Music Musings: All That Jazz

A Quartet In The StudioI found myself in an interesting mood this morning. Feeling tired and sleepy, I decided to skip the usual morning podcast-listening session in favor of the recently purchased Mulligan Meets Monk record, a Thelonious Monk disc that found the master pianist teaming up with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. 

mulligan meets monk

 

The experience got me thinking about jazz and my relationship with that musical art form. Growing up, I didn’t hear much of it aside from pieces in commercials, TV shows and movies here and there. It wasn’t until high school that I had my first real exposure to one of the few, truly American art forms.

At the time I had a website — I was very intent on calling it a site and not a blog because I thought the word was silly (it is) — where I would trade bootleg recordings with people. Actually, it’s still up because apparently Angelfire is still a thing. Anyway, out of nowhere I got an email asking if I would be interested in putting a banner ad up on the bootleg trading page in exchange for some swag. I said sure, popped in some code and eventually got a package in the mail from this company I’d never heard of.

It was Blue Note, the biggest jazz label around. I had no idea. Anyway, this happened twice and I wound up getting some records that might not have made it into my regular rotation, but definitely primed the pump for my later love of the genre. I remember getting Soulive’s Doin’ Something, Karl Denson’s Dance Lesson #2 and Charlie Hunter’s Songs From An Analog Playground.

I still listen to these records and am glad that they were the first ones I came across because they opened me up to the idea of new jazz. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, it’s a genre of music that is perceived to be mostly ruled by dead musicians. This is still a vast, evolving art form that new people are doing amazing things with.

I remember being blown away by the way Denson incorporated a DJ (DJ Logic to be specific) into his compositions, Soulive kept things fun and funky and Hunter brought in singers like Mos Def and a pre-fame Norah Jones to help bring his songs to life. There’s a vibrancy to those records that make them worth listening to and also built an interesting foundation for what jazz could be in my mind. This is not a stagnant form and it should not stay static. Art doesn’t work that way, museums do.miles davis bitches brew

The first classic jazz record I ever picked up was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. That jazz/rock fusion album probably wasn’t the best place to dip my toe in for either the genre or Davis’ fantastic catalog, but one of my favorite magazines at the time Guitar World, did a huge feature on it and I was interested. Unfortunately, the acid washed improvisation wasn’t something I was quite ready for yet so I only listened to the full double album a few times before shelving it.

It wasn’t until my senior year of college at Ohio Wesleyan that I really continued my jazz journey. I’d pretty much nailed down all my required classes to graduate and decided to take it easy on myself both class and schedule wise. That translated into a very relaxed schedule that included Jazz 110 at the music building, a place I’d only been a handful of times in my college career (it was in a completely part of the campus).

The class seemed split between people like myself looking to get an easy credit and others who were legitimately into this kind of music. And, honestly, it was a pretty easy class. The hardest part came when we were played various instruments and had to write down what they were. That’s not my strong suit and I think I bombed that quiz pretty hard. But the rest of it was pretty basic stuff with a mix of history — tracing the music back to New Orleans — and memorization. For the final I remember listening to a long list of songs because we’d have to name them on the test after hearing a snippet. I’ve always been bad at remembering non-obvious song names, so that was tough too.

The songs themselves all came from the Ken Burns Jazz box set, which we had to buy for class. A lot of kids burned or downloaded it, but I got one (well, my parents got me one along with my other text books which I did feel a bit bad about because I was actually excited about the purchase. Still, I got a good deal on a used one). If you’re even remotely interested in jazz, that box is a great place to start because it takes a chronological look at the form going from old school New Orleans brass band stuff all the way up through Weather Report. In other words, it’s a great sampler.jazz the first 100 years

One of the big things I learned from that class were the different subgeneres of jazz. You’ve got everything from New Orleans and bop to blue, swing, acid, fusion and even jazz-rap. There is a ridiculous amount of music out there that, but the nice thing about the Ken Burns set and the Jazz: The First 100 Years textbook we used is that I got an idea of the form’s spectrum. From there I was able to zero in on the elements and subgenres that interested me most. For instance, I remember reading about Cecil Taylor’s crazy piano playing and then gave him a listen on the box set and realized I wanted to listen to more of that. You can do a lot of this with various websites and YouTube these days, but that’s not where my musical journey took me.

