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.

James Brown and His Famous Flames: Sings Christmas Songs (1966)


Funk is…a ham hock in your egg nog.

Purchase this album: Amazon

(The following is a repost, in honor of James Brown’s passing on Christmas Day 2006.)

THE SCENE: In 1966 Christmas albums were strictly the domain of pop acts (think Nat “King” Cole) or smoothed-out rock acts (think The Beach Boys). James Brown was the first Black rock’n’roll or R&B artist to release an entire Christmas album, the aptly named Sings Christmas Songs.

One of five albums he released that year, Brown recorded a surprisingly lush assortment of standards with subtle dustings of breakbeats. Even though this coincided with his ascent into his heavy funk many of these tracks are waltzes. Go figure.

Brown tackles Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” with skittering drums, warm horns and a vocal raspyness that humanizes some of the more trite lyrics. He also serves up a cover of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby”, in which he oddly tries to emulate Charles Brown’ buttery flow.

He reclaims his own voice in “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year” where he stops singing and talks to you, the listener, about what he’s thankful for this holiday season. It should be corny as hell but he pulls it off brilliantly.

Rich romantic violins feature prominently in “Please Come Home For Christmas” and “Christmas In Heaven” where Brown gets his croon on and gently pleads (OK, begs) for his baby.

His ode to Jesus, “Sweet Little Baby Boy”, is a surprisingly orchestrated country & western affair, perfect for drinking hot toddies or slow line dancing.

All in all, the perfect holiday package for, well, no one in 1966.

THE FALLOUT: Stylistically out of character and indifferently packaged, Sings Christmas Songs went over as well as coal in a Christmas stocking. He fared exceeding better with his next Christmas album, 1968’s unabashedly funky Soulful Christmas.

All of Sings Christmas Songs can be found on The Complete James Brown Christmas, available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

A groundbreaker in holiday albums, Sings Christmas Songs opened the door for all musical acts to record Christmas-themed concept records. (So in some strange way, William Hung’s Hung for the Holidays is James Brown’s fault. Thanks, James.)

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Ornette Coleman goes to London to discover America.

Living Colour: Stain (1993)


Friendly as a backhand.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1992 Living Colour was surfing an unprecented wave as “America’s Favorite All-Black Rock Band™”. Their melding of social positivity and hard rock, combined with catchy lyrics, world-class musicianship and colourful imagery had led to gold records, hit singles, Grammy awards, sold-out tours, commercial fame and musical credibility. And then…the bass player quit. The next year brought a new bassist, a new vision and new dark album, the nihilistic Stain.

Unlike the hopefulness of their last two releases, Stain defines a unsettling, friendless landscape without happy endings. Even the song titles burn with desolation: “Never Satisfied”, “Mind Your Own Business”, “Nothingness”. Always a sample-happy band, Living Colour now populated their metallic songs with bursts of atonal squawks and random found sounds, much like how crazy street people yell things at you right before they nod out from narcotics.

The characters that singer Corey Glover inhabits in these songs aren’t any more balanced, suffering from sexual discrimination and bipolar disorders (“Bi”), police brutality, (“This Little Pig”) and nervous exhaustion (“Go Away”). Racism haunts the victim of the combative “Auslander”, as he shrieks a duet against the assaultive melodies. The titular “Postman” is one step from going postal himself, muttering creepy revenge strategies:

Day in, day out, day in, day out
Chaos and carnage around me
Well I hear their shouts and cries
Well I laugh at the gut when they try to surround me
They won’t take me alive

Even the instrumentals get under one’s skin. “WTFF” is a brilliant glittery slice of claustrophobic hip-hop laced with fear, while “Hemp” is a contemplative eulogy to a dead mentor, whose graveled speaking voice wafts through the mix.

It’s ironic that an album about finality should result from what was essentially a new band.

THE FALLOUT: A caustic grunge song cycle was not what the world expected from Living Colour, as “America’s Favorite All-Black Rock Band™” had suddenly transformed into “Four Angry Black Guys”. No hit single, no gold album, no Grammy award. Sadly it also led to no Living Colour, as they disbanded due to creative differences.

Stain is out of print in America but you can find it supercheap on Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

Stain is sound of innocence lost and paranoia found, but it’s lotsa fun.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: A repost from the hardest working Santa in showbiz.

Andre 3000: Class of 3000 Music Volume One (2007)


The antidote to Barney the Dinosaur.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: After the triumphant success of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below Hollywood rolled out the red carpet to André 3000, giving him the chance to appear in a string of extremely mediocre sequels and remakes (Four Brothers, Be Cool, Charlotte’s Web, yawn). But on the Cartoon Network he scored a bullseye as the lead actor, executive producer, and music director of the Emmy-winning Class of 3000. André created an original song for each episode, all of which are collected on the groovy soundtrack Music Volume One.

