Esperanza Spalding – Chamber Music Society

Chamber Music Society

Esperanza SpaldingChamber Music Society Heads Up International HUI-31810-02 (2010)

I bagged on Esperanza’s last album (Esperanza) because she followed a formula too closely.  Well, on this time out she certainly breaks from formula.  Now she dabbles in a mixture of third-stream and pop.  Problem is, she doesn’t pull it off.  The songs are too complex for their own good.  Cluttered.  It seems like she’s aiming for something a little more ambitious than she’s able to pull off as a writer and arranger, even if well within her means as a performer.  Oh well.

Nara Leão – Dez anos depois

Dez anos depois

Nara LeãoDez anos depois Polydor 2.388.004/5 (1971)

The history of bossa nova runs through Nara Leão, to the point that some claim the original bossa nova scene coalesced in her parents’ living room.  She became a star in her native Brazil, and was one of the more popular bossa nova singers.  But with the military coup, she first turned toward protest music, then left the country in 1969.  She lived in Paris, and in August of 1969 announced in an interview that she had retired from professional singing.  Her retirement proved short-lived.  Soon enough she was back to recording and in 1971 released the double LP Dez anos depois, which featured new recordings of older bossa nova songs.  The first LP was minimalist, and recorded in Paris.  The second LP, only slightly less minimalist, featured some backing arrangements (by Roberto Menescal mostly, plus Luis Eça and Rogério Duprat for two tracks each), and was recorded in Rio.

Dez anos depois (translation: “ten years later”) is sort of a sister album to Françoise Hardy‘s La question (1971). Both have an intimate, melancholy feel, and expatriate Brazilian guitarist Tuca (Valeniza Zagni da Silva) appears on both.  It might even be said that both put forward musical personas that were unique to the heyday second-wave feminism — not in terms of overt feminist militancy but instead (and somewhat paradoxically) by being unassuming thinking-woman’s music of a kind that simply wasn’t given much of an airing in prior times.

Tuca’s guitar is wonderful.  Unlike the pure sublime gracefulness of João Gilberto or the sentimentality of Baden Powell, she leavens the angelic melodies with a hint of punky, plucky impertinence.  “Fotographia” illustrates that point in its hypnotic strummed line unsettled by a dissonant, sour note lingering in the chords but never brought to the forefront.  Across much of the first LP (seemingly the only disc on which Tuca appears) the melodic statements on guitar often seem rushed, almost, to emphasize the rhythmic aspects.  This is both the essence of bossa nova, and a contrarian act of defiance.

Of course, Nara’s vocals are a big part of the album’s appeal.  There is an insouciance to her delivery.  The “ten years after” of the album title seems to refer to beginning her (then amateur) singing career that many years before.  This is an album that looks back to a musical genre that she had left behind.  But it looks back from a place and time in which Nara was living in Paris not long after the May 1968 student uprising came and went, and, in her own career, after a period of protest singing and retirement.  So, rather than the cynical (anti-)flashiness of bossa nova in its early-/mid-1960s commercial peak, full of brash hope and revolutionary optimism thinly veiled behind leisurely tempos and sunny harmonies, Dez anos depois has a more deeply restrained and somber attitude, aware of the limitations of the first wave of bossa nova but still ready to draw on core elements that had weathered the intervening few years.  That is to say that Nara’s renditions of these songs draw on the elements of bossa nova that precisely were not what garnered the music international success in the prior decade.  This album makes attempts to find new meanings in the genre’s history.  In that respect this album also does what any good “comeback” does: find something that was there before but overshadowed and emphasize it anew.

If much Brazilian music of the 1960s and 70s has maintained a cultish appeal internationally, thanks partly to limited geographic distribution of reissues in the CD era (and even the digital distribution era), Dez anos depois is somewhat doubly a dark horse given the timing of its original release and the superficial appearance as a mere recapitulation of the past.  This is really an album that tries to right the wrongs of commercial bossa nova, giving the genre a new life of sorts.  Even if the recording fidelity of the Paris sessions is only mediocre, this is an excellent collection of chamber-style bossa nova recordings from a surprisingly fertile period after the international commercial spotlight moved on to other genres, up there with Gilberto’s self-titled João Gilberto (1973) and Elis Regina and Antônio Carlos Jobim‘s Elis & Tom (1974).

Willie Nelson – It Always Will Be

It Always Will Be

Willie NelsonIt Always Will Be Lost Highway B0002576-02 (2004)

As he has aged, Willie Nelson’s music has stayed fairly mellow.  It Always Will Be is a solid effort, nowhere near his best, but decent for this part of his career.  Its consistent fault is that producer James Stroud gives the music too much spit and polish.  A little grit and gravel would have helped this along tremendously.  Although it bears mentioning that breaking from the mellow tone of the rest of the album with the utterly ridiculous modern southern rock of “Midnight Rider” is brazenly stupid.

