From Second Nature to an Earlier Nature

The world of 2016 is a place of pace beyond comparison. It is sometimes as if—through the devices that are now second nature to us—we have all become Wall Street traders of a sort, trafficking in instant information constantly. However, it is still possible to find myself in the original nature, which sometimes I come across unexpectedly within a modern metropolis. In the Capital of Texas, the cars and the rate of urban development can be staggering, but there are many places to experience the city’s commitment to green spaces and beautiful views. My wife recently took me to Mt. Bonnell for a view of the Colorado River from Austin’s highest point. Ironically enough, the technology at which I look askance allows me to share some of the sights without sole reliance on words.

Rock of Mt Bonnell
The engraved rock of Mt. Bonnell dated 1938

Detail of Bonnell view

 

After climbing the long stone steps and seeing the engraved rock on the star, visitors can see the view of Lake Austin from rocky trails that incline along the “mountain.”

 

Sunset light catching the trees of Mount Bonnell along Lake Austin of the Colorado River
Sunset light catching the trees of Mount Bonnell along Lake Austin of the Colorado River

Elsewhere in the city, working its way in a meandering fashion toward the larger tributary, the Shoal Creek abides, very easy to miss completely if one isn’t exploring and open to such an understated and quiet flow of water coursing within the city.

Near 6th Street downtown, Shoal Creek is flanked by the deep greens of summer
Near busy Lamar Blvd downtown lies the Shoal Creek walk flanked by the refulgent green of summer

If you choose to walk along the water south toward Ladybird Lake, the terrain is broken and has the feeling of a forgotten place—although I am certain that it won’t stay just this way forever…

Shoal Creek below 5th St

The downtown city buildings loom over the water near 6th Street as the creek bends.


Turtle in the creek

Watching for movement below the surface in the parts of the creek that are knee-deep, I occasionally see tiny fish zipping about or a turtle in its habitat, and it’s clear that the little creatures who live here are also being watchful in return.

 

 

 

 

To 38th St post

Walking northward and tracing toward the source of the flow, the path winds between the water on one side and the streets on the other. Signposts may provide a sense of direction and possibly hearken to an older time when maps and guides were not virtual but instead physical, showing the smudges and marks of wear.

 


Past the football field at House Park and just beyond 12th St., one can cross from Lamar Boulevard over the creek bank on the foot bridge to Pease Park, one of the city’s best places to experience the outdoors.

The bridge to Pease Park

Pease Park and it’s accompanying green belts along the creek bring us into the realm of an older Austin and its time as a town once named Waterloo in the first half of the 1800s. According to local sources, in the 1840s a Mexican invasion took place at one point, and a number of skirmishes occurred between European settlers and Native Americans. I have read that Robert E. Lee and soldiers under his command once camped along Shoal Creek, and apparently during Reconstruction, General George Custer and his men were stationed here as well. In 1875, Governor E. M. Pease and his wife conferred the land of Pease Park to the citizens of Austin.

1875 Pease Park date sign

Purple flowers in the park

 

This park is the site of an Austin tradition: Eeyore’s birthday party. The famously oft-forgotten cumpleaños of Winnie the Pooh’s sad donkey friend are celebrated with great cheer in the park annually. The protectors of the park certainly deserve their due for contributing to and maintaining its natural beauty.

 

 

 

Tree canopy in Pease Park

Beneath the canopy of trees I have more than once thought of my family in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, California, and in Northern Ireland and here in Texas as well as those whose location can no longer be named.

 

A barely noticeable hawk glides in the blue sky
barely noticeable hawks glide high above

 

Shoal Creek park view

 

At times, walking along the creek can provide the illusion of being far away from civilization while in reality being firmly within the city limits.

 

 

 

Clear path in Pease park

 

Eventually, the heat of Central Texas turns the grass to a dry, golden color as the summer progresses…

 

 

 

The path winds on, and as it does, I notice that summer is beginning to fade. The colors of fall have been summoned by time and the gradually descending temperatures.

Fall 2015 on the trail

Fall and the wooded path

Before returning on the path, I wish you great luck in finding the places that strike just the right balance of a natural setting and a nurturing experience. May the bridges you cross and the connections you make lead to valuable and welcoming places.

concrete foot bridge over creek

Words and photos by C.S.

 

The Rockford Files Saved My Life (…maybe that’s a stretch)

More than once in my life, I have found it a really enjoyable surprise that viewing an old television show or film has sometimes made for a strangely supportive experience when I haven’t quite felt like myself.  I may not be a private detective, a veteran of wartime service, or an ex-con for a crime I didn’t commit, but James Garner’s famous character Jim Rockford seems to have shown up on my screen right at the moment when I needed to see someone who can both roll with a punch as well as improv his way through a harrowing situation.  Since my days as an undergraduate religion major, I have known that storytelling has always played a key role in human culture, and as it turns out, this may even include detective shows from the irrepressible 1970s.

Smiley Rockford
Moving from Southeastern Pennsylvania to Central Texas was the journey of a lifetime.  However, I would have been neglecting a big part of the challenge in this move (and possibly setting myself up for failure) if I didn’t also take a serious look at the emotional side of climbing that particular hill.  It’s not that I underestimated what the move would involve and entail, but it was more of the idea that moving far from the city where one has lived for thirty-four years is not necessarily going to follow a neat script.  At times, an old television episode or a near-forgotten favorite song from decades ago playing on the radio helped me to feel at home in my new part of the country.

My wife and I made our move to Texas at the very end of my seventh year of teaching in an embattled inner-city Philadelphia public high school that had left me yearning for something new in terms of geography and state of mind.  My wife was able to keep her exact same job and move wherever she wanted in the country, so we decided to go with our gut feelings and make a move that would soon put us on a cul-de-sac in a new home that lies on the southern rim of the capital of Texas.  My job was to find a new line of work or a new version of my old one.  I engaged this task thoughtfully but a bit hesitantly, for I am not one to take or quit jobs lightly.  As the summer went on, the mercury went up in a record-breaking way with the scorching heat drying out the sod of our newly lain lawn.  I wasn’t keeping up very well with the basics of being a new Texas homeowner, and having dropped the ball in caring for our lawn, I watched as it lost its green and hopeful color.


