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Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Music of Alice Coltrane

Arespected yet divisive figure who was scorned by the jazz mainstream for most of her life, Alice Coltrane was one of the most complicated and misunderstood of all 20th-century musicians. In this century‚ however‚ her music has grown in stature‚ and one can now hear echoes of her influence everywhere‚ from Björk’s juxtaposition of timbres and textures to Joanna Newsom’s harp playing to the twisted astral beats of her great-nephew Stephen Ellison, aka Flying Lotus. While her late husband John Coltrane’s discography remains titanic in modern jazz, Alice’s own albums are equally compelling and mysterious, suggesting a musical form that moves away from jazz and into a unique sonic realm that draws on classical Indian instrumentation, atonal modern orchestration, and homemade religious synth music. The adventurous nature and spiritual import of her work continues to resonate through New Age, jazz, and experimental electronic music of all stripes.

Alice used a number of names throughout her career, and collectively they chart a path of self-realization. The names she adopted demarcate radical shifts in her life and her work, serving effectively as chapter headings in the story of how a bebop pianist from Detroit evolved into one of jazz’s singular visionaries, ultimately walking away from public performance to become a guru and beacon of enlightenment for others.

Alice McLeod

Alice McLeod was born on August 27, 1937, in Alabama, though her family soon relocated to the rough east side of Detroit. The two World Wars solidified Detroit’s position as a manufacturing powerhouse and by 1959 it was the industrial center of the country. It had also gained renown as a bebop hot spot and was home to future jazz players like Cecil McBee, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Milt Jackson, Yusef Lateef, Bennie Maupin, and Elvin Jones.

The McLeods were a musical family—Alice’s mother, Anna, played in the church choir, her half brother Ernest Farrow was a prominent jazz bassist, and her sister Marilyn went on to be a songwriter at Motown—and Alice took up piano and organ at a young age. As a teen she accompanied Mt. Olive Baptist Church’s three choirs, and at 16 she was invited to perform with the Lemon Gospel Singers during services at the more ecstatic Church of God in Christ. In Franya J. Berkman’s biography Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane, Alice remembers those formative services as “the gospel experience of her life,” an instance of devotional music that gave her teenage self “the experience of unmediated worship at the collective level.”

Encouraged by her half brother Farrow, Alice continued to pursue music. She formed her own lounge act, performing gospel and R&B—with touches of blues and bebop—around Detroit. The young McLeod soon became a fixture of the city’s jazz scene and found herself involved with Kenneth “Poncho” Hagood, a scat jazz singer who’d recorded with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. The young couple were wed and relocated to Paris in the late ’50s.

Alice gigged regularly around Paris, befriending other musicians like fellow pianist Bud Powell. In 1960, she gave birth to a daughter, Michelle—the joyousness of which was tempered by Hagood’s burgeoning heroin habit. It wasn’t long before she returned to Detroit as a single mother, moved back in with her parents, and started picking up gigs to support her daughter. Once again immersed in the bustling Detroit scene, McLeod began to contemplate jazz beyond the dizzying array of chord changes, scales, and standards that were fundamental to the bop era. One album in particular spurred her creative contemplation: John Coltrane’sAfrica/Brass.

While known to be a junkie early in his career, by 1957 tenor saxophonist John Coltrane had kicked his habit and begun his musical ascent in earnest. He was a sideman for Thelonious Monk and in 1959 appeared on Miles Davis’ modal masterwork, Kind of Blue. Coltrane was already an accomplished bandleader, releasing a slew of records from Blue Train (1957) to My Favorite Things (1961). Firmly established as one of the greatest tenor saxophone players of his generation, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Impulse Records—the brand-new jazz imprint of producer Creed Taylor.

Coltrane’s new deal allowed him the creative control and artistic freedom necessary to push jazz’s boundaries and imagine new musical vistas. Africa/Brass was his first album for Impulse and featured a 21-piece ensemble that included the preeminent reedman Eric Dolphy backed up by the rhythm section of pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. Cuts like “Africa”—an expansive suite augmented by birdcalls and jungle sounds—announce Coltrane as a tireless innovator, using Davis’ modal template as the launching pad for new explorations.

Alice went to see John and his new quartet when they played Detroit’s Minor Key club in January of 1962. She didn’t speak to him that night, but an opportunity to play piano in vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’ ensemble brought her to New York City in the summer of 1963, where Gibbs’ group opened for John’s quartet during an extended engagement at Birdland. When her group wasn’t on the bandstand, Alice tried to work up the nerve to talk to the saxophonist.

She describes her initial impressions in Berkman’s book: “I had an inner feeling about him. … I was connecting with another message that I had perceived as coming through the music. At Birdland, that same feeling would come back, something that I comprehend was associated with my soul or spirit.” The two musicians barely spoke, though Alice described John’s silence as “loud.” A few days later, still having exchanged very few words, Alice heard him playing a melody behind her. She turned and complimented him on its beautiful theme. He said it was for her.

