6. Albert Ayler, “Bells,” Love Cry, Impulse!, 1968, USA
With 1968’s Love Cry, Albert Ayler distilled the ideas he had developed over years – about tone; melodic, harmonic, rhythmic improvisation; avant-garde and nostalgia; structure and freedom; popular music and art music – into the most succinctly stated free jazz of the decade. There is no mumbling on “Bells,” nothing extra. Many of the ideas I’ll highlight were present by 1965’s Spiritual Unity (ESP Disk). Here, the extended improvisations of the earlier record are replaced by embellished melody, and Albert’s saxophone is pinned to his younger brother Donald’s trumpet. The social impetus of the second horn is essential to the music. Donald’s trumpet in particular drives his brother from the introspection of his earlier recordings, (which remain critically important as statements affirming Ayler’s identity as an individual, a creator, and a Black man). Donald plays a simple counterpoint to Albert’s sax, often remaining on a pedal note, or carrying on repeated lines as the sax embellishes. Albert leans into the brassy tone of his horn, joining it easily with the trumpet; some of the most thrilling moments in “Bells” are when the two horns land on the same note. Perhaps a mother feels differently, but no other beings affirm our earthliness more than our own siblings. One could consider “Bells” and Love Cry to be a two horn inversion of the enormous ensemble sound featured on Coltrane’s Ascension (Impulse!, 1966). The impenetrable spookiness that some listeners hear in Ayler’s early recordings is blasted away by the clarity of Love Cry‘s statement. Death and the spirits are not fetishized, but met starkly, with indefatigable brassiness, like a New Orleans funeral band. Love Cry completes the ideas of Spiritual Unity by giving them more direct social context.
Ayler synthesizes an array of influences from the fringes and history of jazz culture. As Bill Laswell once said that Pharoah Sanders should be classified as a World musician first and a Jazz musician second, the same could be said of Ayler (and Milford Graves and Alan Silva). Along with the funeral brass band noted earlier, Caribbean Junkanoo music, the military march and melodies of drum and fife blues, joyful South African, major key melody, and the collective improvisation of traditional New Orleans jazz are all detectable. Ayler’s melodies here are direct, rooted in known, folk patterns. Before we experience their avant-garde-ness, we first experience their familiarity. Perhaps producer Bob Thiele encouraged or pressured Ayler into limiting himself to make his ideas accessible. If that pressure existed, he responded by removing any extended improvisation from Love Cry, compressing improvisation into embellishment and tone. Approachability doesn’t make “Bells” any less progressive, or any less innovative. It permits the counter reaction of freeing the rhythm section to push right up to the brink of structure. It permits Ayler’s influences to shine through, allowing him to make a dramatic and joyful statement rooted in a broad sample of African American cultures.
Graves (drums) and Silva (bass) are remarkably sensitive to Ayler’s rhythm, perhaps more so than any of the other superb rhythm sections he recorded with. The starkness of the Aylers’ lines makes visible Graves and Silva’s performance. The horns play the marching backbeat, freeing the drums to delve deep into the human polyrhythms jutting out from the melody. For all of his expansion Graves’ pulse remains true, physical like the pulse in your wrist. He coaxes melodic lines from his drums to support the melody. Silva switches from arco to pizzicato mid phrase, traversing the entire range of his bass. The variety of the rhythm section’s playing gives the four man ensemble a scope far larger than its actual size.
In entry eighteen, I wrote that “Mi Ve Wa Se” featured the best drum performance on this list. I was wrong. “Bells” does. Between writing and publishing this, I learned that Milford Graves died. He was a deeply inspirational musician, herbalist, martial artist and researcher into the human heart. Any of us could find inspiration and wisdom in Graves and his art. His website is http://www.milfordgraves.com.
Side AA: Louis Moholo-Moholo Octet, “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me”
5. John Fahey, “When The Catfish Is In Bloom,” Requia & Other Compositions For Guitar Solo, Vanguard, 1967
At the public park in heaven, where the United States of America’s dead literary giants mingle and feed pigeons, John Fahey is the guy ambiguously playing for himself, but maybe busking, on a bench by the fence, barely keeping a straight face. Scratch Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Suite off as the hymn of the American sunrise and replace it with “When The Catfish Is In Bloom.” A flat top acoustic is far more American than a chamber orchestra anyway. An acoustic guitar is intimate and lonely. And most of us Americans believe to our core that we can go it alone.
