Friday, December 2, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/2/11 - John Zorn and Blind Willie Johnson

While by no means allergic to its charms, I have to fess up to being no big fan of Christmas music. I certainly understand the appeal and am okay with the inevitability that I’ll hear “Little Saint Nick” every time I go to the supermarket between Thanksgiving and Dec. 24th, but must admit that in my humble digs, other than A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU FROM PHILLES RECORDS (the Phil Spector girl-group record, my personal favorite Christmas album ever) and a few one-shots like “Merry Christmas Baby” by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers or “Silent Night” by Low, the stuff is simply unlikely to get much play. Don’t think me a Grinch, for the holidays bring me a substantial amount of cheer. It’s just that in my experience most Xmas tunes are very high on sentiment (by design, yes) but generally wanting in the properties that constitute great, or often even just plain good music, a situation I find extremely hard to ignore. So ignore it I don’t. Instead, I’m perfectly happy to groove on zydeco, post-punk or Krautrock while roasting chestnuts on the open fire.  However, it looks like I might need to rethink this somewhat hard-line stance, at least just a little bit, for John Zorn’s freshly released A DREAMER’S CHRISTMAS appears to be more than just another entry into the yearly tidal-wave of contemporary holiday-themed musical diversions, instead feeling something very much like a true keeper. Listeners knowledgeable with Mr. Zorn’s vast output know that he’s a prime instigator of challenging musical environments that can gleefully hurdle headlong into pure sonic mayhem. His group Naked City alone has put large dents in many a dainty constitution, and that’s just one in a formidable hydra head of projects. But the man also has a soft side, so those thinking he’s concocted some sort of anti-Christmas LP need not be worried (or hopeful). Releases like 2001’s exotica-laden THE GIFT, 2008’s somewhat surfy (think Ventures) THE DREAMERS and 2009’s mediation on smooth jazz (think Ramsey Lewis, not Kenny G) ALHAMBRA LOVE SONGS all present valuable insights into an aspect of the musician/composer that’s always been key to his work if not always in plain sight, specifically that numerous inside traditions are integral to his personal aesthetic. A DREAMER’S CHRISTMAS presents nine tracks that initially feel like a hybrid of light exotica and inside jazz at its most professionally polished. But along the way all kinds of other stuff sneaks in. The Dreamers band, a crackerjack group of Zorn mainstays (in addition to this album and the ’08 disc that gave them their name they also appear as a group on ‘09’s O’O and last year’s IPOS: BOOK OF ANGELS VOLUME 14) tackle the material with the skill and panache of true session vets, lightly seasoning the whole with atypical but non-disruptive bits of left-field imagination. Opener “Winter Wonderland” is a showcase for Kenny Wolleson’s vibes, Jamie Saft’s electric piano and Marc Ribot’s slinky surf guitar licks, and along with the dead-solid rhythm work of bassist Trevor Dunn, percussionist Cyro Baptista and drummer Joey Baron they conjure something comparable to a bunch of anonymous workaday cats reeling off tunes in an airport cocktail lounge on a snowy Christmas Eve as travelers knock back drinks en route to their (or hopefully someone’s) homes by morning, the whole band kicking up an inexplicable head of swingin’ steam and for the duration everyone in the room is hanging on the brink of collective seasonal bliss. Maybe. Or perhaps it’s just a well-established idea transformed by wise inspiration and casual flash. Either way it’s a pip. “Snowfall” is more atmospheric, sounding a bit like the sounds flowing from the loudspeakers in an upscale department store while folks wait listlessly in line for gift wrapping services. Except something’s not quite right. Methinks the culprit is Ribot’s interloping guitar, adding the perfect amount of spice to the dreamy proceedings. The looming, loving presence of Vince Guaraldi is an obvious influence all over A DREAMER’S CHRISTMAS, so it only makes sense that they should tackle the man’s signature tune “Christmas Time is Here”, and it should come as no surprise that Saft shines on piano, though Dunn’s tough bass almost steals the show. Speaking of show stealing, Zorn’s original “Santa’s Workshop” is an unexpected treat of sincere conceptual invention (it sounds twenty years old on first listen) and one of the prettiest confections I’ve heard in quite a while, largely in part to Wolleson’s vibes. Cyro Baptista’s lithe but tough bongo slapping is nothing to sneeze at, either. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is played so straight that it’d likely get the seal of approval from the eternally smiling mug of Lionel Hampton. And in this case, that’s very cool. Not my favorite track on the album, but it should work real nice for some extended make out under the mistletoe. “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” starts off innocuously enough but before long turns into a real zesty frolic for Ribot, with Saft’s keyboard percolating underneath like Big John Patton with a case of the hiccups. Sneet! “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” is bookended by a tribute to the great Bahaman guitarist Joseph Spence, whose gorgeously weird-meat version of the tune was captured by Alan Lomax on a 1958 field trip. But the meat in “Santa Claus”’s sandwich is a high-flying jazz excursion and showcase for Saft’s pianistic skills, and thankfully he avoids succumbing to the sort of flying-finger keyboard mode that tunes of this tempo often inspire. Instead, he’s more in league with Ahmad Jamal or later Bill Evans, and that’s just dandy. As an added plus, Baron gets to break lose a bit on drums, always a welcome development. Zorn’s other original “Magical Sleigh Ride” is nearly up the level of “Santa’s Workshop”, plus the song allows for some collective weirding-out and an opportunity for Ribot and Saft to really burn. The set closes with the well worn Mel Torme standard “The Christmas Song”, featuring a guest vocal by Mike Patton in unabashed crooner mode, and it goes down as smooth as a big mug of homemade nog. Yum.  But maybe the best thing about A DREAMER’S CHRISMAS is how it ultimately feels obvious that everyone involved enjoyed the hell out of making it. As stated at the top of this text, normally that’s not enough for me (Xmas tunes or no), but when all the participants involved have chops to burn and ideas to spare, the whole project takes on a very appealing harmony. This will never be one of my favorite albums, but I can safely predict that for a month or so out of the year I’ll be quite happy it’s around.

