To Capture the Feel of Coltrane: The Biography of the Biographer

Back in 2011, more than four years after publishing a review of Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, I woke to an e-mail message that made me do a double-take. When I saw the author’s name, I was wondering whether it was really the person I thought it was. During my college years, I was fascinated by the music and life of John Coltrane, so much so that within the span of a few months I had read all three of the biographies then available: J.C. Thomas’s Chasin’ the Trane: The Music and Mystique of John Coltrane, Bill Cole’s John Coltrane, and C. O. Simpkins’ Coltrane: A Biography.Coltrane: A Biography Cover On that morning back in 2011, there was a message that appeared to be from Simpkins himself. When I read it, I figured it had to be he, because the writer partly took me to task for a couple of things in my review. Luckily, I was able to answer and deflect both criticisms. One idea I didn’t endorse—that Coltrane was “obsessive” about practicing—was in a direct quote, and the published gloss made clear how my position differed. The other idea was an editing infelicity of the kind that makes writers cringe: the removal of a word, in this case a crucial “perhaps.” Anyway, I never got a reply to my reply (maybe Simpkins was unswayed or just busy), but yesterday I happened upon a piece that tells us a little about the life of the man who presented a more intimate portrait of Coltrane than any other biographer before or since. The author of the piece is Sam Stephenson, the documentarian behind The Jazz Loft Project, and he makes me want to know even more about Simpkins. Click through for more (while I search my archives for the e-mail address) …

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Back to the Dance Floor Darkly with Phantogram

I don’t have time to write a Perfect Pop Songs entry for this track, and its newness—Voices was released just a few days ago—makes me think that making such a declaration might be premature. In any event, this track grabbed and held my attention when I first heard it on the radio a few weeks ago. Voices Album CoverIt’s about as perfect a lead single I can imagine for a band whose music contains elements of everything I’ve loved in other groups’ dance music: deep Moog basslines, hip-hop/trip-hop style drum programming, an off-kilter approach to textural flow and continuity, and dark, emotive vocals. So, that means Phantogram reminds me here of Lamb, Esthero, and Portishead. And the video ain’t bad either. The only downside for me is that the track’s length is too radio-friendly: I can’t wait to hear a good 12-inch mix in a club. Can you?

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The Bass Player … Has to Be the Strongest Musician: Remembering and Learning from Dwayne Burno

Last weekend, I learned of the passing of bassist Dwayne Burno at the age of 43. According to the obituary on the JazzTimes website, last week was the end of the musician’s long struggle with kidney disease (he had a transplant in 2010). I remember Burno as a kind, generous person off the bandstand and a consummate, thoughtful performer—accompanist and soloist—no matter the setting. He appears on countless recordings, from those by veteran and younger jazz artists to those by jazz-sympathetic hip-hop artists like Digable Planets (on Blowout Comb).

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Burno was outstanding even when he wasn’t slated to perform. On one memorable evening in November of 1994, I saw him in the audience at Bradley’s in New York for a performance by the Abraham Burton Quartet that I jokingly referred to as “Young Lions Night” in my notes. Dwayne Burno at the 2010 Chicago Jazz FestivalIn addition to the band (Burton on alto saxophone, Marc Cary on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums) and Roy Hargrove’s manager Larry Clothier, it seemed that every young (male) musician on the scene was in the club that night—Anthony Wonsey, Richie Goods, Don Edwards, Mark Whitfield and Ron Blake were among them. Of course, since it was the 2 a.m. set on a Sunday night/Monday morning and since most of the other musicians had finished weeklong or weekend engagements at other clubs, Bradley’s was the logical place for them to be if they weren’t ready to call it a night. And it was the lateness of the evening that made the date memorable. In the fifth tune of the set, an uptempo burner whose title I didn’t catch, Lundy started to look tired and motioned with his head toward Burno who was seated at the bar. Burno rose, walked over to the performance area, slipped past Cary and took a position directly behind Lundy, covering the latter’s left hand with his own and starting to finger pitches while pushing Lundy to the right. In a span lasting only two or three more beats, Burno had taken over playing bass altogether, and Lundy retired to the bar for a much-needed break. Burno wasn’t simply relief, however: he took the performance up several notches by selectively creating and releasing tension by playing around with the pulse and with pitches and inspiring Hutchinson to intensify matters in similar ways.

