The best musical tribute to Chris Cornell so far…

Back in March 1994, shortly after Soundgarden’s masterful Superunknown was released, Melody Maker‘s Everett True wrote a detailed and often insightful piece about the band on the road (in Tokyo, specifically). Chris Cornell spoke openly with True about his struggles with depression and fear:

“I write songs best when I’m depressed,” Chris tells me. “No one seems to get this, but Black Hole Sun is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper, which is ridiculous. Fell On Black Days is another one. Like Suicide is a perfect example.”

We’re they inspired by specific events?

“Fell On Black Days was like this ongoing fear I’ve had for years. It took me a long time to write that song. We’ve tried to do three different versions with that title, and none of them have ever worked. Someday we might do an EP…

“It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting – when all of a sudden you realise you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it’s just that you realise one day that everything in your life is F—–!”

Exhibit A for a “chipper” version of the huge hit is this snappy, big band-ish, “are you kidding me?” version by Paul Anka (yes, the same Paul Anka who wrote the lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—one of the very few Sinatra songs I find annoying, even revolting). And in the past few days, understandably, there have been a number of singers and bands playing the song as a tribute to Cornell, who took his life on May 18th, after a reportedly ragged show at Detroit’s famous Fox Theater.

Continue reading “The best musical tribute to Chris Cornell so far…”

soundstreamsunday: “Gentleman” by Fela Kuti

gentlemanIt can look like a conspiracy, from the outside, to know what those of us in middle America grew up with musically in the 1970s.  Ensconced deeply in our Yeses and our Styxes and our REO-es and our Kansases, we often missed out on the larger view of the world, despite the delicious depths of what did come delivered over the airwaves.  Case in point: Fela Kuti.  The Afro beat.  I suspect even if you were a jazzbo soldiering on in the post-bop wonderland delivered in the ever-widening sidelong jams of Miles and Herbie and Pharaoh, there might be quite a gulf between such distinctly American cooking and a Nigerian self-trained sax player and polemicist who wielded the conch of Democracy for Africa.  Kuti’s mission, though, was a kind of a trojan horse.  It looks an awful lot like a super tight big band stomp, epic riffing over a relentless beat, and musically it is.  But pulsing underneath was a heat that Kuti, with an outsized personality and voice that all-too-easily drew fire from Nigeria’s governing elite, stoked with an enthusiasm that would eventually enflame his life in tragedy.

1973’s “Gentleman” is an early classic, the title track of a record where Kuti ironically declares “I’m not a gentleman at all.”  He doesn’t want anything to do with what that word means in a place where the gentlemen were in essence slaveholders.  It’s an open statement of discontent, of a desire for justice.  And it wouldn’t mean half so much as it does if his band didn’t burn the house down with their playing.  It’s here that the idea of world music takes shape, borrowing from blues and jazz structures of the African diaspora and feeding back on them — once you hear Kuti’s work it’s hard to imagine Soft Machine’s Third, krautrock bands like Out of Focus and Embryo, contemporary bands like Seven Impale, and even the greater part of British punk and American rap without it.  Kuti’s voice was loud, gruff, a rap that cried its flawed humanity atop a fury of horns and guitars and drums.  It’s serious shit and a party all at once.  Anger and joy and heartache.  Even if that conspiracy was true and the staid worldview of 70s America denied me Kuti, I’m hearing it now.  And I am still listening.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “The Köln Concert” by Keith Jarrett

keithjarrett2It’s 1975 and I’m nine years old.  I’m lying on my back in Reservoir Park, a small city block of grass and oaks next to the University of Utah.  In my head is a song that trips and travels as I run and play with friends.  It’s a vision of sound, a strong impression of bright sun and moving clouds, a feeling on my skin, a growing chill in the air.  Is it October? The song is a constant rhythm of consciousness and motion, a life in itself but also within me, as if I’m one of its many, many tributaries.

For some things there is no accounting or quantifying:  How much beauty? How much devotion? How wide the smile of god?

There are many details about the conditions under which Keith Jarrett performed his concert in Köln in January 1975, from the context of his blossoming solo and collaborative career on the heels of his epic work with Miles Davis, to the third-rate piano he was given on which to perform the show, to the fact he was exhausted and in a significant amount of physical pain for his hour-plus improvisation in front of a sold-out Opera House crowd.

