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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

December 2013: From Beethoven to Afro-Beat

(1) ETTA JAMES: Various tracks 

        I love Etta James and consider her a serious contender for the ‘Queen of Soul’ title. Her At Last always does warm tingly things to me, and since she died last year I’ve been exploring some of her lesser-known stuff – from very early (pre-Chess) recordings to some good ones she made towards the end of her life. 

        In the first category is The Essential Modern Records Collection, which has some cheesy moments but is mostly tremendous fun. My favourite track is The Pick Up, in which an unknown tenor saxophonist plays a series of insinuating riffs, prompting spoken replies from Etta (‘Is that all?’ ‘Well, I don’t know . . . I gotta be home by two.’ And, when the sax imitates a car horn: ‘Cadillacs don’t excite me, I got one of my own!’) Eventually she gives in, and with Etta scat-singing, the horn and the voice join together. Pure happiness. 

        Another compilation, Jazz, consisting mostly of standards, is less successful, though the fault lies more with the arrangements than the vocals. (Did I say cheesy? Some of these string charts are pure Gorgonzola). It’s worth it for one track, Fool That I Am, which sends delicious icicles down the back of my shirt. OK, it’s not as polished or elegant an interpretation as you might hear from, say, Ella Fitzgerald. But that’s just the point. Etta isn’t even really a jazz singer; she just makes it work, by the sheer force of her personality.

 

(2) MATT MUNISTERI: Still Running Round In The Wilderness – The Forgotten Songs of Willard Robison, Vol. 1 

        Willard Robison isn’t exactly a household name, though a couple of his songs survive as minor standards (A Cottage For Sale, Don’t Smoke In Bed). So when Matt Munisteri, a fine jazz guitarist and singer, pressed this CD into my hand at one of his New York gigs, I was completely unprepared for anything like this kind of revelation. Robison was prolific and successful in the 1920s/30s, but has perhaps been largely forgotten because - as Munisteri points out in his articulate and amusing liner notes - his songs are so hard to categorise and just plain peculiar.

        This record is a beautifully put-together Labour of Love, and I have a soft spot for that sort of thing. The songs sound amazingly contemporary, thanks to inventive arrangements, characterful performances, and the fact that (like the songwriter he most resembles, his fellow Midwesterner Hoagy Carmichael) Robison had some kind of connection to the American heartland that colours his largely jazz-influenced songs with timeless hints of folk, country, and church music. I can imagine all kinds of people performing these songs, from Willie Nelson to Tom Waits. Munisteri is planning a Volume 2. I can’t wait.

 

(3) ANTIBALAS: Antibalas 

        Antibalas are a sprawling Brooklyn-based ensemble continuing the Afrobeat tradition pioneered by Fela Kuti. I saw them live as the house band for Fela!, the Broadway show about Kuti’s life which was so cleverly done and so damn funky that it was hard to believe I was in a Broadway theatre, and not a Nigerian nightclub. I’ve always loved Afrobeat and on my Ellington tribute album The Duke, I did an Afrobeat-influenced arrangement of Caravan, on which Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson played drums. I asked him in the studio if he’d seen Fela!, because if he hadn’t, he really should, because the guy who plays Fela is great, the band is great, blah blah blah, etc, etc. Yes, he finally said, he’d seen it; he was one of the show’s producers. I slunk out of the room like a rat. Speaking of which, The Ratcatcher is one of the best tracks on this powerful album, which follows in the master’s footsteps but throws in enough original ideas to be more than just an imitation.

 

(4) BEETHOVEN: String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 

        I recently saw the young German violin virtuoso Christian Tetzlaff perform this piece with his quartet, and it prompted me to dig out my old recording by the Quartetto Italiano. With apologies to Miles Davis, 50 Cent, et al, I reckon the toughest badass in music history was Ludwig Van Beethoven. Imagine being a controversial music superstar in your late 20s when you start to lose your hearing. After a few more years, it gets so bad that you seriously consider suicide. Having decided against that, you then resolve to persevere, no matter how bad it gets, and to not just persevere but to better than ever, and better than anyone. Meanwhile, your other problems multiply – money, health, family, women, you name it. Near the end of his life – that is, in his mid-fifties – Beethoven was completely deaf, and in such a mess that he was once mistaken for a wino and arrested. But he was writing music so astonishing, so ahead of its time, that some of it still startles music geeks like me every time we hear it. 

        It’s impossible to have a favourite among the late quartets, but the slow movement is my favourite part of this one. It’s a series of slow, modal fugues which seem to look all the way back to the music of the 16th century; at times the quartet, playing long notes softly, with little or no vibrato, sounds like some kind of primeval organ (to do this convincingly, and in tune, incidentally, is a lot harder  than it sounds). The music forces you to slow down and pay attention; it’s like watching ice melt, or leaves turn red. Then, just when you can’t take much more, at exactly the right moment, Beethoven brings in exactly the right contrasting section, which is still slow but in context, feels quite lively. The harmony is more modern, too, which makes us feel like we’ve leapt forward in time. Then, back to the opening music, but not exactly back, as it’s now more developed and embellished; a cinematic metaphor might be, cutting back to a scene or a character to see how they’ve changed over the intervening years. Then Beethoven does the same kind of thing with a reprise of the second section, and finally returns to a variation of the first in which it seems to have reached its final, perfect form. The whole movement plays out on a kind of endless, cosmic time-scale, but also with a sense of inevitable rightness - not one note could be added, subtracted or changed. This is a master in total control of every aspect of his art.  

        And this is why, when someone describes Katy Perry’s latest single as ‘awesome’, I want to hit them. See you next month.

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