The genius in Fahey’s work is multifaceted, and “Catfish” is rich with these elements. First, borrowing Frank Zappa’s framework, Fahey created his own, conceptually continuous* body of sounds, images, structures and language that is only marginally astray of our shared reality. Shared reality in the United States, whenever there is such a thing, is rarely more than that which is most effectively marketed. Marginally astray is key, in that the uncomfortable proximity of Fahey’s Americana to commercial or mainstream Americana gets him within reach to poke that shared reality in the ribs. The plausibly absurd title gets him within striking distance. Down to the failed pluralization, “when the catfish is in bloom,” sounds like the beginning of a hick fairytale, or something you might hear in a tackle shop off a country road, to which you’d respond, “yessir,” knowing you look like a goddamned department store. Or is the grammatical number even incorrect? The catfish is just as much a natural phenomenon as a quantity of fish.
Fahey’s conceptual continuity extends to the depth of humor and tone, the molecules of emotion. He deftly balances more self-aware emotions like nostalgia, contempt or admiration, with the more primal joy, fear and anticipation. Pace and timing are his best emotional tools, and he plays the guitar like a storyteller. The opening phrases of the song are played with the grandeur of watching the sunrise over a river you’re about to fish, the chords arriving slightly fractured like the first rays of light on the horizon. It is slow, dawning, stately. The beginning ebbs and flows, like the river lapping the shore. Then the fish start biting, and in an arranging approach common in Fahey’s music, the guitar builds in tempo and rhythmic consistency. Melodic ideas are developed and responded to. After the climactic melody coalesces into a staccato march of chords, the song fades out, only to reappear after a brief silence to conclude in the same fashion as it began. Slow, stately, setting. You could read the false ending a few ways, but I’ll leave it as a Faheyian mystery, a wink that things may be more manufactured than they seem.
I’m reminded of a Fahey story, Fish, collected in How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, in which Fahey recalls fishing with Booker (or, phonetically by his own accent, and with his own disapproval, Bukka) White in the summer of 1966. The two pound whisky all afternoon. White leaves to get more whiskey and cola. While he is gone, Fahey catches a massive alligator gar. His struggle with the monster fish triggers a hallucinatory memory of his father sexually abusing him, that ends when White shoots the reeled in gar with his .45. On the surface, the story feels like big fish musicology, gonzo Alan Lomax (who also represented White in the mid-60s). But, like that shallow slough at a bend in the river supporting a monster gar, Fish is profoundly nuanced. It is about more than fishing. It is about Black Southern culture and Blues mythology viewed by a white outsider. It is about letting Booker White’s larger than life persona be as large as it is, while resisting the caricatures that followed him throughout his career. It is shockingly personal. It is about truth and memory, facing fear and healing. Discovering a new father figure. The use of parallels in the story is biblical. Fahey’s story, which, for all we know, may be big fish bullshit itself, is a philosophical complement to Lomax’s direct documentary.
What Fahey achieves in Fish illuminates what he achieves in “Catfish.” He inserts himself, as an idiosyncratic, thoughtful outsider into the greater Blues narrative. Unlike the Pages, Claptons and Richards of the time, Fahey doesn’t appropriate and amplify Mississippi Delta Blues. By the time of Requia, Fahey barely copies at all. His technique is as much Fernando Sor as it is Skip James or Doc Watson, and it is all himself. The scope and length of his instrumental compositions, and his willingness to incorporate tape experiments and found sound are signs of a mature, self-aware concept. “When The Catfish Is In Bloom” is John Fahey’s world fully in bloom.
I’ve learned how to play several Fahey songs. So far, I’ve resisted learning to play “Catfish.” My first album, recorded when I was twenty-four, is full of Fahey’s influence, down to the song titles. The basics of his songs are not difficult, while the emotional and cultural heft of them is nearly impossible to master.
