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.

Music Biopics: What’s Been Done, What’s In The Works, & What We Want


(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)

The biopic is a longstanding Hollywood tradition. There are the big budget epics like the now infamous Elizabeth Taylor vehicle “Cleopatra,” David Lean’s masterpiece, “Lawrence of Arabia,” or Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi.” Then there are the smaller pictures chronicling the equally gripping stories of those less celebrated. Daniel Day Lewis‘ portrayal of the Irish cerebral palsy painter, Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” or Bill Condon’s 2004 film “Kinsey” about human sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey come to mind.

In recent years, thanks in part to the wide success of the films “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” the music biopic has become the new hot ticket in Hollywood-the sure-fire road to an Oscar and one the best ways to rejuvenate or honor a music career. Whether it’s the posthumous homage (the aforementioned pieces on Ray Charles andJohnny Cash) or the current reminder of the musical pioneers of our time (the Tina Turner story, otherwise known as “What’s Love Got To Do With It”), the music biopic sells.

LiberaceAcclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (currently promoting his Toronto Film Festival audience favorite epic political biopic of Che Guevara) recently announced his rather curious intentions of bringing the life Polish-American musician Liberace to the big screen with Michael Douglas in talks to star as the debonair Vegas pianist and entertainer. A project like this may seem a bit odd coming from someone as well respected as Soderbergh, especially following a biopic about a Latin American revolutionary. And since the Liberace fanbase is mainly comprised of veteran AARP members and lavish Vegas performers the allure of this project for mainstream audiences is also questionable.

The trick of making any sort of successful biopic is a commanding story that is worth telling, generally one with a bit of tragedy to really pull at those Academy members. Taking on someone like Liberace seems strange but when you take a closer look at his life, particularly his debated sexual orientation and legal woes with alleged long-time boyfriend Scott Thorson (set to be played by Matt Damon) the plot thickens.

With the currently untitled Liberace picture slated for a 2010 release and many other intriguing music biopics either rumored or in the works, it seemed fitting to go through and examine some other upcoming projects and also give some thoughts on musicians of past and present who are in need of their own silver screen biopic.

Miles DavisUntitled Miles Davis Project:
Forget his obvious merits as one of Jazz music’s innovators and pioneers-changing the face of the musical art form various times throughout his extensive career-Miles Davis has one hell of a compelling and complicated life. His sprawling and juicy autobiography (which one would hope would provide the most information for a biopic like this) tells the story of a genius rising to stardom, falling into obscurity, and battling his various demons-mainly drug addiction, womanizing, and race-fueled contempt-all along the way. You know, the usual attributes of a music biopic. 
Don Cheadle has long been interested in producing as well as starring in this project, which could potentially be split into two films (to fairly cover Davis’ life) with the musician’s release of the controversial and life changing 1969 jazz/rock album Bitches Brew being the center of the epic film. If Clint Eastwood’s forgotten masterpiece “Bird” did justice to jazz master Charlie Parker’s short but monumental career, a film covering is Davis is long over due. Possible Titles: Take your pick from his many album titles: “Miles Ahead,” “In a Silent Way,” “Kind of Blue,” or “The Birth of Cool.”



Janis JoplinThe Gospel According to Janis:
Janis Joplin biopic has been in talks for what seems like ages. At one point PinkBritney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan were each set to star. Now the much more promising Zooey Deschanel (whose pipes best all three of the aforementioned pop stars) has taken the reins. Joplin’s is another tragic story of one of America’s most beloved 60s music icons. A parallel project on Jimi Hendrix and or Mama Cass from the Mama’s and the Poppas would fit in well with Joplin’s memorable Monterey Pop fest highlights.

Notorious:
The tragic departure of two of modern rap’s forefathers, 
Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. has received its share of media attention but both have life stories that rival that of Greek tragedy and deserve recognition. This project, set for a 2009 release, stars Anthony Mackie as Shakur, Derek Luke as Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs, and newcomer Jamal Woolard as Biggie. The only thing holding this project back are the various recent documentary films about both artists covering not only their subsequent careers but also their deaths, most notably the extremely compelling “Tupac: Resurrection.”

