Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Loneliest Number

Artists: Dave Brubeck Quartet; Eric Dolphy; Erroll Garner
Albums: Time Out (DBQ); Out to Lunch (ED); Concert by the Sea (EG)
Source: Bought new (DBQ, ED); gift (EG)

Jazz is an especially fertile field for the obsessive collector type. The idea of assembling a "core collection" would, in a conservative estimate, entail dozens upon dozens of purchases. Which is not to say other genres are too slight. Rather, if you're going to get the core catalogues of, say, Led Zeppelin and Patti Smith, you're talking about maybe 10 records; trying to do the same for Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk would require a small truck to haul it all home.

Accordingly, once I latch onto a jazz artist, the discs can start to pile up pretty seriously. Dave Douglas is still putting out records, and the two or three dozen discs of Miles' music still feels woefully incomplete. It can be a bit of a hazard, this collecting thing.

Which is why it's also nice to encounter artists like the three in question here: Dave Brubeck, Eric Dolphy and Erroll Garner. With each of these guys, I've got one - and only one - piece of their estimable catalogues...which is AOK by me. This is not to denigrate them as makers of musical statements. In fact, I really and totally dig all three of these discs.

But somehow, each one is just enough.

I find this reaction strangest with the Brubeck disc. This is one of those iconic platters, with actual, honest-to-goodness hits included ("Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk"). It would be easy to already be sick of some of these tunes before you've even heard the whole thing, but that's just not my experience of Time Out. Instead, I never get tired of it, from the watertight compositions to the band's icy-hot playing (especially the blue smoke that drifts out of Paul Desmond's sax). I love it every time, I reach for it often, and it doesn't make me feel like I need to have more in order to get the full picture.

Dolphy is a different case. In this instance, the thing is that I do have much, much more of his stuff: Eric Dolphy is a sideman on some of my favorite jazz dates: his recordings with Mingus, his tracks with Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, and certainly Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth. I thoroughly dig Dolphy's playing...and the truth is that Out to Lunch, while perfectly enjoyable, is the least of The Beast's discs on which he appears. Like Time Out, this one is a pure pleasure to hear, and yet for this guy when I do want to hear more, it's his work with other people that gets me going. Some were born to lead, and Dolphy seems to have been dropped on Earth for a brief run of kicking other people's records into higher gear.

And then there's Erroll Garner. I'd never heard of him when my uncle gave me Concert by the Sea as a gift, and I was glad to make the pianist's acquaintance. Though it doesn't contain his best-known track ("Misty"), the 11 tunes it does have are all tightly melodic creations, well-played by Garner's trio. I don't reach for it too often, but when I do Concert by the Sea is always a pleasure. It's entirely satisfying, but doesn't make me curious to hear more. Having not known this was on offer, it continues to be a welcome (if originally unexpected) guest who knows how not to outstay that welcome.

SISOSIG? Though for a trio different reasons, all three of these are keepers. There's little danger of my Brubeck, Dolphy or Garner holdings increasing (though I suspect there are more of ED's sideman projects to acquire), but I'd be sad to see them decrease from their current counts of the loneliest number.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Man Vs. (Sex) Machine

Artist: James Brown
Albums: Sex Machine; 20 All-Time Greatest Hits
Source: Bought new

Taking a look at Soul Brother #1 brings up two issues. The first is roughly the same thing I encountered when pondering my Beatles holdings: is it really possible that I have this paltry amount of James Brown in residence? I mean, this is a major dude, to put it lightly. I've heard Robert Chirstgau say that Mr. Excitement is the top musician he's encountered, in any idiom. I don't particularly agree, but I also don't really know how I'd go about refuting the claim.

In short, I just don't have enough James Brown. I mean, no Live at the Apollo? Or at least a semi-comprehensive box set ? C'mon, people.

But more importantly (and perhaps related to the Great James Brown Shortage) is the issue of personality. James Brown is the inventor of funk, the leader of one of the greatest R&B bands ever, the writer of several all-time classic songs...but he was also a wife-beater, a tyrannical boss, and a gun-toting cop-baiting drug-addled lunatic among other things.

To say that the man had some flaws would be putting it lightly. Eileen doesn't like me to play Brown's music in the car, specifically on the domestic-violence issue (though I notice she doesn't make me turn off those old Ike & Tina hits...). I explain his role in the civil rights movement and his many instances of positive social leadership, but she doesn't want to hear it: he is a Bad Man, and that extends all the way to the deepest of his deepest grooves.

I can kind of see where she's coming from...but I think I have to disagree with my lovely wife on this one. Sure, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business wasn't always the Best Guy Ever Off-Stage, but I have trouble using that as a measure of art. Jo-Jo Richman says, "Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole," but only because it (sort of) rhymes; Picasso was an asshole, and so were/are a lot of great artists. Should I stop watching Woody Allen movies because I don't dig the whole Soon-Yi episode? Should Wagner be banished from the concert halls for his anit-Semitic views? William Burroughs shot his wife playing "William Tell" (though in his defense, they were both massively zonked at the time) and Frank Zappa indulged in the groupies when away from his wife & kids, but I don't want to get rid of my copies of Naked Lunch or Hot Rats in protest.

In short, I don't know that it's fair to evaluate art using a Man (or Woman, Ms. Riefenstahl) vs. Artist equation. The creative output is the creative output, and for the most part needs to be evaluated as such. (In cases where the output is the person, e.g., Mein Kamph, I can see where this might not be the way to go.) James Brown was not always a role model, but I'm not going to him for advice on how to treat women--I want to hear the beat hit on the one, the bass slap out a groove, and Mr. Sex Machine himself ride that otherworldly voice atop some of the fiercest music ever committed.

SISOSIG? Personality issues aside, these are two tasty little discs. With a fella whose output varied so widely in quality for so many years, it can be a killer move to have a killer best-of collection. The 20 tracks on this one are all monsters, from the heard-it-too much tracks like "I Got You" and "Sex Machine" to the funk blasts of "Night Train" and "Say It Loud." Eileen may not allow this in the car, but it can't be beat for sheer quality. The other one, Sex Machine, I bought on the basis of the 12-minute title track, a live version of "Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine" that features Bootsy Collins on the staggeringly funky bass and James just barely int control of himself. That being track 1, the rest of the album has some trouble measuring up, but lordy does it ever try its best. By the time "Mother Popcorn" winds out its last groove, I'm often exhausted.

So these both stay, and as mentioned I really oughta pick up Live at the Apollo, and maybe look into the Star Time box. There's a lot of Brother James out there, and I should probably have some more in here!