September 26, 2005

Great Albums # Tonight's the Night : Neil Young

Written and recorded in 1973 shortly after the death of roadie Bruce Berry, Neil Young's second close associate to die of a heroin overdose in six months (the first was Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten), Tonight's the Night was Young's musical expression of grief, combined with his rejection of the stardom he had achieved in the late '60s and early '70s.

The title track, performed twice, was a direct narrative about Berry: "Bruce Berry was a working man/He used to load that Econoline van." Whitten was heard singing "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown," a live track recorded years earlier. Elsewhere, Young frequently referred to drug use and used phrases that might have described his friends, such as the chorus of "Tired Eyes," "He tried to do his best, but he could not."

Performing with the remains of Crazy Horse, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina, along with Nils Lofgren (guitar and piano) and Ben Keith (steel guitar), Young performed in the ragged manner familiar from Time Fades Away -- his voice was often hoarse and he strained to reach high notes, while the playing was loose, with mistakes and shifting tempos. But the style worked perfectly for the material, emphasizing the emotional tone of Young's mourning and contrasting with the polished sound of CSNY and Harvest that Young also disparaged.

He remained unimpressed with his commercial success, noting in "World on a String," "The world on a string/Doesn't mean anything." In "Roll Another Number," he said he was "a million miles away/From that helicopter day" when he and CSN had played Woodstock. And in "Albuquerque," he said he had been "starvin' to be alone/Independent from the scene that I've known" and spoke of his desire to "find somewhere where they don't care who I am." Songs like "Speakin' Out" and "New Mama" seemed to find some hope in family life, but Tonight's the Night did not offer solutions to the personal and professional problems it posed.

It was the work of a man trying to turn his torment into art and doing so unflinchingly. Depending on which story you believe, Reprise Records rejected it or Young withdrew it from its scheduled release at the start of 1974 after touring with the material in the U.S. and Europe. In 1975, after a massive CSNY tour, Young at the last minute dumped a newly recorded album and finally put Tonight's the Night out instead. Though it did not become one of his bigger commercial successes, the album immediately was recognized as a unique masterpiece by critics, and it has continued to be ranked as one of the greatest rock & roll albums ever made.

September 23, 2005

Great Albums # Feels like Home : Norah Jones

In two short years, Norah Jones went from playing clubs as an unknown to becoming a ubiquitous, insanely heralded new artist and the prime torch carrier for "grown-folks' music." Most of the praise was for Jones' voice: You put on her 8 million-selling, eight-Grammy-winning 2001 debut, Come Away With Me, to be transported by that tousled half-whisper and by the twenty-four-year-old's affectation-free Texas-saloon-chanteuse vibe. The surrounding musical embellishments might as well have been ring tones.

But singing doesn't just happen: It needs context, and this could be Jones' particular genius; she is as much a piano player as a singer, despite her best efforts to hide this fact -- in performance she slinks behind the piano and does her thing with undivalike anonymity. Far from blanded-out background music, Feels Like Home, Jones' second album, is a triumph of the low-key, at once easygoing and poignant.

Jones, her bandmates and producer Arif Mardin take what might seem like unexceptional acoustic-lounge arrangements and turn them into high drama. The gorgeous "Those Sweet Words," one of several songs Jones co-wrote with her boyfriend and bassist, Lee Alexander, is a good example. It begins as an ordinary singer-songwriter tangle of acoustic guitars, ambling along in the medium-slow tempo that became, from overuse, her Achilles' heel. Jones enters by pawing delicately at a single note, then plays idle throwaway chords that exude a round, almost liquid tone you rarely hear from a piano. They're just random jazz-piano jottings, yet from them Jones creates the outline of a sullen, disconsolate scene. The hard work of framing a narrative backdrop is done. All that remains is for Jones to heave that heavy sigh and fill in the details.

Feels Like Home is a series of these carefully drawn mood states, each one set in a slightly different shade of blue and differentiated by subtle changes in the arrangements. Though the originals, written mostly by members of her touring band, lack some of the earnest grabbiness of the songs Jesse Harris wrote for Jones' first foray, they're far more varied musically, and they depend on Jones' magic, her ability to invest the most fragile melody with some preternatural impact. There are moments of lithe, coolheaded boho blues ("In the Morning," featuring a coy Jones solo on Wurlitzer electric piano) and downcast salvation-seeking waltzes (the transfixing "Humble Me"). There's a credible excursion into country two-step (the duet with Dolly Parton, "Creepin' In") and a haunted Brechtian tone poem called "Carnival Town."

