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

Thursday, June 23, 2005

SENSE OF ENSEMBLE IN GANG OF 4 & MINGUS

Dept. of Fortuitous Coincidences.

The day after posting last night on Sense of Ensemble, I read a new “New Yorker” note by Sasha Frere-Jones on Gang of 4’s first album, “Entertainment!” – one of the all-time brilliant explorations in small group ensemble, as Sasha describes. 

2 voices, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and melodica – the voicings of the instruments (melodica excepted) deployed in ways that undermine the normative bottom-up layer-cake method of American-derived vernacular music, where the rhythm section of bass and drums lay the foundation over which the music plays.  (The Go4 were English, but playing in a rock-funk-punk tradition that owes so much to the blues and black American gospel and jazz.)  So, instead of bass & drums on the bottom and guitar “leading” or “soloing” on top, sometimes the Gang had guitar & drums playing and bass laying out, sometimes guitar & bass playing with drums laying out, and all 3 instruments careening off each other in exhilarating dialogue emblematic of a democracy of equals.  The words and singing are fascinating too – an all-time great album – but the trio – fabulous.  SFJ, I’m w/ U, Go4 roolz!

(Sasha also recently took down the White Stripes’ favoring of ideology and arty-tricksiness over musicianship, a deeply gratifying read for someone who believes with Kurt Cobain that musicianship is not a dirty word.  [Kurt fired his drummer when a better one became available.])

The only record I know that goes as far as Gang of 4’s debut in breaking down the foreground / background or lead / rhythm hierarchy of pop/jazz/rock/etc. is “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus,” a brilliant 1960 quartet album the amazing bassist and composer made with brilliant reedman Eric Dolphy, wonderful drummer Dannie Richmond, and solid trumpeter Ted Curson.  As with “Entertainment!”, the bass and drums aren’t mere “supporters” of the treble instruments – sometimes drums lay out, sometimes Dolphy “comps”, Mingus & Richmond take their share of “leads.”  It was Mingus’s response to Ornette Coleman’s “free jazz” explosion, and it’s stupefyingly exciting and beautiful. 


[Historical footnote:  “Village Voice” civil rights columnist Nat Hentoff produced the Mingus record on a small indy label that he (co-?) founded, partly in order to allow jazzmen to record politically charged music, such as this Mingus album, which includes a scathing anti-segregationist song, “Original Faubus Fables,” about a segregationist southern Governor named Faubus. Mingus had previously recorded the tune for Columbia records, but without the lyrics, which Columbia had suppressed.  Columbia’s record of censorship extended years later to Public Enemy, who recorded the immortal “Fight the Power,” with the amazingly censored lines:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant [expletive deleted] to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain
Mother[bleep!] him and John Wayne


To this day the sound of that “bleep” flabbergasts me.]
Comments:
Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus = Greatest Jazz Album Ever.

Well, 1 of 'em anyway.

Great call, John.
 
Thanks Carl.

True story -- funny, in light of my recent Greil-bashing:

Years and years ago, Marcus, in one of his "Real Life Top 10" columns, which I read avidly back then, back when it was in the "Voice," marvelled at a new book on Picasso's "Guernica," and wondered what a book about a single album would be like. I wrote him a several-page letter proposing "Mingus Presents Mingus" as the album to write about, riffing on the stuff I just posted, about ensemble, and Ornette, and Columbia's censorship, and Hentoff's role, and Dolphy's brilliance, and so on. I never mailed the letter. Marcus later wrote his book on "The Basement Tapes." I hated the book.
 
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