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2014

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

WEDNESDAY, 1 JANUARY 2014

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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2013

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

MONDAY, 30 DECEMBER 2013

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

WEDNESDAY, 13 NOVEMBER 2013

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

MONDAY, 21 OCTOBER 2013

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

SATURDAY, 17 AUGUST 2013

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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Inevitably Influenced by Others: Adam Waytz on Expertise and “Social Influence Bias”

THURSDAY, 18 JULY 2013

This Pacific Standard Magazine piece by Northwestern University psychologist and business-school professor Adam Waytz makes two basic points: that expertise has become nearly irrelevant in modern society and that, at the same time, crowdsourced opinions seem to be ascendant. He cites useful research to bolster each point, but taints his argument with “good-old-days” type nostalgia. Where I agree, that is, that the opinions of “experts” are becoming increasingly insignificant to ever larger groups of people and that crowdsourced opinions tend to cluster, it doesn’t necessarily follow that expert opinions have only recently come to resemble everything else in popular culture or on the Internet. One need only examine any instance where there has been a critical consensus on an artist, an album, whatever. How does that consensus emerge? Surely, it can’t simply be because the critics all agree, “objectively,” on the value or worthlessness of something. When I wrote about critics’ lazy comparisons several years back, I wasn’t discovering a new phenomenon. It seems more likely, then, that even experts have long been tuned in to one another, if not also to public opinion. In that sense, what Waytz identifies is likely a difference not in kind, but of degree. Click through, however, and read his piece for yourself. Your thoughts might not be influenced by mine.

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“I Let My Emotions Out through the Wires”: Robert Hood on Techno, Spirituality and a Lot More

WEDNESDAY, 17 JULY 2013

Over at The Quietus, there’s an illuminating interview with Robert Hood, whose Motor: Nighttime World 3 made my best-of list for 2012.Robert Hood Head Shot In the interview, which works only partly to promote Paradise (Hood’s new release under his Floorplan alias), the main subject is the rich and varied social, cultural, political and, of course, musical life of Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s. Along the way, Hood explains how gospel, disco and funk, as well as his fellow travelers in Underground Resistance in the early 1990s, have affected his work as a techno producer and DJ. He also grapples with the question of how one might communicate spiritual and political ideas in instrumental music. This is definitely recommended, eye- and ear-opening reading for anyone who has ever been interested in EDM or deluded into thinking either that the style’s biggest stars—in the UK or in Berlin or in Ibiza—were the beginning and end of the story or that the music’s originators were simply soundtracking the hedonism of the well-heeled. As always, click through for more…

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Another Music Documentary—Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

WEDNESDAY, 3 JULY 2013

I’d been seeing ads for and reviews of various events over the last several weeks without fully registering that those events were intended to promote a film. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me PosterNow that I’ve got it all sorted out, here’s the news. Yet another, apparently acclaimed documentary is currently being screened at various locations in the US and abroad. As the title indicates, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me focuses on the 1970s band Big Star, whose songs and recordings, while profound in and of themselves, have exerted a powerful influence over a number of bands in the 1980s and since—including REM, the dB’s and the Bangles (who covered Alex Chilton’s “September Gurls” on their 1986 album Different Light). I’ve yet to see the film, but the reviews look promising, and hopefully the film will shed light in one of the neglected corners of 1970s rock in a fashion similar to Margaret Brown’s *Be Here to Love Me: Townes Van Zandt. Big Star takes its subtitle from the lyrics of “Big Black Car,” one of my favorite songs by the group. You can hear that song and read my brief tribute to Alex Chilton, written shortly after his death, here. For more information on the documentary, as usual, click through…

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A Band Called Death in Theatres Now

FRIDAY, 28 JUNE 2013

And now, another adventure in black eclecticism…

A little over four years ago, a number of mp3 blogs and music-centered sites were featuring stories about a pre-Bad Brains, black "protopunk" band from Detroit called Death. Their story, partly told in a Peter Margasak review of the A Band Called Death Poster 2009 reissue of their singles and recounted more extensively in this piece from The Guardian, includes abortive attempts to record an album and an ensuing rift that brought their career as a band, at least playing in that style, to an abrupt end. That story, with added layers of complexity and a broader range of revelations, is the subject of a new documentary, A Band Called Death, which will have a limited run in theatres starting today. Click through for information on screenings, to view the trailer and to purchase a digital version of the film, and click here to read a Wired piece about how the documentary came to be.

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“If Something Works, Don’t Change It”: Frank Laico on Engineering

SATURDAY, 20 APRIL 2013

Too soon after Thursday’s news, word came today that legendary recording engineer Frank Laico died yesterday at the age of 95. Laico was one of Columbia Records’ house engineers and has been celebrated for the recordings he made at the label’s 30th Street Studio in New York City. Frank Laico and Bob Thompson in Studio C--from Sound on SoundAmong them were Miles Davis’s ’Round About Midnight (RAM) and Miles Smiles, the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration Porgy and Bess, Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser, and a number of recordings by Tony Bennett, Bill Evans, and Frank Sinatra. Discogs.com has the fullest list of credits I could find, and it gives you a good sense of the variety of work one skilled engineer can do in a career. If nothing else, the number of artists with whom he worked serially indicates the respect they and their producers had for Laico. A few years ago, Sound on Sound published a feature on Davis’s RAM and the work done by Laico and others to make that recording (and the studio) sound as good as possible. You can get a more personal sense of why they loved his work and how he did what he did in an excerpt from an Audio Engineering Society oral history project video posted on YouTube. Click through to view it.

