Georgia Anne Muldrow: Olesi: Fragments of an Earth (2006)


Fresher than a gumbo popsicle.

Purchase this album: Amazon 

THE SCENE: In spite of the nearly infinite song possibilities of both jazz and hiphop, I find jazz-hop to be universally underwhelming. (Except for this one, but you knew that already.) Usually one genre is sprinkled on top of the other like salt on a bagel, resulting in either jazz songs with with b-level raps or hiphop songs with acoustic bass loops. Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” is one of the few classics of both genres, and even that track is rap-free.

But vocalist and producer Georgia Anne Muldrow took a completely different angle, puréeing the surrealistic essences of both free jazz and hiphop beat chopping, whipping up the freaky soufflé into her debut album Olesi: Fragments of an Earth.

If The RZA remixed Jill Scott but left the tracks in the oven to melt, that’s but a morsel of this albums’ sound. Muldrow’s jazz-scented vocals are layered frosting-thick but it’s her plate of rhythms that’s the real standout. Every song has a woozy bottom of micro-beats that ripple up like Ovaltine chunks, rendering the standard 4/4 beat undanceable and unrecognizable, yet totally fascinating.

Sandwiched between these slices are a buffet of musical styles, all of which get blended and stewed. The hemp-filled “Radio WNK” rolls in some reggae, its drums sounding like groceries dropped to the floor. The funk reduction “Birds” percolates on chocolatey bass pops and tin can hits. “Melanin” seasons an electronica soup with some fierce jazz scatting.

Muldrow reaches an apex of sonic collage with her unique social report “New Orleans”. With it’s first lines (“Murderer…Humans left alone to die”) it’s a devastating menu of marching snares, pianos smears, and anger. You can smell the fear and confusion of watching a town sink under the flood waters, and the taste the rage of indifferent government support.

Her only nod to mainstream music is with song length, as nearly every track is a bite-sized two minutes. Just long enough to get some radio spins. Er, not.

THE FALLOUT: Reviews were decidedly mixed: critics who appreciated dope-fiend beats (like hiphop writers) tended to be kinder than one who didn’t (like indie rock writers). Sales were minimal. Although she’s released some collaborative material since, she has yet to release a follow-up album.

Olesi: Fragments of an Earth is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

A skillet full of spices, sauces and steam, Olesi: Fragments of an Earth is a full-course meal for the challenging palate.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Mr. Busdriver’s Wild Ride.

Linda Perry: In Flight (1996)


Between Blonde and Pink.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1995, rock band 4 Non Blondes had sold 6 million copies of their debut album Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, mostly on the strength of their unrestrained hit single “What’s Up?”. But lead vocalist and songwriter Linda Perry couldn’t stand singing it anymore, nor could she deal with Interscope Records’ constant pressure to produce another “What’s Up?”, as that song didn’t represent her current musical identity. So she quit the band to create a confessional song cycle that was a complete about-face from her last recording, resulting in the austere and elegant In Flight.

Where the brash energy of Bigger, Better, sounds like it was recorded during the half-time show of a bullfight, In Flight emotes the quiet stark beauty of a votive candle’s flickering shadow. It slowly but confidently tells you its fears and mistakes with the deliberate stillness of a truth-telling session.

Perry’s massive voice is still the sun by which all instrumentation orbits around, but she’s learned to tailor its heat to the tone of the track. It moans over the shadowy desert of “In My Dreams”, and drones along the decaying essence of “Life in a Bottle”:

Stoned and demented

Walking through the walls

When I banged my head I slowly fell

Sad but delighted

Swimming in my well

I guess I’m going straight to Hell

The understated production evokes a ever-constant dream state, where the songs feel both weightless and heavy. The faerie garden of “Taken” is dappled with dew-glistened violin, and the swirly ascension of “In Flight” is grounded by a Stevie Wonder-esque gospel ballast. (So I flew unto a tree/ Gather inspiration/ Happy to meet/ All the other birds).
Not that ALL the songs are so serious; Perry does eke out a marvelously tap-danceable tinkly reminiscence of her childhood called “Fruitloop Daydream” that really should have been a single:

This ain’t no walk in the park

But I call it my home

And you’re all invited

Waking up in the dark

Knowing I’m not alone

It’s all so familiar

The drag queens

The speed freaks

All the homo boys they touch me baby

Tainted love

The park on a Sunday afternoon
Ah, childhood.

