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Monday, Aug 3, 2009

Part One: Pharoah Sanders


Maybe you have to be a jazz aficionado to get excited by an album cover, but come on: How can you not love this? How can an album that looks like this not be brilliant? And here’s the thing: Yes, it was the ’70s (1971 to be exact) and yes, plenty of musicians (and artists) outside of the jazz idiom were fully, if superficially, embracing Eastern (in general) and African (in particular, particularly within jazz) culture. Then, and now, whenever an opportunistic interloper tries to straddle the line between the exotic and the trendy, it’s simple to see through the charade and the results are accordingly painful—for all involved.


Suffice it to say, in Pharoah Sanders’ case, this eastward glance was neither cursory nor commercially-minded. Continuing along the path his mentor John Coltrane strode in the previous decade, Sanders focused less on the shrieking and more on his cerebral side. Although there are some obligatory saxophonic fireworks on Thembi, there are also some extraordinarily peaceful and meditative moments. Arguably, he reached an ideal balance on this effort, which some hail as his masterpiece and others decry as an uneven mess. But even the haters have to recognize that the title track, the ethereal “Astral Travelling” (below) and the astonishing Cecil McBee bass solo “Love” are some of the better recorded moments of the ’70s.


Part Two: Augustus Pablo


Art imitating art (or, to be more precise, album cover imitating album cover)? Perhaps. But just as Thembi is arguably better but less known than Sanders’ enduring classic Karma (which, of course, featured Leon Thomas singing and yodeling and is either hopelessly aged or ageless, depending on one’s tolerance for that peace and love late ’60s vibe; the music, on the other hand, is unassailable), the late, great Augustus Pablo (Horace Swaby) is best known for the masterful King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. But as hardcore reggae enthusiasts are well aware, his shining hour may well be East of the River Nile. Like Thembi (and, again, like a great deal of jazz and reggae from this era) the fascination with African roots is front and center. One reason these albums remain convincing, aside from the obvious genius of the assembled musicians, is the lack of words: the invocation of other places is purely sonic, and is able to impart an authenticity based on acumen and not affectation. You can hear it, as well as feel it. It’s never forced and it’s utterly honest. This is music that these men had to make, and that is how the best art is always created.


Aside from the obvious (and, to me, delightful) similarities of the two album covers, these albums seem to accrue additional layers of meaning and applicability during the summer months. Perhaps that is because I always associate them with the great summer of 2000, when I finally acquired CD versions of both after having made due with crappy cassette copies for entirely too long. To be certain, this is 365-day-a-year music, but if you are going to discover either of these albums for the first time, now is an ideal time to experience some upfull living, summer-style.



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Monday, Jul 27, 2009
The author grapples with his adolescent obsession with Fiona Apple's Tidal

Why was a 12-year-old boy captured by an album that seemed almost wholly obsessed with female sexual confession? Did it have something to do with my isolated childhood, or did it have more to do with the confusion surrounding my own impending sexual awakening? Perhaps these questions are futile. To generalize about why any one piece of music would appeal to any one person, is a difficult task to reconcile retrospectively.

Still, there is something deeply moving about Apple’s first release – an album fused with intricate rhythms, and righteous piano playing.  Though only 18 years old at the time of production, Fiona Apple’s Tidal is a stark, brutal, and often beautiful portrait about a young girl’s physical and emotional growth. The opening track, “Sleep to Dream”, professes this clearly. “Don’t even show me your face, don’t bother to explain”, “go back to the rock from under which you came”, “I’ve got my feet on the ground”, and “my own hell to raise”, barks the frustrated teenager. Time and again, throughout the album, and sometimes, within the very same song, Apple reaches the brink of personal resolution, only to do a complete 180-degree turn on herself – encapsulating the fickle nature of adolescent decision making.


At other times, she replaces her contradictory outlook with conflicted helplessness. In “Sullen Girl’ for example, the artist relays the traumatic experience of being raped at the young age of 12. She wrestles with the burden of her despair and isolation, quietly hoping to be saved. Anchored by its smooth sonic landscape, and her restrained voice, it is very easy for one to grow engrossed in Apple’s intimate narrative. With its opaque and painterly lyrics, “it’s calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion” – “Sullen Girl” is able to elevate itself from a simple retelling of sexual abuse (i.e. Tori Amos’ “Me and A Gun”), and instead opens itself up to a variety of interpretations. For me, the song was about grappling with the weight of my desires, for my mother it might have been a song that captured the loneliness of depression, and I am sure that for many other listeners, it was about finding the courage to accept their silent anguish.


