About Sanjoy Narayan

Sanjoy Narayan has a day job as Hindustan Times’ Editor-in-Chief but he’s incurably addicted to discovering new music via the Internet. His tastes run towards independent  and lesser known musicians and he likes to check out almost every genre that is served up by today’s mushrooming breed of rock and pop ensembles.

He’s been collecting music ever since his teens—beginning with vinyls and then cassette tapes. Now, he samples, tastes and downloads music off the Internet, picking up podcasts, rare bands and unsigned musicians with big potential. With the bits and bytes burgeoniong, Sanjoy is slowly running out of place to store his growing hoard of disk drives but, thankfully, not his obsessive enthusiasm to hear new music.

The late American singer Nina Simone’s voice was markedly distinctive. A contralto (the term used to describe female singers with the lowest musical pitch), when Simone sang, her voice seemed full of passion and character – a voice that you couldn’t not take note of.

In recent weeks, I’ve been listening to several of her albums: 1974’s It Is Finished, 1984’s Live at Ronnie Scott’s and the mega ‘Best of’ collection, Sugar In My Bowl, which, on two discs, has 40 songs spanning the early part of her career.

Nina Simone – The Pusher

Simone, a North Carolina preacher’s child, wanted to be a classical pianist but couldn’t get admission to a music school because she was black. She turned then to playing and singing in small venues and clubs, covering everything from jazz, gospel and blues to pop and R&B.

I Put a spell on you: The late American singer Nina Simone’s voice was markedly distinctive. During performances, she often blended dialogue with the audience. (Photos: Getty Images)

I Put a spell on you: The late American singer Nina Simone’s voice was markedly distinctive. During performances, she often blended dialogue with the audience. (Photos: Getty Images)

Many of her recordings are of songs written by others but covered by her in a style that is her own. On It Is Finished, she does a version of The Pusher, a song that was made famous by Steppenwolf but was written by Hoyt Axton.

Simone’s blues-soul version of what is originally a rock classic is unique. As is her cover of Mr. Bojangles, the country song that has been covered by dozens of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Arlo Guthrie.

Her own songs span an impressive range of themes. Mississippi Goddam, which became a civil activists’ anthem, was written after the bombing and killings of blacks in Mississippi and Alabama in the 1960s.

Mississippi Goddam

I Want A Little Sugar in My Bowl, a delightful blues song, was based on a composition with a similar title (Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl) by Bessie Smith, the early 20th century blues singer, but with Simone’s own tweak to the lyrics. But the one song that got her fame and became her first hit in America was George and Ira Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy.

I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl

Simone’s was not an easy life. Her early years as a performer were filled with long hours at small bars and clubs where she sang nightly. Her husband (a former New York cop) who also managed her career was abusive and violent (the marriage finally broke up).

And finally, after finding success as a prolific recording artist and performer, she had to live in exile in France for much of the latter part of her life because of taxes that she left unpaid in the US (as part of her protest against her country’s involvement in the Vietnam war).

I had read about Simone and her troubled life but last week when a film turned up, a biopic titled What Happened, Miss Simone?, with rare footage, interviews and narratives, it gave me a deeper insight into one of America’s finest musicians – as well as an inspiration to rediscover Simone’s music.

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood: I had read about Simone and her troubled life. Last week, a film titled What Happened, Miss Simone? turned up –  with rare footage, interviews and narratives.

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood: I had read about Simone and her troubled life. Last week, a film titled What Happened, Miss Simone? turned up – with rare footage, interviews and narratives.

The film has some footage of her performances, which were known for their magnetic nature and her powerful presence. She often blended dialogue with the audience or just self-spoken words into songs.

Simone died in France in 2003. She was 70. Her discography lives on, of course, with her music frequently used by others – from filmmakers to rap artists.

As I wrote this, I was listening, back-to-back, to her versions of three songs: Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne; The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun; and Bob Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. All three are classic songs. Without doubt, Simone’s versions must have made their composers proud.

