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Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition)

At Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition)

Johnny CashAt Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition) Legacy 88697 32742 2 (2008)


The “Legacy Edition” of Johnny Cash’s iconic At Folsom Prison (1968) presents the two (!) complete concerts used as the basis for the original album together with a documentary on DVD and expanded liner notes.

Michael Streissguth, author of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece, provided the liner notes and coordinated the documentary.  He does a great job digging up valuable information about Cash, his music, the recording of this album, and the people who made it happen–including the inmates.  Bonus DVDs have become a familiar way for record labels to inflate the cost of an album, but often provide only grainy home-video quality concert footage or what seems like the security tape footage from studio recording sessions.  They are so often not worth it!  But this DVD is an exception.  Not only is there live footage from the shows that were recorded for the album, but there are interviews with former Cash associates, audience members, and surviving family members reflecting on contributions of the deceased.  One inmate interviewed, Millard Dedmon, offers some pretty amazing insights on what it meant to be locked up in prison in 1960s America, and how the inmates welcomed Cash or anybody who took enough interest in them to make an appearance.

Many perhaps assume that the original At Folsom Prison album is the complete concert Johnny Cash played January 13, 1968.  That’s wrong for many reasons.  There were two morning shows that day.  Two were thought needed to ensure that enough suitable takes would be captured.  The recording was a project Cash had wanted to do for a while.  He had played prison concerts a number of times previous, and knew the setting would make for a great recording.  Knowing that a recording was being made, there were rehearsals of course.  During rehearsals, he learned a song by then-current Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, “Greystone Chapel,” passed along on a demo tape.  In the second show, they play that song multiple times.  But surprisingly, almost all of the original album was culled from the first show, with the exception of “I Got Stripes,” “Give My Love to Rose,” and some between-song prison environmental ambiance. Cash of course plays one of his most famous songs: “Folsom Prison Blues,” which actually lifted the melody and lyrical structure of Gordon Jenkins‘ “Crescent City Blues,” with the famous line “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” adapted from Jimmie Rodgers‘ “Blue Yodel (T for Texas),” “I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma/just to see her jump and fall.”

Some of the little “flubs” in the concert recording are actually planned gags, like when June Carter (she married Cash less than two months later) jokes, “I’m talkin’ with my mouth!”  She says the same thing in both shows, and it seems a lot less charming the second time you hear it.  Cash’s question, “Is this water?” and quip about drinking some that had “run off” something is also the same joke he delivered in July of 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival.  He also manages to forget the words to songs at times and generally miss the mark on his vocals.  But that’s more noticeable in the second show.  It’s possible now to wonder, though, whether he planned to do it.

The way the original album came together seems all the more impressive after hearing the “Legacy Edition.”  The original trimmed out the weaker performances and kept a remarkably good flow, more so than either of the original shows.  This expanded edition actually takes away some of the mystique.  Still, “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” is nice to have (though it was previously added as a bonus track to reissue editions starting with 1999’s At Folsom Prison).

As an aside, it’s worth noting that prison populations were quite different in the late 1960s than at this writing over four decades later.  Since then, prison populations have soared 600%, and there was a distinctly racist element to the so-called “war on drugs” started by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s that put mostly (poor) black men in prison for reasons other than criminality (read sociologist Loïc Wacquant for more detail).  In other words, the crowd in Folsom that January day in 1968 was mostly more serious criminals, like bank robbers (Glen Sherley), armed robbers, kidnappers and rapists (Millard Dedmon), and probably worse.  Cash still empathized with the audience.  He made efforts to advocate for prison reform.  He had lobbied along with Reagan and Billy Graham to get Glen Sherley paroled, and then took on Sherley into his troupe for a while.  Although strangely some people write Cash off as a typical country redneck, or maybe a typical rural populist, he actually wasn’t much like any of those things.  Although there was somewhat of a sneer whenever mixing art and politics came up, Cash did do so repeatedly.  Most of Cash’s brand of “activism” was just about the notion that everyone deserves a fair shake and should be treated with dignity–even convicts.  That of course put him at odds with the American political establishment built upon a very different foundation, notwithstanding some pretensions to the contrary.  So he couldn’t help but be “political” in bristling with the way things were.  But he also wasn’t just another rural populist, with views that chafed against the situation for ordinary folks in urban centers.  Cash often sang about the industrialized North, and someone writing in the Village Voice years ago hypothesized that Cash was a little more “liberal” than your average country star because he grew up on a New Deal farm in Dyess, Arkansas.  Cash called the town “a socialistic setup” in his first autobiography.  It also may have been relevant to this album’s popular success that it came out in 1968, a pivotal year in history, when progressive and liberal social norms made breakthroughs into wider acceptance.  None of that matters a whole lot to Cash’s own attitudes though.  What did matter was that despite how big a star he became, Cash could always pull off a country-simple charm that stuck with him just about his whole life.  For At Folsom Prison, that charm was paired with a raw energy and palpable sense of connection with the audience that makes this a one-of-a-kind document.

