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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.

September 2016: Hybrids, Hyphens, and Cuban Cubism

As I write, Berlin is sweltering in a late-summer heat wave, and it's hard to think about anything but beer. Cold beer. I have an old German poster, of a wanderer in the desert confronting a mirage: a giant glass of foaming lager. The caption reads Dürst wird durch Bier erst schön - roughly translated, only beer can make thirst beautiful. I always thought this was amusing, but as today's temperature reached an unusual 93 Fahrenheit, it started to seem more like a matter of life and death.


Nevertheless, I am finding the energy to listen to some music: Jake Bugg's new album (his third already, at the age of 22); some early trio recordings by Ahmad Jamal (who is still performing at the age of 86); and some of Etta James's underrated late work, recorded when she was in her 60s. There's a faint glimmer of a theme there, but I've written about all these people before, so I'm going to move on and just see what happens.



BOOKER T. and the MGs: The Definitive Soul Collection

I always liked the half-dozen tracks I knew by BT & the MGs, so it's nice to delve further into their catalogue. Some of it is surprisingly familiar, though: for instance, I had to laugh when I heard Soul Limbo. Many years ago it was the theme music for, of all things, the Cricket coverage on BBC TV.


This is easy-listening music without being dumb. It's catchy, and served up in easily-digestible 3-minute slices, but it's funky and soulful. The other intriguing thing about this band is that it was multi-racial: two white guys and two black guys, from Memphis, at a time when that would not have seemed possible. Then again, Sly and the Family Stone, the only other multi-racial American band I can think of right now, had their greatest success in the same era. At the same time, Jimi Hendrix was accompanied by two white guys, and Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett by the all-white Muscle Shoals rhythm section. In the late 60s, you might have even predicted that multi-racial bands would be common by the early 21st century. What happened?

The American pop world, at least, seems more divided than ever. I guess you could call Eminem the token white hip-hop star and Lenny Kravitz the token black rock star, and I may be overlooking someone, but the only actual band I can think of is Alabama Shakes – and even they aren't exactly multi-racial, but a white band with a black singer/songwriter.


ALABAMA SHAKES: Sound and Color

I've listened to this three times now and have decided I like it. Alabama Shakes have followed a time-honoured trajectory, but one which seems to happen more and more quickly: from Nowhere, to Cult, to Huge, in what now seems like just a couple of weeks (to me, anyway. It probably seems like eons to them).


Intriguingly, iTunes categorises them as 'R&B'. Because the singer is black?  They do sound a bit R&B, but more often they just sound like a rock band, with the currently fashionable retro guitars and 'primitive' drum sound. They definitely come from Guitarland: a place of valves and pickups and buzzes and hums and feedback and distortion and amps and effects pedals. As a 'piano guy', it's a place I've never lived in, but have often hung out next door to.

This sonic soup is rendered more distinctive by a female singer with an unusual and, to my ears, rather masculine voice – even when she sings very high, it has the slightly eerie sound of a man singing in falsetto. Some of the songs are pretty good, too, though the band's songcraft can use some work (sound and color, they're good at). I'm curious to see where Alabama Shakes go from here, and whether they can progress over a more extended period of time (say, a couple of months).


CHICO O'FARRILL: The Complete Norman Granz Recordings

A concert poster I've just seen on the streets of Berlin has my mind boggling: MUSIC OF ARMENIA: LATIN, JAZZ, SWING. What does this mean?!


Of all the hybrid or hyphenated music genres, Armenian-latin-jazz-swing might just be the weirdest, though who knows, it might be great. There's no doubt, though, that latin jazz has always been one of the most satisfying. Latin/Caribbean music was part of the DNA of jazz from the beginning, and when latin music broke through to a mass audience in the USA and beyond in the 1940s and 50s, it was both obviously influenced by American jazz, and influencing it right back. Though it's a hybrid which endures, some of my favourite examples are early ones: Dizzy Gillespie's pioneering big band sessions, or albums like Machito's Kenya, featuring Cannonball Adderley, or Kenny Dorham's Afro-Cuban on Blue Note.

Chico O'Farrrill was born in Cuba to an Irish father and a German mother, was equally inspired by jazz, Classical, and Cuban music, and grew up to become, in the 1950s, possibly the most accomplished composer and arranger of big band music with latin rhythms. He worked with jazz greats like Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Roy Eldridge, and his son Arturo is still out there playing his dad's stuff with a big band whenever he gets a chance (I saw a great show in New York a few years ago).

The forty-six tracks on this compilation might be just a bit more than I needed, but some of them are glorious, even if some border on kitsch Exotica. At his best, O'Farrill, as an arranger, sounds like no one else. At his worst, you can still dance to it.


THE PEDRITO MARTINEZ GROUP: Habana Dreams

The New York-based Cuban percussionist, composer and singer Pedrito Martinez has been making waves for a while now, and having seen a couple of pretty astonishing things on YouTube, I reckoned it was time to dig into his current album. It features guest stars of the caliber of Rubén Blades and Wynton Marsalis, and is a challenging and original piece of work.


'Challenging' is not a word you often hear in relation to Cuban music. I sometimes wonder if there's a down side to the interest in 'world music' – namely, that if people are going to dip a toe into unfamiliar waters, they're more likely to do it in a pond than an ocean. In other words, they tend to want the music of other cultures to stay within well-defined limits. That way they can flatter themselves that they're recognizing 'authenticity' – while at the same time keeping things simple, and always knowing where they are on the musical map.  

Perhaps that's too cynical – after all, it's a good thing if people take an interest in Morrocan or Brazilian music. But it can be patronizing, too. It's ironic, but people with self-proclaimed eclectic tastes don't always appreciate eclecticism. They want Moroccan music to sound typically Moroccan, Brazilian music to sound typically Brazilian, and so on. That any or all of these musical cultures may be multifaceted, living, and evolving, can make things too complicated. Sussan Deyhim, an Iranian singer and musician I've worked with a couple of times, sometimes complains of being caught between a rock and a hard place; she doesn't want to pander to the large Iranian ex-pat community in Los Angeles, where she lives; but at the same time, the World Music crowd tends to lose interest when she tries to do something that doesn't sound stereotypically Middle Eastern.

Pedrito Martinez is having nothing to do with any of this. Habana Dreams is not even latin jazz, though it suggests at least some knowledge of jazz. Hybrids can be pretty contrived, anyway – a typical bit of this, duct-taped onto a typical piece of that. But Martinez seems to be aiming at new heights of creativity and sophistication from within the Cuban tradition itself. I'm tempted to call it Cuban Cubism; though the music could not have come from anywhere but Cuba, it sometimes seems to have been chopped up and put back together in unexpected patterns, as though we're looking at it from several angles at once. You have to pay attention to this stuff. It's full of shifts of groove and tempo, stops and starts, and apparent non-sequitors which only make sense after a couple of hearings. They do make sense, though.

Classic Cuban music is solidly established - it isn't going anywhere, and I love it too. The Buena Vista Social Club aren't going anywhere, and there are plenty of compilations out there with names like Mambo Mania or One Night in Havana. If you want to dip your toe in an ocean, though, check out Pedrito Martinez.

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