Jones talks about her whirlwind success just a little, with her usual understatement: On the idyllic "Toes," she sings of an idealized, unharried life not in the strident complaining voice of a newly minted star but like any other overwhelmed soul yearning for a moment's peace.The most heartening thing about Feels Like Home is the utter absence of fussiness, or second-album overthink. It extends the Come Away With Me template while never echoing the earlier songs. Where most creators of vocal pop music concentrate on crafting tight couplets and big-payoff refrains, Jones just sits at the piano and chases less obvious targets -- ruminative moods and hushed-whisper atmospheres. And she's found, in two graceful albums, a whole different kind of mojo lurking inside the three-minute song.

Review from RS Mag

Biography # Gipsy Kings

The Gipsy Kings are largely responsible for bringing the joyful sounds of progressive pop-oriented flamenco, called Sevillana in Spain, to the world. The band started out in Arles, a village in southern France during the '70s when brothers Nicolas and Andre Reyes, the sons of renowned flamenco artist Jose Reyes, teamed up with their cousins Jacques, Maurice and Tonino Baliardo, whose father is Manitas de Plata. They originally called themselves Los Reyes and started out as a gypsy band traveling about playing weddings, festivals, and in the streets. Because they lived so much like gypsies, the band adopted the name the Gipsy Kings. Later, they were hired to add color to posh parties in St. Tropez. Popularity did not come to Los Reyes right away and their first two albums attracted little notice.

At this point the Gipsies played traditional, albeit passionate flamenco music punctuated by Tonino's precise guitar playing and Nicolas' exceptional voice. Though they had devoted fans, they still had yet to gain wider recognition until 1986 when they hooked up with visionary producer Claude Martinez who could see that the Kings had the makings of a world-class band.Thanks to Martinez, the Kings began to relax a bit and take on a more contemporary edge, combining their traditional songs with sounds from the Middle East, Latin America, North Africa, a hint of rock, and their inimitable joy.It was, in a music industry filled with flamenco purists who resisted any kind of change, a very daring move, and many felt the Gipsy Kings would fall flat and disappear. But the nay-sayers were wrong.

In 1987, they released "Djobi Djoba" and "Bamboleo," on an independent label and scored two smash hits in France. Their success led them to sign with Sony Music and release their eponymous debut album later that year. Again, they had tremendous sales in France and then found their album was appearing on the Top Ten album charts in 12 European countries including England, which is traditionally unreceptive to international music.

In the late '80s, the Gipsy Kings, debuted in the U.S. at a New York New Music Seminar. This led them to sign to Sony in America. In 1989, they were invited to perform at the inaugural ball for George Bush, but they chose to return home to rest and be with their families. Later that year, they held an SRO concert at the Royal Albert Hall, where the Gipsy Kings hobnobbed with some of the world's biggest pop stars including Elton John and Eric Clapton. To top off their great year, the Kings' debut album spent 40 weeks on the U.S. charts and went gold, becoming one of the few Spanish albums to do so.Their latest album is Roots which takes them back to their roots as the name suggests.

Roots : Album Review

Fans of flamenco icons the Gipsy Kings have been waiting a long time for a record like Roots. The group spent much of the last ten years churning out a sleek and heady mix of often disposable worldbeat that, while perfectly executed, never lived up to the promise of their hugely successful 1988 American/English debut. The aptly named Roots finds the brothers Andre and Nicolás Reyes leading the veteran octet through 16 blistering tracks, bereft of the percussion and electronic trickery that has plagued so many of their previous outings. The family collective rented a farmhouse in the south of France for the recording, and the results are nothing short of a revelation.

From the opening notes of "Aven, Aven" through the intimate campfire splendor of "Petite Noya," the bandmembers seem possessed by one another, trading stories through the only medium they understand, resulting in a listening experience that's almost mythological in scope. Between the infectious handclaps on "Rhythmic," the two visceral "Fandango" pieces performed by Nicolás and cousin Patchai Reyes, and the pristine (field) production -- it's like an Alan Lomax recording in 24-bit digital -- lie eight men out of time, playing for their country, their history, and most importantly, themselves.

September 17, 2005

Back with a Bang

"Solo first, bridge later!" Mick Jagger yells, turning to the rest of the Rolling Stones as they come to a messy halt behind him. Jagger, guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood, and drummer Charlie Watts are rehearsing for their 2005-06 world tour -- dubbed A Bigger Bang, after their outstanding new album -- in the gym of the Greenwood College School in Toronto. They are grappling with a song they have not played live since 1982, "Hang Fire," from the album Tattoo You. Unable to agree on which parts go where, the Stones collide in the middle of it on the first pass.

It's a split-second crash. Watts hits a hard, fast roll on his snare, and the entire cast -- including bassist Darryl Jones, keyboard player Chuck Leavell and background singers Bernard Fowler, Lisa Fischer and Blondie Chaplin -- jumps back into the song at full speed.

