10. Mor Thiam, “Ayo Ayo Nene,” Dini Safarrar, self-released / Jazzman, 1973, Senegal / USA
Mor Thiam’s “Ayo Ayo Nene (Blessing For The Newborn Baby)” is stomping, joyful, pushed into the red, Afrojazz. The baby is Thiam’s son, R&B star, Akon, then less than a year old, pictured on the back cover, propped up on a marimba with his father. Once you’ve learned the breadth of Thiam’s work as an ambassador of West African culture to the world – ranging from representing Senegal at the 1966 World Black Arts Festival, teaching African studies at Southern Illinois University, and participating in the U.S. civil rights movement, to advising with Disney and the Epcot Center – the Afro American cultural cross-pollination he nurtured becomes apparent throughout Dini Safarrar. Performers include well known members of the jazz avant-garde like Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake and Charles Bobo Shaw, who would all have been attuned to the collective expression sought on the album. The record was a self-funded release intended to raise money for victims of a drought. Always the people first, whose arts should never be divorced from their food and water.
Musical ideas flow from community collaboration, as ensemble playing and collective groove take precedence over soloists. The song form is simple, unfussy in the best of ways, freeing the group to put down an intercontinental groove. The “ayo ayo nene” melody is repeated, by ensemble vocals or the horns. Then follows a one, two chord vamp, punctuated by a horn riff. Lake, Bowie and John Evens’ horns occasionally spike out from the mix, like flames licking a pot on the cusp of boiling over, but they always remain close to the melody. Accenting the down beat, the horns are as essential to the rhythmic foundation as the percussion. Thiam’s soul scatting drives the group forward. It is an invitation, too, for us to recognize the people on the recording, an invitation to a public celebration.
The recording, produced by performer, promoter, label operator Oliver Sain, is thundering, raucous and distorted. I love it. Its quality perfectly matches the music. The Discogs page for all three editions of the album (original, and the CD and vinyl editions reissued by Jazzman) is littered by connoisseurs bitching and moaning about the distortion on the recording, as if Sain didn’t know how to record a band. The remastering engineer even bothered to apologize. They’re wrong. The recording sounds like the community center next door is blowing the roof of the sucker, and that fits Thiam’s work right on.
Side AA: Celia Cruz & Johnny Pacheco, “Oriza Eh”
9. Haruomi Hosono, “Sports Men,” Philharmony, Yen, 1982, Japan
Haruomi Hosono’s anti love song, “Sports Men,” is a tonal knife’s edge of early 80s post-modernity, on which the social anxiety of the individual fumbles through the performance demanded by a society of individuals. On which the creative autonomy enabled by the digital technology of an E-mu sampler/sequencer meets the aggregate concrete deck and the sunburnt shoulders of the hotel poolside. On which a rich computer life is confronted with a robust physical life. Isolation meets the spotlight. Genetics confront personal development. The Emulator, Prophet-5, LinnDrum and Roland MC-4 are listed as guest performers, digital colleagues mocking the isolation of their operator. The backing vocals are sampled and keyed in on the Emulator, like a swarm of holographic Hosonos. Hosono, the human, of course, has a long history of successful collaboration (with people). The wonderful, and clearly intentional, irony of “Sports Men,” is that this, the greatest of sports songs (fuck you, Gary Glitter), was written from the dweeb’s perspective and programmed on silicon.
Hosono strikes a remarkable balance in the lyrics, expressing an emotional subtlety rare in a pop song. Pining love is expressed through a systematic assessment, a ledger rundown, of a woman’s family. This jarringly unromantic device presents us with an outsider looking in at leisure activity, at the class privilege that encourages the conflation of leisure, physical prowess and beauty. Intimidation by the family of athletes is coupled with (slightly rose tinted?) derision. “Your father must have been a vaulter.” A vaulter? Pole vaulting is a niche activity no human should rely upon as evidence of physical superiority. I ran track in school and have never even seen a vaulting pole. Note the sneering pause preceding “vaulter.” Batman and Wonder Woman, shorthand for rich, jacked white people, are set against the singer’s four syllable afflictions – anorexic, apoplectic.
The apparently simple chorus, in which sport is deployed idiomatically against its usual context, is also layered with meaning. “I’ll be a good sport,” means you are going along with something you do not wish to do, or that you are being a graceful loser. As if our singer has preemptively accepted his inferiority. Sportsman is most often used to refer to outdoor sports, like carting around in an ATV while shooting other large mammals. It also carries a leisure class connotation. My dad goes fishing. Donald Trump Jr. is a sportsman. Here, Hosono extends the derision, making an outsider’s sportsball joke. But in that joke is contained his own physical anxiety, an earnest anxiety over his own weakness, in spite of how superficial he knows the family’s beauty and success to be.
Side AA: Steely Dan, “Reelin’ In the Years”
8. Miles Davis, “Black Satin,” On The Corner, Columbia, 1972, USA
Upon its release in 1972, On The Corner was panned by critics, derided by peers, left to languish unsold in record stores. Davis and longtime producer, Teo Macero’s, interest in avante-garde music typified by Karlheinz Stockhausen’s tape experiments, inspired them to push the cutting and splicing used to organize the segments of In A Silent Way, (more) microscopically into rhythmic loops. Critics, having museumed bebop’s head-solo-solo-head format as jazz, in spite of fifteen years of diversion from mainstream figures like Ornette, Coltrane, Pharoah, Roach, and Davis himself, lamented the album’s lack of cohesiveness. Could they not feel the rhythm in their spine? With the subsequent fifty years of popular music development now behind us, we can see those critics were squares with no vision and no history. On The Corner predicts the breakbeat looping, omnivorous sampling, groove focused music of hip-hop and electronic dance music.* The dense percussive loops, heavily effected with stereo pans and reverb, dropped in and out of the mix, sound like they could have been created on an MPC. It acknowledges and centers rhythm, more so than any other Miles project, within the living history of African diasporic music. Every instrument is a percussion instrument first.