Ultimately none of these details matter. The Köln Concert is a river, and, if there are miracles in my life, it’s that such depths continue to transport me.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “The Creator has a master plan,” by Pharaoh Sanders

pharaoh-sandersA deep blues, a call to enlightenment, a psychedelic spiritual of epic proportions, Pharaoh Sanders’ “The Creator has a master plan” rings with a disciplined clarity one might expect from a former John Coltrane collaborator and acolyte of spiritual jazz.  But if Sanders extends the Coltrane legacy to this recording, he also pushes open new doors, inviting across the song’s 32 minutes an ascent into a flowing, meditational free jazz where vocalist Leon Thomas shrieks and yodels along with Sanders’ sax, and the band lays down a freakout that in its joyful conclusion returns to the cradling peace of the main theme.  Mere months after participating in the sessions that yielded Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Richard Davis again is an anchor, working with fellow bassist Reggie Workman to drive the music in its soaring flight and underpin the caterwaul as the whole ship hits the heart of the African sun.  This is the sound of jazz taking back its rock and roll at the most essential level, and I think too a nod of respect to rock’s embrace of jazz in its great psychedelic experiment.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Ballerina” by Van Morrison

van-morrison-sqThe art gallery of rock and roll is a rich and welcoming place, with room upon room spinning off into many-directioned distances.  There is no entrance fee or warnings to stand back, please, from the piece.  And, like at all great museums, any pretense to surface comportment is, if meaningful at all, only a nod of respect to the spark of human creativity.  A sign that we don’t stand in willful ignorance.  Before the work, within the work, we are all children.  It is in rock’s nature to empower its listeners to create, and within this space there is no genre, no boogie no punk no progressive no pop no indie no folk, just an honoring of the empty canvas and the unrestrained fire banked down in humanity.  It’s what I love about rock, and it’s what made Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks happen.

Drummer Connie Kay and guitarist Jay Berliner both famously recounted that Morrison told his musicians — and these weren’t just any musicians, but some of the finest jazz players New York could provide in the late 1960s, led by the inimitable bassist Richard Davis — to “play what you want” and then left them alone to back and guide him on a set of eight songs whose precedents were slim and bore little relation to the rock-pop classics he recorded with his band Them (“Gloria,” “Here Comes the Night”) or on his first solo album (“Brown Eyed Girl”).  Astral Weeks (1968) is an echo of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959), where an extraordinarily talented group of jazz musicians received a similar lack of instruction, and Love’s Forever Changes (1967), where the pop songwriter deliberately challenged the very notion and direction of his craft.  Morrison’s artistic success on Astral Weeks was, and remains, startling.  The album’s embrace of acoustic jazz as a way forward had a profound impact on the burgeoning “singer songwriter” movement, and for better or worse has become instant point of comparison with subsequent work by musicians such as Joni Mitchell or Tim Buckley or Nick Drake.

“Ballerina” captures the essence of an album that is about nothing as much as ecstatic love, the joyous and at times Joyce-ean observations of a 23-year-old ancient who had spent the previous year turning his voice into a bebop trumpet.  While Morrison got and kept his fame on the back of “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” and the slew of equally wonderful R&B radio-ready hits that would come his way, it’s here that his artistic street cred was established, as he honored the canvas and invited Davis, Kay, and Berliner to follow their hearts along with him.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

My favorite jazz album of 2016: “The Sting Variations”

Yes, I’m getting a jump on things. After failing to pen a “Favorite Albums of 2015” earlier this year, I figured I need to strike while the iron was hot and I had a few moments of free time.

Those who follow the proceedings here at likely know that I am the resident “jazz guy.” Jazz probably makes up close to half of the 75,000 or so songs in my collection. I first “discovered”—that is, really listened to—jazz in my early twenties; my first jazz albums were Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert” and “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis—one being the best-selling solo piano album of alltime and the other being the most famous jazz album yet produced. “Kind of Blue” is notable here  because the first song on The Tierney Sutton Bands’ ( brilliant album “The Sting Variations” is “Driven to Tears”, but opens by directly quoting Davis’ “So What”:

Below is the short review I recently left at

This exceptional album, which continues Tierney Sutton’s impressive run of very good to outstanding releases, is a revelation in several ways. thestingvariations

First, the playing and singing is of the highest order, with Sutton and band so perfectly sympatico that they should appear as one definition of “organic” in Webster’s Dictionary. There is a remarkable economy married to robust breadth and depth; in other words, the musicians never overplay—every note is necessary and purposeful—but they also never under-commit; each song is played with masterful purpose, focus, and command. An example of this is “Seven Days”, which opens with a simple bass line and plaintive, quiet vocals and then builds in both musical and emotional complexity, capturing the conflicted (“Though I hate to make a choice”) but assertive (“the fact remains, I love him so…”) lyrics. Sutton’s vocals are spell-binding, combining both a light innocence and a rich maturity; the countless shades of emotion and intonation are remarkable.

Finally, the selection of Sting songs is inspired, not simply because Gordon Sumner draws deeply on jazz in his songwriting, but because the lyrical content is so eclectic and his best songs are immediately memorable but never simplistic. That Sutton brings a female voice and feminine genius to the entire project makes this, in my opinion, a truly special recording. A perfect example is found in “Every Breath You Take (Lullabye)”, in which the mega-selling single is both subverted and reimagined, turned from a somewhat unsettling stalking tune into a hushed and then soaring reflection on the complexities of loving one’s child.

