“blackkk” – thundercat (2017)

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This past weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to revisit one of my favorite albums.  John Coltrane’s 1965 masterpiece A Love Supreme was the February 2017 selection for the ongoing series Classic Album Sundays.  For those not in the know, Classic Album Sundays is a listening event for audiophiles to congregate, listen to a historically or culturally significant album, and then talk about it.  Venues all over the globe will host a listening party in the spirit of bring people together through music by having everyone experience the same album on the same day.  Ongoing every month for the last few years, Classic Album Sundays has featured a great variety of artists including D’Angelo, Stevie Wonder, Massive Attack, the Beach Boys, Talk Talk, Beastie Boys, Depeche Mode, Nick Drake, Portishead, and several dozen other amazing artists.

In Chicago, Classic Album Sundays has been hosted at the Saturday Audio Exchange in the Lakeview neighborhood.  Saturday Audio Exchange, opened in 1982, specializes in high-end consumer audio equipment including turntables, speakers, sound bars, subwoofers, and all kinds of equipment to offer you the best listening experience possible.  So, naturally, this was the perfect place to host the Chicago chapter of Classic Album Sundays.

I had been to Saturday Audio Exchange several times to look through their records, but this was my first time going for Classic Album Sundays which they had been hosting for the last 11 months.  In January 2017, the album of the month was Astral Weeks by Van Morrison.  I had a friend who went and described the event as incredible.  With speakers as tall as refrigerators, you experience the music in a totally new way that ears accustomed to digital files typically don’t get to enjoy.  Great!  I was sold.  A solid listening experience, cool like-minded people, and a stellar album.

While I haven’t discussed Coltrane in my blog yet and this would seem like the perfect opportunity to do so, I’m not quite ready to discuss a track of his and ultimately cross him off my list.  No, I’ll save him for later.  Instead, I want to talk about the event prior to when the needle dropped on his record.  Before listening to the album, before talking about it, and before the pre-listening historical introduction, the emcee of the event plays specially curated tracks as a musical appetizer preceding the main course.

The emcee started off the evening playing some cuts from Coltrane’s contemporaries, his influences, and people influenced by his work.  This was an opportunity to get warmed as well as mingle with other guests over coffee and cookies.  I was off to the side working at the volunteer table, so I was focused on some tasks.  However, I caught one track that blew my mind and was only released two days prior.

Drunk is the third studio album from multi-instrumentalist soul and jazz fusion artist Thundercat.  This album features 23 tracks as well as guest appearances from classic and innovative artists like Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell, Wiz Khalifa, Michael McDonald & Kenny Loggins.  Certainly not a bad guest list for an independent artist.

The track featured was a soulful little number with smooth R&B vocals.  Running under just two minutes, “Blackkk” has garnered repeated listenings from since last night.  The backing track is energetic with a funky little organ riff laying over a soft rhythmic drum beat.  The lyrics sound hopeful and are delivered with a controlled passion.  Thundercat sings about wanting to be taken to the highest mountain and to experience all that life has to offer him.  Thundercat is going on an existential, and perhaps spiritual, interstellar journey and wants you to join him and not be afraid of death.

I had not heard of Thundercat prior, so this was a great treat.  I was already sold on going in to listen to such a complex and dynamic album, but hearing exciting modern music that complements the event’s main focus makes it a far more engaging experience.  Knowing that, it makes me even more excited to attend future Classic Album Sundays.

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“if a girl answers (don’t hang up)” – vanity 6 (1982)

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Just recently, Prince’s discography was made available for digital streaming online across various platform including Pandora, iTunes, Spotify, and others.  Prince was very particular about how his music could be accessed and he was a strict opponent against online streaming.  Less than a year after his death, one of his most valued beliefs was compromised.  On one hand, I like the idea that Prince’s music is more accessible.  On the other, this development is against his wishes.  I’m conflicted.  Regardless, Prince is gone.

A few days after his music was published to all the music streaming sites, I added the Prince station to my Pandora account.  I only listen to Pandora during my morning routine and I like listening to pop and dance music to start my day on a bright note.  Listening to the station, I’m hearing Prince’s hits, his more obscure tracks, and music from his contemporaries or artists influenced by Prince.  It’s a great blend of funky soul.

One thing Prince doesn’t get enough credit for is how he mentored new acts.  Primarily, he liked to mentor new female acts.  Prince was a feminist who believed women should have a bigger presence in pop music.  He would write songs for these acts, produce their albums, or even contribute music and vocals.

