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!

My 6 Favorite Compilations, Soundtracks & Greatest Hits Records Of 2012

As it turns out, most of the music I bought this year came from Amazon and their awesome $5 album (and under) deals. I’m a sucker for a deal and an even bigger sucker for paying a little for what I consider to be a lot. That’s the case for most of the five records on this particular list which features a soundtrack, the complete recording of a particular artist from one record label and three greatest hits packages. This is a good way to mainline lots of music from a particular artist on the cheap. muppet soundtrackI wrote about how much I enjoyed The Muppets earlier this year. That love translated into the purchase of the soundtrack as well, something that hasn’t happened in years. This one is a great mix of soundbites from the movie, original songs and a few known songs like Starship’s “We Built This City” and Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyeard.” I would have probably bought this record just for the amazing “Life’s A Happy Song,” the fact that the rest is so awesome is gravy. ZZ Top Rancho TexicanI only really know ZZ Top from their singles, a greatest hits collection my dad had and seeing them live also with my dad. I do have one of their early records, but have to admit, it gets a little slow and I tend to lose interest. So, when I saw Rancho Texicano: The Very Best of ZZ Top — which features 38 tracks! — on Amazon for a fin? That was an easy purchase. The great thing about this collection is that it’s not just all the songs you know like “Tush,” “Cheap Sunglasses” and “Gimme All Your Lovin'” but also some deeper cuts that flesh this record out. A great example of what a greatest hits collection can be when not limited to a physical disc. Also, proof that this is one of the greatest damn bands around. aretha franklin 30 greatest hitsSometimes you just need some soul in your life. That’s why I snatched up Aretha Franklin’s 30 Greatest Hits. Also, Lu likes listening to music with some swing and jazz to it, so this was an easy buy. Listening through these tracks was an interesting experience because I didn’t realize that some of these songs were hers. That’s probably a reflection on my ignorance of Franklin’s career, but I enjoy getting educated. willie nelson complete atlantic sessionsOne of the reasons I shied away from greatest hits records in the past is because I like discovering some of the deep cuts on records, the ones you don’t hear on the radio. Now that I’m getting older though, I find myself becoming more “Get to the hits!” It’s not a feeling I like and one I’m trying to work beyond. Anyway, Willie Nelson’s Complete Atlantic Sessions is like the antithesis of those hits records I avoided as it contains all 61 tracks Willie recorded for them. I haven’t gotten all the way through this one yet, but I like what I’ve head enough to warrant the purchase and its spot in this list. beach boys 50 big onesFor years and years I heard how great the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was. When I finally picked it up, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. It’s a great record, don’t get me wrong, but it lacks the fun, surf rock songs I love (for the most part). It just wasn’t what I was expecting. So, when I saw The Beach Boys’ 50 Big Ones: Greatest Hits, it was another no-brainer. The beauty of this collection is that it literally has every Beach Boys song I know of. I’m sure it’s missing the deep cuts I talked about above, but I’m okay with that. The one downside to having so many tracks, though, is that I realized I’m not built to listen to 25 Beach Boys tracks in a short period of time, let alone 50. Those amazing harmonies they do can get a little annoying when listened to in a short period of time. However, I’m still glad I have this record because I can listen to what I want, in small chunks, whenever I want.

pitch perfect soundtrackThe Pitch Perfect soundtrack is exactly why I don’t post these list before the end of the year. I actually wrote the first draft of this post a week or so back, but saved it as a draft. I’m glad I did because my wife and I watched Pitch Perfect for the first (and then second) time recently and I kind of fell in love. As I mentioned in my post about the film, I was something of an a cappella fan in college, so this brought back some memories. It also reminded me of how good that B.O.B/Rivers Cuomo song “Magic” is, which I really appreciate. I’ve had that and a few of the other songs from the film in my head since watching the movie and I actually don’t mind it, so that’s a pretty good sign.

