Photo: Craig Marsden
(L-R) Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh
Vijay Iyer On His New Trio Album 'Uneasy,' American Identity & Teaching Black American Music In The 21st Century
On 'Uneasy,' pianist Vijay Iyer bands together with his creative family—bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey—to envisage a more equitable world
Vijay Iyer may be one of the foremost academics in 21st century music, but he's far more absorbed in the body than the brain. He peppers his language with references to the heart, spine and hips; his paramount rhythmic value is the pulse. And when describing how a terrific rhythm section glues together, he clasps together his index fingers and pulls.
"Let the record show that I'm making a weird hand gesture right now," the GRAMMY-nominated pianist, composer and Harvard Department of Music professor announces with a chuckle over Zoom. "Kind of hooked and pulling apart, but somehow hanging together." Iyer is describing a musical phenomenon called "the hookup," which perfectly describes the concision between him, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey in his latest trio.
Oh and Sorey aren't mere collaborators or accompanists; they're educators and composers in their own rights. Of Sorey's drumming, Iyer cites a "life-sustaining kind of magic." And of Oh's bass playing, "Her awareness of and relation to pulse, it's like micro-detail," he says. Those qualities and more can be found on Uneasy, the trio's first studio record, which drops April 9 on ECM Records. The album is a mix of topical material "Children of Flint" with Iyer originals ("Combat Breathing") and standards ("Night and Day") from deep in their wheelhouse.
Most importantly, Iyer considers the pair to be his musical family; together, they're his stronghold through a racially and sociopolitically turbulent time. And with the tragic Atlanta spa shootings in the rearview, the cover—where the three musicians' names float around an out-of-focus Statue of Liberty—is a side-eyed glance at what it means to be an American.
GRAMMY.com spoke with Vijay Iyer about the architecture of a trio record and his feelings on American identity in the wake of anti-Asian violence. Plus, just in time for Music In Our Schools Month, he explores how educators can teach Black American music more fairly and accurately in the 21st century.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I love trio albums. To me, Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard is the gold standard. Recently, I've connected greatly with Bill Frisell's Valentine. Uneasy is another excellent one. So, what is it about the power of a trio, in your estimation? To me, it has the integrity of a triangle in architecture.
Oh, so many things. There's both the disparateness of it, in the sense that we're each doing pretty seemingly qualitatively different things. Maybe the piano and drums have more in common, let's say, but still, the materials we're working with are so different.
Then, at the same time, everything is done with the hands and the feet, to a certain extent. In particular, that means that there's no literal breath involved in anything you hear. So there's a certain kind of tactile quality because of that. Every sound you hear is the result of a touch of some kind.
And, that any lyricism is sort of an illusion, in the sense that when you hear a melody that connects, you are being invited to imagine a voice that's not there, you know? Imagine a sort of breath that is not directly involved in the sounds you're hearing. So, that has a certain kind of suspended quality because of that. It's both a suspension of disbelief and a handmade universe. That's one detail about it that is intriguing.
The other side of it is, at some level, I don't care what the hands are doing as a listener. I care about something more central. Meaning, what do I connect to when I hear musicians in action? What do I, as a listener, as an observer, find myself relating to sonically? What I find myself relating to sonically is a sense of pulse that comes from the center of the body. From the heart, from the spine, from the torso, from the hips, you know? Not from the hands.
So, that's a funny paradox. Why is the trio the rhythm section? Why is it that somehow, by touching and hitting things, we're expressing something central? How do what the hands do reflect where the heart is, or what the center of the body is doing? How do we conjure these qualities of motion that compel a listener to move, to not use the hands, but move the body?
That feels like a paradox to me—or at least a puzzle, or some kind of challenge. How is it that we, through the actions of our hands, can summon the actions of a body—or a multitude of bodies, even? How do we conjure pulse? What that means is that how we play together is by connecting body-to-body in that way—connecting spine to spine. The hands are just kind of—well, they're extremities. So there's sort of the result of deeper connection. The actions of the hands and their apparent coordination amongst all six is the result of something much deeper. And because of that, they can have, like I said, a disparate quality—almost a seeming disunity—on a certain level and still be connected mysteriously from within.
That allows for a really interesting kind of polyphony—a kind that can have this kind of rough-and-tumble quality. Because it's about things falling. The impulse is previous to it, you know? I guess what I'm saying is that whatever way we're synchronizing internally, sonically, what you hear is merely a reflection of that. The center of the music is somehow not sounded. That's the miraculous, illusory quality of it. I don't if this makes any sense.
Vijay Iyer performing in Berlin in 2016. Photo: Stefan Hoederath/Redferns
It does make sense. Because the way that Bill Evans Trio record fires up—it's a shuffle on the snare here, a piano vamp there, and it's not gelling right off the bat. But then the triangle settles on its base, as it were.
I think my iconic trio music has a different kick to it, maybe. Maybe it has to do with the role of the drummer in particular, as more than an accompanist. I think my iconic trio album is Money Jungle. You know that record?
Yeah. You don't hear them and think, "Wow, these guys have been playing together forever!" or something like that. What you're kind of gripped by is the complex and even contentious relationship among them and how they kind of lurch. The qualities of motion are so intense. There are moments where they're gliding and dancing and there are moments where it feels like combat or something. So, that's one point of reference.
Another point of reference is Ahmad Jamal, Live at the Pershing. Which is so much about groove at play—play in the sense of playing with form and playing with elements. It's not soloistic, for the most part. It's not like, "I'm going to play, then you're going to play. I'm going to comp for you," or something like that. It's actually that they're creating this totality and it keeps breathing and flexing and changing color, changing energy, changing dynamic. So, it's very much a collective enterprise at all times.
Those are two points of reference, but then I also think about rhythm sections, just in general. James Brown's rhythm section, or The Meters. Not piano trio-specific, even. Just how a deep pulse can be expressed in this composite way.
