[You can see some of Stephen’s work here, here, and here.]
The Three Sounds, Soul Symphony (Spotify): My relationship with music changed soon after the birth of our daughter in March 2019. Thinking about it now, things had started to change even before she was born. Rather than search, often obsessively, for the strangest, most obscure, or most challenging pieces of music, I searched for sounds that would immediately soothe and consistently delight. A number of soul-jazz, blues, and funk albums from the late-sixties Blue Note catalog are great for this. I was probably drawn first to the cover art, which almost seems specifically designed for sleep-deprived parents and their young, restless children. As it turns out, Soul Symphony is the final entry in The Three Sounds’ long discography, and it features original member, Gene Harris, agile and poised on piano; the strong and versatile Henry Franklin on bass; a wonderfully funky and stirring Carl Burnett on drums; an orchestra conducted and arranged by Monk Higgins; and soulful backing vocals by the Specialties Unlimited—Clydie King, Mamie Galore, and Alex Brown. We rarely make it past the title track, but that’s okay. It’s a 26-minute suite that courses through various rhythms, waltzes, and chants—all of which are pretty perfect for keeping babies, toddlers, and parents in good spirits. Also, I would not be surprised if second, third, and fourth copies of this album are kept tightly locked away by savvy DJs and beat hunters.
Andy Bey, Experience and Judgment (Spotify): For about 30 minutes each weekday morning and evening, on drives to and from our nanny’s apartment, I listen almost exclusively to Newark’s own WBGO 88.3FM — the world’s greatest independent radio station. In that relatively short (but awesomely restorative) period of time, I’m treated to all sorts of soul, jazz, blues, funk, and Latin music that I almost certainly would otherwise neglect. You would not believe the number of times WBGO’s DJs have forced me to pull over, put the car in park, and Shazam their playlist. You would not believe the number of times I’ve Shazam’ed Andy Bey. What is it with this guy? His voice is concrete and pain, cashmere and blood. From what I understand, 1974’s Experience and Judgment stands out in his discography, boasting a sort of celestial spirit that his earlier work rarely revealed. There are funk guitars, funk keys, funk grooves, and Bey’s funky-ass voice, which works as well here as it would in an opera or on a street corner. Born in Newark in 1939, openly gay and HIV positive, Bey likely knows more than a thing about experience and judgment. I’m here for all of it. This man is a king and I rejoice every time I hear his intoxicating, confounding voice.
The Koreatown Oddity, Little Dominiques Nosebleed (Bandcamp): As the album art explains, when The Koreatown Oddity (Dominque Purdy) was a little kid, he was in two serious car accidents that would change the rest of his life. With virtuosic rapping that gracefully weaves through decades of jazz and soul, atop the pop and crackle of dirty old vinyl, recalling a childhood of video games, cartoons, professional wrestling, and street fights, Little Dominiques Nosebleed tells that story — little Dominique’s origin story — in remarkably vivid detail. He shows us where he’s from. And, although Los Angeles is 3000 miles from Newark, it feels a lot like home. This is a rollercoaster of a record: funny, frightening, illuminating, and absolutely necessary.
Jeremy Cunningham, The Weather Up There (Bandcamp): Straight from the Bandcamp page because I can’t describe it any better: “Chicago drummer and composer Jeremy Cunningham wrote The Weather Up There in response to the loss of his brother Andrew, who died in a home invasion robbery in 2008. Co-produced by Jeff Parker and Paul Bryan, and engineered by Paul Bryan and John McEntire, this work confronts the tragedy of violence and examines the acute ripple effect on several lives through the lens of memory, response, and collage. Further deepening the textural and emotive impact, Cunningham formed a “drum choir” for these recordings, comprising close mentors and colleagues Mike Reed, Makaya McCraven, and Mikel Patrick Avery. Cunningham also taps regular collaborators Ben LaMar Gay, Jaimie Branch, Tomeka Reid, Dustin Laurenzi, Matt Ulery, and Josh Johnson.” This is a special record, an urgent story beautifully told through song, a gripping and tragic document of life lost and what happens after. It’s fragility, vulnerability, forgiveness and love. It’s empathy, courage, the human spirit — a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Tony Joe White, Homemade Ice Cream (Spotify): Typically, I can trace my musical interests or whimsies — returns and departures — to a moment in time, a specific response for or against something seemingly large and immovable. After Trump was elected, for instance, I spent the better part of the following 18 months listening to nothing but doom metal and noise. But at some point during this terrifying, suffocating pandemic, the illogical algorithm that shoots ones and zeroes through my weary brain pushed me into Tony Joe White. I first became acquainted with his work during my days at Stereophile magazine. He was sort of that kind of artist — relatively unknown, for those who knew, whose songs were hits for others only. Even I’d forgotten about him until one night in bed, having nearly sung myself to sleep along with our daughter, I blindly swiped through the app and stumbled upon Homemade Ice Cream. And I don’t know, it must’ve had something to do with the album art because, well, look at him — wavy-haired and belly-proud and glowing in the soft sunlight. Who doesn’t want to feel like that? “Saturday Night in Oak Grove, Louisiana” tells us: “You get home just around sundown and jump into the shower / And now you’re starting to run around / And you know you’ve only got an hour / To comb your hair.” Huh. Maybe it makes perfect sense after all. Maybe I’m mourning a thing or two, hair to wash and comb. There’s a dirty blues riff and a driving beat and an animal snarl. The rest of the album is very different and worth every moment.
