Music can be a form of perfection - with nothing added or subtracted, flawless just the way it is.

“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recaptured at will” ― Charles Baudelaire

Thelonious Monk

Yesterday an interesting question came to mind: “What do Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong have in common. Anything?”. The reason behind this is quite simple. I’ve mentioned before that Louis Armstrong is my musical and personal hero. Everything begins and ends with him. Well, Thelonious Monk is a close second. He deserves (and will get) a separate post, but for now I wanted to explore something else. Why is it that both these artists hold such a special place in my heart? Is it just a coincidence or do they maybe have something in common. What intrigued me even further was that they are scarcely mentioned in the same discussions - apart from the fact that they were both incomparable geniuses, who influenced the generations to come. So I wanted to dig into this connection; if there is any. Just for the fun of it. And while I’m at it, write a post about it.

“There is immense power and careful logic in the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk. But you might have such a good time listening to it that you might not even notice. That, of course, would be your problem, not his. Monk was an architect of feeling. His tunes were slick, inhabitable little rooms that warmed the heart with their odd angles and bright colors. Somehow he knew exactly how to make you feel good—and I mean exactly, as if it were medicine, or gastronomy, or massage, or feng shui.” - Vijay Iyer on Thelonious Monk. Would apply just as well to Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong Whenever I consider two artist, I usually start thinking about their possible interactions. Did they know each other? What did they think of each other?
Did Louis and Thelonious know each other? Did they mention each other in interviews? I couldn’t find much. For example, you might have heard about the exchanges between Dizzy and Louis back in the day. Well, there wasn’t anything similar happening to heroes of this story. However, I do think they had mutual respect. Thelonious was very aware and respective of the music and musicians before him. After all, he learned to play the piano by performing church music and would develop his style in the company of the most famous stride pianists. It stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Louis Armstrong owned two records by Thelonious Monk. He is also quoted saying “Very personally, I don’t care for most bop, except maybe for Parker, some Miles Davis, some Thelonious Monk.”. Of course there were people who pegged Louis as hating ‘modern music’ and being stuck in his old ways. I think what is a lot closer to Louis Armstrong’s essence is succinctly put as “There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad”. If it’s good, it’s good and it doesn’t matter if it’s modern or pre-historic.
And can you guess a direct connection that ties these two together? None other than Coleman Hawkins. Hawk played with Louis Armstrong in the Fletcher Henderson band in the 20s and was greatly influenced by him. Well, Thelonious Monk’s career started when he played with Coleman Hawkins, who would be his supporter and a huge influence on the pianist.

“When you’re swinging, swing some more.” - Thelonious Monk

The critics

"I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public want — you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you doing — even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years." - Thelonious Monk

When I considered how they were treated by the general public, an unlucky common thread comes up. Monk and Armstrong both experienced the wrath of critics and were (perhaps as a result) often misunderstood by the public. They both experienced endless repeating stories of demeaning categorizations and simplifications.
Before Louis’ career took off there weren’t a lot of magazines and/or critics devoted to jazz, so it wasn’t uncommon to read about jazz being signed off as a joke or worse yet, an offense to music. Once they started talking about Louis they would throw him in the same basket and add a good measure of racism. Later in his career they became less racist but moved on to other things; they generally recognized him as a great artist (at that point it became impossible and quite frankly, stupid, for anyone to deny that), but would say that he sold out and was generally distasteful and offensive. They saw him as an used-to-be. Of course not every critic held this opinion but the ones that did, did enough damage for this made-up/twisted story to keep repeating. It took a long time (20-30 years after his passing) for this general view on Armstrong to change.
It’s funny how much Armstrong was ahead of his time. And that includes his whole career - even though the critics thought they had him all figured out in his later years, he would prove them wrong once again. Monk once said “I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public want — you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you doing — even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.”. I am surprised how often this holds true. Not just with these two.
So how about Monk? It took a long time for him to be recognized as a genius. Or even as a passable pianist! When he finally got the recognition he deserves, he was over 40. Before that his music was usually signed off as unlistenable and he was regarded as a subpar musician. More importantly the thing that the critics loved to talk about the most was that he was eccentric, tardy and unreliable. That was a gross oversimplification, but that image stuck with him for the rest of his life. I guess, it was just more interesting and easier for the interviewers to portray him like that, rather than actually seeing him for who he was. Those unflattering stories were hardly anything more than a gossip. If you want to find out more about how ignorant and unjustified those statements were, I recommend a great biography by Robin D.G. Kelley. Thelonious Monk was an introvert and had mental health issues that grew worse and worse. Robin D.G. Kelley clearly shows the line between the truth and this nonsense talk. And reading the stupid questions interviewers had prepared for Monk makes you question their sanity, not his. ‘Do you think piano has enough keys?’ I mean what did they expect to get from questions like that? He had witty responses or sometimes just didn’t respond. Of course this was seen as weird just because it has already been decided that he is weird.
Like Louis, later in his life he was being loved by numerous fans and would generally be accepted as one of the most influential musicians of his time. And unlike Louis, he was also loved by the critics (the same critics who had, years later, said he was unlistenable). Nevertheless just as Louis Armstrong, he was often criticized for performing a routine show.