But the crossroads of energy is at the foot of the drum riser. As the Stones charge through the last choruses of "Hang Fire," Jagger sings facing Watts, shimmying in place as the drummer swings with perfect, racing tension. Richards and Wood also pull in tight, almost toe-to-toe as they riff and solo like dueling swordsmen. This is the spot where lightning strikes again and again: tonight in the surging finale of "Let It Bleed" and the slow boil of "Some Girls," and every night, no matter how big the stage. The Rolling Stones are the biggest rock & roll band in the world, an unstoppable institution still setting tour-gross records in stadiums and arenas after forty-three years. But Jagger, 62, Richards, 61, Watts, 64, and Wood, 58, spend a good part of every performance in that airtight formation, making their best music in close quarters.

That is why A Bigger Bang, the Stones' first studio album in eight years, is their finest since Tattoo You. Jagger and Richards wrote and refined many of the songs literally side by side, and the Stones recorded all of them with no special guests and no excess garnish, from the carnal romps "Rough Justice" and "Oh No, Not You Again" to the dirty, crawling blues "Back of My Hand" and the political brickbat "Sweet Neo Con," the last two featuring the bare-bones trio of Jagger, Richards and Watts. Things could have turned out a lot differently. In June 2004, just as Jagger and Richards began working on new material, Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer. But the operation was successful. After six weeks of chemotherapy, the drummer received a clean bill of health and was soon back at his kit, proving again that for the Stones, mortality is not an issue. It's an irritant.

"There is a certain feeling on this one, an excitement," Richards says, with his crusty swashbuckler's laugh, of the album before rehearsal one night. "There were no huge obstacles to overcome, like, 'What about that tuba part?' These songs lend themselves to live work. They are beautifully ready to play, and everybody's ready to play them."

By the time the Stones sit down for these four interviews -- two weeks into rehearsals, in their respective dressing rooms (except for Watts, who prefers the quiet comfort of his hotel suite) -- they have run through much of the new album, including "Back of My Hand," Richards' smoky vocal feature "Infamy," and the R&B ballads "Streets of Love" and "This Place Is Empty." In fact, there are nearly 100 different titles, written in colored marker on the large whiteboards on the gym walls, listing the songs the band practices each night. There are vintage surprises ("The Last Time," "It's All Over Now," "Little T&A"); the expected hits ("Tumbling Dice," "It's Only Rock and Roll"); even a pair of Ray Charles tributes, "Lonely Avenue" and "(Night Time Is) the Right Time."

"A lot of these things we do very occasionally," Jagger says. "We try them in different ways. In the end, I'm trying to collect a group of eighty tunes for the whole year." He laughs. "That way, I can say, 'We rehearsed those in Toronto. C'mon, let's have another go at this.' "

Rock & roll is supposed to be unpredictable, but the Stones operate like clockwork: a world tour every three or four years, usually with a new album; rehearsals in Toronto.
The whole act of touring is ritualistic: You're here one day, there the next. It's superpredictable. I can tell you exactly where I'm going to be in Frankfurt -- the hotel I'm staying in and the room -- next July.

Is that the life you envisioned for yourself forty years ago?
In the old days, the best thing you could get was a residency at a club. Your life was formulaic. We'd play Tuesday nights at the Ealing Club, Friday nights at the Marquee, Saturday night somewhere, Sunday afternoons at Ken Colyer's and Sunday evenings in Richmond. You didn't worry about where your next gigs were coming from. And they were all within a five-mile radius.

You get the question whenever you announce a tour: "Is this the last time?"
The first time I answered that was in 1966. It's on film.

Are you ever tempted to say yes?
I always feel like that at the end of a tour. They never ask you at the end [laughs]. To be honest, I didn't think the Stones should do another big tour. I was thinking of just twenty shows: "There are all these festivals in the summer. Let's do ten gigs in America, then come to Europe." I'm quite happy to do less. Because I get bored after twenty shows. It's interesting and challenging to get the thing going. But after you've done it, it becomes routine. Every night you have to make it fresh for yourself, so that when you go out there it's fresh for the audience.

Did you feel that way in, say, 1978?
Yeah. And creatively, it's rather dull. You have all these great ideas -- "I'm going to write twenty songs." You don't write anything. Keith will tell you he writes all these songs on the road. Bollocks. The most you write is a few bits, because you're so focused on this one thing -- getting the show right.

