Of all the self-indulgent features of this blog, this is certainly the most self-indulgent. As always I hope you get something out of this random selection from my portable collection of tunes.
1. Paul Simon, ‘Think Too Much (b)’ from Hearts and Bones. The reason Graceland was such a comeback album for Paul Simon was because Hearts and Bones was such a commercial failure, a frankly confused and unfocussed album (with shoddy production values, largely corrected much later by this very intelligent digital remastering from a few years ago). But despite its scattershot quality, Hearts and Bones is easily — easily — my favourite Paul Simon album, partly through an accident of timing that had me listening to it repeatedly during my early university years, and partly because of a few truly great songs or song fragments: ‘Train in the Distance’ (“What is the point of this story?/ What information pertains?/ The thought that our life could be better is woven indelibly/ Into our hearts and our brains”), ‘The Late Great Johnny Ace’, and this mournful ballad, over marimbas and the sound of a crying baby: “They say the left side of the brain/ It dominates the right/ And the right side has to labour through/ The long and speechless night.”
2. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, ‘And I Thought My Jokes Were Bad’ from The Dark Knight Soundtrack. I actually don’t think this is the greatest movie since sliced bread, but there’s a lot of elegant creative thinking going into it, not least in the soundtrack, which moves gratifyingly far from the Danny Elfman model toward something dark, percussive, heavily synthesized — I’m left wondering whether even the strings are authentic — and sleekly menacing.
3. Kenny Cox, ‘Snuck In’ from Introducing Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet. Good for Blue Note to reissue this obscure, highly rewarding set from an intense, brooding quintet of Detroiters led by the very fine pianist Kenny Cox. Recorded in 1968, built on insistent grooves whose beginnings and ends are shaped by repeated melodic fragments, its obvious antecedent is the Miles Davis Quintet of 1964-1969 — which means that only a couple of years after the word about Miles’ band got out, Cox and his peers had decoded that music’s DNA and found their own uses for it.
4. Jason Moran, ‘Joga’ from Facing Left. I’m not a huge Bjork fan but some of her songs have sunk down to my consciousness, including the starkly gorgeous ballad ‘Joga.’ Turns out it’s sunk down to a lot of people, including the nerdy but reliably clever jazz pianist Jason Moran, whose trio plays it fairly straight over a two-beat ostinato. There are critics who are reliably enchanted when young jazz musicians play pop tunes — Oooh! Relevance! Irony! — but what they usually miss is that it would never occur to those musicians to ignore pop tunes. They’re in the air. Musicians have always applied their craft to what was in the air.
5. Johnny Cash, ‘Bird On a Wire’ from American Recordings. Self-explanatory. How can Johnny Cash singing Leonard Cohen be anything but great?
6. The Who, ‘You Better You Bet’ from Face Dances. It was 1980, they had a new drummer, they were still a band and they were dealing with the sound of New Wave around them — synths, spritely backup vocals, a tight poppy drum beat — so if you were in a sour mood it must have sounded like they were selling out. Almost 30 years later it still sounds fresh.
7. Cassandra Wilson, ‘Time After Time’ from Travelling Miles. So yeah, in 1985 Miles Davis, chasing an idea of relevance and, it’s true, a gorgeous melody, covered Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time.’ In 1999 Cassandra Wilson made a Miles tribute album. Of course she covered the cover but, no fool, she restored the chorus Miles skipped over (“If you’re lost you can look/ And you will find me time after time”). It’s all gorgeous. I haven’t always agreed with Cassandra’s stylistic choices but I’d follow that voice anywhere.
8. Steps Ahead, ‘Young and Fine’ from Smokin’ in the Pit. From the late 1970s: a band of young hotshot jazzmen who were already making good money playing slick crud in studios — drummer Steve Gadd, saxophonist Michael Brecker, vibraphonist Mike Manieri — but who liked to escape and play music that felt good to them. In this case they escaped to the Pit Inn in Tokyo (hence the great, great album title) to play long, relaxed, tremendously exciting solos on assorted tunes. A wonderful documentation of early Brecker. He had hundreds of bright young saxophonists chasing him for most of his life, yet he never had any trouble sounding smarter, more agile or more musical than his armies of imitators.
9. Randy Newman, ‘Main Title’ from Ragtime Soundtrack. Sweetly mournful ersatz Joplin from the soundtrack to the Milos Forman hit of the early 1980s. Fully one-third of the tune’s structure is an elongated turnaround in what would ordinarily have been the last 8 bars, like a story that stretches out because it doesn’t want to end.
10. The Killers, ‘Mr. Brightside’ from Hot Fuss. I was working out in a hotel gym somewhere, Calgary I think, four years ago with Much on the overhead TV and I couldn’t believe this song from a band I’d (somehow) never heard of. Most of the melody is one note, repeated obsessively, which makes dramatic sense — it’s a song about obsession — and it even works musically, I know not how.