Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, January 24, 2004


Yesterday morning driving to work I had a few minutes of radio heaven, courtesy of KBCS, “a world of music and ideas,” a local public non-NPR station. Their Friday morning music show is an eclectic trip called “Caravan,” named after the Ellington standard, one of the classics of jazz exotica, written by Ellington’s Puerto Rican valve trombonist Juan Tizol. The DJ usually opens the show with one of the hundreds of recorded versions of the tune. (Duke alone had dozens of distinct arrangements of the song, and all of them that I’ve heard are terrific.)

Today, an acquaintance of mine who works at the station, a good musician and a really nice guy named Bruce Wirth, was guest-hosting the show, and he opened with two great versions of the song -- broadcast simultaneously! One by trumpet great Jon Hassell from his wonderful album of a few years ago, “Fascinoma,” the other a really early Ellington version, maybe the first recording ever. (It may have been one of the small-group bands nominally led by Ellington sidemen; maybe Barney Bigard in this case).

Hassell, if you don’t know, is most famous for playing gorgeous electronically-altered trumpet on one song on the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” and for a beautiful electronic album cut with Brian Eno in ‘80 or ‘81. “Fascinoma” may be his first album with trumpet sans electronic alteration. His tone is gorgeous and his improvisations have always traced melodic beauty with unique sound and style and harmonic freedom. The band is wonderful (jazz pianist Jacky Terrason; classical Indian and New Age flute player Ronu Majumdar; tasteful all-round utility guitarist Ry Cooder; others); and the tunes are great, originals and standards. Two versions of “Caravan,” expansive and atmospheric.

(I picked up the phrase “The Magic of Tone,” about which I posted a few days ago, from Hassell’s liner notes to this album. He picked up the phrase from a Euro-institution-tradition composer [and astrologist] named Dane Rhudyar, whose music I’ve never heard and whose astrology I’ve never read.)

Bruce started this morning’s Caravan with one of Hassell’s languorous reverby versions, with a slightly dissonant piano riff intro before the tune comes in strong, then segued into uptempo the late ‘30s Ellington version, with its tight ensemble riffs behind the classic melody. I thought the Hassell version dropped out completely, but then I heard it ghostly in the background, behind the solos of some of Duke’s nonpareil stars -- Tizol, baritone saxist Harry Carney, clarinetist Bigard, maybe Rex Stewart on cornet. Bruce boosted Hassell’s trumpet when he was playing the melody, and briefly boosted it again after the brief Ellington version ended before quickly fading it out. The whole thing was gorgeous and exciting. The simultaneity of time past and time not-so-past; the dense tapestry of tone magic made by master musicians all with their distinctive sound prints. The collage faded out just as I pulled into work.

Thanks Bruce. And thanks Juan Tizol, Jon Hassell, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Rex Stewart (?), and, always, Duke.
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