C.A.T: Superunknown

Soundgarden – Superunknown (1994)

I know, it’s clearly not Tuesday, but I figure at least the proper acronym will still be in place if I do a Classic Album Thursday. Because if I’m being honest, I’d feel a little phony doing a full-on eulogy for Chris Cornell, who passed away earlier today in perhaps the most heartbreaking way for a grunge superstar to pass away – suicide. No, this would ring a bit false because I’ve never quite loved Soundgarden. But I don’t think you have to love Soundgarden to enjoy Superunknown, because it’s arguably the best album the grunge era ever produced, and displays in mind-blowing fashion why Chris Cornell was perhaps the most gifted rock singer of that era. Continue reading

C.A.T.: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)

Last night I listened to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady while drinking warm Pepsi and playing Tecmo Super Bowl. It turned what was a relatively quiet evening into an offbeat jazz odyssey. Also, the 1991 Seahawks beat the Jets 28-6. All thanks to the power of jazz. So we’re rolling a smoke and hitching a ride back to 1963 for this week’s Classic Album Tuesday.

I find writing about jazz, particularly for someone not well versed in the genre, challenging. There are no words and the intentions aren’t always clear, but that’s kind of the beauty. It’s how YOU interpret the music. I try to close my eyes and remember what I can. The first thing I recall is the music, swaying in, like a drunk elephant, followed by a bizarre low buzz, like a fart machine. Is it a tuba? An alto, something? I can’t believe it only took me two paragraphs to type “fart machine” describing one of the greatest jazz albums of all time.

At first, the whole album has a chaotic feel. Like a circus that keeps piling on attractions and stunts before the previous performance has ended. From what I’ve read, Mingus utilized a great deal of overdubbing, piling on more and more instruments and unique sounds throughout the recording process. Himself a talented double bass player, Mingus is accompanied by the equivalent of a small chamber orchestra in a ten-piece backing band. Even instruments I wouldn’t associate with this bluesy kind of jazz are included like classical guitar and flute.

I could name the names of all the talented musicians on this record, or at least copy and paste their names–I don’t know any of them, but I’m told they’re amazing–but why do that when Mingus himself can do that right here. If you don’t feel like clicking on that, it’s a link to the album’s liner notes, written by Mingus. He’s very technical in breaking down the album, which is broken into four tracks and six modes like a ballet. I was surprised considering the album has an improvised vibe. Apparently, Mingus planned much of this in workshops and had a specific vision. The greats always do.

I find it interesting to note that the rest of the liner notes for this album were written by Mingus’ personal psychologist, Dr. Edmund Pollock. Though I don’t know the nature of their relationship the liner notes are not weird or science-y. Pollock is complimentary towards a musician often called, “The Angry Man of Jazz.” One of my favorite comments is when he says Mingus is in “great pain and anguish because he loves.” What a beautiful way to describe music as a vehicle for personal expression.

The album isn’t all downbeat rhythms and melodies. There are moments of elation when Mingus switches to playing piano as cherubic flutes play overhead. It’s the kind of album that can’t be listened to in pieces. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is a symphony, with all its highs and lows. There’s too much to take in on a first listen. It’s the kind of album you can listen to one hundred times and always hear something new. I look forward to hearing it again when the 1991 Seahawks go to the Super Bowl. Go jazz!

C.A.T.: Tous les garçons et les filles

Françoise Hardy – Tous les garçons et les filles (1962)

What better album to feature for Valentine’s Day than one from Paris, France: “The City of Love.” Awhile back, I set out to review an acclaimed album once a week—for Classic Album Tuesdays—chronologically from 1957 to modern day. I crapped out at 1961. The problem being most rock albums back then sucked. Don’t get me wrong. There were 31-flavors of good Jazz and Blues. Yet Rock had yet to evolve past the single. Most rockers were too busy being rebels (most of which without causes) and dying in motorcycle crashes.

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C.A.T.: King of the Delta Blues Singers

Robert Johnson – King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961)

Robert Johnson has all the trappings of a classic rock star. He made a deal with the devil, died at 27, inspired a Ralph Macchio movie, all between a remarkable two-year span. Look at all the classics; “Cross Road Blues,” “From Four Until Late,” “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” “Love in Vain,” “They’re Red Hot,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and the list goes on. If it wasn’t for Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton wouldn’t be God. He wouldn’t even be a demi-god. Led Zeppelin wouldn’t have the “Led” and The Rolling Stones would be gathering moss.