Through July 2011, our first full month in our new home, I had some money coming in, my “summer money” for completing the school year that had ended at the close of June, so I didn’t panic.  I felt exhausted from the cumulative experience of those years of teaching while also stimulated and uplifted by our new home and the warmth of the people in our new city and state.  Meredith did a lot of legwork on that newfangled gizmo, the internet, to find me a variety of openings at universities and also information about getting back in the instructional saddle.  After July had passed, I was beginning to weigh more and more the financial pressure of our having bought a new home and fairly recent model used car.  I went on phone interviews, in-person interviews, and final round multi-tiered interviews that required presentations and timed completion of projects.

After searching for a job (and for vital ideas in some new and old books) unsuccessfully in August, things got interesting in the month that marks the turning of the fall.  Suddenly, my wife and I had adopted a rescued puppy, and with Meredith’s help, I had impressed some recruiters and administrators at one of the best and most student achievement-driven charter school programs for high-need students in the entire country.  I taught some sample lessons as a try-out to see if I would work as a permanent teacher for a pair of 9th-grade classes.  It didn’t work out, but it was an educational experience to be back in the classroom with a critical eye applied to my instruction.  I was re-learning that when it comes to searching for something of real value, one often has to put aside the way the search feels and simply persevere.

As a person who can behave overly emotionally, I definitely made my wife feel at times that I wasn’t grateful for her or all the support I had or for living blessings like Jeffrey, our vibrant little puppy.  I’ve always been somewhat like my father, a song-writer who is also very emotionally intense and someone not easily categorized.  Sometimes, I see what I want to see and search for more of it instead of dealing proactively with the parts of life that are not always dramatically rewarding but absolutely necessary.  As I was growing up, there’s no question that my Mom’s example was a yin to some of this yang, but I have never felt that I was using common sense as well as she often modeled it for me.  In September, despite all the positive things going for me, I felt myself off balance and upset about everything from my absence of income to my need to adapt to living in a part of the country where my feet cannot get me much of anywhere that is useful or familiar to me.


One day that September, I played in a few contentious basketball games at the gym where my wife and I work out.  I had some good young teammates, and they seemed pleasantly surprised at the way I was able to score and rebound in the first game that we won.  After winning two games, the third team we played had some guys who were angry that they had lost to us earlier.  I scored our opening basket, and the guy who was covering me was furious for the rest of the game.  I got into arguments with several guys on this opposing team.

Things came to a head when the guy who was guarding me cheated me on a call.  My own teammates didn’t back me up; they simply didn’t know me very well and my arguments with these guys during the game made it look like I was the problem.  Despite these harsh interactions, I stayed as diplomatic as possible, kept giving everybody five, and contributed to our team playing well.  When I was leaving, I gave one last handshake to each of the three guys with whom I had argued.  I did get the satisfaction of winning on this occasion, but I was struggling with aspects of the overall shift that was taking place in my life.

When I was leaving the gym, some of the frustrations of finance, employment, and adjustment in my new home state all came on again with the fresh sting of having been angry and isolated from the other players.  Meredith became saddened as my own self-involvement was beginning to take away the joy of an invigorating outing at the gym.  I put myself on notice mentally to buckle down emotionally and re-spin it positively because quite frankly it was the right thing to do.  If I was upset about a lack of team feeling half an hour earlier, I knew that right there sitting next to her in the car was where the really important teamwork has to happen.

That night I happened to come across a reference in a movie review to the Rockford Files television show.  I was a bit young when the show was on its first run, but I had seen re-runs and knew that all three of my parents had always enjoyed the plots and the humor of the show and its main character played by James Garner.  Garner’s Jim Rockford is a private detective whose back story is that he’s an ex-con, but he wasn’t a participant in the crime for which he was sent to prison.  The cops dislike him even though or perhaps because he is better at solving crimes than many of them, and Garner’s portrait of him combines a low-rent quality with a strange combination of polish, irascibility and eventual genuineness that make him sympathetic.  I am something of a fan of detective shows, so I decided to stream the pilot episode of The Rockford Files, which was fortunately available on the web.  I felt right at home when I noticed immediately that the pilot episode featured Lindsay Wagner, who would go on to become the Bionic Woman—a can’t miss heroine for a boy born in 1972!

Oklahoma Garner targa

I enjoyed watching the program and felt that it had struck a chord.  I watched a few more episodes the next day, and I realized that the virtue of the Jim Rockford character was that he was able to serve as a surprise agent of what’s right in a world that was often wrong.  The world, the establishment had been wrong about him, and he had gone to jail for it.  However, he kept on figuring it out, living in that ridiculously unbelievable trailer on the beach in L.A.  He wasn’t utterly disconnected or adrift—he had a likeable but fuzzy father and several associates, but he had to prove himself nearly all the time to everyone.  In this series, Garner gave us an imperfect champion who was more dynamic than Peter Falk’s steady and inexorable genius as official detective Lt. Columbo and a bit less overwhelmed by a brutal, treacherous world as were 70’s film P.I.’s like Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown or Hackman’s Harry Moseby in Night Moves.  I know that the small screen requires a winner each week, and yet what mattered was how Rockford won—always exasperated and on the brink of death and bankruptcy, but figuring it out as a free agent who knew that some things are right and some are wrong.

It was this idea of a character who was constantly proving himself to skeptical others that helped me to see that I really had no reason to see a negative interpretation in my own life even when I might have run into a hostile (or seemingly so) situation.  As a public school teacher or as a streetball player, I had to prove my abilities and figure out how to solve plenty of problems.  And it would be totally dishonest to characterize my life experience as anything other than very lucky and hopeful.  As it turns out, James Garner had to prove himself in a big way to make it to an acting career.  I was surprised to read that Mr. Garner had actually been awarded a purple heart for fighting and being wounded in the Korean War.  Every once in a while, something on the screen in front of us helps us to see what’s happening all around us more clearly.  I like the shows with a sense of mission about them, such as Star Trek, The West Wing, or Parks and Recreation.  Whether it’s a relative “little guy” like Jim Rockford or a towering figure in the fictional society like Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet, well-written characters and great storytelling point us toward an appreciation of real life.  Perhaps one reliable message conveyed through the exploits of these characters is that we all have a part to play in solving the mystery and doing what’s right even when the reward isn’t always clear.

9-26-2011, C.S.

