to regularly write and arrange on the tour bus and then literally pull over and record a track. The recording sessions were set up like they were on stage. The band "hit it and quit it" and jumped back on the bus. Each musician only had one performing outfit, but it had to be clean and pressed, and worn when anytime they emerged from the bus. Brown was incredibly saavy about the degree to which appearances mattered when they arrived at a hotel. Looking bedraggled and as if they'd been on the bus for three days was was not tolerated, even if they had indeed spent the last 72 hours on the tour bus. For the "Say It Loud" session Ellis had already written the horn part but wasn't entirely happy with it as he felt it was something they had done before, but then Brown did something different with the bass line. They recorded in Los Angeles and two weeks later it was a hit in Houston, Brown had gotten it out through Leeds and other members of his team. Ellis remembers there being more than just white and Asian American kids at the session, but a number of African American children as well. On the "Good Foot" recording this was was complicated because the bass doesn't start on the 1. In addition, Brown wrote the horn part, again this was a different approach for him because of the arpeggiation. Ellis also noted some of the ways they would create tension in a song, with Cold Sweat they would change the key. The song was in D and then they would have 8 bars of I-IV (D-G) progressions and then go down a whole step to C (conveniently the V of G) and then I-IV again (C-F) and then with an inverted chord progression go from F to D (iii-I), or in another way of looking at it repeat the I-IV progression with F as the tonic, and D as the IV of the scale.

Questlove talked about going to Japan, after he had started to make money and getting a ton of concert videos, including James Brown. The Roots and other line-ups would practice reproducing classic concerts. The 1968 concert the James Brown Revue played in Boston the night of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination where Brown kept people from rioting in the streets became the template for early D'Angelo concerts (well, before things went sadly wrong for D'Angelo).

One of Brown's ill-advised artistic choices was discussed. It has already been reported that Brown did sometimes copy other artists in an ironic attempt to stay relevant and on the cutting edge. Literally he would have someone chart out the changes in someone else's music, and then disguise them, and include it in the arrangements Brown. This didn't occur with any of the innovative work he's known for instead it happened when he was somewhat past his creative apex, but also upon his return from the African continent when he was copying some traditional music he had heard, but also ironically looking at copying music by artists who were marrying James Brown funk with traditional forms. This occurred during Wesley's tenure as musical director. Wesley fulfilled a few of these request from Brown, but then became disgusted and left his employ. There was no saying no to Mr. Brown, or as Ellis put it "He allowed musicians to say 'no' on the way out the door." For Wesley it ultimately went against his morals, and he found it insulting to the abilities and talents of both himself and Brown to copy the work of other artists.

Another revelation was concerned Brown having created something of a family with the structure of the James Brown Revue, with himself as patriarch, molding the band and keeping them in check and answerable to him, with the recording of the little discussed female singers as a means fulfilling his multi-record deal with Polydor. As Alan Leeds put it, Brown was a great producer--of James Brown. He was not a great producer of other artists, and as a result these albums by Marva Whitney (aka "Soul Sister No. 1"), Lyn Collins (aka "The Female Preacher"), and Vicki Anderson all sounded like James Brown which didn't always ideally suit them as solo recording artist. However, Brown didn't want any of them to get too successful, even Anderson whom he considered one of the greatest singers of all time and who was Bobby Byrd's wife (she's also the mother of vocalist Cauleen Anderson formerly of The Young Disciples; Byrd was Anderson's stepfather). The other two vocalists were in some way connected to the men in the band as paramours; as they languaged it on the panel: Wesley: "Marva Whitney was Pee Wee's 'discovery.'" - Ellis: "Lynn Collins was Fred's 'discovery.'" What was left out of the discussion was the import of their work to the James Brown Revue, which was structured as a multi-act show with solo segments from the female vocalists and Bobby Brown, and an instrumental set from the band. Nor was there any discussion of how often their vocal work has been sampled, and the resulting impact of their work on hip hop aesthetics; everyone knows Collins' ""it takes two to make a thing go right/ it takes to make it out of sight" vocal from her 1971 r&b single "Think(About It)." Collins passed away in 2005, she was 56 years old, and had been performing in Europe right before her death (see Endnote below).