Miles Davis – Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess

Miles DavisPorgy and Bess Columbia CL 1274 (1959)


Bold and uncategorizable, outside the scope of translation, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is a visionary’s upheaval of the rule of the mundane and stagnant. Any cursory look to American music must include it. Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ rendition is among the most enduring. For use as a film treatment’s soundtrack, Miles collaborated here with his alter ego Evans who conducts the orchestra, handles all arrangements, and contributes a song of his own. There are volumes written on Gershwin’s masterwork and this rendition (because this is an instrumental rendition, excluding all singing, it is fair to exclude Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s contributions to Porgy and Bess), but no outpouring of words captures the impulsiveness of the performance.

Many believe that 20th Century composition began shackled by Euro-classical conventions. The important things had already been done, leaving little of interest. The odds of success were certainly slimmer than before. This prompted many to follow the lead of Arnold Schönberg or those developing various just intonation and conceptual systems of music. However, George Gershwin–and subsequently others like Eric Dolphy–shows that it never had to be strictly about systems and rules but could be about divining the poetry of exceptional circumstance. If the vision fit in simple forms, so be it. Porgy and Bess conveys the common things of life in a most uncommon way.

Gershwin was a wild card among American composers. His firm belief in the value folk music opened untold avenues. He stirred up wonderful human traditions in colorful sounds. Steve Reich has said, “the human construct we call music is merely a convention–something we’ve all evolved together, and which rests on no final or ultimate laws. And it sails, in my mind, like a ship of light down an endlessly dark corridor, preserving itself as long as it can.” (“Steve Reich In Conversation with Jonathan Scott,” New York City 1985; from the liner notes to The Desert Music). Reich’s own views on music make plain Gershwin’s insight, even though, on the surface, Gershwin doesn’t appear particularly serious. He was popular after all. Well, Erik Satie wrote cabaret songs–great ones. Gershwin may not have fashioned his own language, but he found, as expressed in the heart of his works, unspoken beauties. His respect and humanity shine through every note. Academics are simply irrelevant.

As for the Miles/Evans recording, it is a success on every level. Miles plays a little trumpet and a little flugelhorn. His Harmon mute often appears to lend biting sincerity to his solos. His touch is soft and remarkably smooth. A particularly memorable rendition of “Summertime” is a favorite with Miles’ dry, swaggering sense of rhythm.

The centerpiece truly is “Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)”. Gershwin, Evans, Miles and the orchestra all communicate as one. Miles’ horn raises a soaring angelic voice above the churning rumble swelling about him. Pleading and sincere, Miles plays his brightest. At the dénouement, he draws back into a husky state of exhaustion.

After such a vigorous song, the challenge to follow it is immense. Gershwin builds slowly with “Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab.” The subtleties in the flow of Porgy and Bess seem effortless.

Miles later recalled (in his autobiography Miles) the two of the most challenging songs he had played were “I Loves You, Porgy” here, and “KoKo” back with Charlie Parker (reputedly, Dizzy Gillespie took over on trumpet for at least part of that recording). “I Loves You Porgy” makes a touching expansion of the emotional range of the record.