The Sydney Experience

One evening in May 2015, I was racing as fast as I could while holding up a tuxedo in my one good hand on Pitt Street as everyone was finishing the work day in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Dusk was just arriving, and I was sprinting southward on this distinguished street weaving around natives and tourists alike in an effort to get my days-overdue tux returned. Albert Pisani of Man About Town suit hire was awaiting—but only for a few minutes, he had said on the phone. My wife and I had cut our trip to the Blue Mountains short having barely glimpsed those storied cliffs from too far off. As I ran, it was as if a director had yelled “Action!” while the boom camera was positioned to capture my race against the clock. The whole thing was ridiculous, but I did enjoy that feeling of running within a city as far from home as I’d ever been like I belonged there—past the shopping, the traffic lights, and Sydney’s abundance of corporate logos.

We weren’t the most obvious choice to make a 17-hour flight from Dallas to Sydney (22 hours when you count our morning fog diversion to Auckland, New Zealand). In 2004 I had backed out of a flight from Pennsylvania to Oregon with a case of air scares, and my wife has found turbulence to be a four-letter word in the past few years. So the longest mileage flight operating in the world was possibly a stretch for us. Nevertheless, we used the same preparation and resolve that got us through previous travels across the U.S. and to Ireland along with Kindles, on-board movies, and various meals and snacks. When you’re on a flight that lasts the better part of a full day in economy seating, strange behaviors emerge, like when we devoured entire Kit-Kats in seconds when the steward surprised us with a snack delivery at the 12-hour mark.

She's on a boatWe were in Sydney for the wedding of a good friend of my wife from her University of Texas days. I was nursing a sports injury of a broken knuckle, but no way would I let that dampen the spirits of such a trip. The happy wedding couple certainly made the most of their amazing city for their guests. Our hotel on the North side offered an excellent view of the Harbor Bridge, and the bride and groom also set their guests up with a harbor cruise that was delightfully smooth sailing for us land lubbers.

Classic Opera House-Bridge view

Travel provides a direct experience, and sometimes the smallest of elements can be quite memorable. The wedding site was the chapel of the Church of England school campus that the groom had attended as a youth. On the afternoon of the wedding (which came off beautifully), as we waited for all of the guests, we noticed a few black birds flitting about and perching atop the campus buildings. They were noticeable especially for their odd vocals, a kind of otherworldly, mournful yodeling. As I listened and reflected I thought, intuitively they’re ravens! At that moment, the “Nevermore” of Poe’s great poem suddenly registered for me. When I did some brief research later, I found that it was true: Sydney was home to ravens—in all of their uncommon beauty and character.

The Opera House is located on the South Harbor, a distinctive metropolitan setting that we will not soon forget. On that southern wharf, you can sit at the Opera House Kitchen and sample the modern, Asian-influenced menu and enjoy some delicious regional wines as the cool winds drift over the water. But as one might suspect, adjusting to the time difference as a foreign traveler is no small challenge to master. At 9:00 pm of our first complete day in the city, we attended the ballet “The Dream” based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Sydney Opera House. It was just as magical of an experience as billed. The dancing, the symphonic music, and that astounding structure all made for a great night—while we resisted a tremendous sleepiness. As we were finding our seats on the outcropping of the mezzanine level, I happened to peek over and look down in front of my seat. On the back of one of the light fixtures, there was a small, lone, dusty sticker that read “Life could be a dream.”

Opera House Dusk

That night and those words presented a fitting opening move on the part of this landmark city. Language and phrasing were particularly interesting aspects of our trip. I noticed that the word bit was used the way Americans would use part, as in “other bits of the economy.” The short “e” in neck often sounds like a short “i” sound, so a salesperson on TV might be heard to encourage people to “chick it out.” We were fairly tickled when a proud member of a professional rugby team told an interviewer in the classic accent, “Evuh since I wuz a little kid, I always wanted to be a Wallaby.” We noticed that some familiar brand names were different—for example the fast food chain Burger King is known as Hungry Jack’s. But our favorite unofficial branding was for a type of sporty legwear in a women’s store at the shopping mall. A sign in magic marker read “Flashdance Pants.”

In the Southern Hemisphere, the perspective is a little different, cosmically speaking. When I looked up at the night sky, I didn’t recognize the familiar man in the moon. After a little while, I realized that “he” was sideways as was Orion’s Belt. For years those three nearly aligned stars were an astronomical marker of significance for my dad; now the Belt stood on its side as if to show that times had changed and that Mere and I had traveled quite far.

Roos 2The Taronga Zoo was another highlight of our trip. After a short ferry ride from Sydney Harbor, we boarded a cable car and made our way over the zoo from a short distance above. As we strolled about, the kangaroos relaxed in their fold, while a joey peeked out of his mother’s pouch. The wallabies hopped and played in their enclosure like kids in the schoolyard. We met a Koala named Sydney and posed for a picture near her while carefully noting her sharp claws.

Una coppia allo zoo

Slight detail of botanicalThe Sydney Botanical Gardens were everything we hoped for and more. In those expansive Gardens inside the city we saw exotic birds and immense trees that seemed to be from the fables. Inspired by her grandmother’s love of botany, my wife examined and photographed some of the prettiest flora that we had ever come across.

 

Wine snipNature played an important role in another adventure we had: our trip to the Hunter Valley vineyards. We enjoyed the sense of panache and good humor of Glandore Estate Wines, and their Hunter Shiraz was delicious. At Lambloch Estate, I appreciated the hosting vintner’s ethical dictum that “the price of a wine should be what it costs to produce the wine.” I couldn’t help but think of our parents during this part of the trip, and as our shuttle ferried us about the green countryside, I remembered the similar rides we had taken from Dublin to Omagh in Ireland.

 

To travel well you have to practice, and it is so important to have a great partner with whom to share everything—I’m very lucky to have as a partner a highly practical planner and a thoughtful participant in just about any situation or adventure. She was very understanding about that nearly forgotten tuxedo. We witnessed a superbly celebrated wedding and explored so many moments that only Sydney could offer. We returned to Texas with the feeling that we had made a good decision to make this trip. When we are at our best, we give each step proper consideration before we take it, and we explore when we can because life could be a dream.

dusk snip of Zachary Way

The Many Sounds of Jazz – Part 1

In 1998, I bought a used CD of a 1979 Sonny Rollins LP, and it became my doorway to being a lover of the music called jazz. My father once commented that I wasn’t supposed to like jazz—and the wonder of this comment was that it was a compliment. He meant that he was surprised and impressed that someone who grew up with and loved pop music and couldn’t read or play music would become a devoted listener and collector of jazz. Here is a list of jazz recordings that have moved me considerably with some short notes on why. Some hard-to-categorize albums are included because of their kinship with jazz in terms of design and creativity. Albums are in no particular order. Both orchestral jazz and later developments in the music will be included in Part 2. Most of the selections are LP’s and original CD’s, but there are rare instances of multi-album sets.