Brown didn't want anyone leaving the family. But life in the Revue could be suffocating not just because of the sartorial regulations (eventually the band was allowed to adopt afros and daishikis, but they still had be clean shaven and have their shoes polished and shined), the fines for lateness, or missing a music cue. Brown, according to Leeds, had no life outside of his music/entertainment career. That early wrestling identified by West, was a part of the way he approached everything withing this sphere. The resulting self-involved restlessness unfortunately pushed the people arguably closest to him, his musicians and other employees, away. Brown was prone to unremittingly talking about himself and/or insisting on working on a new song or arrangement and engaging whomever was in close proximity in said activity as captive participant or audience. It got to the point where the musicians would rather spend extra days riding on the tour bus than travel with Brown in his private plane, or some, like Pee Wee Ellis, would catch an alternate flight. West asked the Ellis, Wesley, and Leeds if they thought this behavior was symptomatic of his great loneliness. They surmised it might, be, and then they tried in vain to think of who was actually close to Brown besides his wives, and perhaps Bobby Byrd. However, it didn't seem that anyone considered the possibility of Brown's loneliness at the time. This was before men, particularly black men, were making earnest reference to their feelings beyond Isaac Hayes' famous lyric, "He's a complicated man/ and no one understands him /but his woman (Shaft, John Shaft)."

It was indisputable that the working relationship that Leeds, Wesley, and Ellis respectively had with Brown was often stormy (Brown could notoriously wake up in a mood where he saw everything a particular employee did as wrong and fire him, but then hire him back--it became something of a rite of passage for new employees). Yet it was also clear that each of these men had deep respect and their own form of affection for the man, his talents, and accomplishments and the years they spent with him, for what they learned, the people they got to play with, the places they traveled, as well as the mobility and opportunities it afforded them subsequent to their time with Brown.

Endnote I:
*Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, (Simon & Schuster, 1990) p.13
• Eddie Glaude, Jr., In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
John Ballon riffs on Bobby Byrd's undersung brilliance in his Must Hear review of Bobby Byrd Got Soul: The Best of Bobby Byrd (Polydor) which is unfortunately out of print.
Lynn Collins (aka "The Female Preacher") Tribute Broadcast on Soul Patrol
Wax Poetics Magazine features an interview with Marva Whitney (aka "Soul Sister No. 1") in their April/May 2007 issue, as wall as details on her second-full length release, 2007's I Am What I Am with "impressively tight Japanese funk band Osaka Monaurail."

Endnote II:
From the Bootsy Collins Website:
Bootzilla Productions Presents:
•Buckethead • Freekbass • Chuck D. of Public Enemy • Triage • I-Candi • DJ Izzle • and The James Brown Band, Soul Generals & Other Special Guests
• DATE: 12/22/07
730 Madison Ave.
Covington, KY.
General Admission Advance $10.00 STANDING TICKET
General Admission Day of Show: $15.00 STANDING TICKET

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

St. Clair Bourne + Floyd Red Crow Westerman: R.I.P.

While I recognize that it's selfish of me to want to ask that cultural pioneers and activists/open-hearted creative souls/ and/or friends take a moratorium on leaving this plane for the next, just for a little while--that's exactly what I feel like asking for.

It would pretty much be at the top of my Christmas list if I were still a kid who made one.

Vaya con los Espíritus, señores...

St. Clair Bourne 1943 - 2007
Chester Higgins Jr.'s New York Times profile of noted filmmaker St. Clair Bourne (right, photo: Chester Higgins, Jr.) from 2006, and a video interview of Bourne from their Lens Photojournalism series from the same year.

December 17th update:
Further information from the December 16th IndieWire article: "Remembering St. Clair Bourne 1943-2007."