William Basinski on the Music

It was August 29, 1983, and William Basinski somehow found himself opening for David Bowie. Basinski was playing saxophone with a British rockabilly band called the Rockats, and he distinctly remembers being pelted with random objects by the crowd at Pennsylvania’s Hersheypark Stadium. “Nobody wants to see an opening act for Bowie,” he tells me, chuckling. It was only after Basinski let loose a shredding saxophone solo that the audience started to cheer.

That night, he was able to meet Bowie, his idol, for just a second, and give him a cassette tape he made of slowed-down, droning Muzak samples mixed with shortwave radio blasts. He never knew if Bowie listened to the tape, but those same sounds eventually turned into Basinski’s debut album, Shortwave Music, 15 years later.

Basinski’s career, much like his music, has never followed a linear path, or even felt tethered to the standard rules of time and space. In more ways than one, his creative presence has felt almost apparitional, and before he became known for his own music, he was an artistic figure of secret, almost invisible prominence.

Starting in the late ’70s, while living in San Francisco, he began recording the detritus of his day: errant traffic, random radio broadcasts, freezer buzz. He would then loop and manipulate such recordings, and they became the backbone of his work. His process of composition—cutting up, stitching together, and collaging little pieces of magnetic tape—was closer to painting, or even alchemy.

He later moved to a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—dubbed Arcadia—which became a mecca for the city’s most influential eccentrics and bon vivants. The cover for Jeff Buckley’s 1994 debut Grace was shot in his living room. ANOHNI and Diamanda Galás played a Halloween show in the loft at one point, and Basinski was even an early member of ANOHNI’s band. During this period, Basinski would sit in his thrift store, Lady Bird, and continue to record the ephemera of his life.

After years on the fringe, one morning in 2002, this proud outsider woke up to find out he was suddenly an artist of great acclaim. The reception to his inimitable 9/11 elegy, The Disintegration Loops, was ecstatic. The story behind that work has become something of a legend: an attempt to digitize a portion of his archive of loops was serendipitously disastrous—the magnetic tape decayed and crumbled as it passed through the digital recorder—producing eerie, unforgettable sounds in the process. Not long after, the planes hit the Twin Towers, and from the roof of his building in Brooklyn, the tragedy and spectacle was burned into his retinas forever. The music he made on that day was unimaginably melancholic, aware of how time turns everything into dust.

Despite the seriousness of his most renowned work, Basinski speaks warmly, and often hilariously, of his childhood in Texas and Florida—he once touched Neil Armstrong’s butt!—as well as the New York of his past, and the circuitous, almost accidental journey that took him from obscurity to notoriety. He’s nearing 60 now, and in the last decade and a half he’s travelled the world restlessly, sharing his music like never before. Speaking from the Los Angeles home he shares with his life partner, the artist James Elaine, he tells me about the musicians, songs, and albums that have stuck with him most, five years at a time.

Musicians Tell Us All About Their Pets

Though their contributions rarely receive credit, pets have played their part across pop history. Think about it: Paul McCartney and his sheepdog Martha, Kate Bush and her hounds, Miley and her doomed husky Floyd, Taylor Swift and her cats, the list goes on. An animal’s presence can offer comfort, laughter, inspiration, or annoyance, and earning a pet’s affection can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life. Naturally, those emotions can’t help but bleed into an artist’s work.

But owning a pet is also a great responsibility, and for musicians who spend much of their time on the road, bringing a furry friend into the family can lead to difficulties. What do you do with the little critter while on tour? Can it come along? If so, how? Will it be forced to stay in the car or bus? Will the music be too loud? Are your bandmates or crew allergic? If your pal has to stay home, who will feed and watch it? And what if your pet hides under the bed every time you try to demo a new song for them?

Behind many great musicians exists a great pet, but since the animals can’t speak for themselves, we asked their humans to tell us a bit about their favorite furry friends.

Waka Flocka Flame and Angel

Who is your pet’s favorite musician?

Me. Everytime I play my music she runs around the house trying to bite people.

Which of your songs was inspired by your pet?  

“Big Dawg”—she’s so small but she makes big dawg decisions.

What is one of your favorite memories of your pet?  

When she ate my edibles by accident. It was funny—but scary too.

Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline and Joe

How has your pet inspired your music?

Joe was in the room with me a lot when I recorded my first songs—that’s him breathing in the background—so I considered him a band member. He used to sing along to certain chords, especially weird dissonant ones! I wrote him some love songs and later, when he died, I wrote some sad songs about it.

When is a time when you thought your pet could read your mind?  

I was really sick with a fever once and I remember waking up thinking my mom was putting a cold towel on my head, but it was just Joe licking my head. He probably mostly thought about food though, if I’m being honest. And more deeply, I think he wondered a lot about where people were going, because he was pretty scared of being left alone.