The Mothers of Invention – Weasels Ripped My Flesh

Weasels Ripped My Flesh

The Mothers of InventionWeasels Ripped My Flesh Bizarre MS 2028 (1970)

An album decidedly influenced by free jazz.  Woodwinds player Ian Underwood had studied at the Lenox School of Jazz back in 1959 when Ornette Coleman inspired many to take up the banner of “free” jazz, and maybe that experience helped steer the music on this album.  Or so it seems from the opener “Didja Get Any Onya.”  From there, much of this seems like aimless jams that have good ideas drawn out too long (many of the recordings were made live).  The abstractions are great in theory but are less impressive in practice.  And “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque” might be the single least interesting thing with Dolphy‘s name attached to it.  But there is also a more straightforward rock song, “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” which has long been a favorite Mothers song of mine.  Anyway, music aside, this one features a great Neon Park album cover!

Sam & Dave – The Best of Sam & Dave

The Best of Sam & Dave

Sam & DaveThe Best of Sam & Dave Atlantic SD 8218 (1969) & 7 81279-2 (1987)

I have to admit that I sought out this album (the CD reissue version) after watching the movie The Blues Brothers, in which the characters “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues listen to “Hold On, I’m Comin'” and “Soothe Me” from it on 8-Track while riding in the “Bluesmobile”.  Originally released in 1969 with fourteen tracks, reissues expanded the track list by a full 50% (with twenty-one tracks).  While the original version had the advantage of being one of the best track-for-track southern soul albums ever, the reissues add some more great tracks — even if some classics like “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down)” are still absent.

Nicknamed “The Dynamic Duo,” “Double Dynamite,” and “The Sultans of Sweat,” Sam & Dave were the most commercially popular soul act of their era.  They were a crossover success, achieving mainstream popularity rather than just ghettoized niche genre success.  Decades later, with the vacuity of most pop, it is almost hard to believe that music this genuinely good could achieve such commercial success!

Sam Moore had a higher (tenor) vocal range, while Dave Prater had a lower baritone/tenor range.  It was the contrast between their different voices that really set their music apart.  But many of their best songs took those contrasts even further.  “Hold on, I’m Coming” featured deep, low saxophones plus a contrasting bright, high trumpet, which mirrors the contrast between Moore and Prater’s vocals.  The ending of “May I Baby” uses a similar device.  “Soul Man” places the entire horn section in contrast with the sweet guitar of Steve Cropper.  All that made for a useful metaphor for the late period of the freedom (civil rights) movement.  The chord progressions and other aspects of the music drew heavily from gospel.  The recordings benefit from being part of the classic Stax era, drawing on the talents of the house musicians and the songwriting team of Issac Hayes and David Porter.  Sam & Dave’s working relationship deteriorated in the 1970s, and the two would barely speak to each other.  That is perhaps an irrelevancy, as their brand of soul music fell out of favor as the world changed around them in that decade.

The Best of Sam & Dave is a great set of music, and it remains one of the essentials of southern soul.

Angelia Wilson – Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, by Lauren A. Rivera

Link to a review by Angelia R. Wilson of the book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs (2015), by Lauren A. Rivera:

“Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, by Lauren A. Rivera”


Bonus links: “Social Class in the 21st Century” and “Class Position and Musical Tastes”

João Gilberto – João Gilberto

João Gilberto

João GilbertoJoão Gilberto Polydor 2451 037 (1973)

Gilberto is considered the father of bossa nova.  The style evolved out of samba, but with a minimalist aspect that used musical gestures to imply elements beyond the explicit content.  There was less emphasis on rhythm and more on harmony and melody, drawing influence from jazz in some respects.  His singing is almost a whisper, slightly nasal, and is free of vibrato.  Bossa nova emerged in the 1950s (some claim the scene coalesced in the living room of Nara Leão‘s parents’ home).  It was music of the bourgeoisie, popular among the college-educated, with an emphasis on introverted, existential and personal obstacles.  It became an international craze in the 1960s.  Yet by the early 1970s, bossa nova had ceded popularity in Brazil and the rest of the world to other styles.  The Brazilian junta was in power, and under President Médici the economically polarizing “Brazilian Miracle” was underway, punctuated by the 1973 oil shock.  In the United States, the Powell Memo had recently been published and the neoliberal era was finding its feet.  The Gang of Four was still leading China’s Cultural Revolution, but President Richard Nixon had met with Premier Zhou Enlai the year before — Nixon had already a few years earlier met with Elvis and gave him a a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.  It was chaos everywhere.  The timing was perfect for a resurgent Gilberto.