How far along were you in planning this album-tour cycle when Charlie told you he had cancer?
We had OK'd the tour. He was straight up about it: "The doctor says I have a ninety percent chance of being completely cured." I would have been in such a state. If Charlie had said, "I can't do this tour, I've faced mortality," we would have had to change our minds. No one pressured him. But the treatments couldn't have been easy. I kept worrying: Is he eating? I'm like a nanny [smiles].
Have you ever had a serious health scare?
No. I'm sure I will one day. It's going to happen: You're going to get ill. You're going to die. What can you do? Keep as healthy as you can. The physicality of touring is problematic, but it's always been the same, since I was twenty. It's December in bloody Edmonton, Canada, you get a cold, you have to miss a show. That's the worst that will happen. And you're doing it in the lap of luxury. Everyone's looking after you. Let's not exaggerate how difficult this is.

A Bigger Bang is the Stones' first studio album in eight years. What makes you sit up and say, "It's time to record"?
If we go out on tour, we gotta do a record. It shows you are an actual functioning rock band. I don't want to be one of those bands that just does hits. People say, "I much prefer to hear 'Brown Sugar' than some new song." Well, I don't give a shit what you prefer. If everyone else in the band had said, "We can't be bothered, no one listens to our new records," fair enough. We can do more repackages [rolls his eyes]. But everyone was up for it. And we did it in a different way: less people around, concentrate on what you're doing. No fucking about and jamming for days. You know how it is with rock bands in studios. Once they get in there, they never want to leave. It's not a record anymore; it's a way of life.

When you and Keith sit together to write, what happens?
It's never the same from one song to another. I'm very different from Keith. I like everything organized. I love it when things go wonky and funny, but I want to move forward. I don't want to sit around waiting for shit to happen. "This is how it goes, these are the words. Should it be fast or slower? Do you like it or not?"
This time, I got into this thing where Keith would have an idea and I would put a drum program to it. Then I'd play drums over that, create a groove. By the time Charlie got there, I'd say, "This is the beat." I wanted to impress him [laughs]. We were in such a confined space -- some of it was in France, some of it in the Caribbean -- without loads of hangers-on. There was nowhere to hide. "Is it good?" "Is it not good? Then bung it out the window." There were no three-hour blues jams. There wasn't time.

On this album, and in almost all of your lyrics, you write about sex in two basic ways: In the rockers, it's conflict and the chase. In the ballads, it's losing and leaving. You never write about satisfaction.
It's easier to write about conflict. Try writing "I'm at peace with the world" in a rock tune. See where that gets you. But if you went into some country singer's songbook, you'd find a lot more heartache than in the Rolling Stones.

How much of the conflict and heartache is autobiography?
It's a mixture of your diary and creative imagination. That's what being a writer is about. Totally autobiographical songs are cringe-y. Teenage girls love that shit. When Britney broke up with Justin and he did that tune ["Cry Me a River"], my daughter was explaining to me, "You see the scene in the video? That actually happened, Dad."If I wrote about what my life is really about, directly and on the money, people would cringe. "Oh No, Not You Again" is based on a real incident. But I made it funnier than it was.
So was there really an "Angie"?
I don't know. That was one of Keith's songs [laughs]. I just filled in the gaps.

"Sweet Neo Con" is direct in its politics and accusations. Who are you singing to?
I don't want to overexplain it. But it is very direct. During the presidential election, I was asked by the New York Daily News which side I was on. I said it's not polite to take sides in foreigners' elections. But we're not in an election now.

So whose side are you on now?
I'm not on anyone's side. There is no side that has an absolute answer. That's the trouble with politics. You might say, "The Republican take on the Middle East is incorrect." The Democratic policy wasn't that brilliant, either.

The most explicit thing in "Sweet Neo Con" is your own fear: "There's bombers in my bedroom/And it's giving me the shits." You sound pretty scared.
It is a scary time. Since I wrote the song, London's gotten even scarier. "Rain Fall Down" is a song about London. It has a line, "Feel like we're living in a battleground/Everyone's jazzed." That was in my head already. There were so many armed police in the streets. Walking around, seeing machine guns, is not how you imagine London to be. If we keep going down this track, we're not going to get back. The same feeling is in "Back of My Hand": that we'll go too far, get away from our original values, and this overreaching imperialism will take us to a place where we eventually collapse.

Music technology has changed so much just in the three years since "Forty Licks." How has that affected the way you oversee the business of the Stones?
The first important thing has nothing to do with technology. You have to create new songs. If you don't, you are definitely set into a time zone. We recorded this album digitally, without any tape, which is pretty normal now. The rest of it is just distribution: ring tones, different kinds of digital delivery. We used to tour to support a record. In 1972, I would have said, "We're promoting Exile on Main Street." Now you're touring, you have a new album, there's merchandising and television shows. We have partnerships with the NFL and Ameriquest to get our music on television. It's old-fashioned, but you reach more people than you do with downloading.
Keith is so negative in public about your solo albums. Don't you ever feel like telling him to knock it off?
I do [laughs].

