After more than a decade as a music critic, staggering insights come few and far between. But once in a while, they do show up. Here’s the latest: Being old(er) is only tolerable if one has the right cultural firepower to deal with the latest innovations.
On the surface, this sounds more like a defense strategy than a blinding insight. And I guess it is. No one wants to get old, but every morning, the odometer clicks over one more time, the ankles/knees/prostate pops a little louder walking to get the morning paper, and your jump shot/10K time/bowling score continues its inevitable slide toward the “personal interest” line of your obit. What’s a poor slob to do?
Well I’m not giving up, Goddamnit. As I get older some things are showing “uptrends”: my wine collection (modest by most standards, I’m sure) was pronounced “rulin'” by some underage drinker; I can open a beer bottle with any solid object; and I know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is 10 times cooler than any mook dancing across MTV/VH1 at this very moment.
As you’ve probably heard, 1999 marks 100 years since the Duke’s birth. Across the country, commemorations mark the event, and record companies are issuing remastered versions of his music almost every week. But why? What was so great about Ellington anyway?
Well, there are tons of reasons, both artistic and cultural, but Duke’s cool reputation rests — obviously — on his musc and — not so obviously — on his rep as sly hipster sophisticate. Duke was one cool ruler. From his early days of staging “jungle music” spectacles at places like the Cotton Club, to his later, epic-making moments in which he sought to write defining pieces of “American” music, Duke waltzed through life with an unflappable attitude of confidence, elegance, romance and tolerance, and an easy-going — though seriously dedicated — approach to the music. And of course, from any perspective, it’s about the music. And with Duke, seriously so, because to understand Duke is to understand the foundation of everything from jazz to swing to rock to soul.
But where to start? That’s the question. After all, Duke has scores of recordings from which to choose: a 24(!)-CD set has just been released and the re-releases are flowing in. It’s an Ellington blizzard. Here’s the short list of my Ellington essentials:
|Ellington at Newport 1956
The Ellington at Newport 1956 reissue collects two complete Newport Jazz Festival appearances from Duke and his blazing big band. There are some incredible performances here, including one from Duke’s main man on the sax, Paul Gonsalves, who plays a hair-raising 27-bar solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Highlights? This two-CD set features the orchestra opening the show by playing the National Anthem and includes what sounds like a near riot when they try to say goodnight. The fans scream like they’re about to drag the band back on stage at gunpoint. It’s a crazy, scintillating moment that raises the little hairs. The magic in this album is the fact that it paints a broad and bright picture of the Duke — it rocks, it swings, it has blues, and a vocal track, Duke’s charming, aristocratic patter between songs. This is great Ellington.
Ellington at Newport has become my Sunday morning album. That status severely limits the drinking options to either a bloody Mary or a mimosa. No contest: take the mimosa. I’m not going to pretend, however, that bottles of bubbly are popped in my pad every Sunday morning. C’mon. Mimosas happen only if there’s some champagne left over from previous revelry. Hence, there’s no such thing as a bubbly targeted toward mimosa-making. However… If I were forced to pick one mimosa sparkler — that is, a wine as good on Saturday evening as it is on Sunday morning, Pacific Echo NV Brut (straight outta Mendocino County — US of A) would fit the bill — and much like the Duke, do it without raising sweat, stink or smirk.
While I still dunno what the word “toasty” refers to in regard to sparkling wine, I do know that this Pacific Echo (dumb name, but what the hell) stuff is aggressively flavorful. Luckily, the flavors are ones that I particularly enjoy in a fat chardonnay. There’s a nice big-fruit-and-vanilla presence here that’s cut with a tang and pop, both from the moderate, creamy bubble structure (bubble structure?) and the nice tropics in the fruit. Then there’s a generous lime/lemon citrus that shows nice edges of pear.
What this all means is that this is one groovy sparkling wine that’s got game — it’s versatile. Since seafood dominates Seattle’s active food scene, matching a wine that works with what dining companions are having can be tricky. The secret weapon — and I’m sure you already know this, so forgive me here — is sparkling wine. And a rock-solid bottle the likes of Pacific Echo shows up ready to work from the pre-event oysters, through the salad and into the salmon/prawn/halibut whateverness you’ve decided to explore. Overnight, the Echo turns slightly sweeter, which is fine when you dump the OJ in.
Some Duke factoids: He didn’t even get serious about music until after high school; he composed more than 2,000 pieces; his most famous composition, “Take the A Train,” was actually written by his longtime collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. Duke never recorded with Count Basie until early July 1961.
|First Time: The Count Meets the Duke
And then it happened. Both great orchestras met at Columbia’s studios in the early afternoon of July 6th. Three sessions later, at 3 in the morning of July 7th, they were finished. First Time: The Count Meets the Duke, chronicles this gig majestically, giving it an almost documentary feel. With the Ellington boys blazing out of the right channel, and Basie’s bunch blowing in the left, this gig is an intricately arranged, seamless session. The two bands don’t square off for the knock-down, drag-out brawl you might expect. Instead, they combine forces, punching through Ellington and Basie standards with the combined force of two titans. Along with the excellent liner notes and packaging, this newly expanded edition — seven new tracks and plenty of very entertaining studio chatter — make this a must-have addition to the library of any in-the-know swinger still young at heart.
