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.

March 2016: Jazz-Hop and Créole-Manouche

KENDRICK LAMAR: To Pimp A Butterfly


If you haven't heard this by now, you must have heard about it. I'm not much of a hip-hop fan, but I am curious, and I hope I never operate on the base level of blind prejudice. And I'm currently listening to it for the fourth time, so there's something going on here.


One thing that drew me to this album was hearing that it was 'jazzy', which to a significant extent, it is. The idea of a fusion of hip-hop and jazz is not new, though it has never really taken off (and for my taste, hasn't been done better than on Us3's first two albums). A major jazz pianist, Robert Glasper, is involved, as is an interesting multi-genre talent who calls himself Thundercat, though exactly who has done what, is a bit hard to establish. And here I go already with another one of my pet peeves, which is the increasing difficulty in the music world of knowing who to praise, or who to blame.


This may be a generational complaint. Maybe I miss the time when a new album by, say, Stevie Wonder was a major event because we knew that he wrote all the music and lyrics with his own brain, sang them with his own beautiful voice, and played almost all the instruments with his own hands and feet. Music fans used to devour lyrics, credits, and liner notes. Nowadays these can be vague, incomplete, hard to track down, illegible, or simply non-existent. What surprises me, though, is not so much the technology-driven fact that this has happened, but that relatively few people seem to care. The attitude seems to be: who cares who did what? Kendrick Lamar's name is on it: give him the Grammy.


If nothing else, Lamar is clearly a clever and inventive rapper. He strikes me more as a character actor than a leading man, as he often assumes different voices and different personas. On the other hand, if you want to have a laugh at just how hopelessly uncool I am from a hip-hop point of view, I'll confess that I sometimes find myself thinking: I wish this guy would stop talking so I can listen to the music. The music – which sometimes, to me, seems completely unconnected to the words - is more varied, subtle, and unpredictable than I would ever have expected. It's harmonically quite sophisticated, and rhythmically it often has the edgy, unsettling quality of quite a lot of 'Nu Jazz'. On some tracks (Alright, for instance) the kick drum/snare drum patterns are so abstract or so sparsely repeated that they never seem to quite coalesce into a groove. Institutionalized has snare drum accents that always seem to arrive slightly late, making me question whether the beat is what I think it is, or something else. On Hood Politics the kick drum plays on an even 8th-note grid while the other rhythmic elements are 'swung'. I'm not actually crazy about this sort of thing, but at least it's not just Business As Usual.


At the risk of digging myself into an ever deeper hole, I'll also admit that I find a lot of hip-hop alienating in its relentlessly angry and confrontational tone, and its relentless focus on Race and the worst aspects of African-American life. My observations, for what they're worth, are aesthetic rather than, for instance, political. That's what you get with a musician writing a blog about music. But when the message seems to be simultaneously LISTEN TO ME! and FUCK OFF! I don't know who it's addressed to, or, if it's me, how I'm supposed to react.


Take, for instance, the fact that every hip-hop album contains approximately 5,000 reiterations of A Certain Word which a white person dare not even mention the existence of. (Except, apparently, for that talented but overrated blowhard Quentin Tarantino). I sort-of get this (just as I sort-of got gay people wearing pink triangles or calling each other Queer) but I'm not sure whether to think about it any more deeply or to just laugh at the absurdity of it all.


On one of his strongest tracks, The Blacker The Berry, Kendrick Lamar unleashes a storm of anger on black people and on himself, but mostly on white people. Quoting a litany of negative stereotypes about blacks which would cause outrage if uttered by a white man, he says 'You hate me don't you / You hate my people'. And I'm thinking: no, I don't hate you, Kendrick, honestly. Then he changes perspective, suggesting that his race is also hated for its beauty, its wisdom, its style, and ultimately for its success, before saluting the listener with a bitter 'Excuse my French but fuck you. No, fuck y'all.' Now I feel like the message issimultaneously WE CAN'T WIN! and NEITHER CAN YOU! And I start to wonder whether this kind of thing is part of the solution, or part of the problem.


It is a scarily powerful track, though, and while there are things about this album and its relationship to the zeitgeist that I don't understand, I'm at least honest enough to admit it – as well as to say that I know a serious, ambitious and challenging piece of work when I see it.





Four guys playing acoustic instruments, live. We know who to blame here.


Many people know that jazz arose, more or less, from a merging of Ragtime and the Blues. It's less often recognized that its sonic palette (aside from the ever-present piano) originated in military bands or brass bands (which are still a major presence in the New Orleans music scene). The true 'front line' instruments in early jazz were the trumpet (or often, its brass band cousin the cornet), the clarinet, and the trombone. The saxophone was there too, but its dominance as a solo instrument didn't really begin until the ascendancy of Coleman Hawkins at the end of the 1930s. By the mid-40s the clarinet (sadly, I think) had lost its honoured place.


That makes Evan Christopher a throwback: a young-ish clarinetist who is almost single-handedly upholding and re-energising the tradition. If he reminds me of anyone, it's Barney Bigard (the clarinet star in Duke Ellington's orchestra and later, with Louis Armstrong's All-Stars) but he swings harder, as I can attest from hearing him play live more than once. But when you hear that special, raw, woody tone, and that honest, unforced blend of the down-and-dirty and the sweetly romantic, you know he could not have come from anywhere but New Orleans.


Christopher exiled himself to Paris for a while in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and had a stroke of genius there -  forming a quartet, with two guitars and a bass, to connect his own tradition with the 'Manouche', or Gypsy, jazz of Django Reinhardt. Their two studio albums are exquisite, soulful chamber-jazz, but this live one, recorded a couple of years ago in the UK, has more atmosphere and immediacy, and serves as a kind of Greatest Hits So Far. Beautiful stuff, and a beautiful respite from the anger and violence of this world.