But after collaborating with people like Rob Thomas and Lenny Kravitz, do you find that you do your best work with the Stones?
Not necessarily. You can do a song with the Rolling Stones that turns out not to be very good at all. There are songs you write that you wouldn't ask them to play. And there are songs where you know the Stones will play them far better than anyone else. It's all one creative process. Some things you like less than others. And you never know what that's going to be.

What was your first reaction when you heard about Charlie's cancer?
Mick and I were at Mick's place in France -- we were beginning to write -- when we got the news. Mick and I looked into each other's eyes and realized, "It's down to this -- just us." Then I said, "For the moment, you're on drums, and I'll double on bass." I don't think that, between us, there was any doubt that Charlie would beat it. I wondered how long and debilitating it might be, which Charlie answered in spades when he came back. He looked exactly the same, like he hadn't done anything more than comb his hair and put a suit on. This is Charlie Watts' finest album. If you listen to the drumming, it's as if he came back and said, "A minor flesh wound!" When he came in, we were still running down songs, rehearsing. You don't usually go into fifth gear in rehearsal. You lay back a little. But Charlie came in as if to prove "I'm back." He played every rehearsal like a show.

There was a chance he would not be back, which raises the question: Who is indispensable? When do you admit that you can no longer carry on as the Rolling Stones?
There is a certain equation that ends up as zero. The Stones will make their decision about that eventually. At the moment, they're rockin', so who cares? This is something we gotta do. OK, shit hits the fan. But the bus is still rolling. You can't get off this machine, except when the wheels fall off. And we'll all know when that happens.

(Excerpted from RS 983, Sept. 22, 2005)

September 10, 2005

Biography # Nina Simone

I Put A Spell on You

Of all the major singers of the late 20th century, Nina Simone is one of the hardest to classify. She's recorded extensively in the soul, jazz, and pop idioms, often over the course of the same album; she's also comfortable with blues, gospel, and Broadway. It's perhaps most accurate to label her as a "soul" singer in terms of emotion, rather than form. Like, say, Aretha Franklin, or Dusty Springfield, Simone is an eclectic, who brings soulful qualities to whatever material she interprets.

These qualities are among her strongest virtues; paradoxically, they also may have kept her from attaining a truly mass audience. The same could be said of her stage persona; admired for her forthright honesty and individualism, she's also known for feisty feuding with audiences and promoters alike. If Simone has a chip on her shoulder, it probably arose from the formidable obstacles she had to overcome to establish herself as a popular singer.

Raised in a family of eight children, she originally harbored hopes of becoming a classical pianist, studying at New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music -- a rare position for an African-American woman in the 1950s. Needing to support herself while she studied, she generated income by working as an accompanist and giving piano lessons. Auditioning for a job as a pianist in an Atlantic City nightclub, she was told she had the spot if she would sing as well as play.

Almost by accident, she began to carve a reputation as a singer of secular material, though her skills at the piano would serve her well throughout her career. In the late '50s, Simone began recording for the small Bethlehem label (a subsidiary of the vastly important early R&B/rock & roll King label). In 1959, her version of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" gave her a Top 20 hit -- which would, amazingly, prove to be the only Top 40 entry of her career.

Nina wouldn't need hit singles for survival, however, establishing herself not with the rock & roll/R&B crowd, but with the adult/nightclub/album market. In the early '60s, she recorded no less than nine albums for the Candix label, about half of them live. These unveiled her as a performer of nearly unsurpassed eclecticism, encompassing everything from Ellingtonian jazz and Israeli folk songs to spirituals and movie themes.

Simone's best recorded work was issued on Philips during the mid-'60s. Here, as on Candix, she was arguably over-exposed, issuing seven albums within a three-year period. These records can be breathtakingly erratic, moving from warm ballad interpretations of Jacques Brel and Billie Holiday and instrumental piano workouts to brassy pop and angry political statements in a heartbeat.There's a great deal of fine music to be found on these, however.

Simone's moody-yet-elegant vocals are like no one else's, presenting a fiercely independent soul who harbors enormous (if somewhat hard-bitten) tenderness. Like many African-American entertainers of the mid-'60s, Simone was deeply affected by the civil-rights movement and burgeoning Black pride. Some (though by no means most) of her best material from this time addressed these concerns in a fashion more forthright than almost any other singer. "Old Jim Crow" and, more particularly, the classic "Mississippi Goddam" were especially notable self-penned efforts in this vein, making one wish that Nina had written more of her own material instead of turning to outside sources for most of her repertoire.