From there, I started exploring the greats. I picked up a couple Benny Goodman records — including one that’s a two disc full concert — got more into the biggies like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly and Charles Mingus. I’ve also branched out into some of the odder stuff like Us3, a hip hop group that only sang over sampled jazz licks.

One aspect of jazz that I fell in love with pretty quickly was  how dramatic and comic book-like the whole scene was for a while. When I got into comics, I just dove in and started learning all I could about these characters. Eventually I built up a pretty solid mental database of who did what and when various characters teamed up. There’s a lot of that in jazz too. All of these people had these big personalities and crazy backstories. They were part of a band (team) for a period of time and then either moved on to another one or started their own. There’s also all kinds of team-ups all over the place. There’s a drama to the whole thing that sparked my imagination and helped me get interested in not just the music, but the people as well. Projects like The Quintet or Duke Ellington recording with Louis Armstrong hold a lot of appeal for me.

Another aspect of the form — at least the stuff I seem to be drawn to — is that it can be listened to on various levels. I can put something like Monk’s Alone In San Francisco and flow in and out of it while I do work or get some writing done. But, I can also sit and really explore these records, noting how they twist, turn and play with the form. I’m not nearly musical enough to get too in depth with this stuff, but I like a record that you could potentially sit in a dark room with and just experience. A lot of the jazz records I’ve listened to can be that.

While I still check out the jazz section of any used record store I find myself at, the main source of recently purchased records comes from Amazon’s MP3 store. Every month they put 100 albums on sale for $5 each and there’s usually a jazz album or two in there. That’s where I got Mulligan Meets Monk and a few others like Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’, Cannonaball’s Bossa Nova, Miles Davis’ seminal Kind Of Blue and even the Willie Nelson, Winton Marsalis and Norah Jones Ray Charles tribute called Here We Go Again.

It’s kind of wild to think that I’ve only been into this form of music for 8 years or so. Sure there were those first few Blue Note records, but those could have easily turned into outliers in the statistical equation of my music collection, a funny story to tell from my online past. What’s even stranger to think about is how separated this kind of music tends to be in the world of pop culture. Jazz just isn’t out there in the pop world as much as other forms, so it’s possible to completely miss it if you’re not looking for something new and different. Now that I think about it, that’s another common theme between jazz and comic books. Anyway, I’m hoping to remedy that a bit with my kid and expose her to this stuff at an early age. I hope she digs that swing!

Ambitious Reading List: The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake By Aimee Bender (2010)

Well, I finally quit trying to read Devil In The White City. I probably should have stuck with it and charged through, but there was just something about that book that didn’t hook me into coming back for more. I liked what I read, but I kept thinking about finishing this Ambitious Reading List and even starting the next one and just couldn’t sync with it. So, I put it to the side, knowing I’ll return to it some day, and then moved onto Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake, a book I really loved by an author I have a little bit of experience with. You know what that means, story time!

When I was in college at Ohio Wesleyan University, I was part of the English board (or whatever it was called). I think I got involved because my creative writing professor, Robert Olmstead, asked me if I’d be interested so I went with it. I don’t know if it was an election or what, but there I was. We had various authors come to OWU, do readings and sometimes even sit in on our workshop classes. Aimee Bender was one of those authors. For whatever reason Professor Olmstead asked me to write and do an introduction for her, which made me nervous because I get all kinds of anxious when I have to speak in front of a crowd, even if it’s just a handful of my fellow classmates. Anyway, I did my research (I think this was pre-Wikipedia, so I had to go to more than one website), gave the intro and Bender said it was one of the best ones she’d ever heard. I don’t know if she was just being nice, but it was nice and I appreciated it.

I can’t remember if we read any of Bender’s work for my workshop class or if I just listened pretty well during her reading, but I was drawn to her style. It’s very introspective and colorful and usually involves some fantastical elements inserted into normal life (at least the two novels of hers that I read). At the time it was also really inspiring because I felt like I was working towards a style similar to hers. A few years back I finally read her first novel, An Invisible Sign Of My Own, which I remember liking, but don’t remember many details of. Back when all the Borders closed down, I was at one and happened to see her latest novel The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake and had to buy it. Man, I’m glad I did. I had a wonderful experience reading this book.

