So you’re a couple of weeks into this whole work from home (WFH) thing, and you’re already running low on entertainment options.
You’ve cleaned out your Netflix queue, and you’ve binge-watched 37 shows you never knew existed. You’re caught up on your new music streaming, at least for now. Maybe a favorite artist or DJ has done a set on Facebook Live or elsewhere, but that doesn’t happen every day. If there are others in your domicile, you’ve enjoyed the extra quality time with them, but you still need some “me” time, and you’d like to have something at least a little different to amuse yourself while stealing it. Perhaps you even opened up your window and sang Bon Jovi or whomever with your neighbors, but community singalongs require planning and serendipity, both of which are sometimes hard to come by. What can you do to keep from losing your mind while self-isolating, especially as this drags on?
The answer might be as close as your attic, basement, or entertainment area: take a new listen to the music you already own.
That’s something I’ve already been doing, having been a part-time WFH-er for the last two years. Rather than spend what little disposable income I’ve had on new music, I’ve been listening to the music I’ve acquired over the years, with a special emphasis on those titles I haven’t played in a long time (in some cases, not since I acquired it). If you don’t have a healthy library of CDs and/or albums sitting around, this is obviously a non-starter. But if you do (and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you might), put that stash to use for more than leaning on those old, familiar favorites.
There are various ways you can mine the bounty of your exquisite taste to while away an hour or two during this stressful time. But you’ve got to do it with some intentionality: just playing any old thing won’t deploy your collection to its most useful end. Here’s a week’s worth of suggestions gathered from digging through my crates, accompanied by some of the re-discoveries I’ve enjoyed.
Listen to Your Old Music with New Ears
This is the easiest and most obvious suggestion for coping during this pandemic. If you haven’t listened to something in a while, you’re automatically going to hear different things in it, simply as a result of bringing a new set of life experiences to the moment. Music that might not have struck home upon an earlier listen might now click with your older, wiser self.
Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman, Song X: Twentieth Anniversary (Nonesuch, 2005)
That was the case for me with this unique collaboration between two jazz musicians not otherwise mentioned in the same breath. Metheny and Coleman, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Denardo Coleman recorded
Song X over two days in December 1985, and the final result showed both spontaneity and an uncanny rapport between the two leaders. This remastered version marking the session’s 20th anniversary features six unreleased tracks and greatly improved sound, especially when it comes to hearing how the two drummers interacted on the bottom of things.
But none of the record’s spacious ebullience struck me when I first bought the CD shortly after its release. Taking the time to listen to it again a few weeks ago, it finally kicked in how much at home Metheny sounds in what is mostly Coleman’s world (a pianoless ensemble with a rhythm section featuring two Coleman mainstays playing Coleman’s tunes). I marveled at Metheny’s deft commenting and coloring in the space between Coleman and the drummers, and just how much joy was actually happening as they made this music.
Even the tumult of “Endangered Species”, with Metheny taking his guitar synth work as far out as he ever did while amidst Coleman’s trademark alto riffing and moaning, makes a lot more sense to me now. One of the many details I missed the first time around is the “whoo!” at the end of the drummers’ section; I’d still love to know who let it out.
Support Your Local Shuttered Club Owner
I’m including a Buddy Guy record here for a reason beyond the music itself. Buddy Guy’s Legends, his popular downtown Chicago blues spot, is of course closed for now, as is the rest of the live music ecosystem. But while Guy can at least hope for some incidental streaming revenue, most other club owners don’t have alternate income streams. For them it’s no show, no business.
If you can help your favorite music spot by buying gift certificates for future shows or any club merchandise that’s available, rest assured they’ll appreciate it. (This also applies to your local bookstore and many other indie merchants, by the way.)
Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea (Silvertone, 2001)
Song X is an outlier in the oeuvres of both Metheny and Coleman, so too is Buddy Guy’s Sweet Tea a departure from the norm of a master. Instead of 12-bar electric blues and soul standards, Guy unleashes his voice and guitar on hill country blues from north Mississippi stalwarts like Junior Kimbrough and James “T-Model” Ford, accompanied by players from the Fat Possum Records team. The result is one of his most expansive efforts, as if he’s been freed to dig all the way into the blues’ swampy essence. Settle into the 12 minutes of Kimbrough’s “I Gotta Try You Girl” for oozy, blue funk at its ooziest and bluest.
