The Secret History of American Popular Music

This is going to be one of the musical events of the year: starting at midnight tonight, WKCR is honoring the centennial of Sun Ra with non-stop music through May 25.

What makes this so important is that Ra was both prolific and obscure, and there are bound to be recordings from the archives that are nowhere to be found via the direct or after-markets. Check the link above for schedule and listen as much as you can, because nothing and no one explains the weird, contradictory, insane and beautiful roots of American popular music like Sunny does. Here’s the essential primer, and I do mean essential, this needs to be in your music library.


UPDATE: The iTunes store has set up a page with a substantial collection of digital releases. (h/t Hank Shteamer)


Video of the Week

If this isn’t the only bit of Clifford Brown on video, it has to be one of an exceedingly small few.

The profound pleasure of listening to him play is always made impossibly complex by the absolute senselessness of his death. Enjoy as much as you can during his birthday broadcast, October 30, WKCR.

Between Sneezes

This April is the cruelest month for anyone with seasonal allergies, which are the worst I can remember and so bad that people who have never had allergies, now have allergies! One of the minor inconveniences of the New York City climate moving towards sub-tropical, although having that lilac tree fully in bloom on the corner of Court Street and 2nd Place is a benefit.

I recommend you alleviate your suffering by finding shelter and distraction with these, sorry about all the conflicts, but didn’t the man say life was about making choices? Choose wisely:

April 13: Pianist Thomas Schultz is bring a fascinating program of older and futuristic, and fully pianistic, to Weill Recital Hall at 8pm. He will be playing Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Hyo-shin Na and John Cage’s “Two Pieces for Piano” from 1945.

April 14: A run of great looking live music begins at, with a concert from Midori. The next day, Valery Gergiev celebrates Russian Easter with a series of four concerts of music by Prokofiev, all streaming live. Subscribe to view new on-demand additions, like Lohengrin and Robert Wilson’s mesmerizing Pelleas et Mélisande.

Han Bennink LaGuardia


April 17 – April 21 Live, in front of your eyes or just in your ears at home, World’s Greatest Radio Station™ WKCR has made the wonderful decision to hold a Han Bennink festival. Starting precisely at the start of the 17th and running through the 21st, it will be Han Bennink radio — nothing but the best of a particular and important flavor of modern jazz. Bennink is one of the great drummers, and what makes him so is not just his skill and energy as a musician and his imagination and sensitivity as an improviser and accompanist, but his intelligent and warm sense of humor. He brings a sense of loving irreverence and iconoclasm to everything he does, and that’s something that jazz, often deathly self-serious about itself, sorely needs (and why musicians like Bennink, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Lester Bowie have made listeners, critics and other musicians so often uncomfortable in the past). The festival should cover music from Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, Peter Brötzman and Sonny Rollins to his great partnerships with the likes of Steve Lacy, Misha Mengleberg and Roswell Rudd. And if you like what you hear, you can see him live for his 70th birthday concert. The details:

April 21, 7:30pm, The Italian Academy of Columbia University, 1161 Amsterdam Avenue. $25 general admission tickets here.

Agata zubel 4

April 18 & 19 The Austrian Cultural Forum has been producing excellent programs of music this year, and up next is composer and singer Agata Zugel. These free (FREE!) concerts feature a premiere of hers along with music by Kurtag, Sciarrino and other ultra-contemporary voices. For a taste of what an exciting performer Zubel is, go here.

April 19 Pianist Jenny Q Chai will be at Zankel Hall, at 7:30pm. Chai is a powerful and lucid player, already distinguished in the music of Debussy and Ligeti, and an important participant in the ongoing and welcome review of Liszt as a proto-Modernist. This recital program is dense with premieres — Marco Stroppa, Injyun Kim, Ashley Fu-Tsun Wang — and contemporary classics from Messiaen and the above composers, with Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Strongly recommended.

April 19 Just as strongly recommended, and upstairs in Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus will be celebrating the incomparable music of George Crumb, with performances of Variazioni, Echoes of TIme and the River, and Star-Child. That’s where I’ll be.

April 20 That I am Critic-in-Residence at Galapagos Art space, that I am a critic at all, means that I advocate for things that are worth you time and money. And the Prison Life concert from Ransom Wilson’s Le Train Bleu ensemble and Corey Dargel is something I am advocating for as what may be the single most exciting and stimulating concert program in NYC this year. Dargel is premiering songs from the last words of Texas death row inmates and will be handling the vocals for Fred Rzeski’s “Coming Together” and “Attica,” and the night is fully rounded out with Jacob TV’s “Grab It” and Michael Gordon’s seminal “Yo Shakespeare.” My column at Classical TV next week will be an interview with Dargel and Ransom, but plan ahead for this already.

April 20 Opening at the QUAD Cinema is the film “Downtown Express,” staring violinist Philippe Quint, paired with Nellie McKay. What sets this melodrama apart is how integral music, and the life of a musicians, with all its conflicts and difficulties and joys, is to the story.

Quint wil also be playing music at the Upper West Side Apple Store on April 26, at 7pm.

