Saturday, April 23, 2011

Music Reviews-Burnt Sugar, Eddie Harris, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Carolina Chocolate Drops and Louis Prima

Burnt Sugar
Burnt Sugar is a musical collective, predominantly but not exclusively made up of African-American players, that creates uncategorizable music. The nominal "leader" is Greg Tate, our book of the month author . Sometimes the band follows Tate's conduction; sometimes there is collective improvisation. Burnt Sugar owes debts to Sun Ra and P-Funk among others. But Burnt Sugar's closest parallel (and its seminal influence) was the Miles Davis' band of the late sixties and early seventies. Miles was becoming more fascinated by the rhythmic and melodic musical steps forward by such people as James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Stockhausen, Sly Stone as well as the hardcore blues of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. He may have also been trying to reconnect with younger audiences. The addition of electric instruments and the adoption of funkier and LOUDER basslines outraged many jazz purists some of whom (Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch) still haven't forgiven Miles to this day, long dead though he is.
Burnt Sugar features many women as full band members, not just singers but instrumentalists and writers, which makes it rather unusual, even today. 
So if you can appreciate a band that can  flow through avant-garde jazz, bebop, Chicago blues, jump blues, formless chaos, heavy metal, soul, reggae, modern R&B, dance, trance, soul jazz, hard rock, funk, funk-rock, Western Classical, Calypso, blues-rock, Indian drones, Middle eastern inspired rhythms, Eastern European chants, West African polyrhythms and many many more styles and still sound good, this might be the band for you.  Check out their versions of James Brown's "Bring it Up" and Max Roach's "Driva Man".

Eddie Harris and Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Eddie Harris
Unfortunately these men are almost as well known for their "gimmicks" as they are for their deep musicianship.
Eddie Harris was one of the first jazz musicians to use electronic amplification and tone modifiers such as the echoplex, distortion and wah-wah pedals. He also invented a mouth reed that would allow trumpeters to avoid damaging their lips. Eddie Harris is probably best known for the works "Exodus", "Freedom Jazz Dance" "Listen Here" and "Compared to What", but he had a VERY LONG career and played all sorts of music. His sixties work was mostly straight-ahead bop, soul-jazz or blues while much of his seventies work was funk or semi-disco but he would always drop a straight-ahead blues or jazz album between the more commercial ones. By the eighties he had returned to jazz permanently.

Cold Duck Time 
Listen Here
Compared to What  I'm Tired of Driving
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Rahsaan Roland Kirk (he said his first name came to him in a dream) was a blind musician of frightening talent and immense cultural and individual pride. He led sit-ins on TV shows that didn't hire black musicians as studio band members. Among other talents Kirk was able to play separate melodies on three or more reed instruments at once while also humming or whistling, and playing percussion which when you think about it, is mentally equivalent to reading two different books with each eye while painting a portrait and holding a conversation. Kirk also was a practitioner of circular breathing which allowed him to add extended drone sounds to his music, sounds which went far beyond those available to most tenor players. He was an excellent flautist who became upset at what he believed was Jethro Tull's frontman Ian Anderson's ripoffs of his style. Anderson never denied being influenced by Kirk. Unfortunately for music fans, Kirk's rightful distrust and paranoia around ripoffs and white appropriation of his style also caused him to decline to make an album with Duane Allman, who was a big admirer of Kirk. Kirk did deign to let Hendrix sit in a few times. Kirk took his music very seriously indeed.

Petite Fleur    I say a little prayer
Harris and Kirk matured musically before music had ossified into the rigid categories we have today. Both men came up at a time when the competition for session work, live gigs and band spots was cutthroat. A successful musician had to be able to play almost anything.
And they did. Although Kirk leaned slightly more to the straight ahead bebop jazz or soul jazz than Harris did, either man was completely comfortable playing virtually any type of music-funk, jazz, soul, gospel, blues, rock (However Kirk wasn't overly fond of rock or loud amplification and had had words with Miles about Miles' use of amps and electric instruments),etc.Each man had an immediately identifiable sound. 

Carolina Chocolate Drops
A general stereotype in American musical culture is that Black consumers and musicians are always looking for the next big thing.  White consumers and musicians tend to be more interested in repeating and refining what has already been done. Both approaches have validity but at the extremes each can tip over into complete and total artistic entropy. A group that challenges this thinking is the Carolina Chocolate Drops. This African-American string band would not have been thought novel in say 1923 but in 2011 they're virtual musical revolutionaries. They write and perform music and use instruments which have long been thought to be either archaic or "white" as far as mainstream popular African-American music is concerned. People tend to forget that the banjo is an African developed instrument.
The band members, Dom Flemons (guitar, banjo and jug), Rhiannon Giddens (kazoo, guitar, banjo, fiddle) and Justin Robinson (fiddle and jug) met in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC. They got to talking and after advice and tutelage from noted fiddler Joe Thompson, they started their own band.  It's not often known that there is a rich string band tradition in African American music that goes waaaaaaaaaaaaay back. For whatever reason this music mostly died out in the thirties or was subsumed by what we think of today as blues music. You hear bits and echoes of it in bluegrass and in the Piedmont Blues. There are more links between "country" and "blues" than we have been given to believe. Monster guitarists like Etta Baker, Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten (all long gone) were also part of this tradition. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are keeping this music alive and putting new life into it for a new century. And they are pretty darn good musicians. Snowden's Jig has almost a klezmer feel to it but it is a very old traditional African-American work.

Snowden's Jig
Louis Prima
A Sicilian-American jazz trumpeter and singer from New Orleans, Prima was influenced HEAVILY by Louis Armstrong. He also shared Armstrong's and Gillespie's stage presence and zest for life.  Prima came up at a time before Italians were fully accepted as being "white". He played at the Apollo to appreciative Black audiences. Indeed, because of his complexion and "hep-cat" verbal stylings, when he first arrived in New York he was subjected to racial segregation as many white club owners thought he was Black or "mulatto".
Chances are even if you don't know his name, you'll recognize his voice. Just about any self-respecting Italian restaurant has his music playing at some point.
Although it wasn't called rock-n-roll when he was young, Prima, much like Louis Jordan, was playing music that was rock-n-roll in all but name. His lecherous and aggressive stage presence, complete with loud suits in incandescent colors certainly was a forerunner of several rock stars that came after him. Although he ended his career in Vegas, one must remember that when he went there Vegas was not considered the pinnacle of cheese or bad music that it became later. Prima, unlike Sinatra, had encouraging words for the new rock-n-rollers supplanting his style of music in the fifties. He was, along with people like Jackie Wilson/BB King or Ike Turner, a sartorial influence on a young Elvis Presley.
Prima may be better known to the post 1960 generation as the voice of the orangutan who kidnaps Mowgli in the movie The Jungle Book. There is a serious amount of joy in his music which can be heard in everything he sang or played. This music harkens back to a time where dancing was a two person activity.

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