Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Unholy Trinity: Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton

"I talked with the white man on whose place this negro died and I also talked with a negro woman on the place. The plantation owner said the negro man, seemingly about 26 years old, came from Tunica two or three weeks before he died to play banjo at a negro dance given there on the plantation. He stayed in the house with some of the negroes saying he wanted to pick cotton. The white man did not have a doctor for this negro as he had not worked for him. He was buried in a homemade coffin furnished by the county. The plantation owner said it was his opinion that the man died of syphilis."

Thus read the physician's comment on the death certificate of Robert Johnson who later came to be known as the father of the blues. He was born in 1911 and died at the age of 27. He had gained some popularity among the audience for what can best be called race music in that era. He did not get to record till he was 25, and his extant body of work consists of 29 songs and 13 alternative takes. All of these (except one) can be found on  Columbia's 1990 release of The Complete Recordings. It is fascinating that this man, whose lifetime overlapped those of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf would go on to influence guitarists and music for all time since. Popular legend of his time, and his own insinuations, have it that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange of mastery over the blues guitar.  His death at age 27 is also a mystery with different interpretations of the same cause, poisoning.

The Faustian exchange is a recurrent motif in human history. In literature, among others, it has been explored by Marlowe, Goethe, Thomas Mann, Heine, Gertrude Stein, Pessoa, and Vaclav Havel, and the complete list would be many times longer. Many films have the selling of the soul as a central theme. The reason this concept is so compelling that it is woven into being across cultures and ages is that it is a defense mechanism, a psychological refuge that lets one handle the incomprehensibility of one's realities. As one realizes that a false self, derived from abandoning one's genuine feelings, might be more acceptable to one's world and loved ones, such a bargain with an imaginary power starts looking like the perfect solution. Robert Johnson defied explanation in his electrifying work with slides and intervals, carving in rock the new definition of Delta blues. His own allusions to the crossroad added impetus to the legend becoming the most acceptable explanation for his genius. His success with women must also have been a factor in the legend, just as it was in the poisoning  (in a drink that was poisoned by the husband of one of the married women he was having an affair with, a drink that was meant for her and not for him) that made him a founder member of the 27-Club.

The deal with the devil has been assumed in many cases, and not just in the history of  popular music. In the later half of the 20th century, there was a widespread submission to drugs and alcohol, both in literature and music, with many of the most respected names of the creative world dabbling in excesses to the point it got them killed or institutionalized. The underlying explanation for this is the paradigm of the tortured artist. The artist, being sensitive and creative, carries pain within him for the wrongs of the world, be it in their personal experience, or in the collective social aspect. The search for identity and acceptance is another area of pain that many creative people end up making a deal with "the devil" to live with, if not overcome.



With Robert Johnson, the alleged deal got him the mastery of his form, and a lot of drink and women. Ultimately, it was this combination that got him killed. With later musicians and writers, it was a different story. Most of them believed that it was only under the influence that one could perform and be creative, that it opened up "the doors of perception" that closed when the drug was taken away. The fact that this view was being subscribed to by the role models and icons of popular culture led to the drug abuse and its consequent tragedies among young people all over the world, a phenomenon that does not entirely seem to have subsided even today.

Robert Johnson spent his life playing on street corners, drinking joints and dance clubs, and was practically unknown even to his contemporaries or the generation that came immediately after him.  The world was unmoved by the intensity of this musician who lived, breathed and dyed the blues forever. As a matter of fact, it wasn't till the 1961 release of his King of The Delta Blues Singers that musicians and the listening audience really got to know of his work. (Kind of gives me hope that some day someone will find my work and say, hey, this is semi-null.) His work was noticed by  White America before the brethren, and in Britain before his homeland. The Rolling Stones almost entirely modeled their early music on his phrasing and turnarounds, and ended up including most of his songs in their repertoire and discography. His baseline with the added top notes had a direct influence, one that is publicly acknowledged, on the the work of Hendrix and Clapton. Almost every R&B musician across time has interpreted at least one if not many (if not all) of his songs. He is the beginning, the middle and the end of any blues guitarist's education.



