52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK SEVEN

Week 7: When Joni Met Jaco

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Hejira”

Joni Mitchell

Album: Hejira

1976

Asylum Records


“Music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Victor Hugo


During my senior year of high school my budding interest in jazz music had come full circle. I played drums alongside two electric violinists in, dare I say, an eclectic seven-piece jazz combo. I was enrolled in a full-year jazz studies course (something of a rarity for a high school), and I regularly raided the public library’s respectable jazz CD collection. With the limit set at ten albums per visit, I could walk away with more than enough to soak up in a week, and I ultimately pieced together a fairly comprehensive collection of “burned” albums.


It was in my senior year that I first gave hip-hop a chance. It was the year I seriously dove into Bob Dylan’s catalogue and it was the year I discovered Jaco Pastorius. For most, Jaco is hardly a household name, but rather his is a tragic tale in the music world–a master of his craft, a musicians musician, cut short in his prime by a tragedy that still puzzles his admirers.


Arguably one of the greatest electric bass players to have ever picked up the instrument, period, Jaco got his start in the light jazz fusion ensemble, Weather Report, but quickly established himself as a leading force, releasing two solo studio albums and collaborating with a number of artists in and outside of the jazz world. That this legend would die from injuries contracted in a mysterious bar brawl in Southern Florida, makes the story all the more tragic.


I first became privy to Jaco’s self-titled debut album one day when I entered the jazz practice room of my high school’s music department to find a number of my peers hovered around a stereo blasting Jaco’s rendition/mash-up of Herbie Hancock’s “Kuru/Speak Like a Child” through the room’s significant sound system. Awe was understood.


That afternoon I picked up the CD version of Jaco Pastorius at the bookstore and spent the evening listening as Jaco turned the fretless electric bass guitar into a lead instrument.


His ability of combining traditional bass lines with melodic, tender harmonic chords to create entire, unaccompanied compositions on the bass changed the game for bass players everywhere. Not to go overkill on the praise, but it’s fair to say that without Jaco’s contribution to music, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s, The Minutemen’s Mike Watt, Vic Wooten, and other prolific masters of the instrument may have never found their way. He’s that important.


In 1976, as Pastorius unleashed his debut masterpiece, he also started what would end up being a four-record collaboration with folk singer Joni Mitchell, starting with her underrated album, Hejira.


I had grown up with Mitchell’s Blue and Court and Spark, easily the siren’s two greatest achievements, but was unfamiliar with her forays into the jazz world until I stumbled upon copies of Hejira and 1979’s Mingus at the aforementioned library’s audio/visual department.


I didn’t link the two artists until I actually played the album and instantly heard what had to be Jaco’s tender bass harmonics coupled with Mitchell’s equally tender vocals. The four tracks that Jaco played on–”Coyote,” “Hejira,” “Black Crow” and “Refuge of the Roads”–are in my opinion four of the greatest musical parings out there.


Two masters of their individual crafts producing music of such beauty; it was enough to leave me wide-eyed. While Joni can make her pipes weep with melancholy, Jaco figured out how to do the same on the fretless bass.


It makes sense that Mitchell sought out Jaco (or vice versa). Both have extremely distinct sounds, and Mitchell has always walked the fine line between folk and jazz with her music, eventually devoting whole records to the genre she adores (she name checks “strains of Benny Goodman” on Hejira’s title-track and would later pay her respects to Charles Mingus on Mingus).


While slightly flawed as a whole album, Hejira is definitely one of the Mitchell’s most fascinating efforts. Written almost entirely on the road as Mitchell drove from Maine to Southern California, the album, which gets its name from the Arabic word for ‘journey,’ invokes images of traveling alone by car through America, a spiritual journey documented by so many artists over the years.


She paints pictures of desert landscapes, old highway motels, and on one of the album’s great standout tracks, “Amelia,” airplane vapor trails which she tags as “a hexagram of the heavens.” She’s always had a way with words.

While music journalist Ron Rosenbaum gives a strong argument for “Amelia” being Mitchell’s strongest and most intriguing song to date at Slate.com, I’ve always been moved by “Hejira,” that epic title-track that makes the best use of the Jaco/Joni marriage of sound.