Though he was well on the path to fully centering groove by 1972 (you can hear the progress on the ’69-’72 compilation Big Fun), On The Corner‘s funk maximalism is still shockingly nasty the first time you hear it. Betty Davis level nasty. Forget crooning Sinatra, this is the ultimate Manhattan record. People are out on the street doing their thing. You’ll get a glimpse of what their thing is, but the street is too busy to know any one person. You just strut through it like you have a thing worth doing, too. A listener looking for a melodic conversation will be thwarted. They will miss the macroscopic sum of the rhythmic parts.
“Black Satin” is and is not the superior track from On The Corner. There is no superior track. “Black Satin” is the simplest, most direct, most unified idea on the album, for the unfamiliar reader who may not bother to listen to the entire project. (Other tracks, “One and One” and “Helen Butte” for example, seem to originate from jams over the same idea.) Like most tracks on the album, “Black Satin” is pinned down by the bass (Mike Henderson) and drum kit (Jack DeJohnette, Billy Hart, Don Alias, Al Foster). After an intro featuring tabla, sitar and what we would in the year 2000 have called “electronics,” the bass and drums snap in. Cymbals and snare hits careen from channel to channel. The bass drum was either mixed low, or left out entirely to give space to Henderson’s strutting line. A wickedly sinister catcall of a melody, doubled by whistling, is played by filtered horns (Davis, Carlos Garnette, Dave Liebman, Benny Maupin). The wah smears the horns all together, like traffic redshifting away from you down Lexington Ave. As the music progresses, hand claps dripping with plate reverb overrun the snare hits. Badal Roy and James Mtume’s hand percussion bubbles up from the mix, adding another layer of sidewalk urgency. “Black Satin” returns to raga psych in the outro.
I’ve long marvelled at the acoustic space created by Macero on On The Corner and other contemporary Miles Davis albums. Overdubbing and recombining recordings from different takes can make for implausible acoustics. (I’ll write an article one day about albums I believe are marred by implausible acoustics. It is a persistent challenge in sampling records.) Macero creates a purposeful soundscape. Instruments are recorded with physical depth, generally, drums and bass up front, horns in the back, percussion at any depth. Yeah, the snares are disembodied from the high hats. Henderson’s bass pans to the other channel mid-phrase. Clapping, jingle bells, snatches of tabla drop in and out. Macero takes care in mixing to give each sound its own space. As the instruments are panned, dropped and reinserted, they never step on one another’s toes. Even as the rhythm overwhelms, it remains organic.
*By this time, Jamaican producers, more directly influential to the development of early hip-hop, were independently developing the studio production techniques and ethos of remix culture.
Side AA: Ilaiyaraaja, “Ponnana Neram”
7. Sun Ra Arkestra, “Nuclear War,” Nuclear War / Fireside Chat With Lucifer / 12″ single, El Saturn, 1983, Saturn / USA
Sun Ra recorded “Nuclear War” in 1982 for Columbia, confident it would be a hit. The label predictably declined to release a profanity dense, sparsely orchestrated, matter-of-fact statement on mutually assured destruction. (Not that people cursed less frequently before N.W.A., but recall that this was recorded before Run DMC had even dropped a “damn” into a record.) “Nuclear War” is often assessed as an oddity in The Arkestra’s canon, but that isn’t quite correct. Sun Ra’s output had always spanned traditional, contemporary and avant-garde African American music. In “Nuclear War” we hear traditional African call and response, inherited through slave’s field songs, inflamed with the brimstone of a gospel preacher (well, more like your uncle declaiming on a Saturday afternoon), and timed with a loooose, head-nodding jazz funk. Sun Ra lyrics, usually sung by June Tyson and/or the ensemble, are often brief, repeated rhymes meant to invite the people to wake up and observe, in awe, the secret truths brought by the Arkestra. Between street prophecy and mantra. “Nuclear War” feels so singular, because it is so stunningly direct.
If Sun Ra, godfather of Afro-Futurism, were going to come down to Earth, speak right in your ear on one topic, where else would he land the ship but nuclear war? Mass death in a nuclear holocaust demands direct language. “It’s a motherfucker. Don’t you know. If they push that button, your ass has got to go.” What the fuck else is there to say about nuclear war? Wanna discuss multilateral non-proliferation before you die? We’ve already experienced the devastation in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is nothing left to imagine. The Arkestra’s conversation, to which we are invited to participate by the call and response format, is almost banal. Radiation. Yup. Mutation. Uh-huh. ColdWarscifiBondvillainredscareJFKGodzilla – all smoke we raised to help cope with the fact that we’ve finally invented a superweapon to extinguish all life at the push of a button. Before, we had to look toward God for the apocalypse. Now some suit just has to hit the ENTER key on the Alienware stuffed inside the nuclear football.
Side AA: Dinah Washington, “This Bitter Earth”