Evans manages to maintain the intimacy of a small combo with the larger orchestra. He uses tubas, flutes, French horns, and clarinets to their full potential in the orchestra. Some of what Evans does is not so fluid though. The inclusion of an Evans original, “Gone,” is nothing short of shocking. Not to say it’s a bad tune, but its inclusion is a significant change–much more so than doing an instrumental rendition of an opera. The Gershwin score certainly isn’t rigid. At the outset the results are indeterminate. But placing “Gone” in the middle breaks up the flow of Porgy and Bess even in a non-vocal version. Still, this record is a wonderful meeting of talents to deliver a common vision.

Don’t call this jazz, opera, folk, pop or classical. Don’t call it anything. Just listen and let it melt boundaries.

Miles Davis – E.S.P.

E.S.P.

Miles DavisE.S.P. Columbia CS 9150 (1965)


In 1965, Miles Davis made a slight break from the East Coast hard-bop he pioneered over the past decade. E.S.P. was the first studio album from Miles’ second great quintet: Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Tony Williams (drums), and Ron Carter (bass). At every turn, the group breaks convention. E.S.P. is not as popular as other Davis albums, but it remains as great as any other recordings by any of Miles’ groups. It’s the intriguing launch point for what Miles did over the coming years.

Miles Davis never had to practice. He had the remarkable ability to immediately remember any music he heard (a phonographic memory?). His band did not feel quite the same way about skipping practice, but they certainly had to deal with it. The rhythm section was left hanging to fashion their own ideas about the music — even more so on their next album Miles Smiles. Miles always said he didn’t know what the fuck the band was doing “back there.” Well what they were doing back there was playing great jazz. Left without structure and guidance, the rhythm section found themselves experimenting with new forms and styles. E.S.P. is a great example of the jazz ideal of making it up as you go. Tony Williams (just nineteen!) showed early indications of fusion with some straight drumming on “Eighty-One” (“straight” means, for example, instead of accenting the 2nd & 4th backbeats in 4/4 time, all the beats are accented the same).

Herbie Hancock started to use “no left hand” as Miles instructed. The space and lighter voicing holds the horn solos. The piano sounds more like another horn. Wayne Shorter gracefully delivers melodic solos, while the trumpet coats the sax in sleek harmony. Miles’ magic mute appears for “Agitation” with attentive snaps in front of Ron Carter’s vamps. Miles then boldly lays down his vibrato-less blasts on “Iris.”

The sound is delicate and always compassionate. Tonality is hardly constant, slowly removing traditional bop structure. The songwriting encompasses contributions from most of the group, though Wayne Shorter would later take over most of the writing.

Miles Davis refused to let music evolve past him. He reaffirms his place as one of the great bandleaders and visionaries by assembling a remarkable band that delivers on every ounce of potential. E.S.P. was elegant 1960s jazz that needed not shy away from the free jazz movement.

Ornette Coleman – Chappaqua Suite

Chappaqua Suite

Ornette ColemanChappaqua Suite CBS 66203 (1967)


Somewhat of an oddity in the Ornette Coleman catalog, Chappaqua Suite is actually stronger than a lot of other mid/late 1960s Coleman recordings.  This was intended to be a film soundtrack, but was never actually used with the film.  It features orchestral backing in places.  Ornette is right out in front where he belongs, which avoids the problems of Skies of America where British musicians’ union rules unduly restricted his time in the spotlight.  His playing is good too, even if the sheer length of the performances occasionally wears him down a touch.  There are passages lifted from familiar tunes, though most of this seems new.  The reasons this remains an oddity are twofold.  This was originally a French-only release, which limited its exposure to much of Coleman’s fan base.  It also was a double-LP album mastered as four side-long pieces identified just as Parts I-IV, which, combined with Coleman’s typical and characteristic meanderings, makes this just too monolithic for some to digest.

What is amazing about this is how Ornette saw a fairly conventional European orchestra as something that could be seamlessly integrated into his musical vision, without compromising anything.  It was this quality that made Ornette great.  Sure, he was face of the movement to “break away” from the “rules” that governed jazz music.  But his real genius is found in his foresight to break the rules in order to go back the the source of the rules and work with the raw material.  He saw a European-style orchestra as something that could be used in a different cultural setting.  This is music that suggests that everybody can get along, and difference, rather than sameness, can be a central element of a musical vision.  One quality stands out.  This is music of confidence.  Every moment exudes belief it is just another step toward changing the world.  It seems to possess limitless energy toward that end.  It may be only one step in a long march.  But those first few steps are always the most challenging.