I was reminded of Prince’s musical feminism when Vanity 6 appeared on my Pandora station.  I was so excited by this because I hadn’t listened to that album in a long time.  I hadn’t even heard any Vanity 6 or Vanity solo tracks come up on Pandora, so I assume this was included with the rest of Prince’s discography when his catalog was made available online.

Vanity 6 was a female vocal trio and only released on album in 1982. Their eponymous release, Vanity 6¸ is a fuck pop and R&B album filled to the brim with sex and attitude.  The group was led by Vanity, Brenda Bennett, and Susan Moonsie and who did all the vocals as well as background vocals.  Prince wrote most of the songs on the album as well as produced and arranged instrumentation.  He would often credit his work to other musicians or credit his work under the fictional studio name “The Starr Company.”

The song that played that made me remember the group also happens to be my favorite song from their album.  “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” is a funky, funny, and cleverly written rap song.  Despite being the best song on the release, it was never released as a single leaving Vanity 6’s other songs like “He’s So Dull” or “Nasty Girl” to be the most remembered.  Regardless, this catty rap song is a girl group treasure and an overlooked gem in Prince’s lexicon of work.

In the song, the girls of Vanity 6 want to go to a party.  The problem is that they need a ride.  Vanity wants to call her boy toy Jimmy, but is afraid of what happens if a girl answers.  She’s told to not hang up and just talk about it.  Then, drama ensues.

The phone picks up with Vanity asking for Jimmy.  The girl on the other end of the line is Prince with an affected voice.  Immediately, Prince’s vocals are confrontational, charged, and funny as he claims that Jimmy is in the shower.  Getting wise, Vanity asks if taking out the trash is the reason why and Prince replied “No, that’s something he used to do. Now he’s taking out me.”  Vanity and Prince continue taunting each other over the line and throw out amazing insults like “Tramp, I’m dating your dad” and “I’m sorry, baby, but I never go to singles bars.”  The phone exchange happens during the first half of the song until the phone gets hung up.  Prince tries calling back, but there’s no response.  Just a funky backing track.

Vanity 6 disbanded in 1983.  Vanity was getting more attention in the group from Prince than Susan and Brenda.  Also, Vanity had moved on to record with Motown.  She had even dropped out of acting opposite of Prince in his 1984 hit film Purple Rain with the role ultimately going to Apollonia.

Unfortunately, that’s how things worked out.  Vanity 6 is, by far, my favorite of Prince’s side projects.  They released one great album and would’ve undoubtedly released several more.  Vanity 6 is a funny and nasty record and never fails to put me in a good mood.  So, go online to your favorite streaming service, put on the Prince channel, and enjoy what comes your way.

“music for 18 musicians (pulses)” – steve reich (1978)

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I feel really fortunate for living in a city where I have a lot of musical outlets.  I volunteer for two great music non-profits, a community radio station and a music school, and there are a ton of venues to explore what’s hot in the local or underground scene.  Chicago is a musical town.  Even the name itself sounds quite lyrical.  You can find anything you want in this city, so there is no excuse for being bored and not trying anything new.

I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog where I get bored by popular music.  I’m a busy guy and, naturally, get into habits where I listen to the same stuff over and over and over again until it fatigues me.  And that happens to a lot of people.  Though, during these times when I’m feeling a little bored by what is around me, that’s when I find some fresh and exciting and new to me.

Last week, I met up with a friend of mine.  He was one of the first people I met in Chicago when we worked together briefly for the same employer.  He’s a guy who likes musical exploration often listening to jazz, world music, and modern compositions.  He had invited me to attend a concert at Northwestern University in Evanston.  Their contemporary music ensemble and percussion ensemble were performing the music of Steve Reich.  Reich was going to be in attendance and interviewed during intermission since this concert was a program honoring him winning the Bienen School’s prestigious Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition.

The ensembles were comprised of Northwestern students.  The first piece they performed was a section from Reich’s Clapping Music and even Reich joined in.  This involved nearly 20 people clapping cyclical rhythms and was absolutely mesmerizing to watch.  Next, the students settled at various instruments and performed d sections from his composition City Life.  During the interview, Reich talked about how City Life was an homage to his hometown of New York.  The piece featured violin, flute, piano, and audio samples from street noise and NYC firefighters.