I saw this trio at Jazz Standard back in 2019. It's obvious you, Linda and Tyshawn have wonderful synergy, but I'm curious as to what that synergy is. What do you enjoy about the chemical reaction generated by this specific combination?
I think what anyone wants out of any rhythm section is a certain quality of pulse—a certain sense of drive, what they call "the hookup" between bass and drums, let's say. Often, that has to do with how each one of them relates to the pulse and how maybe that creates a sustained—[clasps index fingers and pulls]. Let the record show that I'm making a weird hand gesture right now—kind of hooked and pulling apart, but somehow hanging together.
So there's something about that balance. It's elusive in the sense that it's not merely like, "Oh, so-and-so plays behind the beat and so-and-so plays on top of the beat." Sometimes it's that, but often, it's a little more nuanced than that.
In any case, there's a real attentiveness to that quality from both of them that I hear in every sound they make together. Like, where are you in relation to time and in relation to pulse, specifically? How are you expressing pulse? How is it being expressed through what you do?
Every sound you make is also rhythm, and every rhythm that you make together sets up a rhythmic relation. So, how is that rhythmic relation being expressed? It pops with that. It has this nice drive and intensity and focus, you know?
The other thing is how they listen, both of them. I've played with Tyshawn for 20 years. He's like family to me. We've had this delightful adventure together for half our lives in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of music-making. Teaching and learning and traveling and eating weird food together and losing our bags. Getting pulled over by security together. All kinds of stuff. There's a deep bond there, and that didn't just come out of nowhere, you know. It didn't just come out because we happened to be in the same place at the same time, or something. It's actually because of how he listens, and how I listen to him listening, and how we relate that way.
It's about his musical memory and how I can attend to that. It's about a certain shared aesthetic, I would say. A certain kind of balance of stillness and wildness. I guess by "wild," I mean a taste for intensity and for even extremes of intensity. Not "wild," per se, because it's not like he does anything that's disordered. Actually, everything he does is generating order. That's one thing I eventually realized in playing with him, is that it's all support. It's all structure, every sound he makes. It's all deeply informed by not just everything that's happening, but by many histories of music-making that he's tapped into.
I've said this elsewhere about him and just about drummers in general. I mean, I've talked a lot about Marcus Gilmore, who I've also worked with for many years. I got to know and work with Ralph Peterson, who I can't believe is gone. I've gotten to know folks like Jeff "Tain" Watts and Jack DeJohnette. And there's Marcus's grandfather, Roy Haynes, who just turned 96!
Getting to know all these incredible drummers—Billy Hart, another—[is a matter of] knowing that they are aware of much more than they're usually given credit for, musically. There's a deep compositional awareness. They're incredible listeners. They hear everything. I'm not exaggerating! Andrew Cyrille, another example. I've had great experiences making music with him.
There's kind of a perspicuous vantage on everything—an awareness of everything. Channeling that, there's a deeply informed and informational way of playing. It's not just playing a groove or playing a pattern. It's actually where you work with sound to complement and lift up what's happening. To conduct the energy of the entire ensemble even while not being given credit for doing so. There's a profundity to the art of drumming that is way beyond the way it's usually characterized, you know? Tyshawn is one of the exemplars of that incredible artistry. That incredible awareness and creative, life-sustaining kind of magic.
Tyshawn Sorey performing in Chicago in 2014. Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
With Linda, she came to the U.S. in the aughts—sometime in the early 2000s. I remember hearing that she had done a thesis on Dave Holland and did a bunch of transcriptions of him playing with different drummers. I sort of learned more about her; she had really gone in deep on something. I always appreciated that.
I remember talking to Ambrose [Akinmusire] about her because her first album that she released, Entry, was a trio with Ambrose and Obed Calvaire. That was a bold step, first of all, for a bass player to make an album as a leader at that age. She was probably in her early twenties. And to make it an odd format—there aren't that many records that are trumpet, bass and drums. Maybe a Bill Dixon record somewhere? I don't know—not many things.
So, yeah, the transparency of that. I remember Ambrose saying, "Look, she really has that type of ear. She can hear on a really high level." I knew how Ambrose could hear, which is not that different from how Tyshawn hears, in the sense of, again, that deep awareness of everything. When someone plays something, there's no mystery about what it is. There could be a mystery about why it is. [Laughs.]
But her ability to hear on that level, and then her real detail and care with timekeeping and her awareness of and relation to pulse, it's like micro-detail. And then just getting around on the instrument with real ease. I've heard her in all kinds of contexts, you know. She's got a great career as a composer and a bandleader, but I've also heard her play with Kenny Barron, with Pat Metheny, with all kinds of folks. She always keeps things aloft, and I've played with her many times over the years in lots of different ad hoc contexts.
I just found a photo of her and me and Becca Stevens. We did a couple of trio sets, just the three of us. There's a time when she and I and E.J. Strickland played in a quintet with Ravi Coltrane and Dave Douglas. There's an improvised session we did at The Stone with Imani Izuri and DJ Val Jeanty—DJ and Linda and me and this vocalist. And then there's all the stuff we did at Banff together. Somewhere, there's a recording of her and me and Grégoire Maret, the harmonica player. There's all these wild aggregates where she just holds down the center of things with such clarity and ferocity. It was in the course of doing all these ad-hoc, thrown-together things that we realized we already knew how to play together.
I set up a trio set for us at the Standard, probably the first one you came to, in early '19. Then we were at Banff again that summer, August 2019, and it was toward the end of that program that we just wanted to blow off steam. We said, "Hey, let's just play a trio set. It'll just be for the students. It won't be for an audience or anything," just to do it. Just to serve the music and be a community, you know.