Sadly, Robert Johnson only recorded 29 songs before kicking the bucket from drinking poisoned whiskey. Hell, there’s like, two pictures of him in existence. Yet he lives on thanks to compilations like 1961’s King of the Delta Blues. Compiled from sixteen mono recordings between two sessions in 1936 and 1937, King of the Delta Blues has built its legacy as one of the greatest collection of blues songs ever assembled.

There’s no denying the age of these recordings shows. Numerous tracks have crackles and fuzz, but that’s the charm. There’s a gritty, ghostly presence to Robert Johnson, playing with as much passion as any man to ever strum on a six-string. My favorite moments are when Johnson plays slide. The tinny slide of Johnson’s strings are unmatched. “Traveling Riverside Blues” being my favorite example. Robert Johnson’s guitar was no more a guitar than an extension of his personal pain, and you can feel every note.

I can see how it’s easy for people to overlook Robert Johnson. His songs are simple, the recordings are old, there’s not a great deal of variety in the numbers. What those people fail to notice is how ahead of his time Johnson was. Few artists of the era were as passionate. Few are that passionate today. Robert Johnson was the real deal. When he sang about crossing the country, drinking and looking for women, you know it was real. I think that’s lost in most modern blues. You can’t play the blues unless you are the blues. Robert Johnson was the blues. Robert Johnson still is the blues. Hail to the King of the Delta.

Favorite Tracks: “Cross Road Blues,” “Kind Hearted Woman,” “Traveling Riverside Blues”

C.A.T.: Sketches of Spain

Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain (1960)

This might be a crock of shit, but Miles Davis has to be the most versatile jazz musician of his time. I say this because I have only heard three albums by Davis aka the “Prince of Darkness.” “How the hell did he get that nickname?” And those albums are; Birth of the Cool, which had kind of an uptempo bebop feel, Some Kind of Blue, which is the laid back lounge lizard jazz, and this one, which is on a whole other planet… A planet called Spain.

Initially, I imagined an album with a few salsa numbers, merengue, bossa nova, maybe a little cha-cha. Only to find out later none of those genres come from Spain. What is Spanish music? A wiki search will tell you Spanish music is commonly associated with flamenco, traditional folk and European classical musical. This definitely helps me color in the numbers of Sketches of Spain, a symphonic jazz odyssey that must be heard to be understood.

“Concerto de Aranjuez” is the album’s most memorable piece. Clocking in at almost twenty minutes, the song is an arrangement of Joaquín Rodrigo’s 1939 piece written for classical guitar. Though because Davis is a horns man, he plays the arrangement on flugelhorn. The result is moody and atmospheric, even scary at times. It’s hard to believe such a complex jazz arrangement existed at the same Andy Griffith was winning over the hearts of America with his small town ways.

The origin of this album (if true) is another fascinating story. Apparently, Davis was given the only album in existence with “Concerto de Aranjuez” and Davis and his arranger Gil Evans had to copy the music from what they heard on the record. The rest of the album developed from Spanish folk music the two heard in clubs. The end result is a collection of music that is both intricate and engaging.

Sketches of Spain feels like a soundtrack to an unmade film. I could imagine this album being at home in a European-produced western or something involving an exotic land or overseas adventure. This album takes the mind for a ride and that ain’t no crock of shit.

Favorite Tracks: “Concerto de Aranjuez,” “The Pan Piper,” “Will o’ the Wisp “

C.A.T.: Chuck Berry Is On Top

Chuck Berry – Chuck Berry Is On Top (1959)

The other day I was watching a video of Chuck Berry performing at the Blueberry Hill Restaurant and Bar in St. Louis in 2014. The legendary rocker looked nice in his satin shirt and captain’s hat, but man, it didn’t sound nice. Chuck more or less wandered around the stage, mumbling his lyrics and occasionally reaching down to strum the wrong note on his Gibson hollow-body. Then I looked up his age. Chuck Berry was born in 1926! This means he was still performing live at 88-years-old! Pardon my French, but that is motherf#@king rock ’n roll!

