Sunday, 26 May 2019

Mingus Ah Um - Charles Mingus

Provenance: This is the first jazz album I ever bought and it's entirely thanks to a friend I met at university, Mike.

I was in his room during the first year and we were chatting away about music. Despite christening me 'Hair Metal', a nickname that would stick for a good three years, we found each other fairly simpatico in terms of likes and dislikes. That is, until the subject of jazz arose.

'I don't think I like jazz,' I said. 'It's too complex.' It speaks to Mike's good taste and geniality that, instead of berating my ignorance, he loaded Mingus Ah Um into his stereo and pressed play.

In only a few short moments I couldn't believe what I was hearing. And by Toutatis, it swung like nothing else I'd experienced before! After allowing me the time to listen to a few cuts, Mike turned to me and said 'so what is so difficult about this?'

Nothing. Like an idiot, I thought jazz was either some lame-ass big-band granddad music played by dorks in bow ties, or it was a cigarette paper away from the pretentious gubbins parodied on The Fast Show's 'Jazz Club' skits. (NB: jazz can also be both of these things, much like rock music can encapsulate something as wonderful as Terry Reid's River and Kiss' Hot in the Shade).

Review: The last time I reviewed a jazz album I spent an entire paragraph complaining about how difficult I find it to write about this particular genre. I'll spare you the plaint once more, but suffice to say, I feel lost at sea with anything that falls outside of the popular music paradigm. Feel free to go back and read about my utter lack of qualification to write about jazz right now; but if you're feeling particularly masochistic, my friend, read on!

I have a clutch of albums from bandleader (and double bass player) Charles Mingus but this was my first, and still my favourite. From the off, those very first few notes in 'Better Git It In Your Soul', one feels a sense of weight and pregnancy. It's as if the band are straining at their leashes, or waiting for the traps to open. Sure enough, after those first few establishing motifs on bass and piano, the band kicks in with a swagger that is unmatched in almost anything I've ever heard. It's post-bop but in a way that sounds directly plugged into gospel and the blues, riding a tricksy 6/8 time signature but shimmying and simmering along to something elemental and raw.

From that most ebullient number, Mingus Ah Um shifts down into something more mellow and elegiac, the beautiful 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat', Mingus' tribute to saxophonist Lester Young. A composition that's been covered by a fair few artists, my exposure to 'Goodbye...' first came about thanks to Jeff Beck's Wired album. It was the standout cut on that LP, but here, with horns taking centre stage, it's a whole new universe. In a world where the tenor saxophone is (too) often deployed for its potential to bring a note of brashness to proceedings, it's a revelation to hear it moaning the melody with a rare solemnity.

I vividly recall what Mike said about the third track on Mingus Ah Um, 'Boogie Stop Shuffle'; every time he put it on, it brought to mind a car chase scene in some 1940s gangland caper. He's spot on. As with 'Better Git It In Your Soul', 'Boogie Stop Shuffle' really shifts, motoring along with the kind of propulsion I had hitherto believed didn't exist in jazz. It's pretty close to a headbanger. It's enough to make a guy want to invest in a zoot suit and Tommy gun combination.

Mingus also excels when stepping into the jazz tradition of paying respects to other composers. Both 'Open Letter to Duke' (Duke Ellington) and 'Jelly Roll' (Jelly Roll Morton) paraphrase elements of each musician's work. 'Open Letter to Duke' especially does a fine job, starting off at a clip before gearing down to an easeful stroll, nodding to Ellington's ability to introduce shades of nuance and mood to the swing palette. 'Jelly Roll' is a little stranger; it's like some kind of ragtime fever dream, both utterly familiar and non-traditional all at once. It's a hell of a lot of fun, I'll say that!

Perhaps the album's centrepiece, however, is the eight-minute 'Fables of Faubus'. I had initially believed that the title came from antiquity ('Faubus' looks plausibly Latin in origin) but curiosity led me to learning of a much more contemporary source of inspiration. It turns out Mingus was referencing an unpleasant little shit called Orval Faubus; no doubt familiar to Americans but a name that would elude the majority of Brits. What he is associated with, however, is relatively well-known; he was the Governor of Arkansas who called in the National Guard in 1957 to prevent African-American students from attending Little Rock Central High School after a federal order to desegregate schools.

Thus 'Fables of Faubus' introduces a comic-buffo theme from the start, which crops up every now and again almost as a refrain to Faubus himself. The changing moods and time signatures within 'Fables...', which nevertheless always return to its opening theme, means that it could be read as a tone poem of sorts. Despite the events that undoubtedly fired Mingus to write the piece (Mingus Ah Um was released in 1959), motifs that bespeak sadness or frustration never linger too long; instead, 'Fables...' is defiant and satirical. Even the mock-heroic title jabs at the pomposity of the objectionable Faubus.