It felt so alive. It had this flash of "Yeah, this is a thing." It had its own truth to it. You can't deny it. Right then, I just said, "You guys want to make a record?" and a few months later, we recorded it. I think what that sound is has to do with that excitement. That spark of possibility combined with that level of awareness that the two of them have about all the musical structure and information. And then both of them as composers having a dynamic sense of what can happen.
Linda May Han Oh performing in Monterey, California, in 2017. Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
In a recent Zoom panel, you talked about the cover—the Statue of Liberty triangulated by the three musicians' names. Given that the three names recall three different racial descents, they serve as commentary on the nature of American identity. I'm sure the events of this week gave you pause on the otherness that Americans of different colors and backgrounds are feeling.
It isn't just that it happened. It is that, but it's also what that police captian from Cherokee County said, and also the way it was handled by the media. That's when you go, "This is all connected." The idea that some white kid—not kid, a young white man—who's disgruntled about whatever, his own supposed sex addiction, can blame the most vulnerable people and then murder them. And then that can be treated as almost normal. Almost excusable. The discourse around it was "Well, he had a bad day."
And then we keep seeing pictures of him and his name constantly essentially glorifying and humanizing him. "He went to church." That whole pattern of humanizing the white male killer, and meantime, I had dig around to find even a mention of any of the names of the victims.
You described Tyshawn as "family." What role does communing with this chosen family and making music together play in that healing process and finding a future through the wreckage?
It is the sound of a certain kind of communion. That was Don Cherry's phrase: "complete communion," which means not just with one another, but with something larger and deeper than any of us. And it's been so long since we've been able to do that, really, in any kind of regular way.
Being able to put this album now is to say, "We can still do this. We can still be among each other in a caring way, in a way that's about listening and co-construction and facing the world together." That's basically what it means to me.
Because the lead single was "Children of Flint," people might be tempted to think this is all topical material. But from what I understand, some of it is simply material from your wheelhouses. Cole Porter's "Night and Day" comes to mind. What common thread is there between all these tunes, if any?
I wouldn't say it was forced into any kind of common theme. The impulse to make the record was that we felt like as a band. At that level, it's like, "It doesn't matter what we play, actually. Let's just document something so we can remember this sound and share it with people."
That said, then it was a certain kind of curatorial exercise to me to pull together material that I felt like playing with them—that I felt could be given a certain kind of life and context. I wanted to know what it would sound like. I wanted to hear it. I wanted to hear us playing this music, you know? I wanted to hear the two of them take on some of this material.
And then some of it was new. "Children of Flint" was written that fall. "Retrofit" was written that summer. There was another new piece I didn't end up including on the album. "Allomothers," is relatively new, I guess. So, it was about just gathering together a set of stimuli for us, a set of impulses: "Hey, let's work with this. Let's bring this into being."
Some of that involved some studying. Geri Allen's "Drummer's Song" is a piece that you have to study to play. And it wasn't just that it was "Night and Day;" it's that it was Joe Henderson's version of "Night and Day" from Inner Urge. There's something different about that version. [Laughs].
He reharmonizes it in a way that's not exactly Coltrane-esque, but something in that family. [John] Coltrane went through a period in the late '50s where everything had what are called "Giant Steps" changes. "Countdown" is actually his version of Miles Davis' "Tune Up," but with a whole bunch of extra chords stuck in there to make it almost fiendishly hard! What does that elicit from you? There's an etude-like quality in the sense of working through some set of challenges to elicit something new from you. I mean you, the musician. You, the music-maker. You, the improviser.
That's basically what Joe Henderson did with "Night and Day," so it was that. It didn't matter that it was "Night and Day," actually. It mattered that it was that impulse, that transformative gesture that Joe Henderson brought to it. And then it mattered that it was that band playing it. Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, Joe Henderson. That band just sailing through that really wild arrangement.
Then there was, like, "Let's study that," because we study what other musicians have done. We study it hard. We put in the time. That's what both of them do just as a matter of course. What that means is I can just say, "Hey, let's try this," and within a matter of minutes, Linda has learned it. [Laughs.] Beyond that, it's like I'm learning from her about it.
With my material, it was really curatorial over a span of 20 years' worth of compositions of mine, "Configurations" being the oldest and "Children of Flint" being the newest.
It's not that any particular album is political, but at almost any moment in my musical life, I'm listening to what's happening outside and that is informing what I do, why I do it and with whom I do it. And for whom I do it. The first two pieces on the album are probably the most "political." But it's more like each of them was serving a specific purpose—serving a specific cause. And by serving, I mean literally serving. Trying to support an existing movement on the ground.
March is Music In Our Schools Month, and I wanted to talk about the intersection between jazz—or, Black American music, whatever language you want to use—and academia. You're in academia, Tyshawn's in academia, I don't remember if Linda is…
Yeah, she teaches at Berklee, actually.
There you go. I don't remember when jazz education began in the U.S., but it wasn't around in the '50s or '60s, as far as I know. Musicians were learning from each other—teacher to student and peer to peer. Now, in many ways, this music lives in universities. Can you talk about that connection and how it can be helpful or problematic in some respect?
[Long silence.] Can I? [Laughs.]
I don't know if I can. I think in both Tyshawn's and my case, neither of us pretends to be a jazz anything in academia. We just show up as ourselves—as the artists that we are. He's a composition professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I started a doctoral program at Harvard called Creative Practices and Critical Inquiry.
I never use the word "jazz" in any of my courses. That's not to say we don't study this history, but I also appreciate the history of people rejecting the word "jazz." That's a deep history. That's a 100-year-old history of people pushing back against the confining labeling impulse of the music business, which has historically been a white business—a white male-run business.
So when Black musicians have sought to define their work on their own terms, we have to listen to that history. In the '60s, people started using the phrase "creative music." In the '60s! That's more than half a century ago, right? That label's been around for a long time, alongside and pushing back against the label of jazz.
