Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Charlie Haden and the role of media sharing in occupy

First of all, I rarely put up posts with no album, but I just checked amazon and this one seems pretty easy to find on CD. (NB: if you want to buy it from amazon, please support a private vendor. Although amazon struck a deal with California to avoid a proposition battle over the California sales tax issue, they are still not bound by the law that they agreed to until September.) This might be the wrong time to start observing intellectual property laws given this post's sympathetic stance towards protesters who have been labelled anti-capitalist, but whatever. The album is Duets, recorded in 1976. Each of the four tracks features a different guest: Keith Jarrett, Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Paul Motian. I found Alice Coltrane's track the most musically inspiring along with Ornette's, but the album is definitely for committed jazz fans only. The song I want to talk about today is "For a Free Portugal," which features Haden on bass and Motian on percussion accompanied by two prerecorded tapes. The first captures Charlie dedicating a song to the Africans struggling for liberation from Portugal during a concert in Lisbon. The crowd roars in response. The second is a tape made in Angola by the Liberation Support Movement, included on the album with the group's permission. The tape features the group's anthem and field recorded war sounds. Hearing Haden incorporate this raw media into his album reminded me of the way that today's protesters share and borrow media like protest videos and add their own voices through commentary, editing choices, and other techniques.

The internet has unquestionably become a major tool for social and political change. It has featured prominently in the many Arab Spring movements and is playing a similar role in the occupy movement in the United States. Today more than any day so far I've noticed the viral spread of youtube videos featuring raw footage less than 24 hours old from occupy sites across the country. There is something very democratizing about high levels of access to technology, especially when this technology enables us to share media expressing and concerning the public's grievances. The images and recordings now circulating depict specific people and events, and yet like the public spaces that American protesters are occupying, they are both ownerless and at the service of the people. I think that this kind of media sharing demonstrates solidarity and support because it allows people to identify with the exact same sounds and images and to make these media their own. These sounds and images become points where people's aspirations and frustrations intersect and grow. The translocal connection that they engender can transform the act of occupying one city block into the act of occupying a bureaucracy or an ideology. The world is going to keep getting smaller, and as it does, I think that expressions of solidarity through media sharing will become more widespread, meaningful, and effective.

Some general thoughts on occupy: Fortunately, it seems like modern protesters recognize the limits of the purely internet-based activism that overloaded our inboxes throughout the late 90's and most of the 2000's before Facebook became the main venue for that sort of thing. People today understand that the internet can enhance real world movements but that the act of being there is still important. In fact, being there can be even more effective when "there" is a translocal, even transnational space.

Of course, no movement has the support of all the people. Occupy has taken a lot of heat for its lack of clarity on a concrete agenda and for the presence of participants who many Americans do not consider serious political actors. To me, the movement looks more like a group of people who have indisputably liberal tendencies but who became fed up for their own reasons. These protesters essentially share one thing: the suspicion that if the people with the most power are becoming richer than ever and most others are becoming poorer than they have been in a long time, there are probably better solutions to the problems facing our nation than the ones we are using at the moment. Unlike the Tea Party, which has sought change by entrenching itself in the bureaucracy, the occupy protesters seem to believe that a more immediate strategy is both necessary and more likely to work.

As a final note on the power of grassroots-mediated images, I want to acknowledge the sympathetic skeptics of the internet who try to prevent us from getting carried away with our own rhetoric, like the people who brought us this picture:

I struggle with the Western tendency to flatten representations of Africa into representations of poverty and "underdevelopment", but images like this also help keep things in perspective.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ruth Busbee: Blessed Assurance, 1981

Another gospel album here, this time from singer Ruth Busbee. As you've probably noticed, I tend to focus on instrumental music, and even when I include music with a vocal component, the singing isn't always the highlight. The opposite is the case with this album. Although Busbee has a tight band and a strong choir backing her up, there is no question that she steals the show. She has a rare combination of range, technique and passion that are obvious right off the bat with the opening of section of Blessed Assurance, where she solos over the harmony before the groove drops.

I don't think it's a coincidence that I overlook a lot of gospel music on this blog; my focus on instrumental music has everything to do with it because gospel music is centered around the voice. As Reverend Jim Holley of the Rock Baptist Church, where the album was recorded, says on the back cover, "once in a lifetime, a voice comes full of life, pulsating, vibrant, and soulfully picturesque through the universe, expressing the universal... With every note expressed, you can feel the love of God [Ruth] has, and the love God has for Ruth." Part of what I think the reverend is getting at here is that any instrument in a gospel band can express the feeling of God, but only a singer can express the feeling and the message at the same time. Not to mention that we can pick up on emotional inflections more easily from a voice; with instrumental music, we have to use more subjective criteria to pick out emotional coloring.

