Mingus Ah Um

by James Wallace Harris, April 15, 2022

I’m not an experienced jazz aficionado but I do love to listen to that genre from time to time. Today, for my afternoon album I played Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus via Spotify. You can listen to it while you read by clicking on the YouTube video below. Unfortunately, it will play at the fidelity of your computer/phone/tablet and that won’t do justice to this legendary album. It’s best to listen to jazz in a dark room on a great stereo when you can devote your mind and soul to the experience.

My love of jazz depends on the tempo. I prefer the dreamy numbers that I imagine are heard in smoky clubs at 3 a.m., like the cuts “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and “Pussy Cat Dues.” I listen to music because it triggers emotions, and slow jazz is often very emotional and moody.

I do admire, and even enjoy the medium-tempo pieces like “Better Git It in Your Soul,” and “Jelly Roll.” This is head-bopping speed and generally focuses on solos. At this speed, I can still process what each instrument is saying.

And depending on my mood, I can get into the fast pieces like “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” and “Pedal Point Blues.” The faster the jazz guys jam, the more they’re showing off. Usually, at this speed, if my mind is following along, I can dig the piece intellectually, but it’s stopped pushing my emotional buttons. This is how I often feel about listening to classical music. To truly appreciate these pieces I think it would be helpful to be young, high, and manic.

The frantic-pace performances push my limits to appreciate the form, like “Bird Calls,” which Mingus says wasn’t inspired by Charlie Parker, but bird calls. Parker is generally too speedy for my tastes. There are times when I feel Mingus is playing his bass twice as fast as the tune. The cuts on Mingus Ah Um aren’t nearly as fast as the hotter jazz from the early 1950s.

Jazz constantly mutates, so there’s no real one kind of jazz. Right now I prefer it from the late 1950s and early 1960s. 1959 was a fantastic year for jazz music. Two of the most accessible jazz albums ever came out that year: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Those two albums are often loved by people who never listen to jazz. We could consider them suitable for freshmen students of jazz. The other great jazz album of 1959 is The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman. That’s graduate-level. Mingus Ah Um is more advanced than Kind of Blue and Time Out, but far from The Shape of Jazz to Come. It’s still very accessible. I’d recommend it for juniors majoring in the genre. I don’t think it should be anyone’s first jazz album. Kind of Blue and Time Out are the gateway drugs.

However, I should amend what I’ve just said. One of my all-time favorite songs regardless of genre is “Moanin'” by Charles Mingus, and it’s an assault on the senses. It makes you feel like you’re dancing with a tornado. I love it. There are many versions of this song, even many by Mingus, but this is the version I have to have.

If you go to buy this album, be careful, there are many editions, some not so good. The $7.98 CD from Amazon is a good entry-level choice.

JWH

Paying Closer Attention to The Beatles

by James Wallace Harris, 8/6/22

Yesterday morning while riding my stationary bike I watched a video about The Beatles. Eric Callero of Vinyl Rewind covered his least favorite Beatle song from each album. I think it’s fascinating that young people are into The Beatles and their albums that came out over fifty years ago. Can you imagine Baby Boomers excited about bands from the 1910s or 1920s when we were young.

I started listening to The Beatles in 1964 and bought all their records as they came out in the 1960s. My nostalgia finds it confusing because The Beatles albums on sale today were not the same ones we bought back in the 1960s. I bought all The Beatles standard albums again in the late 1980s when they came out on CD, and then bought them again this century when they came out on remastered CD.

The Beatles were tremendously exciting back in the 1960s but they weren’t my favorite band back then. That was The Byrds. I did play each Beatle album quite a bit as they were released, but I forgot about them in a few weeks. Then over the decades whenever Susan and I watched a documentary about the Fab Four I’d get the albums out again. When the remastered CDs came out several years ago I bought them but only listened to each album one or two times.

Yesterday, inspired by the Vinyl Rewind video I listened to Please Please Me and With the Beatles. Unlike Eric Callero I couldn’t pick my least favorite song from each album. I was surprised by how good all the songs sounded. I also notice something. I couldn’t distinguish between John and Paul’s voices. Sometimes I thought I could but I was never sure. I did spot the two songs sung by Ringo, but I didn’t even notice that George was the main singer of five of the songs.

This made me realize that I’ve never paid close attention to The Beatles’ songs. Susan and I love watching documentaries about The Beatles, and we’ve read a few biographies on them. Susan can sing their songs, but we’re not Beatlemaniacs.

While watching the Vinyl Rewind video I envied Eric Callero for being able to cite so many details from each song. I’ve always listened to music as a kind of drug. Music stimulates my brain, setting off emotions. I take in each song as a gestalt. To be honest, I hardly even pay attention to the lyrics.