I tried a bottle of Mitchelton marsanne the other day. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d had a few bottles of marsanne before, but none had ever made too great an impression. I know, my problem. However, a bottle by Mitchelton, a huge Aussie producer, created some rather new insights. The book on marsanne is that it’s best done in France and Australia. A “soft” wine that ages well. That doesn’t really tell a prospective consumer much. The Mitchelton was, more than anything, an alternative take on what chard fans have come to call their own. This bottle is lean and crisp, but also touched with butter, fig and melon fruit. But there’s also an edge to this wine, a quick citrus bite. Needless to say, this is a light, flavorful wine. And by some strange twist of fate, it also tastes good! Best cold and swiggable, this marsanne was sensational with a lemon halibut thing and also able to stand up to a spice-rubbed BBQ shrimp skewer. Bliss — but remember, keep those whites cold, damnit!
|The Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings
There’s so much Duke floating around out there right now — compilations, tributes, reissues — that it’s difficult to know just where to begin. Columbia’s 24-disc set just ain’t for everybody’s budget. Thankfully, a single-CD set has been issued — The Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings. Sure, a three-or-four-CD set would’ve made more sense, but this is a wonderful introduction to the Duke. Spanning 50 years of the maestro’s work, this sampler includes everything from the Cotton Club days, to the influential 40s-era work with bassist Jimmy Blanton, to excerpts from the Black, Beige and Brown suite and finally to his outstanding work into the 60s. With 18 songs, this CD packs a lot of Duke into one package, but don’t be surprised if it only inspires you to dig ever deeper into the library of this master.
This particular Ellington disc has never made it out of the pickup. Since I live on a bus line, I rarely drive during the week, but on the weekend, the truck is always pointed toward Washington State’s wild places, and Ellington is the soundtrack. Over rivers, mountains, across deserts. Duke sets the tone, and I’ve grown to love his majesty, his pacing, his eloquence. In essence, Duke Ellington is America’s composer, and this collection is a quick way to prove it.
Chappellet’s 1997 Napa Valley Chardonnay is, more than anything, an American chard. Rich and big as the sky, the Chappellet is a mouthful of sweet, honeyed fruit, with a nice plunk of spice. This is not a lean wine. Instead, it’s extravagantly unrefined and loud — unashamed that it’s full of bursting-at-the-seams juice and rich, savory, interesting bits.
Not all cats are hep to jazz. That’s not really a problem, nor does it imply any value judgment. It’s just the way it is — someone else can explain it. Luckily, there are a few non-jazz musicians who’re capable of great things. Nobukazu Takemura, a Japanese electronic artist, has just released Scope, an incredibly innovative album on the Thrill Jockey label. Takemura’s source materials are the digital bits and bytes of information that are the blood and guts of music in this era. In the same way that hip-hop artists recomposed and recontextualized music by manipulating their medium — vinyl records — Takemura does the same with his source. Skipping CDs produce tightly bunched whispers and impressions that whiz by with binary speed. Takemura’s job is to knit this most delicate spider web into something that’s both comprehensive — yeah, it sounds like music — and also gorgeously beautiful. On one breathtaking track, Takemura samples the voice of a small child, exposing the joy and wonderstuff at the very soul of this little person. Groundbreaking music like this is difficult to describe, making it all the more vital.
Unlike Takemura’s music, describing a glass of Castoro Cellars 1997 Merlot isn’t that difficult. It’s a tough (in a good way) gritty (ditto) glass of merlot with enough backbone to mop up after a mild lamb stew and a hunk of rustic bread (with chewy, salty, sage-flecked crust — yum!). Castoro is medium bodied with cherry fruit and enough oak to make you notice. Not bad for under $15 — not bad at all.
Banco de Gaia
Have you ever heard Banco de Gaia? The “band” — it’s one English guy, Toby Marks — has a new album, The Magical Sounds of Banco de Gaia, which is really a lovely piece of work. What do ya call Banco de Gaia? Trance-global-ambient-electronic-dance dub? Jeezus, I dunno. Whatever. This is a collection of pretty sophisticated, beat-driven composition, heavy on the electronics. If you dig the Chemical Brothers, the Orb, or even first-generation electronic rock like Tangerine Dream or Material, let me be the first to introduce you to your favorite new band. The Magical Sounds glides from song to song, mood to mood, on a vast cloud bank of samples. One minute you’re leaning into a tightly banked turn above Tibet, the next coasting over India. Kinda gives the word “trippy” a rather wholesome new meaning, yeah?
People tend to think there’s really no such place as Walla Walla, Washington. There is. I’ve been there. It’s… trippy (old definition). Middle of the desert, midway betwixt no where and no thing. But, they make good merlot there. Canoe Ridge 1997 Merlot Columbia Valley is a “big” merlot, tightly packed. You’re definitely gonna wanna tie this bottle to food, like a big summer burger, grilled, served up with fresh garden tomatoes, cheddar, a wee touch of mayo ‘n horseradish. Oh! And since this is one of those big, Frenchy-style Washington merlots, don’t forget your pommes