American Music is Self-Absorbed

American music is self-absorbed. The obsession on the experience, personality, skill, and individuality of the performer is rooted in the DNA of most vital early styles, most notably in solo blues performances, instrumental jazz solos, and the spotlight placed on the multitude of musicians who entered into the celebrity wing of popular music. This ubiquitous use of “I” and the first person lyric style can be traced back to “ I woke up this morning” themes in the blues, (epitomized by Son House in “Walkin’ Blues”) Where the “I” approach is used as the gateway often to larger themes of love, infidelity, and the multitude of social realities surrounding life in the rural south. It has reached new peaks in the last ten years, at least according to Dr. Nathan DeWall, who’s 2011 study determined: “a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music.” As was hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently in the last few decades, along with what are labeled “anger-related words”, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” as well as the expression of positive emotions. “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before.”

Hip-hop is no more or less self-obsessed than any other genre, but is the most striking. This may have something to do with a still relatively young genre that shifted so dramatically and quickly in terms of content and depth of purpose. Early artists created music that functioned for parties, large crowds, dancers, and often downplayed the participation of MC’s. It was also drawing on many influences from the contemporary dance and punk practices of the period, and self consciously trying to cast the widest net possible in the emergent national radio market. It also may be unmatched to the degree that un-broadcast-able self-aggrandizement of monetary, physical, and sexual attributes raised the ire of a mainstream public while simultaneously exploding into global music phenomena.

Grandmaster flash introduced the idea of biographical realism, graphically describing the brutal realities of the segregated south Bronx in 1982’s “The Message.”  The success and influence of this piece rests in the ability for listeners to relate to Flash’s delivery, whether they were living in the Bronx or not. For subsequent artists, a biographical account, even if not entirely real, provided an intense reservoir of personal experience that would resonate with others with similar experiences, but also for a global audience that would be able to adapt the specify of the approach as an adaptable metaphor for their own background. This of course is a similar phenomenon to many other forms of music, especially rock and roll. Teen angst is universal, regardless of background, and a new musical language offers a similar catharsis to blocks of culturally underrepresented listeners. The forms may change through the decades, but the function for the listener, especially if they are going through predictable modes of psychological development, is similar.

The outer world gives way to the realities and necessarily complex communication of the inner as a musical style develops. This transition is seen in its nacent stages in “The Message”, but has taken center stage with pieces like Kendrick Lamar’s “What a Dollar Cost?” The track has been lauded, and combines a relatable metaphor of success, guilt, and imperfection with an invitation for the listener to engage in a kind of emotional and cultural voyeurism. The track describes Lamar’s experience with a fictional homeless person, taking the listener through various confessions of the rapper’s proposed arrogance toward a crack-addicted panhandler. The slow, dark Phrygian 12/8 groove is punctuated by moments of harmonized melody, and integrates past and present tenses as the narrative flips between panhandler and Lamar. Lamar describes the track as “…me talking to him was simply a thank you from God. And I felt God speaking through him to get at me.”

This inner world is where a listener will determine whether the track succeeds or not.   Lamar’s descriptions in the track are those of a young man, confused by his own success and an apparent lack of cultural authenticity. Not as beguiling as the inner turmoil of other artists perhaps such as Charles Mingus, and even the “homeless person is god” metaphor comes off as a tired cliché, that is unless one has never heard it. To this extent Lamar’s rap is perhaps relatable to a young audience, but the track succeeds when the delivery consumes the message itself, filling in holes within the ego driven narrative with a musical substance that supplants the occasional lack of universality of the metaphor with a groove and orchestration that communicates meaning that the biography and the metaphor leave out. Here Love Dragon’s production is a vital component. The track creates a world inside the head of Lamar’s character, oscillating between looking out and looking in, dialogues and introspections. Even if one finds the content somewhat lacking, the delivery is certainly not. In this regard the sophistication of Lamar’s lines is such that the dizzying amount of energy emanating from his structure and delivery eclipse the simplicity of the narrative. The relatability of “I” story becomes real on a musical level first. Ironically, the obsession of the track in Lamar’s pious life lesson leaves the beggar as invisible and unrecognized as Lamar faults himself for making him.