April 20 Music at First, one of the best performance values in NYC, continues their spring season with a double-bill of Florent Ghys and Face The Music. Ghys makes lyrical, dancing music with double-bass, electronics and looping, and Face The Music is a great new music ensemble of teenagers. They’re off the streets and out of the garages and playing Steve Reich and such. For $10!

April 20 More free music, and more Sciarrino, brought to you by the Talea Ensemble and your tax dollars. At the DiMenna Center, 450 West 37th, 8pm, hear Grisey, Adán and Sciarrino’s great Infinito Nero. FREE!

April 21 The final Early Music concert from Miller Theatre this season is the great group Stile Antico, at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at 8pm. They will be singing English and Flemish Renaissance polyphony, and if you know what that means you’ll be buying tickets right now, and if you don’t be advised that it is beautiful music that, in these voices, is incredibly vibrant and human. They also have a fine new record out, Tune thy Musicke to thy Heart, a collection of English sacred music that they perform with the string ensemble Fretwork. This is a quietly lovely recording, the music comes in short pieces, with simple, direct expression, more like the songs we are used to hearing than the abstract beauity of liturgical music sung a cappella. A recommended disc for anyone interested in this era and style of music.

April 25 Gil Morgenstern’s Reflections Series balances the head and the heart, the ears and the mind, and concludes this season with Shades of Ravel, which means Maurice, Bill Evans, Tallieferre, and Amy Beach. WMP Concert Hall, 7:30pm.

April 25 – 28 One of the major events of the year, Robert Ashley’s The Old Man Lives in Concrete four straight nights at Roulette. A previous version of this work was staged at LaMama in 2009, but it has now been reworked, and this is something of an antidote in conception, composition and staging to the Ring. Ashley has produced eight major new sections, and two will be performed each night. Self-evidently important, and self-recommending.

Square Bob

April 28 If you have the strength (I will likely not), get to Alice Tully Hall where Bang on a Can is putting on a show for their 25th year, and their strong new release, Big, Beautiful Dark and Scary. Punchy ideas, brilliant colors, bouncing beats, you know what to expect.

You can always sleep all summer …


Genius Of Modern Music


Make sure you tune in Sunday to WKCR for 24 hours of Thelonious Monk, celebrating his birthday. That means it starts at midnight.

Seeing Patrick Jarenwattananon describe Monk’s music got me thinking. It’s a common description, but I never found his music weird, which perhaps means that I’m weird. Rather, to me Monk, like a lot of the greats, had a genius for the fundamental idea and execution. What sounds weird to people is, I think, the lack of superfluous information they have been conditioned to hear in music in general.

This is what I mean: the basic elements of music (in the broad mainstream of pop, jazz and classical musics of all styles) are harmony, melody and rhythm. And what those are, generally, are the architectural structure of the music, the lead line that proclaims a sense of meaning and purpose, and the way the music both marks and subdivides the passage of time. As music has gone along through the centuries, there has been an accumulation of ideas about how all these three elements can be created and put together, the result being an increase in both sophistication and artifice, a way to do the thing that becomes increasingly gestural and solipsistic (not necessarily bad qualities in music). Monk puts together these three elements, but he does so with so little artifice that, compared to Gershwin or Ellington, he seems ‘weird’ in contrast!

Monk’s music is so basic that his melodies are themselves mostly arpeggiations of his harmonies, which are themselves the most ‘artificial’ part of his sound. He used the extended chords of the Be-Boppers, but kept a lean and dry sound, and did not himself play Be-Bop. Rather, he swung like mad. Monk had some of the strongest swing feel ever. That was how he subdivided time, and the swing is in his melodies (perhaps Ornette’s Harmolodics are really what Monk was doing all along?). He subdivided time in his melodies like Stravinsky, taking some bit that had a four-square beat pattern and repeating part of it as offset from the normal pulse, so that the tune seemed to overspill the edges of the song structure. It’s absolutely sophisticated and also incredibly basic.

That’s why Monk is so hard to play well if you’re not Monk. It’s hard to either get away from or add to the atomic nucleus of his logical structure and still sound like you’re working with the same material. It’s hard not to sound like a poor imitation of the man. The best Monk interpreters were Charlie Rouse, heard here in the quartet, playing “Epistrophy:”

And Steve Lacy on “Shuffle Boil:”

Both Rouse and Lacy were deep into the intervallic possibilities of the saxophone, and intervals are the phonemes of Monk, the spaces that make up his harmonies, his melodies, and his time. The interval gets the pitch from one part of the chord/melody to another, and the interval between one sound and the next is a notch in the timeline. Rouse swung hard, Lacy preferred a rubato style, but both fit into Monk’s ideas beautifully. They stuck with the basics.

September Songs

I don’t have the standard recommended listings this month; since the performing season gets its official start, I’ll be doing some individual posts on different organizations, what they’ve been doing and what they have coming up. Expect the usual suspects, i.e. City Opera, the Phil, Miller Theater, Issue Project Room . . .

I do want to point out some worthwhile recorded/streaming audio that will be coming out in September:

UPDATED: Fixed typo, added link to Oval appearance