Also, there's this history of music-makers creating music on their own terms, sometimes in a way that you can't categorize. If you listen to Bud Powell's piece "Glass Enclosure," you can't listen to that and say, "Well, that's a jazz tune," or something like that. You have to crack open all categories to parse it, even—to make sense of it.
Or a moment like "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday. Very intently exploding the category and defying her own audiences to think about the world outside, you know? And to think about their own relationship to it and their own complicity with it. I would call that something like experimental music, because it's doing something that pushes on every dimension of the category and kind of explodes the frame.
There are all kinds of examples. Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Marion Brown. Another example. Or Alice Coltrane's recordings. On at least one of her albums, she recorded an entire section of "Rite of Spring." What's that doing on an Alice Coltrane record? What is her relationship to that history? Why is she evoking a Russian composer, a piece from 1913?
I think these categories keep undoing themselves if you really pay attention to what an artist has been doing all this time.
Right. So, how do we teach that? The fraught history of the category, the forces that shaped it and continue to shape it, and the choices artists have made, often in defiance of categorization and larger systems of oppression? It's about looking at books like Amiri Baraka's Blues People, Angela Davis' Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Gerald Horne's Jazz and Justice, Robin Kelley's book on Thelonious Monk, Art Taylor's Notes and Tones and George Lewis' book on the AACM. Understanding how what it really is is a history of social movements, actually.
If you look at the "creative music movement," as Sarita McCoy Gregory called it, what was it that Black musicians were doing in the '60s and '70s, around the time of the Black Power movement? They were self-organizing and making music on their own terms, often starting their own labels, their own venues, their own presenting organizing, their own artist collectives.
If you go to jazz school, like the Manhattan School of Music or something, you don't learn about any of this because it defies the logic of jazz education. Jazz education as we know it today was an entrepreneurial venture by white men in the '60s and '70s.
So when you look at the "Real Book" that was made at that period, that I had in the '80s when I was in high school, what did it have in it? And what didn't it have in it? It didn't have any music by Mary Lou Williams or Nina Simone or Alice Coltrane or Lil Hardin. It didn't have anything you would associate with the avant-garde or the Black Power movement, like Archie Shepp or Albert Ayler. Certainly no Cecil Taylor. Maybe one or two Ornette Coleman tunes from the '50s. So it basically ignored all these pivotal Black women and pivotal Black activists from the '60s.
Instead, all the Black music it contains is from the past. Some Coltrane tunes. Some Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter tunes from the '50s and '60s. A lot of Duke Ellington, Mingus. But then all the "modern music" is by white men. Chick Corea. Gary Burton. Steve Swallow. Dave Holland. Keith Jarrett. They're all in there, right?
Why are they all in the "Real Book" and why aren't any of these other things? It's stuff like that. We have to historicize what we call "jazz education" and understand it to be this weird phenomenon that emerged in a certain moment and then retold the history of the music in a way that erased more than it retained.
I like that a lot. The idea of telling the story again more accurately and inclusively, rather than locking it in an ivory tower or excluding anybody.
Well, really, hearing it from artists. We had Henry Threadgill in our class. [Saxophonist and composer] Yosvany [Terry] and I co-teach a course this term. We bore witness to his whole life of music-making that starts before any of that happened.
We also had Cécile McLorin Salvant there. Hearing them back-to-back was like, "Well, they're dealing with similar constraints, and they both have a quirky, defiant streak, and they're both resisting categorization." They're in very different phases in their lives—they're separated by close to 50 years.
We start to rethink the history from the ground up and try to account for what has been… not forgotten, but sort of left out of the standard narrative. The other side of it is like, "Help people make music together with a detailed understanding of what's happened before and what's possible." But also let people invent, you know? Let people invent together.
I've heard people make some unprecedented stuff, and if you support that process, then you're actually stimulating—or not just stimulating, you're recreating something like what it was like when these artists we know and love came together 50 and 60 and 70 and 80 years ago without the burden of a genre to tell them what to do.
Photo: David Redfern/Redferns
10 Lesser-Known Joni Mitchell Songs You Need To Hear
In celebration of Joni Mitchell's 80th birthday, here are 10 essential deep cuts from the nine-time GRAMMY winner and MusiCares Person Of The Year.
Having rebounded from a 2015 aneurysm, the nine-time GRAMMY winner and 17-time nominee has made a thrilling and inspiring return to the stage. Many of us have seen the images of Mitchell, enthroned in a mockup of her living room, exuding a regal air, clutching a wolf’s-head cane.
Again, this adulation is apt. But adulation can have a flattening effect, especially for those new to this colossal artist. At the MusiCares Person Of The Year event honoring Mitchell ahead of the 2022 GRAMMYs, concert curators Jon Batiste — and Mitchell ambassador Brandi Carlile — illustrated the breadth of her Miles Davis-esque trajectory, of innovation after innovation.
At the three-hour, star-studded bash, the audience got "The Circle Game" and "Big Yellow Taxi" and the other crowd pleasers. But there were also cuts from Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Night Ride Home, and other dark horses. There were selections that even eluded this Mitchell fan’s knowledge, like "Urge for Going." Batiste and Carlile did their homework.
But what of the general listening public — do they grasp Mitchell’s multitudes like they might her male peers, like Bob Dylan? Is her album-by-album evolution to be poured over with care and nuance, or is she Blue to you?
Of course, everyone’s entitled to commune with the greats at their own pace. However, if you’re out to plumb Mitchell’s depths beyond a superficial level, her 80th birthday — which falls on Nov. 8 — is the perfect time to get to know this still-underrated singer/songwriter legend better. Here are 10 deeper Mitchell cuts to start that journey, into this woman of heart and mind.
