LEFT RIGHT LEFT / GUTHRIE: Pastures of Plenty. HOWE: Battle Hymn of the Republic. WARD: America. MILLS-GUTHRIE: Union Maid. MITCHELL: The Fiddle and the Drum. J.W. JOHNSON: Lift Every Voice and Sing. SMITH: Xxmas in Baghdad. White Flight. BAEZ: Saigon Bride. TRADITIONAL, arr. SEEGER-HAYS: If I Had a Hammer / Art Lande, pn; Putter Smith, bs; Tina Raymond, dm / Orenda 0039
I do not normally politicize my reviews; on the contrary, I try as much as possible to stay away from politics. But the proposition voiced by Tina Raymond in the booklet for this CD comes closer to reality than most anything else the left or the media has said since the November 8 election, thus I would like to quote some of what she says before reviewing the music and comment on it.
Raymond: I like to think there was a recognition of the value of both sides, an understanding that left and right are necessarily attached to the same animal.
This is what America has forgotten. We are one animal, and, when he pull away from one another, we are ripping this creature apart.
Since the country’s coasts are predominantly left-leaning and much of its central states are right-leaning, together we are LEFT RIGHT LEFT.
Many of us feel disillusioned, and so we have found ways to voice our opinions in protest. It is tumultuous, but it is also momentous. We are all trying to march forward in our own way, placing one foot in front of the other and chanting, “LEFT RIGHT LEFT.”
Me: You are correct. And no one wants to heal this country more than I do or, believe it or not, more than President Trump. But the opposition from the left post-election has been nothing short of insane, meaning completely divorced from reality, and all of the violence is being initiated by leftist groups.
I was bitterly disappointed when Barack Obama became president, but I had to face reality. I wished him well and hoped he could do something to fix things. I rooted for him when he passed his Stimulus Package, but was perplexed when it didn’t Stimulate anything but the pockets of high-powered union bosses. I didn’t riot in the streets. I didn’t hit Obama supporters with bricks, rocks or bike locks. And neither did anyone else on our side.
If you want to heal, please do the country a favor. Step back, take a deep breath, and give him at least two full years to fix things. I’m disappointed on a couple of key issues myself, but these are issues that he needs the Congress to help him implement, and let’s face it, the Republican Party is just as corrupt and non-helpful to regular working people as the Democratic Party. They are both in the pockets of the same Power Elites. So just rope in Antifa and the Women’s March with their hate-filled riots and rhetoric and let stuff happen. OK?
And now, back to our regular review.
Raymond and her talented group have some fun with the familiar pieces in this album, for instance playing in what sounds like a 7/4 rhythm in Woody Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty and skewering the harmony in Battle Hymn of the Republic (which also includes, wittily, a moment or two of purposely out-of-tune playing by Art Lande and a snippet of The Star-Spangled Banner). It’s the kind of musical humor one almost never hears nowadays except from drummer Matt Wilson’s bands or Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Although she is the nominal leader of the group, Raymond does not assert her presence as strongly as many another modern drummer I’ve heard; rather, she plays with just enough of a push, mostly from her creative use of cymbals and tasteful snare interjections to create an undulating pulse beneath the outstanding playing of pianist Lande and bassist Putter Smith. The latter, in fact, almost sounds like an extension of Raymond’s drums, so closely do they follow and complement each other.
Indeed, as the CD progressed I found myself more and more engrossed in what this talented trio was doing. It’s a sort of musical brinksmanship that’s not really showing off but rather a way of teasing the ear to draw the listener further into their musical imaginations. True to form, America is also rearranged, here using an almost calypso-style beat (albeit one with shifts in the stresses within each bar) and some modal harmonies borrowed from Bill Evans. Smith’s bass solos tend towards the melodic and linear, as well as helping the lay listener by generally staying within the parameters of tonal harmony. Listening to the manner in which Raymond plays drums, I almost got the impression that she was like a schoolteacher reining in her brilliant but “wayward” pupil (Lande).
