Saturday, July 3, 2010

An Americana Mix

Some time ago, I can't remember exactly when, I was bored and made a pretty large "Americana Mix" in iTunes. Being the history nerd that I am, it wasn't just a jumbled collection of songs, but ordered chronologically in terms of the time period the songs/pieces evoked. Very quickly, this list ballooned to 16 hours of music and I never went through it.

So as it is fourth of July weekend and the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I am going to listen to all 16 hours of the playlist over the next three days and will record my liveblog musings here.

I began last night, going from Bill Schumann's setting of "Chester" and moving from the Revolution to the expansion into the old northwest and the 2nd great awakening. Sufjan Stevens to Charles Lloyd to Brian Blade. Ends with Copland's Appalachian Spring, a piece that I've heard countless times, but never looses its depth and evocative power.

Saturday July 3

1:45 PM
In the midst of the civil war section. Steve Earle's rollicking "Dixieland" about the fictional Buster Kilrain of Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels" slides into Bill Frisell's "Monroe." Frisell's tune just makes me think of Matthew Brady photographs at Antietam. The initial optimism on both sides of a quick war dashed to pieces.

1:50 PM
Views of the dead morph into more gruesome images of the dying in John Adams' setting of Walt Whitman's "The Wound Dresser." Adams' sensitive yet dark-hued setting lets Whitman's powerful verse transport the listener back to those battlefield hospitals. An image that skewers the nerve endings ("die for you" leaping into baritone Nathan Gunn's upper range is especially potent.) History like this can be difficult to remember but vital not to forget.

2:05 PM
What's so powerful about this poem and the setting is how major climaxes come from simple gestures, just looking into the eyes of a dying soldier. The lack of any groove with melodies floating on top of melodies makes the poem appear timeless, only strengthened by Whitman's uncanny ability to communicate so personally across centuries of time.

2:10 PM
The war ends and on comes Mary Fahl's "Going Home" from the film "Gods and Generals." An unfortunately tiring movie, but a song that sounds both folky and hip, in a weird way. Mary Fahl's commanding voice, put to theatrical use in her band "October Project" is perfect for the tune and violinist Mark O'Connor gets a nice little solo. A song for healing.

4:30 PM
Back from haircut and epic soccer match, resuming with James Horner's music from the end credits of "Glory." Man, he was so good at Coplandesque weepy music before he started copying Prokofiev. And himself.

4:46 PM
Musical chill at the beginning of "Mystic Trumpeter," from Fred Hersch's breathtaking "jazz" oratorio based on Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Another piece that still gets me after endless listens. Ralph Alessi really rips it up here as the aforementioned mystic and it somehow transitions seamlessly into the lush bucolic chorale that follows. This is going to be a good next 20 minutes.

4:56 PM
Now into The Sleepers with Kurt Elling. It's so striking how Hersch is able to make Whitman's wild free verse seem so naturally singable. He uses wide-open, floating vamps that allow him to fit the words in at the rate the words suggest, not forcing them into four-bar phrases or anything. I guess it took a jazz musician to finally set Whitman's verse into songs rather than through-composed works. Actually, Whitman-as-song sounds vaguely like Joni Mitchell in her jazzy, Hejira stage.

5:08 PM
Musical chill during "After the Dazzle of Day." Kate McGarry and Kurt Elling weaving in and out of each other is definite one of those "OH MY GOD" moments that are seldom found outside of Mahler symphonies.

5:12 PM
"I'm tired of living and scared of dying."

5:34 PM
In the throes of Western Americana, Copland's Billy the Kid begins. Never has continuous I-V sounded so interesting. You rock it Saul Goodman.

5:42 PM
The Mexican Dance movement really grooves. Can see why it made so much sense for Bill Frisell to cover it.

5:48 PM
Gun battle. Like the big firefight scene in an action movie, only that you don't need visuals for this one.

Sunday July 4
12:44 AM
Happy Fourth! After epic baseball game, getting back into swing of things with Bill Frisell and Jim Hall on their version of "Throughout." Nothing says wide open plains like Frisell's pulsing drones and Hall adds some tasteful acoustic lines. Analyzing Frisell's many performances of this tune can give a pretty good picture of the evolution of his style.

1:00 AM
Honestly rhetorical Question: Is there anything that grooves harder than Art Blakey's shuffle on Moanin'? And Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, and Bobby Timmons really hit back to back to back homers on this one.

