My Good, Real Music

My Good, Real Music

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin


It is good to be reminded that record companies are still sometimes willing to recycle some of the profits they make from marketing over-priced garbage back into real music. Elvis Costello's new album "NORTH" (Deutsche Grammophone) will put an end to that faux post-modern cliche about nobody writing good pop songs any more. These are all love songs, and the reader should know that he is famously in love with a famous singer [Costello recently married Diana Krall -- Ed.] to understand lines like:

"Let me tell you about her
The way that she makes me feel
Then draw a curtain on this scene I can't reveal"

Sitting in a leased limo in front of an office building on Faubourg St Antoine earlier this month, Costello avoided referring to the object of his affection except indirectly with some groans about "the tabloids." Costello is one of those rare figures in pop music (Frank Sinatra was another) whose work there is no reason to dislike no matter who you are or where you are coming from. He has written lyrics to Charles Mingus compositions and his collaborators have included Paul McCartney, Gunther Schuller, Burt Bachrach, Chet Baker and Johnny Cash. The songs on North are somewhere between Schubert, Kurt Weil, John Lennon and Costello's favorite standards such as "Here's That Rainy Day." He said that, while keeping "some semblance of the music I started with," he would like to "expand the definition of an art song;" and that being on a respected classical music record label is helpful to the upgrade.

So-called "power ballads" with one-syllable words, moronic chords, tinny beats, overblown crescendos and muscle-bound modulations created by slick technology are a la mode. Costello's songs are the anti-power ballad. Harmonically, structurally and melodically subtle, they are performed by human beings and include upper partials and odd intervals not easily heard by everybody. Arguably, they are more interesting musically than verbally; a rarity in pop music. When it was suggested to him that these songs are not exactly easily hummable -- it was meant as a compliment -- he seemed genuinely surprised: "Really? By who? I have no trouble humming them."

Costello spent over a year writing the songs for North and he has taken the time and made the effort to learn how to write the arrangements ("with a pencil") for the chamber orchestra backing him up (Lee Konitz and Lew Soloff solo). He conducts the orchestra, and his piano accompaniment is better than it needs to be. A good bet for a Grammy.

UNIVERSAL SYNCOPATIONS (ECM) featuring an all-star band under the leadership of the Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous, co-founder of Weather Report, is to be released on October 14th. Listening to the still adventurous veterans John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette and Jan Garbarek improvise collectively, you think -- "My goodness; real music." [Vitous' 1969 debut album, pre-WR, was Mountain in the Clouds, featuring McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, DeJohnette, and Joe Henderson -- Ed.]

Good intentions notwithstanding, the mad search to release every note Miles Davis ever recorded is beginning to reach the bottom of the barrel. The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (Sony), out on October 20, is a maxed-out version of Davis's underrated ground-breaking 1970 album featuring John McLaughlin. Who really needs five-count-em-five CDs with six alternate takes of "Willie Nelson" and five of "Right Off" and so on? [Except there is previously unreleased music featuring Sonny Sharrock on this set which will be highly prized by his fans -- Ed.] The original single album remains the best way to go.

On the other hand, we could easily use double the four CDs of Miles Davis, Friday And Saturday Night At The Blackhawk, San Francisco (Sony). Recorded in 1961, some of it was released previously, most not. Davis, Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb were all having two career nights. These are the four to buy if you are buying only four jazz records this year.

- Producer Michael Cuscuna had the good idea to re-master Count Basie's 1958 Chairman Of The Board (Roulette). The album wasted the fiction that black big bands could not swing and play dynamically and in tune at the same time. [See also the newly remastered Orrin Keepnews four CD compilation Count Basie and his Orchestra, The Columbia Years -- America's #1 Band! (Columbia/Legacy -- Ed.]

Miracle/Universal's Original Funk Lp Series is a collection of early 1970s rhythm and blues LPs by people like Roy Ayers, Mandrill, Bar-Kays and Kool And The Gang released on CD for the first time. At that time, along with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, lesser known R&B musicians also began to record albums rather than just string together their singles. The technology was still relatively primitive and there was by necessity a welcome minimalism in the mixes. Available in Europe and Japan but not yet in the US.

It is interesting to be reminded how influential these classic R&B bands - particularly The Gap Band - were on the instrumental style of Steely Dan, whose new album, Everything Must Go (Reprise), is about cultural bankruptcy. Steely Dan's melodies may tend to sound like one another but the words are about as poetic and timely as lyrics get today. The title song is an ode to the American road not taken:

"High time for a walk on the real side
Let's admit the bastards beat us
I move to dissolve the corporation
In a pool of margaritas
'Cause we're goin' out of business
Everything must go."

Mike Zwerin originally published this piece (without Ed.'s comments) in the International Herald Tribune.

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