December 18th update:
• Obituaries from The New York Times Arts Section, New York Daily News, The New York Observer,'s "What the Flick?" column
• Filmmaker AJ Schnack's All These Wonderful Things blogpost on Bourne which lists quotes from and links to other artist-blogger's memories and impressions of Bourne.
Filmmaker Magazine's Blog entry from a notice sent them by Adrienne Jones of the New York-based Black Documentary Collective (BDC), founded by Bourne.
• GreenCine's blog notice, compiled from the IndieWire article, Schnack's blog and which points to (as does Filmmaker Magazine and All These Wonderful Things)...
Renew Media's obituary listing written by Agnes Varnum
• "St. Clair Bourne's Shortlist" of documentary films that inspired him, and why from 17 July 2007 at MediaRights "media that matters."
Black Talent News' listing which eerily reprints Bourne's last blog entry describing the brain surgery which was to be minimally invasive and apparently successfully removed a benign tumor. Sadly, there were complications during his post-operative recovery.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman 1936 - 2007
The and Rapid City Journal staff obituary for the actor, singer-songwriter, and political activist who was 71 years old when passed away on December 14th after a long illness.

December 18th Update: Westerman's agent has stated that the cause of artist/activist's death was leukemia.

Washington Post obituary
Indian Country Today story
Native listing
New York Times Arts section obituary
RezNet News listing with youtube video of Westerman performance

Testimony: Floyd Red Crow Westerman, World Uraniam Hearings, 15 September 1992, Salzburg, Austria.
• Floyd Red Crow Westerman, A Tribute to Johnny Cash (2006, Hen House Studios). Westerman's award-winning CD of Cash covers, in honor of the fellow songwriter who was of Cherokee heritage and a life-long supporter of Native/American Indian rights (available through CD Baby).

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Monday, December 10, 2007

The Talented Fielder Family X4 - X5....and counting...

Boston Fielder recently posted about his multi-talented brother the Arthur Jafa :cinematographer, filmmaker, producer, visual artist, writer, scholar, educator, etc. If you've been loving how beautiful folks of African descent looked in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (remember back in 1991 how some white reviewers just couldn't get over the beautiful hair and skin, one going so far as to intimate it looked more like a Laura Ashley advert than a historically accurate film--oh, please!) then you know the man's work. In 2004 Daughters, which Jafa also produced, was adopted into the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress which means it is one of the few films directed and produced by African Americans whose print will be preserved. Other notable Jafa-lensed films include Spike Lee's Crooklyn (1994), and Malcolm X (1993). Hopefully, you've also been fortunate enough to see writer Dream Hampton's startling and poignant debut short film I Am Ali (2002), or Isaac Julien's documentary on some of the troubling aspects of the hip hop and dancehall reggae worlds, The Darker Side of Black (1993)--'cause Julien wasn't willing to stint on showing the external beauty of reggae artist Buju Banton, he just let the audience refocus the picture once Banton started talking.

Jafa worked on another documentary that's close to my heart because I founded a festival that screened its penultimate edit, A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, the labor of love from co-directors Ada Gay Griffith and Michele Parkerson; and with the enormously talented Jacqueline Shearer on The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry, also dear to me because I've taught the film as a counterpoint and historical corrective to the narrative feature Glory (1989). This Hollywood effort contained a number of errors and put a spin on the black male soldiers who served in this Union army regiment and their white commander apparently meant to put white audiences at ease about the presence of free, educated black men during the antebellum period. Plus look at the way Jafa shot those archive photos and tintypes, oh yeah. In The Black Studies Reader (2004), the reprint of Shearer's writing on the making of the documentary, " How Deep, How Wide? Perspectives on the Making of The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry," is prefaced by an Editor's Note which includes this comment:

"According to Joseph Glatthaar in The Journal of American History, The Massachusetts 54th tells a more accurate story than did the film Glory, and contains fewer errors about the Civil War than did Ken Burn's documentary series on the war. Glatthaar states: "Jacqueline Shearer and her team deserve kudos for their excellent research. The filmmakers scoured archives from Washington, D.C. to Massachusetts and located numerous fresh and exciting collections of letters from Black soldiers."

