read, listen, play

Dave Douglas has delivered what should be a major milestone in his career, the three disc Spark of Being collection.

It’s Douglas with his ‘Keystone’ band, which is mildly more electric than the Dave Douglas Quintet, and makes music that fits comfortably in the range between Miles’ In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. That’s a very good platform to work from, of course, and seems especially appropriate for this kind of job – it’s a soundtrack with further explorations, expansions and explications of the themes.

Anyway, it’s not sticking to my ribs yet, but it’s early.

Also, the Dead’s Road Trips Volume III. This is from that brief period when the band would do an acoustic set first, and then plug in, and one of the good things about the torrent of Dead reissues over the last decade has been the surfacing of this material.  For the non-fanatic, so much of ‘first set’ Dead for most of the band’s career was just a tease, a way of limbering up for the second set, in which the Dead would go deep.

(Dead to English translation: the band would typically play a more song oriented first set, and launch its ecstatic jamming early in the second set.)

The Dead took their heroic concerts in a different direction during this period: the acoustic/electric Dead sounds more balanced to me – because of the acoustic instruments, the pleasures of the first set are clearer and less dependent on one’s expectation of what’s to come in the second half. (Actually, I think it was more thirds, with the New Riders of The Purple Sage holding down the middle position some nights.)


I have started, stopped, restarted, set aside and returned to Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane half a dozen times since the book came out a couple of years ago. The problem is the material up front, I think. Though Ratliff is very good, you can only read about Coltrane so many times before it gets hard to pick up another book on the subject.

Or so I thought: over the last couple of days I’ve worked my way backwards from the last few chapters, where Ratliff spreads his wings. He has original things to say about how our views of Coltrane have changed since the 60s, how he shaped for good and ill a generation of musicians and about Coltrane’s influence on the practice of jazz at the band level.

Best of all, Ratliff has a decent sweep and a knack for exposing the new angle; writing about how Expression, one of Coltrane’s epic ‘free period’ albums, is received more than 40 years after its release, Ratliff catches a whole change in music culture:

Believe this: there is a type of free jazz record collector – in fact, after punk, part of an increasingly flourishing breed – who does not necessarily think of Africa when he hears a Coltrane album like ‘Expression.’ Having come through punk, Japanese noise, and electro-acoustic improvisation, he may just like it because it sounds extreme and non-negotiable.

Read that, and you get a powerful dose of how the obsessive listener works these days; as an omnivore, he or she is much less interested in the local detail of what distinguishes one piece of music from another, and much more interested in pattern recognition. It’s bad because history gets slighted, but good because what you lose in deep you get back in wide. You see that in Henry Rollins’ wonderful ‘Fanatic’ books.


As noted earlier, I spent several days reading up on headphones, headphone amps, DACs and the like. In fact, I’m still doing it. It reminds me again of the price you pay getting information off the net – there’s a lot there but it’s in very rough form, you end up going down some blind alleys and you’re on your own when it comes to triangulating what’s true. Plus, you learn that some grown men have a thing for Japanese cartoon characters and headphones, which is vaguely disquieting.


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