Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Movement Called Kraftwerk

I keep an ear out for what young people are listening to, since new music is always the most exciting frontier. Among serious listeners of today, the more popular genres are EDM, trance, techno, and of course, hip-hop. I admit to not totally grasping the beauty of all of these genres, in spite of the adventures of Robert Moog and the early explorations of synthesized sound being highlights of our teen years. Jean Michel Jarre, Stockhausen and Brian Eno were high art. My friends and I frothed at the mouth as we built ring modulators and drum machines from circuits published in EFY magazine. When Casio released the monophonic VL-Tone, we went berserk with its programmable attack, delay, sustain, release option. As we got older, and taste and technology evolved, we let go of it as youthful obsessions that were of no lasting value.

One of the bands from that era that was quite unlike anything else was Kraftwerk. It was not rock. It was not dance music. It did not showcase keyboard or melodic skills of any great merit. It had no pretense of social relevance beyond the industrial/robotic angle. It was a focused, unapologetic celebration of synthesized sound. It stood at such a distance from any other form of music that it was a genre by itself. Before Kraftwerk hit Indian shores with their more successful releases, their bland, almost anti-emotional appeal earned them a good amount of disdain from the critics community; but the kids loved it. Their campus years film footage shows the kind of following they had even before they got their fingers on the pulse of the mass audience. The timing of this music with the increased interest in altered consciousness made things easier. Interestingly, their work laid the foundations for techno, synthpop, and EDM as we know them today.

The Man Machine - The Kraftwerk album that I first heard

By the time the 80s came around, the sound was accepted, their compositions and albums got better packaged for mass consumption, and their German avant-garde clinical image became an essential component of their appeal. But the music was still the same. Clever use of synthesizers and sequencers around simple composition with elementary lyrics if any. Not the kind of stuff to stand the test of time, one might have thought then.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Music's Biggest Night 2017

There are few things in life more pleasurable than complaining. For stuffy music lovers like me, the best time to do it is on Grammy night. I have been lamenting the death of serious music live and online on that day for the past several years, here and on Twitter, only to be proven wrong every single time.

Look at the irony of the times. 2016 hijacked the epithet of the year that music died with relentless additions to the list of musicians who made the great crossing. 2017 saw even the relevance of the phrase be defiled by tagging it to the Trump inauguration. Next you know, it will be applied to the recall of a mobile phone battery. 

Being a good gambler, here are my bets for the awards in the few categories that interest me any longer. Updated now with the winners as they roll in.

Best Contemporary Instrumental Album - Culcha Vulcha (also strong contention from Steve Gadd's Way Back Home) (Went to Snarky Puppy)
Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album - Tossup between Fallen Angels and Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (This one was out before I woke up for the main event and went to Willie Nelson)
Best Pop Duo/Group Performance - Cheap Thrills (Sia) (Went to Stressed Out by Twenty One Pilots, a great track too)
Album of the Year - Tossup between Lemonade and 25
Record of the Year - Tossup between Hello and Formation and 7 years
Best Alternative Music Album - Blackstar (Not just this, it picked up Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song, Best Recording Package, and Best Engineering as well. Kind of every category it was nominated in.)
Best World Music Album - Land of Gold Anoushka Shankar (Went to Yo-Yo Ma for Sing Me Home)

Monday, January 09, 2017

Peter Sarstedt (1941-2017): Where Do You Go To, My Lovely

Like all good missionary schooled, brown tagged boys in the 70s, Tata and I spent much time and energy teaching ourselves how to hold chords on what everyone called a "Spanish guitar." Two of the very first songs we learned to play and sing were Papa by Paul Anka and Where Do You Go To My Lovely by Peter Sarstedt. This morning, the news came through that Sarstedt had died.

The last year saw some of the greatest minds in the field of contemporary music die. Some people called 2016 the year the music died, an allusion to a great song about a great tragedy. It also saw the second time in the history of the award that a singer-songwriter got the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet through it all, this blog remained un-updated. This morning, as I read the news, a million associations from childhood came flooding back, and now, at the end of the day, I decided to separate the wheat from the chaff and write why I will always think highly of this song and singer.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Split Second Creativity

Madhav Chari, perhaps India's most erudite jazz pianist, continues his exploration of jazz basics, this time looking at improvisation.