Not that this repertoire wasn't well-chosen. Several of her covers from the mid-'60s, indeed, were classics: her revision of Weill-Brecht's "Pirate Jenny" to reflect the bitter elements of African-American experience, for instance, or her mournful interpretation of Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas." Other highlights were her versions of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," covered by the Animals for a rock hit; "I Put a Spell on You," which influenced the vocal line on the Beatles' "Michelle"; and the buzzing, jazzy "See Line Woman."

Simone was not as well-served by her tenure with RCA in the late '60s and early '70s, another prolific period which saw the release of nine albums. These explored a less eclectic range, with a considerably heavier pop-soul base to both the material and arrangements. One bonafide classic did come out of this period: "Young, Gifted & Black," written by Simone and Weldon Irvine, Jr., would be successfully covered by both Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway.

She did have a couple of Top Five British hits in the late '60s with "Ain't Got No" (from the musical Hair) and a cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," neither of which rank among her career highlights. Simone fell on turbulent times in the 1970s, divorcing her husband/manager Andy Stroud, encountering serious financial problems, and becoming something of a nomad, settling at various points in Switzerland, Liberia, Barbados, France, and Britain.

After leaving RCA, she recorded rarely, although she did make the critically well-received Baltimore in 1978 for the small CTI label. She had an unpredictable resurgence in 1987, when an early track, "My Baby Just Cares for Me," became a big British hit after being used in a Chanel perfume television commercial. 1993's A Single Woman marked her return to an American major label, and her profile was also boosted when several of her songs were featured in the film Point of No Return. She published her biography, I Put a Spell on You, in 1991 .There were several run-ins with the law in the 90s in France, as Nina Simone shot a rifle at rowdy neighbors and left the scene of an accident in which two motorcyclists were injured. She paid fines and was put on probation, and was required to seek psychological counseling.

In 1995, she won ownership of 52 of her master recordings in a San Francisco court, and in 94-95 she had what she described as "a very intense love affair" -- "it was like a volcano." In her last years, Nina Simone was sometimes seen in a wheelchair between performances. She died April 21, 2003, in her adopted homeland, France.

In a 1969 interview with Phyl Garland, Nina Simone said:

There's no other purpose, so far as I'm concerned, for us except to reflect the times, the situations around us and the things we're able to say through our art, the things that millions of people can't say. I think that's the function of an artist and, of course, those of us who are lucky leave a legacy so that when we're dead, we also live on. That's people like Billie Holiday and I hope that I will be that lucky, but meanwhile, the function, so far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times, whatever that might be.

Nina Simone is often classified as a jazz singer, but this is what she had to say in 1997 (in an interview with Brantley Bardin): 'To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that's not what I play. I play black classical music. That's why I don't like the term "jazz," and Duke Ellington didn't like it either -- it's a term that's simply used to identify black people."

Jazz For You # John Coltrane

A Love Supreme
John Coltrane was, after Charlie Parker, the most revolutionary and widely imitated saxophonist in jazz. Coltrane grew up in High Point, North Carolina, where he learned to play E-flat alto horn, clarinet, and (at about the age of 15) alto saxophone. After moving to Philadelphia he enrolled at the Ornstein School of Music and the Granoff Studios; service in a navy band in Hawaii (1945-46) interrupted these studies. He played alto saxophone in the bands led by Joe Webb and King Kolax, then changed to the tenor to work with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson (1947-48). He performed on either instrument as circumstances demanded while in groups led by Jimmy Heath, Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie (with whom he made his first recording in 1949), Earl Bostic, and lesser-known rhythm-and-blues musicians, but by the time of his membership in Johnny Hodges's septet (1953-54) he was firmly committed to the tenor instrument. He performed infrequently for about a year, then leaped to fame in Miles Davis' quintet with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones (1955-57).

Throughout the 1950s addiction to drugs and then alcoholism disrupted his career. Shortly after leaving Davis, however, he overcame these problems; his album A Love Supreme celebrated this victory and the profound religious experience associated with it. Coltrane next played in Thelonious Monk's quartet (July-December 1957), but owing to contractual conflicts took part in only one early recording session of this legendary group. He rejoined Davis and worked in various quintets and sextets with Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Chambers, Jones, and others (1958-60). While with Davis he discovered the soprano saxophone, purchasing his own instrument in February 1960.

