Dhafer Youssef, ‘Ascetic Journey’.

Apparently it’s oud on the Pandora channel this morning, and I’m not complaining!  This lovely piece has come up a few times now and continues to get my attention.  I love the mood, the space, the insistence, and of course the eleven.

Looks like there’s at least one live clip out there as well.

Interesting, I think how this live clip demonstrates how tough it must be to pull off such a piece live.  The sound capture is not flattering, for starters–presumably it sounded much better in the room. As well, it strikes me that the ensemble takes a few minutes to find its legs, trying to deliver all that space…together.  (It seems to me that by the end, they’re there.)  But there it is, still identifiable and insistent, and it makes me want to hear more.

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Does this question make my pocket protector look big?

So today, on my way to work, while stopped and waiting for the pilot car (the five Alaska seasons being fall, winter, breakup, spring, and road construction), a question popped into my head:  in the famous Paul Desmond piece “Take Five“, would it be more appropriate to view the descending turnaround as belonging to the song’s root (minor) tonic, or to its relative major as a temporary replacement tonic?  This is just an attempt to better understand how to think about the written sequence of chords.  I think I talked it out of myself at the time, but I’d love the opinion of those more formally versed in theory than I am.

(Yes, I think geeky things at weird times.  It just seems to be the way I’m made.)

Okay, so I’ve studied the piece a bit before, even going so far as to score it up as an arrangement for Guitar Circle Colorado, transposed up a half step into the more convenient E minor.  (What follows is based on that Em arrangement.)

The vamp is written as Em – Bm7, which is a natural minor thing, written with one sharp on the staff.  The turnaround is written as:

Cmaj7 – Am6 – Bm7 – Em7 – Am7 – D7 – Gmaj7
Cmaj7 – Am6 – Bm7 – Em7 – Am7 – D7 – F#m7 – B7

It occurred to me that one way to think of this turnaround sequence would be within the context of the Em as the tonic chord, in which case I’d think of the chords like this:

VI maj7 – IV m6 – V m7 – I m7 – IV m7 – VII 7 – III maj7
VI maj7 – IV m6 – V m7 – I m7 – IV m7 – VII 7 – II m7 – V 7

Hm.  That somehow doesn’t seem right–more like a shoehorn than a natural fit.  But what if I looked at the turnaround as belonging to the key of G–which would be, after all, the relative major of E minor?  Then I’d think of the chords like this:

IV maj7 – VII m6 – III m7 – VI m7 – II m7 – V 7 – I maj7
IV maj7 – VII m6 – III m7 – VI m7 – II m7 – V 7 – VII m7b5 – III 7

Well, that seems to clean up a lot, doesn’t it?  4-7-3-6-2-5-1 would seem to be rather precisely descending in fifths, and the idea of the last four chords being a two-five on G followed by a two-five on Em…finally sold me on the idea.

Okay, so that’s what occurred.  And the question to those more formally schooled in functional theory than I:  am I thinking properly here, or am I missing something obvious?

Allan Holdsworth, ‘Devil Take the Hindmost’.

And so now “jazz” guitar legend Allan Holdsworth has passed.  I got my first exposure to his work via Bill Bruford’s first two solo records, and then the UK collaboration with Bruford, John Wetton, and Eddie Jobson.  Man, what a distinctive style:  I’m not sure there is anyone more distinctive, anywhere–and that even includes Robert Fripp, which for me at least is saying something!

Holdsworth is the guy, after all, that Frank Zappa called “the most interesting guy on guitar on the planet”.

After being blown away (as in:  “Holy shit, who is this?” about ten seconds after hearing him start to play) by Bruford and UK, I of course had to hear what else there was.  The first thing I found was Velvet Darkness, which I thought was fabulous, not realizing that he had always hated it (for very understandable reasons), and at some point I wound up with a couple other, later records, including Atavachron.  What I remember concluding, at the time, was that he was going exclusively in the direction of the SynthAxe, which just didn’t resonate with me musically.  And so he kinda fell off my radar for a while, until I discovered his 1975 and 1976 records with the Tony Williams Lifetime.  (What’s funny is that it was probably that work which drew Bruford to Holdsworth in the first place.)

Anyway, as I go back and listen to his stuff again, now with a little better understanding of what it means to be a player, Holdsworth’s wizardry jumps out at me even more.  The late William Grigg (himself no slouch as a guitarist) used to joke that Holdsworth was so harmonically advanced that it constituted prima facie evidence that he was in fact not human, but rather some form of alien being, sent here to show us what was possible.  (There are times, watching and listening to him play, when I’d not want to be the one to try and argue otherwise!)

The story goes that Holdsworth never wanted to be a guitar player, but rather a sax player (I’ve heard it claimed that when John Coltrane died, Holdsworth cried for three days), and so he developed a guitar style that was specifically intended to phrase and sound like a horn.  Well, I can certainly hear “sheets of sound” in his phrasing, and the blunted-attack, incredibly smooth legato sound he got seems like a marvelously imaginative way of having a horn player’s mind in a guitar player’s body.  Between the sound and the playing style, nobody else sounds even distantly like him.

