The Messenger: Gil Scott Heron

Gil-Scott Heron, dead today at 62,  was equal parts social commentator, freedom fighter and pop star. Known as the Godfather of Rap, a title he vehemently denied in an interview I had with him in 1995, he none-the-less influenced generations of rappers and was sampled dozens of times. Most rappers ignored his plea to “not lean so heavily on rhyme and concentrate on the message” (and he meant the socio-political message).

When I talked to Scott-Heron that first time, he had just ended 12 years of recording silence with Spirits. The opening track, “Message To the Messengers” (“if you gonna be teachin’ folks, you gotta know what you’re sayin’…”) was directed at the hip-hop generation, asking them to see where their movement had come from and what it should be about. I was in New York and was hoping to talk to Scott-Heron in person on his own turf.  Complications ensued and I suspected, not without reason, that the man who wrote “Angel Dust” and “The Bottle” was chasing his program, whatever it might be (what did Elridge Cleaver say in Soul On Ice about the sensitive and their vulnerability to drugs?). Most likely,  despite a new recording, he just didn’t want to spend time with a reporter from L.A., or anywhere for that matter.  There was a certain irony in our cellphone conversation as he pursued something around the city’s Upper Westside. The signal kept cutting out.

“Message To the Messengers”  is a lecture of sorts, a plea for peace in a movement that had turned on itself (“they’re glad we’re out there killin’ each other…”). Scott-Heron’s was asking the rap community to remember what had gone before, to show respect and generational brotherhood. It’s also a call to action : “what we did was to tell our generation to get busy/because it wasn’t going to be televised.” Knowing that the revolution has not and will not be televised is as appropriate today as it was in 1972 and 1994: the media is not our message but theirs, we are in this together but not everyone is together with us. “[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”

One of my favorite Scott-Heron tunes, “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” addressed the power of music in our lives. Scott-Heron’s music, socially relevant and politically charged, brought truth to that power. Sing on.   — Cabbage Rabbit

Big Bang Big Band

Plunged into a world of 1930s swing bands – Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford and, yes, Count Basie and Duke Ellington — for an upcoming piece in the Playboy Jazz Festival program,  I was in need of some temporal balance, a contemporary counterpoint. Via my high school library’s subscription to Downbeat (every school with a music program should have one) the Exploding Star Orchestra came into my life.

Get this straight from the beginning. No devotee of ’30s era swing music would admit to hearing any similarities between their favorite bands and this 14-piece outfit of Chicago renegades led by cornetist and “electro-acoustic constructionist” Rob Mazurek.  But there are shared qualities, ways that connect the  time passed to now, ways that allow us to say, with an ambiguity we’ve always loved when it comes to this type of band, that the Exploding Star Orchestra is out-of-the-tradition.

How? There’s the glossy sheen of well-orchestrated harmonics; yes the usual section blends but also the drone of various samples that Mazurek has collected: rain, insects, bicycyle pedaling, that sort of thing as well as the weird electronics that Mazurek applies to his trumpet. Did I say weird? One drone is concoted from the sounds of electric eels.

Another commonality? Riffing, almost exactly as Sy Oliver or Don Redman might do it (“Impression #1”) or as they most certainly would not (“ChromoRocker”).  Riffs give us a way to pin down the music, and there are just enough of them to make the contrasts strong and leave us anxious for resolution. As far out as the Exploding Star is,  it occasionally is as down-earth as a Fletcher Henderson ballad.

The tradition the Star most honors is that of the Chicago avant garde. Mazurek uses the same methods of development and cacophonous backgrounds to frame solos as did/does the best of the AACM (Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; you know,  Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, those guys).  Like the best outside composers, Mazurek is a master of resolution. The long opening track, “Ascension Ghost Impression,” starts on a lips-only whistle, heats up, comes to a boil, then simmers, suddenly resolved in a wonderful brass chord. Terrifying dissonance resolves in moments of startling calm.

The main innovation here is texture, the way Mazurek combines reeds, brass and percussion with the samples and strange electronics. Mazurek’s cornet adds Miles-like electronic trumpet effects. Central to the mix is Jason Adasiewicz’s vibraphone which adds both natural and hand-manipulated sound, soothing one moment,  jangling the next. Soloists — the jagged sound of flutist Nicole Mitchell, Greg Ward’s alto saxophone, Jason Stein’s bass clarinet — add edgy, questionable behaviors.

High on our current play list, Stars Have Shapes captures the ups and down of modern life, its beauty as well as its confusion.  That it’s dedicated to the memory of Bill Dixon and Fred Anderson says a lot. The big band the Orchestra most resembles? Sun Ra. It employs some of the same melodicism — floating, gentle — as soloists bubble to the surface.  Also like the Arkestra, Exploding Star falls into worm holes even as it travels into deepest space.  How can you not believe in time travel?–Cabbage Rabbit

Phoebe Snow: 1950-2011

In a certain time, everyone loved singer-songwriter Phoebe Snow. Her strong pliant voice, its dulcet tone, singing things we wanted to hear; yes words mattered and she was one of our great lyricists, but that voice, bouncing the words around, sending them sky high.  Where did it go?

