Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Falling in love with jazz again, sort of: Louis Armstrong, new Clean Feeds,Geoff Dyer

1) Discovering the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens this year was like reading Huck Finn and Moby Dick when I was 40. It's an essential part of one's cultural education. In his God Didn't Like It: Electric Hillbillies, Singing Preachers, and the Beginning of Rock and Roll, 1950-1970, Allen Lowe notes the generally overlooked similarities between Armstrong and Elvis Presley: both men were marginal products of the American South, who drank deep from their country's river of song, and considered themselves entertainers first, in spite of their massive cultural and social impact. I actually listened to Armstrong as a kid; my mother had a 10-inch LP of The Louis Armstrong Story, from which I remembered "Black and Blue," "I'm a Ding-Dong Daddy From Dumas" (a favorite of Clay Stinnett, who is also one), and "Knockin' a Jug" (Armstrong's first encounter with Texan Jack Teagarden, of whom Allen has written memorably in That Devilin' Tune). I found Sony's Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man online for a five spot, but my sister sent me the JSP Hot Fives and Sevens, remastered by the estimable John R.T. Davies, and the difference was reminiscent of my college film prof Arthur Lennig, who used to painstakingly restore prints of old silents and projected them at the original speed -- a very different viewing experience than the grainy, herky-jerky way most old silents look when projected on modern equipment. (Lennig was a D.W. Griffith man, as well as having written a book about Bela Lugosi that had a picture of him on the dust jacket sitting on Lugosi's lap at his twelfth birthday party.) The clarity of Davies' remasters -- probably done from some collector's gently handled vinyl -- wipes the floor with Sony's; the horns sound like they're in the next room. It's still hard to comprehend the impact of these recordings, because I wasn't alive before them, when Sousa and Stephen Foster were the popular sounds of the day, but I imagine this is as close as I'll get.

2) A new release from Portuguese indie Clean Feed -- my tip for the Blue Note of the Teens -- is always like a candygram from the gods. Of the latest batch, standouts include Kaja Draksler's The Lives of Many Others, on which the Slovenian pianist alternates density and lyrical minimalism; on my favorite track (the latter part of the dauntingly titled "Suite: Wronger/Eerier/Stronger than (just a thought)/I recall"), hypnotically repeating figures interrupt the main motivic thrust like a nagging thought. On Tone Hunting's self-titled debut, Polish altoist Anna Kaluza and trumpeter Artur Majewski bat ideas back and forth like Brotzmann and Bennink calling out to each other in the Black Forest's vastness while Kuba Suchar's drum clatter provides an ongoing commentary. On Twine Forest, pianist Angelica Sanchez provides settings of empathetic elegance and grace for AACM originator Wadada Leo Smith's stabbing trumpet. And on Floodstage, the John Hebert Trio's sound displays a refreshing spareness and spaciousness, adding tasteful electronics to the piano trio format on a couple of tracks, while my favorite ("Saints") features a herky-jerky melody like a child's toy calliope.

3) Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful [A Book About Jazz] contains the most graceful evocation of the music I've yet read, rendered in imagined vignettes, some of them inspired by photographs, that capture the spirit of artists like Duke Ellington (driving through the night with baritone saxophonist Harry Carney in a series of episodes that tie the book together) and Lester Young (drinking himself to death in a hotel room); the chapters on Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell are particularly moving. Apparently Dyer can write a good book about anything; his weakest moment here is the closing essay, which still contains a useful insight (borrowed from George Steiner): that all art which is influenced by other art is implicitly a critique of that which inspired it, which is a useful device to have when considering an art form like jazz in the current decade, when certain influences (Monk, Ornette, '60s Blue Note, '70s Miles, the AACM, the European free improv movement) seem pervasive.


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