I got out a book we had on The Beatles, tell me why by Tim Riley, that lists the main singer for each song and started trying to train my ear to discern whether John, Paul, George, or Ringo was singing. This website also gives that information.

I’m going to keep playing these albums after lunch and see just how much I can get out of each song. I remember noticing in the past I didn’t know who was singing. And I also remember noticing in the past that the songs are recorded weirdly, with what appears to be the bass, drums, and George’s guitars on the left, and the singing and John’s guitar, and sometimes other instruments, on the right. I also knew that some songs were covers, but never really paid that much attention to which were originals and which were covers.

The desire to notice more in songs comes from several motivations. For being such a major music addict I feel bad about not knowing more about the music I love. But I also feel bad that I don’t pay more attention to the details of life. I’m curious if I can become more discerning. I’m also curious if I can change myself so late in life.

At seventy, I feel my mind is slowly decaying. I know my body is, so it’s natural to assume my brain is too. I eat better and exercise to squeeze more out of my body. I wonder if paying attention to details will it help sharpen my dull mind?

JWH

“Glad and Sorry” by Ronnie Lane

by James Wallace Harris, 3/23/22

For many many years, the song “Glad and Sorry” from the album Down by the Old Mainstream by Golden Smog has randomly played from my main playlist. I bought the CD because I was a fan of The Jayhawks and some of their members were playing on it. The song originally appeared on Ooh La La by the Faces in 1973 (originally, the Small Faces). I’m pretty sure I had that album back in the 1970s but didn’t remember it or “Glad and Sorry” when I first listened to Down by the Old Mainstream back in the 1990s.

I like to play whole albums after lunch and Spotify offered up Ooh La La. When I heard “Glad and Sorry” I recalled that album by Golden Smog. That’s when I started my research and discovered the song was written by Ronnie Lane of the Faces. Then I found a lovely remembrance of the song which I’ll quote below.

Here’s how the Faces did “Glad and Sorry” in 1973

Here it is again by Golden Smog.

The song is loved enough that it inspired 14 playlists on Spotify, and there are many cover versions. I love how some songs inspire countless performers to sing and record them. Here’s a nice jam session.

The lyrics are very simple:

That beautiful interpretation of the song is at the site One Week // One Band but without the name of who wrote the essay. Here’s the quote I mentioned, but it’s worth reading the entire piece. This is the way I wish I could write about music (I took this quote starting about halfway down the page, after the history of the song):

“Thank you kindly/For thinking of me/If I’m not smiling/I’m just thinking.”

All my life I’ve been the Quiet One, the one who (mostly) doesn’t say what he’s thinking, the one who doesn’t interact with others because he’s too withdrawn, or too self-serious, or too afraid that he’s bothering people. Always thinking, never sure he’s thought of anything worthwhile to say. “Smile,” they used to tell me, back when I had people in my life who would regularly engage in what they called encouraging me. “It’s not that bad.” Well, no—but smiling for the sake of smiling feels like dishonesty to me. Anyway, I’m thinking.

“Glad and sorry/Happy or sad/When all is done and spoken/You’re up or I’m down.”

It’s never “I’m up,” it’s never “you’re down.” There’s always a fundamental disconnect, we never meet in the middle, and I’m always lower. Not class or any bullshit like that, just circumstance. I can never meet your needs—emotional, physical, social, financial. The person who is You changes every so often, as people pass in and out of my life, but the relationship, once begun, is always the same. It’s bittersweet every time; the emotions are always tangled up. Glad, happy, sorry, sad—and then, at some point, I’ve done everything and said everything I’m going to do or say.

I wish I could relate to lyrics and poems like that.

I’m writing this because this song moves me, but I don’t know how to describe how it moves me. I’m writing this because I love how some songs stick with us for years. I’m writing this because I love how some very simple songs resonate deeply with people. I’m writing this to remember this afternoon, and to remember “Glad and Sorry.” Sadly, I won’t remember it every day, but on those days the songs pop up in my playlist, and I’ll add the original to my main playlist.

JWH

What Was the Last Album You Obsessed Over?

by James Wallace Harris, 2/27/22

I’m not really concerned with which album you recall, but when. I’ve been playing When You See Yourself by the Kings of Leon over and over for weeks. What’s significant to me is it came out in 2021. When was the last time you bought a new album? I mean one that had been recorded recently?

I still buy the occasional new album on release day, like Adele 35, but it’s getting to be an extremely rare event. But even rarer is finding a new album I go bonkers over. I loved the new Adele album, but I haven’t played it obsessively like I have When You See Yourself.