THE FALLOUT: Interscope Records was unhappy with Perry leaving the gravy train of 4 Non-Blondes only to replace it with odes to queer love and underage drug use, so they released In Flight with no promotion. It sold a piddly 18,000 copies and was promptly deleted, leading to her 1999 release from Interscope. This was the last the public heard from her until 2001, when scowly meta-wigger Pink demanded she work with Perry, resulting in her co-writing and producing Pink’s 5-million selling M!ssunderstood. In 2005, after contributing to Interscope artist Gwen Stefani’s triple platinum album Love. Angel. Music. Baby., Interscope gave Perry the album masters to In Flight as a token of appreciation.

I’ll say that again: Interscope, a label known for combatively managing its bottom line against the wishes of its artists, gave its own property away to an artist because they felt it was the right thing to do. FOR FREE.

In Flight is once again available from Amazon (with a new cover) and you can sample tracks here:

In Flight is the diary of the only Brazilian-Portuguese-American dyke rock star, and how she made her specific traumas universal.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: The puzzle of Georgia Anne Muldrow.

Dorothy Ashby: The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby (1970)


Give the koto player some.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: During the 1960s bandleader and composer Dorothy Ashby surpassed the novelty of being the only female jazz harpist by showcasing her fluid dexterity and harmonic syncopation across nine jazz albums. But for her tenth album she jettisoned her harp for an even more surprising instrument, the koto. The thousand-year-old national instrument of Japan, the koto is six feet long, has 23 strings, and had never been so prominently exhibited in western music until her culture-hopping opus The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby.

Inspired by the 11th century Persian poetry collection The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyám, Ashby lights a thick incense vapor of Arabic plucks, romantic strings, and funk percussion, seamlessly fusing cross-cultural melodies of the 1970s with the 970s, bathed in psychedelic and spiritual overtones.

“Myself When Young” unfolds like a spy movie theme song, as its dramatic snake charmer opening slithers its way into a Shaft-like escapade of funky flutes and villainous violins. The lush Jamaican dance of “Wax and Wane”, swollen with with strings Ornette Coleman would love, plays out warm and crisp like an October dusk.

Her koto appears in many guises. It cameos in the sprightly Technicolor “Shadow Shapes”, one of the many romantic solos in this boldly romantic show tune. In “For Some we Loved” its gentle tones are lullaby calm against the spoken words, the stray tings and bongs sounding miraculously like an 808 beat performed by real people . After the ominous Druid-like intro of “The Moving Finger” it flutters over a tangy funk riff stuffed with firework bursts of watery kalimba:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: neither your Piety or Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor will all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

At long last, Ashby had created a unique masterwork that showed the world the depth of her talents.

THE FALLOUT: Depth, shmepth. It was a critical sensation within jazz circles, yet this koto-led concept album about 11-century Persian poetry did not find a large audience and fell out of print for decades, becoming Ashby’s last album as a bandleader. Interestingly enough, the very next year a band featuring her labelmate Maurice White also released an album with cross-cultural melodies, psychedelia and spiritual overtones plus firework bursts of watery kalimba, 1971s’ Earth, Wind & Fire. Judging by that groups’ success it seems Dorothy Ashby may have been on to something.

The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

So far ahead of time it still sounds current, The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby makes the exoticness of globalization feel as down-home as the koto next door.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Linda Perry gets grounded.

Q-Tip: Open (2004 but unreleased)


Record company people are still shady.

THE SCENE: When we last left Q-Tip in 2001, Arista Records refused to release his album Kamaal The Abstract, deeming his ambitious fusion of hip-hop, jazz & rock “uncommercial”. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Record Exec: “I don’t think this album is going to sell.”
Q-Tip: “But every album I’ve made has sold over half a million units, including all the Tribe Called Quest albums.”
Record Exec: “You were in A Tribe Called Quest?”
Q-Tip: (says nothing in return, makes note to call J Records.)

After negotiating a release from his label, Q-Tip moved to J Records where in 2004 he refined Kamaal‘s breakthroughs with the abstract grooves of Open.

Melting the melodic expressiveness of jam-rock into the cadence and form of hip-hop, Open is a confetti explosion of re-interpreted sounds. Q-Tip’s treble flow retains its tap dancer grace, but his usual sunny self is shaded with caution and abandonment. He’s also singing again, but he’s given near duet status to guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, who drops prominent chunks of jazz-metal riffs over the live band.

