TOP TEN: December 2015

1. R.I.P. Allen Toussaint

Though I now realise I have been hearing Allen Toussaint almost as long as I’ve been listening to music (he wrote 'Java', on the radio constantly when I was five) the name only registered with me some time in the 1970s when I realised the man with the French name was the common denominator in some of the funkiest records I owned: Dr. John, The Meters, Labelle, Little Feat, The Band. His songs, arrangements, piano playing or production enhanced all of them, and many others. When his solo album Southern Nights arrived, combining all of his skills in a breathtaking set of soulful nocturnes, my appreciation grew even greater. His death last month leaves an immeasurable gap. I paid tribute to this New Orleans maestro on RNZ National, and it can be replayed here

2. Wexler on Toussaint

And here’s the succinct Joel Selvin, writing to the garrulous Bob Lefsetz, remembering what the great producer Jerry Wexler once said of the master: “[Jerry] Wexler pointed out to me that Toussaint's music was untouched by outside trends. That you could follow his work from the rock and roll era through the Beatles and past disco and never know any of that happened. Ironic, as you note, that people will discover only what they lost.”

3. Joe Boyd’s A-Z

Funnily, the credit ‘produced by Joe Boyd’ is almost as prevalent in my music collection as that of Allen Toussaint. A very different kind of producer, though. Among the artists brought to disc by the London-based, Boston-born (and still very much alive) Joe Boyd were Pink Floyd (their great first single ‘Arnold Layne’), Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Kate and Anna McGarrigle… In more recent decades he has overseen wonderful world music productions, from Toumani Diabate to Cubanismo. His unerring ear for offbeat brilliance just goes on and on. That terrific ear, his dry wit and musicological wisdom come together in a brilliant series of podcasts, in which he works his way through a few of his favourite records in vaguely alphabetical order. So far we’ve been from Berlin to the Bahamas; from the pre-WWII a cappella of The Comedian Harmonisers to Andros Islanders John Roberts and Joseph Spence, with side trips to Scotland and Jamaica. And he’s only up to O. Listen here:

4. Duke Ellington is gangsta

Anatomy of a Murder and Money Jungle sound like the titles of hip-hop albums. In fact they are the two records by Duke Ellington I’ve had on high rotate the last few weeks. The former is The Duke’s 1959 great soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama. It’s bluesy and swinging, with most of his legendary soloists – Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Cat Anderson - in full effect. It also boasts one of the great modernist cover designs (see above right.) Money Jungle is a small group session from 1962 with the volatile, one-time-only trio of Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. At times it is wild and untamed, with all the rage of a Mingus record; Duke has never played more percussively or with more aggression. Yet it also has some of the most gorgeous, meditative music he ever wrote. ‘Fleurette Africaine’ is like some exotic meeting between Satie and the blues. ‘Warm Valley’ is as sultry and sexy as its title.

5. Rain in the Sahara

There’s no word in Tamashek for the colour purple, so the remake of the film Purple Rain, transposed to the Sahara desert, is called Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, which literally translates as “rain the color of blue with a little red in it.” Tamashek is the language spoken by the Toureg, nomadic people of the North Africa responsible for the modular, hypnotic guitar music that’s come to be known as the desert blues. The Prince role in the remake is taken by Mdou Moctar, a young left-handed desert bluesman, who can be seen riding around in purple robes on a purple motorcycle, and fighting with his fundamentalist father. Looks good. See the trailer here

6. Collective intelligence

From the Paris Review interview with the brilliant, reclusive and pseudonymed author Elena Ferrante, this thought-provoking statement: ‘The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero. And yet there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist behind every work of art. The individual person is, of course, necessary, but I’m not talking about the individual—I’m talking about a manufactured image.’Is this equally applicable to popular music and the folk tradition?

7. The invention of the Wah-Wah pedal

For those who are interested, a concise history of the great guitar gadget.My favourite wah-wah guitar solos are Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Still Raining, Still Dreaming’ (maybe the closest anyone’s ever come to making a guitar talk), Eric Clapton on Cream’s ‘White Room’ and Steely Dan’s recording of Duke Ellington’s ‘East St. Louis Toodle-Oo’ (though, of course, Bubber Miley did it all with a trumpet mute forty years earlier!)