My 6 Favorite New Albums Of 2012

I’m going to toss out a few caveats right at the top of this post. First of all, I’m a huge fan of Amazon’s MP3 section and how they sell 100 different albums for $5 every month. That’s where I bought all of these records except for one, which I bought from the band themselves. The only problem with this easy, cheap access to records is that I can get behind in what I’m listening too. Plus, if something might not be appropriate for tiny ears, I have to hold off on listening to that particular record. Holding off can mean I don’t listen to something nearly as much as I should or want to. As such, I haven’t given these records the attention they deserve, but I really enjoyed what I heard. As in years past, I’ll have multiple lists of favorite records. This one is albums that actually came out in 2012. I’ll also have a much longer list of New-To-Me records I bought in 2012 and even one of the best greatest hits, soundtracks and compilations I picked up and enjoyed in 2012. But now, here’s the new stuff. k'naan country god or the girlI’m not super tapped into the music world anymore. The extent of my knowledge mostly comes from reading Rolling Stone’s website, following @amazonmp3 on twitter and scoping out the new, cheap Amazon MP3 records on the site. As such, I didn’t know about K’Naan’s latest record, Country, God or The Girl until it wound up on one of those three radars (or possibly all three now that I think about it). K’Naan made the list back in 2009 with Troubador, my first exposure to his hip hop stylings and I’m happy to say that this record has more of the same absorbing, thoughtful and fun tracks. willie nelson heroesFor the longest time I didn’t have much of an opinion of Willie Nelson. Country music wasn’t really my thing, but I thought his cameo in Half Baked was pretty funny. That was the extent of my exposure. Then I listened to him in The Highwaymen and eventually picked up Stardust, a beautiful record that made the New Old list for 2010 and I was in. This year, I picked up two more of his records, The Complete Atlantic Collection and Heroes, both of which made lists. Heroes not only features Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah, but also songs that jump effortlessly from soul searching to hilarious. Snoop Dogg, Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson also lend their considerable talents. Yeah, that’s right Snoop Dogg, marking a great Half Baked reunion on “Roll Me Up.”the hives lex hivesI wasn’t hugely into the garage revival of the early 00s. I never bought a Strokes record and the Vines ones I did buy were kind of disappointing. Others felt like three or four singles wrapped up in 8-10 extra tracks of padding. But, I really liked The Hives’ Veni Vidi Viscious. It was a rocking good time that played fast and loud and didn’t take itself too seriously. I didn’t keep up on the rest of their records, but when I saw their latest, Lex Hives, pop up for a few bucks, I had to check it out. I’m pleased to say that this record has that same energy with songs that make you want to get up and dance. Better yet? Lucy liked the jams too and danced along with me! Also, I don’t say this much anymore because I don’t see them nearly as often, but I really dig that cover. Van Halen A Different Kind Of TruthAs regular readers might remember, I saw Van Halen with my dad in March of last year. The worry going into something like that with any older band is that you don’t know if everyone still has their chops. Luckily, that was an unfounded worry when it came to the band. Even with that in mind, I had similar fears when sitting down to listen to Van Halen’s new record A Different Kind of Truth. I mean, how many records from 70s bands that have come out in the past five years do you really listen to? Again, I was happy to discover that this new record had a lot of the goodness found on classic Diamond Dave-era VH tracks. Sure, they’re often goofy tunes about tattoos and whatnot, but it’s okay to have a little fun with a record. It definitely helped that most of these songs actually have their roots in the group’s writing sessions from the mid 70s. faulkner detectives modern handshakeMy pals Alex Segura and Elizabeth Keenan-Penagos are in a band called Faulkner Detectives with Meg Wilhoite and Vanessa Lopez. Because they are my friends, I bought their seven song EP titled The Modern Handshake, but that’s not why they made the list. There’s no room for nepotism on UnitedMonkee! Alex is actually the person who, when I was a Wizard intern, got me into The Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. Not surprisingly, his band has a somewhat similar vibe to those bands, which is something I don’t have enough of in my life.bob mould silver ageI realize it might be kind of weird how I keep explaining how I came to an album. I just think the reason you buy something plays an important role in both your expectations and how you react to the material. I found Bob Mould by way of The Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light which he did one track on. That got me to Husker Du’s Zen Arcade which melted my brain last year. Then, when Bob Mould’s solo record, Silver Age, came out earlier this year and was discounted, I was sold. I just listened to this one again and I just love it. I admit, I have difficulty figuring out exactly why, I just dig it. It’s good rock and roll music by a guy who knows what he’s doing after years of experience.

