My Year in Lists: Volume II
"The results are admirable: music filled with heat and energy and sudden sharp contrasts in moods and voices."-Stuart Broomer, on Stan Kenton's Cuban Fire!
"More than any other hip hop group, Run-DMC are responsible for the sound and style of the music."-Stephen Erlewine
"[T]he words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down. They're not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, 'Look, I miss you, darlin', so I went out and I got drunk in this bar.' That's the way you say it."-Ray Charles
Contrary to what some academics will tell you, genre is a slippery beast. The term allows us to nominally classify what we are seeing, hearing, or otherwise experiencing, yet rarely can a genre signifier capture the power of great art, and often, it comes across as just inaccurate to what we are experiencing. Nevertheless, human beings love to classify, and we also love to make snap judgments based on these classifications. Take, for example, the Western. It's a film genre forever tied to black and white hats, cowboys and Indians, and, for a lot of people boredom. Many who decry the genre ignore its heights, from early "˜40s fare like The Ox-Bow Incident to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, including all-time classic The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Or look at horror movies. The simple genre signifier usually leads people to think of Friday the 13th style slashers or Saw and Hostel-esque torture porn, but the genre also includes such legitimate masterpieces as The Shining, Psycho, and Rosemary's Baby. Rarely does genre tell the whole story.
To a large extent, that's the purpose of this whole column. I aim to see if the genres of jazz, hip hop, and country can transcend the snap judgments often thrown against them. The obvious answer to this question is yes; the best of every genre, of every medium, is going to be great, regardless of how much crap you have to wade through to find the best. But this week, we will look at three albums that make us pause and ask what exactly each genre is, what are its contours, and how far afield can something go while still being considered of a piece with the genre to which it is ascribed?
Stan Kenton was one of the great big band leaders of the "˜40s and "˜50s, commanding the respect of critics and fans alike (though some of this was tarnished in the "˜60s and "˜70s by allegations of racism that, while retracted, kept Kenton from gaining respect among prominent black musicians at the time). He released many Latin-tinged pieces early in his career, yet had been dogged from Latin quarters with the complaint that he was not writing the music properly, and that his results sounded inauthentic as a result. In response to those complaints, Kenton asked his long time arranger Johnny Richards to write an authentic Latin suite that would follow all the rules Afro-Cuban musicians claimed his previous music was lacking. The result was the incendiary Cuban Fire!, a tour de force of Latin infused jazz that lights up much of what I have so far thought about jazz, changing tempo, arrangements, and the overall feel of the album.
The album opens with title track "Fuego Cubano," and with an explosion of Latin infused sound, a celebration that quickly fades into a darker melody. "El Congo Valiente," which sounds in parts like the Jon Barry Orchestra's James Bond scores, with all the energy and bombast that implies.
"Quien Sabe" is a more quietly tuneful number in its opening moments, developing a mood that is quickly extrapolated to its heights before settling into an incredibly catchy number. "La Suerte De Los Tontos" closes out the original suite with grandiloquence that avoids pretension. Kenton and his band managed to step outside their comfort zone and make some authentic Latin jazz that would actually influence the development of that subgenre for years to come.
Cuban Fire! is different than anything we have yet explored in this column, yet it remains tied inextricably to jazz. Pulling form Kenton's big band past (and, utilizing his large stable of musicians and big band orchestrations) and experimenting with sounds that were culturally foreign to him created one of Kenton's greatest works, a lasting testament to the power of experimentation and to the musical abilities of one of jazz's greatest pianists, composers, and arrangers. Though Kenton was often plagued with private controversies (from rumors of racism to his daughter's revelation, decades after his death, that they had engaged in an incestuous affair), he continued to tour and to educate in the "Kenton style" of big band jazz until he was felled by a stroke in 1979, which killed him days later.
I have written about Run-DMC's Raising Hell before, yet much of what I wrote back then was an admission of my own inability to write with any authority about hip hop. I still lack anything resembling authority on the subject, but five weeks into this exploration, I'm at least slightly better off than I was back during the original run of My Year in Lists My Year in Lists. At the time, I called the album a "gateway drug to the world of hip hop," and while that is, strictly speaking true, it doesn't encompass the way Raising Hell changed what was going on in hip hop and influenced what was to come, both for better and for worse.
The album is an early classic of the "rap-rock" subgenre, which led to its huge popularity at the time of its release. The idea of Aerosmith guesting on a hip hop track would have been ridiculous before Run-DMC showed up on the scene, and while the album fits into the genre of hip hop, it is just as cleanly placed within the genre of rock. "It's Tricky," the album's best known song, combines rhyme verses with rock-heavier choruses, a format that would be aped by dozens of rap-rock acts, and, increasingly, straight up hip hop acts over the decades since the song was released. When I last discussed "My Adidas," I called it "brilliant in its simplicity," and claimed it displayed hip hop's ability to discuss anything and everything, but in hindsight, that seems hopelessly naÃ¯ve. "My Adidas" is much more obviously another in a long line of hip hop status symbols, a pre-cursor to the excess materialism that the genre would fall prey to in later years. If my initial impression of "My Adidas" was hopelessly naÃ¯ve, so too is the song in a way. Holding Adidas up as a symbol of awesomeness seems laughable compared to much of what gets tossed around in similar odes to materialism today, but the song is fun for its quaint bravado, and is ably delivered. I'm not sure I would still call the song "brilliant," especially sandwiched as it is between "It's Tricky," and "Walk This Way," but it is certainly a good time.