At Ornette’s revolution, all would be welcome, and there might even be dancing.  Well, there would be good music at least.  Dance at your own risk.

Linda Ronstadt – Heart Like a Wheel

Heart Like a Wheel

Linda RonstadtHeart Like a Wheel Capitol SW-11358 (1974)


Heart Like A Wheel is a gift from a gifted interpretive singer. And Linda Ronstadt can sing! She puts all her abilities to use in perfecting her subtle, easygoing style. Her sense of purpose always prevails over the banal concerns of technique. It seems ironic that an album of cover songs is so uninhibited.

Linda Ronstadt sang with a voice that was warm yet incredibly dynamic. Heart Like A Wheel is comforting even when the songs deal with pain and heartbreak. It doesn’t seem to matter who writes, sings, or hears them. These are universal and timeless notions. Understanding is as easy as each breath drawn as you listen. There was nothing to prove here. Ronstadt was free to pursue the most vital aspects of her form.

“You’re No Good” starts the album with a sultry passion. It sets up the overflowing emotion carried throughout the record. Peter Asher’s layered production plays an immeasurable role. It’s not obvious just where this album fits into the “scheme” of American pop music. It’s kind of everything at once. Even Paul Anka and Hank Williams songs find their way into this home cooked Californian stew.

“Faithless Love” is one of the many looks at a common ailment. Accidental misery and lonely regret come out in a long sigh. Letdown envelops you as inauspiciously as it does Ronstadt. The lovelorn feeling permeates her voice. Riding waves as they come to her, she is willing to follow the currents and powers beyond her control.

The “Heart Is Like A Wheel” arrangement makes every millisecond a awe-inspiring achievement. Ronstadt may only sing and not write the songs, but she makes every one her own. The studio musicians, as on all the songs, commit themselves to the selfless acts that unite the greater whole.

The Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” is a moving plea for confirmation of faith in love. Linda Ronstadt delivers songs so forcefully it’s hard to imagine anything but her longing state. The song doesn’t tell a happy history, but she conveys an unshaken belief that she’s only asking when. The rhythm carrying the song is just another heartbeat. Who could have possibly cheated and mistreated such a caring person?

Heart Like A Wheel sweeps you under its spell. It really is magical, as it seems to make something appear out of nothing. Linda Ronstadt’s voice lasts long after the sound is gone from the air.

Opposites in History

A recurring phenomenon in history is that certain key figures represent a merging of opposite tendencies.  One early figure of this nature is Brasidas, the Spartan officer lauded by Thucydides in his history The Peloponnesian War.  Unlike the most of the terse-speaking Spartans, he was a gifted orator much like his enemies the Athenians.  He died in an attack on Amphipolis  in which he led by making an example of bravery and was one of the few Spartan casualties, though he prefaced the attack with a claim that he would conduct himself in action following the advice he gave to his comrades.  But earlier, he also led covert operations and engaged in deception of cities the Spartans wished to conquer or ally with. Thucydides was actually the Athenian general who led excursions against Brasidas, but he nonetheless praised Brasidas more than almost everyone else in his entire history of the war.  Characterized by his “charm”, that really meant Brasidas excelled at the qualities that his enemies prized, namely oratory.  He also acted quickly with bold, decisive and dramatic surprise attacks.  This quick action was not common among Spartans more known for endless deliberation and caution.  He was an example of one side, the Spartans, succeeding on the terms of the opponent, the Athenians.

John Muir, with the help of many others, remained the primary catalyst for the creation of National Parks in the United States.  He was undoubtedly a pantheist, and perhaps an atheist (as much as would be accepted at the time in his cultural setting).  But reading some of his writings, the overarching tendency is to rely on religious and moral argument.  He especially leans on the tone of fundamentalist christian writing.  Yet his advocacy pointed to a return to a simple appreciation of nature.  This resembled the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the critic of civil society.  In this he merged opposite tendencies.  He used the language of the socially conservative religious status quo to advance a position that was ultimately a radical critique of the foundations of the economic system operating in his society.