Cigarettes After Sex, Cigarettes After Sex (Bandcamp): It was near the end of August or early September, after months of settling for indoor activities and the occasional long walk, that we finally felt ready to take our daughter to a playground. Weighed down with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, we moved carefully from swings to slide as the brightest smile and bluest eyes came charging into our lives. The little girl seemed to absorb sunshine, regenerate it, cast it out as purest joy. “This one,” I must’ve thought then. “I want ours to be friends with this one.” Not long after, we would indeed become friends — a fact that, when set against our current circumstances, is undeniably miraculous. As friends do, we’ve shared music. Among many others — The Cure, Metric, Morrissey, and more — I’ve gained this one, the eponymous debut from Texas slow-core band Cigarettes After Sex. The song “Apocalypse” seems fitting for today, not just because of its title, but for its quiet hope and enduring wonder. At around 3:35, just after the lines “You’ve been locked in there forever / and you just can’t say goodbye,” the music fades to blackest black, momentarily fooling the listener into thinking it’s over, only to return with more ecstasy, more love, and a reminder that we’re not alone.
[You can hear some of Fred’s music here or here.]
Tamikrest, Tamotait (Bandcamp): This was my heaviest spinner of the year. This was the most satisfying go to. This one is like floating over the desert on a warm summer night under a billion stars in a clear sky. With a gentle breeze. This brings me to peace every time.
Tim Maia, Racional (Vol 1) (Spotify): So ever since Wayne Montana dropped Jorge Ben’s Africa Brasil on me 20 years ago, I’ve had a thirst for that heavy mix of samba vibed with American funk and soul. A couple years after that, I heard Tim Maia on the City of God soundtrack with the song “O Camihna Do Bem.” That is a deep groove. So I went out and got some Tim Maia records and they fell flat for me. Wrong era or whatever. Earlier this year, a buddy of mine dropped a Tim Maia compilation on me. World Psychedelic Classics 4: Nobody Can Live Forever – The Existential Soul of Tim Maia. It’s like a collection of super bangers from the 70’s. Killer and relatively recently released. It put me back on the hunt and I finally came across one of the original studio albums. The compilation is great too, but so cool to find one of the originals. Psychedelic, funky, original.
TJO, Songs for Peacock (Bandcamp): Just put this one on today for the first time but spun it three times already. Dedicated to her late brother, Tara Jane revamps a bunch of 80’s covers and some other tunes that were on a mix tape he made her. Super beautiful broken down renditions of Aztec Camera, Siouxsie, Bananarma, Depeche Mode, Leonard Cohen. For me the striker here is her rendition of Cher‘s “Believe.” Believe it!
Khruangbin, LateNightTales: Khruangbin (Bandcamp): Ok so I’ve been jamming Khruanbin heavily the last year or two. And I picked this up thinking it was their new record. Instead, it’s a compilation curated by the band. A happy accident for me because it introduced me to a bunch of new killer musicians from their neck of the woods to all over the world. Great deep cuts from Houston, New York, Russia, South Korea, Tokyo etc. And a very familiar sounding one from Ethiopia in the Roha Band, which according to them is the “Funk brothers or Muscle Shoals guys of Ethiopia.”