Another thing about the back cover caught my attention is an uncredited quote that a google search suggests was paraphrased from the Bhagavad Gita. "Nothing in life is ours alone. What is yours today was someone else's yesterday, and it will belong to someone else when you are gone." There is an interesting contrast between this quote and one above it by Pastor Leonard A. Lyons, who says it sounds like "God has given [Busbee] the voice of an angel." Are these quotes supposed to be read together? If so, what are we supposed to make of the idea that God gave Busbee an incredible gift with which to praise him, but he will take it away to bestow on someone else someday? Who knows. But as far as my idea about the voice is concerned, the proverb emphasizes that Ruth's voice is God-given and that God gives people everything, apparently including the ability to feel a connection with him through prayer. In this sense, the voice seems like a major symbol in gospel because God gave it to man (in part) to bring man closer to him.

Never Let a Day Go By by Easy Jams

Monday, October 17, 2011

Gabor Szabo and Charles Lloyd: Spellbinder, 1974

This album is made up of four pretty long tracks and each one features a slightly different crew. On the first song we hear the basic band, on the second they are joined by Charles Lloyd, on the last song the band plays with Tommy Eyre, and on the third song, Anthony Ortega sits in. All tracks were recorded live at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. The band plays all the songs with a lot of energy and the album is full of memorable moments, but the song I want to talk about today is Stormy, the one that Anthony Ortega appears on. For this performance, Ortega plays flute and dubs himself out with a tape delay called the echoplex.

I really like hearing the warmth of a tight, live band mixing with the warm, less controllable sound of live electronic processing. In genres like jazz where that type of processing is usually done in the studio, or more often not done at all, hearing it in a live setting can really add a new element to the music. This recording certainly does not mark the first appearance that electronic processing made in jazz music. Sun Ra, certain AACM projects, and other groups have incorporated electronics into recordings predating this one. And many jazz bands nowadays routinely use electronics that make the echoplex look like a caveman tool. Still, when a band that otherwise plays without manipulation adds an electronic touch, it can be an effective way to work with a new body of sounds and change up the music for a segment of the performance, like a bass player switching to a bow. Many musicians have made great music in which the electronic aspects are more of a focal point and organizing force in the music, but Ortega uses the delay to a different effect. It does not contribute to the structure of the music like delay can in dub, it simply responds to the flute and ornaments Ortega's playing.

Gabor Szabo: guitar
Wolfgang Melz: bass
John Dentz: drums
Mailto Correa: congas and percussion
Charles Lloyd: flute on "Sombrero Sam"
Tommy Eyre: keyboard on "People"
Anthony Ortega: flute and echoplex on "Stormy"

Stormy by Easy Jams

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Super Jerry: Sweet Universe, 1987

A lot of reggae fans nowadays are divided over their preferred style. Some like the digital style, which emerged in the 80's and spread as dancehall was starting to eclipse the popularity of reggae in Jamaica. Digital instruments including drum machines as well as digital mixing and mastering technologies feature prominently in this music. Other reggae listeners prefer the heavy analog sound of roots. Because I tend to fall with the latter camp, the B side of this album feels weak to me, but I am very interested in the three cuts that make up the A side. On those tracks, producer Super Jerry manages to preserve the weight of the roots sound in spite of the obvious digital presence on the album.

How did Super Jerry manage a fusion of two apparently incompatible styles? Aside from the inclusion of drum machines and digital synths, the A side stays generally true to roots form. The basslines carry the harmony and rhythm like the basses of classic roots, and the ever-present loops and overdubs recall the instrumental and dub mixes pioneered by many of Jamaica's great analog producers. In some places, real drums are even dubbed over the drum machine track, and the minor keys in which these songs are set give the A side a conventionally solemn air. Even though this album lacks the satisfying warmth of more traditional roots reggae, Super Jerry successfully conveys the essence of roots reggae in a medium that many listeners consider hostile to roots forms. It struck me that when digital reggae started stealing the show from the analog varieties, producers and musicians were not only hunting for new sounds but also new forms.

The preference for analog reggae is more than an issue of technological purity, it is a preference for an aesthetic sensibility that changed as technology changed, though not necessarily as a result of technology. I think that this explains why artists like Yellowman, who worked in hybridized reggae-dancehall styles and used digital technology are at least as popular with roots fans as they are with digi fans if not more so. Given that the 80's saw the rise of radically different technologies that people had little precedent for understanding as they learned how to integrate them into music, a lot of the music from back then sounds dated today. In response, we give producers and musicians of that era too little credit for trying to forge new genres. When those genres don't appeal to us, we assume that they are accidents of history, and when we like the music, we think that it is to the credit of the artist that they were able to resist the more unfortunate aesthetic choices of their era. I think that we because we blame people's ill-adept use of emerging technologies for a string of what now seem like gaudy trends, we go too far and use this explanation to gloss over a lot of 80's music industry history.

Drums: Ras Kidus
Keyboards: Claude Bent, Winston Wright, Ras Kidus
Horns: David Madden, Dean Frazer
Guitar: Bince Black, Dwight Pickney, Lloyd Parkes
Bass: Claude Bent, Jacob
Producer: Super Jerry
All songs written by Thomas Easton
Recorded at Sparks Studio in California.

Chant to Jah by Easy Jams