In accordance with that memory, I had long been thinking that I should point interested readers to the 2011 interview with Burno on pianist George Colligan’s Jazz Truth blog (which, among other items, also has an illuminating interview with Ralph Peterson, an underappreciated drummer, trumpeter, and educator ). If you care to know, reading the Burno interview will tell you more than most people might have ever guessed about how essential a bassist can be in the moment-to-moment unfolding of a jazz performance. Finally, if you’re at all interested in helping defray funeral and other expenses for Burno’s wife and seven-year-old son, this page will allow you make a donation. Otherwise, click through (and check out part two) to learn more about how a skilled and respected jazz bassist thinks about and approaches his art…

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Just like an Incense That Burns Slowly: Oliver Wang on Buhloone Mindstate

For reasons I might detail in a future post, I’ve been souring on the notion of anniversary-style commentary on albums. Misgivings aside, though, there was a thoughtful piece on NPR’s Morning Edition today about Buhloone Mindstate, the third album from De la Soul released in 1993. Buhloone Mindstate CD CoverThe feature is a cap, perhaps, to a year’s worth of pieces devoted to the year 1993 in hip-hop history. Whether or not you agree with the conceit that a cultural product can be “ahead of its time” (a conceit that is one point of departure for an upcoming post), there’s something to be said for rehearing and reassessing a release that apparently took time to register beyond the world of music critics, especially those perpetually seeking the novel or the challenging. Click through, as always, for more…

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Perfect Pop Songs #5: Tanya Donelly’s “The Storm” (2002)

Sleepwalk EP CoverAfter too much time, there’s finally another entry in the PPS series. This one’s taken from an EP and full-length LP Tanya Donelly recorded for 4AD and released in 2002. Although the song is stylistically consistent with Donelly’s earlier output, especially when she led Belly, there’s something about “The Storm” that grabs me and holds me every time I hear or remember it. Maybe you’ll feel the same way after hearing it…

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“When New York Was New York…”: Looking Back at 1993 in Hip-Hop

For some time now, I’ve been meaning to post an item regarding National Public Radio’s blog/series Microphone Check, which is devoted to telling “stories that contextualize rap’s past and present.” I can only guess the rationale for choosing the term “rap” over “hip-hop,” but sorting through that is a matter for another time, if any. Faith Newman, Ralph McDaniels and Prince Paul at the Ace Hotel, Sept. 2013Since the inauguration of the series in July of this year, hosts Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad have interviewed and/or focused on Prodigy/Mobb Deep, Marley Marl, Pusha T, and Goodie Mobb among others. The occasion for this post is the most recent item in the series, one wherein a group of performers and industry personnel—DJ Stretch Armstrong, engineer/producer Mike Dean, television host and video director Ralph McDaniels, A&R representative Faith Newman and producer Prince Paul—had a public conversation about the “productive and creative year” for hip-hop that was 1993. Over the course of the piece, the guests discuss instruments and equipment; recording studios like Unique and D&D; record stores, clubs and community; recording industry accounting; MTV and videos as promotional tools; women as performers and industry personnel; and, of course, the process of music creation. Click through to hear an edited version of the conversation they had at the Ace Hotel in New York City on 25 September.

