Photo by Chelsea Pineda.
Seven decades. Seven songs.
From Gospel to Guinea to Glasper to "Georgia".
1920's-50's: "Lonely Woman" by Ornette Coleman (1959)
This song is kind of hard to describe. The melody is almost menacing, but too vulnerable to intimidate. Coleman spells out despair with his sax, brutally honest in the retelling of the "lonely woman". The solos on the song are no different with the players seemingly crying out, with Charlie Haden's inescapable dirge of a bass line plodding along.
In 1959, this was truly one of a kind, and people didn't know what to make of it. Legends of jazz and rock alike couldn't help but be attracted to it, so here's Herbie Hancock and Lou Reed talking about the song.
1960's: "It's About Time" by Terry Callier (1965)
Terry Callier was never a real commercial success, a journeyman who toiled through the music industry for years without compromising the music he wanted to make. Callier's music is a gumbo of Folk, Jazz, R&B, and Blues, a mixture that never really crossed over. Near the height of his career he would tour with legends like Gil Scott-Heron, but never made it past that stage. On "It's About Time" he's at the beginning of his career, it's a song from his debut record.
Callier was still finding ways to mix in his influences, with a riff that sounds suspiciously like it belongs in a blues rhythm section. Since the riff is only accompanied by his vocals, the sparse arrangement turns into something different. Not quite folk, but not quite blues either. Like everything he made, it was something unique to Callier.
1970's: "Alalake" by Bembeya Jazz National (1970)
Shortly after Guinea gained independence from France, their first president Ahmed Sékou Touré disbanded all private orchestras and started to promote state-sponsored bands. Touré's word was law in Guinea so these groups quickly rose to prominence, with Bembeya Jazz National being one of the most celebrated of those groups.
State-mandated musical groups are often remembered as tools and agents of their government, but Bembeya has been embraced by the people. The group became one of the most popular bands in Africa, touring the continent and etching their place in Guniean history. "Alalake" features a soaring lead guitar playing over percussion that urges the song forward. Africa's most popular musical export in the 70's was clearly Afrobeat, but Bembeya is among the best of what was happening around the rest of the continent
1980's: "Awake O Zion" by Elbertina Clark (1981)
Gospel disco is alive and well, at least in my heart. Elbertina Clark was a member of the legendary gospel group The Clark Sisters (the folks who provide the sample for Jay Z's Family Feud). As one of the primary songwriters, she started making solo albums, the best of which being 1981's Power.
"Awake O Zion" has all the markings of a disco hit evident. From the lush strings in the introduction to the drum pattern to the sharp horn stabs, it's dance music through and through. As it tends to my ear was drawn to the bass part, since there are amazing runs laid throughout the track. There's really something for everyone here, the epitome of a well produced track.
1990's: "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball" by Aphex Twin (1997)
This song goes to so many different places in just under 6 minutes with such variety throughout that it's almost shocking. Electronic music this intricate and meticulously produced is the mark of someone with total control of their craft. Aphex Twin's attention detail in this track is almost annoyingly sharp.
The songs goes through distinctly different sections, but the undercurrent of the percussion keeps everything cohesive. Someone who clearly takes his time on music, Aphex Twin doesn't seem to have missed a moment on this track, making sure to address every second as a different section. If you like loop-based electronic music, look elsewhere.
2000's: "Everything In It's Right Place/Maiden Voyage" by Robert Glasper (2003)
Robert Glasper coming out the gate with a simultaneous Radiohead and Herbie Hancock cover on his first album is audacious, to say the least. Glasper is part of a class of jazz musicians who got their start as students at New York's top conservatories in the 90's. Folks like Jason Moran joined him in making jazz that melded tradition and the hip-hop, alternative and electronic music they were hearing at the time.
There are so many good versions of this song, but my favorite is with the indomitable Jamire Williams on the drums. As always, Glasper doesn't disappoint.
2010's: "Georgia" by Phoebe Bridgers (2017)
Bridgers' voice is the very foundation of this song from the very beginning, with a driving melody and repeating vocal riff floating in the background. From the stellar harmonies to the amazing songwriting, it's clear why Bridgers has exploded onto the scene in the past year. The subtle slide guitar is just one of the many aspects of the track you could focus on.
The layers of sound are so well arranged, with percussion organically rising and falling. Ryan Adams (a producer who's worked with acts like Weezer and Norah Jones) is credited with production on Stranger in the Alps, and his years of experience in helping craft songs is on display here.