"Walk This Way" was nothing short of a cataclysmic shift in the hip hop world. The first hip hop song to break into the top five of the Billboard 100, it pretty much announced that hip hop as a genre had arrived. Sure, it was co-opting a hit rock song, including guest appearances by members of the rock band that wrote the original, to get there, but still, "Walk This Way" is doubtlessly a Run-DMC song with guest stars, not a cover of Aerosmith dressed in hip hop drag. The song steals all of the catchiness of the original, but infuses it so thoroughly with Run-DMC's charm and hip hop smarts that it becomes fully theirs.
"You Be Illin'" actually plays as I heard it the first time, as an attempt by new hip hop superstars to leave their mark on the culture of cool, by setting up their own standards for what behavior was and was not acceptable. The quote that opens this installment also popped up in my last discussion of this album, yet I can be more assured now when I say that Run-DMC and Raising Hell are enormously influential in the development of hip hop and the creation of both a musical style, and a culture, that would spread further and further over the two decades after the album's release.
This week, country had my clear favorite album, though it isn't exactly fair to force Stan Kenton and Run-DMC to go up against Ray Charles. Modern Sounds in Country and Western takes country standards and reworks them into popular forms, from R&B to pop to jazz. If we are discussing the diversity allowed within genre signifiers (and we at least nominally are) Modern Sounds is about as far afield from country as I can imagine the genre going. Sure, Charles is covering Hank Williams, Floyd Tillman, Jimmie Davis and Eddy Arnold, but the songs are 100% Ray Charles.
Charles had just left his contract at Atlantic for a much better deal at ABC-Paramount that would pay him advances, royalties, let him eventually own his own masters, and grant him his greatest yet degree of artistic freedom. When he began discussing the idea of recording a country album, the Civil Rights movement was kicking into high gear and racial tensions were mounting, but neither of these things seems to have entered Charles' head. Instead, he was focused on testing ABC-Paramount's commitment to his artistic freedom. The result of this test is one of Charles' best albums, a set of songs rooted in country's history but looking forward at the progression of R&B and jazz.
Opening track "Bye Bye Love" is a peppy kiss off, masking deep pain with upbeat lyrics. The song is a country classic, though it will always remind me most of the end of All that Jazz, to the point where Charles' version, effective as it is, doesn't hold a candle to that showstopper. "You Don't Know Me," an Eddy Arnold song that would immediately become a Ray Charles song, is a beautiful heartbreaker of a ballad. The song is too good not to be a standard, but Charles' version elevated the material even further, to the point that whenever this song is covered, its hard not to think of Charles' version as the song being aped, rather than Arnold's original. There's almost no country to this version, except perhaps the overused background singers (a problem which plagues the whole album, but tends to be only slightly irksome); this is just the genius of Ray Charles on display.
The album features three songs previously made famous by Hank Williams, all of which are given great treatment by Charles. The first, Curley Williams' "Half as Much" is a classic sad man song about a guy who loves his lady more than she gives him back. "You Win Again" finds Charles channeling Williams' depressive side, conceding defeat at the end of a relationship. Finally, "Hey, Good Lookin'" becomes a catchy jazz number under Charles' guidance. Again, in these tracks, the twang and country influence are dialed down to almost zero. Charles just takes great songs and records them his way, and the results are nearly magical.
Each of these albums stretches our ideas about their genre. Stan Kenton brought Latin influences into modern jazz. Run-DMC fused rock and hip hop to become the greatest success story rap had to offer at that point. And Ray Charles took the country out of country, and in doing so revealed its very soul. Each of these albums experiments with the genre as we conceive of it, and yet each of them ends up reconfirming all the genre has to offer in the process. Cuban Fire! emphasized the emotional and cultural spectrum available within jazz music. Raising Hell demonstrated the mainstream appeal of hip hop while expanding the genre's sonic repertoire further than ever before. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music showed the lyrical quality of a genre that often gets dismissed for its simplicity. By changing things up, these artists created three great albums that demonstrate the boundless potential of any genre to be twisted and turned, yet to remain quintessentially itself; they created modern sounds using the genre's core building blocks to create something that is new and vital at the same time.
Look out next Wednesday for the first My Year in Lists: Volume II: Interlude, where we will look at the nature of covers, viewed through the lens of a local Ann Arbor tradition: Folk the Police.
Next week on My Year in Lists:
Tammy Wynette advises that you Stand By Your Man, Boogie Down Productions are Criminal Minded, and Thelonious Monk shows us some Brilliant Corners.
Read more My Year in Lists here