Shabaka and the Ancestors, We Are Sent Here by History (Spotify): This is the perfect continuation of that spiritual Impulse vibe from back in the day mixed with a modern sound like what is coming out on International Anthem. Big nods from me to Black Monument Ensemble and Jeff Parker here, who are also in heavy rotation. A little Eddie Gale and Lonnie Liston Smith vibe in the mix too. We put this one on out in the back yard on the fourth of July when we were trying to drown out the big boom of the fireworks. Full volume Shabaka with a light show!! That fixed it.
Tame Impala, The Slow Rush (Spotify): Yeah. Not sure where this came from for me. I did a deep dive on Tame Impala this year after never having any of their records before. It hit the spot for me. I love the funkiness. I love the lushness. This one has been a boomerang for me all year. Keeps coming back.
[You can learn more about John here.]
The Nude Party, Midnight Manor (Bandcamp): I started mixing this record March 2nd of 2020. The band was on tour. They stopped into to Kaleidoscope Sound on the the afternoon of the 3rd to meet and listen. My last day of mixing was March 10th. We didn’t finish the record on the 10th but we were very close. Coincidently, they played the show on the 10th in Raleigh at Kings. I suggested my wife Sharon go to check em out. They were great. I know a bunch of people that were there and young and old, everyone thought they were great. I drove down to Raleigh on the 11th. Soon after that, the entire country shut down. I finished mix tweaks over the next few weeks and it was released on October 2nd. They are really a fun and exciting band. They are really young with great taste in music. When shows start up again, they are gonna crush it.
Billie Eilish, Live At Third Man Records (YouTube): I happened upon this on one of Record Store Days this fall. Whenever I drive my daughter around with her friends, we listen to “her music”. There’s some shit, but there’s some cool music. Along with a few other artists, Billie Eilish sounds cool to me. I love how it doesn’t sound like anything else on popular radio. Her vocal delivery is understated and powerful at the same time. The songs are quirky. I really like everything about it. On this stripped down live record, she messes up in one of the choruses on “Bad Guy” and just starts laughing. That’s it. Live and real. She’s special.
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy: If this was a book, I’d read it. The lyrics are so great. Every story tells a picture. “Leaving LA” is a 13 minute epic that’s just verses. But each verse is a special bit of storytelling. “Pure Comedy” is a scathing look at the country today. He’s relentless and doesn’t sugar coat it. This is the first FJM I really dug into. I like the previous ones, but this is one of my favorite records of the decade. The sound of his voice and his inflections are perfect. Musically, I feel like he is channeling Elton John sideways on some of the material. Each song has a different dynamic and it flows wonderfully. Like I said, one of my favorites if not favorite from the 2010’s.
Funkadelic, Maggot Brain (Spotify): J Mascis turned me onto the record. It was the mid nineties. He couldn’t believe I never listened to it. The Eddie Hazel shred fest that is “Maggot Brain” and starts the record is a glorious 10 plus minutes. It’s all mood and sound and vibe. So fucking good. And then you realize the rest of the record is fantastic too. Directly after “Maggot Brain” you get the soul/folk/pop of “Can You Get To That”. It is a classic on a very different level. It’s so much fun. The song is a party. Although late in the game, I cherish this record.
Mark Lanegan, I’ll Take Care Of You (Bandcamp): I made a few of the Mark Lanegan Sub Pop records in the 90’s. I had nothing to do with this one. It’s a covers record. It is one of, if not my favorite of, his records. He sings the shit out of every song. His voice is rough but clear. Tough but beautiful. I also love that I don’t really know any of the original songs. So to me there’s a bit of a bonus. It sounds like his record, but then I discover The Gun Club or Fred Neil. He really picked some great songs. I also just finished his book. Sing Backwards And Weep is a dark recounting of the events that lead to him getting sober. I knew him before and I knew him after. I’m happy to say, we are still friends. His singing inspires me.
Teenage Fanclub, Bandwagonesque: One of my favorite records from the 90’s. Also, the band that got away. I was so into this record that when I found out that I might engineer the next one, I was crazy excited. Sadly, it fell through and I was left crushed and sad. I always wanted to record them but it was not meant to be. What struck me about this record was how every song was fantastic, no matter who sang it. Their voices were all complimentary to each other. Harmonies for miles. And song-wise, hooks, hooks, hooks. They also, got some interesting sounds. And they weren’t afraid of guitar feedback. They start “The Concept” with it. And some of my favorite opening lyrics. “She wears denim, wherever she goes, says she’s gonna buy some records by the Status Quo. Oh yeah, oh yeah!” So good.
Days became weeks became months, and in October I decided to set aside time each day to listen to one record in its entirety without other distraction or complement. It was a good start, but I missed some days and thought logging the nightly plays for the entirety of November would hold me to the plan.