1st Set – Jazz Modern and Classic:      

1. Moanin’ (1958, Blue Note) – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

If you like your jazz in the form of the blues, this is a perfect album. It is a standard jazz quintet (piano, bass, and drums plus trumpet and tenor saxophone) manned by geniuses at every position. I recently shared this album with a guy who was a big fan of Stevie Wonder, Yes, and prog rock in general. After he listened to it, he said, “Wow, great music—where can I get more like it?” My reply was that it was a little bit like asking where you can get more of Abbey Road by the Beatles. Along with Art’s vibrant drumming style, the brilliance of this album emerges in the original compositions by pianist Bobby Timmons and the band’s then musical director and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson. On the piano, Timmons plays dense, almost gothic-sounding blues chords in his solos while Golson’s melodies and structures constantly surprise and excite. The Philadelphia-born Lee Morgan at the young age of 20 here, supplies some of the most spine-tingling and riveting trumpet solos I’ve ever heard. Ready for great music? Give Moanin’ a listen. It’s incredibly rich and original.

 

2. Live at the Pershing: But Not for Me (1958, Chess) – Ahmad Jamal

Over the course of his sixty-plus year (and still going) career, Jamal has consistently gravitated to the classic trio format, and his command of the piano is second to none. This album is a superb illustration of pitch-perfect wittiness, invention and stellar rhythm delivered live at the Pershing Club in Chicago. The eight-minute rendition of Poinciana on this record was edited and successfully charted as an R&B hit—and with good reason. Jamal’s performance of the closing track, “What’s New,” is reflective and surprisingly ominous in the final bars. The keynote achievement of this music is that it is innovative but very accessible.

 

3. Sonny Side Up (1957, Verve) – John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie with Sonny Stitt & Sonny Rollins

This album is a knockout presentation of the vibrancy and musicality that is possible when great jazz musicians get together. Dizzy provides a vocal on the opening tune and then his trumpet and the dueling tenor saxophones of the two Sonnies get all fired up from there. The Eternal Triangle is a 14-minute high energy jazz battle between Stitt and Rollins. After Hours is the greatest blues I’ve ever heard – Ray Bryant’s extended piano intro really sets things up and then Diz can be heard on the perimeter verbally stoking and tweaking his two saxophonists as these two champions heat things up. This is beautiful, proud Black American music of a perfect vintage and superb craftsmanship.

 

4. Concert by the Sea (1955, Columbia) – Erroll Garner

Erroll Garner is best known as the author of the jazz standard “Misty,” and this live concert recorded in Carmel, California is one of his most dynamic and complete recordings. The opener, “I’ll Remember April,” is quite simply a staggering display of piano wizardry. On the keys, Garner uses trills, staccato riffs, light twinklings, and then produces expansive, driving sections that sweep the listeners into his world. The audio on this recording is not very good, and Erroll’s famous background humming and vocalizing can be heard throughout the album—hilarious in its own way and somehow unmistakably authentic. The trio’s rendition of the standard “Autumn Leaves” is particularly rich in melody, pomp and sentiment. Like Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner was one of those uncommon musical talents who also comes across as being very centered, joyful, and lacking in egotism—and this comes through in the spontaneous one-liner that ends the album. Pure Brilliance.

 

5. Mosaic (1961, Blue Note) – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

This version of the Jazz Messengers is a sextet that retains only drummer Blakey and bassist Jymie Merritt from the earlier Moanin’ session. This recording introduces the piano of Cedar Walton, the tenor saxophone of Wayne Shorter, the trombone of Curtis Fuller, and the trumpet of one Freddie Hubbard. All of the compositions are new ones contributed by the group members, and the tunes have a searching, intense quality to them. The most beautiful might be Wayne Shorter’s “Children of the Night,” but all of them resonate. Art unleashes a galvanizing drum solo on the title track, and Jymie Merritt’s bass hums perfectly on Freddie Hubbard’s closer “Crisis”—which appropriately sounds like something emergent is happening. As it turned out that was quite true; these new messengers and their communications had unmistakably arrived.

 

6. The Cannonball Adderley Quintet Plus (1961, Riverside)

There’s something of a soul music crossover here on this album along with its genuine straight-ahead jazz pedigree. After all, when you cover Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” and the Charlie Parker associated “Star Eyes” this well, you are firmly in jazz territory. But there’s something else going on too. Cannon’s alto sax solos are fluid and gorgeous as can be, but the vibraphones of Victor Feldman give the music an ethereal quality that complements the night-time, street scene imagery conjured by these tunes. Feldman’s brilliant tune “Lisa” is perfectly designed and expertly played by the group—check and mate. How did that one not become a giant hit and a jazz standard? The opener “Arriving Soon” is also quite a scene-setter, and the whole session is a gem of the post-bop era.

 

7. What’s New (1962, Bluebird/RCA) – Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins What's New

While Saxophone Colossus and The Bridge are often at the top of many lists of great jazz recordings and/or superior Rollins recordings (and rightfully so), I want to call attention to this one because of Sonny’s melodic improvisation in the context of island rhythms and Brazilian stylings. Three of the album’s five tracks feature Jim Hall’s electric guitar, and his brilliance as both a soloist and an accompanist is on full display in the Bossa Nova-oriented tunes. On “Jungoso” and “Bluesongo” Sonny performs in primal duets with percussionist Candido on congas. Sonny’s tenor saxophone sounds authoritative and endlessly creative, and this piano-less group answers the album title’s question with great skill and spirit.

 

8. Kind of Blue (1959, Columbia) – Miles Davis

Miles Davis is a fairly provocative figure in terms of his personality and history. Putting that aside for a moment, this recording is the best-selling jazz album of all time with good reason. Miles’s compositions are timeless, and the group is positively top-notch. John Coltrane is full of ideas on “All Blues,” and Cannonball Adderley plays with gorgeous lyricism on both takes of “Flamenco Sketches.” Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly shine on piano, while Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers anchor the flawless rhythm section. It would be disingenuous not to include this in any list of highly listenable jazz recordings.