Find Out If They Guessed Right About the Future
It’s one thing to go through your library for tunes that sound just as fresh and modern now as they did however long ago; current proof can be found in DJ D-Nice’s ongoing dance music playlist project. It’s another to check out the music that seemed to come from another world back then to see if it holds up in this one.
Various Artists, Offbeat: A Red Hot Sound Trip (Red Hot/Wax Trax!, 1996)
Parts of Offbeat certainly seem otherworldly, and much of the rest anticipates where music would soon head. It was one in a series of thematic collections produced by the Red Hot Organization to raise money and awareness in the ’90s and ’00s to fight AIDS. This one explores what was then the fringes of electronic music and far-out twists on trip-hop, along with more conventional contributions from Soul Coughing and David Byrne.
It’s very much an album of its time, featuring early electronic innovators-turned-modern influences Meat Beat Manifesto, DJ Spooky (with Amiri Baraka – talk about a generational mash-up!), Tortoise and My Bloody Valentine. But within it are tracks that fit right into a 2020 mindset.
Check out DJ Krush’s soundscape “Ryu-Ki” and collabs between two jazz players just getting started on their trajectories, bassist Christian McBride and organist Joey DeFrancesco, and DJ Krazy that anticipate the 2010s work of jazz musicians bringing beatmaking into their repertoires. The album closer, Moby’s “Republican Party” – 89 seconds of people laughing while a baby cries – still speaks for itself.
Explore the Planet, Travel Bans Be Damned
Understandably, US travel to Canada and other exotic locales is ill-advised, if not outright restricted, while COVID-19 plagues the world. But if you have any international music, that’s one way to stay connected to the rest of the planet. (Another is to get news from a trustworthy international source like the
Guardian or the BBC.) It’s also a reminder that one sweet day, you’ll finally be able to take that dream vacation you’d been planning. And it just might remind you how great music can transcend physical (and genre) boundaries.
Various Artists, The Wassoulou Sound: Women of Mali (Stern’s Africa, 1990)
The Wassoulou Sound: Women of Mali, the first of two volumes in the series, was one of the first African music CDs I bought when exploring the music of the motherland. It features young female musicians from the Wassoulou region of southern Mali. The liner notes are devoid of specifics on the artists and their songs but they do explain how these women were invested in making music that grappled with the conflict between ancient traditions and the desire for female agency in the modern world.
Oumou Sangaré is the best-known artist featured here, but my favorite track has always been Sali Sidibe’s “Djen Magni”, one of three on the compilation from the late firebrand (she died last year at the age of 50). Its loping feel pairs well with the Tourag “desert blues” of bands like Tinariwen, while its insistent, break-friendly beat and string work pair well with the innovative work of Sudan Archives, a young female firebrand on the other side of the water.
Binge-Listen to Your Boxed Sets (But Take Your Time)
Perhaps you splurged on a big boxed set from your favorite artist, label or genre when labels were repackaging stuff from their archives into big-ticket archival collections. Perhaps you never had the time back then to work your way closely through all of it, especially those heavy on recording session minutiae and 19 versions of the same song. Now, you have the time. Still, don’t try to do it all at once.
John Coltrane, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse!, 1997)
That was the mistake I made when I acquired this rather essential snapshot of a brief moment in Coltrane’s musical journey. I tried to plow my way through all four discs in one sitting (during a three-day jaunt on a cruise ship, no less, back when those places were reliably virus-free), and it soon became one big sonic blur.
Recently, I took my time with it, listening to it piecemeal over the course of a few days. Giving it time to sink in made all the difference in my appreciation of what he and his bandmates accomplished over the course of one weekend gig.
At the time – November 1961 – Coltrane’s classic quartet sound and lineup had not quite congealed. Pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones were in place, but the bass chair rotated between Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison, who would eventually claim it. Also, Coltrane’s band was a quintet, with the addition of Eric Dolphy on reeds for a few months. For this weekend, Coltrane added oud and oboe players to the mix on certain selections, making for what must have been a fascinating peek for the Vanguard audiences that were in to Coltrane’s restless spirit.
The best-known piece is his tour de force “Chasin’ the Trane”, released on Live at the Vilage Vanguard (1962) along with two other tracks from the weekend. Two others, “India” (one of four versions over the weekend) and “Impressions” (one of three versions), came out on Impressions (1963). Many of the other songs came out on posthumous collections. (All albums on Impulse!) This boxed set contains all of those pieces, plus some that never did get released, presented in chronological order.