It worked. I’m not sure I’ll do this again but if I do, I might include CDs and digital releases as well, instead of limiting the exercise to vinyl. I’m pretty attached to putting on music though, so I’m not sure how that would shake out. We’ll see.
It’s worth noting that these listenings offered no escape as such — I’ve had enough of that — but have rather given me something to experience outside of my usual routines, which is, of course, why I got into music in the first place.
11/01 Paul Bley, Alone, Again LP (Spotify)
11/02 Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, Gary Peacock, Sonny Murray, New York Eye and Ear Control LP (Spotify)
11/02 Luke Stewart, Exposure Quintet LP (Bandcamp)
11/03 Alan Braufman, The Fire Still Burns LP (Bandcamp)
11/04 Benjamin Britten, String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3, performed by the The Alberni Steing Quartet (Spotify)
11/05 Aquiles Navarro + Tcheser Holmes, Heritage of the Invisible II LP (Bandcamp)
11/06 Rob Mazurek, Alternate Moon Cycles LP (Bandcamp)
11/07 Michael Galasso, Scenes LP (Spotify)
11/08 Max Richter, Songs from Before LP (Spotify)
11/09 Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Volume Four: Memphis LP (Bandcamp)
11/10 Masayoshi Fujita, Book of Life LP (Bandcamp)
11/11 Erik Friedlander, American Power LP (Bandcamp)
11/12 Akira Miyazawa, My Piccolo LP (Discogs)
11/13 Richard Davis, Harvest LP (Discogs)
11/14 Julius Hemphill & Abdul Wadud, Live in New York_LP (Spotify)
11/15 Tsege Mariam Gebru, Spielt Eigene Kompositionen LP (Spotify — this is not the album I have but rather the entire session from which the release I have is culled.)
11/16 Hamiett Bluiett, Orchestra, Duo & Septet LP (Discogs)
11/17 Morton Feldman, For Brunita Marcus (performed by Lenio Liatsou) LP (Discogs or a different performance/recording on Spotify)
11/18 John Coltrane / Alice Coltrane, Cosmic Music LP (Spotify)
11/19 Rashied Ali / Frank Lowe, Duo Exchange LP (Bandcamp)
11/20 Anthony Davis Hemispheres LP (Discogs)
11/21 Leroy Jenkins, The Legend of Ai Glatson LP (Spotify)
11/22 The Pyramids, King of Kings LP (Spotify)
11/23 Black Unity Trio, Al-Fatihah LP (Discogs)
11/24 Wildflowers: the New York Loft Jazz Sessions, Vol. 1 LP (Spotify)
11/25 Wildflowers: the New York Loft Jazz Sessions, Vol. 2 LP (Spotify)
11/26 Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe & Ariel Kalma, FRKWYS Vol. 12: We Know Each Other Somehow LP (Spotify)
11/26 Rob Mazurek – Exploding Star Orchestra, Dimensional Stardust LP (Bandcamp)
11/27 Alessandro Cortini, Forse 1 LP (Bandcamp)
11/28 Jeremy Cunningham, The Weather Up There LP (Bandcamp)
11/29 Philip Glass, Music in Twelve Parts: Parts 1 & 2 LP (Discogs
11/30 Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz & the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82, Volume 2 LP (Discogs)
I am, like many people I know, a person whose identity has been discovered, determined and formed through the music I listen to. This is more than the cigarette-smoking or various haircuts and wardrobes I adopted to suit my nascent rock-and-roll, metal, or punk phases; it is in fact the way I have learned to view the world and be a part of it. By which I mean that without music, there is little doubt that I would have ceased to exist some time ago. In this way it has been and is useful to me.
Of course, the criteria for utility vary according to need. Hollis Frampton, in an essay whose title I cannot currently recall, describes art as a practice whose utility has become obsolete. His example, as I recall, is painting, which initially appeared on cave walls as warnings (“Keep an eye peeled for bears!”) or narrative (describing, perhaps, a hunt). From there, it evolved into religious iconography, and only later into a secular mode of entertainment, expression, or reproduction. He distinguishes photography as falling outside this progression, positing that it moved in reverse, from expression (a substitute for amateur painting) to utility (a recording medium whose veracity was intact without question for nearly a century).
Music falls somewhere in between or alongside those media: music has sustained its utility throughout its history, as prayer, as communication, as entertainment, as expression, as rallying point. That is, rather than evolve from utility to art, music has remained a utility and evolved into art simultaneously.