In conclusion; an amazing album, that came hot on the heels of another landmark, Blues and Roots. Whilst that one was a celebration of blues and gospel music, Mingus Ah Um twists some of those influences into a thoroughly modern and adventurous sound. I'm no jazz expert (being the son-in-law of a professor of jazz music has proved humbling at times) but this was the gateway drug for me to go out and explore artists such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver and more. With the live-action Aladdin just released into cinemas, I can't pass up the opportunity to suggest that this was a whole new world to me, and one that I don't intend to return from any time soon.

Monday, 20 May 2019

The Silent Majority - Life Sex & Death

Provenance: Yet another recommendation from the good people who post over at the Metal Sludge forums. I think I also bought the first Jellyfish album and Sloppy Seconds' Destroyed as a consequence of that one thread.

Review: Prior to the Metal Sludge thread about 'great lost records' or similar, I'd never heard of Life Sex & Death. Yet the few posters who spoke up for The Silent Majority were so convincing, bordering almost on reverence, that I simply couldn't resist taking the plunge. I snapped up a copy without listening to a single second of music.

Why? Well, one member of the forum recalled them delivering one of the most scintillating live performances he'd been privileged to witness - and had begun the evening watching frontman Stanley jerking off in the gutter outside the venue. Another testified that he saw Stanley emerging from a dumpster and eating a discarded, half-eaten burrito. And we're not talking about a band on their uppers - this was at the height of the hype.

LSD were and remain a strange proposition - three hair-metal dudes fronted by a homeless guy who smelled like shit and affected psychotic breakdowns in the midst of live shows and interviews. Even if Stanley, aka Chris Stann, wasn't a street guy to begin with (rumours abound that he came from a wealthy background), he took method acting to its furthest reaches. Contemporary accounts suggest he really did wear dirty, ripped clothes, ate food from bins and slept rough.

What a tragedy, then, if this turned out to be some collection of fin-de-siecle butt-rock, or a gloomy alternative metal album about doing heroin and feeling a bit upset. The reality is that The Silent Majority is both of these things, neither of these things, and a whole lot more. It's a daring move to open your album with a live rendition of a torch song called 'Blue Velvet Moon' played on an out-of-tune ukulele; positively stupid, maybe. This rather inauspicious start is brought to a sudden conclusion, a thunderous drum fill kicking off the second part of the track - 'We're Here Now' - a real heads-down, diesel-powered statement of intent.

This approach rather sets the mood for the rest of the album; every time you think you've got a hang of LSD, they undermine what has come before; sometimes with black humour, often with horror, but always with interesting ideas. Track two is the jackboot-stomp of 'Jawohl Asshole'; track three is single 'School's For Fools', with a pop-punk sensibility that apes Twisted Sister's bubblegum anti-authority capers. Then we have 'Telephone Call', probably the best song that Soundgarden never recorded. It's an uncanny, elliptical number that, once it stutters into life, could be about a few topics, child abuse being chief amongst the candidates in this writer's humble opinion - and it rocks hard. The first time I heard the peculiar way that Stanley enunciates the line "you've got - a gun - I can't - outrun - I'm still that little boy, haunted by thoughts in the middle of the night" made me skip back to the start of the song the instant it finished. Bewildering, but brilliant.

Over the course of the album LSD touch upon a huge range of genres - including psychedelic blues, heavy metal, country ('Farm Song' is yet another unexpected twist), glam metal, grunge - and don't really make a misstep. As an hour-long survey of a transitional time for rock music at the dawning of the 1990s it's pretty comprehensive and superbly well-executed. A chorus can be so sweet, and hooky, complete with soaring harmonies, that one could be forgiven for thinking they were listening to Bon Jovi were the song not called 'Fucking Shit Ass'. LSD had the chops to pull of the extraordinarily heavy ('Train', 'Tank'), rousing ('Raise a Little Hell') and stomach-churning ('Guatemala') within the span of about twenty minutes without sounding disjointed. Stanley's voice plays a big part; beseeching, growling, yelping, lascivious, bleating and ever so slightly lisping, always embodying whatever emotion or thought he's trying to convey.

So, you're into the home straight, you've just got through the pummelling 'Big Black Bush', which sounds like Slave to the Grind era Skid Row and features a fun gimmick where the studio recording gives way to live sound midway through, Stanley leading the crowd in chanting the title of the song back to him. Damn me, then, if the last song on The Silent Majority isn't one of the most beautiful and tender piano ballads ever written. 'Rise Above', a delicate discourse on heartbreak, could and would sound like unbearable schmaltz in the hands of another. Here, in context, it sounds like the becalmed centre of the storm raging in its creator's brain. In its own way its utterly shocking. What a neat way to wrap it all up, eh?

Do whatever you need to get hold of a copy - The Silent Majority is the real deal.