The Music

What about their music? Personally, I think this is what connects them the most. When it comes to music, in a way, Thelonious Monk is like an introvert, more introspective version of Louis Armstrong. They may have different sounds due to a different era, but they hold the same qualities.
They were both masters of their instruments. Like other musical geniuses, they were able to make their instruments sound completely novel and unlike anything heard before or after them. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. They both devoted their whole lives and their whole beings to music. What came out of that life-long devotion was Music with a capital M. Exquisite, delightful and endlessly alluring music. Monk’s music was always juggling between two seemingly contradicting aspects. On one hand he had this assiduous, hard-working and intellectual approach to his music while on the other he always remained so joyful and playful; almost child-like. It takes something, perhaps a touch of genius or a profound understanding of life, to juggle and poise these two aspects. But Monk does it so naturally, so flawlessly, he makes it look easy. Now doesn’t all that sound a lot like Louis Armstrong? Listen to their rendition of Dinah. I think it illustrates this point perfectly.
Incidentally, I think Cecile is a master of this duality as well. It’s what I love about her.

Just look and listen to how he dances around on the stage and how he plays with the melody when he is singing. It’s pure joy. But when he puts that horn on his lips, he is possessed. He becomes a man on a mission.

This duality was also reflected by their stage demeanor. Monk danced. Louis told jokes and laughed. And when they started playing they left no doubt of their prowess.

“Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody!” - Thelonious Monk

Another thing I find interesting is how they both loved a good melody and would insist in having their music melody-oriented. You can hear this clearly in Armstrong’s later years - if it was a melody he enjoyed, he loved nothing more than to play it without changing it. And just the same in Monk’s solos, where the melody was always right underneath the surface.

“Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, when you play.” - Thelonious Monk

As they grew older they both slowly but surely gravitated towards a more mature style of playing. They wouldn’t play ten notes where one was needed. They played exactly what was needed. No more and no less. Perfect in every note and every pause. Even more importantly their music would become more soulful than ever. I already talked about this in my previous post, but it’s worth mentioning again. It’s mind-blowing how much emotion they were able to pack into a single song. More than that, how much intensity they could put in one tone or one chord. You can’t duplicate that.

“There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good kind.” - Louis Armstrong

Monk and Armstrong could not appear more different. Their music not the least so. But was that actually the case? I don’t think it was. We’re often so quick to categorize music and treat it as different beings. We seem to forget that it’s all Music. Maybe I am completely off with this post but I’d like to think they (and this applies to all of us as well) were more similar than they were different. Sure, there are things that separated them, but these things only give the illusion of disconnection. One was an extrovert and the other an introvert. But both incredibly persistent, determined and hard-working. What they have left us is a precious treasure that can never be exhausted.

3. February 2015
Louis Armstrong Theloniuos Monk

Pops. Satchmo. Louis Armstrong. Hands down the most influential musical figure of the 20th century. The one who started it all. Musical genius with the kindest of hearts.


Louis Armstrong (I’ve put together a quick playlist which you can listen to while reading this post. Youtube or Spotify)

It is not easy for me to write about Louis Armstrong. He has affected me profoundly and means so much to me I’m nervous my writing won’t do him justice. It’s pretty telling that all the time that I’ve had this blog I haven’t written about the single most important reason why I started listening to this music in the first place. But here it goes.