Jafa made everyone he shot look good in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), as well as in one of my favorite independent films, Frailty (2001), where you can finally see Matthew McConaughey show his acting muscle instead of riding on charm, a toned body, and great teeth. Watching him and Powers Boothe play an ever escalating game of verbal cat and mouse is better than a lot of high tech chase scenes, and the DVD's Sundance Anatomy of A Scene segment is essential viewing for low budget special effects. Of course, there is also Jafa's own richly paletted film, Slowly This (1995) an adaptation of David Mura and Alex Pate's multi-media performance piece on the interior lives of Japanese American and African American men, Secret Colors. The Walker Art Center (love 'em!) premiered the performance, and the still-missed Minnesota-based PBS short films program ALIVE TV (aka Alive From Off Center) gave the film its national broadcast, which is how I managed to see it.

But I digress. Jafa's contributions are important not just because he has an amazing eye for color and light, and can he get focus pulled? Well, take a look at his latest She Walked Calmly Disappearing Into the Darkness (2007), directed by a young filmmaker, Malik Hassan Sayed. Note all the ways Jafa plays with focus and point of view, from razor sharp edges, and life-radiating flesh and skin, to impressionistic brushes that had me thinking of artist Gerhard Richter's various photo-paintings particularly the Family, Women, and Baader-Meinhof series. Apparently Jafa and Sayed are business partners and Sayed has been fortunate to have Jafa as a mentor as well. This willingness to work with and mentor younger and/or less established filmmakers early in their careers, while they're still shooting short narrative work is the other reason Jafa's contributions are salient, particularly to filmmakers of African descent. Back in the day a number of filmmakers got their start through programs at regional public television stations WNET-NY and the like, but many of those internship and journeyperson avenues have long since disappeared. Mentoring the next generation is imperative (take a look at Sayeed's imdb page to trace his work alongside Jafa as his junior and then equal; both are Howard University alum). Also worth noting is Jafa's long association with filmmaker/scholar Manthia Diawara, as cinematographer for most of Diawara's documentaries. Many successful directors of photography/cinematographers who early-on worked in both documentary and narrative features end up in working in feature films full-stop, but Jafa has continued to lend his eye to documentary work. Why is this important? Crudely put--documentaries are not just talking moving-picture books. They are part of a cinematic tradition and if a director chooses to tell a non-fiction story visually then it's no sin to create a work that is visually expressive and evocative of that story, and even beautiful. Cinematography in this field is also key as documentary is genre in which most of the stories of folks of African descent are told. Shearer was a visual storyteller; her documentary is powerful because of the way the rigorous research was combined with Jafa's photography, Morgan Freeman's warmly authoritative narration, and the music and sound. Speaking of the latter, She Walked Calmly Disappearing Into the Darkness features some edgy, under the skin, ambient bass pulsings by the singular bassist/composer Melvin Gibbs (Harriet Tubman, Melvin Runs the Hoodoo Down, Elevated Entity, Liberation Theology, Rollins Band). Check It Out.

Endnote I:

Along with Jafa, my current favorite contemporary cinematographers are, Ellen Kuras, Jim Denault, and Rodrigo Prieto. Three out of the four have worked with Spike Lee at some point in their careers.

Endnote II:
There isn't enough writing by thoughtful and incisive African American visual artists easily available to the public, but here's some by and about Arthur Jafa. Also, running Jafa's name through an Amazon book search uncovers his contributions to and citations in a number of visual arts, popular culture and cultural studied texts (including work with artist Kerry James Marshall; and his article on his concept "Black Visual Intonation" from 1998's The Jazz Cadence of American Culture a re-working of the "69"article listed below).
• Writing by Arthur Jafa available on the web: "69" (from Black Popular Culture, 1992); "Like Rashomon but Different: The New Black Cinema" (1993).
• Writing on Arthur Jafa available on the web: "Generation next, or the future of bad hair: text for a film by Greg Tate and Arthur Jafa - authors; Black unity" by Greg Tate, from African American Review (1997)
• Finally, some YouTube from Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber: "burnt sugar presents screamin' arthur jafa"

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