Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll make the case for simultaneous jazz listening and red wine drinking.
You’re laughing now. “Whatta caricature. Whatta Junior Mr. Snob. Whatta dope.” And I understand. Jazz, for all its beautiful and tragic history, has fallen from our generation’s hipster radar. Pity.
Wine has also been banished by our consumerist culture’s clueless elite; banned, for some reason, from our generation’s list of approved beverage choices. Listening in on bar-type conversations, you’d think, however, that we were a nation of cork-popping jazz cats (and kittens). I hear jazz jive from so-called hipsters, taste makers and style cows all the time. The same tongues that pay lip service to Ornette, Monk and Coltrane (“Yeah man, I really dig those cats”) haven’t spun a new-artist jazz record since sophomore year at State.
Wine lip service is also in ready abundance. “Yeah,” I’m told, “I like wine all right. I like a red, a dry red.” Everybody says it, but everybody drinks beer. What we have is a generation of fakers, impostors and closeted art conservatives. We fake being down with jazz and instead slip it over to the alt-rock station on the drive home. We make in-the-know chatski about Cal zin but line up for pints on Friday night. That’s the way it is, and I don’t know why.
Actually, I have a couple of theories. There is the more complex socio-political stream of thought, which is: Nobody likes wine/jazz because we’ve not been taught to appreciate the form. Then there’s the economic theory: Nobody likes wine/jazz because marketers haven’t figured out how to sell it to us yet. Of the two theories, I favor the first but have the creepy feeling that the second may have more to do with the problem than we care to admit.
Popularity notwithstanding, there’s some truly kick-ass modern jazz (and wine, for that matter) being created right now. The new LP by bassist William Parker and his Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra makes the case with brilliant, beautiful, chaotic authority.
Sunrise in the Tone World (Aum Fidelity) is a two-CD set showcasing the range and power of a large band. Parker, who scrapes, thrums and plucks his bass with something approximating the pure life instinct, seems in constant motion here. Whether his band is blowing gusty and full-bore or slipping by on tip toes through shadows of swing or bop, Parker is a master at cultivating feeling, of evoking mood, of sculpting nuance and power from his unwieldy band. Sure, he may be attempting to conjure up a hurricane, like on “Huey Sees Light Through A Leaf,” a 40-minute free blast of head-soaking power, but he can also be sweet and tender and entirely heartfelt. Sunrise in the Tone World is “abstract,” but the finesse and joy with which Parker writes and plays is as simple and moving a statement as one artist could make. A masterpiece.
If William Parker is an inspiration to latter-day jazz heads, is it too much to ask someone out there to name a wine for him? After all, the hipsters over atFranciscan just dedicated their new Meritage blend (75% cab, 24% merlot, 1% cab franc) to Bach’s masterwork, The Magnificat. This, and the guy hasn’t even written a tune in 200 years.
As a wine, Magnificat is thunderously stately. It’s refined, rich and altogether there. Its powerful fruit is absolutely commanding, its structure smooth and round. No bum notes and altogether perfect harmony. If the thing doesn’t exactly swing, we can excuse the formality. Because this is such an amazing wine, there’s little to worry about. Sit back and enjoy. William Parker has a new record! Dig it.
Coldcut could be thought of as the giant, pulsating brain that secretly controls the fission and fusion of the evolving electronic music galaxy. They’ve been around since the genesis of the scene, releasing their first single, “Say Kids, What Time Is It?” way back in 1987. Since then, few bands have had the consistent ability to tweak the knobs and monkeywrench the controls of an entire genre with the consistency and invention shown by this duo.
Coldcut’s last full-length was 1993’s “Philosophy,” but since then, they’ve been at the very front of the line when it comes to doing the dirty work of creating what’s now known as “electronica.” Besides producing and remixing everyone from Bjork to Erik B and Rakim to Yazz, Coldcut also ran Ninjatune, one of electronic music’s most influential labels.
Where to begin with a Coldcut record? The massively deep and sonorous beats and bass; the heisted jazz lines that spiral off those beats with a lazy, loopy trajectory; the truly psychedelic samples and effects that create mindscapes not seen since the most trippy Orb material?