By listening to the whole thing a bit at a time, I could appreciate the subtle differences between songs, depending on who was playing (some versions of songs feature one bassist or the other or both; some versions feature Dolphy and others don’t; on one track Roy Haynes is the drummer), and which reed Coltrane and/or Dolphy played on each variation. Because it’s in chronological order, you can break it up by listening to each night’s set one at a time, or zero in on how tracks with multiple versions changed throughout the weekend.
Either way, what’s evident is how rapidly Coltrane’s conception of his music was moving far faster than most probably suspected at the time. Even before A Love Supreme (1965) and the bracing explorations in the last years of his life, it’s clear from this – and clearer for me now that I’ve made my way through the set patiently – that those later achievements weren’t sudden thunderbolts, but pieces of a longer artistic and spiritual continuum.
Discover the Kid-Friendly Music You Didn’t Know You Had
If there are school-age kids at home with you during the day now, you have my socially distanced hugs and full sympathies. It must be mind-boggling to try to get something done on your newly-virtual job while keeping kids engaged with their schooling, physically active (without breaking anything) and constructively entertained. Fear not: your old music might come in handy here too.
Kid-friendly music need not be restricted to Yanni, “Baby Shark” or They Might Be Giants!. You might have something in your library that’s perfectly appropriate and accessible for younger audiences. Just don’t introduce it to them with any sentence that begins “When I was your age…” or “Music was way better when I was a kid,” even if in fact it was.
Cab Calloway, Are You Hep to the Jive? (Sony, 1994)
One recent day, I just couldn’t bear to face the daily news. I needed something fun for my morning soundtrack. So I reached for this Cab Calloway best-of, one of the (surprisingly, and unjustly) few decent compilations readily available on this legendary entertainer.
Calloway was an over-the-top performer and bandleader during the late ’30s and ’40s (his career would go on to include a cameo in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers). He wore larger-than-life hats and suits on stage, and fronted a big band featuring some of the best musicians of the day. But he was best known for his signature call-and-response “hi-de-ho” riff, from his calling card hit “Minnie the Moocher”.
That’s a historic piece of the non-Tin Pan Alley section of the Great American Songbook (and the Great American Slangbook too), but I don’t recommend it for wee listeners, what with its coded references to sex and weed. But there are plenty of tunes on this 22-song collection from the ’40s that are almost as much fun for the whole gang to sing, with nonsensical syllables that parallel what bebop musicians were doing around the same time.
The bands behind Calloway are first-rate, although I wish the liner notes had included the full lineups. You’ll still have to keep a close listen for sly in-jokes, but meal time will never be the same after you’ve served up Calloway’s take on “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House”.
In addition to diversifying your kids’ entertainment array, playing vocal jive jazz from Calloway and contemporaries like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole and Dizzy Gillespie pulls double duty as a backdoor history lesson into classic Black music and culture – one they wouldn’t be teaching, I’d surmise, if school were still in physical session. (That trick could work wonders on a more relatable level if you have any old-school, non-parental advisory rap lying around.)
When in Doubt, Dance
Whatever gets you on your feet to move your body to the beat, play it. Let me rephrase that: Play. It. Loud. And Dance Loud too, at least as loud as your living room, porch or backyard will allow.
The Pointer Sisters (Blue Thumb, 1973)
The inspiration for my final recommendation comes from the debut album of the Pointer Sisters, which is a far cry from their ’80s hits. Anita, Bonnie, June and Ruth Pointer emerged in the early ’70s from the Bay Area scene with a unique blend of jazz, blues, and R&B singing, plus a flair for ’40s fashion. Their first album showcased this instinct quite nicely on both covers and originals that summon the era of the music that inspired them. They continued in this vein throughout the early ’70s to great success, even picking up airplay for a country tune they recorded, before morphing into full-fledged pop later in the decade (as a trio after Bonnie went solo).
Their debut, though, is best known for “Yes We Can Can”, the hit that put them on the map. Originally written by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint and recorded by Lee Dorsey, the Pointers and their band doubled down on the original’s Big Easy proto-funk to create a classic strutter with timeless lyrics, “And do respect the women of the world/ remember you all had mothers”. It’s a fun, uplifting tune with a message of hope and affirmation, one every generation can share, and still works its magic at a time when we need all the hope and affirmation we can get.