Here Comes The Sun

DOWN MEMORY LANE:
I just managed to restrain the temptation to lead with this part of Download Central. Last Sunday at 8am, I used a combination of Airtel, Google Chromecast, my Internet browser, my laptop, my TV set, and (of course) my credit card, to watch in its entirety (three hours plus) the first concert of Grateful Dead’s last tour from Santa Clara in California.

Touch of grey: Last Sunday, I live streamed a Grateful Dead concert. It was superb.

Touch of grey: Last Sunday, I live streamed a Grateful Dead concert. It was superb.

I was, of course, in my bedroom. Trey Anastasio (lead guitar) joined the remaining members of the Dead (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) as did Bruce Hornsby (piano) and Jim Chimenti (keyboards).

The setlist was vintage Grateful Dead: think Truckin’, Alligator, Cryptical Envelopment, Dark Star, St. Stephen, Drums, The Other One and plenty, plenty more. Superb. The closest you could get to a Dead gig in Gurgaon.

Grateful Dead

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Last weekend in a curious case of serendipity, I found The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir, a documentary film by Mike Fleiss. The film is focused on the Grateful Dead’s co-founder, singer and rhythm guitarist but as expected, the spotlight is also on the late Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s legendary guitarist; on the band and its origins; on its cult-like followers; on the influence of drugs and psychedelics; on the 1960s; and all of the other things that any film on any aspect of the Grateful Dead can’t not cover.

The music never stopped: The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (film poster, below) is a documentary on the Grateful Dead’s co-founder (above) and on the late Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s legendary guitarist. (Photos: Getty Images)

The music never stopped: The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (film poster, below) is a documentary on the Grateful Dead’s co-founder (above) and on the late Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s legendary guitarist. (Photos: Getty Images)

If you’re not a fan of the band, it’s not a film for you — but if you are one, then it’s a must-watch. Weir who quit school at 16 to become the youngest member of the band in 1965 is at the centerpiece of the film and talks candidly about his experience; about Garcia; and about the pressures that fame had on the band members.

Also watch: Grateful Dead Final Concert 7-9-1995

And there’s rare footage that those familiar with the Dead will love to see – including one from the early 1990s of Garcia and Weir scuba diving at Maui, Hawaii, with one underwater sequence showing the former stroking the neck of what seems to be a giant eel with its head protruding from a cave, quite in line with what you’d expect Garcia to be doing underwater.

I mentioned serendipity in the beginning because this month happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead and all eyes are on its remaining members who have decided to go on one final tour with a number of concerts that start on June 27 in California and end on July 5 in Chicago.

The film poster of The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir.

The film poster of The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir.

The tickets for the actual concerts sold out in less than five minutes after they went on sale (scalpers will no doubt have a field day) and so have those for the several simulcasts that are planned in theaters across various cities in the US.

Although all the remaining members of the band (Garcia died in 1995) are aging – Weir is the youngest at 67, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are 69 and 71, respectively, and bassist Phil Lesh is 75 – the yet-to-be-staged final Dead tour is already a huge draw.

The Dead have been a touring act – by one estimate, between 1965 and 1995, they may have played more than 2,300 concerts and many of their die-hard fans may now be as or near about as old as the living band members are.

Then there was a story in the June 8 issue of The New Yorker magazine about how Weir was rehearsing with Phish’s Trey Anastasio in New York before the Fare Thee Well concerts begin because the phenomenally talented Phish lead guitarist will be filling in for Garcia at the concerts.

And the info that singer-pianist Bruce Hornsby has been enlisted to do duty on the keyboards, an instrument that has been an essential part of the Dead’s ensemble. Hornsby has played nearly 100 shows with the Grateful Dead in the early 1990s and is like an extended member of the band. Anastasio would probably need to rehearse more.

All of this information has re-created interest in the band for its fans, including probably the hundreds of mostly middle-aged fans in India, all of whom will likely have hoards of their music but few of whom will have had a chance to watch the Dead in the flesh.

