Tuesday, November 9, 2010
MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 8 - Advanced Jazz
During a conversation about music while I was substitute teaching, a student told me "I'm going to get into jazz eventually, Mr. Stohrer, probably when I go to college." I told him that is exactly what I had said, and exactly what I did.
As a Prog-rock obsessed teenager, I was no stranger to prolonged instrumental passages and emphasis on technical musicianship, but Jazz was an intimidating stranger. I had Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme and Mingus Ah Um but I sorta had to force myself to choose them over something more instantly satisfying. (Think about how The Decalogue languishes at the bottom of your Netflix queue while seasons of The Office keep getting bumped to the top. You know Kieślowski's masterpiece will ultimately be more satisfying than Dwight Schrute but, ehhh... It's been a long day and you want something easy to get into.) When I put on that jazz I was constantly aware that I was listening to something acclaimed and esoteric that other people had instructed me to like, but to me it was a novelty. All I got from it was mysterious wallpaper.
In college, surrounded by new friends with expansive tastes (not to mention access to the university library and college-town record stores) I was able to get acquainted with this stranger and his gnarled, winding language. By that I don't mean I learned how to name by ear which scale the 'Trane is blowing, and I don't mean I memorized Blue Note session dates and personnel. I just mean I got hip to what those cats were laying down. Dig? My friend Jesse Howell would play me something from The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions and his reactions (mouth agape in astonishment, eyes squinted in overwhelmed laughter) gave me the jazz-bug more than anything before. We traded names: "Have you heard Grant Green?" "Do you like Horace Silver?" We swapped albums: "Take this, you're going to love it." Jazz became the meat in my musical diet and I was a fiend for the robust emotion and wily jubilance jumping from those drumkits and horns. Somewhere along the way, Mingus and Monk became my go-to music for waking up, driving, working out, doing dishes - doing everything. Finally, I sorta had to force myself to listen to Pink Floyd. Rock music didn't leap at me any more, at least not the way Eric Dolphy did. (What if I'd been raised by Beatniks instead of Boomers?) All it took was time, time to get hip to the vernacular.
So here's Madlib, evangelizing connoisseur, dropping the needle on 80 minutes of jazz. With an album cover I desperately want to hang in my kitchen someday, mixing that is more curatorial than technical and a definition of "jazz" that is rightfully inclusive, he's put together a fun mix. Anyone who's been following Yesterdays Universe will know what to expect: clattering, loose grooves and vamping keys. Free-form Sun Ra, a little Art Blakey. I don't recognize most of this stuff. I guess I don't need to.
People still make something of the fact that when On the Corner first came out, no credits were included. "Who's playing that organ? Who's on bass?" Not knowing who plays what separates music from the hero-worship that smothers the simple joy of listening with Mike Portnoy posters from Modern Drummer. Madlib (for different reasons) includes no information, leaving the sleuths to I.D. this tune and that, making us work a little harder than Jesse Howell when he excitedly thrust an Alice Coltrane CD into my hands. Madlib isn't here to guide us through specific discographies, though. He's here to get us hip to the vernacular.
I love that there's no pretense of narrative here, no Ken Burnsing, no attempt to form a coherent (read: simplistic) linear arc. Some of the found-sound folded into the mix informs (like Herbie Hancock explaining how he came to work with Miles Davis) but most of it is Beat poems and comedy records, free from documentary minutiae. There's no canonical through-line, either. We're not hearing played out excerpts from "Take Five" and "So What". This is Advanced jazz. Madlib is spinning stuff your college friends don't know about.
Jazz has an unfortunate reputation as an exception to the rule that pop music is easy to like and understand. This reputation is cemented by The Keepers of Esoterica ("Funk has no place in jazz" they blaspheme) and the Populist No-Thank-Yous alike. (Senior year in high school, I was listening to Bitches Brew for the first time when my mom popped her head into my room and said "Let me know when they're done warming up.") Don't listen to those people. Listen to Madlib.