Just when you seem to get a grasp on where Coldcut is coming from, they wrangle away, striding confidently toward another planet. If anything, Let Us Play is a slippery, snaky smart affair. Coldcut, showing remarkable dexterity and footwork, dances from breakbeat jazz to jungle; from jungle to ambient electronics; from electronics to deep, funky house. It sounds like a rocky trip, but Coldcut’s transitions are absolutely liquid. They’re able to snap heads with furious, chemical intensity and then apply the breaks with uncomplicated smoothness. Let Us Play shows a band at the front of the genre — whatever it may be.
Coldcut will turn your speakers inside out. Coldcut will turn every spin into a party situation. To that end may I suggest a wine built to boogie; a wine that knows there’s no parkin’ on the dance floor. May I suggest Rabbit Ridge Barrel Cuvee Zin. For around 10 clams, this wine is an absolute no brainer. Stuffed with juicy juice and fruity fruit, Rabbit Ridge is, um, phat with the mad flava. Not only can this wine get down, you can also dress it up and take it out to dinner. Remember, though you’ll be tempted drink this with a straw, it’s a zin fercryinoutloud. Extensive field testing has shown this has the muscle to stand up to everything from pizza to red sauce to some pepper-coated leaning tower of tuna contraption. I suggest gettin’ while the gettin’ is good.
Has the world ever been blessed with a singer the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? For those not keeping up with the news in the world of qawwali (Islamic devotional music), the great Khan recently passed away. And while he is gone, The Supreme Collection Volume 1 assures that Khan, best known for his work with Eddie Vedder and Peter Gabriel, will not be forgotten. This disc, compiled before his death early this autumn, delivers a fearless, potent portrait of the man they called Shahen Shah-e Qawwali, The Brightest Star in Qawwali.
From the second Khan steps into the first tune on this two-CD set, he and his band (called a “party” in qawwali) lock onto every harmonium and tabla-powered groove they pursue. The band, though using their instruments sparsely, lays down long piles of carpet-like groove that Khan, displaying his incredible range and technique, tramples with an intensity and grace cool tripping everywhere. Khan’s rough, husky voice fills the room, bouncing off every surface, exploring every space. He throws himself into pitched battles with instruments and background singers, improvising, challenging, soaring. Other times, he lets his voice drift and float on the melody, his gritty tenor circling and defining the shape and direction of these waking dreams.
At times, Khan actually sang himself into near trance-like states. Other times, he blistered the walls with incredible horn-like runs of scatting and vamping. Though Khan’s love songs and religious devotions were sung in Farsi, when the music is this good, words don’t matter.
Good words are often tough to come by when called upon to explain an obsession. Why, we ask, are we so suddenly and completely smitten by that person? That gorgeous mountain bike trail? Those exquisitely delicious little bits of candy corn? My recent obsession is dessert wine. Don’t ask me why. Don’t ask me how. But lately I’m just nuts for late harvest zin. I mean, it’s so…yummy. I love the super jammy wild fruit pumped up by sweet, spicy cinnamon. And you take little, itsy witsy sips. So fun.
The late harvest zin is also, rather conveniently I might add, a perfect accompaniment to Nusrat. When I drink a good late harvest zin, like, say the dee-lish new releases from Rosenblum (the fruitier one, $15) and J. Fritz (the spicier one, $15), one word courses through my tongue: nectar. Somehow, that “nectar factor” is amplified by Khan, and suddenly I’m being hand fed grapes and called Master by Barbara Eden on the set of “I Dream of Jeannie.”
Sometimes it comes as an absolute shock: they still make the occasional great rock record. Sometimes they even make a pair. The Apples in Stereo’s Tone Soul Evolution (Spin Art) and Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome and Crowded West (Up) are both different enough and good enough to rekindle any torch you may have once carried for the electric guitar. The Apples strum their guitars in with brisk, sunshine happiness. Sounding like that 1965 Be-In that everyone over the age of 40 claims to have attended, the Apples pile their pop with harmonies and drippy, wall-of-sound flash soaring well beyond the recommended daily allowance of Beatles references. They’re groovy and sappy, sugarpop and psychedelia, retro but winking.