Also watch: Grateful Dead – Estimated Prophet / Shakedown St. / Fire On The Mt / Sugar Magnolia

And then, in another serendipitous dose, to mark the 50th anniversary of the band, music website Aquarium Drunkard compiled all of its Dead Notes – in flysheet format – accompanied with zipped downloadable files of iconic performances of the band’s songs (mostly from gigs in the late 1960s and the ’70s), which together makes a great collectible for an old Deadhead (ask me, I know!). It was, altogether, a pleasant series of fortunate events to mark a landmark anniversary of a band that I loved.

DOWN MEMORY LANE:
It hasn’t been two weeks yet since Ornette Coleman, jazz saxophonist, trumpeter and violinist, died on June 11. Coleman was known for his unconventional style that became a genre named ‘free jazz’ (that name came from Coleman’s 1960 album of the same name).

The shape of jazz to come: Songs in which Ornette Coleman (above) played with the Grateful Dead could be an entry point to jazz.

The shape of jazz to come: Songs in which Ornette Coleman (above) played with the Grateful Dead could be an entry point to jazz.

The blues influenced Coleman’s music but it was iconoclastic for its time – creating controversy in the jazz world of the 1960s – because of its free form structure and non-conformist improvisation. Later, he embraced electric sounds – guitars and keyboards mainly.

And here’s some more serendipity: on Coleman’s 1988 album, Virgin Beauty, Jerry Garcia played the guitar on three tracks; and, in 1993, Coleman got on stage while the Grateful Dead were playing to jam on at least five songs.

If you haven’t heard Coleman or jazz ain’t your thing, those could be the entry point to one of the genre’s greatest innovators.

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The Pixies are one of the pioneers of indie rock. And when you listen to the band, everything pales before their main man, Black Francis

I haven’t heard this band in such a long time,” said the voluble lady from Tampa, Florida, giddily, “that I’d nearly forgotten how they sound.”

We were taking a short breather outside the theatre that warm Tuesday night while the Pixies were still playing – they had just finished Isla de Encanta – Pixies and I’d stepped out for a bathroom break (a couple of Brooklyn Lagers can do that to you in your middle age) and enroute to my seat I’d bumped into a couple going out for a smoke and got talking.

Working Class Hero: If you saw Black Francis anywhere else, you could mistake him for an executive with a nine-to-five job. On stage, he’s rock’s venerated god.

Working Class Hero: If you saw Black Francis anywhere else, you could mistake him for an executive with a nine-to-five job. On stage, he’s rock’s venerated god. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Pixies were playing at New York’s Beacon Theater – their first show in the city in years – and giddy is one word to describe the crowd. The other could be nostalgic.

Isla de Encanta is almost entirely sung in Spanish and it’s a short (under two minutes) song that has a pulsating bass line delivered by Paz Lechantin, the band’s newish replacement for ex-bassist Kim Deal, fast-paced percussion from David Lovering and, of course, searing lead from Joey Santiago’s guitar.

Watch: Pixies – Full Performance

Those three things matter a lot but when you listen to the Pixies everything pales before their main man, leader, singer and bulwark of the band, Black Francis (aka Frank Black; birth-name Charles Thompson).

Francis turned 50 a month before the Beacon Concert and he looks it. If you didn’t know who he was and bumped into him anywhere other than see him on stage, in his baggy dad pants and shaven headed portly self, he could be a rush-hour executive holding a Styrofoam coffee cup negotiating the Manhattan grid to get to his nine-to-five job. On stage, he’s rock’s venerated god.

The Pixies were formed by Francis, Santiago, Deal and Lovering in the mid-1980s in Boston and it wouldn’t be incorrect to describe them as one of the pioneers of what has come to be known as alternative/indie rock.

Their limited commercial success is greatly overshadowed by their huge and profound influence on legions of rock bands, including venerable names such as Nirvana and Radiohead.

The Pixies broke up in 1993 but they re-formed in 2004. Then, sans Kim Deal, the band released a new album of fresh songs in 2013, Indie Cindy. If you weigh the impact that this band has had on rock music since the mid-eighties, the number of records (not counting the live albums, compilations and EPs) that they’ve released looks meagre – five.