Having led numerous studio sessions, established a reputation as a composer, and emerged as the leading tenor saxophonist in jazz, Coltrane was now prepared to form his own group; it made its debut at New York's Jazz Gallery in early May 1960. After briefly trying Steve Kuhn, Pete La Roca, and Billy Higgins, Coltrane hired two musicians who became longstanding members of his quartet, McCoy Tyner (1960-65) and Elvin Jones (1960-66); the third, Jimmy Garrison, joined in 1961. With these sidemen the quartet soon acquired an international following. At times Art Davis added a second double bass to the group; Eric Dolphy also served as an intermittent fifth member on bass clarinet, alto saxophone, and flute from 1961 to 1963, and Roy Haynes was the most regular replacement for Elvin Jones during the latter's incarceration for drug addiction in 1963.

Coltrane turned to increasingly radical musical styles in the mid-1960s. These controversial experiments attracted large audiences, and by 1965 he was surprisingly affluent. From autumn 1965 his search for new sounds resulted in frequent changes of personnel in his group. New members included Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane (his wife), Rashied Ali (a second drummer until Jones' departure), several drummers as seconds to Ali, and a number of African-influenced percussionists. In his final years and after his death, Coltrane acquired an almost saintly reputation among listeners and fellow musicians for his energetic and selfless support of young avant-garde performers, his passionate religious convictions, his peaceful demeanor, and his obsessive striving for a musical ideal. He died at the age of 40 of a liver ailment. A videotape tracing his development, The Coltrane Legacy, produced by David Chertok and Burrill Crohn, was issued in 1987.

September 07, 2005

The New Generation : White Stripes

Jack and Meg White remain rock & roll's biggest mystery .Jack White pulls his black Ford pickup truck to the curb on a quiet, tree-lined street in his native Detroit and hits the 'play' button on the CD player in the cherry-red dashboard. He turns the volume up to deafening and grins proudly as howitzer-fire drumming and squeals of distorted guitar rattle the windshield. There are bursts of marimba, too, which sound like someone shaking a bag of bones. The singing is really just shouting, and the lyrics are kid stuff: "You're my top special, baby/Top! Top!" But the total effect is elementary, irresistible ecstasy.

Jack is playing "Top Special," a new White Stripes track recorded a week earlier with drummer Meg White -- who is sitting quietly in the back seat -- for a special Japanese single. The chorus, Jack says over the din, is a phrase popular with Japanese teens: "It basically means 'You're my best friend.'"

There is no better way to describe the White Stripes themselves. A few days later they perform "Top Special" for an adoring audience at Keller Auditorium in Portland, Oregon, the fifth stop on their current U.S. tour, promoting the Top Five album Get Behind Me Satan. But Jack and Meg are playing to each other. He stands at a mike set at the foot of her kit, his eyes pinned on her as he sings and thrashes his guitar. She looks up at him with the same undivided attention as she keeps steady, thundering time.

It is a perfect picture of a remarkable bond. Publicly, Jack and Meg, both thirty, claim to be brother and sister, even though a Detroit newspaper blew their cover a couple of years ago, revealing them to be ex-husband and -wife (married in 1996, divorced in 2000). But on their five albums as the White Stripes, and especially onstage, there is no mistaking the truth of their relationship. They make music like inseparable kindred spirits. "It will always be us two," Jack says of the Stripes over lunch that day in Detroit. "I will never do the White Stripes with another drummer. She'll never do it with another guitarist."

The White Stripes are at a commercial and creative peak. Satan is their third hit album in a row, following the 2001 breakthrough White Blood Cells and 2003's Elephant. Satan is also their boldest record, combining the Stripes' whiplash rock and Jack's passion for vintage blues and country music with a gothic-roadhouse tension scored with grand piano and marimba. "There is an authenticity about everything Jack does," says T Bone Burnett, who produced Jack's solo tracks on the soundtrack to the 2003 film Cold Mountain. "I don't know many people under thirty who have done the research Jack has done -- and can do a credible Blind Willie McTell cover."

The White Stripes are, in most ways, Jack's creation. He writes the songs, plays everything except drums and devised the band's peppermint-stripe color scheme. And he does almost all the talking. "I'm just a very shy person," Meg confesses at lunch, although she defends the primal quality of her drumming with sweet firmness. "That is my strength. A lot of drummers would feel weird about being that simplistic."

Born John Gillis in 1975, Jack (who took Meg's surname when they married) actually started out as a drummer, at age five. But music was not his first career choice. In high school, Jack, a Catholic, seriously thought of entering the priesthood. After graduating, he considered joining the Marines but instead worked as an upholsterer and, for a time, as a gofer on TV car-commercial shoots. "I could see that it was impossible to get your ideas across, with all the people -- the soundman, lighting people, producers -- you had to go through," he says. "I suppose that put me in the direction of a two-piece band."

Jack played drums and guitar in several Detroit garage bands (Two Part Resin, the Go, Goober and the Peas, the Hentchmen) before he and Meg, another Detroit native, made their local live debut in 1997. Jack soon found that underground cool came at a price. "We were everybody's secret band," he says. "Then our second album [De Stijl] came out, and it was 'Oh, they're not that good anymore.' When we hit the mainstream, I had to go through that game all over again, on a worldwide scale."

