Sometimes the very thing you seek has been underneath your nose the entire time. There’s a popular expression along those lines, I think. Anyhow, my search for a musical partner has culminated in getting connected with a kid I have known for a few years. He went to my high school, plays music with some of my same friends, and is currently an undergrad at that hallowed institution of learning in Palo Alto. Very fitting.
I approached him over spring break about putting together a set list of R&B and soul songs, and we rehearsed for the first time last weekend. It’s amazing how much good accompaniment adds to singing. Not that I have anything against a cappella. I performed without instruments all through college, and loved every minute. But let’s be honest: the human voice is suited to be a voice and not a trumpet or a violin. Now, when you combine the voice with an instrument such as piano or guitar, you create a product which is greater than its separate parts. For some reason I sing so much better with keys or strings backing me up. I think I am able to better hone in on the individual notes and the overarching melody. I hear the song, or rather the song exists outside of my head in the form of instrumentation, before I have to start singing. Accompaniment is more than a crutch to lean on, though; it mixes with the voice to create an entirely unique, profound sound.
Anyway, our tentative set list:
Whenever Wherever Whatever – Maxwell
Walk Away From Love – Bitty McLean
Drown In My Own Tears – Ray Charles
Ordinary People – John Legend
I Forgot To Be Your Lover – William Bell
Black Night – Charles Brown
Fall For Your Type – Jamie Foxx
Come Fly With Me – Frank Sinatra
Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers
Fast Car – Tracy Chapman
Time to practice!
One of my best musical finds last year was an artist named dela. dela produces instrumentally rich hip hop songs. You might call him a beatmaker. Anyhow, I came across his album, The Robert Glasper Beat Tape, and was immediately enraptured. On his blog dela explains the concept of the album – he remixed numerous tracks from hip hop jazz pianist Robert Glasper, sampling certain phrases from Glasper’s stylings andb underpinning them with fresh beats. The result is a mellow yet sublime compilation of 9 songs that have forever changed the way I listen to jazz piano.
Before the Glasper tape, I had never entertained the possibility of hip hop piano. Conventional jazz piano, which I love, incorporates syncopation, hits on the off beat, and often cuts out of time entirely, but Glasper manages to create his own rhythmic flow that is guaranteed to make your head nod. Of course, after I heard dela’s beat tape I had to check out Glasper’s originals, and they did not disappoint. His songs are already quite rhythmically grounded, making dela’s reinterpretation seem natural, like a subtle augmentation more than a complete redux. In October Glasper came to Yoshi’s, and no way was I going to miss that show. I even spoke with him for a few minutes after the performance, I should have asked for an autograph. But hey, I follow him on Twitter now so that means everything, right?
This past week I received an email that dela had just released his latest album, “Translation Lost.” His beatmaking style remains unmistakable, although the collection is a bit more uneven than the Glasper tape. A good number of tracks are solid hip hop joints, while several (such as the title track) are more experimental in nature. Part of the album was conceived during dela’s stint in Montreal, hence the French lyrics in several tracks. Don’t ask me to translate. My favorites are both tracks on which the rapper Blu appears, and the vocoder-heavy track “West Side Story.” dela proves he has no desire to be a conventional producer, but that’s precisely why I enjoy his songs so much. If you’re looking for a relaxed, creative hip hop vibe, give dela a listen.
Every spring UC Berkeley hosts Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the premier dance companies in the world, and this season marks the 50th Anniversary of the company. My introduction to Alvin Ailey was six years ago, and it was an eye-opening experience. The highlight of the performance was a rendition of David Parson’s Caught, one of the most visually stunning and physically remarkable dance pieces I have ever seen. With the lights all down, a single dancer appears “caught” in midair as a spotlight briefly flashes on him or her every second. I could not find an Ailey version of the piece on YouTube, but watch the link above anyway to get a sense of what I’m talking about.
Yesterday I had the great privilege of seeing the group perform for a second time, and this most recent performance again highlighted the visceral athleticism of Ailey’s dance troupe. What struck me more than the powerful grace of the dancers, however, was the prominence of the show’s musical soundtrack. Music and dance are typically interwoven, and most dances are accompanied in some manner or another. But with this Ailey show, several of the dance pieces felt literally as if they were extensions of the music, perhaps born from it. I am thinking specifically of a piece in the program entitled “Revelations,” performed in 1960 as one of Alvin Ailey’s first-ever professional works.
Revelations is more than a dance. It is the act of representing a cultural and historical identity on stage. As the great Judith Jamison says, Revelations at its very core attempts to describe “what it means to be human.” A bold statement, but on the one hand Jamison rings true. The dance describes a human experience, the adversities of that experience, the communities forged to withstand adversity, and the unwavering faith required to overcome a harsh world. These aspects of our existence permeate all human societies across space and time. Revelations, however, does not illustrate generally what it means to be human, it illustrates a particular narrative of the black experience in the United States. But this blog is not exactly a forum for socio-cultural analyses, and thus I digress.
Three distinct sections comprise the narrative of Revelations, each telling a different story. Infused in the entire work is an inseparable musical soundtrack. Indeed, as I was watching I felt as if Mr. Ailey had started with the music and then choreographed a dance to essentially act out the feelings and stories within that music. Imagine if you took spirituals and gospels and converted them into physical movements and visual expressions, and you will understand Revelations. It was truly amazing to witness. I have never seen a dance before that literally acted out the music accompanying it. What I enjoyed most was this message Revelations conveyed – that music extends to the very core of who we are. Music defines us. It explains us. And not only explains us, it has the power to transform who we are.