What is a favorite memory of your pet?  

Just how he was ready to hang with me every day when I came home from school.

Girl Talk, Wally, and Chloe

Do your pets like listening to your music?  

Both of them are indifferent toward my music, but my cat Chloe loves being in the mix while I’m working. She’ll lay with her stomach pressed up against the back of the laptop for hours, fading in and out of sleep. And when she’s not sleeping, she’s masterful at unplugging hard drives and knocking over beverages.

Who is your cat’s favorite band?  

Chloe is uninterested in anything outside of Collective Soul.

Music Festival

There’s no more predictable pile-on in music culture than the backlash to festival lineup announcements. Within minutes of any given festival poster’s release, critics are comparing font sizes to make the usual points. Too similar to other festivals. Too predictable. Too many reunions. Not enough diversity. Weak headliners. And who the hell are these bands in fine print?

But these same festival posters actually provide the raw data to confirm or rebut some of those accusations. Compiled together in one spreadsheet, the info gleaned from posters offers a snapshot of the music industry and the festival business, revealing this summer’s biggest draws and hardest workers, the homogeneity of the American and Canadian festival scene, and a whole lot more. As the flower crown and glow stick industries ramped up for the start of 2017’s festival season last weekend at Coachella, we put a little science behind the ceremonial cynicism, breaking down the data on 23 of the year’s biggest multi-genre fests—including our own Pitchfork Music Festival, to be fair—and the nearly 1,000 acts playing them.

Who Dominates the 2017 Festival Season?

The font-size hierarchy of festival posters provides a convenient ranking system, with most announcements following a template from big-name headliners down to the locals and unknowns in vision-test type. So we devised a scoring system where the first act listed on a festival poster receives the highest score, which is equal to the total number of acts at the festival. For example, Bonnaroo 2017 lists U2 first and has 100 bands, so Bono and company receive a score of 100, followed by Red Hot Chili Peppers with 99, and so on down to Nashville singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan, who gets one point.

But there are a couple different ways to calculate the “winners” of a given festival season. Is it the musician popular enough to sign an exclusive (and lucrative) contract to headline just one marquee festival this year, or the act that turns up again and again near the top of posters throughout the summer?

We came up with scores for both definitions. The CLOUT tally is based on an act’s average placement on a poster, with more weight assigned for bigger festivals; the OMNI score assigns points for every festival a band plays, based on how high they rank on each poster, then adds them up. (You can sort by either measure and make your own meta-poster for the 2017 season using this interactive visualization.)

The CLOUT rankings are predictably dominated by those playing Coachella or Lollapalooza and nothing else: the Killers, Arcade Fire, Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, and Radiohead.

Our CLOUT ranking is based on a band’s exclusivity among 2017’s crop of summer festivals.

The OMNI sort is more interesting, bringing out the acts that will be most ubiquitous on North America’s heavily-sponsored stages this year: Lorde and Chance, most obviously, but also medium-profile bands like the Shins, Glass Animals, Phantogram, and the Head and the Heart. And if you’re going to a festival this summer, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to see Car Seat Headrest, who are playing nine of the 23 festivals we counted.

The OMNI ranking is based on an artist’s festival ubiquity this year.

What Are the Most Unique Festivals?

Those bands on top of the OMNI list probably motivate a lot of the online eye-rolling when a new festival lineup drops, as people bemoan yet another configuration of Chance, the Shins, and Cage the Elephant under a nonsensical name. With so much overlap, you may want to know where you can get the most unique experience for your festival dollar this summer. (We made a second interactive visualization to help you figure that out.)

By raw number of unique acts, Delaware’s Firefly Music Festival is the winner, locking up one-off appearances by Bob Dylan, Kesha, and Miike Snow. But Firefly puts its thumb on the scale by booking a ton of bands (143), including many “exclusive” acts in the tiny-font tier. Measuring by the percentage of unique bands paints a more honest picture, where Jazz Fest, Pickathon, Florida’s SunFest, and debut Pennsylvania fest Karoondinha are at the top.

However, uniqueness often means a narrower audience. Below broad-appeal headliners Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, and Usher, Jazz Fest mostly draws from New Orleans locals and, uh, jazz. Pickathon and Karoondinha go heavy on singer-songwriter scenes—their exclusives are predominantly solo billings such as John Legend, Maren Morris, and Robyn Hitchcock. And the bonkers SunFest, in presidential West Palm Beach, is the only place you’ll see Flo Rida, Loverboy, Wavves, and Christopher Cross the same weekend.

To take a slightly broader view, we calculated a “uniqueness” score, which takes into account lineup overlap among festival performers. By this measure, Jazz Fest unsurprisingly scores the highest due to its tight genre focus. Taking up the rear is Boston Calling, who booked frequent-fliers such as Francis and the Lights, Russ, Majid Jordan, and Mitski—acts that are playing six or more other festivals this year.