Tómas Jónsson – “3” (2020)

I have a copy of Tómas Jónsson’s 2016 self-titled debut, but for whatever reason it never made it onto the blog. That has me curious enough to want to go back and give it another listen. But for now I’m sitting down on a dark, rainy Friday morning and spinning his latest release, 3.

For some reason I was expecting this to be a jazz album, and while at times jazz-like elements such as brush drumming and slow piano passages come to the surface, the description isn’t quite right. It’s a blend of jazz and electronic and ambient, yet none of those things at the same time. It’s definitely chill out music and perfect for rainy mornings and coffee and an intentionally slow pace. There’s a soothing quality that takes the edge off the frustrations of work and COVID and whatever else burdens you, the slow lifting of that weight off your shoulders. The B side cuts loose a bit more, upping the tempo at times, but still retains an overall relaxed feel (OK… “Sálmurinn Um Gaukinn” will likely get your blood pressure up as it approaches crescendo…)

My good friends at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records put this out on their label, so while that may make me biased I’m still digging this album and recommend you check it out.

Freddie Hubbard – “Skagly” (1980)

It’s all blurring together, day following day, week following week, and even the weekends not offering much respite because most things are still closed and if you’re following the state’s recommendations you’re not meeting your friends and family face-to-face. The best you get is sharing a nod with another person when making one of your essential purchases, both of you anonymized by your masks, only the eyes showing any emotion. And that emotion is, as often as not, a sort of resignation, all of us just wanting this to be over.

It’s May, which in Seattle means a few beautiful days of sun and perfect temperatures, followed by a few rainy ones that are surprisingly cold after finally seeing the sun for the first time in six months. You want to be out and a about, and sure, you can go for a walk, but you can’t really go somewhere. I crave walking through West Seattle or Georgetown to get brunch and buy records and maybe stop at a market to pick up something to grill later, or some cupcakes for desert. I want to be out there with a bit of a bounce in my step again.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with Skagly, well, that feeling, that craving is completely and perfectly expressed by Hubbard’s horn on “Happiness Is Now”. Sometimes the horn walks, others it has a slight strut to it, and sometimes it breaks out into a quick dance, the kind of sidewalk soft-shoe you might do when out enjoying time with your friends, perhaps after imbibing in a glass of wine or two. Hearing it on a quiet, rainy Saturday morning, one with the slightest promise of clearing up later peeking around its edges, made me both happy and wistful, longing and hopeful. I’m not sure what the new normal will look like, or how we’ll reflect on this period five or ten years down the road. Hell, maybe this will be just the start and things will get worse. As for me, though, I’m staying hopeful. Hopefully that I can toe-tap down the sidewalks again sometime this summer.

The Last Poets – “The Last Poets” (1970)

I’ve had this album in my hands a few times over the years but never bought it. What I’d read about it made it seem unusual enough to be interesting, but perhaps a little too far out there to warrant a purchase. So I was pretty happy to come across it in a big batch of free records I got a while back – now I’d have the chance to explore The Last Poets.

The Last Poets is an album that defies genre categorization. Jazz? There are jazz elements, but this isn’t a jazz record. Most of the music is percussion, and more in the use of bongo and other percussion generators that you wouldn’t find in the typical drum kit. Spoken Word? Well, the lyrics are essential to The Last Poets, but there’s still music here, and a cadence that at times follows the percussion, so it’s not entirely that either. Poetry? It’s certainly that, but it’s also much more. Rap? Hip Hop? Hell, those things didn’t technically exist in 1970, but if you can’t hear the roots of what would become hip hop here it’s because you’re not trying.

The lyrics are politically and socially charged. It’s easy for me as a middle aged white guy in 2020 to write something about how these poems and rhymes reflected the urban African American experience of 50 years ago, but c’mon, what the hell do I even remotely know about that experience? Nothing from anything resembling first hand experience, that’s for sure. The words are raw, direct, accusing, cutting, and depreciating, delivered with passion and conviction. And I have to admit, I enjoyed this record a lot more than I thought I would. The earnestness alone makes it refreshing to listen to, the honesty and matter-of-fact descriptions of reality and expressions of hope for the future. Of course, there are some problematic aspects half a century later, particularly in how homosexuals and Jews are labelled and described. It’s easy to shrug that off and say “that was a different time”, but it still needs to be called out. I wonder how the Poets reflect on the words they used, looking back on them half a century later? Regardless, that’s what’s on the record, and it’s still a strong piece of work.

Pharoah Sanders

Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders is a bit of an enigma, a supremely talented musician who has been recording professionally since the 1960s and who collaborated with John Coltrane during the last few years of his life, but who rarely gives interviews or talks about himself. The New Yorker convinced him to do an interview this year which is informative, though still light on details as Sanders’ answers are brief. Perhaps the most intriguing revelations are that he’s rarely if ever satisfied with his own playing, and that generally he doesn’t listen to music but instead to the sounds around him, be they the sounds of nature or the sounds of the city.

I’m not sure I ever would have made it to Sanders on my own – I’m hardly a jazz aficionado, and I tend to shy away from the more avant-garde and free forms of the genre. But some of his records came my way, and I’m always open to a new experience or three.

Jewels of Thought (1969)

I didn’t get what I expected on a few different levels. “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum Allah” surprised me both with its occasional vocals as well as its fairly solid structure. Certainly at one point Sanders’ saxophone breaks free of the band and rockets off in its own direction, a rogue, brightly-burning firework that shoots off from the pack, corkscrews around and around, screeching and running hot until it ultimately explodes.