Of course, history provides plenty of counter examples.  But it is worth pausing on some of the ways opposites do merge from time to time with spectacular effect.

Ornette Coleman – Town Hall, 1962

Town Hall, 1962

Ornette ColemanTown Hall, 1962 ESP-Disk ESP 1006 (1965)


Town Hall, 1962 finds Ornette at the top of his game.  It was recorded only a few years out from his big breakthrough in 1959, but already his sound had expanded into new territories — very new territories.  The trio with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums was simply astounding.  Ornette was and is the kind of performer who simply has to do his own thing.  Aside from an accommodating nature as a composer, he has never been the kind of performer who can play according to any external constraints, meaning he never could never really be a sideman and even when he has tried that he has just tended to take over (such as with The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet or even Tales of Captain Black).  That makes Izenzon almost his polar opposite.  Izenson was a very gracious performer who was flexible (and willing) enough to play what the situation created by Ornette’s sax called for, at any instant.  The dichotomy between Ornette and Izenzon is really key in pulling off Ornette’s new ideas effectively, particularly where those ideas called for more liberal use of space, slower tempos and a more lamenting feel.  Moffett was a great drummer, and his bop-ish licks were really a good match to Ornette’s style.  That is a big plus because I can’t help but feel that when Denardo Coleman permanently took over in the drummer seat years later Ornette’s groups never quite came together the way they used to, with Moffett, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins.  “Dedication to Poets and Writers” is performed by a string quartet rather than the trio, and makes the likes of The Music of Ornette Coleman – Forms & Sounds and Skies of America seem integral to Ornette’s long-term musical vision rather than mere anomalies.

This album makes a good companion to the two Golden Circle Vols. 1 & 2 discs on Blue Note Records with the same Izenzon/Moffett trio.  Ornette feels a bit more focused and intense here, as nimble as he ever was in his playing, pushing himself all the time, and that probably makes this the best offering of the bunch.  Though it is worth mentioning that Town Hall has none of the sunniness in the Golden Circle albums, which might make it less appealing to some listeners.

Ornette Coleman – Science Fiction

Science Fiction

Ornette ColemanScience Fiction Columbia KC 31061 (1972)


Science Fiction might be Ornette Coleman’s last really great album.  It is a doozy.

In some respects, this is one of the last original statements of the musical approach Ornette had taken starting in the late 1950s.  Many of these songs open with a “head” with two performers playing a composed line in dissonant unison.  Then the songs open up with the performers playing in less coordinated ways.  But that approach only accounts for a portion of the album, mostly in the middle part.

The opener “What Reason Could I Give?” is something different from the traditional Coleman song structure.  Instead of a more structured head that gives way to less structured collective improvisation, the entire song is organized around unison playing.  Every one of the performers, with some slight exception for the two drummers who must accept the more limited tonal palettes of drum kits in exchange for unobtrusively skittering rhythmic attacks, seems to be guided by a close and commonly structured composition that tries to balance the tone, volume and overall intensity of performance.  A singer (Asha Puthli) provides an inherent focal point because of the lyrics, though really they are not “in front” of the other performers in any real way.  This type of song structure seems like a more fully realized version of things Ornette had hinted at in the late 1960s, when he started working with Dewey Redman, but never really mastered.  This song is fluid, engaging…convincing.  And the balance never falters.

An open secret to Ornette’s music is the way he integrates composition and improvisation.  Performers are not simply cut loose to play whatever they want.  Ornette was a composer above all.  Yet his way of composing presented the opportunity for his compositions to seem to dissolve away amid the improvisation.  Paradoxically, the only way the improvisation can structure itself to overcome the compositional elements is through the compositions themselves.

So, starting with “Civilization Day,” Ornette is back to a kind of bop group combo formation that opens the song with a form of unison playing that leaves specific spaces in place.  After the initial statement of the songs theme, the drums drop out, and then solos are traded.  The bass (Charlie Haden) is very insistent throughout.  It provides the strong urging of a regular beat that undercuts what would otherwise be an oppressive intensity from the wailing of the wind instruments.  The next song “Street Woman” sort of combines the approaches of the first two.  The bass takes more liberal departures from a steady beat, both in a rubbery statement in the head (plus a similar closing to the song), and in a prominent mid-song solo.