My record-buying and listening pattern is a combination of impulse, artwork, artist, review, and genre. I tend to listen exhaustively, by which I mean I latch on to an artist or group and pick up whatever I can from them until their music is either assimilated into my listening-repitoire or the buzz of the new music simply fades. Most music falls into the latter group but it doesn’t matter.
As Ezra Pound once said, art of any kind in any era requires journeymen, whose works serve “to sustain the art.” Likewise, these eventually-mediocre records serve as journeymen in my listening. They keep things moving, keep me in the habit of listening and seeking, keep things afloat. Once they recede from the turntable and playlists, I’m left with the indefatigable records that are useful and endure.
I love clarinet. I think it’s primarily the tone — a bit thin compared to brass, rounder than double-reeds; ecstatic as opposed to joyous; instead of longing, despair and lonesomeness1 — which strikes me, more than most instruments, as being shaped precisely as it sounds.2
The tune that brought clarinet to the front of my mind this week is “Pamela’s Holiday”, a bright, shimmering number. Summer music.
“Pamela’s Holiday,” Wendell Harrison & Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble, Rush & Hustle, 1994.
Some of you will recognize the brand of 6/8 at work here: I tend to think of it as the “My Favorite Things” feel established by John Coltrane’s quartet.3
Another favorite clarinet performance of mine is from the François Houle 5’s In the Vernacular CD, a collection of compositons by John Carter.
“Morning Bell (prelude),” François Houle 5, In the Vernacular, 1998.
I’m not sure what to say about this piece except that it’s one of two records I’ve ever bought because I heard it playing in a record store. I had never heard anything like it before. Whatever avant-garde energies are at work, it is the attention to tone that compels the musicians.4
As opposed to *lonely*, a word whose connotation is far more personal to me than *lonesome*; *lonesome* connotes a kind of performative distance between the subject and how alone the subject truly is.↩
Trumpets, for example, look much longer and flatter in my mind’s eye and ear than they actually are; flugelhorns much taller and rounder, more akin to a french horn held aloft and upside-down. G-d only knows what I make of saxophones, though suffice it to say that they’re subjected to rather telescopic, elastic redesigns by the time my ear is through with them.↩
Which group, I might add, made a signature of that time signature. Paul Desmond’s innovative “Take Five,” performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, preceded the Coltrane Quartet number by two years but it was the latter’s understanding of this relatively long swing that brought some muscle to bear. The Harrison track seems to draw from both sides of the feel, buoyant and soaring, unafraid to assert itself when needed.↩
For what it’s worth, the other Houle work I know is far farther out than this set. F.H.’s devotion to Carter’s compositions is fierce, loving.↩
Before cable television and VCRs, to say nothing of the internet, music was, at the very least, a primary source of entertainment. In my home, the radio was frequently on, playing NPR or Top 40 AM radio, or else there were records being played. 1
From my father’s record collection, I heard jazz: Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis (especially the latter’s Gil Evans sessions) were handy in our house.
Miles Davis, “Summertime,” Porgy and Bess, 1958.
My mother brought singer-songwriters and popular music to the scene: Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, Ray Charles, John Denver, James Taylor, and Jim Croce were favorites of mine when I was young. 2
James Taylor, “Fire and Rain,” Sweet Baby James, 1970.
It is impossible for me to diminish the importance of my mother’s listening habits, which consisted, at times, of bringing home a 45rpm single of a song she liked and playing it, more or less, over and over again. Which is to say I grew up in an environment which supported broad listening as well as the cultivation of favorite songs. Though the music from my father’s collection has perhaps proven to be more enduring for me as a musician, my mother taught me how to listen to music.
Growing up in Rochester, NY provided unique listening opportunities: the Eastman School of Music and the musicians in its orbit brought consistent classical and jazz performances, as well as a variety of dance and dance-related performances, sometimes in conventional halls and auditoriums, sometimes in public parks, sometimes on visits to schools. I grew up in an environment that not only embraced music as a cultural, social, and/or popular phenomenon but also from which I came to understand it as a thing people attended and attend to, a thing people do.↩
John Denver’s “Black Box,” an irritant in adult life, still lingers in the back of my head as a piece that frightened me but which I could not resist; Melanie’s “Lay Down” paved the way, no doubt, for my ongoing alliance with fervor. Such examples are among the countless shadowy presences in my crowded music-memory.↩