 

9. Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (1962, Impulse)

Two all-time jazz masters play (for the first and only time) in an octet grouping culled from Duke’s orchestra. Hawkins’s tenor saxophone has its characteristic deep, rich sound, and he sounds perfect on this set of Ellington originals. One of the highlights is the “Self-Portrait of the Bean,” which was written especially as a vehicle for Hawk. Ray Nance switches over to violin to great effect for a few tunes, and this includes the beautiful, almost hypnotic rendition of Ellington’s “Solitude.”

 

10. The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960, Riverside)

With Tommy Flanagan at the piano in this quartet, Wes Montgomery presents a superior set of takes on a mix of standards and his own originals. This album is one of the most accessible on my list. “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is very pretty and gentle while “D-Natural Blues” lives right up to its name—perfectly poised, melodic and at home in the idiom. “Mr. Walker” might be my favorite track with its sense of mid-tempo drive and attitude. This is a superb look at authentic jazz in the small group outing that published Wes’s greatness on the electric guitar. He would become known as “The Thumb”!

 

2nd Set – Voices in Jazz

11. Ella Fitzgerald In Budapest (Recorded in 1970, Pablo)

This live concert recording was not released until 1999, and as a fan of Ella’s singing beyond the bebop years, I find this to be my favorite album of hers. Tommy Flanagan plays piano, and Ella provides her uniquely energetic interpretations of the songs of Duke Ellington, Burt Bacharach and even Blood, Sweat & Tears. She has such a strong sense of humor and presence along with her vocal gifts, and we are lucky to have this great road show documenting her in peak form.

 

12. Sassy Swings the Tivoli (1963, Mercury) – Sarah Vaughan

This gold standard recording was created at the Tivoli Garden in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is a double-album (now a double CD) that was produced by the famous Quincy Jones, and it’s loaded with emotion, poise, and rich vocal artistry. Sarah sings a wealth of standards, including memorable renditions of songs from West Side Story and more overtly jazz-oriented material such as “Lover Man.” In the song “Misty,” pianist Kirk Stuart sings a duet with Vaughan in what turns out to be a sensitive yet almost vaudevillian performance in its showmanship. A great recording, just before the ‘60s became the turbulent decade we now remember it to be.

 

13. The Hottest New Group in Jazz (Recorded 1960-1962, Columbia) – Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross

Vocalese is the art of creating lyrics and vocals based on original jazz compositions and solos. This innovation went beyond mere scat-singing to honor great instrumentalists and explore new angles and layers in classic works of jazz. One of the best early practitioners of vocalese was the awesomely stage-named King Pleasure, and there was also the amazing Eddie Jefferson, who wrote lyrics to Coleman Hawkins’s famous improvisation of the standard “Body and Soul.” This group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross are vocalese musicians who brought this technique into a feature presentation mode. This Hottest New Group CD is actually a compilation of 3 complete albums titled after their first one for Columbia. Jon Hendricks and his cohorts are in particularly superb form in their takes on the Ellington songbook. Annie Ross is hilariously cheeky on “Rocks in My Bed,” and the whole group shines on “Main Stem.” On “What Am I Here for?” the group waxes with humor and philosophical depth in a compact three minutes. This is frenetic, but well-coordinated vocalization built on decades of classic jazz.

 

14. Wild is the Wind (1965, Philips) – Nina Simone [reissued in a two-album CD w/ High Priestess of Soul]

Nina Wild as the Wind

From the spare beauty of the album cover to the unusual and striking set of songs herein, This Wild is a remarkable set. The title track is a ferociously romantic portrait as it is sung by Simone, and her original “Four Women” is one of the most haunting and socially conscious African-American ballads since Billie Holiday’s phenomenal “Strange Fruit.” Some of these tunes have a pop-symphonic structure while others are squarely in the jazz genre, but there’s no point to being a purist when Nina Simone is singing—whatever she wants to sing is OK with me.

 

15. Bop for Miles (Recorded 1990 & 1999, High Note) – Mark Murphy

On Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual television program in the 1960s, Mel Torme once said of Mark Murphy, “I think he’s an interesting singer, but I don’t think he’s a jazz singer.” Fifty years later, I would submit that he is both interesting AND an accomplished jazz singer. Murphy loves to scat, writes very canny lyrics, and possesses a rich vocal timbre. He also has a gift for infusing poetic storytelling and spoken word into his performances. On this tribute to Miles Davis, Murphy concludes the album with a heartfelt original song for the great trumpeter. The highlight for me is the up-tempo take of “Autumn Leaves” with an unbelievably beautiful and riveting piano solo by Peter Mihelich. An uncommon recording and a worthy tribute to Davis.

 

16. The Great Summit (Recorded 1961, Roulette) – Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington

The 17 songs that comprise these recordings paired the piano and written repertoire of the great Duke Ellington with Jazz’s one-man orchestra Louis Armstrong. The backing band is primarily Satchmo’s band members of the time, and they tackle the classics of the Ellington songbook with poise and humor. Apparently Duke Ellington also wrote “The Beautiful American” and the closing tune “Azalea” especially for this session, and Louis gives them all the care that these brilliant originals merit. A great album to hear Louis and a delightful glimpse at Ellington playing piano in a smaller than usual grouping for him.

 

17. Getz/Gilberto (1963, Verve) – Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto with Antonio Carlos Jobim

This recording is best known for “The Girl from Ipanema” with Astrud Gilberto’s vocal, but there is a lot of great music here along with that iconic single. Every track is rich in melody, and “Corcovado” in particular is truly arresting in its beauty. The acoustics and arrangements sound crystal clear as usual on Verve’s Master Edition reissue of the album, and its capture of the Best Album Grammy award for 1964 is completely justified.

 

18. Two Men with the Blues (2008, Blue Note/Angel) – Wynton Marsalis & Willie Nelson

These two men speak the language of music, and they are very much at home in the same dialect on this legitimately bluesy and swinging set of takes. Some tracks are recorded live, and all of them sound naturally and instinctively executed. Willie takes the majority of vocals, but Wynton chimes in on the hilarious “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” Many classics are given stellar treatment here, including a poetic “Stardust” and a  reading of “Down by the Riverside.” The one tune that makes me wince a bit at the lyrical content is “Ain’t nobody’s business” with its self-centered misogyny, but in some ways it’s a logical fit in a collaboration that is certainly no white-wash of musical history.