Modest Mouse is of the more art-school-tantrum-variety rock band, coughing up exceptionally bright, exceptionally raw chunks of jagged guitar strangulation and thrilling, stop/start fits of aggression and slumber. Stealing gleefully from the best moments of the Pixies and Built to Spill, Modest Mouse seems always on edge, ready to run, to fight, to flee. It makes for an interesting, exciting listen.
“Interesting” is the way I describe a wine I don’t quite have a handle on yet. Usually I say, “Ummm, interesting” when I’m drinking a pinot noir. Maybe it’s just me, but tasting pinot seems to take more of my mental faculties than any other varietal. Weird, huh? Know what else is weird? That sensation you get as you take that first taste of a really great pinot. It’s like a door has opened allowing you to see all that’s true and good about pinot. There, the bittersweet hints of chocolate, the smoky, bramble haze, the very dirt in which the grapes grew. In those fleeting moments, pinot seems so simple.
Bethel Heights 1995 Cuvee is an Oregon bottle that gets you as close to that true and pure moment of pinot enlightenment as 10 bucks is gonna take you (pretty close, actually). The Heights has the full Pinot package — the chocolate, the smoke, the dirt (oh, excuse me, the terroir) plus a nice spoonful of berries (blackberries actually, picked in the woods). And as long as we’re in Oregon, your local shop may carry Witness Tree or King Estate, each a lovely bottle filled with good stuff normal people can afford. Pinot — Oregon pinot at that — can be easy!
Yes, Bjork is everywhere, and she’s delicious, isn’t she? What’s not to love about that exotic Icelandic sprite. With the voice of a blissfully mad angel, Bjork makes her mix of “techno sophistication meets dark-eyed Earth princess” work — both in clubs and on LP. And since 1993, when she had the good sense to go solo and enter into an early and productive relationship with phat beats, we’ve heard a lot more of that voice. Soaring, sprinting, laughing, yelping, whispering, Bjork takes quantum leaps. At times her range, her tones, her interpretations are awe-inspiring, sending shivers of blue electricity up the spine as she leaps from peak to peak with otherworldly style.
With Bjork’s new LP, Homogenic, we’re treated to Bjork being, well, Bjork. Her voice is at once water and fire. Usually it’s the sound of pure motion. But Bjork is also capable of the sparking, pure tone. That control makes for a nice match with her music, which blends skittering abstract beats and electronics with warm classical strings and lush tones.
Bjork, of course, wasn’t born with the “diva” tiara. Far from it. The girl had to put in time. She had to work. The Sugarcubes, who debuted on American shores in 1988, released three LPs before Bjork cashed in her chips. Of these, their debut, Life’s Too Good, is the easy library selection. Though a recent uncorking shows Life’s Too Good to have a rather overwhelming new wave nose, there are moments of stunning Bjorkness. On the gorgeous “Birthday,” she simply defies gravity, spinning a wonderland world while a loopy bass line seems her only tether to Earth. Other standouts include the swooping “Motorcrash” and rather rocking “Delicious Demon.” There are plans in the works to compile a Sugarcubes greatest hits collection, Great Crossover Potential, which will pluck the prime cuts from Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week! and Stick Around For Joy. Save those pennies, Bjork fans!
I’ve never had an Icelandic wine. Can’t say as I’ve even enjoyed the delights of an Icelandic brew. In fact, Bjork and the Sugarcubes may be the only Icelandic knowledge I possess beside the fact that Iceland and Alaska share a similar latitude. True. I looked it up. Coincidence, huh? Let’s hope Iceland has beer similar toAlaskan Amber Ale. Here in the Northwest, Alaskan Amber can be had easily, bountifully. I hope the same is true in your town, for Alaskan Amber is a mouthful of deep, delicious caramel malt. Tucked inside that sweet kernel is a bright-to-the-point-of-bursting nugget of fresh hops that tastes great cold and blossoms beautifully as the brew warms in the glass. It’s a beer that resonates with a clear, rich baritone of the malt but is also sculpted by the perfectly placed hops. It’s also pretty great with ribs.