Do it yourself: At a gig in New York, the Pixies seemed so engrossed in making music, it was as if they were playing for themselves.

Do it yourself: At a gig in New York, the Pixies seemed so engrossed in making music, it was as if they were playing for themselves. (Photo: Sanjoy Narayan)

At the gig that I went to, the setlist covered songs from all those albums, 1988’s debut album, Surfer Rosa to 2013’s Indie Cindy. And they did it matter-of-factly. Francis isn’t big when it comes to interacting with the audience but that didn’t seem to bother anyone.

They played 35 songs, including three encores, on that Tuesday night, getting on a darkened stage to start with, interestingly, a cover of In Heaven, a song from David Lynch’s surrealist film Eraserhead before doing the first from their own catalogue, Ana, from the Bossanova album. They then moved on to Pixies – Wave of Mutilation, Brick is Red, Break My Body, and Nimrod’s Son.

Watch: Pixies – Debaser live at T in the Park 2014

Most Pixies’ songs are short. They are like espresso shots of music that draw from genres that span a wide range and defy classification. Jagged edgy guitar work combines with melodic vocals and thudding basslines.

Francis (and occasionally Paz) sings about subjects that are often bizarre and always as wide-ranging as the music itself: incest, aliens, violence are just a few things that you may encounter in a Pixies song but there is more.

By the time the band was into Indie Cindy, the seventh song of the night, the audience in the art-deco theatre, already on its feet, went totally wild – in sharp contrast to the three men and a woman up on stage who seemed engrossed in making music as if they were playing for themselves.

That didn’t bother anyone and when, after playing their last two songs, Hey (Hey/Been trying to meet you/ Hey/ Must be a devil between us/ Or whores in my head/ Whores at my door/ Whores in my bed/ But hey/ Where have you been?) and Planet of Sound, the crowd screamed for more, the band came back to deliver Greens and Blues (off their newest album), the signature Where is My Mind? (off Surfer Rosa) and Vamos (with its English-Spanish lyrics).

Two days later, I was getting lost in the stacks of books (there are 18 miles of them) at New York’s Strand Bookstore when I came across The Good Inn, Black Francis’s debut novel (in collaboration with Pixies biographer Josh Frank, and artist Steven Appleby).

Set in France, the book’s protagonist is Soldier Boy who, recently discharged from the army, makes his adventurous way through France, replete with sex, art and the surreal. It’s in part a screenplay, in part a narrative, and in part a graphic novel. Also, it’s quirky as hell. Just as the Pixies’ music is.

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I’d never heard of jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington – \’Re Run Home\’ before reading about how his recently launched new album, The Epic, was creating waves not only among jazz fans but also transmitting ripples that are touching music lovers who’re otherwise not serious listeners of jazz.
Epic Proportions: The Epic is truly an epic album. I’d have never known about Kamasi Washington’s genius if I hadn’t decided to spring for it

Epic Proportions: The Epic is truly an epic album. I’d have never known about Kamasi Washington’s genius if I hadn’t decided to spring for it.

Then, I read (yes, read!) that I had actually heard him. He was the one who played tenor sax on Kendrick Lamar’s widely lauded new hip-hop album, Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly(the song on which Washington is credited is titled u); and on the equally acclaimed album, You’re Dead!, which is experimental multi-genre producer Flying Lotus’s new album, Washington not only played sax and keyboards but is also credited as a composer.Despite having heard both those albums several times, I’d have never known about Washington’s genius. That is, if I hadn’t decided to spring for The Epic.

Also watch: Kamasi Washington Group – Hub-Tones

The Epic is truly an epic album and I’m not being facetious when I say so. It’s a three-hour, three-CD album, with track lengths routinely reaching the 10-minute mark and a few that are nearly 15 minutes long.It’s an album that can be expected to be scarily overwhelming as well: on it, besides the 34-year-old Los Angeles jazzman’s 10-piece band (which includes two bassists, two drummers, an organ player and a pianist), there’s a full orchestra and a choir.