1:20 AM
Or, nothing says wide open plains like an electric sitar? Well it somehow works wonderfully for Pat Metheny on "Last Train Home."

1:31 AM
Cotton Eyed Joe is just so much better with pennywhistles, bodhrans, and small pipes than with cheesy synths. You go Chieftains. Ricky Skaggs at the end: "That was hot!"

1:41 AM
How quickly exuberance transitions to nostalgia with the onset of Copland's Corral Nocturne from Rodeo. Images flood. Time flows backward. With a little help from the instant nostalgia machine known as facebook as well.

1:49 AM
It's what's for dinner.

1:55 AM
On to Pat Metheny's Midwestern Night's Dream. Again, it just feels expansive with the healthy reverb and Bob Moses' washy cymbals. But it still has this inner fire, inner restlessness that too many ECM records lack. This also reminds me how much I miss Pat's massive Gibson that he got rid of like 25 years ago. He can say more with this guitar than with his robot orchestra.

2:10 AM
With the ending of the Promise of Living, I am now in a very weepy mood. I guess I just haven't really listened to much Copland recently. It's like coming back to an old friend you haven't seen in a while and you miss them so much, you tear up. There's this hope you'll be seeing them more, but still you know this moment is probably just another moment before way leads onto way. And this knowledge makes the optimism even stronger. Sounds like a good place to end the night.

Chronologically, it's getting to the 20th century, music evoking the great wave of immigration forthcoming. But for tomorrow.

5:10 PM
Gettin' a late start today. Distracted by trip to see Toy Story 3. Real weepy. Pixar's getting eerily good at this. But Buzz Lightyear dances Flamenco. Music begins with John Adams' "My Father Knew Charles Ives." Orchestral textures resembling beef stew, but with quirky gestures bouncing in and out. Evocative of Ives but without sounding a whole lot like him and that's a good thing.

5:16 PM
Hilariously surreal march. And the New York Mets have more bullpen issues.

5:28 PM
I just love it when John Adams writes these floating trumpet solos over slippery string textures.

5:40 PM
Time for wind ensemble greatest hits section of the list, featuring Eric Whitacre's October. It's ungainly and doublethick, but just gorgeous at points. Pretty much the best thing you can do with too many wind and brass players on stage at once.

5:44 PM
Maria Schneider makes her first appearance on the list with "The Pretty Road." The title is very descriptive of the piece. But when the tempo just stops and everything floats, you can't help but get lost in it. A tune where every listen reveals hidden surprises.

5:48 PM
Go Ingrid Jensen! Go!

7:09 PM
I got a little too lost during the floaty section of "Pretty Road" and proceeded to drift in and out of consciousness the next hour plus. We have since left the heartland and joined the immigrants in the cities via Dvorak and Bruce Springsteen. Jazz reigns supreme now, from the Duke to Basie, to the more chaotic edge of Charles Mingus. Also can't forget James P. Johnson via Jason Moran's version of "You've Got to Be Modernistic."

7:12 PM
"Think you make it, get to the wicket, by you a ticket, Go!!!!"
George Russel does Manhattan with Jon Hendriks and crazy good big band. Like Elvin, Bill Evans, Coltrane, Art Farmer. Still too hip for it's own good.

10:03 PM
Back to the raft after 4th festivities. Brad Mehldau's heartbreakingly simple reading of Someone to Watch Over Me. He's a player who gets better the fewer people he plays with because he can think and play so far beyond what anyone expects. Sometimes too many people just hamstring him. Just check out Highway Rider.

10:11 PM
Bill Schuman's George Washington Bridge. Why does bitonality evoke industrialism to me? The middle section is reminding me of the music from the great Chris Marker film La Jetee. I wish film music went back to sounding more like this, instead of like, you know, James Horner.

10:19 PM
Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue project revealed a side of Woody Guthrie's songwriting that never made it into his full songs. "Airline to Heaven" shows Guthrie as an industrial-aged mystic in addition to a biting political critic. Really foreshadows Bob Dylan's later surreal folk musings.

10:23 PM
Well, and Joni Mitchell's surrealism as well, especially here on "Amelia." Can't get much more surreal than "dreams of 747s over geometric farms." Guitarist Larry Carlton and vibist Victor Feldman really kill on this too. Immaculate songcraft and pop production, yet refreshingly devoid of artifice and studio trickery.

