The Messenger

When Gil Scott-Heron died last May at the age of 62 nearly all the obituaries saluted him as “the Godfather of Rap.” It was a title he modestly denied when I interviewed him in 1995, shortly after his recording Spirits had come out. Poet, novelist, R&B musician and social activist, Scott-Heron had influenced the rhyme and rhythms of what would become the rap movement. But the content of his message, contained in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Save the Children,” and dozens of other socially-conscious songs and politically-contrary lyrics, seemed largely ignored by the commercially-intent rap movement he supposedly had inspired.

The interview was a difficult endeavor that saw him cancel an arranged face-to-face, postpone a handful of phone appointments and eventually make contact as he drove around New York’s west side. At key moments in the conversation, the connection would break up and I was left wondering what exactly he had said. I suspected the man was occupied with a mission I could only guess at. By the time he died, it was well known that the suspicions I harbored were well founded.

 

That someone of such achievement, someone of such compassion and determination would succumb to the very evils he had sung about in “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust” is the unspoken heart of The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron’s recently released memoir. By the time he passed, Scott-Heron had spent a fair portion of his last years in jail for cocaine possession, had confessed to battles with addiction and had revealed he was HIV positive. As a young man, he was talented, ambitious (despite “a complete dedication to marijuana”) and fearless in pursuing his goals. What happened?

The omission of any hint of Scott-Heron’s lifestyle struggles puts a huge hole in the memoir, especially considering that the book was written during those last years and that drug use may have even influenced its writing. It’s especially disappointing considering the honesty and excellence of the book’s first half.

The stand-out tune from Spirits was “Message To the Messengers,” a plea for that generation’s rap stars to show some respect for their elders and what had gone down before. ““[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.”

That’s exactly what the book’s first several fascinating chapters are about, community and people. It addresses the years between his childhood in small-town Tennessee to his signing with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. This journey makes for a compelling, even inspiring story. Scott-Heron acknowledges the help he had along the way, including that from a young white English teacher named Nettie Leaf who challenged him to read John Knowles A Separate Peace, a book he thought was “white noise about white people.”  Leaf recognized his promise as a writer and helped him get into a private school that would challenge both his intellect and his social skills. He credits his mother with helping him develop his style and reveals that it was she who, “provided the punch line” for his classic complaint against misplaced priorities,  “Whitey On the Moon.” She also suggested mimicking Langston Hughes by repeating the opening line of the poem—” a rat done bit my sister Nell…”

And he worked hard. Presidential candidates who have suggested there’s no work ethic in America’s underclass should read Scott-Heron’s description of employment at age 14 as a dishwasher in a steaming restaurant kitchen and how he sometimes held down multiple jobs to keep himself in school books. It’s thrilling to read how success –not always the case–follows his hard work.

The early sections devoted to his upbringing by his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, his eventual move to New York to join his mother, his hot-bloodied pursuit of an education and his eventual recording success even as he coveted a career as a novelist are strong stuff, written with the kind of rhythm and word play expected of someone whose seen as a spiritual inspiration of the rap movement. But then the book changes purpose as its focus shifts to Stevie Wonder and the effort to establish a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s as if Scott-Heron has gone into denial and lost his abilities for self-examination. While the sections on Wonder are worthy in that they establish his important role in securing the King holiday –remember Wonder’s joyful 1981 song “Happy Birthday”?—we didn’t come this far with Scott-Heron to see him disappear.

Not only is the focus lost, the writing deteriorates and the book’s construction suddenly seems haphazard.  An excerpt from a long-held Scott-Heron project called “The Artist” seem to fall in as if from the moon. Chapters lurch from story to story without connection. Sprinkled throughout the text are poems, written in rhyming couplets, some deserving a backbeat and a melody line to carry their worthy message forward, clumsy others just waiting to be forgotten. When one of these poems expressing  the hope that morning coffee, “Will hit the right spot and somehow make it clear/What the hell’s going on? What am I doing here?”  we can’t help wonder right along with him.

The unevenness of the text is probably due to the start-and-stop way it was written over his last decade or so.  The book seems to be of two minds and of the two the first is better. Even as the narrative starts to skip like a damaged recording, there are some great moments as Scott-Heron jumps ahead and out of his life to consider the election of Ronald Reagan, and his feelings on joining the Wonderlove tour. We feel the innocent excitement of the book’s first half when Scott-Heron stands on stage next to a child-like Michael Jackson and when he recalls Jesse Jackson giving an election speech at the San Diego Convention Center in 1984. But largely in the book’s second half, the narrative flow, the thing that made so many of his musical verses strong, is missing.

