I’m sitting here on a Saturday evening and writing this in Vaasa, a city on the west coast of Finland. It has a population of 66,000; is walkably small; and the temperature at 5pm outside is around 10 degree Celsius. Inside, the heating makes it nice and comfortable and, I’m sipping a cup of chamomile tea.
Why I’m saying all this is because there’s another thing about Vaasa or, perhaps, about all of Finland and most of Scandinavia – it is the quiet; the near total absence of noise or sound. It’s almost as if you’ve a pair of noise cancelling headphones jammed on your head. That’s why I’m listening to music sans my trusty earphones. I’m playing them through a moderately powerful wireless speaker system and my selection for this evening has begun with jazz. More specifically, it is John Scofield’s new album, Past Present.
Also watch: John Scofield Quartet Live at Jazz
The album title is significant. Scofield is a jazz guitar maestro who has played with a range of musicians that is impressive not just because of their names (they include Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, Jaco Pastorius, Phil Lesh, John Mayer and Medeski, Martin & Wood) but also because of his ability to ace it with his guitar work in genres such as jazz, jazz-rock, rock, soul, blues… you name it, he’s done it.
If you try to check out his own albums (the ones he has played as a leader of a band) you’ll be spoilt for choice because there are nearly 50 of them since the 1970s that you would have to choose from. And if you want to also listen to ones on which he’s played as a part of someone else’s band (such as Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and many, many more), you’ll likely be staring at another 100 albums.
In the 1980s, Scofield, a Berklee alum, now 63, turned from pure jazz to fusion – a genre that has marked his career for many years now. But, in the early 1990s, he and his quartet did a few albums for the venerable jazz label, Blue Note (on one of them, Time on My Hands, his band members included drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist Charile Haden).
These were works of pure jazz of the high-paced, up-tempo bebop kind and showcased each of the quartet member’s virtuosity. But after two or three albums, Scofield went back to fusion and experimenting, playing with a range of musicians and dabbling in various genres, creating albums that sounded absolutely superb for many like us but perhaps not what would hook the purists.
In Past Present (and that is why it is significantly named), Scofield, saxophonist Lovano, drummer Bill Stewart (who’d played on some of Scofield’s 1990s bebop compositions) and bassist Larry Grenadier, team up to deliver a jazz album that is played on traditional acoustic instruments (even Scofield’s guitar is acoustic but powered by an amplifier).
The nine tracks are like a nostalgic trip back to the bebop era of the 1940s when rock hadn’t dipped deeply into jazz’s oeuvre to borrow heavily and fusion wasn’t a word common in music. Listening to them at moderate volume levels amid Vaasa’s quietness, I couldn’t help but marvel at the greatness of members of Scofield’s minimalist ensemble.
All the compositions are Scofield’s and although they’re wrought in the upbeat bebop style, there’s something laidback and effortless about them – only musicians as good as these can make something sound so stunning without appearing to be trying hard at all! I also read that Past Present was composed by Scofield in memory of his son who died a few years back of cancer in his twenties. That added a tinge of sadness to Saturday evening’s listening session.
After Scofield, I turned to India and chose a local band from my city. When Delhi band Man.Goes Human nudged me on Twitter to check out their new self-titled album, I wasn’t sure what I was going to hear.
What I got was a big and very pleasant surprise. The band, which describes itself as purveyors of “Progressive, Classic, Alternative Rock”, has everything that I look for in a band.
Their music (Noni on lead; Paul on vocals and guitar; Shitij who writes the lyrics and plays bass; and the remarkable Kaprila on vocals) has the requisite dose of originality despite the many obvious influences; what’s more, it is refreshingly low-fi and not ear-splittingly loud. That’s why they made it to my playlist. I think a Man.Goes Human gig could be worth checking out.