*****

Jimi Hendrix was born four years after Robert Johnson died. Hendrix had a reasonably traumatic childhood. He did not meet his father till he was three, and was left by his mother with his grandparents. After his parents reunited, their struggles with their own demons was of no comfort to little Jimi. His parents could not get a sufficient grip on themselves to be parents to the five children they gave birth too, and Jimi saw all three of his younger sibling being given up for adoption.  When he was nine, his parents divorced and his father was given custody of him and his brother.

Jimi Hendrix would have grown up listening to the sound of the blues as not only a resurgence of the roots and identity of the black American, but also as white boys began taking to the guitar and the washboard. This was the age of Elvis on one hand and Muddy Waters, BB King and Robert Johnson on the other. There is a record, as a child, of Hendrix carrying around a broom at all times like a guitar, a security blanket of sorts, to the point that his school social worker wrote to his father that getting him a guitar might save him from the psychological damage that he was heading towards. There is no record that his father thought anything of that request. It wasn't till age 15 that he got his hands around a guitar, a five-dollar acoustic.

Over the next two years, one would imagine that Hendrix did little else than play the guitar. He tried his hand at playing with others, none of them successful to any degree, and he was already on his way to defining himself beyond the music, seeing the act of performing music, the act of living the life of a musician as an artistic/social/philosophical statement. His father did go on to buy him his first electric guitar, and his second, a Silvertone Danelectro on which he carved his girlfriend's name.  He was 19 years old when he got drafted into the army. It was during his year of service in the army that he met bassist Billy Cox, and the two would go on to collaborate for much of his career. Hendrix didn't like the army, but it turned out that the army disliked him even more. As with his school years, his superiors recommended his discharge, labeling his problems not treatable by "hospitalization or counseling."

Over the next years, Hendrix found himself on the rhythm and blues circuit, in failed bands and as a sideman for several popular blues celebrities, and his earliest recording is with The Isley Brothers in 1964. He did this for the next three years, with growing dissatisfaction at the limitations of the sideman and the blues guitar formats, but getting noticed wherever he went - by musicians, managers and the audience. In 1966, following a series of interventions by Keith Richards, Hendrix found himself a manager and put together the band that would become The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

This band recorded three albums (Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland) all three of which continue to be in The Top 100 Greatest Albums Of All Time. Noel Redding played the bass, and Mitch Mitchell drums, but the experience was all about Hendrix, his performances being an art form by itself, challenging and sometimes surpassing the intrinsic value of the music he was playing. For many people, Hendrix is more about the gimmickry of his performance than his music itself. Every reference to his life mandatorily highlights his playing with his teeth, playing behind his back, between his legs, and setting fire to his guitar. None of this in way detracts from the musical evolution that he was a catalyst to.

I heard Clapton before I heard Hendrix, and Hendrix before I heard Robert Johnson. I see Hendrix as the principal architect of the electric blues and in some ways the electric guitar itself. He is acknowledged as the founding father of the overdriven fuzz of the electric sound as well as the use of distortion pedals and the wah-wah envelop.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience was an almost instant success, finding critical acclaim both at home and in the continent. Their performance in the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival was the high point of what they stood for, as thousands watched spellbound as he went about his guitar calisthenics before finally setting it on fire. By the time Woodstock came around in 1969, The Jimi Hendrix Experience in its first iteration was over and done with, and Jimi Hendrix was the highest paid musician in the world. He straddled avant-garde and Black Power and the peacenik movement with ease and grace.  His rendition of the American National Anthem, Star Spangled Banner, at Woodstock, wearing a red head-scarf, a white jacket and blue jeans, was not only musically intense, but also a summary of where the American people stood at that time.