City Life and Clapping Music were both performed during the first half of the performance that night.  After intermission, the second half would be dedicated to playing his 1978 composition Music for 18 Musicians in its entirety.  The piece is roughly 56 minutes and the 18 parts are (1) violin, (2) cello, (3-5) three female voices, (6-7) two pianos, (8) piano with maracas, (9) marimba with maracas, (10-12) three marimbas and xylophones, (13) metallophone with piano, (14) piano and marimba, (15) marimba with xylophone and piano, (16-17) two clarinets with bass clarinets, and (18) female voice with piano.  Interestingly enough, Reich warns that more than 18 musicians may be needed.  However, there were only 18 Northwestern students performing the piece and most of them did double, and even triple, duty when it came to playing instruments.  The composition is based on a cycle of eleven chords with a small piece dedicated to each chord.  After each chord cycle, the piece returns to the original cycle.

It was absolutely mesmerizing to watch these students play these cycles.  I couldn’t wrap my head around the time, dedication, and talent it takes to perform this piece let alone any minimalist piece in the vein of Reich’s contemporaries like Philip Glass.  The constant repetition and the small variations in each section take an insane amount of memory and concentration. But what was funny was that these students were grooving to the music.  They made it seem so effortless.  I was absolutely amazed by their skill.  I’m currently learning guitar, but that’s nothing compared to what these students can do.  Kudos to them.

While Music for 18 Musicians is one whole composition and should be listened to it’s entirety, alas, this is not a blog dedicated to whole albums.  One could argue that a song by contemporary pop or rock artist could be a section of a larger work of art, but this blog is dedicated to songs.  Or, in the case of modern music ensemble compositions, then one section.

Music for 18 Musicians begins and ends with the original chord cycle  called “Pulses” each lasting between five to six minutes.  After the “Pulses” introduction, “Section I” kicks in and you get the first chord cycle change.  Listen closely and try to discern the role each instrument and musician play in this piece. “Pulses” sets the tone for framework for the rest of the performance.  To start anywhere other than from the beginning would be a disservice in appreciating the proceeding sections. In fact, give it several listens because this is an amazing work of art.

David Bowie listed as one of his 25 favorite albums.  If that doesn’t convince you, then nothing will. Take some time and discover music unfamiliar to you or outside of your comfort zone.  There’s a lot of great stuff to explore and you may just find something you’ll never forget.

 

“money blues (parts 1, 2, & 3) – archie shepp (1971)

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There is a lot of power in music.  At its most basic level, the sounds make human beings gyrate and sway in time with the rhythm.  Driving percussive beats and harmonizing chants appeal to a ritualistic part of our brain that evoke movement.  It is as if we feel the music.  The form has evolved over generations and serves as a kind of spiritual means of expressing one’s self.

Another aspect of that power comes from the message.  What is being said can be as impactful as how it is being said.  Sometimes, it isn’t enough to be drawn by the music itself.  Some of the allure comes connecting with the vocals.  At that point, the music just because the medium that is part of the great human tradition of oral history.  Sharing our stories and passing down our beliefs and background from one group to the next.  From one generation to the next.

You can’t find a more winning combo than if you’ve got a groove that moves you and a statement that makes you think.  That’s a moment when a song can be greater than the sum of its parts.  Though, can music change the world? Probably not.  At least, not on its own.  However, it is what we choose to do with such a great gift that makes us realize our truest potential and defining ourselves.

While Archie Shepp is not as famous as some of the other artists signed to Impulse! Records such as John Coltrane, he is undoubtedly a pioneer in both jazz music and civil rights.  A powerful saxophonist, Shepp expanded the breadth of Afrocentric music and its social consciousness.

Shepp played on the early sessions of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme but would not make the final cut.  However, that is not a bad place to start honing your talent under the direction of jazz’s most famous and influential saxophonist.  In 1965, Shepp was influenced by African music and incorporated that into his studio recordings.  He also paid homage to civil rights leaders in his music including reading an elegy for Malcolm X on his album Fire Music.

As other jazz musicians were being influenced by African music traditions, Shepp was leading the way in developing the form and incorporating avant-garde musical elements into his recordings.  His work would become a political musical force raising awareness for a variety of social issues.

In 1971, Shepp released one his finest studio albums Things Have Got to Change.  Side two contains a tribute to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled “Dr. King, The Peaceful Warrior” and closes out with a free-form two-part avant garde piece “Things Have Got to Change;” a track filled with social commentary about the African-American civil rights struggle.