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When Blak and Blu was released by Warner Bros in 2012, Gary Clark Jr became an instant sensation. Critics raved that the talented young blues guitarist and singer could be a revivalist for the genre. Clark is much more than that. If you’ve heard Blak and Blu, you know how the 31-year-old is able to take the blues, infuse it with his raucous guitar playing and easy, super-smooth style of singing, and elevate it to a level rarely heard.
Soon, Blak and Blu and the several gigs where the young Texan wowed audiences got him calls. Important ones — such as the one from Eric Clapton who invited him to play at his Crossroads Guitar Festival and is believed to have said that listening to Clark made him want to play the blues again. High praise came from others too: such as Buddy Guy who thinks Clark is the new saviour for the blues. And from bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Foo Fighters with whom he has also played.
Also watch: Gary Clark Jr.: Rock in Rio USA 2015
So, three years after I first heard Clark, on Blak and Blu, on a few live recordings, and in the Jon Favreau film, Chef, I couldn’t wait to listen to his second studio album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, which came out last month. I was in for a surprise.
On Blak and Blu and the other live tracks, Clark’s music is distinctive for its rawness: his guitar influences range from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan; but also, a bit oddly for a bluesman, the power chords and distorted notes of grunge bands — in fact, in a long interview to Relix magazine, Clark mentions Nirvana as one of his influences.
On Blak and Blu, the stand-out song is When My Train Pulls In, which, I think, showcases the bluesman’s oeuvre the best. His music, even on a studio album, is like listening to a live band. Or at least that’s what I thought. Till now.
On The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, the first thing that strikes you is the restraint. For the 13 songs, recorded not in an LA studio but in his hometown in Texas, Clark dropped his band and played every instrument on his own – diving deep into the music and making an album that is more like a personal project.
The searing guitar licks do show up on the new album but it also demonstrates how deep and mature a musician the young bluesman is. Genres are hopped with ease: from R&B (on Our Love) to gospel (on Church) to funk (on Can’t Sleep). His guitar is still the biggest magnet of his music but he also shows how comfortable and versatile his vocals can be.
The a capella opening to the first song, The Healing, is deceptive — it soon segues into a high-energy scorcher. And by the time you’re halfway into the album, and listening to Hold On, a song that is clearly a response to the resurgent racism in many parts of America, you are completely hooked to Clark. Again.
The other album that made its way to my playlist last fortnight was Craig Finn’s (frontman of The Hold Steady) new solo album, Faith in the Future. The Hold Steady and Finn make songs that tell stories – dark, sad and odd ones – about characters that inhabit the urban underbelly. Their songs are tales about people that are treated unfortunately by circumstances.
The 10 songs on the new Finn album aren’t different. His booze-soaked bar-ready vocals; the bit of reverb in the music; and the stories that aren’t going to make you happy. If you fancy a walk into the dark side, it’s a perfect album to play. I like The Hold Steady, and their 2005 album, Separation Sunday, creeps back into my playlist often. Craig’s storytelling is compelling though the stories are often disturbing. An album to play when you’re down and intend to stay there for a while. What? That doesn’t happen to you?
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
There are two tracks on Miles Davis’s 1970 album, A Tribute to Jack Johnson: Right Off and Yesternow; the first is nearly 27 minutes long and the second nearly 26.
Originally intended as a soundtrack for a documentary on the legendary black boxer, it’s probably the finest piece of electric jazz I’ve heard. Yes, finer than Bitches Brew. Oh, and who else besides the ace trumpeter is playing? Well, there’s John McLaughlin (on guitar), Herbie Hancock (on organ), and Billy Cobham (on drums). Want more? There’s also Dave Holland (on electric bass), Jack DeJohnette (on drums) and Chick Corea (on piano). Legends. Just like the album. Get a drink. Put it on. And switch off the lights.
