Monday, February 26, 2007

beta is a mixtape (side 2)

I made two mixtapes recently, both concerned with jazz music. One was for a friend who knows little of the genre but wished to learn. Knowing that her inclination is towards indie-rock, I picked hummable selections (Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud"; Miles's "Freddie Freeloader"; Mingus's "Hora Decubitus"), a few interpretations of "Everything Happens to Me" and "Come Rain or Come Shine," and the sweetest song on an otherwise oddly-angled 'out' album, Eric Dolphy's "Something Sweet, Something Tender." Of course, the honoree accuses me of 'dumbing it down' for her.

The second mixtape was in response to a discussion with Mark Richardson, stemming from his recent Resonant Frequency column about "difficult" music and the rewards it can provide over the course of a lifetime. We bandy about some similar records, from John Coltrane's OM to Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. I wonder what he thinks of other notoriously difficult listens, such as Royal Trux's Cerebus-headed junkie mess, Twin Infinitives, the Butthole Surfers' Hairway to Steven or Cecil Taylor's bustling, bristling Unit Structures.

To my shock, he admits a blindspot for the music of Taylor, saying that his taste in jazz had been in a holding pattern of sorts: Coltrane, Ayler, Jarrett, Bill Evans. Having spent more than a decade chipping away at such alien monoliths of Taylor, especially Structures and Conquistador!, I seek to remedy that with a mix of my favorite "New Thing" stuff on Blue Note: Taylor, Lee Morgan's shimmering Search for the New Land; Grachan Moncur's tilted and anxious Some Other Stuff; Tony Williams's assured mature debut Life Time, Jackie McLean's suspended Destination Out!; Bobby Hutcherson's woozy and drunken Dialogue.

And yet, the first CD of songs is the more arduous to assemble. All of my listening life, I've flown towards the abstract and obtuse; to compile something focused on songcraft is far more difficult for me. The first jazz CD I ever heard was Coltrane's OM. Mark commented in his column that he still hasn't gotten his head around it, and despite having it on the shelf for more than a decade, I can't say I've figured it out myself. My subsequent reaction hasn't grown far beyond my initial one, hearing that morass of voices, moans, bells, soul cries, and thinking, "This is Jazz?!?"

How did I learn to appreciate such difficult listening? What allowed me to bypass my gag reflex and choke it down for digestion and appreciation? there's no way I would've 'gotten' Trout Mask Replica the first two dozen times, no matter how many joints we smoked, yet there was always something to hook me, to draw me back. Looking back nearly 15 years now, it took me forever to figure out just what that gateway was. It vilifies me to concur now with Frank Zappa's question as to whether or not humor belongs in music, yet being able to laugh along with this audacious, unbearable, teeth-gnashing noise no doubt sprung me. It was worth suffering the pink fish head with the shuttlecock top hat cover of TMR knowing that at some point I would get to:
"Fast'n' Bulbous!"
"That's right, the Mascara Snake! Fast'n'bulbous."
"Bulbous also tapered."
"Right, but you've got to wait till..." cryptic still, ultimately unknowable, but fun to try and recite when the dialogue came around. And what's more knee-slapping than the serious groans of OM, the loosed howls, and the line about clarified butter? I still get the rat creeps from that Royal Trux album, and there's nothing inherently funny about an ocean of black bile and junk-sick, but I found the vomit sounds and stiff drum programming to be somewhat non-serious. The Butthole Surfers were noxious, fucked sounding, yet I would make the loogie-spitting sound on Psychic, Powerless, Another Man's Sac's "Lady Sniff" or the dialogue that opens "Sweatloaf." And it was impossible not to crack up at the creepy little boy voice that would crop up on Hairway and squeal "Oh Daddy, don't touch my little peeeeeenis."