Elsewhere, Apple tackles female exploitation, as is evidenced by “Criminal”, a lavish track that is ambivalent about the tension between exploiting one’s self sexually, and protecting what is sacred. And despite her young age (and innocence), her breathy Nina Simone-style vocals echo a maturity and understanding of a woman twice her age.


By the end of the record, Apple is still teeming with unresolved questions. She wants to “walk away” from her “decaying” relationship, but she equally finds herself wanting to “save” the person that she has grown to love. It was this sort of confusion, this inability to let go that had me so engrossed with Tidal. At 18, Apple was staring back at me from the other end of childhood, warning me of the pitfalls that were yet to come. Nevertheless, her delivery assured me that I would survive, even if it meant the journey ahead would be wrought with puzzles, and perhaps even a sense of bewilderment. Yet, for all of the difficulties, there was also a feeling throughout Tidal that echoed the excitement and discovery that the future would bring.


Looking back now as an adult, I realize that the album played a vital role in my development. It was a continuous source of comfort, for which I will be forever grateful.


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Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009

At a recent exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, Scotland, I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse at Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Jim and Tom, Sausalito”. This, Mapplethorpe’s most notorious image, depicts a man urinating into the mouth of another (with his subject accepting graciously). The photograph was displayed as part of an exhibition entitled, “Sh(OUT): Contemporary Art and Human Rights”, a collection of installations and art pieces that are as much about acceptance, as they are about activism.


By the time I returned home from this trip, I felt compelled to revisit the music of Mapplethorpe’s esteemed collaborator and friend, Patti Smith. Of all her works, my strongest inclination was to reach for her 1997 album, Peace and Noise. Released a year after her memorial compilation Gone Again, Peace and Noise possesses the same lingering heartbreak of her previous album, albeit with a vitriolic edge.


Instead of sitting back and watching her dearly departed ghosts swirl about, Smith adopts a rabble-rousing persona, virtuously professing to her specters that she is ready to start a riot. OK, she may not have been perpetuating the same anarchistic angst of the 1970s, but Smith (who had notoriously retired from the musical world for years), was now fuming with a more concise anger.


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Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Though I could not put a name to this queerness then, I knew that my ability to be free-to-be me was somehow connected to Michael Jackson’s ability to be free-to-be as bizarre as he wanted to be and still have people respect his life’s work.

I love Michael Jackson.  I would like to say that I appreciate his artistry, his mad song writing skills or his fantastic musical arrangements, all of which is certainly true. I would rather just say that I respect the sacrifices he and his family made for fame or fulfillingness’ first finale. For whatever reasons Joe and Katharine—sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson—did it, they discovered magic and/or cultivated it (most likely the latter with Tito!).  If you have ever been to Gary, Indiana you can imagine that it takes a surreal level of blood, sweat and tears for anyone, let alone a black family, to rise up out of that place. Mind you, I have never visited Gary, yet have passed by that old industrial city several times. My folks would regularly drive that route up I-65 between Louisville and Kenosha, Wisconsin to visit family. On the bypass around Gary, all my aunt would ever say is “Oh, that’s not on our way”, in response to my pleas to at least drive by the Jackson’s home, or at least see how the city has acknowledged its undoubtedly most famous offspring—or at least the ones most relevant to me. 


It was only years later that I understood that my folks just got in the habit of not stopping in any odd town along American highways, as a result of conditioning from segregation in the Jim and Jane Crow South—like so many of us, my folks hail from ‘Bama, hence real-life experiences with that chapter in American history are plentiful. It was forbidden and dangerous when they were younger to stop in unknown places. By my early teens, however, they had replaced aluminum-foil-wrapped fried chicken—no, not from that fast food chain, we fried our own and Colonel Sanders’, too—with a pit stop at Cracker Barrel. From the highway, Gary, Indiana looked mighty industrial, grey, dismal and virtually deserted. To me, Gary looked like one of those places that black people should avoid; it was clear that the Jackson family had more than a side order of We gotta get up out this place, behind some of those high “hee, hees”, snaps and slides across the floor.


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Tuesday, Mar 3, 2009

I was 31 before the lyrics to the 1987 chart-topper Pleasure Principle meant anything to me. When the song debuted, I was already a staunch Janet Jackson fan. I was the first in my seventh grade class to be able to do Janet’s famous head-bop from the song’s video- moving her neck left and right, framing her head with her right hand under the chin then the profile. Janet wore plain black pants and a T-shirt, and full kneepads for the shoot. There is even a website dedicated to the cryptic markings on JJ’s tee, and calls this clip “a perfect blend of music and motion designed to ensnare its target in a very specific way.” Alone, she danced on an equally stripped down set to showcase the most baadasssss moves since, well, her brother.  In stark contrast to the highly ornate, narrative big-budget videos that would characterize successive albums and especially the Rhythm Nation 1814 Film, Pleasure Principle- the sixth single off her 1986 album Control- was all about the dance.