 

19. Encounter (1976, Milestone) – Flora Purim

Joining with fantastic instrumentalists like sax wizard Joe Henderson and pianist McCoy Tyner, the adventurous jazz-fusion singer Flora Purim delivers a diverse set of brilliant tracks here. Chick Corea’s “Windows” is given a superb reading as the opener, and from there the set alternates between energetic wordless vocals and gently put lyrics by Flora. An unusual collection of songs delivered by expert musicians.

 

20. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963, Impulse)

This recording is one of my absolute favorite Coltrane recordings because of the consideration that he shows while in no way limiting the creativity and sincerity of his approach on the tenor saxophone. Johnny Hartman has a very rich, old-fashioned sounding voice that is perfectly suited to the classic tunes interpreted here. The Coltrane quartet is in exquisite form, and you can really hear Jimmy Garrison’s bass humming gracefully and propelling things along. “Autumn Serenade” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” really come together on this standout vocal/instrumental session.

A View of Religion beyond Belief

As a great songwriter once prompted us, imagine a world without organized religion and its tenets. For a number of outspoken atheists in the young 21st century, such an absence of religion would be the assumed starting point of a far better world than we have now. Scientists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss and the comedian Bill Maher are among the most assertive figures who are propounding the case for a secular worldview and the abandonment of faith-based systems. These critics of organized religion have framed the debate in terms of observable facts and logic, and in view of how human knowledge has changed so profoundly in recent centuries, religion certainly cannot be above analysis or satire. However, since our lives involve highly personal impressions and experiences and not simply a litany of indisputably factual recognitions, human beings will probably have some degree of spiritual orientation for as long as we live. One challenge is how to balance our human yearnings, insecurities, and imaginations with the always growing scientific knowledge that our species is constantly developing.

A Long-standing Debate

Atheists typically have argued that if in fact all of the world’s religious texts are solely of human authorship—i.e. “made up,” then people should abandon religion altogether. After all, if both the morality and the scientific worldview conveyed in the scriptures are highly flawed, then it makes little sense to follow religion as a guide for belief or action. When the prominent historical religions of the East and West are examined in terms of their scriptures and traditions, it is fairly clear that the emphasis is on moral truths and rituals but not verifiable facts. These ancient systems of belief were not built to stand up to an objective scrutiny. They addressed something deeper—the human need for meaning and moral structure, and they did it mainly through stories and rules.

These stories and rules reflect human imagination, but they also reflect the personal insecurities and cultural assumptions of a more primitive human existence. For just one example, the Hebrew Scriptures have a plethora of gender-biased retribution, fear of menstruation, and open allowance of violence and slavery in books such as Numbers and Leviticus. The modern world is increasingly becoming a place where traditional assumptions are challenged and irrational fears and insecurities are rejected as a basis for laws or actions. What we have left is imagination and the human instinct for storytelling, which is a more enduring and arguably relevant feature of religions and mythological systems.

The Wheel of Storytelling

Stories are a uniquely human invention. They are products of human inspiration and craftsmanship whether they are fictional or strongly grounded in facts. The growth and advancement of human civilization can be traced in conjunction with the growth of our ability to create and disseminate stories of all kinds and genres about ourselves. Well-told stories have the power to entertain, but they can do something more: stories educate us by providing a sense of parallelism between the reader and the subject of the story even when there may be a great disparity of experience between these two. If we can acknowledge the mythical components of all religions in the same way that most modern people view the Greek and Roman myths, then we can move on to a more important issue, which is not a clash of truths, but a rewarding survey in the library of human ingenuity. Whether a person reads from the Torah, the Qur’an, stories of Athena, Zen parables, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, or Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, it is possible to gain wisdom from all or none of these books—it depends on how they are read. Purportedly religious texts are neither superior nor inferior to other works of literature and art. If we can enjoy and be inspired by fiction and legends, why would it be unfavorable to categorize religious texts as some of the richest and most sociologically instructive works of fiction, tradition and legend ever written? Many great religious teachers past and present have taken this view.

Practical Considerations

In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that religions are impractical, fallacious, and unnecessary systems of thought. While I endorse most of Dawkins’s criticisms of organized religions, I would invite the examination of specific aspects of religion and especially religious texts. The work of the author Joseph Campbell greatly illuminated the storytelling component of the world’s religions and myths and showed that disparate cultures that had had no contact with each other fashioned mythical stories with uncanny similarities and shared patterns. These stories helped to organize and give empowering direction to our distant ancestors. Earlier this year, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari published his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, in which he comments on the important role of storytelling for our species over thousands of years. As I acknowledged earlier, much of the rules and cultural mores of ancient religions are clearly flawed, but to this day the stories—even when viewed with no lens of holiness—teach us much about human motivation, society, and character.

Eastern religions have made some very practical contributions to civilization in the form of yoga and mindfulness meditation, both of which are associated with substantial health benefits. In the late 1980s, a group of western neuroscientists began a series of conversations with scholars and monks of Tibetan Buddhism that went on to include the current Dalai Lama. These meetings officially became the Mind and Life Institute, and it has generated fruitful exchanges of ideas involving scientists such as Paul Ekman and Daniel Goleman with highly trained Buddhist meditation practitioners. In May of 2001, the Institute’s work involved the use of functional MRI’s and other laboratory research to verify and analyze how a highly trained Buddhist monk can alter his bodily functions and physiological responses to stimuli. By use of breathing techniques and varieties of meditation developed over centuries, this monk was able to restrain his natural startle reflex and demonstrate peak levels of focus, calmness, and observation in various experiments. The Mind and Life Institute considers its mission to advance knowledge and improve the lives of sentient beings, and the Dalai Lama has played a key role in this work as both an enthusiast of scientific discovery and a spiritual leader.

