listen while browsing



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.

August 2015: From Bogotá To Bluegrass

August is a weird month, but I like it. I like the lazy, slightly desolate, shagged-out vibe of it. It's a month when most people don't want to do very much. I also find it a good month to have a birthday. Here's some August music.



VARIOUS ARTISTS: Cumbia Cumbia, Vols. 1 & 2

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Afritanga: The Sound Of Afrocolumbia


For some reason – or maybe no reason – I've recently gotten interested in the musical culture (or more accurately, cultures, plural) of Colombia, which I imagine to be the most tropical and latin of all tropical latin countries. Cumbia, as a genre, turns out to be more varied and interesting than I thought. That distinctive, lazy beat, a sort of Latino cousin of reggae or ska, is pretty ubiquitous, but some Colombian music is closer to Salsa, Soca, or something I don't quite know how to describe. I think I got lucky when I picked out these two thoroughly enjoyable compilations. Cumbia Cumbia is all classic stuff recorded by Discos Fuentes (great name for a record company) from the 50s to the late 80s. It's just about the happiest music I can imagine. Among other things, I love the shamelessly promiscuous use of the clarinet, an instrument which for decades now has been out of favour with pretty much everyone else, except for symphony orchestras and traditional New Orleans jazz purists.


Afritanga is even more interesting, insofar as it shows how Colombian musicians are moving into the 21st century. It's eclectic to say the least, and interesting in that it doesn't seem particularly influenced by American or European trends. Some of the musicians are looking back, to old folkloric styles, while others are looking to Africa, for instance with Congolese-style guitar riffs. Others are incorporating sampling and electronic beats: I particularly like the groups Systema Solar, and Tumbacatre, who are apparently an absolute riot live, and are represented here by a song called Chorizo, in which they sing - with passionate intensity - about sausage. And why not?



AHMAD JAMAL: At The Pershing / But Not For Me


A while ago I toyed with the idea of doing a series of little essays on my ten (twelve? fifty?) favourite pianists. But now I think about it, I've already written about Horace Silver, Sonny Clark, Nat Cole, James Booker, and Dr. John. Here's another prime contender.


Ahmad Jamal is a true original, hard to pin down and not part of a 'school'. This is a live album consisting entirely of Standards, recorded at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago in 1958. Jamal is now 85 and still playing. I have a couple of his later albums, which include more of his own compositions. They're not bad at all, but I think his originality is more apparent when he tackles familiar tunes in completely unexpected ways. It's a trait he shares with Sonny Rollins, but whereas Rollins is famous for picking unlikely tunes as a basis for inspired improvisations, Jamal often puts a whole fresh slant on the tune itself. Poinciana is a case in point. In most peoples' hands it would be a slightly corny Spanish-tinged ballad, but Jamal sets up an infectious bass-and-drum groove and then floats the melody, in gorgeous, chiming chords, over the top, and turns it into something magical. (It was actually a hit single at the time, and seems to have endured; I was pleasantly surprised to hear a Berlin DJ playing it just last week).


Jamal is a very pianistic pianist, by which I mean that he really knows how to draw a lot of different colors and textures from the instrument. Horace Silver, with his blunt, percussive style, could play a crappy old upright and still sound good, and sound like Horace. Jamal, though, needs, and deserves, a 9-foot Steinway.


Jamal is also one of those pianists (Bill Evans might be another example) who have so much imagination, so much to say, that they rarely appear with anything more than a bassist and drummer. Horn players, for instance, would just get in the way. Jamal has endless ingenious strategies to keep things interesting. He leaves a lot of space, which is one of the most underappreciated talents a musician can have. And he has so many different angles from which to approach a tune, and so many neat ideas about how to create an interplay between three players, that you never know what to expect, and thus, he's never boring. Check out some Ahmad Jamal. He can be addictive.



DOLLY PARTON: The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow


I listen to these albums quite often, so I guess it's about time I stopped being surprised at myself when I do. There are certain things everyone knows about Dolly Parton, but very few people I've met seem to know what a great singer and great musician she is. These are her Bluegrass albums. The first won a Grammy, but I slightly prefer the second, probably just because it was the first one I heard. Forget about some of her cheesier pop hits; this is serious stuff. The arrangements, the playing, the vocal harmonies . . . it's all honest, tough but sensitive, and timeless; Americana at a very high level.



Speaking of Bluegrass:




There is no better thirst-quencher on a sultry summer day than the Mint Julep, a drink created in Kentucky containing just Kentucky bourbon, mint, sugar and crushed ice. It sounds simple, but it's not so easy to find a good one in a bar, where they often use too much ice and not enough of everything else. It's traditionally served in a silver cup, which is a nice touch . . . the way the ice creates a kind of mist or sweat on the outside . . . the chirping crickets . . . the rumble of distant thunder . . .


Sorry, I nodded off for a minute there. Mint Julep! Right . . . I strongly recommend using mint-infused sugar syrup for this, even more so than for a Mojito. There are bottled versions available, but it's easy to make: boil any equal amount of sugar and water in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves, remove from the heat, and dump in a whole bunch of mint to steep until it's cold.


I'm sure you can order authentic silver julep cups from Amazon, though I found a cheap but perfectly acceptable substitute in an Asian supermarket; they come from India and I think are supposed to be used for something like Chai tea. Anyway, a glass tumbler will do. Pour in about an ounce of your syrup and fill the rest of the cup or glass with Knob Creek bourbon and crushed ice, in whatever proportion you prefer, though personally I reckon you need at least 3 oz. of the booze. I recommend Knob Creek because at 50 alcohol, it gives you a drink that doesn't just degenerate into ice water before you're halfway through it. Maker's Mark is a good, slightly lighter substitute. If Jim Beam is all you can get, fine, just use more than you think you need.


As a finishing touch, garnish with a sprig of mint - not just because it looks nice but because you get the aroma of mint as you lift the drink to your lips. Drink with a straw, preferably under a slowly revolving ceiling fan.