The two-part “Sun In Aquarius”, however, is very much what I expected, more of a free jazz vibe with Sanders’ sax solos sounding tormented, like an animal caught in a trap. That’s not to say it’s entirely devoid of foundation, at times the players coming back into focus and following a more sonically recognizable pattern. When it breaks loose though, baby it breaks loose.

Pharoah (1977)

Every collector dreams of the “score”. For many of us it’s about finding that item you’ve coveted for so long that the wanting has almost become a companion. Usually if you do come across it, the person who owns it knows the value and you end up paying dearly for it. The other kind of score is getting your hands on a valuable piece of wax for a song. I experienced the former last year by getting a copy of Þeyr’s Þagað Í Hel. I experienced the latter a few months back when a collection that came to me included this hidden gem, Pharoah. It’s the kind of thing bound to drive Pharoah fans crazy, since if I’m being honest I didn’t even know who Sanders was before I started working through these boxes of records. There hasn’t been an official, non-bootleg release on vinyl since 1978, and even the 1996 CD reissues go for a pretty penny.

Pharoah is more subdued than Jewels of Thought, quieter and more chill. “Harvest Time” is the track that gets the most attention, and understandably so. Taking up the entire A side it actually feels like two distinct songs, both dreamy as they wander through a cloud of incense smoke, every now and again being brought above the surface by Pharoah’s sax – so beautiful.

“Love Will Find A Way” immediately introduces vocals, which had been completely absent from “Harvest Time”, though they only hang around for a bit before giving way to the music. I read a blurb today that indicated this record wasn’t well regarded when it came out and in fact was compared to the work of Carlos Santana – and I believe “Love Will Find A Way” is the reason for that comparison, because the middle portion could easily fit onto a Santana album and no one would think twice.

Love Will Find a Way (1978)

It’s hard to believe that this came out only a year after Pharoah. Love Will Find A Way follows the subtlety and dreamy grooves of Pharoah with, frankly, a much more straight-forward smooth jazz sound. Of course there are Pharoah flourishes found throughout, but the record remains much more approachable than Jewels Of Thought.

Herbie Mann – “Push Push” (1971)

I’ve seen this record pop up dozens of times on Facebook groups like Now Playing and On The Turntable Now. The first few times I assumed it was more as a “ha ha, look at this cover!” and it was only later that I came to find out a bit more about prolific and popular jazz flutist Herbie Mann.

But first, we do in fact need to talk about this cover.

The image is a simple one – a shirtless Mann shown from the waist up. At the time of Push Push‘s release Mann would have been 41 years old, and he more or less looks it – thinning hair and a body that isn’t ripped or toned, but not yet starting to sag. Putting yourself on the cover like that takes a healthy ego. I get it, it was the 70s and all, but it’s still a surprising image for an already extremely well-known artists, particularly, if we’re being completely honest here, a male artists. Society is generally fine with women showing a lot of skin on an album cover, but a middle-aged man? It’s not that people object per se, it’s just… it’s just not what’s done. Which in a way makes it that much more meaningful.

And then there’s the flute, resting easily over Mann’s shoulder, a purely masculine way of holding an instrument that has, for whatever reason, always been seen as feminine. In fact a 2018 review of the world’s 20 greatest orchestras, as ranked by Gramophone, revealed that 69% of the full-time orchestra members were men, though in the flute section males only comprised of around 42% of players (the results were shown in a chart and don’t provide precise numbers). Only three instruments had more female performers than male – harp (almost exclusively female), flute, and violin (almost 50/50 with women in a slight majority). If you think back to your school bands when you were growing up there were probably rarely if even any male flute players. But here’s Herbie Mann, not only shirtless with his flute, but holding it the same way a lumberjack would hold an axe or a construction worker a sledgehammer or shovel. Everything about this cover tries to convey an image of masculinity, other than the flute itself. There’s a similar image on the jacket reverse, and inside the gatefold is a picture of two torso that are obviously in the throes of passion. Push Push wants to be sexy.

I can’t tell you anything about Herbie Mann that you can’t just as easily find on Wikipedia or by typing his name into Google. To say he was prolific would be an understatement – he already had more than 40 albums under his belt by the time Push Push came out in 1971. Hell, he put out eight albums in 1957 alone, and another seven in 1962, which is insane. And everyone in the know regards him as one of the all-time greats on the flute.

As for Push Push itself, it’s a seriously funky album. The title track is a surprisingly beautiful journey. You’d think the flute would be a distraction, and it is for a few moments initially simply because it’s not normally a sound I expect to hear, but damn can Mann make it swing. It’s not about playing technically perfect flute, it’s about infusing it with emotion. You can hear Mann’s breath working its way through that silver metal tube, injecting an element of himself into the instrument. And when he really gets after it, like he does int he second half of “Spirit In the Dark”, you have to stop and take notice.

I probably would have never bought a copy of Push Push, but fortunately for me I was recently “gifted” three huge moving boxes of vinyl from a friend’s dad, and he was way into funk, soul, and those outposts of jazz that are more on the funky side. After hours of sorting and research I finally brought a batch of these in from the garage for a well-needed cleaning, and most of them look to be in good shape – this copy of Push Push sounds beautiful on my Rega setup. I’m looking forward to digging into to some other titles in the weeks and months to come, and I’m sure more than a few will make it onto the blog, so stay tuned.