223: Ibrahim Maalouf, ‘Conspiracy Generation’

Posted by jeff on Sep 25, 2015 in Jazz, Song Of the week

photoIbrahim Maalouf – ‘Conspiracy Generation’ (from “Illusions”)

Ibrahim Maalouf – ‘Nomade Slang’ (from “Illusions”)

Ibrahim Maalouf – ‘Ya Ha La’ (from “Diachronism”)

Full disclosure: when it comes to music, I’m an ‘all or nothing’ kind of guy. I have an aversion to writing about musicians I only know partially. Full mastery—every album, every cut, every outtake, every bootleg (by heart)—or shaddup. But you know what sneaks in on occasion, and was one of the triggers for starting to write this blog about six years ago?

Infatuation. New-blown love. Spring. Flowers and pastels and hazy blonde girls tralalaing through a meadow of daisies.

Remember when you were 15, and Pearl Moskowitz  smiled at you and gave you a bouncy little “Hi Jeff!” as she swiggled by with her ponytail and her girlfriends in the 9th grade hallway? And how you didn’t sleep too well for a week, but smiling?

Well, Pearl has long since sagged out of my memory. And pretty little girls don’t smile at me as often as they once did, certainly not on call. But music? Music is always around. It never has a headache or needs to study for an algebra quiz. Put the needle in the groove, it’ll play for you. Good ol’ Ms Reliable.

You take a guy like Ibrahim Maalouf. The guy can spend three years making a record. Engaging his mind, baring his soul, opening his heart, creating groundbreaking mindbusting music recording it perfectly. And all I need to do to fall into adolescent love is to click on the album and pay attention. Boom. The juices flow. The glow gleams. The universe is in sync. The universe is in song.

670px-Control-an-Infatuation-With-a-Girl-Step-2-Version-2I guess I’d be exaggerating if I said that falling in love with new music makes my life worth living. There are lots more important things in the world. Like, um…

I spend a lot of time haunting the musical equivalent of singles bars. I ‘put myself out there’. A couple of months ago I was schmoozing with Uriel Herman, an ultra-talented young Israeli musician who comes from a classical background and is now making transgenre Eastern-tinged art/rock/jazz/neo-‘classical’ music that warrants serious attention (‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Winter Light’, ‘The Silence’). As is my wont, I ply talented and tasteful young folk for hot tips. He gave me a list of almost a dozen young musicians, locals and elsewheres. The note has been staring at me since. It’s not easy to garner up the energy to immerse yourself in yet another Turkish percussionist or Finnish surf band. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. If you want to fall in love, you gotta work at it.

First, you get the discography. Half a dozen studio albums. And a couple of full concert videos. Then you go through them, one by one, in chronological order. Then you listen a second time, taking a few notes. Then you pick the couple of most interesting ones and dive in. Diving for pearls. Diving for Pearl.

I’ve had a few musical lovers over the past half year. Imogen Heap. Sigur Rós. Snarky Puppy. Tigran Hamasyan. Maria Schneider’s new “The Thompson Fields.” Bon Iver>Justin Vernon (with his damn multiple personae and voluminous output). To name just a few. And there were some shorter flings that I remember only vaguely. But I have no pangs of conscience. I am a constant lover. I really do love the one I’m with.

arton174694And for four days now I’ve been with Ibrahim Maalouf. Born 1980 in Beirut, he grew up in Paris studying General Science and Specialised Mathematics as well as gaining a significant reputation as a classical trumpeter. He moved to Arabic jazz, playing an instrument invented by his trumpeter father, with a fourth valve half the length of the second valve to allow for the production of the quarter tones necessary for performing the melodic modes of Arabic maqamat. (If you want to try it, use your right hand to play the first three valves and the index finger of your left hand to depress the fourth valve.)

The music? Oh, the music! In my mind, Ibrahim plays in the same league as Snarky Puppy and Tigran Hamasyan: ballsy post-hard bop with lots of funk, lots of prog rock. It’s young genre-bending jazz-rock that you can both think about and dance to. Heck, if you’re in love you can’t help but dance to it and you can’t think about anything else. Is it pedantic to classify these guys? A sophistic exercise in taxonomy? I don’t think so. It’s a tool for understanding them. You group them, they reflect off of each other, illuminate each other without diminishing the individuality of each. Kind of like girlfriends.