Jack may be a reluctant star, but he is a fireball in conversation. He speaks at high speed, his brown eyes looking directly at you like derringer barrels, and his laugh is a series of short, sharp bangs, like a string of firecrackers going off. For more than three hours, over two sessions, he goes into excited detail about, among other things, the Captain Beefheart and Gun Club records that blew his teenage mind, the album he produced for his idol Loretta Lynn (2004's Van Lear Rose) and the record he's finishing with his new band, the Raconteurs, formed with fellow Detroit rocker Brendan Benson.

"I've got enough time," Jack says cheerfully of having two groups at once. "I don't have a day job anymore." And Meg claims she is not worried about the effect on the White Stripes' future. "Jack's always done five things at once," she says. "He was in two other bands when we started this one. This is not unusual."

Get Behind Me Satan must be the most overdubbed album you've ever made. Did you worry about how you would perform those songs live? A duo can only make so much music without tapes and samples.

I've always centered the band around the number three. Everything was vocals, guitar and drums or vocals, piano and drums. So what's the difference? I can only play one thing at a time. The minimalism is still there: vocals, marimba and drums or vocals, grand piano and drums. Or I play piano, Meg plays timpani and she sings. It's all in threes.

The whole point of the White Stripes is the liberation of limiting yourself. In my opinion, too much opportunity kills creativity. I remember in high school, a friend of mine had a magazine with a story about some popular band of the time that was recording an album. The story said they had eighty guitars in the studio to choose from and that there were over 120 tracks of guitar on this one song. Good Lord! Listen to the Stooges' Fun House. You know there can't be more than one track of guitar on there [laughs]. Maybe two.

But when I first saw the White Stripes live, it took me a while to get used to the hole in your sound. I kept asking myself, "Where's the bass? Where's the bottom?"

I can see that. I was in high school when I first heard the Flat Duo Jets. They were a guitar/drums band, and I thought the same thing. Then, within months, they became my favorite band. Some kind of rawness hit me, and I saw there was no need for anything else.

A year ago, I listened to the first tape Meg and I made. It's a recording of the first time we played together. It still sounds raw and cool. We did [David Bowie's] "Moonage Daydream." Then we wrote "Screwdriver," our first song. There was a red screwdriver sitting on the table. We wrote the song that afternoon, and it hasn't changed at all since that day.

When we play a song I wrote, it's the White Stripes covering a Jack White song -- that's the best way to describe it. I write most of my songs on piano and acoustic guitar. Then I show it to Meg, and it's like, "OK, how can we do this onstage?" That becomes the way we do it, from then on.

Are there times when Meg's style of drumming is too limiting -- that you can't take a song as far as you'd like to go?

No. I never thought, "God, I wish Neil Peart was in this band." It's kind of funny: When people critique hip-hop, they're scared to open up, for fear of being called racist. But they're not scared to open up on female musicians, out of pure sexism.

Meg is the best part of this band. It never would have worked with anybody else, because it would have been too complicated. When she started to play drums with me, just on a lark, it felt liberating and refreshing. There was something in it that opened me up. It was my doorway to playing the blues, without anyone over my shoulder going, "Oh, white-boy blues, white-boy bar band." I could really get down to something.

Do you think the brother-sister thing was a miscalculation -- that you overdid the mythmaking?

I saw a review of our new album, and it said, "Every single component of the White Stripes is a gigantic lie." What does that mean? Have I sat down and said I was born in Mississippi? No. Did I say I grew up on a plantation and learned how to play guitar from a blind man? I never said anything like that. It's funny that people think me and Meg sit up late at night, in front of a gas lamp, and come up with these intricate lies to trick people.

But because you present that relationship as fact, it obscures your real connection as a couple -- the truth and value of what you play together.
I want you to imagine if we had presented ourselves in another fashion, that people might have thought was the truth. How would we have been perceived, right off the bat? When you see a band that is two pieces, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, you think, "Oh, I see . . ." When they're brother and sister, you go, "Oh, that's interesting." You care more about the music, not the relationship -- whether they're trying to save their relationship by being in a band.You don't think about that with a brother and sister. They're mated for life. That's what family is like.

So when did you come up with the idea?

I'm not saying I came up with anything [laughs]. It's like people thinking we would be more real if we went onstage in jeans and T-shirts. How ignorant is that, to think that because they don't wear a suit onstage that someone is giving you the real deal? People do come and see us and think, "Look at all these gimmicks." Go ahead, man. Go ahead and think that.