Monday, May 03, 2004

You scratch my brass, I'll scratch yours + more

A month ago, one of the three radio stations I generally flip between (the slightly alt-pop Radio 21, the other two being classical: the francophone Musiq3 and the nederlandstalig Klara) when I'm alone in the car (when my girlfriend is with me, she insists on irritating commercial pop Flemish stations) split in two: Pure FM, which continues broadcasting contemporary pop, but with a lot more talk-based shows, and Classic 21, mainly devoted to classic rock. I've heard remarkably little good music on either station since the change.

A couple nights ago, Nightclubbing, a show on Classic 21 devoted to old funk edging into disco, played an interesting sequence. First a fantastic James Brown track I don't know the name of (at one point, Brown calls out zodiac signs and finishes with "I need money/1 million/2 million" etc.) that featured a (Fred Wesley?) trombone solo. It made me think (not for the first time, but with the kind of focused clarity that only seems to happen while driving, for some reason) about how unimportant pitch is compared to phrasing and intonation, in making a solo funky: a handful of notes, repeated over and over, but in consistently wonderful, groovy patterns and with fittingly greasy attacks.

A few tracks later (after a fun-but-cloying track from that guy who used a vocoder and provided the basis for Tupac's "California Love," featuring a remarkably fumbling guitar solo, and a jam that might have been called "Soul Stew" and had the singer presenting the musical elements necessary in the cooking of the broth referred to in the title, among which were some horn solos not nearly as well-organised as Wesley's, mere barwalking histrionics), they played Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." Now, a lot of people kind of consider this the death of Hancock, but to them I say "Remember 'Watermelon Man?' 'Chameleon?' (and the stuff from Fat Albert Rotunda and the Mwandishi band as whole before that)." Plus, it's probably more of a Bill Laswell production with Hancock's name on the cover, kind of like the recent, dreadful Future2Future and Marcus Miller with Miles Davis's Tutu which, upon recent re-listen, I like quite a bit. And (all things considered) I like "Rockit" a lot, so there.

The reason I bring "Rockit" up (yes, there is a reason, multiple digressions notwithstanding), is because of Grandmixer DST's (or whatever his name is) scratch solo: an unforeseen thread seemed to stretch from Fred Wesley's solo to his. The turntables pretty much do away completely with pitch as a primary concern, focusing strictly on percussion (ie. phrasing and attack) and as such somehow extend what Wesley, among others, was doing decades earlier.

[Not particularly insightful insights ahead alert]

More generally, it seems to me that hip-hop continued James Brown's musical reductionism and expanded the role of the vocals to fill the gap. I mean, at one point, Brown wasn't doing much of anything at all, and certainly not singing: a few grunts, hollers and chants here and there, rather like those jungle/grime MCs other blogs like to talk about. Had hip-hop pursued both vocal and musical reductionism, it would have become a rather boring genre, indeed.

Since this is a blog and I can string together whatever I want, I'll add in that a week or so ago I was listening to African (sorry, I don't know which country he's from) keyboardist/singer Cheikh Tidiane Seck promote his new album on TV5's Acoustic. He played a few songs with his band, which ranged from quite traditional, with guitar and balafon, to a bit more popppish with the addition of drums, guitar, bass and keyboards. Always, though, there remained the multiplicity of rhythms that remains the signature of Black music*. For days afterwards, hearing contemporary rock songs on the radio, I was struck (for the first time, I'll admit) by how little rhythm (tempo, yes; rhythm, no) they had: everything kept to the quarter- or eigth-note, no syncopation or playing around the basic pulse. It was a sobering experience. I'm being very vague on the rock songs, sorry, I can't remember what they were.

* I always use the expression "Black music" to signify cultural, rather than melanin-induced, blackness.