On “Hejira,” Mitchell sings of “comfort in melancholy” while Jaco meanders in and out of her verses fingering his six string with the same warmth that Mitchell calls upon with her vocals and lyrics.


The beauty of jazz music has always been its language of improvisation. Most jazz standards are based around a series of simple notes. The players muse on the bridge and then each go off into their worlds playing off each other the way people share thoughts in a conversation. It’s a musical art-form that finds its finest moments in the surprises that can arise. Put a group of masters in a room and listen to the magic unfold.


On “Hejira” Mitchell sings, “I see something of myself in everyone / Just at this moment in the world.” When listening to “Hejira,” and the other three Jaco/Joni tracks on the album, it’s hard not to deny that the two artists found an instant connection in the studio. The fruit of this pairing is, in my mind, the heart of what makes Hejira such an incredible album to return to again and again. Lyrically, I still favor Blue and Court and Spark for giving the world lines like,


Oh I could drink a case of you darling

Still I’d be on my feet

–“Case of You”


I used to count lovers like railroad cars

I counted them on my side

Lately I don’t count on nothing

I just let things slide


–“Just Like This Train”


I stumbled upon Hejira shortly after diving into Jaco, (not to mention Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson) and found the connection between both geniuses to be serendipitous (this was before I relied on the Internet for musical fact checking to aid my listening habits). Liner notes would confirm that what I was hearing was, in fact, Jaco, but I had no doubt in my mind.


Later on that year I stumbled upon a forgotten Herbie Hancock homage record to George and Ira Gershwin,
Gershwin’s World (1998), which features, among a number of beautiful collaborations, a Mitchell guest vocal spot on “The Man I Love.” I played it for my father who I knew was a longtime Joni fan, and he knew the minute her lush pipes poured into the microphone who it was.

Jaco and Joni have musical voices that are completely their own. While you can hear Joni’s influences on countless modern day singer songwriters, not to mention her contemporaries, Jaco’s presence still carries strong in and out of the jazz world. Both are unmistakable to ear.


Later that year I discovered Martin Scorsese’s concert film, The Last Waltz, a moving swan song performance from Bob Dylan’s great backing band,The Band and was pleasantly surprised to find Joni performing Hejira’s opener “Coyote.” It was eerie how Hejira linked together a number of my musical explorations of the time. While now I credit resources like Allmusic.com or Wikipedia as terribly informative fact-checking sites for exploring musical range, their absence that year provided me with countless surprises of collaborations that changed my perception of the music world. Suddenly jazz wasn’t just some side genre that only the hip or the old dug, but rather a music that was without genre boundaries.


Miles Davis’ foray into funk and rock, Steely Dan’s fusion of jazz instrumentation, and Joni’s pining to walk the line between folk/rock/pop/jazz were all part of a musical awakening that year. It cemented the notion that music is a universal language and while we can typecast and catalogue it into genres and sub-genres, its ultimately a form of expression that is completely unpredictable.


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52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK THREE


Week: Three

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Miles Davis
Album: Sketches of Spain
1960
Columbia Records


M
iles Davis’ Kind of Blue will always be his most accessible record to date, and easily the one quintessential jazz album that even non-jazz enthusiasts own or are at the very least familiar with. Around the same time that Davis was getting blue, he and composer Gil Evans worked out the arrangements that would make up Sketches of Spain, which I’m happy to say was my first foray into Miles’ canon.

Sketches of Spain is a record that is just soaked in cool sounds. Castanets and other light percussion notes wisp through the five arrangements, Davis carries the music along with his signature, restrained muted trumpet and Evans’ classical instrumentation gives the album a sound that could be best described as jazz meets legendary silver screen composer Ennio Morricone.

The album opens with a mesmerizing rendition of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a song I have sought out in many various renditions. It’s one of those rare and beautiful compositions that is taken to new heights with Davis’ weeping trumpet. There is something about the delicate use of harp and the song’s crescendo at the end that gets me every time.

Sketches of Spain is not the ideal gateway to jazz as it steers clear of the improvisational language of the art form. The album is more of a fusion side project that arose from the Columbia Records/Gil Evans sessions that resulted in this album along with Miles Ahead and Davis’ Porgy and Bess.