“If it hadn’t been for him, there wouldn’t have been none of us. I want to thank Mr. Louis Armstrong for my livelihood.” - Dizzy Gillespie

I was talking to a Slovenian trumpeter the other day, and was surprised when he admitted that he never really listened to Louis Armstrong. A similar thing happened some days later listening to When You’re Smiling with another professional musician, when I found out she didn’t know the song. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I just assumed that everyone is very familiar with Louis Armstrong and his music. I mean he is the father of Jazz, right? He was and is my greatest inspiration and the one who opened doors to a whole new musical universe for me. Maybe that is why I thought others interested in (jazz) music would have at least slightly similar experience. Turns out I couldn’t be more wrong. More often than not people quickly dismiss Armstrong by falling to the old clichés of him either being outdated our not true to the music. Both of these are ridiculously far from the truth. Or they have simply never paid any attention to ol’ Satchmo. And that’s what pushed me to write this post.

“What we play is life” - Louis Armstrong

If I had to name two things that make Louis awe inspiring, I would probably say his music and who he was as a person - his liveliness, his spirit, his life story. Well, one could argue that it’s just one thing since the two are basically inseparable. There was no distinction for him. The music was his life.

Growing up

"Louis was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way" - Duke Ellington


Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 in the famous birthplace of jazz, New Orleans. The city that lives and breathes music. The city that grabs any chance it can to celebrate and enjoy life. Where any event, big or small, happy or sad, is likely to be accompanied by music. New Orleans, this culturally rich environment, is an integral part of what makes Satchmo, Satchmo. All of it was imbued in him.
I find it fascinating how often these passionate musicians ooze music in their everyday life. The way they talk, the way they walk is pure music (and I think that with musicians from New Orleans this is even more pronounced). And Louis Armstrong is a prime example - When you listen to him talk, or when you read his writings it’s all so musical. It’s like his life force was made out of music.
His childhood was rough. Back O’ Town, the neighbourhood in which he grew up in, was so rough that it was aptly know as ‘The Battlefield’. And of course this was a time of segregation and racism. Louis never finished school, but instead took different jobs supporting his mother so she wouldn’t have to turn to prostitution. Among many jobs this would include carrying coal to Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans. This exposed him to all the different facets of life, the people and the culture. It is where he got to hear a lot of music and he was soaking it all in. At this time, before learning to play the trumpet, he would sing in a quartet for money in the streets of New Orleans. He would also work for a Jewish family, the Karnofskys, who would make sure that he would never finish a day without getting a warm meal, as they knew that he was poor. They treated him like family. He never forgot this and wore a Star of David for the rest of his life.

“I ran into Louis on the street and I asked him home for dinner, I wanted him and the quartet to come around so my family could hear them sing. Well, Louis, he sort of hemmed around, and said he couldn’t make it. I could see there was something troubling him and finally he let it out. ‘Look, Sidney,’ he says, ‘I don’t have any shoes… these I got, they won’t get me there.’ Well I said that was easy fixed and gave him fifty cents to get his shoes repaired, and he went off promising me he would come.” - Sidney Bechet

Then something kind of crazy happened. On a New Year’s eve he would steal his stepfather’s gun, and to celebrate he shot some blanks into the sky. He and his friends got a kick out of it. The police did not. They arrested him and he was sent to a Colored Waifs home for boys. And why is that crazy? Well, this is where he learned to play the cornet (and eventually, he would transition to the trumpet). Even at this age it was obvious that music was the love of his life. He was thrilled that he could play the cornet. After he was let go from the Home, between the different jobs he had, he would use every single chance he got to play his dear cornet. As the time went by, he would start getting bigger and bigger reputation around New Orleans. Eventually (and I’m skipping a lot of chapters here) he moved to Chicago to play with his mentor, Joe King Oliver, whom he deeply respected and cherished all his life. And this is when his career started to kick of. This is where the history creating moment would happen - The Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. After that, nothing in the world of music would ever be the same again.