“Johnny Died” crystallizes Q-Tip’s manifesto, as he raps over a headbopping beat in 6/8 time, playing slip-n-slide around the guitars’ ragged pogoing. The sneaky, circus-like riffs of “Black Boy” crunch greasily like fried chicken as Q-Tip’s sweetly paranoid vocals peel back the carnival curtain:

Be careful of the thing you say
Or they’ll tow your black butt away
Be careful ’bout how you roll
They’re gonna say that you’re outta control

Anyone expecting traditional rap songs on this album will also think he’s outta control with his blues jam “Feelings” and the spidery, climaxing 9/4 rhythm of “Where Do You Go?”. The tracks get groggier and drowsier in the rapidly detuning “Late Mornin'” and the constantly rewarping “I’m Not Gone Have It”. He finally collapses, sinking into the magenta mud of “Lisa”, his melancholia telegraphing the beginning of a romance’s end:

When I woke up in the morning
I still felt it in my bones
Because I think about that morning
When I called you at your home
I told you about my rough times
And you rushed me off the phone
Was it because you didn’t really care
Or because you weren’t alone?

A tour de force of grand experimentalism, with sharp lyricism and tight beats. What could go wrong?

THE FALLOUT: J Records refused to release Open, deeming his ambitious fusion of hip-hop, jazz & rock “uncommercial”. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Record Exec: “I don’t think this album is going to sell.”
Q-Tip: “But every album I’ve made has sold over half a million units, including all the Tribe Called Quest albums.”
Record Exec: “You were in A Tribe Called Quest?”
Q-Tip: (says nothing in return, makes note to call Universal/Motown Records.)

Q-Tip eventually decamped to Universal/Motown, where he recorded Live at The Renaissance in 2005, which also remains unreleased. On November 7 he’s scheduled to release a reworked version called The Renaissance, making it his first solo joint in 9 years. As this is the same date as the most important presidential election in American history, will anyone even notice?

Open remains unreleased, but you can sample tracks here:

Throbbing with human fraility, Open ushers in a stillborn musical genre, one too un-regimented for an official airing.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Step aside, Larry Graham! Dorothy Ashby plays her funky…koto?

Ornette Coleman: Skies of America (1972)


The home of the tonally brave.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Although iconoclastic saxophonist Ornette Coleman is currently considered a genius (having actually won the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant), in 1972 he was entering his third decade as Jazz’s most polarizing oddball. Was he really the shape of jazz to come, or an out-of-tune charlatan with meandering note clusters masquerading as compositions? The previous year’s Science Fiction was a funky career rebirth, but his next release shocked even his die-hard fans, the classical and magical Skies of America.

Fascinated with the breadth and speed of American re-invention, Coleman composed a expansive hymn to his republic, performed solely by the London Symphony Orchestra. (Thanks to the uptight British Musician’s Union, his current band was forbidden from playing on the recording.) Skies is where Coleman first gave a name to his theory of music, “Harmolodics”, ironically assigned to the least recognizable work in his canon. In Coleman’s mind, harmony, melody and rhythm are given equal weight while the key of the song is deemed irrelevant, a tonal situation that can produce continual discovery in both the performer and the audience.

Skies superbly uses smears of strings to create the sound of the sky, an infinite inverse chasm of healthy blue, poisonous brown and inky blackness. The tension of the title song mimics a wounded bird soaring through the air, dipping and tilting with the wind, but soldiering onward. In “Love Life” the sky lingers with the ashy, bitter scent of an arson aftermath.

As Coleman recorded this during the Vietnam Conflict, it’s easy to hear the swarming, swirling helicopters of “The Military”, or warriors running over jungle land mines in “Holiday for Heroes”. The woodpecker drums-led “The Good Life” is the soundtrack of our heroes coming to save the day, but in “Foreigner in a Free Land” our heroes are really disturbed rednecks at heart, full of fear, anger and ignorance.

Coleman makes only a few cameos on this album: the crushing terror of “The Men Who Live In The White House” opens up into a gentle hopeful solo, a theme repeated in the agitated loopzilla of “The Artists in America”. Is he soloing over a cheering crowd, or the boos of a hostile mob? He also rises into the vapor on the final cut “Sunday In America” a remembrance of prettiness interrupted, a day of grief turned to stillness.

THE FALLOUT: As usual for most Ornette Coleman albums, reviews were mixed and sales were meager, becoming the last recording for his label. After its release Skies Of America had one live performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1972, but it was revived again in 1983 by the Fort Worth Symphony as part of celebration of their hometown hero, including the proclamation of September 29 as “Ornette Coleman Day”.

Skies Of America is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

With equal amounts of amazement and revulsion, Skies Of America reflects the schizophrenia and the hope of American identity.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Q-Tip gets shutdown again.