*Conceptual continuity is the self-aware repetition of ideas and structures, images and motifs, throughout one’s body of work. You have to be prolific to achieve conceptual continuity. And, you probably will have to struggle with the commercial viability of your work over and over again.
Side AA: Sonny and Linda Sharrock, “Portrait of Linda In Three Colors, All Black”
4. Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, “Frownland”, Trout Mask Replica
I’ve misheard the word ego in “Frownland” as eagle since I first heard Trout Mask Replica. “[…] to find my own land / where a man can stand by another man without an eagle flying.” Eagle screams national identity as in the presidential seal of the United States, the Russian double-headed eagle or the German Bundesadler. Where a man can stand by another man without sharing a national identity and all the militarism that comes with one. All accounts have the actual lyric as ego, forcing me to revise the post-national angle of my reading and to reconsider the song’s position on this list.
I’ll keep “Frownland” at four and let you mull over how good a lyric eagle would have made.
“Frownland” is the most approachable track on Trout Mask Replica, a blazing statement of purpose, an invitation to the alternate, and aesthetically superior, reality in which Beefheart and The Magic Band have replaced The Beatles in popular memory and Safe As Milk is the pivotal record that Sgt. Pepper’s is claimed to be. The lyrics are imperfect, as Beefheart lyrics often are, in a first thought, best thought manner. In another musical setting, certain lines could even be David Crosby, hippie-lite rave up: “take my hand, come with me / it’s not too late for you, it’s not too late for me.” But acid nightmares prowl among relatively trite lines. The listener of Trout Mask Replica is only granted short breaths of generic normalcy before the “black, jagged shadows” appear. The sum message is one of social equality, irrepressible joy and life, but Beefheart doesn’t title the song, “My Smile Is Stuck.” Even “stuck” suggests a demented, clowing resilience.
The cellular (an insultingly simple placeholder for a far more fluid) structure of the song is held together by Don Van Vliet’s voice, a beacon in the rough polyrhythmic seas. “My smile is stuck / I cannot go back to your frownland” is delivered like Howlin’ Wolf overdubbed by a second, wasted Howlin’ Wolf. The vocal is rhythmically and melodically constant, where the guitars hint at riffs only to yank the pattern away as soon as you almost become comfortable. Take the guitars playing in a slippery 7/4 over the first verse before disintegrating into polyrhythm and polytonality vaguely centered around a jarring minor third, as Van Vliet sings the second line. John “Drumbo” French enabled the Trout Mask project by transcribing Beefheart’s humming and untrained piano into the rhythmic ideas that account for the cells in the compositions. Here he drums like Sunny Murray, free and evading pattern, but with propulsion.
Side AA: Aby Ngana Diop, “Dieuleul-Dieuleul”
3. Roy Ayers’ Ubiquity, “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” Everybody Loves the Sunshine,”
Ubiquity’s “Sunshine” and The Family Stone’s “Family Affair” are the two founding documents of neo-soul. Ayers’ masterpiece achieves a balance of space and purpose that few compositions of any genre or origin manage. It manages to not devour itself. Each instrumental part provides ample space for the others to shine. No voice tramples another; no superfluous note is included. Every tone, whether human, acoustic or electronic sounds as natural as sitting sundrunk in the park on a beautiful summer day.
Three and a half seconds into the half minute intro, surely among the most languorous few seconds in recorded jazz, an ARP Odyssey sawtooth line first soars over the piano, drums and bass. Like a fat honey bee, but not a wasp. Major chords are voiced over the second scale degree; minor chords feature the ninth, leaving the progression casually unresolved. Why would you clap a resolution on something as ubiquitous as the sunshine? The lyric, “Bees and things and flowers,” is as open, unresolvable as the slash chord progression in the verses. The crisp snap of the cross stick hits keeps your head nodding. Listen as the tone opens to a full snare hit towards the end of the intro, while the tuned bongos offset the kit with a restrained pattern. The ARP string ensemble rests above the arrangement, permeating everything like sunlight. Phrases are anchored in large acoustic piano chords in case the synths were to threaten the natural balance. Woman and man (Debbie Darby and Ayers) fulfill each other an octave apart. Every tone is right where it needs to be.