The album comes across as Gilberto performing solo.  Nonetheless, Sonny Carr appears regularly on light and gentle percussion, and Miúcha (Gilberto’s wife or girlfriend at the time) provides vocals on one song.  Like many Brazilian musicians, Gilberto had multiple self-titled releases.  This one is sometimes dubbed the “white album”.  The oft reclusive Gilberto had lived in the United States through much of the 1960s, then moved to Mexico for about two years, and then moved back to the United States where he lived at the time this album was recorded, supposedly in New Jersey; he returned to Brazil in 1980.

In many ways, this is a flawless album, as much as such a thing is possible.  Gilberto has a lightness to his voice and guitar playing that speaks to the resilience of inner resolve.  The recording fidelity is excellent (Wendy Carlos served as the recording engineer and Rachel Elkind the producer).  If the sunny existentialism of bossa nova was always one of its defining and most appealing features, this is an album that confirms relevance beyond its faddish commercial peak.

The opener is Antônio Carlos Jobim‘s “Águas de Março” (“The Waters of March”), one of the most highly acclaimed Brazilian songs of its time, performed with a placid, self-content attitude toward the meaningless cycles of nature and the seasons and fully embracing the arbitrary, stream-of-consciousness wordplay of the lyrics.  It is followed by Gilberto’s own “Undiú,” with mostly wordless vocalizations and singing that approaches guttural-sounding throat singing.  This leans toward a Zen-like attitude, contemplating the universe and offering statements outside language.  “Eu quero um samba” opens side two of the original LP, and has some of the most insistent guitar playing on the whole album, bolstered by Carr’s lightly tapped percussion.  Despite the minimalist instrumentation, there is much happening on this album, which is tinged with nostalgia and sentimentality (a song about Gilberto’s young daughter, “Valsa (Como são Lindos os Youguis) (Bebel),” and a version of Gilberto Gil‘s “Eu Vim da Bahia” [“I Came From Bahia”]), yet also dry and aloof as well, with the vibrato-less vocals and a sometimes cloistered attitude.

If one word describes Gilberto’s musical approach, it would perhaps be “nuanced.”  This is part and parcel with the leisure class undertones of the entire bossa nova genre.  And yet, this music is an ideal expression of a relaxed, peaceful attitude toward a stressful and even harrowing urban bourgeois existence.  This is just one of the irreducible knots at the heart of bossa nova.  These knots lend the tension that is evident in the rhythmic construction of João Gilberto’s music.  As one writer put it, “The voice pulled in one direction, the beat in another. The combination was mesmerizing and highly addictive, refreshing and modern.”

If all of Gilberto’s music lends itself to a kind of cultural nationalism, the artist’s reclusive tendencies and withdrawal from the trappings of celebrity suggest something else altogether.  Is it a false sense of purity?  No, not at all.  In a paradoxical way, Gilberto’s dogged pursuit of his own muse while disengaging from a world taking disastrous turns for the worse is actually about making in a crucial statement in the face of cruelly empty formal options.  This position lingers:

“the danger today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active,’ to ‘participate,’ in order to mask the vacuity of what goes on. People intervene all the time. People ‘do something.’ Academics participate in meaningless debates, and so on. The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw.” (On Clinton, Trump and the Left’s Dilemma).

Stated in another and more general way, this sort of passivity can really be a form of action:

“the very passive ‘withdrawal’ by means of which [a] thought ‘secedes’, ‘splits off’ from its object, acquires a distance, violently tears itself off ‘the flow of things’, assuming the stance of an ‘external observer’; this non-act is its highest act, the infinite Power which introduces a gap into the self-enclosed Whole of Substance.”  (The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Center of Political Ontology)

If the Brazilian tropicalistas sought a new internationalism in the late 1960s and early 70s, João Gilberto’s music here was substantively taking another tack, and yet making João Gilberto in the United States with electronic music pioneers hardly seems lacking in internationalism…  The key to it all is the reaffirmation of everything that Gilberto’s music promised in the late 1950s, that not in spite of but because of everything that happened in the interim, the original vision of bossa nova was a vital and radically new historical event, proven through its repetition and a look back that shows its truly original worldview to have gone beyond its causes and influences, an achievement and social rupture that was somehow also impossible in its time.

João Gilberto is an album that deserves a listen, or many.

On the Election of Donald Trump

Selected links to commentary following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States (updated to include commentary on his inauguration and first few months in office too):