Music

Louis Armstrong

“He’s the father of us all, regardless of style or how modern we get. His influence is inescapable. Some of the things he was doing in the 20’s and 30’s, people still haven’t dealt with.” - Nicholas Payton

Armstrong at that time was already doing all the revolutionary things in music, but Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings would capture it forever. It’s hard to overstate the value of these recordings. They were groundbreaking, and on them Armstrong basically defined what jazz would be from that moment on. He set the stage for the soloist in what was before mostly ensemble music. His endlessly inventive musical ideas would influence generations to come. And as if that wasn’t enough he would sing with equal revolutionary force as he played the trumpet. It’s also been said he invented scat singing.

“[Louis Armstrong] completely remade the sensibility of the culture. He remade the sensibility of the culture just as much as the Wright brothers did. See before the Wright brothers, people didn’t dream of being fliers. Ever. But after Kitty Hawk, you could dream that. And see, Armstrong changed the nature of dreaming. He made people dream things they have never dreamed before.” - Stanley Crouch (paraphrased)

So all in all he created a whole new musical dictionary. I mean he was like Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein of music. I am astounded by these men - how can their ideas be so completely unlike anything that has come before them? How can they be so in tune with the universe, the world, or the music to create something so novel?
You have probably heard of 6 degrees of separation theory. Well, it’s been said that everyone in jazz is connected to (influenced by) Louis Armstrong through just 3 connections or less.

"You know you can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played." - Miles Davis

To be honest, these early Armstrong recordings (not just Hot Five and Hot Seven) stay as exceptional today as when they first came out. One might dismiss them as outdated because of the scratchy sound and not always perfect ensembles. But what Louis did in these recordings would be considered remarkable anytime, including today. Anyone who thinks differently should give it another listen. Beside seeing Armstrong as outdated, another very common complaint against him is that in his later years he supposedly ‘sold out’. I don’t want to get into that right now, but I will mention a great book about the subject, which throws all such statements out of the window. Ricky Riccardi’s What a Wonderful World - The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. But these subjects of unjustified and lasting opinions call for a different blog post altogether anyway. So more on that another time.

I mentioned in one of my previous posts how I got into the music of Louis Armstrong. And at that time I had no idea about his importance. I was simply drawn to his music unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Music never made me feel this way before - Hell, forget music, I never felt this way before. I was hooked the moment I heard that sweet trumpet on ‘La Vie En Rose’. After that songs like ‘West End Blues’, ‘Potato Head Blues’ would hold me in disbelief (and of course all this time I was oblivious to how historically groundbreaking these songs were). His whole body of work was so compelling and I have never heard anything that would even come close to this kind of intensity, that he basically opened a brand new world to me. An enormous musical world. A world which has become an important part of who I am and which I am still happily exploring. Plus he inspired me to take up the trumpet!

What happened to me when encountering his music for the first time was neither a chance nor was I the only one to experience that. It’s simply what’s in his music. It’s so timeless, full of life and vigor. And if you’re open to it, it will astound and enchant you. For me it opened a new cosmos. Not only did it make me see and appreciate music on new levels, but it also made me conscious of new aspects about myself. And that’s a huge thing to achieve all by itself let alone for a piece of music. When talking about the intensity and vigor of his music, the same song always comes to mind. Whenever I hear this song I’m taken aback. At first I thought it’s just a personal preference, but after hearing the following quote (from a tuba player at that session), I realized it’s no coincidence.

“In that moment, he turned that place into a personal chapel. He looked up and he started talking to God… Nobody in the room but Louie and his God. It was absolutely frightening. And we got done with the first take, I’m standing there crying. I turned and looked, the drummer’s crying, the clarinet player’s crying, the trombones are crying, Lucille’s crying, his own wife.” - Rich Matteson

You can hear the whole talk here. It’s beautiful.

I find it fascinating what Louis does with this song. He doesn’t need any fast, intricate playing in order to get his message across. I’ve listened to a lot of music but I have never heard anyone else being able to put so much energy and intensity into a single note, the way Pops does. And you clearly hear it in this song. Here it is:


Life


Louis Armstrong in Corona Besides his music it is also quite amazing hearing about who Pops was as a person. There are countless tales about his warmth, humbleness, and generosity of his spirit. To experience a piece of that firsthand I highly recommend visiting the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York. This was the house he and his wife Lucille bought in 1943, and it is where he passed away. Seeing as how popular he was at the time he could have bought any house practically anywhere he damn pleased, but he was happy to call this little house in a working-class neighbourhood, his home. He didn’t need or want anything other than this humble abode. He loved the neighbourhood and the neighbourhood loved him. One neighbour said that she didn’t even know the extent of his renown, until after he passed away - he was just such a simple man.