On the show André portrays Sunny Bridges, a world-famous but emotionally unfulfilled hip-hop star who returns to his Atlanta high school as a music teacher, sharing his love of music and positivity with a gaggle of gifted young musicians. These students share the mic with André throughout the album, like a Greek chorus of Flavor Flavs injecting mirth into the messages.

In his quest to create the hippest children’s album of time, André invokes the same blueprint he used on The Love Below. There’s the still-surprising effect of his multi-tracked singing voice (in the torchy ballad “Life Without Music), homages to Prince (in the razor sharp funk of “Throwdown”) and a straight-ahead jazz instrumental snuck in at the back (in the swingin’ “My Mentor).”

Class of 3000 weaves in many subtle yet straightforward messages championing music appreciation. It exposed my kids to New Orleans second line (“Fight the Blob”) and Asian melodies (“UFO Ninja”), while they picked up notes on music theory (“Hold the groove tight/Hypnotize ‘em so you can take ‘em where you wanna take ‘em” says the theme song ) and the music industry (witness the devilishly clever James-Brown-meets-Procol-Harum vibe of “We Want Your Soul”).

As large as the kids’ music industry is (I’m talking to you, Hannah Montana), a soundtrack from a hit show should be a hit album, right?

THE FALLOUT: Oh, if it were that simple. Since the album, the show, and the network were all owned by different companies, Class of 3000: Music Volume One had no one entity tasked with its promotion, so there wasn’t any promotion. I never even saw a commercial for it on Cartoon Network itself, and I watch that channel a lot. It also wasn’t serviced to radio, so millions of OutKast fans never knew it existed, charting a measly 23 on Billboard’s Kid Audio Chart before vanishing.

Class of 3000: Music Volume One is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Light enough for kids yet dense enough for adults, Class of 3000: Music Volume One is one of the few albums you can enjoy with the entire family. Especially if your family is a little young for Stankonia.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Black death comes to Living Colour.

Rufus Harley: Re-Creation of the Gods (1972)


Take a breath.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Imagine you’ve been invited to a fine dinner party, where you are expected to share your latest art project. The woman seated to your left displays her bronze abstract sculpture. The man on your right shows off his new painting, a classic oil-on-canvas of a fruit basket. And you proudly produce, to everyone’s immediate revulsion, an unfeasibly large beehive, actively teeming with thousands of buzzing, swarming bees. While you’re explaining your dangerous interest in massively oversize stinging insect colonies, the other guests slowly begin to back away from you, except for the few who bolt out the backdoor like a redneck perp on “COPS”. The host makes a mental note to erase you from her address book, her phone book and her Facebook.

This was the typical response to the revolutionary music of Philadelphia-bred Rufus Harley, the world’s first jazz bagpiper. He recorded a quartet of innovative but meagerly received albums for Atlantic Records in the mid-1960s but didn’t break out of his novelty status until 1972’s joyous Re-Creation of the Gods.

In Scotland the bagpipes are a nation treasure; its unmistakable bird-like drone can be heard during national celebrations and similar pagentry. In days of yore the Scottish army would also use bagpipes as an instrument of war, marching through the Highland mists scaring the bejeezus out of their enemy with its unearthly squawk. But its unearthly squawk called out to Harley, who put down his saxophone and began a singular obsession: fashioning jazz music for bagpipes.

A loose concept album about freedom, church, and community, Re-Creation is one swinging party album. “The Crack” greases up a hippo-sized bass fog that only the golden milky light of bagpipes could cut. His notes circle constantly like hawks in flight.

He sprinkles an old Negro spiritual with future esssence in “Nobpdy Knows the Trouble Us People Done Seen”, with a fat beat that could get Lutherans up to the dance floor. Harley makes his bapipes yodel along, like a tuned siren on a hipster ambulance blaring “MAKE ROOOOOM! NEW SOUNDS COMING THROOOOOOUGH!”

Like a long-lost Beastie Boys funkstrumental, “Gods And Goddesses” brays along like a donkey-led wagon with square wheels, happy and lopsidedly snappy. With all these songs the fun is infectious, as if Harley took all the negative, dismissive energy about his craft and turned into a tartan-clad trampoline, then jumped on it.

THE FALLOUT: Re-Creation was highly admired by the few who knew if existed, mainly other musicians.. He toured the world extensively and guested on a few left-of-center pop albums (The Roots’ Do You Want More!!!??! and Laurie Anderson’s Big Science), but only released one album after Re-Creation before his death in 2006.

Re-Creation of the Gods is available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

The saxophone was created for orchestras yet was rejected by the classical music world, only to become a foundation instrument of jazz, America’s original punk music. Harley’s devotion to the bagpipes follows a parallel path: how one person can effect the sonic recontexualization of music by sheer force of will.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: A challenge! Andre 3000 released his second solo album this year. Can you find it?