But it never is. It is expansive. If you expected Washington’s collaborations on Lamar’s album or on Flying Lotus – Never Catch Me’s totally unpredictable yet highly enjoyable electronica-inflected category-defying album to give you an indication of what to expect on The Epic you would be wide of the mark.The Epic is not about fusion – there’s no electronica; no hip-hop; or anything else. The Epic is a jazz album. A big jazz album.

And it takes you on a historical journey through African-American jazz through the ages but with what seems like extra long stopovers in the heady era of bebop, a style that has its roots in the 1940s and is marked by solo improvisations by talented instrumentalists.Some of the most noted bebop jazzmen include saxophonist John Coltrane, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell. Some would say that was the best era of American jazz. Washington’s music is frequently reminiscent of bebop but also of the cool era Miles Davis where even elaborate compositions and stunning improvisational virtuosity seem effortlessly laidback.

STAR DUST: Washington’s music is frequently reminiscent of bebop – a style popularised by jazzmen such as (clockwise from below, right) pianist Bud Powell, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist John Coltrane
Star dust: Washington’s music is frequently reminiscent of bebop – a style popularised by jazzmen such as (clockwise from below, right) pianist Bud Powell, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist John Coltrane.
It can be easy to focus on The Epic’s nostalgic throwback to earlier jazz styles and call Washington’s music derivative but that would be wrong.It is obvious Washington has been steeped in the influence of America’s great jazz players but his compositions (all the tracks are original) interpret those influences in a version that is singularly his: the full orchestra; the choral backing; and the big jazz band sound.

All of that blends together for the listener a wide and vibrant canvas of jazz that can be appreciated by hardcore jazz fans as well as newbies with less cultivated ears.

Few jazz albums have the ability to straddle both those ends of the listenership spectrum. The Epic certainly does.

The thrill is gone: BB King’s influence on musicians across genres and his gig-packed career cannot be overstated

The thrill is gone: BB King’s influence on musicians across genres and his gig-packed career cannot be overstated. (Photos: Getty Images)

DOWN MEMORY LANE:

You’ll likely be reading this more than a week after blues legend BB King died at 89 and would have already read the several tributes paid to him. King’s huge influence on legions of musicians across genres and his phenomenal, gig-packed career cannot be overstated.Few musicians played as many concerts as King did. In 1956, he is supposed to have played at 342 shows and even when he was well into his 70s, he routinely appeared in 200 concerts a year.

Also watch: B.B. King – Live in Dallas (1983) – Full Concert

For blues fans, King’s vast discography – his last live album was released in 2012 and the last studio recording came out in 2008 – is a treasure trove of music. Most of last week, I tried to lay my hands on some of his really early work – albums such as Singin’ the Blues (1956), Blues in My Heart (1970) and a single on a 78 rpm vinyl of the song, PLEASE LOVE ME by B B King 1953 from 1953. That last one is on YouTube and you can hear it online with the scratches and cracks and static all intact.

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My Morning Jacket’s music is often described as psychedelic rock or space rock, which might give the impression that the band from Louisville, Kentucky, is a sort of a stoner rock band. That would be wrong.

My Morning Jacket’s (or MMJ) music has integral elements that come from a wider range of genres: southern alternative country; 1970s rock; folk; progressive rock (marked by longer compositions with greater instrumentation); and even reggae. All that may seem a hodge-podge of influences, but it is not.

A whole new dawn: My Morning Jacket have gone from their somewhat raggedy space-jamming early years, followed by some partially successful experimentation, to a more refined sound.

A whole new dawn: My Morning Jacket have gone from their somewhat raggedy space-jamming early years, followed by some partially successful experimentation, to a more refined sound. (Photo: Danny Clinch)

Melding all this together, MMJ, which has seven studio albums to its credit, make music that is uniquely their own. At the core of that uniqueness is frontman Jim James’s vocals whose sheer range is stunning – from the lows to the mids to a falsetto, few singers in contemporary non-classical genres can probably match his virtuosity.