Now that she’s dead, we know.  (Those in the know knew…it was no secret.) In 1975, Snow gave birth to a severely brain-damaged baby she named  Valerie Rose. Whatever the choices open to her, including institutionalization, Snow decided to care for her daughter herself.  Though Valerie Rose was only expected to live out her first few years, she lived to be 31.  I can only guess how unselfish one has to be to accept this responsibility, which Snow gladly took in, thereby giving up a chance to make it big, really big. The operational word here: love.

Our admiration centers most on the fact she stuck with it. Having had several years experience working with severely-challenged high school students of all types, I marvel at her perseverance without knowing the first thing about the child’s disability. The demands of caring for the severely disabled can be terribly hard on families and Snow did it as a single mother. I can only imagine. We’ll never know what Snow the artist might have achieved if her life hadn’t been dedicated to her daughter. That Snow passed on April 26 this week from the complications of a brain hemorrhage at 60 just as she was mounting a career move leaves even us distant fans with ears drooping. Sing on, Phoebe Snow.–Cabbage Rabbit

Ballads As Art Song

Kelly Roberti is one of the most capable and expressive bassists in jazz today. He’s also a thoughtful and inventive writer. He’s published poetry and  penned tangos  for international saxophone giant David Murray and others. His collection of ballads is just what you expect: serious and out-of-the-melodic ordinary with an emotional depth that would make the self-conscious blush.

These seven numbers aren’t so much ballads as we generally think of them but art songs, more Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht than Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. Much of the atmosphere comes from Roberti’s lyrics, more poetic than the usual verse-chorus cleverness and often the better for it (sadly, the CD package doesn’t contain lyrics). The words are about devotion, reverence and sacrifice, focused, as in “Bullets,” on strong images. The lusciously-tone Jeni Fleming is the perfect vocalist for this serious, even confessional tone. Most of what is moving here comes from Fleming as she delivers Roberti’s lyrics with the respect and sincerity.

In other places, it’s the instrumentalists setting the tone. These somber, considered numbers, like “Vittorio,” rely on saxophonist Alan Faque to make something of the mood. Again, the tunes aren’t quite what you expect. There are definitive themes and occasional nods to new music forms. Compositions always seems in service of the words and not the other way around.

Roberti’s play in all this is exquisite as always. But  the mood is so consistently slow and downbeat one can’t help but wish for something a little more lively to come along. It would be great to hear Roberti perform this music with musicians who are a bit stronger at improvisational expression. Faque has some nice moments but generally it’s Fleming that keeps things interesting. These songs are fine, even great as stand alones. The entire program, though only 45 some minutes long, tends to drag. But definitely scatter Roberti’s ballads around your playlist. He’ll get you thinking.

Vollmann Among the Homeless

National Book Award winner William T. Vollmann’s essay “Homeless in Sacramento” in the March edition of Harper’s (subscription required to view; we recommend visiting your public library for hard copy) isn’t your usual statistic-heavy speculation on a long-standing problem. As is his practice, Vollmann plunges into his subject, going out to talk, eat and sleep with the homeless. Doing so, he presents a vision of reality that isn’t clouded by ideology, prejudice or ignorance.

Vollmann, who won the National Book Award in 2005 for his sprawling novel Europe Central is a prodigious writer who plunges deeply into his subjects. He’s written a seven-volume treatise on violence — Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts On Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means (Ecco Press has issued a single-volume edition) as well as a book-length reflection on hopping freights, Riding Toward Everywhere.

His 2007 look at world-wide poverty, Poor People, marks him as one of the most clear-sighted social commentators writing today. The premises of the book is simple. He visits people living on the edges of society in Thailand, in Columbia, in Russia, in Afghanistan, in Kenya, the U.S.A. and elsewhere and asks them, “Do you think you’re poor?” The answers, coupled with his experiences following his subjects about, spur the kinds of thinking not usually associated with questions of poverty.

The Harper’s article does the same. Where do the homeless sleep? Where do they defecate and pee? Where do they have sex? Who are the people that help them and who are the people who want them on their way? The article starts out with Vollmann allowing a homeless encampment to spring up on a parking lot he owns and goes on to see him spending time sleeping, eating, talking and moving on with his subjects.

The things that make Vollmann’s writing stand out — his attention to detail, his emphasis on personal experience, his lack of judgment —  make all of his non-fiction work worth reading. A bit eclectic himself (he’s freely admitted his attraction to prostitutes and shared drugs with some of his Poor People subjects), Vollmann tries to shrink the distance between himself and his subjects even as he acknowledges his separation and differences. Most importantly, his compassion for his subjects, including those who resist having the homeless around, makes his work extremely non-judgmental. Few of us could experience the situations he has immersed himself in and not come away despising one group or another. Above all, Vollmann’s subject, in all his non-fiction, is freedom:

I sometimes seek to categorize whatever freedom it is these people have that I do not, a freedom that I also do not want.I don’t know whether they wanted to work and couldn’t, or chose not to work, or needed or expected anything. For their part, the only need most of them expressed to me was this: a place from which nobody would move them.