"The Gallery" (Clouds, 1969)
Mitchell blew everyone’s minds when David Crosby discovered her in a small club in South Florida. Her 1968 debut, Song to a Seagull, contains key songs from that initial flashpoint, like "Michael from Mountains" and "The Dawntreader."
Mitchell’s artistic vision truly coalesced on her second album, Clouds. Although the production is a little wan and bare-boned, Clouds contains a handful of all-time classics, including "Chelsea Morning," "The Fiddle and the Drum" and the epochal "Both Sides, Now."
That said, "The Gallery," which kicks off side two, belongs at the top of the heap. There remain rumblings that it’s about Leonard Cohen. But whatever the case, Mitchell’s excoriating burst of a pretentious cad’s bubble ("And now you're flying back this way/ Like some lost homing pigeon/ They've monitored your brain, you say/ And changed you with religion") remains incisive, with a gorgeous melody to boot.
(And, it must be said: "That Song About the Midway," also found on Clouds, is a kiss-off to Croz, whom she enjoyed a fleeting fling with and a must-hear.)
"Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" (For the Roses, 1972)
If you think you’ve got a grasp of Mitchell’s early talents, a new archival release proves they were more prodigious than you could imagine.
Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) kicks off with a solo version of "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire." And as great as the studio version is, from 1972’s For the Roses, this version, from a session with Crosby and Graham Nash, arguably eats its lunch.
While Neil Young’s "The Needle and the Damage Done" has proved to be the epochal junkie-warning song of the 1970s, Mitchell’s song about the same subject easily goes toe to toe with it.
Images like "Pawn shops crisscrossed and padlocked/ Corridors spit on prayers and pleas" and "Red water in the bathroom sink/ Fever and the scum brown bowl" are quietly harrowing. Via Mitchell’s acoustic guitar, they’re underpinned by downcast, harmonically teeming blues.
"Sweet Bird" (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975)
The Hissing of Summer Lawns is an unquestionable masterstroke of Mitchell’s fusion era.
Highlights are genuinely everywhere within Lawns — from the swinging and swaying "In France They Kiss on Main Street," to the Dr. Dre-predicting "The Jungle Line," to the title track, a hallucinatory lament for a trophy wife.
But amid these manifold high points, don’t miss "Sweet Bird," the penultimate track on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, tucked between "Harry’s House/Centerpiece" and "Shadows and Light."
"Give me some time/ I feel like I'm losing mine/ Out here on this horizon line," Mitchell sings through her dusky soprano, as the ECM-like atmosphere seems to whirl heavenward. "With the earth spinning/ And the sky forever rushing/ No one knows/ They can never get that close/ Guesses at most."
"A Strange Boy" (Hejira, 1976)
Much like The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira — retroactively, and rightly, canonized as one of Mitchell’s very best albums — is nearly flawless from front to back.
The highs are so high — "Amelia," "Hejira," "Refuge of the Roads" — that almost-as-good tracks might slip through the cracks. "A Strange Boy," about an airline steward with Peter Pan syndrome she briefly linked with.
"He was psychologically astute and severely adolescent at the same time," Mitchell said later. "There was something seductive and charming about his childlike qualities, but I never harbored any illusions about him being my man. He was just a big kid in the end."
As "A Strange Boil" smolders and begins to catch flame, Mitchell delivers the clincher line: "I gave him clothes and jewelry/ I gave him my warm body/ I gave him power over me."
"Otis and Marlena" (Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, 1977)
One of Mitchell’s most challenging and thorny albums, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is one of Mitchell’s least accessible offerings from her most expressionist era. (Mitchell in blackface on the cover, as a character named Art Nouveau, doesn’t exactly grease the wheels — to put it mildly.)
But across the sprawling and head-scratching tracklisting — which includes a seven-minute percussion interlude, in "The Tenth World" — are certain tunes that belong in the Mitchell time capsule.
One is "Otis and Marlena," one of the funniest and most evocative moments on an album full of strange wonders. Mitchell paints a picture of a cheap vacation scene, rife with "rented girls" and "the grand parades of cellulite" against a "neon-mercury vapor-stained Miami sky."
And the kicker of a chorus juxtaposes this dowdy Floridan outing with the realities up north, e.g. the 1977 Hanafi Siege: "They’ve come for fun and sun," MItchell sings, "while Muslims stick up Washington."
"A Chair in the Sky" (Mingus, 1979)
While Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is rather glowering and unwelcoming, Mingus is a cracked, cubist realm that’s fully inhabitable.
Initially conceived as a collaboration between Mitchell and four-time GRAMMY nominee Charles Mingus, it ended up being a eulogy: Mingus died before the album could be completed.
Despite its lopsided nature — it contains five spoken-word "raps," as well as a true oddity in the eerie, braying "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey" — Mingus remains rewarding almost 45 years later. And the Mingus-composed "A Chair in the Sky," with lyrics by Mitchell, is arguably its apogee.
Like the rest of Hejira, "A Chair in the Sky" features Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, as well as the one and only Herbie Hancock; this ethereal, ascendant track demonstrates the magic of when this phenomenal ensemble truly gels.
"Moon at the Window" (Wild Things Run Fast, 1982)
In Mitchell’s trajectory, Wild Things Run Fast represents the conclusion of her fusion phase, in favor of a more rock-driven sound — and, with it, the sunset of her second epoch.
Following Wild Things Run Fast would be 1985’s critically panned Dog Eat Dog and 1988’s even more assailed Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. But for every arguable misstep, like the guitar-squealing "You Dream Flat Tires," there’s a baby that shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater.
One is "Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody," another is "Ladies’ Man," and perhaps best of all is the luminous "Moon at the Window," where bassist/husband Larry Klein and Shorter wrap Mitchell’s sumptuous lyric, and melody, in spun gold.
"Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)" (Night Ride Home, 1991)
At the dawn of the grunge era, Mitchell found her way back to her atmospheric best, with the gorgeously written, performed and produced Night Ride Home.
