Saturday, March 3, 2012

Music Reviews-Pharoah Sanders, Pirates of Penzance, Dirty Blues

Pharoah Sanders
Do you think that St. Peter ever got tired of answering questions about what it was like to hang out with Jesus? Does Robin become annoyed with fanmail wanting to discuss his days with Batman? Does Thunder ever wish just once it could show up before Lightning?

Well maybe. And maybe Pharoah Sanders should be recognized for the masterful musician he is rather than a man who briefly played with John Coltrane. After all, Sanders was and is so skilled that another saxophonist (Albert Ayler) once stated "Trane is the Father, Pharoah is the Son, I am The Holy Ghost". Sanders really is that good. His music ranges from down and dirty blues to post-bop to afro-centric spiritual  gospelized jazz (my favorite period) to free jazz/avant-garde. This last is something of an acquired taste. It REALLY is. If you don't like free jazz , some of it may initially sound like someone just making random loud noise on the saxophone as fast and as frantically as he can. I LIKE free jazz and a lot of it still sounds like that to me. It's really advanced stuff. The melodies can get very very abstruse. Sanders knows how to use dissonance effectively.

Still, along with Coltrane's widow Alice, Pharoah Sanders provides us a window into what Coltrane might have been doing if he had survived. He also shows us what magic sounds like.
His late sixties/early seventies music is my favorite period but Sanders has ranged far and wide across the musical landscape. If you haven't heard anything by Sanders his work on the Impulse label is the best (really the only) place to start. Sanders combined Eastern modes with blues riffs, West African rhythms with Black American harmonies. There was literally almost nothing he couldn't play and didn't play. Way before "World Music" was a genre and marketing tool, Sanders was creating it. If you wanted to know what Indian ragas would sound like mixed with African-American blues forms, Sanders had already answered that question in the sixties. He dipped back into R&B in the late seventies and eighties. Even jazz icons have to eat.

These are not 3 minute ditties. They are long musical pieces that should be understood and enjoyed the same way you'd listen to a Bach or Beethoven work. There's an awful lot of different things going on in Sanders' works. For a short glorious period in the mid seventies you could hear Sanders on free form FM radio. Those days are long gone of course. Sanders' best vocalist and usually the person heard singing here was Leon Thomas, who was also known for his avant-garde yodeling(!) and other strange vocal tricks. Many jazz musicians and more than a few rock ones (e.g. Santana) owe some of their music to Pharoah Sanders. If you're into meditation or view music with something akin to religious awe, you may find this music of great utility. There are still giants that walk the earth. Pharoah Sanders is one.
Prince of Peace  Japan(with Sonny Sharrock on guitar)
Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah  Thembi(Live with Hiram Bullock and David Sanborn)
Love is Everywhere   Astral Traveling   The Creator has a Master Plan
The Father Son and Holy Ghost (with John Coltrane)
La Allah Dayim Moulenah (with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania)

The Pirates of Penzance
With the leap year I thought it might be fun to give a nod to the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Pirates of Penzance(TPoP). For me, many of the best operas are sung in French, German or Italian. The English language TPoP is an exception to that rule. It's my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan work. TPoP shows that singers are just as much musicians as instrumentalists.  It provides beautiful contrast between the lows and highs of the human voice. Truly the voice is the most impressive instrument we have. Have you ever thought how interesting it is that women's and men's voices are almost exactly one octave apart? Clearly Gilbert and Sullivan did because they make great use of this fact throughout their work.

In Victorian times a young pirate named Frederic has just turned 21. This completes his obligation. He is talking with the pirates' maid, Ruth (his former nursemaid). Ruth had thought Frederic's father had wanted him apprenticed to a pirate and not (as he said) a pilot. Frederic doesn't much like being a pirate. But he thinks that the less than attractive Ruth is the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. Frederic hasn't ever seen any other women.  He wants to take Ruth with him when he leaves. Frederic also wants his pirate buddies to give up their wicked ways. They aren't really that successful as pirates as they always let orphans go. Of course all of their would be victims now claim to be orphans. Frederic feels duty bound to hunt down his friends once he's not a pirate.

