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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

April 2014: From Jones To Janáček


Last month’s ‘Wilt’ had a very definite theme, so this month’s doesn’t. Then again, you can find connections between all kinds of different things.


SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: Give The People What They Want


Sharon Jones sang the shit out of I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues on my Ellington tribute record The Duke, and is a real pro and a hell of a nice lady. This album is basically business as usual, and none the worse for it: classic, deeply satisfying soul-funk. Her first album, Dap-Dippin’, is the most raw-sounding, while I Learned The Hard Way is the slickest, with strings and French horns on some tracks, but pointing out what’s new each time can become an exercise in head-scratching. Let’s see . . . this one adds three ladies called the Dapettes, which works quite nicely, though I didn’t miss them when they weren’t there. The opening of Retreat briefly reminds me, of all things, of The Clash’s London Calling. You’ll Be Lonely features a trumpet solo somewhat reminiscent of Penny Lane. Making Up And Breaking Up sounds a bit like something Dusty Springfield might have done. (Was Dusty great or what?) But really, SJ & the DKs are like the perfect Martini: some formulas don’t need to be messed with.


JAMES MOODY: Moody’s Mood For Blues / James Moody’s Moods


Saxophonist James Moody died a couple of years ago and like many artists who are simply very good, he remains underrated because he was never a pioneer, a game-changer, or an icon. He was just a beautiful player, with a knack for creating solos so strongly melodic that they can be as memorable as the tunes he’s improvising on. This CD combines two albums he made for Prestige in 1955, recorded by Blue Note’s great house engineer Rudy Van Gelder, and featuring arrangements by a 21-year-old Quincy Jones. The tracks are paced like a perfect live show, from the finger-popping opener to a couple of pretty ballads, a couple of tracks with guest vocalists for variety, and only one alternate take, which at least has Moody tackling the same tune on alto instead of tenor. (I’m suspicious of alternate takes; I always think they’re not what the artist and/or producer wanted me to hear, so I have the uncomfortable feeling of watching them with their pants down). Oh yes, and there are no bass solos.


Why this obscure album? I have lots by Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon, who are even better tenor players and more ‘important’. I also have a couple by John Coltrane, who is definitely important and probably a genius, but not someone I listen to often. For all his power and originality, there is something relentless, demanding, and humourless about him that I find wearying. Some people like to claim that jazz is inherently ‘self-indulgent’. A friend of mine calls it ‘musical masturbation,’ which he thinks demonstrates his wit rather than his ignorance. But in the case of Coltrane, I start to wonder.


I didn’t mean to get all controversial there. My point is simply that, like the Sharon Jones albums, Moody’s Mood is just satisfying; and the records we listen to the most are not always the ‘important’ ones. They’re just what we like. And so they should be.


REGINA SPEKTOR: What We Saw From The Cheap Seats


Regina Spektor is the sort of hard-to-classify artist about whom people like to use words like ‘kooky’ and ‘quirky’, but I think there’s more to her than that. There is a deeper musical intelligence underlying her work, and getting to know her music is like meeting someone who can seem a bit fey and whimsical, but who, on closer acquaintance, turns out to be much smarter and more solid than you suspected. Her hit Fidelity worked not just because it was catchy but because of the way she performed it. How, the standout track on her latest album, is something else: a genuine classic, something which could be sung by all kinds of people for years to come.


Speaking of singers, I can tell you from experience that many of us don’t like our own voices very much. Even if we don’t think we sound too bad, it’s so hard to be objective that we have a tendency to try too hard, and to think we won’t sound interesting unless we sweat or strain or startle or pull everything out of our bag of tricks. I wonder if this may be true of Spektor, who, when she sounds like she just relaxes and sings, is fantastic. In any event, I think she’s going to be an even better singer and writer in another ten years – which is a nice thing to be able to say at a time when so many artists become tiresome after ten minutes.


JANÁČEK: Sinfonietta (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras)


The Czech composer Leoš Janáček is an intriguing example of creativity in later life; he wrote most of his best music in his 70s. (A much younger woman supposedly had something to do with it). When he completed Sinfonietta, in 1926, his style was quite straightforward, accessible, even old-fashioned compared to what, say, Stravinsky or Schoenberg were doing more than a decade earlier. But Janáček was something better than avant-garde: he was distinctive and original.


The first of Sinfonietta’s five movements is scored just for a huge brass ensemble and timpani, and its effect is so stunning that you wonder how he can possibly follow it. What he does - with a mysterious riff based on the whole-tone scale, gurgling clarinets, farting trombones and bassoons, and pizzicato strings – is to take us into an entirely different sound-world. He follows an exclamation mark with the only thing that can possibly follow it: a question mark. Here, and in other places (for instance the sweetly melancholic muted strings in the third movement) I’m reminded, oddly enough, of Tchaikovsky (a composer who, in my music college days, was sneered at for being too popular, but who was second to none in his use of harmony and orchestration to create colour and mood). Janáček’s sensibility, though, is sharper, cleaner, less sentimental and more modern. Sinfonietta is full of magical moments which don’t really sound like anyone else. Like a Regina Spektor album, it can seem ‘quirky’, but the more you hear it, the more logical and well thought-out it becomes. At the end, when the brass and timpani music returns while the strings and woodwinds play seething, buzzing trills over, under and around it, I always imagine a huge flock of birds of all shapes and sizes swirling around some sort of giant stone castle. Then I want to go back to the beginning and listen again.


You may be pleased to hear that Janacek also wrote two fabulous string quartets.