Listen to this track from Avant garde tenor player with a soft side Pharaoh Sanders. It’s “Astral Traveling”, a track as taken off of his 1971 LP Thembi. This record catches Sanders during what many consider to be his prime period. But, instead of stretching out for side-long excursions into tempestuous and ferocious whirlwinds of sound, this record is more varied, and with more bite-sized track lengths, not to mention moments of serenity and lyricism. Maybe it was because the record was named after Sanders’ wife. But, it largely deals in subtlety and sonic variation, as opposed to the crashing assault for which much of his work is generally known.
This album is actually the product of two different sessions. Like many jazz records toward the end of the sixties and into the seventies, these sessions were edited into a whole at the production stage instead of being recorded right off of the floor as is. This doesn’t mean that the record was without spontaneity or the spirit of experimentation. In fact, this very track can certainly be considered experimental, even if it is pastoral in equal measure. Read more
Listen to this track by boundary-pushing jazz trumpeter and genre-defying sonic visionary Miles Davis. It’s “Shhh/Peaceful”, the first track and indeed whole of side-A on his 1969 landmark release In A Silent Way.
The album gathered some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day into one space, with the music recorded during a single session on February 18, 1969, after almost a year on Davis’ part of working up ideas, and experimenting with new textures and instrumentation. Joining jazz luminaries like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Chick Corea, were European jazz players including bassist Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul on organ, and electric guitarist John McLaughlin.
Besides Davis’ creative vision supported by producer and engineer Teo Macero, perhaps it was this cross-cultural exchange that helped to move this project into another dimension. Likely too it was the addition of electric instruments that made this record the harbinger of Davis’ foray into what would become known as jazz fusion, wherein he would employ electric wattage to his instrumental excursions that paid no mind to traditional melodic frameworks, making critics wonder if Miles Davis was even interested in jazz any longer.
But, when it came to the critics, this piece of music, and In A Silent Way in general, much of it stemmed from a significant paradigm shift when it came to how jazz was understood, and that which was very common in the recording of rock music at the time; studio trickery undertaken after the musicians went home. Read more
Listen to this track by avant-garde-minimalist-ambient-folk-jazz-chamber-whatever collective Penguin Cafe Orchestra. It’s “Music For A Found Harmonium”, the opening track as taken from the 1984 album Broadcasting From Home. The track was initially inspired in just the way you might think; by PCO founder Simon Jeffes actually finding a harmonium in an alley in Japan while on tour there, and then building a piece of music around it.
It’s this kind of out of the box thinking that set him upon this road to start with. The music of Penguin Cafe Orchestra is driven by all kinds of sources, from classical music, to jazz, to folk music of all kinds, referencing traditional pop structure and melody using a variety of stringed instruments, piano, and brass. But, another source used to create the music is from “found sounds”, and in found objects too, from rubber bands to discarded harmoniums.
So, how did Simon Jeffes establish this musical approach, and what can be found in this tune that exemplifies it?
Listen to this track by former Talk Talk creative honcho and minimalist composer Mark Hollis. It’s “A Life (1895-1915)”, what he considered to be the centerpiece of his only solo album, Mark Hollis. The record was released in 1998 without much fanfare, since its author asserted that “fanfare” of any kind didn’t really match with the material on the record. That meant no gigs. It would be an entity of the studio only, a one-shot deal.
The approach wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary for Hollis, who wasn’t your standard frontman in a not-your-standard band in Talk Talk. One-off records by former frontmen are often associated with contractual obligation, particularly when there’s no follow-up. But here, there is a definite sense of artistic continuity. Like his work under the Talk Talk creative umbrella, the use of space plays a pretty big role on his solo record and in this piece. And to Hollis’ point, it would be hard to really take this music in while in a live setting. Imagine how many intrusive conversations, clinking glasses, and inebriated guffawing it would have to cut through.
Another aspect of this is the sources where this material is derived. To my ears, the first one that leaps to mind is late ’50s Gil Evans. Minimalist composition in a classical context also seems to be the general sonic neighbourhood here. But, despite my feeling that it’s hard to attach the word “song” to this piece of music, it really is one. But, what is it about?