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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.

August 2016: It's Jazz, Jim, But Not As We Know It OR Serendipitous Epiphanies OR What's Your S.A.Q.

I just looked back over my WILT Archive and realized that I've been writing these things for nearly three years. I'm frankly amazed that I'm still finding things to say about music, but here we go again.


The other surprise is that so many of these little essays (or whatever they are) have ended up having some kind of overall theme. I don't think there have been more than one or two occasions when they started out that way. I seem to be putting them together the same way I put an album together: by putting one foot in front of the other and keeping on until I get somewhere interesting. Somewhere along the way, I start to see connections between things, and a theme gradually develops. People sometimes debate whether the creative process depends more on emotion or intellect. I say it's neither. Or both. But there's another equally, or even more, important force at work, and that is intuition.


The kind of questions I'm asked by interviewers lead me to suspect that this is not widely understood. If I produce something with an overall theme – even a loose one – the assumption, 95 percent of the time, is that I started with the theme and then wrote a bunch of stuff to fit it. The question is then: why did you pick that theme? And at this point we're so far away from anything like an actual creative process (or mine, anyway) that I'm really struggling for an answer.


'Why' questions are always tough, anyway. Basically, my sympathies are with anyone who struggles with the difficult task of writing about music, but I've noticed over the years that interviews quite often flounder along these lines:


Q. Why did you do this? Why did you do it in exactly this way? And why didn't you do something else instead?


A: I don't know! It just felt right! I thought it might be fun! Why can't you leave me alone, damn you!


'Why' questions assume that artists have an agenda, or that we're smarter and more calculating than we usually are. 'How' questions tend to be seen as too specialized or 'technical', but they're easier to answer, and more likely to open up a discussion. The idea that the shape and form of any artist's work should be dictated by a 'why' – that creative decisions are somehow ideological – seems weird to me. I only ever made one album with a theme as the starting point (Heaven and Hell, based on the Seven Deadly Sins). Otherwise, connections between songs have arisen the same way as the songs themselves: out of a process of intuitive experimentation.


Back to What I'm Listening To, here is a grouping of three albums which has suggested three possible connecting themes to me. 


One is that jazz has taken on so many different forms since it crawled out of the musical swamp of the 1910s and 20s - and cross-bred with so many other genres - that some of it might even appeal to those banes of my existence, the People Who Hate Jazz And Want You To Know It.


Secondly, there's the miraculous fact that even after all these years, I still regularly discover music I like, completely by accident. I've said more than once that I don't think we're living in a musical Golden Age right now. But that makes it all the more important to keep our eyes and ears as open as possible. 


Thirdly, I was thinking about how music - like people – can be superficially attractive to various degrees. It can be just a nice sound, and pleasant to have playing in the background while you're doing something more important, like stirring your coffee or cutting your toenails. Like superficially attractive people, superficially attractive music doesn't always improve with closer acquaintance. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with a Nice Sound, and we mustn't assume that every pretty blonde is a bimbo.


So, take your pick.



KORA JAZZ TRIO: Part 1 (also Parts 2 & 3)


I discovered this by overhearing what Apple Music was telling a friend of mine to check out. Personally I don't particularly like an algorithm telling me 'if you like that, you'll like this', but I guess it's not always going to be wrong.


My first impressions: someone, presumably African, is doing dazzling things with a kora, a kind of African harp with the prettiest sound imaginable, along with a jazzy (American?) pianist and a (latin?) percussionist. As it turns out, the pianist and percussionist are, respectively, Abdoulaye Diabaté and Moussa Sissokho from Senegal, and the kora player and vocalist is Djeli Moussa Diawara from Guinea.


I should really go back and put that last paragraph into past tense, since the Kora Trio no longer exists. Its kora player died. Pianist Diabaté has gone on to form a larger group called the Kora Jazz Band. Nevertheless, there's something quite special about the Trio. It's certainly music with a high Superficial Attractiveness Quotient. The kora shimmers and glitters, the piano stays on the accessibly melodic side of jazz, and the rhythms are joyously funky. On top of which, some tracks feature vocals in that beautiful high-pitched, intense and distinctly African style most often associated in the West with Salif Keita or Youssou N'Dour, and usually described as 'soaring'. 


Most of the tunes are originals, but for me the album's one misstep is a version of Charlie Parker's Now's The Time, which rather shockingly shows that for all their obvious skill, genuine feeling, and appreciation of American jazz, these guys can neither swing nor play the blues. But please, don't let that put you off. 


HOT CLUB OF DETROIT: It's About That Time


I found this, if you can believe it, in a record store. I was intrigued enough by the name, lineup, and track listing, to buy it, and I'm glad I did. As their name suggests, this is a band inspired by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli's Quintet of the Hot Club of France, and like that legendary ensemble, it is rhythmically driven by two acoustic guitars and acoustic bass, with no drums. On top of that, though, they add accordion and a saxophonist/clarinetist.


This Hot Club's SAQ is medium; they sound, superficially, like they would be interesting to listen to in more depth (if that makes sense) and they are. Their playing is so brilliant, and their arrangements so smart and so flawlessly executed, that I found myself wondering whether they're all virtuosos or whether they just rehearse for hours and months on end. The answer is probably 'both'.


The lineup, particularly the absence of drums (or piano), enables the quintet to push gently into genres beyond jazz (tango, flamenco, gypsy music) without sounding contrived. Their repertoire is also intriguing, ranging from Reinhardt/Grappelli classics to some neat original compositions and such surprising choices as a version of Charles Mingus's Nostalgia in Times Square in 5/4 time, and a lovely, wistful arrangement of a famous piano piece by Chopin, his Étude in E Major (aka Tristesse). It's all great stuff and I'm looking for their other albums, of which I believe there are three.


JAZZ JAMAICA: Skaravan and Double Barrel


So, I'm sitting in one of my favourite bars, sipping a martini, and what do I hear but a big horn section playing Charlie Parker's Barbados with a ska beat, which was so perfect both musically and conceptually that it made me laugh out loud. The bartender didn't know who it was, either, but Shazam! – just holding up an iPhone reveals it to be Jazz Jamaica, a London-based collective of both black and white musicians mashing up jazz with ska and reggae. The next thing you know, I have two of their albums, both of which have a very high SAQ.


J J seem to have three strategies. The first is to take classic jazz tunes (like Ellington's Caravan=Skaravan, as well as some surprisingly ambitious choices like Herbie Hancock's Butterfly and Wayne Shorter's Night Dreamer) and to reggaefy (or Skatalize?) them. The second is to take ska classics like Double Barrel or Monkey Man and jazz them up a bit. The third is to take a motley assortment of R&B tunes, some originals, and the theme from Exodus (!) and do a bit of both. When the horns are all playing together, and the rhythm section is skanking happily along, it's irresistible: perfect party music with a clever twist. It only runs into trouble in some of the solos, which suffer from the kind of uncertain and aimless waffling that's regrettably typical of British jazz playing. Sorry, but it's true. 


It's still pretty cool to hear Barbados with a ska beat, though.