When back in the beginning of the ‘90s Columbia Records unveiled their Roots N’ Blues series, music obsessives the globe over threw their hats into the air and let out a collective whoop. Here was a rare move by a corporation that actually possessed something analogous to real human dimension, reissuing a wealth of early American music, much of it rare, in well-ordered collections and under a promotional banner intended to lure and educate curious newcomers to its enduring qualities. True, vital and admirable smaller labels like Arhoolie and Yazoo had already been long engaged in this very activity, and sure, profit motive definitely lurked in Columbia’s intentions, but in an endeavor like this one a word like “motive” feels sorta inappropriate. Instead, it seems correct to describe Roots N’ Blues as an example of Capitalism at its best; offering insight, enrichment and a bounty of rewards at a fair price instead of amassing stockpiles of boodle by fleecing people for necessities and proffering an endless cavalcade of distractions. Needless to say, as a young prole with high appetites for art and knowledge I absorbed the impressive stream of Roots N’ Blues releases with extreme gusto, a move that’s still paying big dividends to this day. Probably the biggest personal discovery gleaned from the whole dang experience was the work of Blind Willie Johnson, his complete recordings collected over two compact discs, a mass of songs that opened my ears and throttled my consciousness with the sheer depth and uncompromising, at times unnerving intensity of its fascinating, mysterious creator. Blind Willie Johnson was in no way a standard issue bluesman, and it’s important to explain that he’s in large part not accurately a blues musician at all, unless the discussion is one where form completely trumps content, for Johnson was a devoutly religious man, his music being among the deepest expressions of pure gospel feeling ever recorded. At the time of his long posthumous Roots N’ Blues collection (Johnson died of malaria in 1945) the term used to categorize the music’s raw sanctified power was Gospel Blues, and this descriptor still works just fine. But an even better way to encapsulate his legacy is to bestow him with the title of Guitar Evangelist, placing Johnson in a small group of African-American roots musicians that combined the rich and intense characteristics of the blues form with the uncommon fervor of sincere Christian belief. Though there are other worthy exponents of Guitar Evangelism, particularly the intriguingly monochromatic Rev. Edward W. Clayborn (from whom the term derives) or the marvelous Blind Mamie Forehand (it’s a signifier that many Guitar Evangelists are deprived of sight), it is plainly acknowledged that Blind Willie Johnson sits at the forefront of the style. Succinctly, his music is amongst the most honest and affecting ever recorded. That venerable Portland, Oregon institution Mississippi Records has just released a fresh limited repressing of its mammoth 2LP set titled DARK WAS THE NIGHT COLD WAS THE GROUND, the contents collecting twenty-six of the man’s thirty extant tunes, all recorded between the years 1927-30, and it’s a severe understatement to call it a thrilling, essential document. While many of the standout legends in the early country blues chronology excelled at doing one or a few things extremely well, Johnson was strikingly varied, all while imbuing his music with very specific characteristics. The first of these is his rough, insistent voice. It’s undoubtedly true that Johnson, a poor black man stricken blind in a racist land, turned to music as a buffer to his need for charity. But the unpolished intensity of his singing makes it immediately clear that he was brutally committed to the cause of his music. It’s not just his sandpapery tones but the blunt force of the delivery; unlike more commercially minded, secular artists, he wasn’t trying to seduce the lobes of the listener with smoothness and finesse, but attempting instead to infiltrate the very core of their souls to shake them. And yet he was far from limited as a singer, shifting from his booming, gravelly gutbucket strains to a more relaxed mode as the material demanded, and he was even capable of transformative, arresting moans in the service of song. Johnson could also sing in uncommonly supple duets with female accompanists, a large portion of his discography devoted to just this practice, the best vocal foil on record likely belonging to his first wife Willie B. Harris.  