It is side one, however, that contains the record’s jewel track.  “Money Blues,” arranged in three parts, is a monster of a song running at nearly 18 and a half minutes.  This radical track features a large ensemble of blues and jazz musicians and a stellar vocal choir.  Throughout the song, Shepp is talking about his money and demanding that it be given to him.  The choir in the backgrounds chants throughout about them working all day and repeating the word “money” as if they are participating in some great ritual.

Shepp doesn’t think that exploitation of the African-American community is not funny as he chants his demand through the song.  His vision and message and clear simple.  Give him his money.  This desire for respect in the form of financial contribution evokes a lot of emotion, anger, and exhaustion.  Shepp is tired of all this and wants to go in.  The energy, heard in the driving percussion, frenetic saxophone, and choir chants is palpable.

There’s a lot of injustice in the world today as our leaders continue to assume all the wealth and create divisiveness within the most vulnerable communities.  This must change and I wish it was as simple as just snapping your fingers.  But, that isn’t the case.  People are angry and fighting against their oppressors.  Shepp sings that he hopes he doesn’t have to get angry to get his money.  But, he should and so do the other people who struggle along with him.  “Money Blues” is a great track that evokes a powerful message and offers motivation to seek justice in a world where such a concept is so rare.  While the people in power take away, the only solution is to demand what is yours and to fight for everything because everything is what is at stake.

 

“whiskey in the jar” – thin lizzy (1972)

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Two days ago, I was finishing up a pretty standard day at work.  I had just left a meeting with my boss to discuss arranging some upcoming travel for him.  It was around 4 PM when I returned to my desk and received an email about a package shipment.  It took me a few seconds to think about why I would receive this notification.  Recently, I made a purchase on Amazon but that would result in the email I just received.  I then noticed that the package was being delivered overnight via FedEx.  Amazon typically doesn’t send me packages via FedEx and I wasn’t expecting anything else.  However, when I read through the notification and saw that the sender was the General Consulate of Ireland, it dawned on me, my eyes went wide open, and I uttered “holy shit.”

The email was to alert me I would be receiving the results of my citizenship application I submitted March 2016.  I had finished the application during the weekend Chicago held their annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities.  Typically, I go down to the Chicago River and watch it get dyed green. I would have to miss it.  I had a full day’s work ahead of me going through documents, getting appropriate forms and letters notarized, filling out the final application.  I scheduled myself to do a volunteer shift at the Old Town School of Folk Music where it would be quiet, peaceful, and I would have access to a photocopier.  While everyone else was day drinking green beer, I was carefully and meticulously putting all the pieces of this citizenship puzzle together.

When Monday came around, I neatly organized all the application contents, purchased a money order that really hurt wallet (bye bye annual bonus), and visited the post office.  I had recently learned that it would be a while before my application would be reviewed.  It was March 2016 and the Consulate General of Ireland in Chicago was up to 14 months behind schedule while their counterparts in San Francisco and Boston were on schedule.  However, due to geographic proximity, I was represented by the Chicago office and would have to wait as late as summer 2017.  Once I handed over my priority mail envelop over to the postal clerk, all I had to do was wait.

Getting my dual citizenship with Ireland was several years in the making.  I talked about it with friends for so long that it seemed to be a distant unachievable fantasy and they were all humoring me.  I had always wanted to get it before I did, but circumstances surrounding my application were a bit more difficult than normal.

It was around 2010 that I started entertaining the idea of looking into the process in obtaining dual citizenship with Ireland.  My mother had a coworker who recently acquired his.  However, for a 22-year-old kid fresh out of college, I didn’t think too hard about it at the time.  I had other priorities.  I wanted to get my life together and make that transition into real adulthood.  The kind of life where you make your own way.  So, my energy, time, and money was directed towards leaving Alaska for Chicago and finding a job.

I’ve talked about my move to Chicago several times in this blog before, so there’s no need to do it again.  But the takeaways during this time were that I didn’t work and bring in income my first five months in Chicago, eventually landed a job that was too time consuming and soul crushing, and spent the next three years focusing on maintaining physical and mental stability my job threatened.  All that and saving money, of course, after such a big move and living on my own for the first time.

I didn’t start thinking about the citizenship application process until 2014.  That was a financially rough year.  I was unemployed for four months after leaving my awful job, but then I found work at a new place that seemed promising.  This new job was better in almost every way except pay.  I took a huge cut.  Though, there were developments that helped with that.  I had recently moved in with my girlfriend at the time and that took off undue financial stress that comes with living alone.