Often when he got a bonus after a tour or a recording, he would take a stack of white envelopes, write names on them of people he thought would need the money and divided the bonus among them. He could easily spend $2000 this way. He didn’t sign or put any notes about who it’s from in the envelopes, just cash.

His view on money was very down to earth: “What’s money anyhow? You make it and you might eat a little better than the next cat. You might be able to buy a little better booze than some wino on the corner. But you get sick just like the next cat, and when you die you’re just as graveyard dead as he is. So what’s the difference between me and some cat that’s making it at the Salvation Army Lodge? All I got was a little better roll of the dice.” [1]

He was also very grateful to all of his fans and to anyone who came to see his show. He would always make sure that the people who came to see his show would get their money’s worth. For example, the first time he came to Ljubljana, he was supposed to perform at 8 pm, but because of the weather he was terribly late. He and his band would arrive at the stage no earlier than 1:30 am! Because everyone had to wait for so long, he was dedicated to put up an even greater show than usual. Fans were not disappointed. [2]

And as always he would go backstage and wait for anyone wanting an autograph. He would always be the last member of the band to leave, making sure no one would leave empty handed. He was just so grateful to all of his fans. And these things weren’t a chore to him, he wanted to do it. Now compare that to the pop musicians of today.
And another thing to understand is how popular he actually was at this time. One story always comes to mind - one time he stopped the war for a day; when he was doing a tour in Africa he also performed in Congo, where a civil war was raging. But for the day of his concert both sides called a day-long truce so everyone could go see the great Louis Armstrong. Enemies otherwise, would sit together on this special occasion.

Legacy

The genius of Louis Armstrong, the jazz-loving movie star Tallulah Bankhead wrote in 1952, “reaches across land frontiers and oceans. I believe in one world. I don’t use the term politically. I am thinking of the oneness of humanity. Louis is the epitome of one world.” [3]

One could keep talking about Louis Armstrong. I’ve just written the longest post on my blog and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. And such is his legacy as well. You can listen and relisten a hundred times, but the music will still find a way to move you in new and unexpected ways.
Pops touched millions of souls, and inspired countless musicians. It’s really hard to describe what his impact was, as it is just so damn extensive and universal.
I’ve often said that Louis Armstrong is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I know it probably sounds crazy, but I mean it.

Before I finish this, I just wanted to give a shout out to Ricky Riccardi, whose book, blog and endless passion have fuelled my own passion and obsession. Besides being the world’s greatest expert on Louis Armstrong, he is an inspiration and an epitome of Louis Armstrong’s impact on humanity. Meeting Ricky in person last year, while visiting the Armstrong Archives, was one of the highlights of my life.
Go check out his blog. Seriously! I’ve spent way too much time on that thing. It’s a joy to read and it’s got some true gems. For example in one post he talks about what songs Louis Armstrong listened to, hours before he passed away. Chilling. Go check it out.

The magic that Satchmo brought to this world is infinite and lasting. It makes the world a brighter place. Thank you, Pops.
For everything.

[1] Unpublished interview with Richard Shaw, taken from What a Wonderful World, Ricky Riccardi
[2] A concert by Louis Armstrong in Ljubljana almost didn’t happen
[3] The Wonderful World Of Louis Armstrong

16. November 2014
Louis Armstrong

“The greatness of Mac Rebennack, alias, Dr. John, also known as John Crieux, rests on his command of the musical use of idiomatic expression. Not a technically well-endowed singer, nor a great songwriter, he leaves his mark through the discipline and control he exerts over all that he touches.” - Jon Landau

Dr John

Note: This is an old post from my previous blog. I will write another post on Dr. John in the next few days.