8. The musician as critic: an occasional series
#12 & 35 - Bob Dylan

Has anyone read Tarantula lately? Has anyone ever read it? With the release of The Cutting Edge, the 12th instalment in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, the focus has turned once more to the fourteen-month period between 1965 and 1966 in which he made Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. And not surprisingly there is fascinating stuff among the out-takes on the two, six and eighteen-disc editions of The Cutting Edge, though I’m more curious about the unreleased stuff from his less-celebrated periods. (Could there be, in fact, a better album among the outtakes from the patchy Infidels or Empire Burlesque?) Still, listening to The Cutting Edge (six disc version enough for now) reminded me to pull out my copy of Tarantula, written during the same feverish period, which fell open at this: “Aretha with no goals, eternally single & one step soft of heaven/let it be understood that she owns this melody along with her emotional diplomats & her earth & her musical secrets.” Now that’s as poetic an appreciation of Lady Soul as there’s ever been.

9. Elvis Costello writes the book

Is it any surprise that a man who has packed more puns, quotes, allusions and arcane phrases into verse than the humble song-form can reasonably be expected to contain, writes a memoir close to 700 pages in length? Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink feels both more literary and more ungainly than most musicians’ autobiographies. He doesn’t stick to the typical chronological structure, preferring to let themes, characters and songs guide the narrative. He also devotes a substantial number of pages to his family history. In some ways, the book is as much a life of his father, the big-band singer Ross McManus, who died in 2011 and whose influence on his son was profound, if apparently unconscious.

But Costello can be very funny, and has many great stories and observations that deflate the rock’n’roll dream. Minor yet typical is the description of the unsalubrious studio where he had his first recording session (‘it looked like a place where you might get your bicycle fixed’.) The tawdriness of touring is hilariously evoked in countless descriptions of motel accommodations, interstate bus trips and backstage bunfights.

 He’s also an exuberant music fan, and his accounts of encounters with the heroes he first heard on records as a schoolboy - Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach – are almost as good as having one’s own backstage pass. Endearingly, he hasn’t outgrown his fandom. Among the illustrations are relatively recent selfies taken outside the dressing rooms of Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke. Of finding himself backstage at the Grammys with Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones and Liza Minnelli: ‘I felt like a spy who had infiltrated Show Business School.’

 But there are darker currents that run through the book as well. In a 1977 interview with Nick Kent, Elvis Costello came up with the highly quotable line that all his songs were motivated by ‘revenge and guilt’, and while over the years he has proved his range to be much greater than that, there are portions of the book that seem to have been inspired by precisely these things.

 Sometimes his revenge is his wit. While producing the debut album of The Specials he stumbles on a multi-track tape of Joe Jackson’s 1978 hit ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’, a song notable – some would say actionably so - for its similarity to early Costello. He erases Jackson’s vocal from the tape and dubs his own in its place.

 As for guilt, chunks can be read as apologies to his first wife, Mary, who he essentially abandoned in the first days of his stardom in favour of a twenty-four-year-old’s life of rock’n’roll excess. But there are passages about his second wife that are so bitter I almost put the book down. ‘I went inside a room, turned off all the lights, and could not find the door. For eighteen years’, is almost all he has to say about marriage number two. (Oh, there’s also this: ‘She could write a good verse when I met her, and looked good holding the bass, and you know that is half the battle.’ Talk about damning with faint praise.)

 Yet he is more likely to point the finger at himself. He takes responsibility for the bar fight with Stephen Stills and his entourage in Columbus, Ohio with, during which he used ‘despicable racial slurs in the same sentence as the names of two of the greatest musicians who ever lived.’

 ‘Never mind excuses, there are no excuses’ he writes. Still, he can’t help being defensive, pronouncing a couple of sentences later: ‘Irony’ is a word that, in my experience, few Americans could pronounce, let alone understand.’

 Is he picking another fight or do people just keep taking him the wrong way? As he writes elsewhere: ‘It seems that the space between my two front teeth, which made Jane Birkin, Ray Davies and Jerry Lewis so appealing, has had the effect of making half of what I says sound like a provocation or an insult.’ 

10. Last word

Last word this month goes to philosopher of the blues, Willie Dixon:

People always tried to do the blues like they did black people.They tried to put them in a condition where they couldn’t move. The world tried to say the blues is only 12-bar music and can’t go no further, but that’s a lie. Today we can make the blues in any amount. You can make it an opera, if you want to. It could last all day, as long as it tells the truth.”

Amen to that.

Tags: bob dylanjimi hendrixnew orleansthe bandduke ellingtonthe metersprinceeric claptonallen toussaintlittle featsteely danjoe boydfairport conventionjerry wexlerdr. johnpink floydnick drakeincredible string bandtoumani diabatearetha franklinelvis costellocream

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