Ugly, Nevada

I was fortunate to be sent to Las Vegas on a business trip.  Fortunate, because I didn’t have to pay for the trip, or anything associated with it.

Most places I travel to, I manage to find something interesting or of merit. The most interesting thing about Las Vegas was that I didn’t like Las Vegas, at all.

Everything about this city is ugly. If you don’t like gambling, prostitutes or fakery, there’s nothing here for you – by day, or by night.  The sheer, neon-lit obscenity of the place can only hold your attention for a few minutes. After that, you’re left with a sinking feeling that you’re trapped amidst the worst products of the human imagination.

I was mystified by the expectation in Las Vegas that every visitor was there to be “entertained”.  Taken out of themselves, transported to fake castles, fake pyramids, fake Parisian monuments, to be shamelessly stripped of their money while being bombarded by sound and fury. It is a singularly depressing thought that anyone  comes to this town of their own free will.

Occasionally during my stay, I was reminded of a sane world beyond the glittering gulch. At points along the Strip, there was a gap bewteen the high-rise hotels and I glimpsed the desert and mountains beyond. Nevada seems like a beautiful state, at least the parts  not afflicted by circumstance, customer service and casinos.

The good news is that Las Vegas has an airport. You can escape.

Don Ellis “Indian Lady”

The Don Ellis Orchestra charted an original path through the jazz of the late 60s and early 70s, producing some remarkable music for big band.

With an emphasis on electronics, non-conventional time signatures and improvisation, there are more than a few fans who consider his Orchestra to have been one of the most advanced in modern jazz. The 1971 live album Tears of Joy is worth checking out to hear what this band was all about.

Ellis himself died in 1978, cutting short his remarkable career, and his music fell back into relative obscurity in the neo-conservativism of 1980s jazz. Very little film footage of the band seems to have survived: this VHS copy of the Ellis composition “Indian Lady” at a concert at Tanglewood in 1968 is one of the few films of the Don Ellis band on YouTube.

Betty Carter in 1990

There’s been a ferocious email debate going on among some of my friends this week regarding Betty Carter.

Is she the greatest jazz singer ever, or a warbling charlatan who destroyed every song she touched? 

With Betty, there seems to be no middle ground. Either you love her, or you hate her.

This is Betty Carter and her trio, playing one of her own songs, “Dropping Things“… with a nice nod to Art Blakey at the end…

Betty Carter (vocal)
Marc Carey (piano)
Dwayne Burno (bass)
Gregory Hutchinson (drums)

Lisbon, Portgual – October 1990, at the Galp Jazz Festival

Cuong Vu

Cuong Vu Trio playing “Vina’s Lullaby

Cuong Vu – trumpet
Stomu Takeishi – bass
Ted Poor – drums

Live at Berklee College of Music (date unknown)

Random Act of Culture

I rather thought that this was a fabulous idea: a “flash mob” choir of 650, singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in Macy’s department store in Philadelphia, surprising the early Christmas shoppers.

They were accompanied by the shop’s pipe organ (only in America), which is apparently the largest pipe organ in the world (also, only in America).

It’d be great to do something like this in Paris… perhaps in Printemps or the Les Halles shopping centre?

Someday We’ll All Be Free

This week’s musical interlude is courtesy of the Miguel Atwood Ferguson Ensemble, performing Donny Hathaway‘s Someday We’ll All Be Free. This video was shot live a few weeks ago at California Plaza in Los Angeles.

Bilal Oliver does a fine job shadowing the original vocal style of Mr Hathaway on this song. He will have his own album Air Tight’s Revenge out in September… could be worth checking out.

What’s even better is that the mp3 of this performance is available as a free download!

The Queen Ain’t No Bitch

I’ve succumbed to the hype and have started watching The Wire on DVD (in France it’s called Sur Ecoute and almost nobody’s heard of it). Currently I’m halfway to Season One, and it’s already freaking great.

Here’s a taste: D’Angelo (a middle-management drug-pusher with half a conscience) is teaching his underlings how to play chess – and the pertinence of the metaphor is lost on nobody…

And if anyone – ANYONE – tells me what happens for the next five seasons, I call the Five-Oh on their ass, OK?