The title track launches straight into no-holds-barred skronking from basically the entire group, but then is overlaid with a heavily echo-processed spoken vocal recitation that is delivered as broken, almost independent declarations, bolstered by the sound of a baby crying.  While the sudden presence of the vocals threatens to subordinate the skronking to a secondary role of just background noise, the disassociated nature of the spoken pieces, broken up further by the baby crying, deny those vocals the chance to take on the central focus of the song.  Ornette uses misdirection.  He structures the song to return to the premise built up by the first tracks just when the song seems to reject that premise.  Its is a brilliant move.

“Rock the Clock” again opens right into a bunch of skronking from the wind instruments, but with Ornette on violin playing scratchy, abrasive and high-pitched bowed sounds, then an electric bass gives the song a touch of the sound of the jazz-rock fusion movement — very funky.  Between the bass and the violin, two extremes sit together, taking opposite approaches (pulsed beats on bass, extended tones on violin)  yet kind of create a meaning through their juxtaposition.  This proves to be a great performance of a song that would become standard in the Coleman repertoire.

“All My Life” basically establishes the template for what Ornette would do with his Prime Time band in years to come.  Puthli returns on vocals.  However, this formulation lacks the immediacy of the opener “What Reason Could I Give?”  Each performer seems to hold in place so as not to disturb the others.  All together, nothing moves forward.  It is as if the compositional framework amounts to no more than a very constrained set of rules governing how each performer must relate to the others (as to tone, volume and overall intensity).  The content each performer delivers seems to get reduced to fluff — sort of like a theorist coming up with a complex mathematical equation to model some principle but working it through with only “easy” and unrealistic numbers to make the formula easier to compute.  But “Law Years” ups the ante.  It has a catchy hook, ending with a staccato “bah-doo-bah-da-doo-dah,” first introduced on Charlie Haden’s bass, that seems to stop short of a full resolution, like a person walking then suddenly stopping only to lean forward, through momentum, almost forcing this person to keep walking.  The drums and bass pummel the listener with a drive that is unrelenting.  It adds to the immediacy of the solos.  The title “Law Years”, a kind of pun intimating “lawyers”, is sort of an aggressive challenge cloaked in a nostalgic look back at a bygone time of order.  It is an expression of anti-legalism.  Yet it is delivered through performances not too far off from what Ornette’s groups had been doing for a decade.  This was just a more aggressive and militant expression of it.

The closer (“The Jungle Is a Skyscraper”) is sort of a throwaway, not really up to the rest of the album.  It frequently verges on indistinct soloing without the conceptual force of the best songs before it.  Ed Blackwell gets to pummel the drums a bit.  But a lengthy drum solo doesn’t quite seem like the best way to cap an album like Science Fiction.

Ornette Coleman – Change of the Century

Change of the Century

Ornette ColemanChange of the Century Atlantic SD 1327 (1960)


The Shape of Jazz to Come gets more fanfare, but Change of the Century is just as classic. It’s got too many catchy songs to say otherwise. “Ramblin’” and “Una Muy Bonita” have Ornette Coleman at his most lyrical. Coleman and his group are confident. The feeling that they could do anything proves true.

Much of the album leans toward bop, but when Coleman includes “Bird Food” you know the influence is intentional. There is more to music that pre-set harmonies and predictable song structure (A-A-B-A fits better into a Fred Flintstone catchphrase than into this album). The Coleman Quartet lets out some things that wouldn’t suit the confines of traditional jazz. Comfort is not the point. These things were inexpressible unless Coleman could break free.

The oft-made comparison to Jackson Pollock’s painting style is still worth repeating. These motherfuckers had the gravy. Insides-out. Calling them “sloppy” technicians is missing the point. Change of the Century fails by conventional standards because conventional standards had failed the group. So if you can get past blaming who for what, this is a hip slice of music.

Charlie Haden turns in a brilliant performance here. Apart from the tremendous songs, he makes the album unforgettable. Hayden needs to be particularly pointed out. He earned that honor, no jive.