One of the guiding features of Jazz is the process of improvisation, the creation of music in real time. In other words what a Jazz improviser does is compose music instantly, requiring a unique synthesis of mind, body, emotion and spirit, and a thorough knowledge of the Jazz music form.

It sounds like magic. It is magic when the musicianship is outstanding, when the musicians on stage are reacting to each other and having a spontaneous dialogue with each other, within the parameters set by the music form. In India we already have instances of improvisation in Carnatic and Hindustani music.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Regina Carter: Southern Comfort

When you don’t do a nine to five week, you have to find ways to celebrate the common joys of deserving your sustenance. One of those is to keep track of long weekends and filling them with the kind of stuff you can share on your social media timelines. This long weekend , I had three pieces of musical goodies lined up – the complete Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013, The History of the Eagles and Regina Carter’s Southern Comfort. None of these were with the intention of writing about them or even drooling over in public. I started listening to Southern Comfort late this morning, and at first was just glad to partake in her new outing. As the tracks unfolded, I found myself journeying into the roots of American jazz, folk and country with a guide who was not only acutely contemporary in her sensibilities but one who flew her craft with the brazen delicacy of a Jedi warrior. Somewhere into the fourth track – Shoo-Rye, I knew I had to write about our shared love.

The jazz violin is a strange place. Outside of bluegrass and country, it is dominated by giants like Jean Luc Ponty and Stephane Grappeli. The two violinists of recent times that have successfully taken the jazz violin out of their shadow are Regina Carter and the slightly older (and crazier) Nigel Kennedy on either side of the pond.  Both of them straddle the worlds of classical, jazz, rock and whatever it is that you can call the music of today with a finesse that is at once shrewd and profound.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Bass Groove

The double bass is a classical string instrument, traditionally played arco (with a bow). It entered jazz through the march band route, replacing the brass bass section (tuba, sousaphone, bass saxophone) to provide the bass line. Given the swing that was needed for jazz, it soon transformed itself into a pizzicato (plucked) instrument.  Plucking styles evolved to include the slap and the bounce to keep up with the loudness of the rest of the band. The signature walking bass line that we identify the blues with developed very quickly, and by the 1930s, the upright bass was a standard fixture for most jazz bands. The fretted electric bass entered the scene in the 50s. The compositional and performance dynamics of the jazz trio (piano, bass and drums) brought the role of the bass into greater focus. In addition to clever solos, which is perhaps what most listeners identify it with, the bass plays a crucial role in helping the performance hold on to rhythm, structure and harmony. In this post, we explore the masters of the jazz bass.

The Pioneers

Jimmy Blanton was the first to bring the bass up front from the 4/4 quarter note background of big bands. His style was a major contributor to the new sound of the Ellington band along with saxophonist Ben Webster.  Ellington would later record a tribute album with Ray Brown (1973) called This One’s For Blanton.

Jimmy Blanton Duke Ellington – Pitter Panther Patter (3:12) 

Leroy “Slam” Stewart is overshadowed by his peers Blanton, LaFaro, Pettiford, primarily for the complexity of his classically trained style. He played solos in the arco style while scatting an octave higher. 

Friday, February 07, 2014

Jazz in Films

The main problem with portraying Jazz music on film is one of authenticity: is the film authentic to the spirit of Jazz music, including the life of Jazz musicians, the context in which they operated, and most importantly the specific music that they created.

There are four types of films: one is a straightforward audio-video recording of a Jazz concert, but in general we do not get much information about the life of the musician and the context in which they lived their music. The second is a fictional approach to Jazz, presenting the lead character as a Jazz musician, and telling a compelling story, for example the film ’Round Midnight  by French director Bertrand Tavernier. The third is a fictional biography where the director takes liberties with the main character in order to tell an engaging story, for example Bird based on the life of Jazz legend Charlie Parker and directed by Clint Eastwood. The fourth is a straightforward documentary film, and there are many such documentaries on Jazz music, and the most ambitious is Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns, a 10 part documentary that is 19 hours long.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Money Jungle: Ellington, Mingus, Roach, and now Terri Lyne Carrington

