Seven decades. Seven songs.
Curtis Mayfield mourns lost hope, Phyllis Hyman mourns lost love, Cecil Taylor leaves the pack behind.
1920's-50's: “Song” by Cecil Taylor (1956)
As one of the original progenitors of free jazz, Cecil Taylor has always been on the fringe. On his 1956 debut, Jazz Advance Taylor is beginning to stretch out and utilize the techniques that would make him an icon. Still working within traditional jazz structure, "Song" finds Taylor sounding like an uncouth Thelonious Monk. His plodding chromatic runs creep back and forth between tonality, but the song stays on track with a steady offering by the drums and bass.
It's worth noting just how far ahead Taylor was, with hard bop being the primary movement in contemporary jazz in '56. Ornette Coleman's Shape of Jazz to Come was still three years away, and Taylor's peers in the experimental had largely all just started their careers. As always, Taylor was ahead of his time.
1960's: “Flight 19” by Andrew Hill (1964)
While the 50's were more conservative, by the 60's jazz was wide open. Hard bop, while still popular was being expanded upon by some of the best musicians in the genre, creating post-bop. Reading the credits on "Flight 19" is essentially a list of some leading musicians in the post-bop movement. From Andrew Hill to Eric Dolphy to Tony Williams, this is an All-Star cast of musicians on a trip of a song.
With an undeviating bass line from Richard Davis, the rest of the group is able to fully flex their abilities. Akin to tracks like "Survival Of The Fittest" by Herbie Hancock, the band weaves its way in and beyond jazz conventions. For a frantic yet fulfilling taste of post-bop, Andrew Hill is your man.
1970's: “When Seasons Change” by Curtis Mayfield (1975)
The cover of Curtis Mayfield's 1975 album There's No Place Like America Today is a photograph entitled At the Time of the Louisville Flood from 1937, originally printed in Life magazine. The use of imagery from The Great Depression was intentional, as the economic crash of the 70's ravaged cities and communities across the country. "When Seasons Change" embodies the quiet resilience that was needed to go on, the burning of the midnight oil.
Mayfield is absolutely mournful, sounding almost too tired to go on. Somehow he does and gifts us a beautiful piece of music, almost the dark side of his classic "Keep On Keeping On". Gone is the optimism, but resilience remains.
1980's: “Honeysuckleswallow” by A.R. Kane (1989)
Dream-pop deities A.R. Kane rose to prominence with an incredibly distinctive style of processed, reverb-heavy, rosy-eyed tunes, which became their specialty. "Honeysuckleswallow" is no different with all sorts of ambient and sporadic signs swirling around the strumming guitar that grounds the song. With a steady drum pattern to help keep the duo here on Earth, what sounds like a fragmented synth solo lurks in the background, adding to the otherworldly feel.
The vocals, as delayed and spread out as they are, still add to the fever dream. Delivered almost lazily, the words leave much up to interpretation, sending the listener down a rabbit hole that's far too easy to get lost in.
1990's: “Meet Me On The Moon” by Phyllis Hyman (1991)
The beauty of the piano intro to this R&B stunner is only matched by the warmth and depth of phyllis Hyman's incredible voice. A voice like this makes even the most dejected heart believe in love, a voice that can move mountains. When the song settles into a slow jam with ever present strings rising and falling, it's clear that it's the result of great craftsmanship.
This surely isn't the rawer side of R&B, and some might even accuse the track of being overproduced, but there's something about the platinum sheen of the song that is admirable. From the well timed cymbal scrapes to the meticulously slapped bass (the riff at 5:20 is breathtaking) the song feels as sharply carved as a marble statue. Hyman's wistful lyrics and painful delivery only help to bolster a track that's inch perfect.
2000's: “Sometimes” by Bilal (2001)
Bilal has many identifying qualities, but his ability to make understated anthems is especially noteworthy. "Sometimes" is a look into the mind of a young man, specifically a black young man. Self-doubt, drug reliance and seeking success are just some of the things weighing on Bilal's mind. There's no grand theme to the track, he just wants to be ok. We all do.
With world-class musicians like James Poyser credited, it's fascinating to hear the song ebb and flow throughout different styles. Occasionally the band settles into a slower groove, but they traverse the many sounds that "black music" has to offer. At times there's a Gospel-esque breakdown, and a few seconds later a showcase of vocal jazz. Neo-soul's goal to craft music that captures the black experience is distilled in one of its purest forms here, in one of its greatest songs.
2010's: “Szechuan” by Fatima Al Qadiri (2014)
Opening with an ominous melody line, "Szechuan" immediately unsettles the listener. The sparse percussion moves the track forward surprisingly well, instruments used in moderation is one of the real strength here. The use of space is the most exciting aspect of the song, Al Qadiri doesn't try to overstimulate the listener, letting each section breath in it's own way.
By time the original melody line reintroduces itself about two minutes into the song, it seems like it almost never left. The mood of the track is consistent throughout, even when there are completely different motifs being used. It seems like the skeletal drums are connecting the different ideas that Al Qadiri explores. "Szechuan" is a force, foreboding and meditative all at once.