There are a couple of discs out there in the world of music that bear listening. Echoing a modern world where paranoia masquerades as security and the fetish for material things has become religious in nature, these discs satirize and reject this world we find ourselves in. Nothing is sacred here, yet everything has value. Whether it’s a positive or negative worth is a matter of where one comes from. Like the music itself.
Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd
Vijay Iyer is the son of Indian immigrants raised in upstate New York. His works include the intriguing Memorophilia and the 2003 release Blood Sutra. Iyer expanded his jazz stylings in 2004 when he collaborated with hiphop artist Mike Ladd on the CD In What Language? This disc explores Iyer’s world of dual nationality and jazz with beats and piano. The lyrics are intoned by Mike Ladd, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, Alison Easter and Ajay Naidu. They tell stories of police harassment and air travel and are based on the experiences of the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi at JFK airport in the spring of 2001. While he was changing planes at JFK Panahi was shackled to a bench in a holding cell by INS agents and and ultimately sent back to his previous departure point Hong Kong. As Panahi told the story, he wrote, “I wanted to tell my fellow passengers, “I’m not a thief! I’m not a murderer! I’m just a … filmmaker. But how to tell this? In what language?'” Hence the CD’s title.
The liner notes make the point of this work clear. “The airport is not a neutral place….This album is a commentary on the non-neutrality of transit.” For anyone who spends time in airports, they know this is true. There is a police presence always and there are divisions that are quite apparent if one only looks for them. Iyer and Ladd do this in a manner that transcends anything I could write here. Like any quality music, this disc becomes part of the listener’s consciousness if one allows it to.
Iyer’s second collaboration with Ladd, titled Still LIfe With Commentator, is a commentary on the world of information bombardment that we live in. At once replicating the cacophony of words and images we live within and without and a construct that shows how the packaging of that information makes us either at peace, fearful or frustrated, the album is frenetic at times and almost religious at others. Vijay’s keyboard magic enhances the words and enlightens the message. Indeed, the vocal and instrumental interplay on the piece “Cleaning Up the Mess” on Still Life With Commentator is transcendent in the manner that the best religious music is transcendent. Think Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or the chants of the Gyuto Monks of Tibet. Those are moments when nothing comes between the listener and the spirit world. Yet here the lyrics are of a more temporal and earthly nature, if only because of their topic. Then there’s the tune (well, it’s not really a tune…it’s more like banter) titled “Fox N Friends.” This little spoof of the morning nonsense that passes for intelligent banter on the morning TV news shows is just plain funny. The words are irrelevant to the frenetic caffeine-laced cadence they maintain.
The tune “Infogee Rhapsody” opens the disc with a bass line that is also a heartbeat. Then the piano begins. Beyond Gil Scot Heron but taken from his seed, the lyrics wrench themselves from the dreamlike sounds of the music into your consciousness. Then it’s into a rap that headlines noises taken from the video game of your choice. A religious hymn of the Catholic variety titled “Cleaning up the Mess” follows. Vijay is a cerebral pianist that my ear cannot help but compare to Keith Jarrett and even Thelonious Monk. The music of Iyer and his combo is stream-of-consciousness poetry without words implanting themselves secretly in your being like a bird’s song heard first thing in the morning.
Speaking about that combo, its members vary. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say the there is no constant grouping on Still Life With Commentator. Instead, Iyer performs primarily by himself or with guitarist Liberty Ellman and cellist Okyyung Lee. There is some percussive and vocal enhancement occasionally provided by Guillermo Brown and Pamela Z. but the work is essentially Iyer and Ladd. In What Language? features a more traditional combo on most of the selections. That combo also includes Ellman. He is joined by Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto, Dana Leong on a variety of brass, Stephen Crump on bass and Trevor Holder on drums.
The band Blusion is a blast. Their music is solid dance funk with a tinge of disco and reggae and their CD titled Sign Of The Times is about changing the world. It uses the same frustration and anger with he status quo that Vijay’s discs do and adds a dance step to it. Where Iyer’s approach is metaphysical, Blusion’s is flat out physical. The contrast between the lyrics and the music is slightly disconcerting if only because one isn’t used to hearing dance tunes that call a pig a pig. One of my favorite spots in the CD occurs midway through the song “Pirate in a Pinstripe Suit.” This involves the band reworks the old folk tune “What do You do With a Drunken Sailor.” They turn the old English tune into an indictment of capital criminality. And it swings. Some of the music here is Bernsteinesque in its time signature. Some of it is just plain rock and roll fun.
When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area I used to go to a music festival on the Eel River a hundred miles or so north of the city. The site is a beautiful slice of California nature. Trees, water and sunshine–just like a postcard. This is where I imagine myself when I listen to Blusion. Dancing away the day with hundreds of others. A beer in my hand and sunshine on my back. A collection of originals and covers, Sign Of The Times takes the anger of a Rage Against the Machine album and moves it to the woods of Northern California. This transition can’t help but mellow the edges a bit. The bass guitar that is a weapon in the hands of Rage’s Timmy C. becomes a dance master in Paul Dean’s hands. The funk emanates from those fat strings a la Larry Graham in his days with Sly Stone. Dean takes Rob Hart’s drums and Kendrick Freeman’s percussion straight to the dance floor. The sharpness of Dave Schrader’s horns is not intrusive but leading and the vocals of Rustie Woods are deceptively entrancing. Greg Schlaepfer’s keyboards melt effortlessly into the mix like a dancer composed of California breeze.
These folks know their audience. There are a good number of politically inspired punk bands and a fair number of hiphop artists that speak their minds, but there are very few (if any) political bands in the genre Blusion hails from. As noted before, the music is dance music and should naturally appeal to those who consider themselves too hip (or hippie) to get involved in the political world. You know the refrain, why bring yourself down with all that stuff, man? There’s a response to hip apathy on this disc and it’s called “Party Song.” It’s essence can be found in the chorus: (imagine a good funk disco beat behind this chant)
Get it up, get it on, get it off
Get it in, get it out, get down
Oblivious to everything
Except that party sound
Negativity messes up your mood
Don’t worry about a thing
Just let yourself get screwed
That’s not self righteous but it’s not nice, either. This album proves you can be angry and active without giving up the dance floor. Emma Goldman once said something to the effect that she didn’t want to be part of any revolution that wouldn’t let her dance. I think she would be glad to know that Blusion is around.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com