Hendrix appeared to enjoy the adulation he received and the power he wielded, but the musician in him was at odds with the trappings of fame. He would struggle to see beyond the chaff, and would go on binges, of drugs, of alcohol, of sleep deprivation, of sex, in a desperate attempt to find his way back to the core of his being, the core of being a bluesman. Although he continued to tear his way through every definition of musicianship of his time, he was also increasingly disappointed by the commerce of music.  

Post-Woodstock, Hendrix would team up with his old army friend, Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles to work on what would be his last album, a live compilation from two nights at the Fillmore East over New Years Eve, 1969-70. The lineup and the album was titled Band of Gypsies, from a comment he had made during his Woodstock appearance. The short-lived, all-black lineup was plagued with disappointing concerts and external politics, and fell apart just as abruptly as it had come together. Hendrix then went on to resurrect the Experience, but this time with Billy Cox on bass replacing Noel Redding. Their touring together gave them various names, but they are mostly remembered as the Cry of Love band as that was the name of the album they were working on recording during their time together. Hendrix would not live to see that album released.

During all of this time, his use of drugs and alcohol had been growing to a point where it was significantly impairing his ability to perform. With multiple charges of possession and public misdemeanors, he was continuously getting into trouble with people because of  his violent outbursts under the influence. Drinking and drugs would unleash a pent up fury within him that appeared totally contrary to the loving, humanitarian, creative person that he was otherwise. His binges would last days and weeks, with little or no sleep and chaos in every footstep. As he grew in musical stature and in terms of the influence he exerted on music, on the music industry, and on the audience, he also grew in his drug and alcohol related dysfunction. Some of his biggest concert recordings are musical washouts because of his utter indisposition.

In 1970, he was working harder than ever before, touring, putting the finishing touches to his own recording studio, dealing with several different lawsuits (paternity, recording contracts, drug possession) making more money than ever before, taking more drugs than ever before, and hardly sleeping. Fueled by alcohol, barbiturates, and LSD, he was a monkey on a long rope. He was also running low on close relationships, desperately reaching out for the one person he would be able to trust. Three days before his death, he told Sharon Lawrence, a journalist and close friend, "I can't sleep. I can't focus to write any songs." On September 18, Hendrix died, having choked and drowned in his own vomit without realizing it or waking from his sleep because of the heavy combination of barbiturates, alcohol and cannabis.  He was 27.


Hendrix was a superstar and a cultural icon in his lifetime. His primary identity as a performing artist and his rapid rise to fame ensured that all his work was documented. He left behind thousands of hours of live recording, hundreds of alternate takes, and several songs in different stages of completion. After his death, an industry has been built on reissuing his work, old and new. legitimate and barely there, authorized and bootleg. His father, Al was not cut out to deal with the big monopolists of a rapacious music industry, and had signed away the rights to half of Hendrix's work to the labels before he even realized it. Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, came to his aid and helped fund the legal battle that would see the estate of Jimi Hendrix regain control over his body of work. Paul also put himself out to create the Experience Music Project, initially a Jimi Hendrix museum that later evolved into the Museum of Pop Culture.

It is easy to say that Hendrix, like the other West Coast Seattle boy, Kurt Cobain, had nowhere to go musically when he died, but it remains mere speculation. It definitely would have been challenging to keep the graph going at the right angle, but when you listen to tracks like The Wind Cries Mary, Little Wing, Angel, or Red House, you instinctively feel there was more where it was coming from, that there was more than just distortion units and clever feedback loops, that popularity obscured his latent creative potential. Hendrix was a musician inside and a showman on the outside to cover up for the insecurities that every creative artist has to deal with. We can also only speculate about the faustian trade-off of his life and time. Like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Michael Jackson, and perhaps even Elvis, he yearned to belong, not to his fans or to history, but to a love that one comes home to. Perhaps the price of such spectacular success is the absence of meaningful, stable, trusting relationships.    