‘Kendrick Lamar Breaks Down 8 To Pimp A Butterfly Tracks – MTV’. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
Kendrick Lamar (Ft. James Fauntleroy & Ron Isley) – How Much a Dollar Cost. N.p. Audio Recording.
Tierney, John. ‘A New Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Hit Lyrics’. The New York Times 25 Apr. 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.



Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul, Jazz, Blues…


Aretha Franklin has earned the mantle of the Queen of Soul, but her influences and her talents transcend any single genre, with the diversity of her recordings often freely crossing boundaries. These boundaries are consumed in the individuality of her personal mastery and amalgam of jazz, blues, soul, gospel, R&B, and pop influences. This is evident on her recording of “Ramblin’” from the Soul ‘69 record. The track mixes heavy doses of these elements in an incredible pyrotechnic display of all that was right with American music in 1969.

Even with the insulting beginning to his March 1st 1969 review[1], Stanley Booth labels Soul ‘69 as “the best record to appear in the last five years.” The album features a stellar jazz orchestra, with arrangements by Arif Mardin that would not have been out of place on a Count Basie Recording, or amongst Oliver Nelson and Thad Jones’ work of the period. Even with the presence of such soul icons as King Curtis, Tommy Cogbill, and Jerry Jemmott, this is a jazz band, and one that represents the height of talent working in the genre that were just at home helping Atlantic records produce studio hits as crafting cutting edge musical movements with Miles Davis and Gil Evans. The wealth of jazz talent is staggering:


Aretha Franklin

Soul ‘69

Released          January 17, 1969

Recorded         April 17–18 & September 24, 1968


Aretha Franklin – vocals, piano (on #2,7,9)

Junior Mance – piano (1,3-6,8-11)

Spooner Oldham – organ (2,7)

Joe Zawinul – organ (5), electric piano (6,12)

Kenny Burrell (1,3-6,8-11), Jimmy Johnson – guitar (2,7)

Ron Carter (1,3-6,8-12), Jerry Jemmott (2,7) – bass

Tommy Cogbill – electric bass (2,7)

Bruno Carr (1,3-6,8,9,12), Roger Hawkins (2,7), Grady Tate (10,11) – drums

Jack Jennings – vibraphone (5,7,9,12)

Louie Goicdecha, Manuel Gonzales – percussion (5,7,12)

David Newman – tenor saxophone, flute

King Curtis, Seldon Powell – tenor saxophone

George Dorsey, Frank Wess – alto saxophone

Pepper Adams – baritone saxophone

Joe Newman, Bernie Glow, Richard Williams, Snooky Young, Ernie Royal – trumpet

Jimmy Cleveland, Urbie Green, Benny Powell, Thomas Mitchell – trombone

Evelyn Greene, Wyline Ivy – backing vocals

Produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd

Arrangements by Arif Mardin

As the lineup suggests, the ensemble on the opening track “Rambin’” swings hard, as does much of the rest of the session. In that regard it is amazing how naturally and exceptionally Aretha leads this group in that groove. Not merely being accompanied, she strikes out and pushes the rhythm with vocalisms that would not be out of place coming out of one of the instrumental solos. Indeed, during the saxophone solo on the track Aretha reverses roles, and sings her own obbligato part as accompaniment. She invents her own riffs and counter melodies during the out vamp that, aside from not using identifiable scat syllables, match the bands when needed and consume them when she wants to. This is not surprising from a singer raised as much on Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn as the richest of gospel traditions.

The blues element in the track is directly traceable to, amongst many other places, the original recording of Big Maybelle Smith from 1957. Smith’s version can trace a straight line back to Mamie Smith’s original blues recording, both with the informal yet virtuosic improvisations in the rhythm section and the upfront presentation of her volcanic and versatile interpretation of the lyric. Drums are placed far in the back of the mix, except for a decidedly insistent backbeat snare drum beat. The lyric of this 8-bar blues becomes more minimal as the piece moves on, leaving increasingly large amounts of space for her amazingly varied approach to coloring words and contrasting dynamics.

