Saturday, October 11, 2008

What Are You Listening To Lately?

I think I can speak for many, if not all, record store employees world wide when I say that the most dreaded question a customer can ask is “What are you listening to lately?” (or a variant like: “What have you heard lately that’s good?”) Most of us are on our own strange little personal journeys of music appreciation that are typically miles away from what anyone else we know is interested in. The best we can hope for is a happy accident where our interests overlap a bit with those of others. But I can promise you, whether you’re talking to the record store clerk who’s exploring early rockabilly, the one who you trust for your avant-garde classical picks, the one who knows what’s cutting edge in the indie rock world, the one who actually knows all the top 40 tunes you hear, or me, we all have a pretty similar reaction when that question comes up: we brace ourselves and usually throw back a quick "What have YOU heard lately that you've liked?", because it would take too long to explain exactly what we’re actually listening to lately and why. With that in mind, here are some quick impressions of what I have actually been listening to lately – what’s in the walkman, on the stereo, what I’m picking when I’m at work, and what I’ve been playing when I’m in the shower.

Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
A strange mixture of disco, 80's synth funk-pop, house music, and an undercurrent of melancholy that colors even the fastest numbers. I’m really pleased to know that somebody from Denver got this all together and released on the very cool DFA label. I’ve never been a big fan on Antony’s voice, but it fits the proceedings here just fine. After a couple announcements that they’d be playing here in Denver, we still haven’t seen a hometown return for Andrew Butler and friends. Maybe 2009, if it’s not too much trouble, Mr. Butler?

Kenny Garrett - Sketches of MD
In contrast to the conceptually organized all-star session that was Garrett’s brilliant Beyond the Wall, this stripped down excursion into vamps and blowing is a less artsy affair, more like a good, funky club set. In fact, when Garrett was in town with this band (minus Pharoah Sanders), that was more or less what I’ve been told he delivered. And since Garrett was a member of one of Miles’s later 80’s groups, it’s fitting that he’d have an understanding of how to make the most of minimal musical materials. I enjoy this every time I play it, but I don’t know if I’ll return to it as much in the long run as I suspect I’ll be returning to Beyond the Wall.

William Parker - Double Sunrise Over Neptune
Big group stuff by the prolific William Parker, who, according to my count has released 18 albums since the last one I picked up in 2000. Whew! So I feel a little over my head without being able to track his development and talk about it somewhat, but I can say for sure that he’s comfortable bringing just about any style of older jazz into his conception and making it work for him. There’s a strong Middle-Eastern vibe here, made doubly prominent by the vocals of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay and the shenai and musette horns that sound like they could’ve been recorded straight out of Morocco. A strong groove dominates, even when in an odd time signature – he’d make Mingus proud, even though he leaves the actual bass duties to someone else here. At times it feels like a cousin of Sun Ra’s intergalactic ensembles, though it’s always more grounded, sometimes Mingus is called to mind as the horns run rampant over a solid bottom, elsewhere he’s nodding in the direction of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the ethos of the AACM, bringing in Great Black Music from all realms and eras into his mix. Other times it’s just Parker, who has now spent more than 20 years developing, defining, and sharpening his take on what large group jazz can be today. Time for me to fill in some gaps and flesh out the picture a little bit.

Fela Ransome KutiAlagbon Close/Why Black Man Dey Suffer
Another in the essential – OK, not essential but really fucking cool – Wrasse series of Fela Kuti reissues. This one pairs a 1970 session “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” with a 1974 session, though they fit together quite nicely despite the gap in their creation dates. If you know Fela, you know what you’re in for – “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” and “Ikoyi Mentality Versus Mushin Mentality” both rail against colonialism in Africa and the colonial mindset existing even after independence, while “Alagbon Close” details the brutal conditions of a jail Fela got thrown into. – These (plus one more) take place over many minutes (shortest track clocks in at a petite 11:24), over funky grooves, and with savvy horn charts before Fela himself comes in to sing, chant, and hector in a call and response with his wives and other backing singers. It’s all quite enjoyable, even if it’s not a departure from one of the other 20 or so Fela discs I own – and the title tracks are the two best, for what it’s worth.

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