Examining Traditions and Navigating the Present 

These kinds of exchanges and developments don’t necessarily point to the idea that everyone ought to be practicing Buddhism or doing yoga or joining a church. Instead, these exchanges show that we should examine beliefs and traditions and find what can be genuinely productive. Sometimes the value is subtle and tucked away. I may not be a proponent of prayer, but instead of seeing prayers as foolish attempts at wish fulfillment, I like to think about what people’s prayers say about themselves and how they may be an intangible part of a bigger story. Religious scriptures are certainly not science textbooks nor are they unassailable legislative guides. We can read the book of Job for insight into suffering, and we can turn to Newton, Galileo, and Einstein for information about the structure and tendencies of our universe. And as most modern societies have done, when we require laws and standards of conduct, we engage in the effort to write them and progressively improve them instead of relying on the laws of the ancients. Many people correctly point out that the communal aspect of organized religion serves a valuable role. For nonbelievers, ethical humanist societies and organizations provide an important vehicle for discussion and social functions such as weddings that would ordinarily be handled by a church or other religious institution. When religious ceremony or tradition doesn’t meet the needs of an individual then it is time for her to establish new practices and communities as an increasing number of people are doing.

Conversation or Conflict?

One challenge for fair-minded nonbelievers is the light in which society views them. In a series of studies that were published in December 2011, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that participants judged atheists to be less trustworthy human beings than Muslims, Christians, gay men, Jewish people, and feminists. The only category of people in the study who were distrusted at a similar rate to atheists was that of rapists. In 2014, the New York Times reported that seven states in the U.S. still have state constitutions with language barring an atheist from serving as an elected official. For example, Mississippi’s constitution states that “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.” Despite the increase in people claiming no religious affiliation, perception of self-described atheists is still negatively clouded even if it is not really founded on any legitimate standard or assumption.

It was partly because of this vague hostility to atheism that the March 2012 Rally for Reason was held in Washington, D.C., gathering together an enthusiastic group of more than 20,000 atheists, secular humanists, and general non-believers. At this event, Richard Dawkins humorously opined that it was quite a remarkable predicament that reason and rationality would need to be defended in the 21st century. All joking aside, it is fairly clear that many people of faith have short-changed their evaluations of atheists and secular humanists in the same way that some atheists are insulting and dismissive toward religious people. In the spring of 2007, neuroscientist Sam Harris debated Pastor Rick Warren on the topic of religious belief. At one point in the debate Warren asserted, “I’ve never met an atheist who wasn’t angry.” This is the kind of attempt to marginalize non-religious people that is going to lose its effectiveness gradually as more people openly ask authentic questions about religious doctrines.

A number of talented scientists and thinkers have made robust contributions to this overall debate in recent years. Sam Harris has done some very perceptive writing in his 2014 book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. He engages in an inquiry about life, experience, and consciousness in order to reclaim the idea of spirituality from a strictly religious context—which I consider to be a worthwhile pursuit. While I agree with Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher on some issues, I think their approaches can occasionally be reductive and vitriolic. For a more even-handed approach, take a look at the writings and statements of the physicist Lawrence Krauss, who has done some impressive work in the conversation on science and in efforts to understand the essential nature of existence. I appreciate Krause and Neil DeGrasse Tyson because they are nonbelievers who display a contagious enthusiasm for debating and sharing ideas, and they often bring up scintillating possibilities and leave open the questions for which they don’t have sufficient data.

The Challenge of the Many Paths

The inability of people to think critically about religious ideas and traditions is a significant problem in our world. We often worry about the danger of loose nuclear weapons, but we have a danger in loose metaphors and parables that are misread to be facts. When religions are viewed and practiced as if they are fundamentally and literally true, many practitioners end up with a series of unquestionable but flawed answers to questions that they never actually asked. None of this is to say that it is wrong to believe in some form of life after death or to believe in important principles. We live for a relatively short time with the backdrop of the stunningly vast and ancient canvas of the universe (or multi-verse) with all of its amazing substances and energies. We are still learning to understand aspects of the atom. Who is to say what forms of life will emerge over millions of years just as we have emerged? Maybe we will live again in a new way.

We should invite people to analyze the old scriptures and dogmas to understand the limitations of these documents. Science, experience, and inquiry are always producing new material that we can shape into new myths and accounts that will add to the store of inspired literature and meaningful narratives that push us forward toward progress, knowledge, and moments of happiness. Rather than seeing people abandon religion, I would prefer to see religious leaders and institutions emphasize the human creativity and myth-making at their foundation. If human beings can see clearly our capacity for both ingenuity and error, we are likely to be wiser travelers on our many paths.

C.S.

Part 3 of The List & Coda

17. Wildewoman, Lucius (2013)

I became aware of this recording because of the endorsement of NPR’s Bob Boilen. In his introduction of the song “Tempest” from this album, Boilen stressed the way that the songs build, and boy did that come through for me when I listened to this entire album. The 21st century has seen some phenomenal musicians developing their craft, but I have been slow to embrace the current generation. Bands such as Death Cab for Cutie and Coldplay have recorded many great songs. Solo artists like Adele, Pink, Regina Spektor, Jamie Cullum and Bruno Marrs have shown that there is a lot of polished talent and creativity in 21st century pop music. In Wildewoman, the group Lucius has made an album that is the best of alt music and music that you can dance to and sing along with. The songwriting is primarily supplied by the band’s two female lead singers, Jess Wolf and Holly Laessig, who sing with beauty and great personal fire. On songs such as “Turn it Around,” there is a pithy wisdom in the metaphors of the lyrics and a contagious power to the beat. “Tempest” speaks of lovers as “two ships passing” and makes it sound fresher than it should be. I’m not sure if the song “Two of Us on the Run” is technically a ballad, but it is one of the most sincere explorations of true lovers experiencing the challenges of life together that one could imagine. This music is creative and genuine in its messages and its melodies, and I hope that it gets many discoverers as time goes on.

 

18. Graceland, Paul Simon (1986)

Although this album won the Grammy award in 1987 and had significant exposure along with a major single and popular video, I did not listen to it in its entirety until the early 2000s. I am certainly not the first person to be immensely impressed with the enthusiasm for life and the commentary on society that Simon presents in the opening track, “The Boy in the Bubble.” This song begins with the alarming reference of an exploding bomb insidiously conveyed in a baby carriage and pivots into an upbeat catalogue of things occurring in the world at the time—and some things like “lasers in the jungle” that seemed to express the idea that the mid-1980s was a nexus of present and future. Author Steven Pinker’s exhaustive work on the gradual decrease of historical violence, The Better Angels of our Nature, contains a quote from this song that is used to convey the idea of self-concept in a modern progressive society: “The way the camera follows us in slo-mo / The way we look to us all.” As the album continues, the great irony and outstanding poetry of Simon continue to flow on songs such as “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” In retrospect, the single “You Can Call Me Al” fools me into thinking that Simon foresaw the infidelity scandals of televangelists of the 1980’s and (later on President Clinton) when Simon croons that his role model is “gone” and has “ducked back down the alley” with a young woman. The title track expresses the talismanic power of pop legends and cultural reference points as we age well into our 40s (as Simon was doing at the time). Of course this album and Simon’s very impressive follow up in 1990, The Rhythm of the Saints, are also musical partnerships and explorations of sounds from around the world. Graceland featured the talents of many South African musicians including the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo as well as artists such as Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos. Nearing the thirty year mark from its release, Graceland is not finished reminding us of “the way we look to us all.”

