Sunday, January 23, 2011

Superchunk on Sound Opinions

I caught last week's Sound Opinions episode on WBEZ featuring a live performance by Superchunk. I guess I could feign knowledge of all sorts of seminal and influential bands and artists on this platform, but I'd be lying; I had never taken the time to listen to this band. Since yesterday, I've been going back to some of the video clips of their in-studio performance. Here's one of my favorite tracks from 2010's Majesty Shredding, "Digging for Something". For a full recording of the show and other performance clips, check out the Sound Opinions archive.

Superchunk performs Digging for Something on Sound Opinions from WBEZ on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


While searching through some recommended jazz blogs, I came across a reference to Vijay Iyer on Darcy James Argue's Secret Society page. In keeping with talk of Moran's reworking of "Planet Rock", it came to mind that Iyer did a version of MIA's "Galang" on his piano trio album Historicity. The album was named 2010 Album of the Year by Downbeat's International Critics' Poll. This version tends toward deconstruction of the original, namely the syncopated rhythm of the first part of the song and then the melody of the outro. It's also fun to revisit MIA's earlier music videos, long before the days of exploding body parts.

Here's "Galang" from Arular.

M.I.A. Galang - Music video from marco ammannati on Vimeo.

And Vijay Iyer's version from Historicity.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Monster Contest

As a result of doing some research for the last post, I ended up watching the video for "Monster" a few times. WTF. I would have loved to be at the meeting where Kanye's people came up with the concept. Like, "This video needs women. Naked women. I mean, dead naked women. EVERYWHERE." Regardless, the diversity and range of these four verses are incredible. If I've got this right, I believe Kanye's verse contains a quick reference to Napoleon Dynamite. First reader to email with the line gets a mix CD of songs featured on or inspired by this blog.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Modernistic Planet Rock

Sometimes while watching a jazz band improvise, I start to think about similarities between the general form of a jazz combo and a hip hop act. Typical in jazz, the rhythm section provides a backbone to two main melodic parts, those being the melody itself and the string of improvisations that are taken in turn by the instrumentalists. In hip hop, DJs provide a vamp for rappers, MCs, whatever label you prefer, to alternate between hook and verse. To me, the hook is the equivalent of the melodic "head" of a jazz song, and the verses, though not necessarily improvised, are the chain of riffs most analogous to jazz solos popping in and out of the chorus. The effect is heightened when I watch a group of MCs (Wu-Tang, Tribe, even Kanye's new posse cut "Monster") trading verses; it recalls the interplay between soloists, how one player's solo on top of the musical vamp can overlap or contrast with another's that came before or after.

Of course, things get a lot more exciting when there is a more direct connection between jazz and hip hop artists. Now it's not an altogether new thing to hear something that sounds like jazz in a hip hop beat. It wasn't a far stretch to evolve from disco Chic in "Rapper's Delight" to the jazz piano, guitar, and horn vamps in tracks produced by Premier or Eric B., or in a Tribe Called Quest song (though my mind was particularly blown when I first heard Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay" and Tribe's "Sucka N****" within the same week way back when; that bass line!). Hell, Madlib's Blue Note series and Blue Note's own remix compilations have made jazz and hip hop particularly synergistic as of late. I've been wondering about the inverse connection; that is, what about contemporary jazz artists that are reworking hip hop songs? What are they taking and using from a genre that depends almost entirely on rhythm and verse and how are they incorporating those elements into instrumental jazz?

These thoughts developed after listening a few times to Jason Moran's Modernistic, released on Blue Note in 2002. Moran is a piano player of extraordinary talent and inventiveness and has been a critic's darling, for good reason, ten albums deep. On this solo piano outing, he shows original compositions as well as a diverse array of interpretations from standards (a beautiful "Body and Soul") to romantic piano music (Robert Schumann). Moran, who's always given some kind of a nod to hip hop in his work, also does Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and clearly this is the piece that I've been returning to.

Here's the instrumental edit from Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force in 1982.

Here's Moran's interpretation, twenty years later.

I love how recognizable Moran's version is. It is true to the original hit, which was essentially an electronic dance number, by using those percussive drum sounds and the rhythmic use of the blues scale across the whole register of the piano. (He racked the strings with paper clips and clothespins for the drum effect.) Piano jazz interpretations of pop songs can often spring toward "deconstruction": the basic elements of the song remains (maybe the melody, or a certain repeating vamp) but are changed in such a way that they are hard to recognize, perhaps giving a different tone or mood to the song itself. What's cool here is that Bambaataa's melodic lines are almost exactly reconstructed by Moran (check the hook in the top clip at :50 and the minor line again at 2:12) but he uses the rest of the song to do some exploring with tonality, with tension and dissonance.

Hearing this track has made me wonder what other jazz interpretations of hip hop songs are out there that I have not yet come across. There are endless renditions of pop songs and probably more of R&B. After all, soul jazz artists of the late 60s and early 70s routinely used R&B selections to get play on black radio, since it would otherwise be pretty tough to get radio play with instrumental songs (and white radio was out of the question altogether). Producer Bob Porter told me as much in a conversation in 2007: "Remember that jazz musicians routinely used pop hits in their repertoire until recently when everything had to be original. During that era, I was using so many Motown tunes that I got a call from them volunterring to get me any LPs I needed!"

But jazz renditions of hip hop is kind of a different beast. I imagine the main reasons for putting a hip hop track in a jazz setting would be to either: one, pay homage to the evolutionary link between the two black art forms and/or, two, to see what a jazz artist can do with some severe, as they say in poetry, restrictions. I mean, you're pretty much working with eight bars of a looped rhythm section and the rhythms of lyrical verse. Jason Moran puts together something quite nice here with "Planet Rock", which is why I considered it worth the highlight.

Oh, and just in case you're worried this is some kind of novelty/kitsch thing, just listen to this album from 2010.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Zulu Preview

Check back in a few days for a few thoughts on jazz interpretations of pop and hip hop songs. For your information, I will not be writing about The Bad Plus. I will be writing about Afrika Bambaataa.