Ayers’ lyrics are subtly radical. The first verse proclaims the most obvious, uncomplicated state of being: “my life, my life, my life / in the sunshine.” Sunshine starts and ends each line as the lines bleed into one another. Ayers drops his most poetic contribution to a career-long Afrocentrism: “folks get down in the sunshine / folks get brown in the sunshine.” Dark skin is celebrated, linked with the sun, love, nature, the majority (well, everybody). Ayers frequently comments on black empowerment and environmental preservation from an Afrocentrist (and occasionally futurist) lense, but nowhere else is he so stunningly concise.
Side AA: Sly and The Family Stone, “Family Affair”
2. Koudede, “Hat-iman-in”, Guitars From Agadez, Vol. 6, Sublime Frequencies, 2012 (Mali)
Hisham Mayet recorded Koudede’s group live in 2012, in Bamako at the Toumast Taureg cultural compound, in the initial days of the MNLA rebellion and seizure of the northern Azawad territory from Mali. Koudede went forward with the concert as fellow Taureg citizens fled Bamako. Sublime Frequencies describes it firsthand here: Koudede: Guitars from Agadez Vol 6.
The record of that concert fucking destroys. It is raucous, electric, hypnotic. The audience claps and screams hoarsely, feet from the band. Taureg melodies soar like blazing comets. The band is relentless with triplet guitar riffs locked in with the drum and bass. This is not contemplating the desert sunset music. This is kicking down doors with everything at stake music. If “Hat-iman-in” (she is my heart) is a love song to one woman, that day in Bamako it was performed with a ferocity and abandon that must expand that love to love of home, to love for one’s people. I’ve long been a fan of Taureg music, but my heart has beat in 12/8 since I heard Koudede and it will never go back.
Note, the song titles between tracks three and four of Vol. 6 are flipped. SF’s vinyl pressing, their website and bandcamp pages all replicate the error. I’m referring to the fourth track, incorrectly titled “Nelil-igorsan”. But you could select any of the four songs included in the EP and it would still hold this spot on my list.
Side-AA: Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand”
1. The Jays and Ranking Trevor, “Queen Majesty”, 7″ single, Channel One, 1978? (Jamaica)
The Jays Channel One update of The Techniques update of The Impression’s “Queen and Minstrel” is peak Jamaican popular music. Craftsmanship and nuance thrive in reggae as good ideas are recycled, honed in on, perfected. Song and arrangement, recording process, the human flipping the vinyl, are all acknowledged in the record. (I’ll argue elsewhere that the history and critical assessment of white, Anglophone popular music is overburdened with a need to highlight originality.)
Curtis’ lyrics strike a subtle balance between romantic yearning and class awareness, holding up both sides of the musician’s poverty against his appeal as an entertainer. The bass line will nail you into the ground. Tasteful, dubwise mixing from engineer Jo Jo Hookim keeps The Jays verses hovering just off the pavement. Hookim briefly dries up the vocal reverb immediately before the transition to the deejay, awakening you from the pining reverie, only to send the final “your majesty-y-y” reflecting into the crystal abyss. Trevor starts hot, toasts love and equal rights, keeps both eyes on the dance floor. The Revolutionaries support disappears and reappears beneath his mic like an astrophysical force you can neither resist nor grasp. Trevor and the dub peak at six minutes.
“Queen Majesty” is the site of the greatest fictionalized victory of culture over commerce. Rockers (dir. Bafaloukos, 1978) features a great scene in which Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall forces a deejay playing lite disco out of a booth, and puts on “Queen Majesty”, while Leroy “Hoursemouth” Wallace plays simple to shrug off the police called in response to the takeover.
“Queen Majesty” is seven minutes of perfection resulting from the creativity and craftsmanship of dozens of musicians over fifteen years and of two countries. There have been more original songs written by Mayfield. There have been more soulful harmonies sung. Deejays have rapped more clever lines. Engineers have extracted more profound dubs from the mixing board. But the cumulative, intergenerational sum of “Queen Majesty” is greater than its parts. The recording acknowledges the soul and rocksteady past, dubs into the future, and rocks with the dancehall present. Greatest song ever.
Side AA: Sister Nancy, “Bam Bam”