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“The Process of Designing an Album Cover Is …”: Storm Thorgerson on His Work

FRIDAY, 19 APRIL 2013

While running errands last night, I learned via a BBC news update that designer Storm Thorgerson has died at the age of 69. For better or for worse, he’ll likely be remembered mostly for his designs for Pink Floyd albums like Ummagumma (pictured) and Dark Side of the Moon. His importance in the history of album cover design, however, is much broader and deeper. He was one of the founders of the design studio Hipgnosis, which exerted a powerful influence on sleeve design in and beyond the UK during the 1970s and ’80s. Ummagumma Album CoverYou can see a selection of the work produced by the studio on this site. If that piques your interest, I highly recommend For the Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis. Now, though, rather than pointing you toward one of the obituaries or remembrances that are appearing today, I’m suggesting a 2010 interview with Thorgerson and his business partner Aubrey Powell. The stories of how they conceived a number of their iconic designs are definitely worth the long read.

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A Little Too Close for Comfort: Duran Duran vs. Japan

SATURDAY, 13 APRIL 2013

This one came across the virtual transom a couple of weeks ago, just as the latest trip to Italy was coming to an end. It’s a long thought-piece by Maddy Sparham posted in the Features area of The Quietus. In the piece, he muses on the careers and fortunes of Japan and Duran Duran. Nick Rhodes/David Sylvian CoversThe former group was arguably at its peak with the release of its final studio album, Tin Drum, in 1981, before dissolving the following year, while the latter was still on the rise—and regarded as derivative of Japan in style and sound at the beginning. Read on for a sprawling but provocative take on British pop and rock, one that sweeps in David Bowie, Roxy Music, indie labels, politics, and a lot more over the span of its more than 7,000 words. I don’t agree with all of it, but I certainly like the thoughts it got going…

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The Making of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

WEDNESDAY, 27 MARCH 2013

There’s an informative, but much too brief article on the Rolling Stone website which tells the story of how Public Enemy made what, for many critics, is their masterpiece. It seems to my ears, though, that the writer got an important detail wrong. Loveless CD CoverThe sound at the beginning of “Rebel Without a Pause” is not a backwards sample from the “The Grunt” by The J.B.’s: it’s simply a sample. In that sense, after so much time, Mark Dery’s September 1990 piece in Keyboard magazine—“Public Enemy: Confrontation,” pages 81–96—remains the best piece on the Bomb Squad’s production methods (it’s also available in That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, edited by Mark Anthony Neal and Murray Forman). Still, there’s something to be gained from reading Chuck D’s reflections on the album long after the fact. Click through to read them for yourself.

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Micro-Awakenings Available at Mutant Sounds

WEDNESDAY, 20 MARCH 2013

From the UK magazine The Wire today comes news that the music blog Mutant Sounds has “died and been resurrected.” In its prior incarnation, it was an outlet for those interested in rare, obscure and out-of-print recordings of the kind favored by readers of The Wire. Micro-Awakenings CoverIn its new incarnation, it will continue to be an outlet for the same kinds of music, with the difference that now all material posted for download will have the imprimatur of the artists and/or labels involved. So, head there now to check out Micro-Awakenings by Brad Laner of Medicine and Savage Republic fame, whose 2010 release Natural Selections made my best-of list for that year. This one, however, is not for the faint of ear. Be warned, and be happy.

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A “Special” Preview

TUESDAY, 5 MARCH 2013

Related to the 20 January news item, I just noticed that Pitchforkmedia now has a preview of “Special,” one of the previously unissued recordings by Shuggie Otis featured on Inspiration Information/Wings of Love, due out in April. There’s also a link to the electronic press kit (EPK) that promotes the release, wherein Otis discusses, among other things, his use of the Maestro Rhythm King on “Strawberry Letter 23.” If you like Otis’s work, this is definitely worth watching…

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Hip-Hop History, Comic-Book Style

WEDNESDAY, 27 FEBRUARY 2013

An item similar to the one linked below showed up recently in the Coudal Partners Fresh Signals feed. I’m pointing you toward a different issue, however, wherein one may revisit the story of how the late Malcolm McLaren (for whom I wrote a not-so-flattering obituary a few years back) became entranced by hip-hop in New York in 1981. Hip-Hop Family Tree PanelOf course, if you have the time, you can read the whole series, and, if you have the money, you can pre-order the first volume—due out in October from Fantagraphics. Lastly, MTVHive has posted an interview with Ed Piskor, the creator of the comics.

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“The Spectre of New Wave and Post-Punk”: Johnny Marr on Noisey

WEDNESDAY, 27 FEBRUARY 2013

Noisey, the music arm of Vice Magazine, has recently started posting video conversations between journalist John Doran and artists the site dubs “The British Masters”. The fourth entry in that series is an illuminating interview with Johnny Marr, perhaps best-known for his work in The Smiths, though also notable for his work with Electronic, Modest Mouse and The Cribs. In advance of the release of The Messenger, his first solo album, Marr talks with Doran about music in late 1970s/early 1980s Manchester and about the (heretofore overlooked) influence of black music on his guitar playing and on The Smiths.

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“My Balance Has Gone…”: Vini Reilly’s Path to Recovery

TUESDAY, 26 FEBRUARY 2013

Earlier today, The Quietus published a nearly heartbreaking interview with Vini Reilly of The Durutti Column. (Longtime readers of these pages will recall how I wrote nostalgically and reverently about one of my favorite tracks from the 1986 album Circuses and Bread back in 2004.) Having suffered three strokes in recent years, the 59-year-old musician is struggling financially and artistically in ways that are unprecedented for him. Click through to learn more about what he’s facing and how he’s managing.

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