I realize after writing this that nearly every album on here is by an artist or group that I was already familiar with. Most of the bands I listened to for the first time this year were older bands and will show up on my New-To-Me list later this week. A few days before the end of the year I even picked up The Vaccines’ Come of Age, but still haven’t listened to it yet and therefore it can not make the list. I also picked up the first two of Green Day’s three new albums this year, but haven’t listened to them yet. I also grabbed Soundgarden’s King Animal and while I liked it, I wasn’t as blown away as I wanted to be. Maybe I’ll have more time next year…

Favorite New Old Albums Of 2010

After listing my favorite new albums of 2010, I figured I’d also have some fun with a list of records I really dug that I bought this year, but didn’t come out in 2010. I’ve mentioned this before, but I buy a LOT of CDs on the cheap at garage sales, yard sales, flea markets and at stores. I rarely spend more than $7 on something new and get all kinds of deals at those other places, so I’ve been able to acquire lots and lots of music I missed out on in previous years. This list has a whopping 12 records and/or bands on it, but I’ve written about a few of them previously, so I won’t get into too much detail on those. Hit the jump for all the goodness you can handle! Continue reading Favorite New Old Albums Of 2010

Supergroup Showcase: The Highwaymen

THE HIGHWAYMEN
THE PLAYERS: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson on guitar and vocals.
THE STORY: The four baddest outlaws in country music got together to sing some of the best damn story songs in the history of music. They recorded three albums before Jennings passed away in 2002. Nuff said.

I remember the very first time I heard about The Highwaymen. I was an intern at Wizard, rooming with Brian Warmoth at Nyack College over the summer and he played a few songs from one of their records on his laptop. At the time I might have picked up one of those Walmart Johnn Cash Super Hits CDs or that might have come later, but I did have a general disdain towards country–you know the stuff they play on the radio or even VH1 sometimes. I didn’t realize there was so much better country out there. Anyway, he explained the supergroup to me, that it included Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. The idea of it was very intriguing. Later, during my senior year of college, I went to Walmart once again (there’s not a lot to do in Delaware, Ohio) and picked up a Super Hits Highwaymen CD. Damn, it’s good stuff. Since then, I’ve gone on to listen to lots more Cash and was blown away when I got Nelson’s Stardust earlier this year. The most I’ve listened to Jennings is on Highwaymen records and the only extra Kirstofferson stuff I’ve heard was on my SNL DVDs when he hosted way back in 1976 (he was better known to me for his turn in the Blade movies).

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to come across the Highwaymen’s first record which was just called Highwayman. At the time, the band didn’t really have a name, they just went by their last names. It wasn’t much of a leap from Highwayman to Highwaymen and there you have it. Many of the tracks on the first record are on the Super Hits version I have, so they were familiar to me by the time I listened to it, but there were a few newbies like the Cash/Nelson sung “Committed To Parkview” a haunting track about two men in a mental institution. On their own, these guys were masters of the story-song, but together they’re like a Voltron of the form.  Much like the Traveling Wilburys these four men came together to play some amazing music which retained their individual skills but also sounded awesome together. I’ve only listened to the Super Hits and the first record, but I’ve got my eye out for the other two and will look around to see if there’s any performance DVDs on Netflix. My one complaint about the recordings is that they’re kind of over-produced. You could have just put these guys in a room with their guitars, amps and a few mics and just put it on wax like Rick Rubin did with Cash towards the end of his life and also Neil Diamond on 12 Songs. Maybe a more lo-fi remaster is in order.