The idea here is that, a young girl named Rose realizes she has the ability to taste the feelings of people making her food, but it’s really more about Rose, how she deals with this ability while also growing up the world AND dealing with her normal-on-the-surface-but-not-really family. See, Rose’s dad wanted a normal family, likes lists and wants everything simple and normal, but that’s not how life really is, especially the lives of the people in his house. Rose’s mom has this deep longing to find herself and deflects many of those feelings by loving her children intensely. Meanwhile, Rose’s brother is pretty shut off from the world, burying himself in books and science, but also has something odd going on that I won’t spoil, but turns out to be pretty crazy.

The book also deals with normal things like growing to understand the adult world, first loves gone bad and the responsibility many children feel to their parents. The beauty of Bender’s writing is that she can so seamlessly infuse these normal, relateable human moments with some pretty crazy elements. Being a comic book fan, I think I might have been a little more primed for this kind of book which shares a basic premise with John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew. I’d be curious to find out if people not in that camp would be able to get into the slightly off kilter world of this book.

Reading this book was a little like looking at a series of mirrors for me. I could relate to pretty much every character in this book on a very personal level that surprised me. It might just be a matter of happenstance, that the fears, insecurities, hopes and dreams running around in my head were so well represented in this book, but it’s there. One character’s desire to just fade away, another’s desire to tackle the world, the mom’s desire to find something outside of her family that fulfills her and even Rose’s appreciation for a simple dishwashing job. All those things are bouncing around my head at any given day, so it was a pleasure to see these things on the page.

I can’t recommend Bender’s work enough. As I mentioned when I wrote about Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, there are a lot of similarities in styles between these two women. It’s funny, while reading Bones I noted that Sebold’s style reminded me of Bender’s and this time, while reading Cake, Bender reminded me of Sebold. If you’re looking for an author who looks at things from a different perspective and explains them deftly with an expert use of language and sense memory, give The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake a read.

With Bender’s book crossed off the list, I’ve now moved on to Please Kill Me and am about 150 pages into this 430 page beast. I’m learning all kinds of stuff, some pretty crazy things and keeping track of records I want to check out. What a wild time. And after that? Well, I’ve already got my next Ambitious Reading List read to roll. It’s another dozen books of all different shapes, sizes and topics. I’m pretty excited, should be fun.

Killer Klowns From Sandusky Street

As some of you may know, the missus and I went to our five year college reunion at OWU in Delaware, Ohio then went up to Toledo for a few days and then to Geof and Eileen’s wedding in Valpraiso, Indiana. For the purposes of the blog, the trip was fairly uneventful, though I did get to read some trades and saw Slammin Salmon for the first time. Most importantly, though, this happened:

There was a street festival in Delaware the weekend we were there, I assume to both celebrate the undergrads no longer being around to refer to them as “townies” and also to get some of that OWU alumni money. I saw this guy doing balloon animals and whatnot earlier in the day and thought he looked a little creepy, but only in the sense that all clowns wearing JNCOs are creepy. Later that night, he showed up at the packed bar still wearing his makeup, though it looked more like Heath Ledger’s Joker by then and stunk like a homeless guy. He made my buddy Will this crazy hat and then, I shit you not, left on a unicycle after almost being forcibly removed from the bar by a very angry bartender who was sick of stepping on balloons.

Homecoming

2008-10-13
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Hey faithful readers. I’m sure you were worried sick about not getting updates over the last few days, but Em and I went back to our alma mater Ohio Wesleyan University for homecoming. It was really strange being back in a place that used to be home and now belongs to a completely different group of people than I remember. We’ve been out for three years which means that the kids who were freshman when we were seniors graduated last year. Which is a trip for sure. I don’t think I’ve used the word “weird” so many times in my life to describe how I felt.

Anyway, a group of my fraternity brothers (Alpha Sigma Phi) came back for the annual Sig Bust alumni event which was a lot of fun. It was great seeing any of you who might be reading this and if you weren’t able to make it, you were missed.

Well, literally kicking it old school this weekend was a lot of fun, but the total of 18 hours driving between Friday and today have taken their toll. But keep an eye out for a few new reviews soon, including the first Powers TPB and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.