Over my lifetime I’ve bought several thousand albums, but the ones I love the best are the ones I play constantly for weeks. Albums I repeat like those rats who continuously push the button connected to the reward center of their brain. Out of all those albums, probably less than 100, or even less than 50, and maybe even less than 25, were the kind I’d play over and over for weeks. I can’t really name the figure because my memory is so unreliable, but if it was only one a year, it would be around 50-60. But the albums that wowed me mostly came out in the 1960s and 1970s, and then they slowed to a trickle. That means it might only be 25.

One reason I was inspired to write this blog was seeing a post on Facebook about Breakfast in America by Supertramp. That was another album I couldn’t stop playing for weeks. But that was back in 1979 and again in the 1990s when I got the CD, and again for weeks in the 2010s when I remembered it.

I think most of my friends, and I’m talking Baby Boomers here, when they think of a great album, think of albums from the 1960s and 1970s. My wife Susan, is like me, she’ll still want a new album, but much less often than me, and it usually involves The Foo Fights or Jackson Browne.

I believe the album I’ve played the most times over the course of my life is Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan. Every few years I come back to it and wear it out again. I’ve bought it on LP, CD, and SACD.

Why do most people stop buying new music after a certain period in their lives? Why do most people seem to only play music from when they were growing up? And is the reason I love When You See Yourself is because it sounds like something that could have been created in 1975?

My previous obsessively played album was Young in All the Wrong Ways by Sara Watkins (2016). Before that, the album I couldn’t stop playing was The Way Sounds Leaves the Room by Sarah Jaffe (2011).

It might take a long while and some digging through albums to find the one before that. I know during the 2010s I returned to playing Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan from 1966 over and over again.

Certain albums from the past do pop up in my memory but these are hardly all of them. I thought I’d just remember a handful of them in pictures.

That’s enough. What were you favorites?

JWH

Is Neil Young’s Spotify Protest Censorship?

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/22

I’ve noticed an interesting overlap in two news stories over the past week. One was Neil Young’s demand that Spotify removes Joe Rogan’s podcast, and the other was about parents demanding books be removed from Texas schools. Since I’m against banning books should I also be against banning podcasts? Just because I love Neil Young’s music should I follow his protests?

I know next to nothing about Joe Rogan other than he said healthy young people shouldn’t need to get the Covid vaccine. That’s truly bad advice that could get some young people killed. But is censoring Joe Rogan the answer? I find controversy-driven talk show hosts to be repugnant. I just ignore them. But what if we did live in a world where we could shut up everyone we didn’t want to hear?

The problem is people on the right want to suppress certain ideas, and people on the left want to suppress other ideas. In both cases, those folks think they are doing good. I believe ideas should battle it out in the open. If a talk show host or book author says something that upsets people, should we censor them? Or should we evaluate what they have to say and decide for ourselves what we want to believe?

We do have certain kinds of censorship. We put the kibosh on false advertising, libel, slander, or any action that leads to provable damaging results.

Are there cases where young people have died, and their parents could bring a class action suit against Joe Rogan? With all the social media evidence, I suppose documentation where young people left evidence saying they didn’t get vaccinated because of Joe Rogan. But isn’t that for the courts to decide?

What Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, et al have done is assume this danger is true and are fighting against it. That seems honorable. But I’m sure the parents and supporters of banning books feel they are equally honorable. I admire people wanting to do good, but I often feel they aren’t

On the other hand, I had a completely different take on the Young-Spotify issue. I was offended by Spotify regarding Joe Rogan for an entirely different reason. I love Spotify but I’ve always felt guilty when I hear claims that it doesn’t pay music creators fairly. To pay some blowhard $100 million for a podcast when Spotify is accused of paying musicians $50 royalty checks is hard to accept. Why isn’t Neil Young protesting that? However, I have heard other musicians say they are paid well by streaming services, and those complaining performers have never been given proper royalties. Evidently, dividing the pie has always been unfair in the music business.

It’s mind-boggling to me that talking heads get more money than musicians.

If recording artists pulled their music catalogs to protest bad pay, I could understand their attack on Spotify. Is Joe Rogan getting more pay per play than hit songwriters? That would be disturbing. Does society really value the opinionated over artists who gave us songs we’ve loved an entire lifetime? To me, Carol Kaye deserves $100 million far more than Joe Rogan.

I also must wonder if Neil Young and his musician friends are only hurting their fans. Spotify now skips their songs when they come up in my playlists. I never wanted to listen to Joe Rogan, but now I can’t hear Neal Young on Spotify.

I bought all of Neil Young’s albums and CDs for decades, and I could go back to listening to them now, but streaming is how I listen to music nowadays. I hardly ever use my turntable or CD player. Luckily, I subscribe to more than one music streaming service.

My protest to Spotify is they should pay the musicians more, even the ones that originally got bad contracts. I love the idea of a universal listening library for rent. It’s too damn convenient. That’s why I subscribe. I want access to all music. I don’t care about anything but the music.

JWH

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