On Spain, Davis is the only musician seemingly attempting to stray away from the compositions at hand, making the album an interesting bridge between the classical and the jazz world.

Side B of Sketches of Spain features the record’s three original compositions, culminating with the incredibly moving “Solea,” a cut that instantly brings to mind visions of my time in Iberia.

Even before I finally made it to Spain this album (and this cut in particular) fashioned an imaginary Spain in my head, a place drenched in mystery and exoticism. The real Spain, while not as enthralling as the utopia in my head is still the perfect backdrop for this album.

Part of this association must be attributed to the fact that while living and studying in Salamanca, Spain I often deliberately walked the streets at night on my way home listening to Sketches of Spain through my ear buds. A later marriage of music and celluloid would further the link between “Solea” and this exotic place.

An entire column could be written on what the films of Pedro Almodóvar mean to me. Besides being one of the greatest storytellers working today in cinema, his films are windows into life in Spain, even if his film’s stories tend to depend on the melodramatic. His use of colors, emphasis on regional Spanish dialects, love of Spanish culinary traditions and a truly unique sense of how details can shape a scene, make his films time capsules of life in Spain. In 1995s The Flower of My Secret, a weaker installment in Almodóvar’s gamut, there is a scene in a ballet theater (a popular locale in Almodóvar’s cinematic world) that is set to Evans/Davis’ “Solea.” It’s the perfect fusion of two art forms and one that left me speechless when I first saw the film, recognizing the tune instantly. To this day I still keep the video clip below in my web browsers’ favorites folder.

Sketches of Spain, like so many of Miles Davis’ records. is the perfect capper to a long and tiring day. It’s an album best paired with a nice red wine, preferably from the Rioja region. I’ve found that it goes well with most novels. During college it spiced up even the most mundane of homework and study sessions. It’s atmospheric, often appearing more as a soundtrack to a David Leanesque film epic that was never filmed, with its soaring orchestration and Davis’ high marks. It’s an album that remains an essential in my jazz collection. Hell, even the cover art is memorable, with Davis’ now infamous trumpeter silhouetted behind a mock-up of the Spanish flag, with a raging torro and classic Old English typeface. As I write this I’m about to play the record again before, as its sounds bring up visions and memories from the past of a truly wonderful and one of a kind place.

Album Review: Red Clay, Freddie Hubbard


Archive Album Review:
Red Clay (1970)
Freddie Hubbard
Columbia

The Birth of Funk, Soul, Cool

(The following review was published in the Indiana Daily Student April 27, 2006)

In the world of jazz there are the major players — cats like Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, Bird, Gillespie — then there are the musicians who, although were equally as talented and important to the music, did not gain the same colossal level of popularity as the bigger names. Trumpet legend and Indianapolis native Freddie Hubbard is one of these artists.

While Hubbard had a strong early career as a backup player for bebop artists like Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins some of his most brilliant and often overlooked recordings came during the 1970s funk/fusion exploration era with collaborations with pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist George Benson and bassist Ron Carter.

Hubbard’s Red Clay was released a year after Miles Davis’s monumental crossover into fusion territory Bitches Brew and four years before Hancock’s hugely popular funk odyssey Headhunters. The album, while more straight jazz than the avant-garde sounds of Brew, might be one of the first escapades into the fusion of soul, funk and R&B, with conventional jazz sounds.

Hubbard blends his fiery trumpet licks with the cool mellow grooves of Hancock’s legendary Fender Rhodes (an instrument that has since been forgotten) and Joe Henderson’s dark yet slick tenor saxophone accompaniments. The players are at the top of the game and the songs have the kind of crisp delivery that resonates long after the opening chords are played.

The smooth grooving title track is one part Hancock’s “Chameleon,” one part Brew with a little Issac Hayes’ Shaft! soul flavor thrown in to the equation. The 12 minute cut features a driving melodic funk beat, crisp drum chops by Lenny White and scorching trumpet solos by Hubbard.

Red Clay is not Hubbard’s most recognizable album and might not be his finest in terms of musical chops, however, for jazz enthusiasts or those just jumping into the genre, the album acts as a wonderfully accessible collection of ’70s funk/jazz music that truly embodies the jazzism, “the birth of cool.”