I’m still trying to sort out his discography. But I’ve been listening for four days, and Ibrahim has been on his musical odyssey for over seven years. So I don’t expect to have grasped it all. That would be demeaning. I’m just fine sampling his exotic fruits and quarter tones and sundry musical baklawa.

He plays in a wide range of contexts. A quintet including a prog rock guitar, bass and drums. Or a band with three trumpets backing him. Or employing a French rapper. Or the audience singing a chant he’s taught them. Or his two new albums being released today: “Kalthoum”, a tribute to the legendary Egyptian singer, with a band including Larry Grenadier on bass and Mark Turner on sax; and “Red & Black Light”, backed by guitar, drums and piano. It’s a bit challenging to keep up with these milliennials, releasing two albums a day. Nobody said love was an easy game.

album-vari-ibrahim-maalouf-illusionsHe often plays extended slow, meditative solos. They’re MilesDavisian in tone – soulful, intense, barely graspable, easy to drift off from, perchance to dream. But then they build into an ass-kicking wall-of-sound symphony of exuberance that cannot but move you to move. Check out “Beirut”. Eight and a half minutes of meditation, followed by two minutes of explosion.

Or this concert from Istanbul, 2013. Start at 1:00:40. It starts, of course, with Ibrahim flittering around and through a bagpipe playing maqam arpeggios. It then moves into a heavy rock guitar solo, then a jazz interlude, ending with a memorable drum solo (1:06 to 1:10:30). Check out the audience. They’re dancing with him, singing with him, loving him.

Or check out ‘Will Soon Be a Woman’ from the album “Diagnostic”—blindfolded, I’d have guessed Tigran. How far is Lebanon from Armenia? Well you cross right over Turkey. Using your French passport, of course.

I’d really love to go on plumbing and probing and dissecting poor Mr Maalouf for another couple of weeks before speaking my mind, but then I’d be responsible for knowing everything. “Had we but world enough and time…”

So I’ll leave you with the first two cuts of the album that grabs me most strongly at this stage, “Illusions” (2013). ‘Illusions’ is a meandering guitar piece that builds and portends its way into our SoTW, ‘Conspiracy Generation’, a full-blown triumph of soul, intelligence and musicianship. I admit, it reminds me a lot of Snarky Puppy. But I enjoy it even more. I think it has all SP’s strengths (the energy, the attitude, the musicianship) with none of the weaknesses (SP’s music is always a bit standoffish for me). Ibrahim Maalouf has a musical candor and commitment to communication that engages me, even when he’s meditating. Here’s a live version from 2014. And here’s the full album of “Illusions”, full of those three backing trumpets that knockout drummer and the whole funky band, with Ibrahim’s music and aesthetic and trumpeting overflowing with funk and seriousness and insight and outtasight.

79_WILOI’ve mostly been watching the Istanbul concert. Yeah, I could do without the Freddy Mercury lighting effects, and I admit that there’s a lot more showoffmanship in the visuals than I’m comfortable with.

But Ibrahim Maalouf is the most exciting, talented, fun, interesting, enjoyable musician I’ve encountered in—well, it doesn’t really matter in how long. I’m in love.

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019: Johnny Dyani, ‘Track #1′ (Shvarim Tru’ah)

Posted by jeff on Sep 17, 2015 in Jazz, Other, Song Of the week

I listen to a fair amount of free jazz. For 99% of the music listening populace, that goes in the same category as the sounds made by a rooster being prepared for Kaparot, a cow in heat suffering from swine flu, a garbage truck digesting the leftovers from a Beitar Jerusalem game, or my neighbor’s kids finding a key to the storeroom of the local music conservatory.

And indeed, I often ask myself while listening to this cacophony, “Jeff, why?” And when I answer myself (I don’t always answer myself) I say something like, “Because on occasion this free jazz stuff can be really engaging, inexplicably but undeniably so.”

And there’s a lot of music that is in the gray area between music and sound, music with grit and bite and a lot of power. Music by artists as widely respected as that of late John Coltrane, Igor Stravinsky, Frank Zappa, and also that of some of my quirkier favorites such as Dimitri Shostakovich, pianist Andrew Hill, reedist Jimmy Giuffre, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, and pianist Mal Waldron (especially when the latter two collaborate).

This week’s song thereof is from a pretty darn obscure CD that I just came across, “Mal Waldron & Johnny Dyani – Live in Rome ’79”. The cut is called “Track #1”, but it has a lot of Waldron’s composition ‘Snake Out’ in it. It’s 39:30 long, but I’m only subjecting you to a few minutes of it, taken from the middle. You should be thankful for that.