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Also watch: Kamasi Washington Group – Hub-Tones
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.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
Also watch: B.B. King – Live in Dallas (1983) – Full Concert
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It’s rock that does it best for me. It can come in whatever stripe – indie, heavy metal, with an orchestra or without, with a synth or without, folk-infused, progressive… you name it. Rock is my first preference when I want to listen to music. I like the blues too and R&B, some hip-hop, some post-rock, electronic dance music even, and sometimes experimental avant garde but not as much as I like rock. But there are those occasions when nothing but a classic jazz album will work for me. At such times, my well-thumbed sleeve of Miles Davis’ 1970 double album, Bitches Brew is brought out, and spun and, in spite of the nasty scratch on Spanish Key (first track on Side 3), I marvel for the umpteenth time at the fabulousness of that towering jazz-rock fusion album, its tracks, of course, but also the deadly line-up that trumpet guru Davis got together for it. Read more
A couple of weeks back, I listed five albums that stood out for me in 2012, five that I would certainly take with me into the next year. All five—Sigur Ros’s Valtari, Patti Smith’s Banga, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, and Dr. John’s Locked Down—are doing heavy-duty shifts on my playlists and, I’m quite sure, shall continue to do so for a bit. But if I look back again at 2012, there are a few albums that I wish I’d spent more time with. Some of them are gems that are sitting there to be discovered. Read more
When you first listen to The Tallest Man on Earth (who’s actually a 5’7” Swede named Kristian Matsson) you could be mistaken into believing that he’s probably mimicking Bob Dylan, so similar is the 29-year-old’s singing style and songwriting to the legendary musician. In fact, some critics feel exactly that way and Matsson, in his three-record career till now, has often faced that criticism—that he channels Dylan. But a closer listen to any of his albums, particularly this year’s There’s No Leaving Now, can change your perception. Hugely influenced by American folk giants such as Dylan and Woody Guthrie he may be, but Matsson’s songs are all about where he belongs and his local Swedish environment. Read more
In the late eighties when Neneh Cherry first burst onto the scene with her album, Raw Like Sushi, and won two Brit awards, she promptly melted one of them and got it crafted into jewellery, some of which she gifted to other nominees in the categories she won the award for. Raw Like Sushi showcased the then still incipient trend of hip-hop and rap but with an infusion of electronica, a genre that earned it the label trip-hop. The tracks on that debut album, including two major hits, Buffalo Stance and Manchild, brought her instant fame. And, more important than that, an enviably cool image.
Some bands you can only enjoy listening to them live. I’ve been listening to the Athens (Georgia) based American band, Of Montreal, for a while now. They have been around since the late 1990s and have nearly a dozen studio albums out. Their music is difficult to classify—and driven by frontman, singer and guitarist Kevin Barnes, they have fused and hopped genres as widely disparate as catchy indie pop, glam rock, experimental and psychedelic rock and deeply brooding lo-fi music. That last kind of music was what characterised Of Montreal’s 2007 album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, a dark and very personal kind of work. I don’t know whether I was fortunate or otherwise that Hissing Fauna was the first album by the band that came my way. Read more
I think it was some time in 2002 that a tech-forward friend dropped by to show off his newly-acquired toy, an iPod. It was a first-generation model with a capacity of 10 gigabytes. That meant, he bragged to me, that he could carry in his pocket 2000 songs and listen to them via a pair of white ear-buds anywhere he wanted to. “Just listen to the sound,” he gloated, “it’s like carrying an entire library of music with you.” I was skeptical (and, I must admit, a bit of Luddite too) when I popped the ear-buds in and heard his classic rock selections. I think it was Cream’s SWLABR (which deliciously expands into She Was Like A Bearded Rainbow, circa 1967) that got piped in first and I complained about how the bass was muted; the treble was tinny and so on. “Go away and take that stupid iPod with you,” I sneered. Read more
The first time I heard John Francis Anthony “Jaco” Pastorius III was when a friend handed me a pre-recorded Columbia Records cassette called Black Market by the jazz-rock fusion band, Weather Report. It was the late 1970s and my friend, a maverick sort of a guy who also was a classmate, predicted while handing over the tape that the bass guitarist on at least two tracks on the album would be like no one I’d ever heard before.