*****

Eric Clapton was three years younger than Hendrix, and they were making music on different sides of the ocean at about the same time. British rock was influenced by the blues from the onset, and the visits from pioneering bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters opened up the horizon for what would later become the British invasion. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Animals, Fleetwood Mac, Cream, and the various lineups that Eric Clapton was part of not only popularized and electrified the genre but also contributed to the documentation of musical heritage - not exactly the stuff that comes to mind when you visualize Mick Jagger strutting about or Jimmy Page and Robert Plant doing Kashmir, but yeah. It helps to keep in mind that British rock was equally about The Beatles, The Who, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, who were influenced by rock and roll, white American music and the charisma of King Elvis. 

It is a bit of a square peg round hole trick to put Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton on the same page. Hendrix and Johnson died at 27. As I write, Clapton is 72 and still "rocking." Johnson recorded a handful of songs while Hendrix put out three studio albums in his lifetime. Clapton is prodigiously productive, with 23 solo studio outings so far, and innumerable collaborations and live recordings.  Johnson and Hendrix were quintessentially American, black and blue. Clapton was, for most of his life, a fairly propah, right wing, white boy. For Hendrix and Johnson, the blues were what was running in their blood. For Clapton, it was a life-long education and teaching project. Robert Johnson and Hendrix played with their gut, their uncontrolled passion spilling all over the fretboard. Clapton was the eye of the storm, the anchor in a stormy sea, standing still and letting his mind dictate what his heart and fingers felt like doing. His Slowhand nickname came from his unusual habit of not having a standby guitar in case of a broken string, but instead coolly and purposefully changing the string on stage - leading to the audience doing a slow hand clap to keep things up.  

In my mind, I see Clapton in a reverse-Faustian deal that let him evolve to deepen and strengthen the heritage that Johnson and Hendrix belonged to. He overcame his addictions, the tragic loss of his 4-year-old son, and the inevitable burnout of midlife to reclaim his personal life and reinvent himself as a chronicler of the history of the blues. 

Eric Clapton had run through the Yardbirds and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers before finding the magic that would come to be known as Cream. Clapton Is God graffiti was everywhere. An assiduous student, he studied Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King, and the earlier bluesmen to uncover and evolve his own phrasal style. His interest in the rock format made him master white boy styles as well, resulting in the vocabulary that created his language. Keeping in rhythm with the cultural demands of the age, he did a lot of what people wanted versus what he wanted to do. It wasn't till late in his life, as he dealt with his own addiction and personal tragedies that he turned away from popular appeal to start exploring and interpreting the roots of the blues.

He was also more adventurous and perhaps courageous than most of his contemporaries. Instead of sticking to what worked, he decided to make his footprint as large as he could. If Cream was a big step up from the purism of Yardbirds and Bluesbreakers, Blind Faith was a leap into a genre that was struggling to come into being both in UK and in the States. Derek and the Dominoes was more in tune with the long form rock of the time. He played with The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Buddy Guy. He had been able to carve out his own space in whatever he did, whether it was pop, rock, jazz, or reggae. As a vocalist, albeit a reluctant one for most of his life, he was able to build a songwriting and arrangement style that would suit his mediocre singing skills. Like JJ Cale, his later mentor and counsel, he would understate and use absence that allowed the listener to become a participant in the experience of the song.His cross country race across genres and formats allowed him to study and perfect the syntax of masters across time and contexts. When he played, he allowed the boundaries to blur, resulting in a melodic architecture that was all his own. 



While he had achieved god status with his early band work, there was little in his first few solo releases to indicate the depth of his creativity - it was more skill and a perfect fit with the audience expectations of his time. His work with The Yardbirds, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith is intense and magical blues band work in the tradition of rock, with every member of the team bringing their own unique flavors to the dish. But these were also the years when he was engaging increasingly with drugs and alcohol, struggling with his love life, and battling spells of depressive isolation. In 1982, after he cleaned up, it seemed like the music inside him had dried up as well. The decade between his coming into recovery and the release of Unplugged saw him tread cautiously, guesting and sticking to standards, perhaps unsure of what he would find if he looked too hard.