It’s strange to realize once finishing the book that despite all the talk of “spirits” who helped him along the way he completely avoids addressing the devils that did him in. What a disappointment it is – and telling– to know that someone who wrote so honestly about his early life, who penned lyrics that touched a generation with their biting commentary and hopeful resolution, would ignore the struggle that consumed the last years of his life. The Last Holiday seems to stray from its intended themes and leave us with one that’s unintended: the messenger losing sight of the message. It’s as if he wants to tell us, as he does about his early years, but as during that long ago interview, the connection is always breaking up.–Cabbage Rabbit

 

Playlist, 12/11

DAVID MURRAY CUBAN ENSEMBLE PLAYS NAT KING COLE EN ESPANOl;   Motema. Nothing like the original except the tunes. Murray, always adept at finding new ways to frame his music, works with a nine-piece ensemble and strings to do what he does best: cry, caterwaul, lose control (never; it only sounds like it) and get fresh during ballads. More to come on this outstanding recording.

FURTHER EXPLORATIONS, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Paul Motian; Concord Jazz, release date: January 17,2012. Recorded live at the Blue Note in NYC and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Bill Evans Explorations this two-disc set warms us with the sort of interplay that LaFaro and Motian attained on the original. Nobody would mistake Cora for Evans and that’s the beauty of it. For the late Motian, an extension, a perfect circle.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY SOUNDTRACK  by Alberto Iglesias; Silva Screen Records. Pedro Almovodar’s favorite composer has strung together a variety of downbeat themes that sound as a continuous whole. We hear some John Adams, some Phillip Glass, even some Steve Reich in this moody music. More on this later as well.  

Jarrett Miniatures

Pianist Keith Jarrett’s quarter-century of trio recordings with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette sustains his reputation as one of music’s most inventive improvisers. But it’s his infrequent solo work, beginning with his 1971 release Facing You, that best displays his improvisational genius. Rio, recorded live in the Brazilian city in April of this year, reflects the 66-year-old keyboardist’s entire canon, a body of work that includes excursions into Bach and Mozart as well as jazz standards. Unlike his early solo recordings with their long, evolving variations on rhythmic and melodic themes, Rio is a collection of 16 miniatures that range across blues, impressionism, contemporary boogie-woogie and the avant-garde. The wide variety of material here, including tango-tinged dances and Middle-Eastern moods, spotlioght the pianist’s wide and ambitious vocabulary. It’s hard to believe that these are spontaneous improvisations, as Jarrett has explained in recent interviews. Even the most modern, formless excursions have a substance that lends shape to their off-beat harmonics and aggressive tempos. Best are the sensitive, emotionally-revealing pieces (Jarrett recently divorced after 30 years of marriage) that develop narratives a short story writer could envy. If he sometimes lacks a way to end his stories—more than a few seem to just tail off—it’s easy to excuse him by the wonderful path each piece has taken. —Cabbage Rabbit

Playlist: 11/27

REINCARNATION OF A LOVE BIRD, Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band ; JMT, recorded June 1994. Motian had a way of layering his sound against the ring of electric guitars and for a while in the ’90s had bands that doubled up on them and saxophones (see Garden of Eden, below). Here’s it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel and Wolfgang Muthspiel adding sustained atmospherics and plucky bebop lines. This may be the best example of Motian’s skill at choosing and reworking jazz standards, taking them from innovators including Monk, Miles, Mingus, Bird and Gillespie. And while there’s only one Motian original, “Split Descision” performed twice, beginning and  end, it illustrates how Motian, that most color-conscious drummer, was extending the moods and harmonic construction of the greats he covers. Would we have pulled this out if the man hadn’t passed? Eventually. Motian’s in our infrequent rotation list, someone we return to again and again as time rolls on.

