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

Sunday, August 22, 2004


Michael Ventura’s book of essays “Shadow Dancing in the USA” features a dandy called “Hear that Long Snake Moan” (title courtesy of Blind Lemon Jefferson), a speculative history of the African American beat from 19th century Louisiana voodoo ceremonies through jazz & R&B & rock and roll. Thesis: That the Rhythm & Blues of Louis Jordan and others partook of the same religious-ceremonial-musical-intense-rhythmic impulse and is in the direct lineage of jazz and Louisiana voodoo, and that R&B’s successor style, rock and roll, is of the same water, and that African American gospel is front & center in the mix too. Historically and musically, this makes a lot of sense: Louis Jordan himself played alto in the Chick Webb band that gave Ella Fitzgerald her start; his beats & sounds aren’t far removed from those of Webb or especially Lionel Hampton. Therefore: In the post-big-band ‘40s, when “the history of jazz” tells us that bop was the next move, there were actually two new jazz moves: bop and R&B. That only one of the moves got called jazz is neither here nor there.

I dig this thesis; it comports with the other thesis I carry around like a suitcase or an albatross, which is the Andre Hodeir / Martin Williams thesis, that rhythmic innovation always takes the lead in newness in jazz. They take innovation to equate with increase in complexity and/or subtlety: bop is more complex than swing and free jazz is more complex than bop (both more-or-less). But innovation can just mean change too: The R&B innovation from swing made the beats harder, not necessarily more complex -- and that’s still innovation.

Gospel went through similar yet distinct innovations. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a big band swing singer in the early ‘40s as well as a country-blues style solo guitarist (and maybe the first ever rock-and-roll-style electric guitarist, sounding like Chuck Berry 14 years before “Maybelline,” but that’s another story for another night); by 1956, her stripped-down electric gospel band was making a lot of the rhythmic and sonic (timbre) moves that Aretha Franklin *and* Bob Dylan and the Band would be making 10 years later. Telling detail: Her bassist and drummer also played big band music with her 15 years earlier. (This detail is repeated in the story of most of Motown’s house band, as told in “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” [haven’t read the book, but loved the video]: most of those guys played jazz before they played Motown.)

Since Motown and Memphis soul owe more to gospel than to R&B, and since funk, disco, hip hop, techno, and their myriad stylistic permutations and descendants owe more to soul than to blues or rock and roll, gospel’s centrality and lineage fit in well with the Ventura/Hodeir/Williams hybrid thesis that “it’s all jazz and rhythmic innovation drives newness.”

Right now, Top 40 R&B is at the center of rhythmic innovation. Heard a song a couple times on the radio the other day sung by several female voices (may have been one singer, overdubbed) that displayed a beauteous rhythmic virtuosity and innovativeness. Songs I’ve heard by Usher strike me similarly -- these artists have an ability to keep multiple rhythmic-melodic-vocal balls in the air simultaneously, with subtlety and complexity that I haven’t heard before. The rhythm sections -- electronic percussion & bass -- don’t feel super-new to me; these melodic-rhythmic innovations feel like the freshest moves since Charlie Parker or Lester Young. I remember when dancing to Prince’s “Controversy” and the Time’s first couple records in the early ‘80s, and thinking, “will this music ever sound dated?” Prince & the Time brought sonic (timbre) innovations, but there’s a lot more Funkadelic & Sly Stone & James Brown in there than I knew at the time. This new stuff is different.

Last night my beloved spouse & I had a great time at the CD release show for a compilation of Seattle’s best soul and funk, 1965-1975, with many of the original musicians playing, now in their 50s and 60s and 70s. The terrific band Cold, Bold & Together gave Kenny G his start 30 years ago -- they smoked it like mofos last night & they sound terrif on the CD. (Mr. G didn’t make the show; his solo on the CD is a little rough but energetic.) Cold, Bold & Together were in a serious Earth Wind & Fire bag; Maurice White, EWF’s main writer and leader, had played in the (jazz, popular gospel-influenced instrumental jazz) Ramsey Lewis Trio, and he thought of EWF as playing in the Coltrane and Miles tradition. The patriarch of the slightly less rippin’ but beautifuller-singing family band Broham, Curtis Hammond, played sax with Coltrane and Miles and Ray Charles -- and last night Mr. Hammond’s three sons still sang beautifully & he himself, who’s gotta be in his 70s, reigned on that horn.

Ray Charles -- from Nat King Cole stylings to inventing soul music by singing secular over gospel rhythms.

Now one of the top 2 most loathed musicians in the world (along with Britney), Kenny G is the king of Smooth Jazz. My local smooth jazz radio station plays early ‘70s Marvin Gaye regularly. Serious jazz critics pretty much all loathe it (“Marvin’s cool, but he’s not *jazz*, and DON’T get me started on Kenny G”), but the Smooth Jazz guys -- they’re right.


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