Paper Swords

I get a lot of messages in my blog inbox from bands and promoters wanting me to review and post their new music.  There’s simply too much to listen to, and since this is not just a “music” blog, I tend to only post stuff when I really like the music and if the artist’s message is nice, and particularly if it’s personalised.

This week I got one such nice message from Paper Swords, an folk-rock quintet from Southern California, which has been quick off the mark into the studio – according to their biography they only formed this year! Here’s a little taste…

The band consists of Ryan Myers (vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonium, piano), his brother TJ Myers (drums), Patrick Grant (bass), Russell Fletcher (trumpet, banjo, guitar, harmonium, vocals), and Teresa Ramallo (vocals, piano/keys, guitar).

If you like rich orchestrations and interesting songs, they’re worth checking out.  They do a particularly nice job of meshing TJ’s angular drumming with more traditional “folk” instrumentation – in this way they remind me a little of Laura Veir‘s erstwhile backing band Saltbreakers.

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a sucker for time signatures, so I have to recommend their song Bethseda, which is written in 21/8: but you’ll have to buy their EPWax Moon, Wane” to hear it! As a statement of intent, the EP is very impressive – hopefully there’ll be more music forthcoming soon!

A couple of sample tracks are available via their website, otherwise go to iTunes to pick it up.

Paper SwordsWax Moon, Wane [Buy on iTunes]



Esperanza Spalding

It’s safe to say I’ve finally leapt on board the Esperanza Spalding bandwagon. I got her album Esperanza a few weeks ago, and it’s pretty darn good.

For a still-young musician (25 years old) Esperanza shows remarkable maturity in performance and composition. She reminds me a lot of a young Tania Maria, both in the fact she is a vocalist/composer/instrumentalist and because of her taste for rapid-flight scat melodies spread over latin grooves:

But Esperanza is also all about subtle and complex songwriting, both in terms of the lyrics and their harmonic structure. I wish Betty Carter were still alive, because she would understand exactly where Esperanza is going with songs like She Got To You. Esperanza is the real deal:

Photo: Johann Sauty

Das Wohltemperierte Bieber

I really should write a follow-up on Joseph Stiglitz and ask what the heck happened to his report to Nicolas Sarkozy on redefined GDP measurement. But no, I got distracted by Punky Meadows Justin Bieber arriving in New Zealand this week.

Now I’ve got nothing against Justin Bieber in particular or teenage pop sensations in general. As music critic Graham Reid expressed on his blog today, the kids are going to scream at whatever they want to scream at. too. (Although this footage reaffirms why 13 year-old girls are still the scariest thing on the planet).

No, my point is about Auto-Tune. It’s clear that Mr Bieber can actually sing quite nicely in a radio-friendly monochrome fashion, and even plays the guitar – you can check out all the original YouTube videos if you want, but here’s JB on ITV in the UK back in January:

So why-oh-why do they channel his voice (and all of his right-on offsiders like Ludacris and Usher) through a freaking Auto-Tune on all his songs?

Auto-Tune’s been around for a while now. I wonder if in ten years’ time we’ll regard it as a hopelessly outmoded sonic token of the current decade. Just like all song titles at the moment must include the letters “ft.”, (as if artists are afraid to be heard performing without at least one celebrity friend), singers must warble through Auto-Tune’s digital downpipe in order to satisfy 2010’s well-tempered-robot aesthetic.

“Auto-Tune”, with its Bryl-Creem hyphen and teen-snaring smoothness, is like fins on a Studebaker: the fins serves no practical purpose, but made the car look cooler. Similarly Auto-Tune has become the indispensable appendage to modern pop.

In many ways, not a lot has changed since that shiny atomic age when asbestos was futuristic. In the first 8 bars of Baby compulsorily ft. Ludacris, Justin’s Ooooh-Aaaah resembles the same shoo-wop-doo-widdy nonsense as Da Doo Ron Ron in 1963.

And the rest of the song is based around the same I-VI-IV-V progression that has served so many chart-toppers well – 1964’s Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las, and 1961’s Stand By Me by Ben E. King…

I hope Justin Bieber survives the screaming hordes and that he grows up to be happy and fulfilled in whatever he does. Time will tell if his musical career will be durable and interesting.

Maybe one day Justin’ll make an album without Auto-Tune.

And maybe one day I’ll write that follow-up post about Joseph Stiglitz.