Guthrie’s second tune on this disc, the well-known Union Maid (of which he only wrote the lyrics; the melody was a 1907 song by Kerry Mills about an Indian girl named Red Wing), is brought way down in tempo, played as a wistful ballad. This is a “union maid” who doesn’t seem to have any fight left in her; she’s sitting on the sidelines, wistful and missing the old days when she could go out and raise a little hell. Or maybe Raymond and her group had the story of Red Wing in mind?
There once was an Indian maid,
A shy little prairie maid,
Who sang a lay, a love song gay,
As on the plain she’d while away the day;
She loved a warrior bold,
This shy little maid of old,
But brave and gay, he rode one day
To battle far away.
Similarly, Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum is so completely rewritten that I think even the song’s composer would have a hard time recognizing it. I know I did until I looked at the contents of the CD! It is, in fact, so deconstructed that it almost sounds like an avant-garde piece of free jazz, with Smith playing bowed bass, Lande interjecting atonal arpeggios and single-note melodic lines, and Raymond buoying the whole with her tasteful snare drum interjections. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a masterpiece of musical invention, and I strongly urge many a so-called “serious” composer nowadays to study its construction and development. I didn’t want it to end.
By contrast, James Weldon Johnson’s Life Every Voice and Sing emerges as a jazz waltz, its melody instantly recognizable. But this doesn’t mean that the trio’s treatment of it isn’t creative. On the contrary, they have a great deal of fun with it. As I was listening to it, my mind flashed on some of those wonderful interludes that the late Leon Russell used to play during his concerts, or the “bumper” music that G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live band played in the late 1970s-early ‘80s. Listen, for instance, to Lande’s gospel-flavored playing following Smith’s bass solo for an example of what I mean.
The first of Smith’s two originals, Xxmas in Baghdad (yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the album cover & booklet), has a strange bitonal feel at the beginning, thanks to the soft crushed chords underlying its opening lick. This quickly evaporates into gentle piano sprinkles over Smith’s bass solo, which in turn is deftly and sensitively accompanied by Raymond’s drums. Indeed, I can’t really say that this music really ever coalesces into a tune in the conventional sense of the word; it’s a story told by allegory.
Another remarkable transformation occurs in Joan Baez’ Saigon Bride, which starts with Smith playing a walking bass while Lande plays the strings of the piano. Incidentally, I should point out that most of these songs’ remarkable and stunning arrangements were written by Raymond herself, for which she deserves tremendous credit. As jazz composer-arranger Byron Olson once wrote to me, “arranging is composing,” and this was as true of the kind of work Gil Evans, Tony Scott and Charles Mingus did with older tunes as what Raymond does here. Once again, the mood is quiet and contemplative but the musical intricacy is astonishing. Only about a third of the way through the piece do we recognize, briefly, the melody of the original song; the rest is continual creativity on the part of the trio.
Smith’s second tune, White Flight, bears a slight resemblance to Bill Evans’ T.T.T.T. (Twelve Tone Tune Two), though he does not employ a strict 12-tone technique. Rather, after a somewhat plaintive opening, it develops into an uptempo swinger, and here Raymond shows what an excellent and creative drummer she is, playing a really terrific solo with a variety of rhythms. Here, too, bassist Smith plays one of his most harmonically adventurous solos, going outside the tune’s changes and exploring new nooks within its framework. The deceptive simplicity of Lande’s playing fools the ear into thinking he is staying within the confines of basic tonality when in fact he is not.
The CD concludes with a witty, gospel-jazz treatment of Pete Seeger’s and Lee Hays’ famous If I Had a Hammer. Here the melody is instantly recognizable despite the swinging beat; it almost sounds like a genial, relaxed ride-out to what is clearly a complex and thoughtful concept album. There is so much more I could say about virtually every track on this disc; it is simply wonderful, and I think you’ll find it as delightful as I did!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of jazz and classical music