GARDEN OF EDEN, Paul Motian Band; ECM, recorded November, 2004. We pulled this out a couple weeks back when the man was still on the planet and haven’t let go. Another example of Motian’s two-guitar,-two sax ensemble; this time with seven Motian originals of the kind that send us (the drummer also gets great contributions from his sidemen; hear Muthspiel’s “Waseenonet” from Reincarnation above, saxophonist Chris Cheek’s “Desert Dream” here. What we said before: “Paul Motian plays drums like Bill Evans played piano. Here’s it’s in support of a larger group; the tangle of guitars (Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, Jakob Bro), brother saxophones of Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby, the try-this-on-for size bass of Jerome Harris. Some Mingus, some originals from the band. But it’s Motian’s “Mesmer” that has a mesmerized. It’s like an Ornette tune at half-speed; inviting, entrancing and ultimately about the human condition.” I forgot to mention the great rework of Mingus’ “Pithecanthropus Erectus.”

MICHAEL TIPPETT DIVERTIMERNTO ON “SELINGER’S ROUND,’ LITTLE MUSIC FOR STRING ORCHESTRA, THE HEART’S ASSURANCE, CONCERTO FOR DOUBLE STRING ORCHESTRA, City of Londo Sinfonia condcuted by Richard Hickox; Chandos, recorded March, 1995. There’s a variety of music here, indicating a range not often associated with the 20th century English composer. Sure, the dancing  “sprung” rhythms of the Concerto catch our off-beat ears but it’s the audible empathy for simple lives, especially heard in the Lament from “Sellinger’s Round” that sticks with us, so much that tenor John Mark Ainsley has to wrestle us back in “The Heat’s Assurance” with a display of  compassion (the music ponders a woman’s suicide, inspired by poets killed in World War II) and passion lost.

APPEARING NIGHTLY,Carla Bley and Her Remarkable Big Band; ECM, 2007. Lively, playful, wonderfully arranged music that jumps jives and gets serious all in a matter of moments. Full of respect for the tradition as well as inside jokes and running gags, the bulk of them perpetrated by trumpeter Lew Soloff. The 25 minute suite that lends the disc its title is a historical overview with the band shouting jive to accent the period feel. “Greasy Gravy” and “Bad Coffee” burns with sax and trumpet reflux (although at different tempos). Emotional highpoint: when the trombone (is it Beppe Calamosca?) blares a warning above the groove and shimmer from Bley-mates bassist Steve Swallow and Karen Mantler on organ. Did I mention Steve Swallow? Who else could play with this noisy of a band and sound like an entire section on his own?

Paul Motian: Time To Keep

I first saw Paul Motian in the early ’70s with the Keith Jarrett Quartet. The group came to our modest Midwestern university one cold Saturday night and set up on risers in the student union ballroom. Except for Motian, none of the group, which included bassist Charlie Haden and saxophonist Dewey Redman, seemed glad to be there. Jarrett, reportedly upset with the condition of the piano, spent most of the concert prowling around the make-shift stage shaking things and beating his fists on the piano box. Occasionally, he would reach inside and grab at the instrument’s strings as if trying to pluck something out of it. For a brief moment in the second set, he sat down on the bench and began to roll out his signature harmonic churn. But he soon grew bored of it and walked off the stage leaving Redman, as he had done all night, to solo at length.

The performance proved a showcase for the drummer. Motian, smiling and slapping sticks at his kit, played in an off-beat fashion that seemed odd to our young ears. When we thought the accent should come just there, he brought it a split second later. When we anticipated an extended press roll, he cut the rumble short. At the break, we foolishly described his playing as sloppy and carefree,  as if he’d had one too many beers (we didn’t know if he’d had any, and probably not). By the end of the show, especially after his sonically-rich solo that highlighted the second set even more than Jarrett’s brief stint at the keys, we better understood what he was doing, how it fit in and what all the color and shading he applied did for the quartet’s sound. Motian had made us believers in a different kind of timekeeping.

Today, with his passing  , I’ll lament not only his loss  –recent recordings showed he had much left to add — but also the loss of my vinyl copy of Conception Vessel (scroll far down), his 1972 date with Haden, Jarret, violinist Leroy Jenkins and others.. I’ll pull out I Have the Room Above Her to hear him with long-time mates guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, Monk In Motian to enjoy his comprehension and extension of the Monk sound and some of those wonderful JMT recordings of the ’90s (I’m listening to the cymbal-shimmered twang of Trio i sm  now) and to Reincarnation of A Love Bird  with its two guitars, two saxes and fine Steve Swallow bass work (truly a reincarnation of Monk, Miles, Mingus and Gillespie). And I’ll listen to what he’s done for younger emerging artists, like pianist Anat Fort whose music seemed the perfect canvas for Motian’s painterly ways (he’s on her first ECM recording Long Story, the opening and ending cuts of her latest are titled “Paul Motian”). Recordings make it too easy to miss our lost musicians.