The death of his son in 1991 is a very clear turning point in his musical journey. Though he would still continue to do popular music, his focus turned to collaborations and documentation. Unplugged was released in 1992 to unbelievable success, commercial and creative. The electricity of Unplugged is undeniable. It is the sound of a giant reawakening and putting his foot down, as if to say, this is it. Better it if you can. Unplugged was the official release of the MTV Unplugged episode featuring  Clapton on acoustic guitar and playing some of his own songs along with several standards. The album was and continues to be a bestseller, and holds the world record for the best selling live recording ever. Clapton was in his elements, playing to a small studio audience, enjoying himself, enjoying playing the music that he was totally at home with and with no fear of extending boundaries of playfulness. The Unplugged version of Tears in Heaven, recorded soon after the original single release of the song, made the song an international chart topper and a multi-award winner. Along with Tears in Heaven, Unplugged also had a version of My Father's Eyes, making it a unique embrace of his grief over the lack of his father and the loss of his child. He also did an unexpected version of the otherwise hysterically-paced Layla, which laid out the richness of the composition for all to see.

After Unplugged, Clapton released his first all blues album, From The Cradle. It didn't go down very well, as Clapton was treading waters that he was not expected to tread, and the wide range of standards demanded a vocal caliber that he lacked. Some historians were dismissive of the work, of the performance and even of the title, assuming that Clapton implied this album to be from his cradle, when he had a few degrees of separation from true blues. Clapton retreated to his own songs and spent a great deal of time and energy over his next two albums, Pilgrim and Reptile. Fans and critics are divided over the creative merit of these two albums, and I personally feel that after the burnt out sound of Money and Cigarettes, these are two of his least appealing albums. In between, he did a collaboration album, all-blues again, with the legendary BB King, which too was panned by critics. While the album truly fails to showcase the stellar qualities of either musician, as a historical recording, it has its own father-son place. Like the Traveling Wilbury's, this album highlights the comfort, the ease, and the fun time that great musicians have when working together. Many of BB King's live appearance with Clapton have greater electricity than the songs on this release.

Clapton followed up with Me and Mr. Johnson in 2004 and Road to Escondido (with JJ Cale) in 2006. Both of these are masterpieces that bring the focus back to what the blues are all about. The 14 tracks of Me and Mr. Johnson are Clapton's tribute to Robert Johnson, and it comes together beautifully. The guitar work is immaculate and heartfelt, while the arrangements and engineering made the album sound like a tight band playing in a small townhall. If you look at the guitar work on this album in the context of Clapton's life's work, you can see how deeply he was influenced by Robert Johnson's work. One can hear phrases from every era of Clapton's work in this album interpreted against the songs of Robert Johnson - very eerie when you first get it, eerier still as you listen to it over and over again, each listening revealing new layers and nuances and references to context.

JJ Cale was Clapton's role model during the years he was getting disillusioned with the rock song guitar god mantle that he had got his head into. JJ Cale with his unique blend of blues and American roots music, with his barely there vocals, and his avant garde approach to electronic sound and sound engineering, was the man who wrote songs that made others famous. After Midnight and Cocaine were Clapton staples, while Lynnyrd Skynnyrd covered Call Me The Breeze to incredible success. Though the work of JJ Cale defined the sound Cajun blues sound for decades, he himself was a recluse, shunning publicity and the public. Except to fans and blues completionists, JJ Cale as a musician and singer was an unknown (including The Recording Academy) till The Road To Escondido.

Except for Unplugged, Clapton was never able to recreate the glory of his early rock years. In some sense, it might be assumed that he traded success for his commitment to the blues, as he dug deeper into the roots of what gave him his fame to start with. The last decade and a half have been written off by the middle of the road Clapton fan club as senile meandering. His refusal to perform songs that no longer held relevance is also an indication of his commitment to devote himself to the future. 