A group of sisters (including Mabel) wanders by. Frederic sees Mabel and realizes Ruth wasn't beautiful at all. While Frederic and Mabel are making goo-goo eyes at each other, the pirates return and threaten to marry all of the women. They say it's a first rate opportunity to be married with impunity. The women boast that their father is a Major General. The (cowardly) General lies to the pirates that he too is an orphan so they let everyone go.

When the General gets home he feels bad about lying to the pirates but arranges to send the police after them. The women are excited at this and speak of limbs being severed and brave men dying. "Die and every Cornish daughter with her tears your grave shall water". The police aren't as thrilled since they will be the ones dying. They try to delay their departure, to the general's annoyance.

Meanwhile the pirates have discovered a loophole. Their contract with Frederic required him to work as a pirate until his 21st birthday. But as Frederic was born on Feb 29, a leap year, that means he won't technically have his 21st birthday until he's 84 years old. It's a paradox. Frederic takes contracts very seriously so he rushes off to see if Mabel will wait. He also tells the pirates of the General's lie.
Battle is joined between the pirates and police which the police lose badly. But the Major General commands the pirates to yield in the Queen's name. Apparently the pirates are all renegade (but patriotic) nobles. All's well that ends well and everyone gets married.

This work has an example of a patter song in Modern Major General,(which most people are familiar with) and plenty of other interesting musical techniques (round singing, double choruses, parodies of other works,e.g. Verdi's "Aida", counterpoint), etc. Notice that Americans "lifted" the music from "With cat like tread" for the song "Hail, Hail the gang's all here". Unfortunately some modern interpretations have altered the voices for certain parts. Should you happen to purchase this opera, make sure that whatever version you get has the parts of the Police Sergeant and Major General sung by bass or at least baritone voices, NOT tenors. Otherwise you might as well throw your money away.
When the Foeman bears his steel   I am a pirate king  All is Prepared/Oh Here is Love
Poor Wandering One   Paradox    I am the very model of a modern major general  With Cat Like Tread  First Rate Opportunity

Old School Dirty Blues, Jazz and R&B
Every now and again someone will go on a rant about how today's music is far too explicit, only concerned with sex and just too nasty to listen to. Usually the person venting is directing his venom towards rap and R&B. He often juxtaposes this crappy modern music against the more enlightened music of a past golden age when evidently men and women hadn't yet discovered their parts fit together and certainly never did anything so crass as write songs about it. Hmm. Well maybe. I am not a fan of much modern rap and R&B , mostly because I think the creativity, human element and musicianship is somewhat lacking but also because I'm older. But let's not pretend that all the music of yesteryear was by definition cleaner and more wholesome. Because just between you and wasn't.

All of the below songs were recorded before 1955; most were done before 1940. Unless you just fell off a turnip truck and are a complete idjit, you will "get" most of the barely disguised double entendres. Sometimes the singer dispenses with pretense altogether and just lays it all out there. I  shouldn't have to tell you (but I will) that this language is often raw, offensive, smutty, filthy, sexist, and any other "ist" that people use to indicate something bad. So if this offends, don't listen. And definitely don't listen at work. I am NOT KIDDING about this. The titles provide truth-in-labeling. Some of this is dirty stuff. 

The next time some music snob starts to drone on about how modern popular music is just too raunchy, you can retrieve these tracks and tell that person to take that crap to some other sap. Humans have always mixed the sacred and profane, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. One doesn't necessarily refute the other. I'm not saying the songs below are great missing works of art. They aren't. But it is worth noting that that several well respected jazz and blues giants (Sidney Bechet, Tom Dorsey, Dinah Washington, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith) are represented here or in other such songs. Tom Dorsey, who later wrote "Precious Lord, Take my hand" and "Peace in the Valley" and was known as the father of gospel music can be heard here in a duo with Tampa Red gleefully singing "It's Tight Like That". Duality.

Get off with me   Kitchen Man Blues    My Daddy rocks me with one steady roll
Long John Blues   It's tight like that     Rubbing on the Darn Old Thing
Do your Duty   Preaching Blues    Big Long Sliding Thing
Press my button, ring my bell  I need a little sugar in my bowl  It ain't the meat, it's the motion
Shave em dry   My Pencil won't write no more Winin Boy
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