Dr. John is one of my favourite New Orleans artists. Born Mac Rebennack in 1940, he’s been in the music business since the 50’s, although he didn’t get widely known until 70’s. He does everything from jazz, blues, New Orleans R&B, rock and boogie woogie and he has this amazing ability of doing all these different styles at once and creating something unique. Critics have sometimes complained that he’s too eclectic but I say he’s just being extremely versatile and that’s something I appreciate about him. I also enjoy how no matter what he does, you can always hear New Orleans in him. He understands, respects and maintains the tradition of New Orleans.

He demonstrated what he’s musically capable of right away on his first album “Gris-Gris”. He somehow combined New Orleans R&B and mystical voodoo into something extraordinary. The music on this album is a combination of eerie, earthy, mystical, spicy, joyous and complex. I think there’s no point in trying to describe what it’s like because it’s probably unlike anything you’ve heard before. But in a good sense. I definitely recommend it. It’s Dr. John’s album that got the most plaudits from the critics. If you’re interested, here’s an example of what you might expect - Mama Roux. After “Gris-Gris” he’s been just all over the place with different styles of music and he can offer so much with whatever he does.

Today I wanted to mention a song from one of his latest albums “The City that Care Forgot”. The song is called “You might be surprised” and the lyrics just blow me away every time I hear the song. Pay attention to them when you listen to the song. Dr. John has a distinct voice and a specific way of singing which has so much character and that’s what makes the song even better. Add some wonderful piano playing and you’ve got yourself a great song. Here it is.

(This is not the album version, but I like this one is a lot better. It’s just way more intimate with only the piano and his amazing vocals)

Life is a near death experience
Hell is right here on this great big Earth
It could be a little taste of heaven
If we only knew our worth
All we got to do is want it bad enough
To push ourself through
We always underestimate ourselves
We do a little bit each and every day we can always do better
In each and every way
If we don’t believe in ourselves
Nobody’s gonna do it
If we don’t push ourselves
We’ll never make it through it.

What did you think? I think the song is amazing and I LOVE the lyrics! It’s fascinating how the song starts off as a bit depressing and ends up being inspiring and optimistic. Life is a near death experience: I think that’s a great line all by itself but it also sets up the whole song. One day you’re here, the next you’re not. Life is basically just the things we do before we die and we’re the only ones that determine what that will be like. We can (and do a lot of times) make it hell on earth but what we’re often not aware of, is that if we just believed in ourselves and pushed ourselves we could make it a little taste of heaven. And if everyone did that, imagine all the things we could achieve.

7. November 2014
Dr John New Orleans

“If anyone can extend the lineage of the Big Three — Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald — it is this 25-year-old virtuoso.” — Stephen Holden, New York Times

Cecile McLorin Salvant performing

If you’ve never heard of Cecile before, you’re in for a treat. If you have, then you know what I’m talking about. Cecile McLorin Salvant is a young singer based in New York, born and raised in Miami, Florida. A lot of big things have been said about her and her music and I must say that none of it is an exaggeration. She deserves every bit of recognition she’s been getting. If anything, she should get more. You know how every now and then you stumble upon someone who completely blows you away? Well, for me that was Cecile. I started listening to her just as I was getting over a breakup, and boy did her music prove to be helpful and healing. And that’s what great music can do. Heal. Inspire. Excite.


What makes her so amazing? Well, where to begin with someone so accomplished. Her voice is clear, rich and full. She has impeccable control and makes it look easy. She is not afraid to use her full range and when she sings, she’s not afraid to take chances. She’s a great storyteller. She sings with Ella’s clarity and eloquence, with Sarah’s expressiveness and dynamics and with Billie’s emotion and depth. She often talks about a long list of musicians that influenced her, and you can hear them all through her (for example, Bessie Smith) - she has a great sense of jazz history and tradition. I love her taste in songs and how she brings very obscure and rarely recorded songs of the 20th century back to life, with an almost theatrical delivery.
What I personally enjoy and appreciate the most, beside her obvious technical proficiency, is how she makes the lyrics come alive and how she interprets them in a way that make the song completely fresh and relatable. And then there’s this amazing ability to deliver two seemingly contradicting experiences of the human condition together, and show that they’re actually just two sides of a coin. Comedy and tragedy. Determined, thought-out artistry and childlike playfulness. She combines that in her music unlike anything you’ve heard before. Someone else that comes to mind when I talk about this, is Thelonious Monk, who incidentally, was also a big influence on Cecile.
You can listen to her whole body of work to hear the things I’m describing, but here are just two examples (and the song earlier, ‘Poor Butterfly’, is definitely a testament to this, as well).