Ornette Coleman was as monumental a force as there was in Twentieth Century music. His albums don’t come better than Change of the Century. This makes a cornerstone of any record collection.

Elvis – That’s the Way It Is

That's the Way It Is

ElvisThat’s the Way It Is RCA Victor LSP-4445 (1970)

Another good one from Elvis’ second golden era.  Just look at the album cover!  That, my friends, is an Elvis album cover.

When Elvis made his musical comeback with a 1968 TV special, after about a decade wallowing in dreadful Hollywood B-movies, he did something that is the hallmark of every musical comeback.  He took a kernel of something that was always present in his music and thrust it to the forefront.  Other examples are Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash.  When Cohen came back in the late 1980s, he made a change from his reputation as a purveyor of depressingly dark songs to a kind of jokester delivering deadpan humor left and right, but in hindsight the humor and wit was always there.  He was always winning over listeners by creating a sense of mutual belonging, and that frequently meant that he used humorous devices.  When Cash came back in the early 1990s, he emphasized his voice almost in isolation and sang mostly songs with dark themes, occasionally with a sardonic approach.  He resurrected his voice as his greatest strength.  Yet Cash’s voice had always been a major strength.  He always used it as a force that could not be contained, by anyone, anywhere.  With Elvis, his post-comeback period banked on one characteristic: his charm.  There was a documentary film (That’s the Way It Is) made in conjunction with the making of the album, and in both the studio sessions and the live concerts Elvis is utterly charming.  In the studio he joked with his band, and effortlessly switched between “bandleader” directing the shape of the song arrangements and “buddy” goofing around with his friends, and in that way building up a rapport with his band that gets him the desired recording.  On stage, he was always enrapturing his audience, whether leaning down at the edge of the stage to give out kisses to audience members, or joking about his pants being too tight as he bends down closer to the audience or does karate moves.  Of course, he was always a charmer, but when he arrived on the national stage in the 1950s he relied more on a cool, rebellious swagger and brashness than pure, unadulterated, charismatic charm.  But even during his ’68 comeback special, he laid on the charm when conducting more intimate sessions with his old supporting musicians, running through some of his old, classic rockabilly songs.  The charm built connections to the audience.  This provided context for the rest of his music that would not otherwise be there.  The audience can listen with different ears.

During this Vegas show period, Elvis developed a band and a sound that fit his charming personality — of course later on this would be a liability as he seemed to struggle to turn it off and lacked meaningful personal relationships as a result.  Following somewhat the template of pure pop (showtune) singers like Judy Garland, he did big, orchestrated pop and soul songs that gave him opportunities for soaring vocal treatments.  Songs like “I Just Can’t Help Believin’,”You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” are nothing short of amazing.  It’s the smooth, sultry power of Elvis’ vocals that gives the performances a sense of overwhelming intensity.  And there is no need to resort to flashy gimmicks (like Liberace).  This music just feels big and commanding, as if it simply has to.  Elvis doesn’t have to pull the music along.  It as as if he is tapping into something bigger than even him.  The weakness of this album is that a few of the studio tracks — “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights” and “Mary in the Morning” — kill the energy maintained by the rest of the album.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said (in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste):

“Charm and charisma in fact designate the power, which certain people have, to impose their own self-image as the objective and collective image of their body and being . . . .  The charismatic leader manages to be for the group what he is for himself, instead of being for himself, like those dominated in the symbolic struggle, what he is for others.”

For Elvis, this holds, it seems.  His earthy and muscular emotional range embodied a kind of work ethic.  It was a style that valued the hard work and labor that goes into his music.  An audience that valued a life of work could relate to such an attitude.  But Elvis, too, was nimble and varied in his use of these attributes.  And he suggested a virile benefit to this sort of an attitude.  But none of this is forced on the audience by the music or Elvis’ performance.  It is assumed by the totality of the show.