He was also reputed to be incredibly critical of his own playing, even to the point of apologizing to an audience for it.

Man, that’s hard to believe.

 

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(Direct link to video.)

Ralph Towner, ‘Solitary Woman’.

The studio recording of this tune still gives me the chills every time I hear it.  Ralph Towner is usually described with words like “enigmatic” and “quirky”, and from the first time I heard him with the group Oregon I could hear that.  (I was drawn to Oregon for other reasons at the time;  Paul McCandless had just floored me with his musical persona while touring with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and I was mostly listening for reeds.)  It was the trio record with drummer Bill Bruford and bassist Eddie Gomez, If Summer Had Its Ghosts, where I first really heard Towner’s voice as the understated powerhouse it is.

Many years later, it was Pandora that introduced me to the haunting 12-string brood that is “Solitary Woman”.  From first listen I was hooked, and the more I hear it now, the more I like the piece.

Of course, I then wanted to see if I could find a clip of Towner playing it live.  And I have to say, I was surprised.  I have seen two, both relatively recent, and both of them left me asking, “What happened?”

It’s not that I’m expecting him to play it the same way he does on the record–in fact I rather like it when artists re-interpret their own work, and in the “jazz” idiom, it’s nearly expected anyway.  But something just doesn’t seem right.  At the risk of trivializing it, there are big, obvious clams–as in “lost his way” sort of clams.  (And not intentional ones, either;  those have a very different sound.)  The sort of mistakes you’d expect someone like me to make.  It doesn’t fit what (little, admittedly) I know of Towner.

But the biggest thing, for me, is that in the live recordings he seems so…rushed.  One of the giant hallmarks of the studio piece is its simmering patience, especially in the rising-dyad theme that so beautifully frames that giant leading tone.  Both the dynamics and the timing are deliciously infuriating, and I would say it all seems to rise out of a position of resigned, moody patience.  I’d go so far as to say it nearly defines the piece on its own, and I would naturally expect to see Towner go through all sorts of variations and improvisation within that framework.  That’s not in evidence for either of the two recent live clips I’ve seen, and I must conclude that something else may be at work here.

The piece itself, though…man, what a lovely, haunting brood.  Bookmarked!

7/7/7 Day One: John Coltrane, “OM”.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 1.  At Christopher Smith‘s request, I’ll post seven personally meaningful songs over seven days. I can’t quite bring myself to “challenge” someone else to do the same over each of those seven days, so it won’t be a true “7/7/7” for any purists out there, but I may well tag someone here and there, and if anyone wants to pick up that torch and run with it, I will follow with interest. (I admit, I do love mental exercises.)

First up is “OM” by John Coltrane.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2HZQ70hpbU
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Om_(John_Coltrane_album)

For me at least, it’s not so much that this piece is a good choice for such a list–it’s that such a list simply could not be called valid without it. This one “bent my ears” in a way that simply defies description.

Cool story about it, actually. While at Stanford in 1989, a buddy of mine took it upon himself to assist me with expanding my musical education, and at one point (after some success at this) he came to me and handed me a disc. As I closed my hand to accept it, he paused (only somewhat theatrically) and said, “Here’s the deal. I want you to take this home, get all the way into your best listening phones, and really listen to the whole thing. You are going to hate it. In spite of that, you will then put it away for one year, and then listen to it again. When you do, you will still dislike it intensely, but you will realize you need to hear it again. That will continue for a while, and whether or not you ever ‘like’ it, you will soon realize that you no longer hear things–anything–the same, afterward.”

Ol’ Brent was both smart and perceptive, and basically it came to pass exactly like that. There is so much in “OM” that is grating, atonal, seemingly aimless, [insert criticism of free jazz here], etc…and yet there is something *alive* in all that mess, that is a perfect yang to the yin. (Of course the standard joke goes something like “well, sure…LSD”, which almost certainly was present in some measure, but there’s something there beyond that, too.) That something doesn’t give itself up easily, but then it doesn’t let go, either.

Today, I would say that I don’t particularly “like” the record, but remain convinced that I needed it, and continue to need it. It changed me. From “OM”, I then discovered the rest of Coltrane, and became a pretty respectable fanatic. Musically I consider his pinnacle to be the “classic quartet” period, roughly from the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings with Eric Dolphy, right up to the latter part of 1965, when “Ascension” and “OM” were recorded, signaling Trane’s harder turn into free jazz. As per my customary quirk, it is precisely those in-between influences (e.g., between Miles and classic quartet in 1961, and between classic quartet and free jazz in 1965) that speak the most to me. “OM” was part of that, even at the edge.

Crazy that this will be my only Coltrane in the list. Or that this will be the only appearance for drummer Elvin Jones, whose incredible power and presence are much better heard on other records. (I hold strongly that such exercises as this are inherently cruel–how on earth can one choose, among art?)

Nonetheless, I started here, and thus it gets the nod.