Did you know that Lester Young spent more than ten years living in Minneapolis? Minnesota History, the magazine of the Minnesota Historical Society, published this great feature by Douglas Henry Daniels in 2004, all about Prez’s formative decade here in our hometown.

He was called “The President” by Billie Holiday because he was simply the very best. He was an essential element to Count Basie’s Orchestra throughout the thirties, and possibly the most influential saxophonist of his time. Young adopted the tenor as his preferred instrument while performing here in bands led by Rook Ganz and Boyd Atkins — and he is largely responsible for its leap to prominence in orchestras of the swing era.

This 1939 recording of “Lester Leaps In” by Count Basie’s Kansas City Seven was first released on the Vocalion label. The song has become a standard, but it’s not the only thing Lester left us: he introduced the word “cool” to common vernacular.

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“Lester Leaps In” by the Kansas City Seven

 

 

 

hj kuntryHere is a surprisingly good privately pressed country LP from 1975. Sometimes we set aside these albums because the covers are comical, or there might be a good tune for the blog here, but this one was just a great honky tonk listen all the way through.

Herbert John Carter, ie “H.J. Kuntry,” is still out there touring and promoting what he’s called “dixiephonics.” According to this article from some batshit tea party website down in Florida, Kuntry has an index card for each of the 30,000 people he’s sold a a copy of They Call me H.J. Kuntry or another record. Kinda nice to know there’s still some folks out there rockin’ the old school promotional network (don’t expect Kuntry to invite you to join Linkedin any time soon). He reminds us a little of our own Sherwin Linton, whose motto is “forever on the stage.”

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“They Call me H.J. Kuntry”

We had an opportunity to DJ our collection of honky tonk and rockabilly 45s at one of Sherwin Linton’s shows last year, just after the Turf Club re-opened after its reconstruction. Not only did he let our pal Joe Killem (The Annandale Cardinals, Whiskey Jeff and the Beer Back Band) sit in on his set, but Mr. Linton was a ton of fun to talk to — he loved the records we were playing, and knew the words to just about every one. We kind of imagine H.J. Kuntry to be a similar kind of guy.

You can find his Myspace page here, which has a few tracks off this album. He’s still performing in the Tallahassee area.

 

 

Ornette

New York City, November 17, 1959: Ornette Coleman began a two week residency at the Five Spot, a club in the Bowery far more on the vanguard of jazz than the Village Vanguard. The club’s first show had featured pianist Cecil Taylor, and Thelonious Monk had recorded two exceptional albums there just a year earlier — but no precedent prepared its audience for Coleman that evening.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane were there. Also Leonard Bernstein. Coleman and his band had just arrived from Los Angeles, somehow overstepping the traditional dues paid before landing any such gig. The twenty-nine year old leader earned his reputation a different way: clearing audiences and stages in Los Angeles with his shockingly unconventional playing. He’d been beaten up outside one club, his saxophone smashed on the street. And like a badge of honor, he appeared on stage for his New York City debut with the only instrument he could afford, a white plastic horn.

Coleman was not entirely unloved in Los Angeles — his music had caught the ears of John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and avant garde pianist Paul Bley. And it was a music writer at The New York Times who procured for Coleman’s quartet unprecedented residency at the Five Spot.

They alternated two sets with the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet, and one of the biggest controversies in jazz was sparked. Coleman’s quartet, which featured Don Cherry on the pocket trumpet and cornet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins (and later Ed Blackwell) on drums, played entirely without the conventional structure of jazz: no chord progressions, and no tonic. Coleman’s compositions opened with simple “head” arrangements and had no other form. It was, in the phrase he later coined with an album title, free jazz.

 

Dizzy Gillespie said it was “not jazz.” Miles Davis said, “the man is all screwed up inside.” Max Roach followed him backstage and clocked him. But in the very same way the punks of ’77 drew rock and roll back to its basics, Coleman’s music altered the course of jazz, and many of his critics later changed their tune. Some even performed with him.

