The Benny Goodman Orchestra’s performance at Carnegie Hall in January 1938 has a place in history as the coming out party for jazz, a legitimizing of an art form within the fortress of American (read: white/European) highbrow music. Ripe for irony? Yes. But when we recall this was the era of “race” records, and that jazz in the white American psyche was still an odd conflation of jump-and-jive black culture, blackface minstrelsy, and the carefully staged musical numbers of Hollywood sophisticates, Goodman and company’s triumph was quite real. Bringing an integrated group of musicians that included the best of its day to Carnegie Hall, blowing the collective Depression-era Jim Crow “high culture” hive-mind…. remarkable. This music is fierce, sometimes nasty, less a nod to propriety than a tuxedo-ed finger in the eye, dashing racial and artistic division by sheer force of celebratory musicality. “Sing Sing Sing,” a Goodman Orchestra signature tune written by Louis Prima, was the band’s finale, clocking in at over 12 minutes, and thus recorded, using the technology of the time, on acetate discs using a relay of multiple turntables (while the concert was almost instantly legendary, the recordings wouldn’t be made available for over a decade: see http://www.jitterbuzz.com/carcon.html for the whole fascinating story). The centerpiece of the song is Gene Krupa’s drumming, fading in and out of the mix — which was performed by the musicians rather than by the engineers — and ultimately making him jazz (and, by association, rock) drumming’s first real star. Lithe, articulate solos by Goodman, Harry James, and Jess Stacy shift dynamics, riding over Krupa’s pounding, roiling the waves sent up by the Orchestra. Even if you haven’t heard this song, you’ve heard it. But…get lost in it.
The relentlessness of TransAm’s album Futureworld is a darkly beautiful thing, a fist-waving ode to personal alienation in the late 90. Its Germanic vocoder nods to Kraftwerk, its post-rock distortion and, above all, Sebastian Thomson’s drumming, set a tone so consistently, yet energetically, brooding that it simply will not be denied. It fits neatly in the set of movies and music (thinking Fight Club, Boards of Canada…) directly pre-9/11 that captures the crumbling of 90s tech optimism, the cold distance occasioned by staring at a screen rather than reading a person’s face. This is where the digital shit hits the fan. When I listen to the song “Futureworld” I think these things and I also rock out. Its structure is all about the dynamics of momentum, its breakneck launch ending as a ship with rockets disengaged, a pulse along a motherboard, an incredible downshift punctuated by unlikely but perfect Bonham-esque pounding.
Progressive rock’s avant garde wing has always acted as a kind of disciplined version of its more mainstream cousin, dependent on self-imposed constraints, those kinds of “oblique strategies” that Brian Eno and his expanding circle of collaborators employed to spur, and rein in, their impulses. The cross-pollination of these two (sometimes warring) factions — at least as that dichotomy might have been posed by critics — was most evident in the 1970s, and was particularly expressed in the Venn diagram that was Roxy Music and King Crimson, the kind of built-in tension that ultimately made Eno and Fripp’s projects guilty of indulgence — often too smart for their own good — but also wildly interesting. Within this world landed Laurie Anderson, a New York-based performance artist whose albums in the 80s employed many of the aforementioned Eno/Crimson cast of characters (in addition to the No Wave artists Eno became associated with), and whose songs, due to their melodic charm, could work their way into the popular consciousness to such a degree that rare was the record collection by decade’s end that — if it included a Talking Heads or Belew-era Crimson album — didn’t include at least one of her works. Her influence is inestimable. “Gravity’s Angel” is from the album Mister Heartbreak, and captures her sound and approach: a partiality to electronic instruments, experimentation abetted by first-class Crimon-ish musos (Adrian Belew, Bill Laswell, Peter Gabriel), and an emphasis on finding a relief of humanity against a plane that could be coldly distant, i.e., exploring the human condition in the late 20th century. My understanding via Wikipedia is that she asked Thomas Pynchon if she could musical-ize Gravity’s Rainbow, and he replied, well, yes, if she could do so with only a banjo. That didn’t happen, but this did:
There may be too much to say about and too much going on in Esperanza Spalding’s new album, Emily’s D+Evolution, to relate anything meaningful in writing here. “Live at BRIC,” a performance of songs from the album, was recorded by NPR in March, and it shines brightly, landing it’s Parliament-like Mothership on planets traveled by Joni Mitchell, King Crimson, Zappa. Importantly, it throws down the gauntlet in terms of prog rock performance, making more out of less. It’s not just a bunch of musos looking at the floor in their noodle space, but the simple theatricality complements the music without getting in the way — it’s emotional, engaged, a pure and honest expression.
…the next move, after Manuel Gottsching’s E2-E4, pulls the thread of that piece’s guitar work and comes up with Gabor Szabo at his funky six-string best, in Stockholm in 1972. From the album Small World (available as a compilation with its sister album, Belsta River, as In Stockholm), “Impressions Of My Country / Foothill Patrol” is a duel with Janne Schaffer — a Swedish guitar hero known mostly for his work with Abba. In 1972 Szabo, a serious jazz cat with a penchant for interpreting pop tunes (and riding that line between elevator music and the sublime), might have been primed to explore this Hendrixian territory. The previous year his “Gypsy Queen,” from the album Spellbinder (Impulse, 1966), had been adapted to round out Santana’s cover of “Black Magic Woman” on the album Abraxas. That song reached number four on the charts, while Abraxas went to number one. Szabo’s approach on Small World may have been, in no small part, influenced by Santana. The usually clean tones are fuzzed out, wah-wah pedals are employed, and there is a freer, funkier feel to the proceedings. Coming from Szabo, though, it’s no surprise, and his experimentation with tone and feedback in the 60s, coupled with the use of his native eastern European melodies, helped define a psychedelic sensibility that lent itself to the jam.