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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.

January 2017: Mavericks and Musings

Oh no, he's going to talk about jazz again. Ah, come on, give me a break, willya?


ROLAND KIRK: Rip, Rig and Panic  /  Now Please Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith


Roland Kirk is remembered, even by some people with just a passing interest in jazz, as 'that weird blind guy who played two saxophones at once'. He was indeed a colourful character (his dying wish was to be cremated and for his ashes to be mixed into a huge bag of pot, to be smoked by his friends). But he was also a great player and composer.


Even his 'party piece', playing two or even three horns at the same time, actually takes some very clever strategizing – with just one hand fingering each instrument, you have a limited choice of notes. And yet in Kirk's hands it's also, musically, not just coherent but highly effective. On his 'main' instrument, the tenor sax, he has a pleasantly rough-edged tone, but if you don't like it you won't get bored, since on the next track he'll switch to flute or bass clarinet. In fact, you could never accuse Kirk of being boring. He keeps the tracks pretty short, always has a surprise up his sleeve, and listening to him is like enjoying the company of a very smart guy who just doesn't think like everyone else. The only people I can think of with similarly eccentric sensibilities are Thelonious Monk (who he worked with) and Frank Zappa (who he should have worked with).


What are CDs good for? Well, sometimes you can pick up one that brings together two good albums at a fair price, one of which you might otherwise never have heard. Rip, Rig and Panic, from 1965,is one of Kirk's best-known (the title was even stolen by an 80s UK band with whom Neneh Cherry made her recording debut). It features an interesting pianist (Jaki Byard) and a superstar drummer (Elvin Jones, who plays with explosive intensity throughout). Right from the start we know we're not in 'business as usual' territory, as a bebop-ish theme threatens to pull in the direction of free jazz when the band suddenly stops and Byard launches into a Stride-style solo break which pulls us back into the 1930s. Two other tracks become extremely dissonant: Slippery, Hippery, Flippery, which includes weird electronic sounds, and the title track, which ends in a cacophony of shouting and crashing metal – which, characteristically, Kirk immediately follows on soprano sax with a pretty, childlike waltz. Even Kirk's most 'out-there' moments, though, are redeemed for me by a sense of humor. Rather than intellectual exercises, they sound like a band having a great time while improvising a wacky soundtrack to a silent Tom and Jerry cartoon.


Now Please Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith was recorded two years later with a less stellar but no less capable band, and is a more straightforward, but no less enjoyable, album. The first track is a gloriously dirty blues, Alfie demonstrates Kirk's odd way of interpreting a standard ballad (somehow ironic and sincere at the same time) and Fallout is a finger-snapping boogaloo that could only have been recorded in 1967. This is immediately followed (you're probably getting the idea by now) by the beautiful, melancholy title track, written for Kirk's wife and reminiscent of Charles Mingus's searing Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. There's a method to Roland Kirk's madness, and I recommend a listening, perhaps accompanied by, say, a chilled Icelandic Schnapps, a Bacon-Infused Bloody Mary, or an Aged Rum and Maple Syrup Old-Fashioned.


EARL HINES: 1932-1934


OK, here goes another installment in my occasional 'favourite pianists' series. Earl Hines was actually the first real piano superstar in jazz, appearing on some of Louis Armstrong's milestone Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings before taking off as a bandleader in the 1930s. He pioneered a style known as 'trumpet piano', bashing out strong lead melody lines, often in octaves, with his right hand, very much in the melodic mold of Louis himself. At the same time, he often takes off into beautiful, delicate, cascading arpeggios and ornamentations, even as his left hand keeps pumping away like a whole rhythm section. Hines's blend of the pungently direct and the sensuously baroque always makes me think of New Orleans – even if he was born in Pittsburgh.


I've written before about the Original Jazz Classics series; this is a really good one, featuring some amazingly good playing by some fairly obscure people, and a couple of priceless tracks of Hines playing solo. How he did what he did with a mere eight fingers and two thumbs is a mystery to me.


RONNIE FOSTER: Two Headed Freap


This album, remastered as part of Blue Note's Rare Groove series, is considered something of a classic of its genre, which I guess you could call 'Early 1970s Jazz-Funk-R&B Crossover'. This kind of thing tends to strike me as not only dated but vapid. This is pretty good, though. The wah-wah and fuzz guitars sometimes drag us into Starsky and Hutch territory, but Foster's writing and organ playing are quite inventive, and the players sound like they mean business. One slow track, Mystic Brew, has been sampled by various Acid-jazzers, but the original version is as spooky-cool as anything by Portishead.


Two Headed Freap (sic – and I don't know what it means either) shares with contemporaneous efforts by jazzers like Grant Green or Donald Byrd, a rejection of the time-honoured jazz tradition of improvising on chord changes, in favour of free-form jamming over one chord, or one mode (scale). This probably felt liberating to the players, but to listeners (well, me, anyway) it can seem not only formless but endless. This makes me think about my attitude towards improvisation, which I see as one of the half-dozen or so most important ingredients of jazz, rather than its whole raison d'être. Ironically, I think that the less structure you have, the more you end up not with exhilarating freedom, but a kind of blind-alley pointlessness. Free Jazz only just about works for me when the very best players are at their most inspired, which seems rather a lot to ask.


Ronnie Foster, mercifully, doesn't allow the jamming sections to stretch into infinity. If nothing else, this album would be a fantastic soundtrack for a retro-70s party. Speaking of which, as a grizzled veteran of the style wars, I sometimes wonder why flared pants still haven't come back. Though I hasten to add that it is perfectly fine with me if they don't.