by Sunsh Stein
STIR IT UP: Musical Mixes from Roots to Jazz
by Gene Santoro
(Oxford University Press, 193 pages, $25.00)
from Jazz Notes 9/4 1997Copyright © 1997, Sunsh Stein
In theory I'm a Nation and Atlantic Monthly reader; in practice I seldom am. Same with the Village Voice. I pick it up, but often don't get past the listings. Sound familiar? Wonder what you're missing in those chock full of information pages? Well, Gene Santoro's periodic contributions on music would be one thing. But Oxford University Press has made it easy for people like me, and maybe you, to read Santoro. They've handily collected his essays from these and other publications and put them together for our reading pleasure.
With a few exceptions, Stir It Up presents pieces Santoro wrote in the 1990's. Covering, as the subtitle says, roots to jazz, the essays are laid out neatly by music type, beginning with pop and the rockers and sliding into R&B/blues, then jazz, and ending with "world" music. From the first essay, "Me and Julio" on Paul Simon and the making of his Graceland recording, to the last, "Lilt: A Survey of Hawaiian Music," Santoro takes the reader on a tour of music around the world. But what he also provides is a social, political, geographical, ethnological, historical and philosophical look at the world using music as the guide. Some of these guided tours are keyed to new releases by musicians, others are timeless. All are informative, thoughtful, and thought provoking.
Santoro is an equal opportunity music lover. He writes as knowledgeably and appreciatively about rock and international music as he does about jazz. And he sees connections everywhere. No longer are music genres left untouched by each other, and Santoro details the who, what's, and where's that create these musical kinships. To that end, different musicians turn up in each other's stories. Ten of the 32 essays in this collection are unquestionably jazz pieces, but any jazz fan would be foolish to pass up "La Cucaracha: A Survey of Cuban Music." The same goes for "The Man From Bahia: Gilberto Gil" and his Tropicalia music movement. Then there's "Afropop's Avatar: Manu Dibango" whose description of jazz and being a jazzman should not be missed.
Actually Santoro finds jazz everywhere. In a compulsively readable mini biography of Jimi Hendrix ("Voodoo Child") Santoro states that "Jimi Hendrix changed the shape of rock and jazz forever," and proceeds to enumerate why he should be listed with "key 1960s sonic explorers" like Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis. In a brilliant observation Santoro links Aretha Franklin ("R-E-S-P-E-C-T") with Art Tatum, comparing their oversized talents and their respective inabilities to "curb [their] ever-flowering expansiveness . . .&nbps;."
To situate Thelonious Monk ("Master of Space") and his sense of rhythm in the greater scheme of jazz, Santoro succinctly traces the beat from early New Orleans to bebop in one easily understandable paragraph. Like Hendrix, Ornette Coleman ("Harmolodic Philosopher"), and Ray Drummond ("The Bulldog"), each get mini bios, both obvious recipients of Santoro's affection and admiration. Calling Coleman the "godfather of the postwar avant-garde," he uses Tone Dialing, Coleman's group Prime Time's CD, as a springboard to illustrate the evolution of Coleman's musical life. With bassist Drummond he shows an uncommon understanding and appreciation for an instrument, and players of that instrument, that most people barely acknowledge.
Santoro uses language expressively. In the Cuban music piece he explains how the major source of music in this century came from the New World, saying that it's ". . . due largely to the rich mixture that historically horrifying situations like conquest and slavery left as their loamy residue." And writing about Mingus ("Portrait in Three Colors") he describes listening to the Ellington band on the radio as, "the low timbres and rich harmonies filtering over staticky airwaves."
This collection is not without some flaws. The Mingus essay often seems as unwieldy and confusing as its subject. And in discussing Abbey Lincoln ("The Turtle"), Santoro quotes her as saying that she gave up her career when she gave up her marriage to Max Roach, that suddenly she was out of style. Some further explanation would have been helpful. The piece on blues bassist/composer Willie Dixon ("Blues Walkin' Like A Man"), is more about the blues form and the musical "borrowing" that makes up compositions, than it is about Dixon. In using Dixon as an example of this habit, it seemed that Santoro set him up to put him down, even though he adds a disclaimer at the end.
With so many talented women on the scene, I would have liked more than three of the essays to be about women. And though I share Santoro's political views, some of his asides seemed out of place, like referring to Jeane Kirkpatrick's "meaningless distinction" between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes in "The Lion of Zimbabwe: Thomas Mapfumo."
On the other hand, Santoro educates his reader in each piece. Some with little tidbits like the origin of the word Rastafarian in the Bob Marley ("Stir It Up") piece, the genesis of the Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans's ("Voodoo Rock") name, and the birthplace of the steel guitar. On larger issues Santoro creates moving and vivid musical/political portraits by letting us hear both Gilberto Gil and Manu Dibango's stories told mostly in their own voices.
Sometimes he tells more than we might want to know, but he keeps the interest level high. He writes about the music of our lives - not the "music of our lives" aimed at retirees on Florida radio stations, but a vast wide world that's coming together - at least musically.