Mal Waldron is a great pianist. He accompanied Billie Holiday on stage and in the boudoir in the late 1950s, then suffered a breakdown, then came back to a long and rich career in Europe and the US as a wonderful pianist, working in lots of contexts and styles, including the avant garde, making them all his own. He died in 2002. This CD is a collaboration with the South African bassist Johnny Dyani, who played in the very free jazz scene in Europe in the 1970-80s.

The clip you’re hearing is almost all Dyani, spiccato-ing his heart out, with just a hint of Waldron in the background. I don’t mean to do Mr. Waldron the disservice of representing him by it, and I promise to revisit him soon, more reverently and more revealingly, I hope.

Carl Jung talks about archetypes, ‘innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge’. I have no idea if anyone’s tried to extend that concept to music, to look for hardwired musical patterns that cross cultural boundaries. But I doubt seriously that Johnny Dyani was much exposed to Yom Kippur services (the yarmulke notwithstanding). And yet, here it is, starting about 1 minute into the piece. You tell me that’s not a string version of Ye Olde Ram’s Trumpet getting it off on that hard-bop classic, Shvarim Tru’ah.
G’mar chatima tova.


222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

Posted by jeff on Sep 11, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week
Photo by Joel Bernstein

Photo by Joel Bernstein

Joni Mitchell – River

Howdy, SoTW readers. How y’all doing? I do hope all’s well by you and yours.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog so much is that (according to the charter I wrote myself) I can write and say whatever I want, without being concerned about pleasing the audience. But I admit that I do peek at my stats on occasion, and I do indeed get a bit stressed on the unusual occasions when readership drops below 100 a day.

I’ve figured out over the years (I’m slow, this should have been obvious before I started) that people like to read about what they know. I’d do the same. Normal people prefer familiar music. So a post about ‘Twist and Shout’ is going to garner more hits than the one about the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir.

f3e1e3d32ff93437dd15cc304ba6859fAnd guess who has been the most popular subject on Song of The Week over the years? Joni, not surprisingly. If you’ve been following closely, I’ve been walking through her albums, picking one song or two to pontificate on:

In the posting about ‘Blue’ I described how daunting it is to take on a masterpiece. It took me a long time to work up the courage to approach “The Band”, and I’m still working myself up to “Pet Sounds”. But having broken the ice with ‘Blue’, we’re going to treat ourselves to address at least one more of the ten glorious tracks. So we might as well go for the very best (without diminishing a whit the wonders ensconced in ‘All I Want’, ‘Carey, or any of the others) – ‘River’, a song about ‘skating away’. Careful, Jeff; careful, Joni; the ice is broken, you don’t want to fall in.

adc535077eb429d2fc81b8880db90931A few live performances by James Taylor (the aforementioned heartbreaker) and by Joni:
James Taylor at the Joni Mitchell Tribute Concert, 2001
James Taylor (unattributed)
Joni Mitchell – Live, with lovely photos and videos of Joni in the snow
Herbie Hancock (piano), Joni Mitchell (vocal)

Joni’s ‘River’ is a moving piece of music. I don’t know many people who would disagree. It juxtaposes Los Angeles vs Saskatchewan, green vs white, noise vs silence, public festiveness vs private grief, desire for the other vs preservation of self. It’s a song about heartbreak and homesickness.

What do we have? “Jingle Bells” played in minor, the simplest joys couched in pain, the irony in the very first chords setting the stage for this vignette of defeat and resignation.

ChristmasCardRiver1“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees.”
“They’re putting up trees” would have scanned just as well. But Joni’s December is a killing season, a termination of vitality. Nobody’s sad during Christmas season. Except for those with a broken heart. Within that painful contrast resides her sadness.

“They’re putting up reindeer”. Plastic ones, Made in LaLaLand. In Saskatchewan we have, if not reindeer, then deer, elk, moose and caribou. Real ones. “Singing songs of joy and peace.” They are. Not me. I’m singing Jingle Bells in minor.

What are you doing there, Joni? What keeps you in LA? “I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.” But this year it’s going to be California, “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.”