While its follow-up, Turbulent Indigo, won the GRAMMY for Best Pop Album (and is certainly worth savoring), Night Ride Home might have more to offer those who were enraptured by the majestic Hejira, and thirsted for a continuation of its aural universe.
The equally excellent "Come in From the Cold" is the one that has ended up on Mitchell setlists in the 2020s, but "Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)" is even more transportive.
Despite the early 1900s sonics, "Passion Play" feels ageless and eternal, tapped into some Jungian collective unconscious as a wizened Mitchell posits, "Who’re you going to get to do your dirty work/ When all the slaves are free?"
"No Apologies" (Taming the Tiger, 1998)
If Night Ride Home sounds less played than conjured Taming the Tiger is like the steam that twists and disperses from its broiling, potent stew.
As much ambience pervaded Night Ride Home, Hejira and the like, Taming the Tiger is the only album in Mitchell’s estimable catalog to feel ambient.
Much of this is owed to Mitchell’s employment of the Roland VG-8 virtual guitar system, which allowed her to change her byzantine guitar tunings at the push of a button; the ensuing sound is a suggestion of a guitar, which enhances Taming the Tiger’s diaphanous and ephemeral feel.
"No Apologies" is something of a centerpiece, where Mitchell sings of war and a dilapidated homeland, sailing forth on a cloud of Greg Liestz’s sonorous lap steel.
"Bad Dreams" (Shine, 2007)
Mitchell has always cast a jaundiced eye at the music industry machine, so it’s no wonder she hasn’t released a new album in 16 years. (Although, as she revealed to Rolling Stone, she’s eyeing a small-ensemble album of standards with her old mates in the jazz scene.)
But if Shine ends up being her swan song, it’d be a fine farewell. "Bad Dreams" — written around a quote from Mitchell’s 3-year-old grandson: "Bad dreams are good / In the great plan" — is impossibly moving.
Therein, Mitchell considers an Edenic tableau as opposed to our modern world, where "these lesions once were lakes." Movingly, the song’s final lines accept reality for what it is ("Who will come to save the day? / Mighty Mouse? Superman?") rather than what she wishes it could be.
With that, Mitchell’s studio discography — as we know it today — reaches its conclusion. But although the artist is only fully getting her flowers today, we’ve only scratched the surface of the gifts she’s bestowed upon us.
Photo: David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images
5 Less-Discussed Miles Davis Albums You Need To Know, From 'Water Babies' To 'We Want Miles'
Despite not being mentioned nearly as much as 'Kind of Blue' or 'Bitches Brew,' these five albums are highly recommended — some for Davis neophytes, some for diehards.
Joe Farnsworth couldn’t believe what he was watching. The leading straight-ahead drummer was sitting with the revered tenor saxophonist George Coleman, and a Miles Davis documentary happened to come on TV.
“This documentary went from Coltrane straight to Sam Rivers,” Farnsworth told LondonJazz News in 2023 — referring to the tenormen the eight-time GRAMMY winner and 32-time nominee employed in his so-called First and Second Great Quintets, respectively.
“What happened to ‘Four’ & More? What happened to My Funny Valentine? What happened to Seven Steps to Heaven?” Farnsworth remembered wondering. “Not a mention, man.”
Granted, Coleman’s tenure represented a transitional period for Davis’s group; his choice of tenorist would solidify in 1964 with the arrival of the 12-time GRAMMY winner and 23-time nominee Wayne Shorter. With pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams as the rhythm section — 18 GRAMMYs between them — the result was one of jazz’s all-time classic groups.
But Farnsworth’s point is well taken: in the recorded canon, jazz tends to lionize the rulebook-shredders and boundary-shatterers, at the expense of merely excellent work. But there’s not only room for both; in order to exist, the former requires the latter, and vice versa.
And given that Davis is, in many respects, the quintessential jazz musician, this wholly applies to him and his formidable discography — where the capital-P pivotal ones, like Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, get the majority of the ink.
After you check out Seven Steps to Heaven and the like — and absorb Coleman’s important contributions to Davis’s story — take a spin through five more Davis albums that deserve more attention.
Water Babies (rec. 1967-1968, rel. 1976)
Axiomatically, anything Davis’ Second Great Quintet — and keyboardist Chick Corea and bassist Dave Holland, to boot — laid to tape is worth hearing.
But Water Babies should be of interest to any serious Miles fan because it reveals the connective tissue between Davis’ acoustic and electric eras.
The first three tracks, “Water Babies,” “Capricorn” and “Sweet Pea” — Shorter compositions all — were retrieved from the cutting room floor circa 1968’s Nerfiti. (Tellingly, that turned out to be Davis’ final fully acoustic album.)
Tracks four and five — “Two Faced” and “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony” — add Corea and Holland to the mix; on electric piano, Corea adds a celestial drift to the proceedings. For reasons both
Miles in the Sky (1968)
Miles Davis and George Benson on record? It happened — lucky us. The 10-time GRAMMY-winning, 25-time nominated guitar genius can be found on two tracks from the 1979 outtakes compendium Circle in the Round, and on “Paraphernalia” from Miles in the Sky.
While Water Babies is something of a dark horse for the heads, Miles in the Sky — also featuring the Second Great Quintet —is a fleet, aerodynamic stunner and one of the most unfairly slept-on entries in his discography.
Outside of the Shorter-penned “Paraphernalia,” Miles in the Sky features two Davis tunes in “Stuff” and “Country Son,” and a Williams composition in “Black Comedy.”
It’s sterling stuff, right at the tipping point for fusion — and its obfuscation says nothing about its quality, but speaks volumes as to the volume of masterpieces in Davis’ discography.
Agharta (1965) and Pangaea (1976)
Two primo dispatches from Davis’ experimental years, capturing two concerts from the same evening in Osaka, Agharta and Pangaea are amoebic, undulating wonders.