In between albums of mostly his own songs (none of which were sensational or pathbreaking any more, with the exception of Clapton - with its jazzy, bluesy feel), Clapton did a nostalgia piece called Old Sock, covering songs he had grown up with - an album that is pleasant listening musically and historically, but without any surprises.  He also teamed up with Wynton Marsalis for two nights at the Lincoln Center for Jazz in New York, resulting in a live album - Play The Blues. Most Clapton fans will struggle to recognize this album, since it is more King Oliver and New Orleans than Duane Allman and Surrey, England. It is a set of classics, played to perfection by perhaps the most perfectionist of jazz bands and leaders. It is like one of the last few stations before you reach home, a culmination of a musical journey that takes a lifetime.

Clapton stands for the completion of the cycles of cause and effect. His recovery from addiction and his continued efforts to keep issues like addiction and child safety in the limelight are his ways of making up for lost time, lost life, and lost love. In his own way, he has countered the romanticization of drug abuse that performers like Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain has bequeathed upon young listeners. His journeying into the archives is his way of paying back his debt of gratitude for the insights that the music offered him. His lifelong commitment to his musical integrity (his songs and albums have matured, but never degenerated or strayed) is his way of making up for what Robert Johnson and Hendrix could not or perhaps, given the chance, would not do. There are dark patches in his life and work, whether it be musical or political or even with his relationships with his loved ones, but all of it is overshadowed by the indelible and incredible body of work that he has already created.

Clapton continues to write and release new music, stimulating, classical, and now a genre of his own, in spite of advanced age, battling peripheral neuropathy, eczema and noise exposure induced tinnitus. Much of his energy is devoted to documenting and preserving the heritage of the blues and to introduce new listeners to the mystery of its philosophy. One hundred and seven years after the birth of Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton continues the work that he began - that of broadcasting the voice and the victory of the oppressed to the masses, making it sound so loud, ring so long, wail so hurt that the gods sit up and take note. If it is a deal with the devil, so be it. The Blues gave hope when there was none, and the fact that it is still the foundation of popular music, be it rock or rap, indicates that it will continue to do so for all time to come.   

*****

Writing about these three musicians has been one of the most challenging exercises I have ever undertaken. There has been so much written about them, much of it close to the last word, that to contemplate writing a new piece that would add any value to the existing literature seemed daunting. Thanks to the way life works, I was motivated to take this on in the course of dealing with personal challenges on multiple fronts.  Writing this helped me refocus on what was important to me, realize the futility of anger and the brevity of life, and acquire a deeper understanding of personal freedom. It also helped me reaffirm my personal understanding of addiction and recovery, something that gets taken for granted and fades into the background with time.

I also learned a number of things that I was not aware of (which I have not detailed in the 5000 words above) in spite of my avid reading of music over the years. For instance, while I knew about the blue note, I was not aware of the history of the diabolic interval or the Devil's Tritone, and how, even after the advent of secular music, written music was proofread to ensure that the flattened fifth did not creep into the score even by mistake. I was also not aware of the encounter between Clapton and Hendrix, one that left Clapton in awe, and perhaps compelled him to broaden his playing style just to remain god.

It was also challenging to build a commonality that would allow me to hold these three guitarists in the same thread. While it was not difficult to choose these three, I did feel guilty for the ones I did not choose, the ones I did not tip my hat to, and there are hundreds on that list. Life is like that, you buy a car, and almost immediately start yearning for another.  I was also torn between getting more basic and writing a piece that would introduce readers to the work of these three, versus assuming that the reader had sufficient close listening behind him to understand reference to context.  Ultimately, I write to heal myself, so I stuck to the latter. Finally, there was the size of this piece. I get flak for putting more than 1000 words in one post, and this ran way past the 5000 mark. I did not make any effort to cut back beyond the usual editing. I am pleased. 

For the few that have read through till here, my sympathies, and to all the rest, my sympathies. The blues, if closely lived, will teach you all that you need to win over your past, present and future.

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”.

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