This post has been on my mind for a while, and with the Grammy drawing close and an increasing likelihood of Terri Lyne Carrington’s re-interpretation stealing the show, I realize it is time. It is time for other reasons too. Money Jungle, the album turned 50 years old last year, and is easily one of the recordings that every jazz lover should have in his collection. Featuring Duke Ellington with the much younger bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach, this album is a coming together of masters from different eras, masters with huge egos and reputations, the end result of which could easily have been disastrous but turns out to be exceptional. Ellington is the undisputed king of swing, Roach is rooted in bebop, while Mingus is a post-bop free jazz icon who challenged the very definitions of blues and hard bop.

The album was recorded on September 17, 1962, with no rehearsals, and sheet music that only outlined basic melody and harmony, with a visual descriptive cue from Ellington. For example, Ellington describes a track as "crawling around on the streets are serpents who have their heads up; these are agents and people who have exploited artists. Play that along with the music." This was the first time that the three musicians played together, having met to discuss the project only the day before. There have been three major releases of the album, the LP in 1963 featuring seven tracks, a 1987 CD release by Blue Note with six additional tracks from the session, arranged in the order they were recorded, and a 2002 remaster with eight additional tracks, with the original seven tracks in the original order at the start of the album.  My personal favorite is the 2002 release, since it allows you to experience the album as the trio had envisioned it, as well as having a clearer drum track. The session itself has some folklore around it, with Mingus walking out, only to be coaxed back by Ellington.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)

Madhav Chari continues his series on understanding jazz by recollecting an incident to help define swing.

There is a common misconception that Jazz music is not easily accessible to a general audience. I mean an English speaking audience from urban India with at least some tiny exposure to elements of western music. Even Bollywood music has elements of western music: this level of exposure is enough to enjoy Jazz music.
The misconception is rooted in two obvious causes: recorded music and live performances. Much of the music labeled as Jazz either by the press in India, recording industry, or by many musicians, is actually NOT Jazz music, but music incorrectly labeled as Jazz music. Live performances either of the so called Jazz legends of India in Mumbai, considered the premier Jazz center of India, or even by some foreign musicians sent by consulate organizations, can be extremely insipid, and almost always not connected to the actual energies of Jazz music.

Count Basie and Frank Sinatra

My own belief is that Jazz music played well, can communicate to this very same English speaking urban Indian audience. But the issue is quality, and the energy of the music has to connect with the Jazz of the past masters of the music. In particular the music has to “swing”.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Jazz and The Beatles

The Beatles by themselves have little reason to figure in any jazz purists’ collection, yet most of us find more than a handful of Beatles songs tucked away in albums by artists as varied as Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Wes Montgomery and Brad Mehldau. One of the reasons for this is, of course, their rising popularity at the same time that bop and free jazz were at their innovative best. The other has to be the appeal of the songs themselves. The Beatles songwriting engine was taking everything they came across and melting them into a totally new, simple, universally appealing sound.

There have been a few scholarly attempts to find jazz in The Beatles. This is not one of them, since it was not like they were not listening to jazz or were not aware of the developments in the world of jazz, but that they chose to play rock & roll, and some about of rhythm & blues. This post is a celebration of The Beatles and of Jazz, independently, and of how they speak to each other. Opinions are mine, and you are free to disagree. Do use the comments to initiate of participate in a dialog.

What The Beatles Heard

Finding The Beatles in jazz is not only easier, but as mentioned earlier, almost inevitable. In this post, we look at what The Beatles were listening to, what they played, and what jazz made of them. Though their formative years coincided with the boom period of modern jazz, there is little to suggest that they were listening to anything other than the new sound of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. But these forms themselves were born out of jazz, out of the blues, and out of the beat driven three-chord structures of American popular music.

The Beatles grew up in a musical world dominated by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and of course, Elvis Presley. Chuck Berry was among the first to turn his stage presence into a part of the performance. Little Richards, the R&B superstar, never strayed too far from his gospel roots, and even switched entirely over to gospel at the peak of his career, only to return to R&B again.
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