I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

So much fun! She makes this song, that could easily sound completely out of date, come to life, and she’s not afraid to interpret it in her own way. In fact, this is reminiscent of Louis Armstrong who, given a song, would take it, find the very essence of it, and recreate it as something novel and magical. And yes, you guessed it, Pops was also a great influence on Cecile.

Nobody

(Would you have guessed that this song is over 100 years old?)
The performance itself is amazing, but I feel if you know the background of the song, it makes everything even more special. ‘Nobody’ was originally performed by Bert Williams, a very popular comedian of the early 20th century. He was one of the (if not the) first successful African-American entertainer. Although he was widely loved by audiences, it was a different time back then and he went through a hard life, to say the least. When performing he would wear black-face, and often, in order to perform, he would have to pretend he’s white. So here’s a successful, talented black man, pretending to be white, pretending to be black. Naturally this caused a great deal of pain for him. And that doesn’t even begin to describe it. I mean, it’s crazy. How do you even talk about something like that?
The song ‘Nobody’ was extremely popular, which he would say was both blessing and a curse. A fellow performer described Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.”. There’s just so much irony and tragedy in all of that, and Cecile captures it perfectly.

If you’re interested, you should check out her album WomanChild. She performs with a band of incredible musicians - Aaron Diehl on piano, Rodney Whitaker on bass, James Chirillo on guitar and Herlin Riley on drums.
She was also in the studios again last month, so I think we can expect a new album soon. Can’t wait!

Before I finish, listen to this hauntingly beautiful rendition of ‘There’s a Lull in My Life’ matched with a Prelude, done by Aaron Diehl (who deserves a post of his own). And don’t do what we usually do - don’t just put it on for the background music to whatever it is you are doing. As a matter of fact, try this (especially if you’re someone who thinks jazz music isn’t for them, or that you don’t get it). It will take only 5 minutes. Put away all distractions - phones, email notifications, anything like that. Don’t tweet, go on Facebook or check emails. Just put it all away for five minutes. Dim the lights, sit back and if you want, maybe even pour yourself a glass of wine. Then play the song. While you’re listening, relax and think about that special someone in your life. Might be your crush, might be the love of your life or the one that got away. Just sit back, take five minutes for yourself, and think about the love you feel for this person, while listening to this beautiful song.

Now tell me that didn’t strike a chord!

6. September 2014
Female Jazz Vocal CecileMclorinSalvant

Sun Ra’s eclectic and prolific discography, visualized

Year:

Title:

Author:

Recorded in:

in

Review by:


Allmusic page

Unfortunately this interactive visualization is not supported on mobile devices. Come check it out on your tablet or computer.

This visualization might not work properly under your browser. Consider upgrading or getting a different browser.

[EDIT] Since I first posted this, I updated the visualization with some additional data from allmusic.

With over 1000 recorded songs spanned over more than 100 albums, Sun Ra was one of the most prolific artists of the 20th century. I decided to make a simple visualization of this enormous body of work. I soon realized, this is no easy task. For one, the discography data is confusing to say the least. For a lot of albums, it is unclear who was in the band or where or when it was recorded. The band members themselves often gave conflicting reports regarding these things. I did my best with the data I could find in the discography online.
After that confusion, I had to make a decision about which data to show. I eventually decided I am only going to visualize full-length albums (so excluding singles and records where Sun Ra appeared as guest).

So here it is - a simple timeline of Sun Ra’s recorded work. The albums are positioned on the timeline based on the year they were released (or if they have not been released - when they were recorded). The colors represent the whereabouts of recording sessions. If you hover over specific works, additional information will show up. I might eventually expand it with some more features, but that’s it for now. I hope you like it :).

Let me know what you think!

A few technical details, for those interested. I used d3 library for the actual visualization. To get the data from the website I mentioned earlier, I used import.io (which was a joy to use, if I may add). And finally for parsing and cleaning up, Python was the way to go.

17. August 2014
Sun Ra Visualization