2022 began with a commitment to undertake a bit of a musical rewiring.
After years amassing a pretty extensive collection of jazz records with laser-like focus, it felt time to make a conscious effort to cast the net much wider again. The initial catalyst for this was picking up a copy of Harry Sword’s fantastic book, 'Monolithic Undertow' . It’s an ambitious tracing of the history of drone - music defined by the stasis of a constant tone - from the sound emitted at the birth of the universe to the present day. He weaves a thread from early Neolithic instruments, Pagan burial ceremonies and medieval troubadours to modal jazz, Indian ragas, New York minimalism, doom metal and beyond. In reading it, I felt an invigorating sense of possibility; all musical avenues suddenly seemed open again.
This months’ playlist is a selection of music inspired by my initial steps along this path. Some are new discoveries, others are from records that have long been in my collection but have taken on new meaning or resonance. In a sense, that’s part of the great power of recorded music. We are in a state of perpetual change, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Like the power of the drone itself, these recordings do not alter - held in stasis digitally and on wax for decades - but in experiencing new emotional responses to well loved pieces, they reveal to us our own internal evolution. I hope some of these recordings set you on a new journey of your own.
The debut solo record from multi-reed player Bennie Maupin, fresh off some high profile sideman dates lending his dark, sinewy bass clarinet work to Miles Davis’ landmark ‘Bitches Brew’ and exploratory, soaring tenor playing to Herbie Hancock’s Afrocentric ‘Mwandishi’ project. ‘Jewel in the Lotus’ continues the spacier sounds of Mwandishi but with a more pastoral, acoustic tinge. Opener ‘Esenada’ embodies these qualities perfectly; sounding lush yet weightless, the band collectively ebbs and flows like waves washing on the shore.
British psychedelic folk steeped in the mythology of druids and pagan rituals, this 1970 record by the Third Ear Band is an esoteric, absorbing experience. Over four tracks named after the four elements, the band draws from the classical tone poems of Vaughan Williams and Sibelius, Hindustani ragas, Eastern European hora music and modal jazz using oboe, violin, cello and percussion to create something which sounds utterly distinctive and daring. Album closer ‘Water’ is the perfect way in to this strange and evocative music.
An excerpt from one of my favourite records by the trumpeter Don Cherry, at the height of his ‘Organic Music’ concept in Sweden alongside his wife and textile artist Moki Cherry. A group of musicians living and performing together mixing communal art, social and environmental activism, children’s education and pan-ethnic expression, the ambitious scope of this collective project never obscures the humility and primal simplicity of humans making music together. With just a couple of log drums, ngoni - a traditional Malian guitar - and the human voice, the band expresses a vast spectrum of possibilities with the simplest of instruments.
Hindustani classical music has been a wonderful new avenue to explore this year, a music which is almost unrivalled in depth, complexity and subtlety, rooted in spiritual devotion. Its primary form, the raga, evolved through centuries of aural tradition and was originally intended to be expressed by the human voice. So, when we hear a raga played here by India’s most famous sarangi player, Pandit Ram Narayan, what we are listening to is not just the sound of his instrument being played, but his realisation of the human voice ‘singing’ through his sirangi. A violin-like instrument, in Narayan’s hands it’s a deep and sorrowful sound. A beautiful place to start for those beginning their journey into this tradition.
Soliman Gamil was an Egyptian ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist, experimenting with ancient Egyptian instruments to create the most evocative and atmospheric soundscapes. On this track, Gamil takes the Qanun - a traditional Middle Eastern string instrument similar to a zither or dulcimer - and fuses its natural fluidity with the rhythmic drive and complexity of Indian tabla drums. A stunning meeting of two ancient cultures.
A cult classic, Roy Harper’s 1971 record ‘Stormcock’ is a folk masterpiece. Daring, sparse, yet somehow sounding gigantic, his deft and complex guitar work and beguiling vocals are laid bare over four lengthy tracks. The standout is this, The Same Old Rock, a twelve minute epic full of unexpected twists and turns, featuring a guest appearance by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page on a second acoustic guitar. It’s a high-wire act of manic musicianship, full of trippy double tracked vocals and dovetailing guitar lines. Heavy, heavy stuff.
A beautiful solo record full of delicate, memorable melodies, this 1978 debut from Arizona guitarist William Eaton has barely left my turntable all month. Entirety improvised and recorded spontaneously after nights under the starts exploring the sounds of his hand-built guitars in nearby canyons, these pieces have such a peaceful and atmospheric quality to them. The whole record is bewitching, but I keep coming back to this tone poem, Untitled 2B.
A recent pickup from the wonderful folks at Greenhouse Records, this is another largely improvised instrumental record, heavily inspired by the ambient explorations of Brian Eno. This piece blends acoustic and electronic sounds in a slightly homespun fashion, its starkly beautiful slide-guitar and eerie synthesisers painting an expressive picture of a calm, moonlit ocean.
On this remarkable album, pioneer of American minimalism Terry Riley unspools mesmeric, spiralling organ lines as he synthesises the ancient music of Indian ragas with the contemporary technology of his augmented Yamaha YC-45D. There is a video of Riley performing this music live in full here which really captures the ebullience and virtuosity of his playing which is well worth making time for too. Pure aural transcendence.
Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders has had a much deserved late career revival courtesy of last years’ wonderful collaboration with Floating Points, ‘Promises’. This track, recorded forty years earlier for the Theresa label, sounds like a distant musical echo of that music. His rich tenor is accompanied by harmonium, wind chimes and a koro - a Japanese string instrument - for a calming piece of sonic meditation.
The opening excerpt from Michael Stearns magnum opus of modular synthesisers, ‘Planetary Unfolding’, an album I first discovered a few years ago thanks to the wonderful New Age compilation, 'I Am The Center'. A six part suite inspired by a theory of the universe where all atoms, cells, plants, animals and humans are part of a collective sonic resonance, the conceptual ambition of this symphonic space music is more than matched by the power of Stearns mighty self-built Serge synthesiser. Its delicate tonal shifts, rich harmonics and immense crescendos create a sound with such scale and emotional weight that it becomes almost overwhelming. Music not just to be heard, but to be experienced in a state of total surrender.
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