Maybe Richard Cook and Brian Morton say it best in The Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings:

Time will tell how important Motian is ultimately considered to be in the development of jazz since the war; but if all revolutions in the music turn out to be upheavals in the rhythm section, then it seems likely that he will be seen as a quiet revolutionary.

Cabbage Rabbit

 

 

 

Playlist 11/6

***I hope our countless fans around the globe will forgive the delay of this Playlist…a winter storm took out our internet and the company formerly known as Qwest took four days to repair it. Hope this isn’t the norm in Santa Fe.

SOULTRANE, John Coltrane; Prestige, recorded February, 1958.  I was preparing to see a Coltrane tribute band with Jimmy Cobb—no, he’s not on this recording— and wanted no Kind Of Blue clichés. Pulling Soultrane out was genius, not just for its foreshadow of Coltrane’s later, denser play but for the amazing bass work of  Paul Chambers, the grace of Red Garland and the shing-a-ling of drummer Art Taylor. I have a feeling that saxophonist Javon Jackson of the We Four Coltrane tribute band did the same thing before touring with his Cobb-included quartet. And yes, I pulled out Giant Steps to hear Cobb on “Naima,” the only track from that landmark recording on which the drummer appears.

KIND OF BLUE, Miles Davis Septet, Columbia, recorded  March and April 1959. You move into a new home, set up your well-traveled sound system and what do you want to hear? Something you know (and love) well. Yeah, I know it’s a cliché. But it’s a classic cliché. And besides, I was feeling all “Blue In Green.” Not to mention that fact that I was looking forward to seeing Jimmy Cobb, now a spry 82, perform with the next generation. Final report: yes, my speakers were in phase.

GARDEN OF EDEN, Paul Motian Band; ECM, recorded November 2004. Paul Motian plays drums like Bill Evans played piano. Here’s it’s in support of a larger group; the tangle of guitars (Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, Jakob Bro), brother saxophones of Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby, the try-this-on-for size bass of Jerome Harris. Some Mingus, some originals from the band. But it’s Motian’s “Mesmer” that has a mesmerized. It’s like an Ornette tune at half-speed; inviting, entrancing and ultimately about the human condition.

SCHUBERT IMPROMPTUS, OP.  90 & op.142, Mitsuko Uchida; Philips, recorded 1996. Serious music for serious times performed with respect and sensitivity. With the possibility of dark moments on the horizon, I want to be prepared. And Schubert’s an expert at resolution.

Playlist 9/25

Joseph Haydn: Die sieben lezten Worte unseres Erlosers am Kreuze (The Seven Last Words of Our Savior On the Cross); Broodin Quartet, Teldec, recorded October, 1993 . The lush, lovely side of the Passion Play, the Largo second movement is to die for. Grave, but somehow transcendent. No, not first-thing-in-the-morning music. Leave it for late afternoon, when the day’s enticements are less promising.

Franz Schubert Octet in F, D.803, Music From Aston Magna; Harmonium Mundi, 1992. Double adagio and still uplifting. The instrumentation is divine, the rhythms natural, the music moving like deep water.

Morton Feldman: Piano and String Quartet, Kronos Quartet with pianist Aki Takahashi; Nonesuch, recorded November, 1991. In a time of change against a background of stasis, Feldman’s almost 80-minutes of repeated space makes for soothing returns and an alertness that comes of incremental difference.  Like waiting for something to happen when things are happening all around.

Miles Davis Quintet:  Filles de Kilamanjaro; Columbia, recorded June, 1968.  Filles is more melodic that the preceding quintet recordings most likely due to the presence of Gil Evans when these tunes were written. The themes are light and graceful, but dissolve in to free-expression solo sections that catch everyone  (but especially Wayne Shorter) in expansive moods. And then back to those themes of grace and respect, the perfect things for someone looking for beauty and while trying to make order out of the chaos.

Initiate,  The Nels Cline Singers; Cryptogramophone, recorded September, 2009. Disc two, the live recording of this two disc set, reminds us that hearing Cline live was always something of a symphonic experience. A good momento of what this band can do on stage, the variety of moods and sounds it covers and its ability to adapt music to its surroundings. Don’t ask me which disc I like best — studio or live  —  both represent the varieties of life in surprisingly different ways.