And as the fact that he recorded his oeuvre over five different sessions for the same label makes plain, Johnson was a quite popular figure in his brief time in front of a microphone, even initially outselling fellow Columbia recording artist Bessie Smith, though it points to the institutional marginalization of the African-American populace that by the early ‘50s his name was essentially forgotten. Another aspect of Johnson’s art that shows off his versatility is his alternation between a cutting, haunting bottleneck slide style and a nimble finger-picking mastery. An extremely accomplished player, the warmth and complexity of the whole movement of American Primitive Guitar can be laid at his feet, for it was the epiphany of a young John Fahey hearing “Praise God I’m Satisfied” that kick-started the whole movement. Along with this fact, credit should also be paid to Johnson for his influence on Ry Cooder’s amazing soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ PARIS TEXAS. When Roots N’ Blues collected these tracks, they were sensibly and scholarly presented in chronological order across two CDs. Mississippi Records takes a different tack, presenting them non-sequentially over four vinyl sides with the intention for maximum emotional effect. It’s a wise move, allowing the locomotive-like momentum of “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down” to contrast brilliantly with the slow-burn ache of “The Rain Don’t Fall On Me”, and it sheds fresh context on the more lauded tunes like “Praise God I’m Satisfied” and “John the Revelator” by placing them directly beside less celebrated but equally central tracks from his well of eternal inspiration. But even when some numbers appear in the sequence of their original recording, they are given fresh illumination by appearing later in the song order. Side three finds the infectious melodiousness of “Let Your Light Shine On Me” sandwiched betwixt “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and “God Don’t Ever Change”, all from his second session, and Mississippi’s selective processing really places new emphasis on “Let Your Light…”, which I once considered a perfectly fine but somewhat minor song. Unlike some undeniably essential players from any era who excel in hard musical styles, Blind Willie Johnson’s range allows his work to be absorbed in one big gulp, but DARK WAS THE NIGHT’s double album format still allows the listener the opportunity for pause if necessary. To illustrate, Johnson’s most famous tune closes side one. “Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground” was inducted in 2010 into The National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, and was included by NASA on the Music From Earth portion of Voyager’s Golden Record, a sort of space time capsule intended to document the better nature of human life on this planet. In the words of the great Samuel Charters, it is “one of the unique masterpieces of American Music”. A deeply personal version of an old church hymn relating to the crucifixion of Christ, Johnson transforms a song previously employed as a solemn call and response by a preacher and congregation into a meditative, wordless dialogue between his transcendent slide and the maddeningly sublime hum and moan of his vocals. Its three and a half minutes are simply breathtaking, and I’ll never forget the first time I heard it. It was included as track four on the Roots N’ Blues compilation THE SLIDE GUITAR: BOTTLES, KNIVES AND STEEL, and after experiencing the song, I repeated it five or six times before shutting off the stereo and leaving the house, taking a long walk to gather my bearings (How do you follow an immersion into incomparable beauty? Answer: you don’t). The song captivatingly eludes the properties of language to span across all boundaries of human experience, hitting the listener instead on a more profound emotional level. This is why Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini included the song, along with music seemingly as divergent as Bach and Odetta, on the soundtrack to his 1964 biblical masterwork THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW. While placing anachronistic music in a period drama would seem to be a certain tempting of folly, it instead enriched the film’s themes to startling effect. Since that first hearing the song has always remained close to me, but it still has the potential to sneak up and hit my being with incredible force. One rainy Saturday night roughly a decade ago while driving home from a movie on Rt. 9 in West Virginia I was listening to Dick Spottswood’s excellent radio show on WAMU out of Washington DC. He was playing a bunch of fine old-timey stuff as is his wont, and then out of nowhere came the strains of “Dark Was the Night…”. I was in a rather melancholy mood that evening, driving somewhat listlessly as the wipers beat a steady rhythm upon the windshield. But as the song played I was taken all over again by its undiluted brilliance. Seeing a shopping center parking lot ahead, I quickly pulled off and idled, absorbing the regenerative nature of the sounds until they reached their denouement. To be blunt, it all just snuck up on me. What Sam Phillips reportedly said after hearing Howlin’ Wolf: “This is where the soul of man never dies”. The same is true of Blind Willie Johnson. Please infer no overstatement when I say that people, this is it.