John Lewis had already used his clout at Atlantic Records to secure Coleman a contract and sales of his first album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, were propelled by the residency and the press it received (it had been released in October). The Five Spot loved controversy because it brought in business — Coleman’s residency was extended twice and he played there nearly through the end of 1960.

The music of Ornette Coleman — who passed away yesterday at the age of 85 — eventually grew far beyond the iconic quartet on those Atlantic albums. On his 1966 LP The Empty Foxhole he played the trumpet and the violin as well as the alto saxophone, and he ten-year-old son Denardo played drums. Coleman composed a concerto grosso in 1972 called Skies of America which was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra on the album. Five years later he debuted an electric band, later called Prime Time, on Dancing in Your Head. In 2006 his album Sound Grammar received the Pulitzer Prize for music — on that album he quoted from a pair of standards by Richard Rogers and Stephen Foster, something he had rarely — if ever — done on record. He also quoted Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. Coleman had previously recorded a standard, Monk’s “Misterioso,” for the soundtrack to Naked Lunch, but nearly all of his recordings were of his own original compositions.

Coleman had been more or less retired for several years, and reportedly in poor health. His family announced his death from cardiac arrest yesterday, and he is no doubt being remembered by jazz fans around the world. We have already sold all the albums of his we had in the shop.

ornette this is our music lp

His life story was a testament to the virtue of perseverance. Coleman often responded to even his harshest critics with sincere praise for their work, and eventually saw his own music accepted into the mainstream. Ironically, one of his songs became itself a standard (“Lonely Woman”). One of our favorites is this one from his third Atlantic album, This Is Our Music. The album’s title may have referred to his quartet, but we like to believe it refers to all of us. There’s a genuine universality to Coleman’s music. No schooling or training is required to appreciate its underlying dignity and beauty.

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“Beauty is a Rare Thing”

john greenway“The Cat Came Back” is a song first published in 1893, and first released on a record by Fiddlin’ John Carson thirty years later on the Okeh label.

One of our favorite versions is by the English folklorist John Greenway, who occasionally performed talking blues in a style we always found similar to Woody Guthrie.

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“The Cat Came Back” by John Greenway

It’s been a popular song here in Minnesota, having been recorded in the 50s by a couple country singers, Lee Moore and Doc Williams, as well as a garage band from Rochester, the Sting Rays.

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“The Cat” by the Sting Rays

The story has hardly changed over a century: poor Mr. Johnson tries just about anything to get rid of this cat, only to find it’s returned the next day. The cat is sent away on trains, boats and rocket ships. It is thrown overboard, buried and blown to bits with dynamite. Sometimes the cat is killed and its ghost returns, and in the 50s it survives an atomic holocaust.

Canadian animator Cordell Barker produced a delightful animation of the song in 1988.

Maybe you have the same problem at home. We do — the cat we can’t get rid of is named Mo.

mo cat

yodelin galshe taught me

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“Yodelin’ Gal” by Gloria Shaver and the Twilights

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“She Taught Me to Yodel” by Rod Erickson

We’ve got a soft spot for K102, but its starting to seem like most pop country songs are beginning to sound the same these days. Sometimes we feel like Bob (you know, from Bob’s Country Bunker) saying, “This ain’t no Hank Williams song.”

Turns out the overwhelming homogeneity to pop country music isn’t in ours or anyone else’s imagination. This hilarious video by Sir Mashalot puts six recent pop country hits together in a surprisingly seamless sequence.

Sir Mashalot is Nashville resident and aspiring producer Gregory Todd, and we think his video (which has been seen nearly five million times) is a labor of love more than a satire. Nashville has a long history of protectionism over what’s regarded as genuine country music, a genre which seems to be looking at its own extinction every couple decades.