The human component is so often obscured in our discussions of the homeless.  Vollmann’s article makes it the focus. —Cabbage Rabbit

Krazy Love

Now here’s something: a collection of poetry inspired by a comic strip. Monica Youn’s Ignatz is surprisingly like George Herriman’s classic cartoon: suggestive, surreal, catty. It’s focus, despite its comic derivation, is the caginess of love,  it’s impact on psychology and our perceptions. There are two voices speaking here, Krazy Kat and Youn; and when in “Ignatz Pursuer”  it’s wished she could spit out her heart into her palm, we hear both.

If we’re to truly understand the Kat whose love prompts her (his?) beloved to fire bricks at her head, we must see the relationship, like Youn, as symbol, as a panoply of images and sounds.  In Krazy Kat’s world, love is both blind and a vision. Like the shifting scenes  in Herriman’s strip, Youn’s poems present us with ever-changing backgrounds holding unmoving characters. Krazy Kat’s love will never change. Ignatz mouse’s disgust with the same won’t either.

With doses of wit (“Weight/is the end//of wanting”), Youn makes Kat’s obsession serious, deep and unfathomable. She avoids Herriman’s phonetic spellings but not the phonetics: “O my dear devoir/O my dour devour”//Your name:/an arrow/with a rope attached/could pull/this raft/across this river.” The comic’s focus on unrequited love is made substantially dark, its humor dependent on the hope seen in hopelessness.

Yet somehow, hope persists. Each of the book’s four sections begins with an love poem (Krazy’s Song) in verse. “O Ignatz won’t you meet me/by the blue bean bush?” Each of the four sections ends with a  poem entitled “Death of Ignatz,” and it’s here that the weight of love squeezes perception. “The mesas/sink to their knees//and let the snickering dunes /crawl over them.”  Could the absence of an unloved mouse change the landscape like this?

Indeed, background is permutational. In “Landscape With Ignatz,” six views of the same place — “The sunburnt mouth of the canyon biting the swollen blue tongue of the sky… The blistered thumbs of the canyon tracing the blue-veined throat of the sky.” — all frame “your soft, your cerulean eye.” Youn’s ability to create and link images distinguish her poems. “The clockwork saguaros sprout extra faces like planaria stoked by/a razor,” she says in “Ersatz Ignatz.” The connection of time and regeneration in the desert setting is held in a man’s shaving. Sound and vision share symbol: “Chug chug say the piston-powered/ground squirrels.”  And always the hand of Ignatz and his creator:

The yuccas pulse softly under grow-light sconces.

Here is the door he will paint on the rock

Here is the glass floor of the cliff.

He’ll enter from the west, backlit in orange isinglass, pyrite pendants glinting from the fringes of his voice.

These poems are so smartly worded (“isinglass” is a collagen obtained from sturgeon bladders used to clarify wine), so true and smoothly constructed that it’s apparent Youn could make something meaningful out of any subject. That she chose Krazy Kat’s voice to represent her own gives her collection natural entry into a variety of comic and tragic themes: the foolish and obsessive qualities of love, the errors of action and the delicacy of perception.

Like heart-on-its-sleeve Krazy Kat, Youn also invites us to examine her heart, there, in her poems, in the palm of our hand.–Cabbage Rabbit

No Taibbi Cat

It’s reassuring to see the theme of  Matt Taibbi’s latest  Rolling Stone piece, “Why Isn’t Wall St. In Jail?” generating some late notice to the Scot-free financial crimes that brought the system (almost) down a couple years or so ago. Tabbi, who in his piece “The Great American Bubble Machine,” famously depicted Goldman Sachs as a  “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” has consistently dealt with the financial crisis and its aftermath in ways that the mainstream, corporate-owned  media doesn’t; clear-eyed, in depth and with plenty of finger-pointing (Taibbi’s tentacled symbolism, not without precedent, has been criticized as well).  Nor has he let Obama off the hook for stocking his staff with Wall St. insiders.  Why Taibbi isn’t given more shrift among the Beltway insiders for his financial reporting is obvious: he ‘s smart, he digs up information (we used to call it investigative journalism)  and he writes well enough to explain the working of the heavily-veiled financial industry in ways  even a rabbit can understand. Because they don’t understand it themselves, are loathe to actually work on stories rather than repeat them , or serve as cheerleaders for the industry, Taibbi is the last guy they want to have on their programs. Instead, we get Ben Stein.  At least Rachel Maddow and Bill Maher aren’t afraid of him.

The Rolling Stone contributing editor hasn”t escaped criticism for excess and omissions in the Jail story and other of his financial scandel. But even without an understanding of the laws, one comes away from the piece outraged that no one will serve time (think Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide Financial) for obvious  theft and lies to authorities and the public. At least Taibbi has Rolling Stone, which in a return to past glories has served the political and financial issues well in the last few years. When we wonder why there isn’t more anger directed at the financial sector, one answer is obvious: there’s not enough gutsy reporters willing to call a money-sucking vampire squid a money-sucking vampire squid.–Cabbage Rabbit