Bob MarleyNo Woman No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley:
Here is another inevitable project just waiting to be picked up. 
Martin Scorsese was originally in line to direct a documentary on the reggae star’s life and musical career. This has since been passed on (possibly to Jonathan Demme). The Weinstein Company recently picked up the rights to a biopic based on Maley’s widow, Rita Marley’s 2004 book chronicling Marley’s rise to fame. Not much else is known about the project other than the fact that Rita is in line to produce and has recommended Lauryn Hill (who is married to Rohan Marley, Bob’s son from another woman) to portray her in the film. Rita has also suggested her grandson Stefan takes on the role of his grandfather since he is, “the splitting image of Bob.” Less obvious title: Trenchtown Rocker

What We Do Is Secret:
Punk rockers always seem to have the most fascinating life stories. Alex Cox’s loose biopic of 
Sex Pistols crazy man Sid Vicious has since become the epitome of the smaller, independent biopic (last year’s “Control,” a haunting retelling of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis’ short life is another prime example). “Secret” tells the tale of Darby Crash, the charismatic singer for the L.A. punk band The Germs. The production of this film, which stars Shane West as Crash, was overlooked by the Germs surviving members, Lorna Doom and Pat Smear only increasing its level of intrigue and authenticity. Crash’s suicide was overshadowed by the assassination of John Lennon the day after and his story has never fully been told to a wide audience. While the Germs are less-known outside of the punk community they were an important part of a budding musical scene in the U.S., with Crash serving as one of punks many seminal leaders.

Sex Pistols

Iggy PopThe Passenger:
Another fascinating face in the punk, or better yet, proto-punk arena is one 
Iggy Pop. Lead singer for The Stooges, body building enthusiasts, drug enthusiast, and prolific musician, his is a story worth telling. The scenes portraying his late 70s musical epoch/drug rehabilitation in Europe with David Bowie would be reason enough to seek this film out. Elijah Woodis set to star as Pop in the film, which gets its title from one of Pop's tracks from an early solo LP, "Lust for Life." While some might question the casting choice of Wood, the man who was Frodo, to tackle the Raw Power of Pop, Iggy himself has said in interviews that he regards Elijah as a talented actor.

Other Rumored Projects:

-The biggest rumored piece is a John Lennon biopic ranging from his childhood until his death. Kate Winslet is rumored to portray Lennon's mother, the inspiration for Lennon's devastating song, "Mother," which is jumpstarted with the lines, "Mother, You had me but I never had you." Chilling.

-Jerry Garcia biopic-one of the young stars of TV's "Malcolm In the Middle" is set to produce a biopic of the late Grateful Dead grizzly man musician. The idea of a Hollywood film about Garcia and the dead must send shivers down the spines of aging deadheads across the country.

-Untitled Deborah Harry Project-Kirstin Dunst has been rumored to take on Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry in a biopic on her rise to stardom amidst the CBGB New York punk scene. It's not this is a bad idea since Harry remains an underappreciated 80s pop star with an interesting tale to be told, the problem is Dunst, a so-so actor with very little range whose physical appearance might be her only qualification for the role.

Kurt Cobain-Kurt and Courtney-Courtney Love has expressed in interviews that she would very much like to see a film about her relationship with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain withScarlett Johansson and Ryan Gosling starring as grunge's first Mr. and Mrs. The status of the project doesn't go much farther than this and knowing Love's history this could be all there is to it.

-Jeff Buckley Biopic-The death of singer songwriter Jeff Buckley following his debut masterpiece, Grace remains one of the most mysterious and unsettling departures in music history. Whether or not there is enough to his story to warrant a biopic is up for debate. Still both Spin Magazine and the Hollywood Reporter have reported that a script of his life is being shopped around.

Dream Biopics:

-Elliott Smith-If they can document the life of Jeff Buckley in a biopic then why not the equally talented and tragically missed vocal sensation from the Pacific Northwest. Sure Smith fans might not be keen a mainstream portrayal of the beloved artist but his is a story worth remembering. Possible title: Between the Bars

-Frank Zappa-Again, Zappa's music and notoriety might be too obscure for the mainstream but his career is unlike any other musician out there and his defense of free speech in the legendary 1985 Senate hearings battling the Parents Music Resource Center is reason enough to warrant a jump to the silver screen. His son Dweezil has already toured covering his father's music and could undoubtedly grow the legendary mustache for a role if one were ever offered. Possible Title: The Grand Wazoo

-Isaac Hayes-This may be too early since the man just passed away but if you look past his recent voiceover roles on Southpark, this man had a pretty prolific career getting his start as a songwriter for some of Motown's finest tunes. Possible Title: Walk On By

-Cat Stevens-Sure he's considered a loony now but Cat Stevens once had a beautiful career as a folk singer/songwriter. His evolution and rebirth as Yusuf Islam is ripe for exploration.