Fela and Afrika 70: Zombie (1977)


The original “F— The Police”.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1977 the government of Nigeria was thick with corrupt brutish thugs, the type who denied civil rights to its populace as a matter of principle. Of the many activists who spoke out against the regime none was more popular than bandleader Fela Kuti, who released numerous top-selling albums criticizing the governments’ wide-ranging incompetence, peaking with the incendiary Zombie.

Over a twelve-minute percolation of tart guitar skanks, brisk funk beats and hard horns bleats, his band Afrika 70 tightly rages through the title track, in a sound Fela dubbed “Afrobeat”. Muscular as a bicep yet deft as a finger, the song pulses large and small, hot and cold, sometimes reducing down to a mere guitar pluck and a shaker that sounds like sizzling rice soup.

The frenetic, danceable humanity of the music sets up the dispassionate precision of Fela’s voice, coolly spitting out his opinion of the puppet-like Nigerian military:

Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think

Eventually he begins barking orders like a power-drunk drill sergeant:

Quick march/Slow march/Left turn /Right turn
About turn /Double time/Sa-lute /Open your hat
Stand at ease/Fall in/Fall out/Fall down

At twelve minutes long and the entirety of Side One, ”Zombie” is a energetic full-body release of frustration, from the legs to the brain, simultaneously an exhortation and an exorcism.

THE FALLOUT: Due to its relentless negative critique of the current government, a new Fela album would usually result in a police interrogation of his crew, followed by a totally illegal beatdown. With Zombie, however, he had really pissed off the military, who somehow took offense when civilians would continually point at them in the street and shout “Zombie!” As payback for his mockery, over one thousand soldiers stormed his private compound, beat every man, woman and child they could find and burnt his house to the ground, but not before tossing Fela’s mother out the window to her death. (No, that’s not acting like a zombie at all…)

In retaliation he delivered his mother’s coffin to the main army barracks in Lagos, then wrote about the experience in the title song of his subsequent album Coffin for Head of State. Even in mourning, Fela was uncompromising about the nature of right and wrong.

Zombie is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

American musicians, even with their freedom of speech under attack, have it pretty easy, “Cop Killer” got Ice-T dropped from his label, but 15 years later he’s made millions playing a cop on a television. The 15 years following Zombie found Fela surviving additional police beatings, plus a two-year jail sentence on trumped-up currency fraud charges. He consistently put his livelihood and his life on the line with each album, and Zombie was his fearless masterpiece.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Rufus Harley and his electric…bagpipes?

Shock G: Fear Of A Mixed Planet (2004)


The G stands for “green”.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: On the face of it, the mere existence of a Shock G solo album sounds preposterous. He’s the face and voice of Digital Underground as well its the main songwriter, pianist, producer, illustrator and conceptualist — possibly even its personal chef and Pilates trainer — so one would assume a group created in his image would fulfill all his musical needs. Yet the hedonistic, über-player atmosphere of D.U. are a poor fit for creating songs that aren’t about macking, so seventeen years after the comical Sex Packets came the decidedly more thoughtful Fear Of A Mixed Planet.

Shock’s remade himself as a progressive environmentalist, concerned with respecting mother earth and its inhabitants, which brings a new clarity to his humor. He pokes fun at racism in the glossy, nougaty “Who’s Clean” by simply questioning the insanity of color names:

How come Black Russians ain’t black?
Black rhinos are grey.
White liquors’ clear.
Blue corn chips are brown.

Like a latter-day Aztec, Shock also gives multiple shout-outs to the sun. The sandpaper and fog beats of “Sunshine Rime” surround warm verses about “the balance of life”. “Your Sun Iza Pimp” goes a step further in homage to the Great Gaseous Player in the Sky, dropping science about photosynthesis while questioning “Who taught him how to shine that?”

Unafraid to expose his less-then-sensible sides, he affixes dirty playground rhymes to the rhythms of a computer error in “The Rime In The Mochanut”, while sweating through the embarrassment and fetal regression of a traumatically bad drug trip in the paranoid “Baby You Okay”.

The penultimate song for me is “We’re All Killaz”, where Shock free-associates with whatever enters his twisted mind. A reversed keyboard squiggle squirms through an onslaught of in-jokes, non-sequiturs and random questions, as if corkscrewing through to the cortex of his ever-questioning brain:

Astronomers discovered another galaxy the other day
and this is what they had to say
“We’re happy cause it’s only a million light years away.”
(pause) WHAT?

What indeed.

THE FALLOUT: “What?” was also the commercial response to Fear Of A Mixed Planet. Released on indie 33rd St. Records (which I believe went out of business soon after), Planet was not well marketed and subsequently flatlined. Shortly afterwards Shock G announced his complete retirement from the recording studio.

Fear Of A Mixed Planet is still available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

Melodic, holistic and iconoclastic, Fear Of A Mixed Planet is the blueprint of how to mature in hip-hop. Whether hip-hop has a place for a mature artist is anyone’s guess.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Fela releases an album so uppity that it actually results in death.