“I wish I had a river I could skate away on.“ What an evocative image. A frozen river, its source somewhere in northern Saskatchewan, flowing those 2000 miles down to the city of fallen angels. But there is no such river. The Saskatchewan River itself flows eastwards for a mere 340 miles, emptying into Lake Winnipeg.

10864825_1533269443599960_2073203298_nWho among us – even the non-skaters – has not longed for that selfsame river? To escape ‘this crazy scene’, to flee back to the innocence of childhood, security, unconditional love. Did Hamlet not long to “shuffle off this mortal coil”, to escape “the whips and scorns of time”? Did Keats’ Nightingale not seek flight?

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades.

But we all know it’s a fiction. There is no river that will take us ‘back to where we once belonged’. If we were fortunate enough, we found a love “so naughty made me weak in the knees”. But Joni has “lost the best baby that I ever had”. Lost him why? “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.” She knows the score. “I made my baby say goodbye.” No recriminations of him or herself – that’s not the point. Nothing but loss and sadness.

Much ink has been spilled discussing the resonance of “Blue”, its “excruciating candor”, the profound effect it had on women in 1971, on songwriters, on everyone. “If you looked at me [during the recording sessions], I would weep; we had to lock the doors to make that album. Nobody was allowed in.”

From a 1979 interview: “The ‘Blue’ album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”

ca0e11adc57f38b8ccca0a0e8221d773Joni often skates on that thin ice, risking the ridiculous to achieve the sublime.  Think about this phrase.  She does indeed transcend, take wing, defying gravity.

She has created for herself and for us a river so long that our own feet can fly us away from this troubled world.

Oh, Joni.

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace .
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

But it don’t snow here, it stays pretty green.
I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby cry

He tried hard to help me, you know, he put me at ease.
He loved me so naughty made me weak in the knees.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Oh, I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby say goodbye

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace .
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on…




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041: Miles Davis, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’

Posted by jeff on Aug 31, 2015 in Jazz, Song Of the week

A few weeks ago (SoTW 35) we promised a series of posts which would walk through Miles Davis’ career in the 1950s. Well, we aim to keep that promise, so here goes the second installment.

In 1955 Miles Davis was 29 years old. At 18 he had begun playing second fiddle (well, trumpet actually, second lead voice to Bird’s alto sax) to Charlie Parker, the acknowledged genius and leading light of modern jazz. At 22, overwhelmed by Bird’s degenerate lifestyle, Miles struck out on his own and coalesced the Birth of the Cool nonet (along with Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and others), recording one ultra-white LP, one of the most beautiful and most influential records in all of modern music.

Then in 1951, Miles – the son of a wealthy, cultured St. Louis dentist – finally succumbed to drug addiction. For several years he wallowed in heroin, recording for the Prestige label the occasional desultory session with flashes of brilliance. Then he took himself to a small apartment above the stable on his father’s horse farm, went cold turkey all by himself. Clean, he returned to New York in 1955, aged 28, an ex-star bursting with arrogant self-confidence.

Jazz was having a heyday. Bird had just died (at 35). Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro were the leading trumpeters of the day (with Chet Baker beginning to make a name out in California); the Modern Jazz Quartet was playing elegant, classically-influenced jazz in concert halls wearing tuxedos; the Dave Brubeck quartet was bringing jazz to college campuses and the living rooms of respectable suburban (white) homes; the Newport Jazz Festival was serving as an annual focal point and showcase for the leading acts.

It was there that Columbia Records heard Miles, was knocked out by his great charisma, and signed him to a contract. But he had no working group, and he owed Prestige 4 records on his old contract, the money for which had long disappeared into the black holes in his veins.

The standard modern jazz combo consists of two lead voices—saxophone and trumpet—backed by a rhythm section of piano (which could also serve as a melodic, lead voice), bass, and drums.

So Miles gathered around him a group of upstarts (“Coleman Hawkins told me never to play with someone older than me”). One veteran, Philly Joe Jones, a wily old polyrhythmic fox, crony of Miles, a musician’s musician; Red Garland, a young Texan pianist, influenced by Ahmad Jamal’s cocktail piano repertoire and style; Paul Chambers, a 19-year old bassist;  and John Coltrane, a young saxophonist from Philadelphia. All four were junkies.

Coltrane’s playing was harsh, squeaky and often out-of-tune. His solos started and stopped in fits. He was technically limited, but a serious musician (he would practice endlessly), a genius in an early, chaotic stage in his development. He was widely criticized at the time as an inferior musician, but Miles stuck with him. The parallel with his own past was remarkable.