An album of covers can be many things: an homage, an exercise, a one off, a replication, a dedication. This album, however, is a work of musical art, which demonstrates the musicians’ respect for the songs and songwriter not through slavish imitation, but brilliantly imaginative explication that looks backward and forward in perfect balance, as most great art does. A masterpiece.

soundstreamsunday: “Spanish Key” by Miles Davis

bitchesbrew_frontIt’s unavoidable.  It is impossible to speak of modern music, regardless of genre, and not take note of the critical importance of Miles Davis.  Call him what you will or what he called himself — a genius of composition, a dazzling trumpeter/performer and band leader/manipulator, an agent provocateur, a counter-racist, coke fiend, pimp, misogynist — Miles Davis was to musical art what Pablo Picasso was to visual art in the 20th century.  It’s so true it’s not even up for debate, and there’s about a kazillion hours of recorded, generous, lovely, dark, funky, bopping proof.  By natural extension Davis was the incarnation of what Ravel’s Bolero was all about — schooled freedom, the connection of craft and wild will, the fearlessness to create shit one second and be the divine and golden voice of the Spirit the next.  By the time Miles Davis released Bitches Brew in 1970, he’d been creating killer jazz for over 20 years, had broken from the pack a decade earlier with the “modal” music of Kind of Blue (1959), and had crafted blueprints for psychedelic and progressive rock in the music he created between Sketches of Spain (1960) and In A Silent Way (1969).  He was a complete musician who, difficult as he was, found sympathetic producers, promoters, and partners who fed and nurtured his bright flame.  As we find him on “Spanish Key,” Davis’s work is still melodic, free and open, but deconstruction is increasingly what he’s about — he’s using the studio as an instrument, playing less, knitting together jams, finding the overlap of blues and jazz and funk, Waters and Ellington and Brown. He was 44 years old, electric with creativity and swaggering with confidence, inspiring and inspired by rock’s reach towards jazz through Hendrix and Santana the Family Stone.  But for all the trappings of the rock band that he took with him to the stage, he never yielded, in the sheer sonic amplified power, any of jazz’s mysteries and his own mastery.  He delighted in pointing out that he could go to rock, but rock could not come to him.  It’s certainly true, to the extent that Miles Davis had a transcending vision and the untameable talent to back it up.  There is not another record in jazz or rock like Bitches Brew, and there never again will be.  It is a difficult, beautiful ride.

soundstreamsunday playlist and archive

soundstreamsunday: “Lush Life” by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

hartmancoltraneIf love is one of the most common themes in song, love songs that stretch beyond simple declarations, admitting a type of defeat in the face of defining such an emotion, are remarkably rare.  In the past weeks soundstreamsunday has featured Nick Drake and Lal Waterson, who each spun their songs about love from a point of deep uncertainty. So, on then, this week, to disappointment and devastation.  It would be hard to name a song as beautifully crushing as John Coltrane’s and Johnny Hartman’s reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” an ode to unrequited love amidst a wash of “jazz and cocktails,” from the only album the duo made.  Recorded in 1963, during Coltrane’s legendary run at Impulse! Records, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman is a one-off, remarkable in the careers of both men, one a premier saxophone player of his time and the other a largely unknown but extraordinary vocalist and interpreter of jazz standards. In itself the concept was business-as-usual: a large part of twentieth-century jazz music up to this time consisted of runs through the “American Songbook” of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Porter, Berlin, et al. This pairing, however, stood out. Coltrane was moving fast at this point in his career, and Impulse! gave him the leeway to pursue concept records in a jazz recording industry that was still entrenched in the robber baron tactics that enriched all but the actual musicians (even the greatest players rarely got more than a day or two in the studio to produce an album’s worth of material).  For his part, Hartman’s smooth baritone gave the sessions a focus on the lyric, and while Coltrane’s horn gave Hartman’s almost-lounge vocalizing a distinct edge, Hartman balanced the soloist’s tendency to go long (in 1958, Coltrane recorded another classic, but 14-minute version, of “Lush Life”), while his voice filled a gap you otherwise wouldn’t think about when listening to Coltrane’s other work. The result was six songs on an album clocking in at an economical 31 minutes.  Every one of the songs is generous, and the musicians (also including Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison, all from Coltrane’s band and all legends in their own right) support a mood, literally set forth in the last song on the record, “Autumn Serenade,” of turning leaves, fading light, a cold snap. “Lush Life” is the album’s peak, a drinker’s guide to lost love, it’s final statement “Romance is mush, stifling those who strive, I’ll live a lush life, in some small dive, And there I’ll be while I rot with the rest, Of those whose lives are lonely too,” rendered, knowingly but without a hint of irony, as smooth jazz.  Way ahead of its time.

*Photo above by Joe Alper: John Coltrane, Johnny Hartman, and Elvin Jones, 1963.

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soundstreamsunday archive

soundstreamsunday: “Sing Sing Sing” by Benny Goodman

Goodman_1938bThe 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 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.

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