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“I Just Like Doing Things Differently from Everybody Else”: Marshall Jefferson Interviewed

On the front page of The Quietus today, there’s an illuminating interview with Marshall Jefferson, the creator of one of the most classic house music tunes, “Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem).” The piece covers some essential and useful biography that you might find elsewhere, but not necessarily presented on Jefferson’s terms. Marshall Jefferson and His Gear It also features discussion of the early days and development of Trax Records and acid house. Jefferson talks a bit about Traxbox, the 16-disc boxed set released in August that covers the label’s first 75 twelve-inch mixes and suggests that the remastering has made the tracks sound more like what the recordists heard in the studio. And, because of my own interests, the nuggets he shares regarding the equipment he used for his own pieces and how he used it are welcome. They help, again, to counteract the persistent mischaracterization of black musicians’ work as being only concerned with “the body” rather than also with creative and even innovative uses of technology and, thus, the mind. The piece itself mentions Stevie Wonder, but one might also have to consider Jimi Hendrix, Sun Ra, Bernie Worrell, and a host of others for their challenges to the stereotypes. As usual, click through for more…

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“I Came to Really, Genuinely Admire and Respect Them and Their Music”: Steve Albini on Producing In Utero

Here’s an item that’s worth a listen if you care about In Utero CD Cover(a) Nirvana’s In Utero, which turns 20 this year and is getting a deluxe edition reissue with new mixes; (b) Steve Albini, the album’s always acerbic producer/musician, the proprietor of the Chicago recording studio Electrical Audio, and the not consistently accurate industry pundit (the famous linked article, even in its time, included costs not incurred by all artists and underemphasized how publishing royalties might offset the losses for a group’s songwriters);Steve Albini Studio Shot or (c) both. In the ~78-minute interview (where interviewer Vish Khanna gets good responses despite himself), Albini discusses the difficulty he and Nirvana faced getting off the ground together in the early 1990s “feeding frenzy” surrounding the band (the first 20 minutes or so, the title quote comes around 18:30); the vibe and process of recording and releasing the album (~26:05 forward); the disdain he has for the “parasites” who criticized him and the band for what they produced (~28:12–33:22—he repeatedly declines talking about Courtney Love during this stretch); Kurt Cobain’s concerns about the original album mix, which led to redone mixes of “All Apologies” and “Heart-Shaped Box” by Scott Litt (34:00–40:24); the technical limitations of mastering for vinyl and the decision to do the vinyl reissue without a digital transfer (41:44–45:42); and the difference between the sound of a master tape and a released recording in the 1990s and one today (49:10–52:14). Click through to hear more of what Albini has to say.

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MONDAY, 24 JUNE 2013

More to See, More on the Horizon

Now that the academic year has ended and most of my lingering work has been dispatched, I can finally turn my attention back to posting some of the materials I’ve been holding in reserve. Appearing with embarrassingly long-ago-promised posts, there’ll be some additions to the Perfect Pop Songs series and more of my musings alongside tidbits from around the web that you’ve seen more of here lately. So keep your browsers trained on this space, and if you still have a feed reader of some sort, subscribe to this site’s feeds so that you’ll know when new content appears. Finally, if you own a high-resolution mobile or desktop device (like the latest iPhones, iPads, Android phones and some Macintosh computers), you’ll enjoy looking at these pages even more now. All of the images have been updated to look wonderful on those so-called “retina” devices as well as their predecessors. As always, enjoy…

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Premature Autopsies, Overdue Celebration: Mulgrew Miller and Hand in Hand

Hand in Hand CD CoverDespite the sad news delivered online and repeated in a steady stream of tweets (based on an unsourced Facebook posting), news arrived later in the afternoon yesterday that the pianist Mulgrew Miller, who suffered a severe stroke last week, is still among the living. Read on to find out why I’m relieved that he’s still here, and why—if you’re concerned at all with straight-ahead jazz over the last several decades—you should know his music…

Update: Early this morning, official word arrived, via a forwarded e-mail message sent to William Paterson University jazz students by David Demsey, the coordinator of the Jazz Studies Program there, that Mulgrew Miller has in fact left the planet. Click through for further details.