Spins 2023: Vol 5

Every year since 2018 (save 2020), Cat & I have returned to her hometown of Chicago to visit her father, Steve, her step-mother, Marcia, her sister, Ellen, and a rotating cast of cousins and old friends. They’ve been in their house in the Beverly neighborhood since 2002. Prior to that, they had a house in Hyde Park, off the U of C Midway, where Cat grew up.

This year’s mid-July road trip looped Cat and me through the heartland, eating around Culver’s menus and singing a lot of country favorites as prairie, farmland, and industrial scenery streaked by. Our route:

NYC, NY ⏩️ Cuyahoga Falls, OH ▶️ Chicago, IL ⏸️ Funks Grove, IL ⏩️ Indianapolis, IN ⏩️ Pittsburgh, PA ⏩️ NYC, NY

Funks Grove, Illinois, was a tiny hub on the old Rte 66, just southwest of Bloomington. Cat’s great uncle and aunt had a farm there, and they, along with her mother (who passed when Cat was 14) is buried in the town’s eponymous bucolic cemetery.

In any event, Steve is a tour-de-force pianist who in retirement now heads up a couple big bands and a couple trios, and plays solo gigs all around the Chicago metro area. The remnants of his once-vaster jazz vinyl collection sits now in the basement of his Beverly house. Each cubby holds around 70 records, so there’s 1000+ LP’s. But, yeah, apparently this is the remainder of a collection 3x or 4x the size, culled during his move from Hyde Park to Beverly.

The “Duke Quadrant” alone spans 4 cubbies of pure Ellingtonia, a couple-hundred albums strong:

The furthest left records, with the blank white spines, comprise a complete set of “Duke Ellington Treasury Shows” (“D.E.T.S.”) recordings where he played with his Orchestra in 1945 and 1946 on a weekly series of 55-minute programs sponsored by the United States Treasury Department.

The earlier shows, recorded while WWII still raged, has Duke urging the audience to give money so as to win the war. The later promos espouse the wisdom of saving for the future and the importance of buying savings bonds. The performances are gold.

In any event, the D.E.T.S. set anchors the whole basement collection, and I spend a few hours hopscotching around the cubbies every time I’m in Chicago, discovering new sounds and filling holes in my knowledge of jazz. I lost count of how many out-of-physical-print titles are down there. Nothing goes out-of-print on the Internet, of course, but it’s still a thrill to hold these records in my hands (and not be tracked by some relentless algorithm as I listen).

Steve & Marcia graciously allow me to bring anything I want back to NYC. The free space in our VW Golf on these 1000-mile drives puts a merciful limit on what I can squirrel home, so I’ve takin around 20-30, basically what fits in a small tote bag, on each of my last few trips. Steve’s records now make up most of my approx 100-album jazz vinyl “collection.”

Time for us is always limited in Chicago, what with the main mission of family reconnections, so I can only listen to entire records upon returning to NYC. The music keeps us connected, however, and in many ways, our trips extend into the grooves of these albums, independent of geography. If we’re keeping score, the Atlantic Records, Monk, and Byrd records below are 3 of this year’s stash.

Atlantic Records 25th Anniversary: The Soul Years (1948 – 1973)

4 sides of Blues, Doo-Wop, Rock ’n Roll, and R&B bliss. There’s nothing here undiscovered, and plenty you’ll hear almost anywhere now. That said, there’s always something revelatory in hearing iconic tracks in their chronological context, in relation to each other. So, no, it’s not like you hear Green Onions for the first time, but sandwiched between Solomon Burke’s Just Out Of Reach and Sam & Dave’s Hold On, I’m Comin’, you get a sense of how people heard Booker T for the first time back then.

This mix could spin at almost any party, and no one would feel ironic. Don’t get me wrong – there’s heavy shit here, too. (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay and Rainy Night In Georgia relay loneliness on such an epic scale that everyone sings along to being lonely. But then, as you’re join in, you’re like, “Holy shit, that’s soul music’s purpose.”

Thelonious Himself: Solo Piano by Thelonious Monk (1966)

Monk unaccompanied is the sound of his thinking. Like you’re sitting in the room as he’s practicing. John Coltrane shows up at the end to violate the record title’s contract with you, and you realize Monk was never going to let you all the way in because that’s the furthest thing from the point of jazz and stop thinking you know what’s happening and just listen.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On , Sly & the Family Stone (1971)

There’s a Riot Goin’ On was a VMP arrival this month, waiting for me on my return to NYC. A couple decades, probably, since I listened to it end-to-end. The album is the sound of someone who can’t reconcile “what it is” with “what it ought.” Prophets are always in pain. Truth is a lonely place.

Bluebyrd, Charlie Byrd (1979)

Charlie Byrd is just sooo sweet (as opposed to “smooooth.”) The deftness, the tone, the decision making, the effortlessness… His style has always been an aspiration.

Talking To The People, Black Nasty (1973)

Black Nasty’s 1973 Talking To The People was my other VMP arrival this month. ’73 was the year the Atlantic Records anthology above ends, and the year after Berry Gordy left Detroit for LA and took Motown with him.

These guys fell through a crack in the continuum, and you can tell no one knew how to characterize them back then. Mixtapes didn’t exist. You couldn’t be passed around through a fiber optic cable. Freeform FM was the core of discovery, but those station faded into static at some discrete radius around their towers, depending on their wattage. There was almost no everyday way, save live television, for everyone coast-to-coast to listen to the same thing at the same time.

The record’s an adventure in colliding styles. Funk, Rock, R&B, Art-Rock, and Glam all surface and dive. The sun rises and sets a few times over the course of this, and the party never stops, cruising one side of town to the other and back. Most records can only aspire to have a song or two on some party’s soundtrack. But a record that commands what kind of party you throw is a rare one.

Sonambient: Clear Sounds / Perfetta, Harry Bertoia (2016 reissue)

Speaking of style, designer Harry Bertoia’s Sonambient makes its way onto my listening platter with semi-annual frequency. And it’s the frequencies that keep me returning.

Bertoia built things to play. Even his chairs were music.

Side A is “Clear Sounds,” a Harry Bertoia piece from June 30, 1973.
Side B is “Perfetta,” an Oreste Bertoia piece from June 28, 1971.

Bertoia gives voice to metal here. The purity of the alloys Bertoia forged to create his sound sculptures is evident in the resonance and harmonic cascades that trail off his mallet strikes and brushings, captured by 4 perfectly aligned microphones that hung from the roof of his rural Eastern Pennsylvania barn-cum-recording-studio. We weren’t anywhere near the area on this road trip, but driving through any remote part of Pennsylvania always fires my mind to Bertoia’s barn.

Fwiw, Miles Davis’s trumpet gave Davis his voice, but here the script is flipped. The materials sing through the man. It’s not the “easiest” listening, in part because it’s a discordant recording of a performance beyond the audio that demands your visualization and attention to abstraction. That said, I love that I’ll never fully understand it, and it’s as close as you’ll get to an unfiltered journey through an increasingly dust-binned offline world of magic and imagination.

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