Across the nearly 100-minute Agharta and 88-minute Pangaea, Davis and company — including alto and soprano saxophonist Sonny Fortune, and guitarists Reggie Lucas and Pate Cosey — conjure everything we expect from electric Miles.
Abstracted drones, worldbeat textures, Davis’ trumpet funneled through twisted wah-wah: check, check, and check. One critic characterized the music as “ambient yet thrashing,” compared it to “Fela Kuti jamming with Can,” and identified hints of Stockhausen, and nailed it on all three counts.
Fans of thick, heavy, electrified Miles typically reach for Bitches Brew or On the Corner first. But if those don’t completely whet your thirst, there’s a whole lot where that came from.
And given that Davis put down the horn, ravaged by illness, for six years afterward, Agharta and Pangaea represent something of a culmination of Davis as the intrepid deconstructionist.
We Want Miles (1982)
Despite what you may have heard, ‘80s Miles — his final full decade on earth, and the one where he drew heavily from pop sounds and songs — is nothing to sniff at.
From 1981’s The Man with the Horn to 1983’s Star People to 1989’s Aura, Davis produced a number of rough-hewn gems. And despite Davis’ bulldozed health during its recording, the live We Want Miles, recorded in ‘81, is among them.
Despite requiring oxygen between songs and wearing a rubber corset to keep playing, Davis is in fine form.
We Want Miles proves that Miles never lost his ability to produce inspired, inspiring work — no matter what his failing body or, erm, ‘80s textures threw at it.
Davis passed away in 1991, and we’ll never see his like again — so savor everything he gave us, whether illuminated or obscured by shadow.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: John Rogers
10 Albums That Showcase The Deep Connection Between Jazz And Electronic Music: Herbie Hancock, Flying Lotus, Caroline Davis & More
Jazz has long stretched the parameters of harmony, melody and rhythm — and when electronic music flows into it, the possibilities are even more limitless.
A year and change before his 2022 death, the eminent saxophonist Pharoah Sanders released one final dispatch. That album was Promises, a meditative, collaborative album with British electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Promises swung open the gates for jazz and electronic music's convergence.. Not only was it an out-of-nowhere critical smash, earning "universal acclaim" as per Metacritic; it acted as an accessible entrypoint for the hipster set and beyond.
As Pitchfork put it, "One of the year's most memorable melodies consists of a seven-note refrain repeated, with slight variation, for more than three quarters of an hour." (They declared Promises the fourth best album of the year; its neighbors included Turnstile; Tyler, the Creator; and Jazmine Sullivan.)
Since then, jazz and electronic music have continued their developments, with or without each other. But Promises struck a resonant chord, especially during the pandemic years; and when Sanders left us at 81, the music felt like his essence lingering in our midst.
Whether you're aware of that crossover favorite or simply curious about this realm, know that the rapprochement between jazz and electronic idioms goes back decades and decades.
Read on for 10 albums that exemplify this genre blend — including two released this very year.
Miles Davis - Live-Evil (1971)
As the 1960s gave away to the '70s, Miles Davis stood at his most extreme pivot point — between post-bop and modal classics and undulating, electric exploits. Straddling the studio and the stage, Live-Evil is a monument to this period of thunderous transformation.
At 100 minutes, the album's a heaving, heady listen — its dense electronic textures courtesy of revered keyboardists Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, as well as the combustible electric guitarist John McLaughlin. The swirling, beatless "Nem Un Talvez" is arguably Live-Evil's most demonstrative example of jazz meets electronic.
For the uninitiated as per Davis' heavier, headier work, Live-Evil is something of a Rosetta stone. From here, head backward in the eight-time GRAMMY winner and 32-time nominee's catalog — to In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson.
Or, move forward to On the Corner, Get Up With It or Aura. Wherever you move in his later discography, plenty of jazz fans wish they could hear this game-changing music for the first time.
Herbie Hancock - Future Shock (1983)
In the early 1970s, Herbie Hancock delivered a one-two punch of fusion classics — 1973's Head Hunters and 1974's Thrust — to much applause. The ensuing years told a different story.
While the 14-time GRAMMY winner and 34-time nominee's ensuing live albums tended to be well-regarded, his studio work only fitfully caught a break from the critics.
However, in 1983, Hancock struck gold in that regard: the inspired Future Shock wittily and inventively drew from electro-funk and instrumental hip-hop. Especially its single, "Rockit" — shot through with a melodic earworm, imbued with infectious DJ scratches.
Sure, it's of its time — very conspicuously so. But with hip-hop's 50th anniversary right in our rearview, "Rockit" sounds right on time.
Tim Hagans - Animation • Imagination (1999)
If electric Miles is your Miles, spring for trumpeter Tim Hagans' Animation • Imagination for an outside spin on that aesthetic.
The late, great saxophonist Bob Belden plays co-pilot here; he wrote four of its nine originals and produced the album. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, synthesist Scott Kinsen, bassist David Dyson, and drummer Billy Kilson also underpin these kinetic, exploratory tunes.
The engine of Animation • Imagination is its supple and infectious sense of groove, whether in breakbeat ("Animation/Imagination"), boom bap ("Slo Mo") or any other form.
This makes the drumless moments, like "Love's Lullaby," have an indelible impact; when the drums drop out, inertia propels you forward. And on the electronics-swaddled "Snakes Kin," the delayed-out percussion less drives the music than rattles it like an angry hive.
Kurt Rosenwinkel - Heartcore (2003)
From his language to his phrasing to his liquid sound, Rosenwinkel's impact on the contemporary jazz guitar scene cannot be overstated: on any given evening in the West Village, you can probably find a New Schooler laboriously attempting to channel him.