During this time, I reviewed the application process again.  The consular fees had recent increased (damn it), but I needed to take it one day at a time.  Before I would even touch the application, I had to acquire necessary documents.  I had my standard long form birth certificate, but I had to obtain various documents regarding my mother and grandparents.  This took some doing.

There were two challenges during this time while acquiring documents.  The first was money.  I had paid the appropriate agencies the appropriate fees for some of the documents while my mother covered some others.  There were some challenges with this that occur whenever people need to borrow money, but we worked through it.

The second challenge concerned the health of my grandmother.  Over the past few years, her mental and physical health has been on the decline and my grandfather has been working hard to care for her.  My dual citizenship application was being filed as a Foreign Birth registered through Irish grandparents.  In short, this means I had to connect myself to them with various documents tracking and confirming lineage.  Given the medical situation, it would have been inappropriate to burden them to locate documents they may not have.

So, this required some extra work.  My mother was adopted.  What we did know was that her biological parents were also Irish.  In the year prior, she had taken steps to investigate the identity of her biological parents.  I’m sure that wasn’t an easy endeavor for emotional reasons, but it provided a lot of answers.  IT was big step she had taken that benefitted me in my dual citizenship application.  The information she received were essential in getting the required documents for my application.  It added extra steps and required more money, but it a necessary step for a lot of reasons.

Finally, by August 2014, I had all the paperwork needed to begin the application process.  It felt good knowing I could just fill out a few more forms, get some things notarized, and finally mail them off.  However, September 2014, I received word from my company’s human resources department that my office was closing and I would soon be unemployed.  Again.  So, my citizenship application would have to wait.

During the fall and winter of 2014, I held a couple of temp jobs.  If you’ve never held a temp job before, consider yourself lucky.  They suck.  You’re extremely underpaid, ineligible for benefits, and overcome with stress because you don’t have a job that is considered stable permanent employment.  Yeah, you’re making enough to get by until something better comes.  But, you don’t know when that is.  And if you’re living alone without a spouse or partner to help share financial burdens, it is even tougher to make it on your own.

When one temp job would end, another would begin.  At the end of January 2015, I would land a temp job that would become permanent in May.  I was so happy to no longer be a temp.  I had it all now!  Medical insurance! 401K! Paid vacation days!  All those thing a lot of professionals take for granted were so amazing to me because I didn’t have them for such a long time.  Plus, I was getting paid $5 more per hour as a real permanent employee with the company I previously temped for.  That’s a big deal.  I had so many things I wanted to do that I missed out on as a temp, but those had to wait a little longer.  I would have to work hard, pull overtime, and save money throughout the rest of 2015 to get myself into a better place.

2015 flew by.  When 2016 hit, it was time to consider how I can reap the benefits of my work.  A family vacation in April was on the horizon and I was also entertaining the idea of doing some travel outside of the country.  However, this was also the perfect moment to finally, once and for all, finish this damn citizenship application.  I waited until March when I got my annual company bonus and then dropped a cool $351 on a money order to include with my application, paid the shipping fees, and breathed a sigh of relief that it was all done and I would just have to wait for the results.

I wasn’t expecting my application to be finalized until May.  So, it was a pleasant surprise that I received my citizenship confirmation on February 2nd.  It had been such a long journey to get that I thought it would never happen.  But, it is here and I can enjoy it after so much time and effort.

Thin Lizzy was a rock band that formed in Dublin during 1969.  These Irish blues rock giants would eventually go on to have an amazing career with songs like “Jailbreak” and “The Boys Are Back in Town.”  However, in 1972, they recorded “Whiskey in the Jar,” a traditional Irish ballad, as a single for Decca.  Allegedly about the death of an Irish traveler in 1650, the ballad is believed to have originated in sometime after that in the 17th century.  The ballad is about a man who robs an official of some sort and it betrayed by his sweetheart.  Like all great folk songs, the oral traditions give way to various interpretations over the years.  It becomes difficult to keep certain details consistent.

The most famous version of the song is from the Dubliners released in 1968.  And, frankly, that is my favorite version as well.  However, the Thin Lizzy version is a little more rockin’.  This a moment of celebration for me and I need more energy.  Their version of this traditional Irish ballad adds soulful elements that are catchy.  While the band hated the release of this song because they felt it didn’t capture their sound authentically enough, it was a hit for them regardless.

Now that I have my dual citizenship with Ireland, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.  But, it is good to have.  Just like before when I was trying to get it, I have to take things one day at a time now that I have it.  For now, I’m just considering what I want to do to celebrate.  St. Patrick’s Day is coming up.  Just in time!