I don’t care if Chuck Berry today sounds like shit. The fact that he’s up there, living the dream, even as a deteriorating skeleton-sailor-man is the personification of rock. Hats off to you Mr. Berry. Now on to this week’s “Classic Album Tuesday” where I will be discussing one of Berry’s finest works.

The 1950s was an odd era for the “album.” Apart from jazz or classical musicians, most albums were nothing more than compilations of singles. The “album” didn’t take off as an art form until the 1960s, so most 1950s rock albums were a couple of the hits and then a bunch of covers or leftover junk. What’s special about Chuck Berry is he was a hit making machine. Seven of the twelve tracks on Chuck Berry is On Top were on the Billboard Hot 100 and there’s not a cover to be found.

Not only was Chuck a hitmaker, he had a presence. Few people were playing the guitar like Berry back then, with Bo Diddley being one of the few exceptions. So guess who also plays on this album? Yep, Bo Diddley. This stuff was raw, or at least as raw as you could get back in 1959. I think a great deal of credit goes to Chess records for making this happen.

If you’re not familiar with Chess Records, Chess was a record company founded by Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, that over time became what Brownsville Station frontman and later music critic Cub Koda described as “America’s greatest blues label.” They even made a movie about it with Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess. I believe Mos Def plays Chuck Berry. I should watch it, but only if Mos Def duck walks. It ain’t a Chuck Berry movie if there’s no duck walking.

And these songs, what can I say? “Johnny B. Goode”, “Carol”, “Maybellene”, “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s like the 1992 NBA “Dream Team” of songs. These are the songs that Berry built on a foundation of earth, wood and rock and roll. When I was taking guitar lessons as a teenager, the opening riff to “Johnny B. Goode” was one of the first things I learned. It’s amazing how much power Berry’s songs carry today and will continue to carry on.

Thanks, Chuck.

Favorite Tracks: “Carol”, “Johnny B. Goode”, “Roll Over Beethoven”

C.A.T.: Somethin’ Else

Cannonball Adderley – Somethin’ Else (1958)

Four years ago, Colin and I did a series of Classic Album Tuesday reviews spanning 1957 to 1984. There wasn’t any particular theme or reasoning behind it, but it kept posts steady and let me explore a wide range of artists I otherwise wouldn’t have heard. Such artists included; Bobby Bland, The Beau Brummels, The Feelies and Briano Eno. I would like to try this again. Any other Mildly Pleasers are welcome to join me but don’t feel obligated. The truth of the matter is I could use the motivation to listen to more classic music. This being said I present you with my two cents regarding one of my favorite Jazz albums of all time.

I’m probably the last person who should write about Jazz. Do I even need to capitalize “Jazz?” I’ve probably heard less than ten Jazz albums in my life, and probably have no more than five I can say I love. Lucky for Cannonball Adderley, this album is one of them.

Somethin’ Else released in 1958 is a classic for more reasons than I can snap my fingers at. Here, the legendary alto saxophonist is not only accompanied by some of the most accomplished jazz artists of the time, he’s accompanied by Miles “Freaking” Davis. This is notable not only because Miles Davis is the most famous Jazz musician you’ve ever heard of, but because it is one of the few times Davis was a sideman. Adderley takes the spotlight with his busy yet bluesy playing style, well complemented by Davis’ more understated work. I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Though I can’t say much regarding the playing style, I can tell you how Somethin’ Else makes me feel. It makes me feel like a 1940s noir detective, smoking a cigarette and peering out at the rain-soaked streets from my office. You better believe I have an inner monologue going too. The leadoff track, “Autumn Leaves” best accompanies this fantasy (or delusion). At nearly ten minutes it’s a moody piece with a creeping piano and bittersweet horns.

I like to listen to Somethin’ Else when I write. I don’t usually listen to music when I write as I find it distracting but jazz feels just mellow and atmospheric enough for it to work for me. Especially if I have a hot cup of joe, looking out at the rain with an inner monologue in my head.

P.S. I plan on revealing a NEW weekly blog feature this Friday. Stay tuned!

Favorite Tracks: “Autumn Leaves,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Love for Sale”