Rosenwinkel's appeared on more than 150 albums, so where to begin with such a prodigious artist? One gateway is Heartcore, his first immersion into electronic soundscapes as a bandleader.
Throughout, the laser-focused tenor saxophonist Mark Turner is like another half of his sound. On "Our Secret World," his earthiness counter-weighs Rosenwinkel's iridescent textures; on "Blue Line," the pair blend into and timbrally imitate each other.
Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest co-produced Heartcore; it's as unclassifiable as the MC's most intrepid, fusionary works. "This record — it's jazz," Rosenwinkel has said. "And it's much more."
Graham Haynes - Full Circle (2007)
Cornetist, flugelhornist and trumpeter Graham Haynes may be the son of Roy Haynes, who played drums with Bird and Monk and remains one of the final living godfathers of bebop. But if he's ever faced pressure to box himself into his father's aesthetic, he's studiously disregarded it.
Along with saxophone great Steve Coleman, he was instrumental in the M-Base collective, which heralded new modes of creative expression in jazz — a genre tag it tended to reject altogether.
For Haynes, this liberatory spirit led to inspired works like Full Circle. It shows how he moved between electronic and hip-hop spheres with masterly ease, while being beholden to neither. Featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Shahzad Ismaily, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and other top-flight accompanists, Full Circle is wormholes within wormholes.
Therein, short-circuiting wonders like "1st Quadrant" rub against "Quartet Circle" and "In the Cage of Grouis Bank," which slouch toward ambient, foreboding kosmische.
Craig Taborn - Junk Magic (2004)
Steeped in brutal metal as much as the AACM, the elusive, resplendent pianist Craig Taborn is one of the most cutting-edge practitioners of "creative music." Some of his work resembles jazz, some is uncategorizably far afield.
Strains of electronic music run through Taborn's entire catalog. And his Junk Magic project, which began with his 2004 album of the same name, is a terrific gateway drug to this component of his artistry.
Junk Magic has a haunted toyshop quality; tracks like "Prismatica," "Bodies at Rest and in Motion" and "The Golden Age" thrum with shadowy, esoteric energy.
If these strange sounds resonate with you, 2020's sinewy Compass Confusion — released under the Junk Magic alias — is a logical next step. So is 2019's Golden Valley is Now, an electronics-inflected work of head-spinning propulsion and kineticism.
Flying Lotus - You're Dead! (2014)
Spanning spiritual jazz, devotional music, the avant-garde, and so much more, Alice Coltrane has belatedly gotten her flowers as a musical heavyweight; she and her sainted husband were equal and parallel forces.
Coltrane's grandnephew, Steven Bingley-Ellison — better known as Flying Lotus — inherited her multidimensional purview.
In the late 2000s, the GRAMMY-winning DJ, rapper and producer made waves with envelope-pushing works like Los Angeles; regarding his synthesis of jazz, electronic and hip-hop, 2014's You're Dead marks something of a culmination.
Flying Lotus was in stellar company on You're Dead!, from Kendrick Lamar to Snoop Dogg to Herbie Hancock and beyond; tracks like "Tesla," "Never Catch Me" and "Moment of Hesitation" show that these forms aren't mutually exclusive, but branches of the same tree.
Brad Mehldau - Finding Gabriel (2019)
As per the Big Questions, pianist Brad Mehldau is much like many of us: "I believe in God, but do not identify with any of the monotheistic religions specifically." But this hasn't diluted his searching nature: far from it.
In fact, spirituality has played a primary role in the GRAMMY winner and 13-time nominee's recent work. His 2022 album Jacob's Ladder dealt heavily in Biblical concepts — hence the title — and shot them through with the prog-rock ethos of Yes, Rush and Gentle Giant.
Where Jacob's Ladder is appealingly nerdy and top-heavy, its spiritual successor, 2019's Finding Gabriel, feels rawer and more eye-level, its jagged edges more exposed; Mehldau himself played a dizzying array of instruments, including drums and various synths.
The archetypal imagery is foreboding, as on "The Garden"; the Trump-era commentary is forthright, as on "The Prophet is a Fool." And its sense of harried tension is gorgeously released on the title track.
All this searching and striving required music without guardrails — a marriage of jazz and electronic music, in both styles' boundless reach.
Caroline Davis' Alula - Captivity (2023)
Caroline Davis isn't just an force on the New York scene; she's a consummate conceptualist.
The saxophonist and composer's work spans genres and even media; any given presentation might involve evocative dance, expansive set design, incisive poetry, or flourishing strings. She's spoken of writing music based on tactility and texture, with innovative forms of extended technique.
This perspicuous view has led to a political forthrightness: her Alula project's new album, Captivity, faces down the horrific realities of incarceration and a broken criminal justice system.
Despite the thematic weight, this work of advocacy is never preachy or stilted: it feels teeming and alive. This is a testament not only to jazz's adaptability to strange, squelching electronics, but its matrix of decades-old connections to social justice.
Within these oblong shapes and textures, Davis has a story to tell — one that's life or death.
Jason Moran/BlankFor.ms/Marcus Gilmore - Refract (2023)
At this point, it's self-evident how well these two genres mesh. And pianist Jason Moran and drummer Marcus Gilmore offer another fascinating twist: tape loops.
For a new album, Refract, the pair — who have one GRAMMY and three nominations between them — partnered with the tape loop visionary Tyler Gilmore, a.k.a. BlankFor.ms.
The seed of the project was with BlankFor.ms; producer Sun Chung had broached the idea that he work with leading improvisational minds. In the studio, BlankFor.ms acted on a refractory basis, his loops commenting on, shaping and warping Moran and Gilmore's playing.
As Moran poetically put it in a statement, "I have always longed for an outside force to manipulate my piano song and drag the sound into a cistern filled with soft clay."
The line on jazz is that it's an expression of freedom. But when it comes to chips and filters and oscillators, it can always be a little more unbound.