We imagine one could produce a similar mashup of crossover hits from the 70s by outsiders like Canadian Anne Murray and Australian Olivia Newton-John who had #1 hits on the country charts. If you’re wondering just how resentful country artists were at the time, watch this bizarre moment from the 1974 CMA Music Awards, in which a doped-up Charlie Rich sets fire to the card reading the name of his successor as Entertainer of the Year, John Denver.

 

Country music returned to its roots for a while, with a traditional streak which dominated the charts and heartland airwaves in the eighties: artists like John Anderson and Emmylou Harris covered standards by stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and Ricky Skaggs revived bluegrass over the course of a dozen #1 hits. And then there’s the whole alt-country scene, with bands like Uncle Tupelo approaching traditional music from a post-punk background.

The best thing which ever happened to pop music was the FCC’s deregulation of radio under the Reagan administration, and the rapid proliferation of rural stations revived pop country, which had been kept alive by artists the likes of Alabama and Eddie Rabbitt throughout the 80s. Pop country is darn easy to listen to, especially when all the songs sound the same: by the time the six artists whose songs were used in Sir Mashalot’s video were born, most music on the country station was well on the way to becoming more or less indistinguishable from the music on the top 40 and adult contemporary stations again.

Our friend Glen Leslie, host of KFAI’s Jet Set Planet, inspired the little section in our shop for “classical gasp” — its purpose is not to make fun of Mason Williams (whose hit “Classical Gas” was in fact an original composition) but to collect less-tasteful pop interpretations of the classical repertoire. These include albums like Saturday Night Fiedler and Joshua Rifkin’s dreadful Baroque Beatles Book.

Pop music rarely translates well into the classical media, however when going the other direction classical compositions sometimes pass over into the popular repertoire without losing their original identity. This, surely, is the case with one of America’s favorite classical numbers, the “Saber Dance” from Aram Katchaturian’s 1942 ballet Gayane. The ballet is a story of love and loyalty to country, but in the last act this number provide an opportunity for the dancers to display a variety of tricks using sabers.

A recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra became their first million-seller five years later, and it was followed by other hit records from pops orchestras and big bands. “Saber Dance” was a jukebox favorite in America at the dawn of the cold war — another strange example of classical music’s bizarre role in the relationship between the superpowers.

Khachaturian, for his part, was not particularly political. He was denounced and briefly blacklisted, like Prokofiev and Shostakovich, for his “formalist” tendencies, but soon after re-instated in his post at the Union of Soviet Composers (we produced a program for KFAI a couple years ago about Prokofiev which features a background on the Soviet conflict between representational and formalist composing). We have always wondered if he was compensated for the enormous success his song found outside of the Soviet Union.

The “Saber Dance” became the musical theme to peculiar carnival acts, such as Erich Brenn’s manic plate-spinning performances, a frequent feature of The Ed Sullivan Show. It was also featured in “A Piano in the House,” a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone in which a player piano causes the cast to reveal their true selves. Performances of the number were also presented as an opportunity to showcase virtuosity, or in the case of Liberace, lack thereof.

dave edmunds early worksClassical rockers the Ekseptions included a version of the song on their first album, as did another European band we had never heard until this past weekend, Love Sculpture. This was guitarist Dave Edmund’s first group — we really enjoyed this collection of his early recordings which was in the large classic rock collection we put out over the weekend. Their version of “Saber Dance” peaked at #5 on the UK’s single chart after becoming a favorite of influential DJ John Peel. The song was later added to their second album, Forms and Feelings, which was issued in the US on the Parrot label; so there’s something to look for in all the milk crates of the world.

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Gayane tells the story of an Armenian woman torn between her loyalty to her country and the realization her no-goodnik husband has stolen from the state. Khachaturian, who was an Armenian born and raised in Georgia, often incorporated traditional music into his ballets. This is certainly true of the “Saber Dance,” which synthesizes an Armenian wedding dance with what has been described as a distinctly American counterpoint. Khachaturian, who passed away in 1978, never completed an opera which was to tell the story of the Armenian diaspora.

 

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