listen while browsing



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.

September 2017: Is Anybody Listening?

Is Anybody Listening?


I was wondering today how much any of us really listens to music. And whether we listen more, or less, than we used to.


It's certainly easy enough to argue that the current sheer accessibility of vast amounts of music has had the effect of cheapening it. That would probably be an argument made by someone who, like me, is old enough to remember when this wasn't so. In my teenage years, buying an LP was a big deal, not just because I was passionate and curious about the music, but because I could barely afford it. I, and many of my peers, got our money's worth by really listening – listening over and over again, letting the initially uninspiring tracks grow on us, reading the liner notes, analyzing the lyrics. The accompanying Old Geezer argument might be that the music back then was actually worth listening to.


My problem with Old Geezerdom (at least as an attitude, as opposed to a physical age) is that I refuse, as a matter of principle, to be a pessimist. It may or may not be true that some people used to listen to music more. But a much bigger proportion of humanity is now exposed to much more music than would have been the case, say, thirty years ago. Wouldn't that make us overall a more, not less, musical society? We're also seeing new phenomena: for instance, the teenager whose favourite music is drawn from several different genres and spread out over several decades.


Where we go from there I have no idea, and if anyone has any more intelligent observations, please let me know, because like many of my musings, this one is about to disappear up its own arse. Meanwhile, here are two albums I've been listening to with very different levels of concentration.



SKA CUBANO: Ay Caramba!


I can't believe I haven't written about this before. It's one of my all-time 'favourite albums discovered purely by accident' – I spotted it in an airport shop in Curaçao, Dutch West Indies, and bought it for the cover picture of two outrageously stylish chaps who turned out to be Natty Bo and Beny Billy, the two lead singers. I come back to this album over and over again, not so much to unravel its deep mysteries, but because it's just so much fun. You don't really have to listen to it at all, although, as with any good music, it doesn't hurt. 


Ska Cubano is apparently defunct, but it was an inspired attempt to fuse the musical cultures of Cuba and Jamaica. You know you're in for a good time right from the beginning of track one, with its big, fat, sloppy bass sound, skanking guitar and horns, and wailing clarinet. It's actually neither Cuban nor Jamaican but a Colombian-style Cumbia, but as the amusing liner notes make clear, that's part of Ska Cubano's 'Pan-Caribbean' mission too (and anyway, Cumbia is probably the closest thing we already had to latin Ska). For that matter, the title track and Big Bamboo are more Calypso than anything else. But who cares.


On some tracks all the pieces seem to slot together like a jigsaw puzzle, and the Cuban/Jamaican hybrid seems so natural and so perfect that you can't believe it hasn't been a wildly popular genre for the last fifty years. In Oye Compay Juan, the beat is Ska, but the chord changes, the song structure, and the Spanish vocals are Cuban through and through. Marianao does something similar, but adds sparkling piano riffs which could have come straight from an old Mambo record by someone like Perez Prado. 


Chispa Tren is an instrumental which sounds like something Madness might have created if they were hired to score a Laurel and Hardy film. Jezebel adds some pure Desi Arnaz kitsch, but then Bobine plunges us into a jungle of serious Cuban percussion voodoo. This is an album that strikes exactly the right balance between being a good laugh and being, well, really good. Like Señor Coconut's Yellow Fever (see WILT June 2014) it's a masterpiece which is too joyfully humorous to ever be nominated as one.



AHMAD JAMAL: Marseille


This is quite a different kettle of fish. Like a lot of Ahmad Jamal's music, his new album demands, and deserves, our full attention. If it's not his very best, it's still pretty fine, especially since he is now 87 years old. I'm not aware of anyone else working at such a high level of creativity at such an age. And yet he's never stopped making interesting and often inspired music.


So why don't we hear more about him? That question has been asked by more  than one jazz aficionado. One possible answer is that Jamal seems to have mostly played, recorded, and as far as I can ascertain, lived, in France for a long time. Another lies with jazz aficionados themselves, who've often bemoaned the music's lack of commercial success, while at the same time distrusting or resenting any jazz musician who actually achieves some. Ahmad Jamal had phenomenal success very early, which I think may have prejudiced a lot of people against him. Even now, he's always cited as one of the few musicians Miles Davis admitted to being influenced by – as though this was an interestingly quirky fact about Miles, rather than an appraisal of Jamal. 


Meanwhile, the man himself has built an enormous body of work which marks him as one of the great original piano stylists. No one else can produce such a range of colours and textures on the instrument, or within the confines of a piano/bass/drums trio - Jamal's preferred setting, since in his scheme of things there is barely room for anything else. A notable exception is the excellent Olympia 2000, recorded in Paris on his 70th birthday with the even more underrated George Coleman on tenor sax. More often, though, if Jamal adds a fourth musician, it will be a percussionist, as he does with Manolo Badrena on Marseille.


This makes perfect sense, as he loves to set up hypnotic afro-latin grooves, and then explore endless ways to play over, under, with, against and around them. He uses space like a Zen master (though he is, in fact, a Muslim). He can unleash a storm of sound, seeming to play every key on the instrument, or play just a few notes with ethereal delicacy, or create dramatic silences which force us to listen to the other players. Jamal has a big bag of tricks. Just a couple more: (1) playing variations on the actual melody of a song, rather than just improvising on the chords – for instance, keeping the notes but changing the rhythm, or turning a piece of the melody into a repeated riff. (2) Doubling the bass line with his left hand, which has the double effect of drawing attention to the bass, and deepening the groove – and then, when you're focused on the bass and the groove, departing from it, setting up a counter-melody or a cross-rhythm.


Marseille features – theoretically – three different versions of the title composition. I say 'theoretically' because the first, instrumental version seems to have no real connection to the second, and to my mind, best, which features a spoken word performance by French-Congolese rapper Abd Al Malik. On first hearing, I got caught up in trying to follow this with my sketchy French (it's a kind of impressionistic ode to the ancient Mediterranean port city of the title). After that, though, I was much more intrigued by the piano. On the surface, you might hear: someone speaking while someone else is noodling pleasantly on the piano in the background. Go a little deeper, though, and you realize that nothing Jamal is doing is obvious, and all of it is exquisite.


The weak point of Marseille, for me, is the third version of the title piece, with its uninspiring vocal by Mina Agossi. It confirms that for all the breadth and depth of Jamal's musical vision, he's not on very solid ground when it comes to the human voice, and seems to function best in an abstract instrumental world. This is hardly anything to be ashamed of, though, being a trait he arguably shares with people like Duke Ellington and Ludwig Van Beethoven.


Ahmad Jamal's playing seems completely free of ego. You never get a sense of 'hey, look what I can do!' Even when he throws in a quote – from someone else's work or sometimes his own – he's not showing off or trying to be clever. He does it quite a lot, as does, for instance, Horace Silver, a radically different player. But while Horace – a warm and gregarious musical personality – sounds like he wants to share a joke with you, Jamal is simply following a stream of musical thought in which a familiar reference point may crop up here and there, and if you spot it, fine, and if you don't, that's fine too.


Jamal's music, especially recently, possesses the rare quality of serenity. By serenity, I don't mean to suggest something dull – this music is too intelligent, humorous, funky and unpredictable to be dull. But it's not shouting at you. It's not desperate for your attention; you have to want to give it.


If I can achieve anything like this kind of serenity in my old age, I'll be even happier than I'll be if I can still play the piano.