In 1946, Charlie Parker was at the top of his game, but his trumpeter, Dizzie Gillespie had left him (couldn’t take Bird’s addictions). To replace him, Bird hired Miles – a young, unproven, greenhorn, with limited technique and a promise of genius that only Bird himself could detect. Ten years later, Miles did the same for Coltrane. Like Miles, it would be several years of addiction, coming clean, and remarkable musical growth, before Coltrane would become Coltrane.

But at the time, in 1956, perhaps what attracted Miles was that the hard edge of Coltrane’s tone made his own sound that much more sensuous. And sensuous it was.

So before he could start recording for Columbia, Miles owed Prestige 4 albums. What he did was to take this new quintet for 2 marathon sessions at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. This group is today known as ‘The First Miles Davis Quintet’. These 2 sessions were eventually packaged as 4 LPs: “Workin’/Cookin’/Steamin’/Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”. They contain a wealth of material that is generally considered to be one of the pinnacles of modern jazz.

Unembellished story: When I was just learning this music, about a dozen years ago, I was riding the bus back from the big city, where I had purchased one of the CDs. I was reading the liner notes when the bus stopped and a few people got off. One soldier saw me holding the CD and said, “Ah, Miles’ first quintet, great stuff.” The soldier behind him said, “How can you say that? They can’t compare to the second quintet.”

This is time-capsule music, in the sense that if I had to play one single cut to a Martian music lover to show him what ‘jazz’ is, it would be almost any cut from this group. It’s maddeningly ‘standard’. Medium tempo, musically conservative. The repertoire is some popular tunes, some restrained blues, but mostly standards from the Great American Songbook, which we look forward to discussing some other time. Suffice it to say here that these songs are elegant, sophisticated, commercially appealing, of Jewish authorship, and most of all WHITE.

Which leads one to ask why Miles Davis, a belligerent black ex-junkie would choose this material. Well, because for all his belligerent bravado, Miles (at this period at least) was playing the most poignant, melodic, romantic music imaginable. Music of a tender sweetness that has rarely been matched in the popular idiom.

I think Miles was a closet Republican. He used the $4000 advance he got from Columbia on a fancy apartment on 57th Street, a white Ferrari, imported Italian suits and shoes. He was cultivating a persona as far from Bird as possible, both personally and musically.

Everything about this music is conservative. It’s the standard bebop quintet, standard repertoire, standard format – Miles’ statement of the theme, trumpet solo, sax solo, piano solo, bass and/or drum solos, restatement of theme, and ‘Bye, baby’. The two lead instruments almost never play together. Everything at an unhurried medium tempo. But Miles mutes his trumpet, and he makes love to the microphone. The rhythm section is the epitome of restrained, focused, beautiful musicianship. Everybody knows that it was Bird who first broke the sound barrier, several years before Chuck Yaeger. Well, Miles had graduated from Birdschool: “Man, you don’t have to play a whole lot of notes. You just have to play the pretty ones.”

The dynamics of the group are pretty intriguing. Miles never told other players what to do. In concert, he would play his solo (often with his back to the audience), then leave the stage with no directions as to how to continue; but as his musicians attested, his presence remained on the stage. Sometimes, when one soloist was playing, he would go up to another member of the band and whisper in his ear. It was to make the soloist nervous, what was Miles saying about him? Done to keep everyone on edge. Sweet guy, that Miles.

The 25 or so songs recorded in those two marathon sessions were almost all done in a single take. Miles felt it gave the music a creative tension, if the players knew there was no going back to correct mistakes.

The song we’ve chosen here is ‘It Never Entered My Mind‘, by Rogers and Hart, originally from the 1940 musical “Higher and Higher”. (There are many, many lovely treatments of the song–here’s Johnny Hartman singing it.) Coltrane doesn’t play a single note on it, so it’s perhaps not the most representative recording from these sessions. But it’s a piece of such heartrending beauty that I figure you’ll forgive me.

But do go listen to lots of these recordings. Some of my other favorites are ‘Diane‘, ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’, ‘My Funny Valentine‘, ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top‘. Everyone has their own favorites from these four CDs. And no one is impervious to their very special beauty.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

035: Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity’ (“Birth of the Cool”)

055: Miles Davis/Gil Evans, ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’

079: Miles Davis, ‘So What’ (“Kind of Blue”)





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