10:29 PM
Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, and Joe Lovano deconstruct "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," find its yearning essence, and lay it bare.

10:33 PM
Reich's "Different Trains." I've noticed that a lot of the music that I have the strongest aesthetic reactions to are the ones that somehow create a mental image or triggers some associative memory. Both of these are frequently accompanied by goosebumps. In terms of this response, Reich really hits the jackpot with the recorded reminiscences. Reich's use of spoken word and deriving melodic material from it has roots in both Frederic Rzewki's use of writings by political prisoners and such, and Harry Partch's 43 note scales meant to better replicate the subtle pitch changes of human speech.

10:41 PM
One of my more peculiar transitions just occurred, the opening of different trains, spilling into Samuel Barber's Commando March, or more like the former (as the female speaker repeats "1941") brutally interrupted by the latter. An unintentionally appropriate transition into the World War II section of the list.

10:45 PM
...which will be totally encapsulated by Copland's Symphony no. 3. An attempt at the all-encompassing American musical statement. And like almost all of his work, unabashedly optimistic, yet well-made by a master craftsman. The way Copland blends modernistic dissonances with tonality can be heard very strongly in a lot of the music of post-minimalist composers. By being old fashioned, Copland was ahead of the times.

11:27 PM
Bring on the anvils!

11:28 PM
And the National Emblem March celebrates victory in the same key.

11:33 PM
Swung and straight eighths together is one groovy concoction. Thank you Chuck Berry.

11:40 PM
Time for out of the blue undefendable but true statement, which I will call the Ornette Coleman Postulate. Lonely Woman is probably the greatest tune ever, including Don Cherry's flubs.

11:59 PM
I remember listening to Pat Metheny's San Lorenzo on a family vacation to Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion National Parks. I always identify the two now. It's so nice to hear Metheny in a mode where he's not afraid to be lush and hypermelodic, but also not overly-composed. The original PMG record was a band album, not a studio album, something they unfortunately got away from a lot. And man Danny Gotlieb's really groovin. I used to play along with this track all the time just to match his ride cymbal touch in the "chorus" sections.

Sunday July 5
12:08 AM
Now I'm thinking of Reading Rainbow. I guess early 80s synths will do that.

12:21 AM
Cassandra Wilson's Strange Fruit. Soooo raw and potent. I think even better than Billie Holiday's. What blasphemy!

12:25 AM
We shall overcome. Amen Charlie Haden. And with that good night.

5:29 PM
In the midst of Joseph Schwantner's New Morning for the World. Another one of those inspirational text read dramatically by some political figure/actor pieces. Yeah, you know like Copland's Lincoln Portrait. But a lot more music than Martin Luther King text here, which makes the music more like a commenter on the text rather than an accompaniment. In that way it works, it turns in Schwantner's own interaction with the text, giving him more creatively leeway. A lot of neat percussion flourishes with crotales, but sometimes the overtly emo tonality (like those 4/2-3/1 lydian sus chords. Whatever you'd know when you heard it) rubs me the wrong way.

5:41 PM
Hmm, Schwantner sets an earlier version of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which was a motif in a fair number of sermons and speeches, which he improved into his march on Washington address. I like it because it forces you to actually listen to the words, rather than just recognizing it and tuning it out.

5:45 PM
Onto Wayne Shorter's "Fall" played by the late sixties Miles Davis Quintet. Some of the most fleet and effortless music this group put together. Abstract and loose, yet impressionisticaly evocative, especially Herbie Hancock's piano solo. A great group at their unparalleled peak.

5:53 PM
Leonard Bernstein is the king of melodies with consecutive leaps in the same direction, usually a fourth or greater. Like here, in Make Our Garden Grown from Candide. Music so inspirationally potent, it almost got him blacklisted.

5:57 PM
No better way to start off a good 40 minutes of flower child themed music than with the Mamas and the Papas' California Dreamin'.

6:51 PM
John Adams' Dharma at Big Sur. Really otherworldly music, but as Adams notes in his recent autobiography, it's not quite how it's supposed to sound. He had to compromise his desires for just intonation, especially in the brass, and most orchestral musicians aren't used to this kind of music where so much of it comes from off the page. Maybe if some like-minded experimental/new music people were to make an orchestra, the piece could finally sound like it's supposed to. Oh well. I'll just enjoy the fantastic drones and electric acrobatics as they are ;)

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