Elvis’ approach was unlike that of other Vegas-style entertainers.  Axel Stordahl was the conductor who worked with Frank Sinatra in the 1940s.  It is instructive to contrast the approach of Elvis and his orchestral conductor Joe Guercio.  Stordahl deployed syrupy and treacly strings that established a rather static foundation upon which Sinatra crooned.  It conveys a sense that the singer is in his place.  The music will not go anywhere.  It will remain where it belongs.  And in that space, the singer, and he alone, has the ability to deploy his considerable talents to dazzle.  It is actually a fairly simple twist on a rather old performance trick.  Sidney Bechet, the jazz saxophonist, used basically the same trick in an earlier era.  A “star” soloist working with a large orchestra will have the orchestra “sandbag” their performance.  That is, they play simple stuff, that lumbers or is overtly bland, or maybe even feigns a kind of sourness.  Any or all of this provides a foil for the star soloist to work against, allowing even small and otherwise unimpressive embellishments to seem bigger and flashier than they really are.  It wows audiences by suggesting that the soloist is better than them, because not even the backing musicians can do what the soloist does.  This is partly the secret of Sinatra’s music with Stordahl.  In Bechet’s case there was a twist.  There at least in context there was a statement that said even a black man (legally a second-class citizen) was better than some others, though problematically the use of orchestra sandbagging undermined that claim by presenting it as (only) a lie — Louis Armstrong would have to come along to prove it while working in front of great musicians for the point to be indisputable.

Elvis had a sweaty, visceral energy to his performance that made the forward drive and power of the entire ensemble palpable.  He worked with a conventional guitar-based rock band, complete with drums and electric bass.  This provides syncopation that propels the music forward.  The orchestra extends and fills out the sound of the rock band.  The Guercio orchestra didn’t sound static at all.  They use swelling dynamics to accentuate dramatic surges, and the wind instruments extending beyond conventional limits for proper tone to have a pulsing drive that magnifies the energy level.  It’s a kind of modernism that calls attention to the medium of orchestration itself.  The distinction may be subtle, but the Guercio orchestra adds more than punctuation to the rock band or padding to the tonality of the rock band’s instrumentation (though they do some of that too).  They provide a kind of raw mass to the overall sound, that has the feeling of movement along with the rock band and Elvis’s vocal.  An analogy would be to movies, in which the good guy or bad guy, usually one possessing magical or superhuman powers, floats into a scene accompanied by fog or smoke.  The fog/smoke billows along with the character, filling up the space on screen, conveying a sense of power larger than the actor’s physical build.  This is what Elvis’ great Vegas stage show delivered in its prime.  It was the musical equivalent of expanding a sense of space in film.  But rather than the kind of laser light shows that became a side-show fad for some rock acts, this was a musical force that envelopes the audience.  This is the key difference between Elvis and the other sorts of entertainers that preceded him on big stages.

Elvis’ show was about making and maintaining an emotional connection to the audience.  The audience was positioned at his level, not as an aside, but in both his music and in his on stage antics (kissing audience members, etc.).  Go back to Judy Garland’s style.  On her famous Judy at Carnegie Hall live album she tells a funny story about a hairdresser in Paris. While this story does charm the audience, it simultaneously reaffirms her elitist stance vis-a-vis the audience.  Going to Paris (for work or otherwise) is not the stuff of the ordinary person on the street.  Elvis sings songs on That’s the Way It Is that are overwhelmingly about personal relationships.  This is something that anyone walking in the door to a Presley concert, no matter how humble, has the potential to relate to.  When Elvis emerged in the 1950s as the symbol of youthful rebellion, it was partly an earnestly apolitical stance that wagered that social elites would not recognize how his swagger and songs about earthly romance could build a bridge across Jim Crow racial lines by way of an audience of youth.  Elvis’ “comeback” likewise used his charm through the medium of romance songs to advance revolutionary democratization through music.  What made his comeback so remarkable was how he had managed to reconfigure the sound and instrumentation of his music to use the same element of charm to achieve a different objective.  Elvis undoubtedly deserves the title of “king” bestowed upon him, because he did these things with a kind of aristocratic benevolence.  These aren’t new ideas.  But Elvis actually pushed them forward to a wider swath of the population and therefore more effectively than maybe any other.

Addendum:  There is an expanded edition of the album That’s the Way It Is: Special Edition (2000) that is worth it for the fan.  The third disc has outtakes that run a bit thin in places, but the collection includes two entire concert performances with stellar performances the build on the success of the original live/studio album.