by Eric Platz ¦ March 16 2017
In my listening, I always seem to loop back to Four & More, a 1964 live concert recording of the Miles Davis Quintet featuring tenor saxophonist George Coleman and the young rhythm-section of Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums). I’ve been listening to this recording, discussing it, breaking it down, and playing along with it for well over 20 years. It’s a reference point for me. A lot (a whole lot) has been written about Herbie+Ron+Tony, but I especially love this glimpse of an early point in the development of their unique language together (freedom within form and obscurity of structure, elasticity of time, metric modulation, clarity of execution and dialogue). You can hear the high point of this relationship on the 1967 Live in Europe concert recordings, but this earlier recording is something special as well. I think Tony’s drumset performance on this version of “So What” stands out as one of the greatest in recorded jazz history.
Has there been a more exquisitely produced pop song than “Woman in Chains” by Tears for Fears (The Seeds of Love, 1989)? I’ll throw that question out there. Listen to this with a good set of headphones, not shitty computer speakers. The arc and build of the song’s arrangement (!) The masterful performances, especially singer Oleta Adams, Pino Palladino on fretless bass, and Phil Collins on drums* (king of the grandiose, orchestral-like drum fill entrance… recall “In The Air Tonight” on Phil’s first solo record) (!!) The meticulous sound-crafting by Roland Orzabal, Curt Smith, and engineer Dave Bascombe (!!!) All pretty remarkable, and of a different (pre-mp3) era. Production aesthetics are always changing, but this track hits the sweet spot for me. It’s a beautiful balance of huge warm organic sound, killer performances, and an obsessive attention to structure, arrangement and sonic detail.
I remember bringing Seeds of Love to a high-end stereo store in Providence, Rhode Island, to check out… high-end stereos. I can’t remember any of the names of the gear I couldn’t afford, but I do remember having one of the more intense sonic experiences listening to “Woman In Chains” in a sound-isolated room while partially reclined in a leather barcalounger positioned at the precise location where ear drum-to-speaker cone distances and angles were aligned to perfection. Someone measured and cared. It was awesome.
*That’s NOT Phil and Pino in the video for this song. They’re on the recorded track you hear, though.
Ethnomusicologist Dr. Samuel Torjman Thomas, a good friend and long-time musical collaborator, has connected me to a lot of North African music over the years. One of the most captivating and influential discoveries for me has been the music of the Gnawa in Morocco. Led by a maâlem (“music master”) who sings and plays the guimbri, a three-stringed lute-type instrument, the Gnawan ensemble consists of dancers and accompanying singers who articulate the groove with large metal castanets (karkabous). Trance, ecstasy, and communal connection to the divine are central to the performance practice. This music is definitely of the Arabic world – devotional poetry, connection to Islam, nasal and melismatic singing style – but it also has roots in sub-Saharan music like the swing and tension-release of the 2 vs 3 rhythm (listen to the unique North African swing of the karkabous rhythm – one of the great grooves of the planet!), the call-response structure, and the vocal quality of the pentatonic guimbri lines. Repetition, verse-refrains, tonic-dominant emphasis, melody lines with varying pitch around the 3rd and 5th scale degrees, incredibly DEEP feel… sounds like blues language to me.
One of the biggest stars of Gnawan music is Maâlem Hamid El Kasri. This clip is a performance by his ensemble for the Moroccan TV station 2M Monde. Note that it’s a much shorter “made for TV” version of “El Bouhala” than what is typical of normal Gnawan performance practice. I could listen (and have listened) to this all day. Try tapping along with the karkabous groove and singing the theme melody. If you can get into it, you’ll find yourself starting to move like the Gnawans do when they play – a kind of circular, swaying motion. Try it, you’ll see. It will definitely give you a lift!
I love everything about this recording. “Os Passistas” from the album Livro (1998). Caetano Veloso, one of the main creative figures associated with Tropicália, a Brazilian artistic movement of the 1960s that encompassed music, theatre and poetry. The profound beat of the samba batucada heard (and certainly felt) during Carnaval in Rio. The beautiful poetry of the lyrics (an English translation is found here). The masterful arrangement of the woodwind, flugelhorn and French horn parts – tip of the hat to Marcelo Martins for that excellent work. The subtle lift each time the snare drum maxixe groove comes in.
This recording came out when I had moved to Boston after a year living in Brazil. It takes me back to that wonderful period of adventure and immersion in Brazil music and culture. I always come back to this recording. It has a lot of meaning to me, and I think with love about drummer Bob Moses who bought me this record. He said it reminded him of me and the organization of my playing.
Thinking more about production… and beat… and sonic space… and feel (in this case, sex)… I have to admit I’m still a bit obsessed with “Two Weeks” by FKA twigs, even though it’s now been almost 3 years since the song was released (2014). There’s no mistaking what’s being expressed by the lyrics (no high-minded poetry of Brazilian Tropicália here, folks), but I think the mojo of this song comes from the abstracted – yet super deep and heavy – beat of the programming (not the typical kick drum/snare patterns and usual sounds of soul/R&B/hip-hop drums) and the intimate sense of 3D space created by the production. You really have to listen to this with headphones. You’re enveloped by all of it. It’s intense. I also find the video really captivating with the long, slow single panned-out shot and FKA twigs’s miniature doppelgängers. I’m way into her dancing, too. OK, I have an FKA twigs crush on.
This sense of intimate sonic space in “Two Weeks” reminds me a bit of James Blake’s first recording and Björk’s “Cocoon” from the album Vespertine, another favorite listen of mine.
While studying at New England Conservatory, I had several points of intersection with jazz pianist Danilo Perez, one of which was playing in a rhythm-section ensemble (piano, bass, drums) that he directed. Sometime during this period, Danilo mentioned that at the top of his “most influential recordings” list was Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions (1963). He didn’t really elaborate much except to say that it opened up ideas of how to integrate Afro-Cuban rhythms and swing. He also mentioned that the recording demonstrated an approach to rhythmic flexibility that you can hear develop in recordings of the Miles Davis’s 1960s quartet. This info didn’t fall on deaf ears. I went to Tower Records and bought the CD.
According to the liner notes, “Succotash” (referring to the sound of drummer Willie Bobo’s Afro-Cuban Abakua drum pattern) was recorded as a free improvisation. The only thing Herbie specified was that he wanted to work in 6/8 meter. No chords were indicated to bassist Paul Chambers. Form and melody developed spontaneously. Among many other wonderful things, Herbie’s solos always seem to have a beautiful architecture to them. On this particular tune, the fluidity with which he and Paul Chambers shift between phrasing in 6/8 and a swinging triplet 4/4 meter (both implicit in that Afro-Cuban Abakua groove) is remarkable. I play along and practice with this recording all the time and invariably find something new and intriguing to explore… dimensions!
Incidentally, there was recently a very interesting podcast on NPR Music discussing percussionist Willie Bobo and his impact on the New York Latin music scene during the 60s and 70s. I wasn’t previously aware of his role in the development of boogaloo and Latin soul, as well as his history with Tito Puente, Cal Tjader and Mongo Santamaria. A fascinating window into the NYC Latin jazz world during that period of time. Herbie’s record still keeps leading me into… more dimensions!
That’s all for now. Comment and/or send me snapshots from your listening life.