Aretha also takes advantage of this space, with expressive phrasing that at times serenades and alternately roars out of the arrangement. Huge crescendos and dynamic shifts play with emphasis on particular lyrics, including a delivery of the line “sick of your funky ways” that should be heard to be believed. The stop time break at 1:53 allows Aretha’s back phrasing to be heard alone, buoying the pulse but leaning back to create a pocket so deep you could drive a car through it. She effortlessly matches the world-class trumpet section, both in timbre, intensity, and often in volume. This is Aretha Franklin at her peak, both in terms of jaw dropping vocal ability, but comprised of a blues component that seamlessly integrates the jazz elements coming from the band and the arrangement.

The recording is amazing for these amalgamations, but not surprising given the influence of the singers named above, as well as Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Little Willie John, the Falcons, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. What is equally amazing that after a 6-decade plus career we tend to forget how incredible her singular contribution is. Recordings like this help shine the spotlight on Aretha as a crafter of groove that defies any simplified label, perhaps just the moniker of “Queen” should be enough.


[1] “It does no good to say Aretha Franklin can’t sing as well as Ivy Anderson; Ivy Anderson is dead, and not a dozen of the dedicated music-lovers who read this journal remember the great Duke Ellington vocalist. We must make do with what we have, and the best female singer we have now is Aretha.”



Feeling as Form and Feet: James Brown’s “I Got The Feelin”

By the late 1960s James Brown was well into his most innovative and influential period as the pioneer of funk. His recording of “Cold Sweat” in 1967 hit number one on the R&B chart, and was to be followed up by, amongst other landmark recordings, “I Got the Feelin” in 1968.

The feeling that James Brown might be referring to is audibly and visually manifested in the studio recording, as well as live footage captured at the Apollo theatre in March and the Boston Garden[1] on April 5th. In particular, Brown’s irrepressible dancing is both a manifestation of the structure of the groove, as well as the traditions of the blues that influenced all of Brown’s output.

The Apollo performance begins with Brown asking his congregation if they have the feeling’, singling out each area of the theatre before asking the question of the band. Suddenly the band pops into the signature groove. The footage from Boston here is illuminating, featuring a long shot that makes most of the band and all of Brown’s body clearly visible.

The first phrase, featuring the first line “I Got the Feelin” ( about 10:10 in on the video below) features a driving rhythm section and horn riff. Brown’s feet alternate, close to the ground, alternating in quick succession. The second phrase, where the band moves to the IV chord, features a unison hit by the band that Brown chooses to acknowledge with a sudden twist of his head down and to his left. The largest accent of the tune is left without a vocal, instead maximized with Brown’s exaggerated gesture. A few measures later, upon returning to the I chord, Brown returns to a variation of his earlier moves.

When the band hits the V chord and the “Baby baby baby…” break, Brown turns his back to the audience, accenting his right foot.

This template is expanded, with wilder variations of the IV chord hit showing Brown creating wilder moves, mimicking the growing intensity of the band, and eventually Brown showing it off at 12:45 during the saxophone solo,. The performance continues to build into the last chorus with Brown manipulating the mic stand, catching it along with his continuously intensifying performance. The last break, Brown sings “Baby Baby Baby…” facing the audience before turning it all loose at 14:00.

The story of this tune is in as much of Brown’s physicality as his vocal. And while It builds throughout the 4-minutes shown in the video, it uses the ebb and flow of a modified blues form to create peaks and valleys where he can build and fall from each successively higher plateau.

The otherwise tune is a blues form, using a 12-bar first phrase, and a 6-bar turnaround and break. The piece foreshadowed other Brown classics such as “Sex Machine” where an audible cue to “take it to the bridge” sees the groove leave the I chord to move to a second section built on the IV chord. This second section ends with short hits on the V chord before starting the next chorus.

These tunes show how the flexibility of phrasing often noted with early blues pioneers such as Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker that resulted in a malleable number of bars re-exerts itself at in the foundations of funk, with Brown often audibly conducting his band as to when he believes the next phrase should be played.

“I Got The Feelin” (1968)

|           I           |                       |                       |                       |

|                       |                       |                       |                       |

|                       |                       |                       |                       |

|           IV        |                       |                       |                       |

|           I           |                       |                       |                       |

|           V         |                       | break ………|………………|

|………………|…………     :||


“Sex Machine” (1971)

||:          I           |                       |                       |                       :||

on cue

||:          IV        |                       |                       |                       :||          V         ||   D.C.


[1] This April 5th performance is outlined for its significance to the civil rights movement and to the city of Boston in the documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston.”