Janet’s success followed her elder brother’s chart-dominating, pop precedent-setting albums Off the Wall and Thriller by only few years. Moreover, when her turn came, she took over the scene just as quickly as Michael had done as a solo artist. Stretching decades from 1982’s Thriller, every kid in any dance school around the country learned sequences from Joe and Elizabeth Jackson’s kids. By the end of 1987, even drag queens abandoned dresses for tights and jeans in order to do Janet’s now infamous run, jump, balance and leap, landing from a chair.


Janet was neither the queen nor the princess, and certainly not a dominatrix of pop music (read Madonna’s Erotica, circa 1990). By the mid- to late ‘80s, grounded in Paula Abdul’s choreography, Janet had moved beyond trendsetter to ‘norm establisher’ in popular culture; she was in control. Little Ms. Penny from Goodtimes was more than just a starlet shaking her tits-n-ass for some coins. Nevertheless, she would play that card years later at the Superbowl, absorbing all the oxygen from the short list of other high profile celebrities set to perform that day in the Superdome. As comedienne Sommore says, “does anyone even remember who sang the national anthem that year?” Rather, Ms. Jackson (‘cause I’m nasty) genuinely remains true to her heritage as entertainers- a virtual clan of griots.


The Best things in Life are Free


One of my mother’s best friends took me to see the Rhythm Nation 1814 Tour, and it was all that! Naturally, I had purchased the cassette months earlier, and had memorized every word to every song, including the B-side non-hits, and knew the moves from those classic videos. I could croon every twist and turn of Janet’s Soul ballads like Someday is Tonight, which, upon a close listen, tone for tone approximates the heart wrenching melismatic orgasm of her brother’s Lady in My Life. At that tender pre-pubescent age, my vocal range could match that of any Jackson’s. Rhythm Nation 1814’s rich album notes included lyrics to every song, which is of great importance when confronting head-on topics that the news chooses to ignore like racism, sexism, war, oppression and the legacy we bequeath to our youth. In State of the World, Janet wrote/performed:


To feed the baby before he starts to cry/No rest, no time to play/15, the mother is a runaway/No time for dreams or goals/Pressure is so strong/Her body she has sold so her child can eat/What is happening to this world we live in/In our home and other lands


Of the myriad of pop artists that talk about sex, few regard the topic from this, frank and not so uncommon perspective. Many artists simply will never go there.


That rock on your finger’s like a tumor


Janet so neatly does Black music, infusing the old with the new into a finely crafted message of active contemplation and hope for the future. I always appreciate when artists come clean about their influences and tastes; as a people we pay so little attention to our history. Michael Jackson regularly thanked James Brown, publicly testifying to copying his moves while watching him as a child entertainer.


As a budding young dancer, I scoured through every available resource to learn about big band leader Cab Calloway and acrobatic dancers The Nicholas Brothers- all truly wicked entertainers from the Harlem Renaissance who made cameo appearances in Janet’s video Alright. The popularized remix of this hit paired Janet with Heavy D, fashioning the R&B/Hip-Hop duo that others still follow. One only need witness LL Cool J and Total, Ja Rule and J-Lo, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Mariah and well, just about every other thug. Control paved the way for New Jack Swing, of which Mary J. Blige would later become its queen.


It was Control that would lay the foundation for all danceable pop music to follow. Beyond just stealing and sampling funk and disco beats, Janet’s lyrics and image covered much, much more than fanatical love and hardcore sex. Janet’s next project, Rhythm Nation 1814, was an action-packed album that not only gives ample treatise to social ills, but also incorporates entertainers that influenced Janet, on top of contemporary dope beats. Most certainly, this left little room to brag about wealth, though I suppose growing up at 2300 Jackson Street, one grows accustomed to such riches.


Like Beyoncé, Janet can pay her own fare, “It’s not the first time I’ve paid the fare,” she says, “Thank you for the ride.” She’s an Independent Woman. Yet, unlike savoring the ability to ‘buy your own’, eschewing, as she says in Pleasure Principle, “part-time bliss” for “happiness,” Janet asserts: “I’m not here to feed your insecurities. I wanted you to love me … My meter’s running I’ve really have to go!” She is interested in more than just goods. Despite the Jackson trail-blazers, so much of today’s pop encourages independent women and girls to leave love aside, opting for a cheap, material upgrades, or be Bossy, turning the tables and becoming somebody’s Suga Mamma. Today’s divas simply wallow in their own insecurities, victims of the perpetual lust for pleasure in material bliss.


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