Besides, MMJ, as I mentioned, have a genre-straddling ability that is singularly impressive. Last fortnight, the band released its seventh studio album, The Waterfall, on which its musical diversity remains intact.

Dark star: MMJ haven’t exactly been prolific with their studio albums – seven in 15 or 16 years is not too many. On The Waterfall, their musical diversity remains intact.

Dark star: MMJ haven’t exactly been prolific with their studio albums – seven in 15 or 16 years is not too many. On The Waterfall, their musical diversity remains intact.

There are some trademark attributes of MMJ’s music. James’ vocals, of course, which overwhelm everything else, but also the band’s inclination to employ reverb: where the sound produced by instruments as well as the vocals are made to reverberate a little, often giving the impression of sounds emerging from inside a tunnel.

Also watch: My Morning Jacket

For me the reverb factor makes MMJ a compelling band to listen to – in particular, how the reverb sounds on James’s vocals. And I’m glad that despite their considerable evolution from the albums of their early days (2001’s At Dawn, which was their second album – I confess, I haven’t heard their first, Tennessee Fire) to the more recent ones (2011’s Circuital) they haven’t jettisoned those attributes.

They’ve gone from their somewhat raggedy space-jamming early years, followed by some partially successful experimentation, to a more refined sound – The Waterfall, incidentally, has harmonies by Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard – but their songs still retain the quality of being able to transform into live show staples.

Believe (Nobody Knows) is the first song on their new album. It’s an uplifting song with the synthesizer and guitars taking off, while James sings about agnosticism or ambiguity or perhaps both: Roll the dice/ That sails the ship/ And all the doors will open. There’s no stopping them after that.

On the next song, Compound Fracture, James sings in falsetto on a song that seems to be straining at the bit to be performed live. Indeed, if you’ve heard live recordings of the band – 2006’s Okonokos is one – you can imagine each one of the new songs on The Waterfall being done in a concert: Believe and Compound Fracture, which are tailormade for such a performance; but also, the remaining dozen, such as the acoustic and reverb-laden Like A River on which James’s falsetto is again on grand display; or the slow-starter Spring (Among the Living), especially when it gathers momentum and becomes spacey, invoking some early MMJ vibes.

Also watch: Nucleus with Allan Holdsworth – Live 1972

MMJ hasn’t exactly been prolific with their studio albums – seven in 15 or 16 years is not too many. That may be because of their predilection (like many contemporary bands) to tour a lot or because of frontman James’s side or solo projects.

James has been in a folk supergroup, Monsters of Folk (which had, beside him, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and M Ward, the solo artist); and last year, he collaborated with others on Lost On the River: The New Basement Tapes, a rediscovery of Bob Dylan’s unpublished lyrics from 1967, which James, Elvis Costello and others put to music.

In a recent interview with the British music magazine, Uncut, James has talked about the challenges of playing with Dylan on stage and about hanging about and snorkelling with the Dead’s Bob Weir.

The good news, however, is MMJ are back with The Waterfall, which reaffirms the band’s ability to do two things at once: be a muscular rock band as well as a flexible genre-hopper. Rare in rock that.

DOWN MEMORY LANE:
If I told you I’ve been listening to Snakeships Etcetera, Phaideaux’s Corner and Splat, what would you think they are? Well, it’s jazz. Or rather, jazz fused with rock and dating back to the 1970s.

Blowin’ the blues away: The British band Nucleus’ frontman Ian Carr was a trumpeter par excellence.

Blowin’ the blues away: The British band Nucleus’ frontman Ian Carr was a trumpeter par excellence. (Photo: Getty images)

The band is UK’s Nucleus (a friend drew attention to them a few weeks back), which existed between 1969 and 1989 and their star attraction was late frontman Ian Carr, trumpeter par excellence.

Other instruments in that ensemble used to include a variety of horns, guitars, piano and organ. The album those strangely named songs are from is called UK Tour ’76. That’s 1976. Yes, ancient. But terrific.

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