 

19. Classified, James Booker (1982)

James Booker was a gay, African-American blues musician from New Orleans who loved to play on tinny, rickety, little pianos. He would make these keyboards come to life despite their limitations, and according to his friends and those that studied his music (like Harry Connick Jr.), Booker was a master of styles and inventive improvisation. I found this recording Classified after reading of it on the online All Music Guide a decade ago, and it is an album rich in show business attitude, humor, sensitivity, and bluesy truth-telling. The opener “All Around the World” has Booker’s perfect combination of genuinely funny delivery and completely authoritative tone. One of the great joys of this album is the fact that Booker performs several instrumental numbers on solo piano in which he stretches out and weaves together beautiful classical piano phrasing and melds it with the blues as he does in the performance of “Angel Eyes.” On “Swedish Rhapsody” he takes the traditional melody and makes it hum on his clinky piano and then sweep at times with the motion of a gently flowing river. Booker’s vocal style is quirky but intense, and his conception of the blues is anything but typical. In 2013 a documentary production of Booker’s life and music was released by filmmaker Lily Keeber. The film Bayou Maharajah: The Troubled Genius of James Booker is a very absorbing look at the man who made this remarkable album.

 

20. Yes, The Pet Shop Boys (2009)

This album has the pure sound of dance music paired with the heart and ambition of great songwriters. Yes features ballads that are beautiful and thought-provoking, and they somehow successfully combine the very personal with the epic. The more upbeat tracks inspire movement and complement propulsion: this CD is a great one for an hour’s drive over open roads. The “King of Rome” is one of the aforementioned ballads that really packs an emotional punch with its central conceit (and almost Grecian in its tragic quality). “Building a Wall” is personally confessional but also historically literate. “Beautiful People” is an upbeat dancer that strikes the right balance between the pursuit of real happiness and fascination with superficial beauty and materialism. “Legacy” is the album’s finale that ambitiously caters to the ego of anyone who has been emotionally wounded and reminds us that we will “get over it.” Whenever I put this CD on and listen after I haven’t heard it in a while, I remember that it is one that I won’t get over any time soon.

 

21. Seduzir, Djavan (1981)

This is a brilliant album entirely in Portuguese language that reflects many of the best elements of late 20th century American r&b and pop music blended and delivered in a Brazilian context. The album’s title is translated in the liner notes as “seducing,” and it is an apt title since the songs are as hypnotic and transporting as any I have ever heard. Listening to this album and becoming acquainted with its many distinctive songs was an education in itself about how music can transcend language. While the song titles are glossed, only tiny fragments of the lyrics are translated; I have always been struck by how clearly the themes emerge and how communicative Djavan’s vocal style and tone are in these songs. The song “A Ilha” (Island) features an unexpected violin release that is laser-precise but feels thoroughly spontaneous. As the solo builds and twists, Djavan reenters with an ad-libbed vocal that doubles the passion. On “Faltando Um Pedaco” (Missing a Piece), the title theme of separation and longing is conveyed with beautiful middle-high notes that are stretched out with alternation of bell-tone and falsetto in perfect measure. The transitions from one song to the next have great variety as an aching ballad about “The Brunette Who Drives One Crazy” gives way to the cocky and brief sketch of a “Jester.” The artist’s vision comes through very strongly, and repeatedly in the album, Djavan’s voice is genuinely outstanding, resonating with the kind of clarity, strength, and perfect tone of phenomenal singers like George Michael, Stevie Wonder, and Chaka Khan. Part of the music’s accessibility for me is fueled by Djavan’s Van Morrison-like ability to contribute wordless vocals that dance and float across the songs, moving beyond words to communicate intuitively with music and emotion.

 

22. The Poet, Bobby Womack (1981)

I love ambitious r&b music, and like both Black Moses and What’s Going On, The Poet is a very ambitious album that is loaded with atmosphere, attitude, and fantastic melodies. The album cover is an absolute classic with Womack sporting a lavender suit while holding his guitar, wearing quintessential giant 80’s sunglasses and holding his hand up communicatively. The album lives up to its cover and title by delivering songs that are not so much universal but personal in their appeal. Womack engages with the listener in signature, conversational interludes and crests on the choral wave of his female background singers. In the song “Lay Your Lovin’ On Me” Womack is unstoppable in his enthusiasm and grasp of infectious rhythm. In the album’s biggest hit song, “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” he crafts an inescapably attractive ballad that is anything but a typical love song. Much of the song’s emphasis is on the tension of love and relationships, and there is an authentic egotism in the song’s ethos that somehow works without undercutting the tenderness of the melody. In some instances the album dates exactly to the time of its early 1980s release in its pop culture references and sonic elements, but the Womack team’s work and the artist’s overarching intentions have resulted in an album that is still compelling in its beauty, reach and panache more than thirty years later. In “Where Do We Go From Here?” Womack closes the album with a reflective ballad that paints the portrait of a relationship at the crossroads. The Poet is 40 minutes of captivating music, perfectly sequenced and featuring a singer who builds his own cult of romantic personality.

 

23. Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos (1992)

In the mid-1980s, following the appearance of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the strong moves made by Madonna and Prince, a kind of gauntlet was thrown down, and many artists, male and female, old and new, stepped forward to record a “statement” song and maybe even a groundbreaking full album. So the late 80’s gave us Sting’s superb recordings “Fragile” and “Englishman in New York” while Madonna released Like a Prayer, her most conceptually and socially ambitious record—and quite a good one for my money. In 1989, Billy Joel recorded “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and the next year, George Michael put forward Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 in an impressive effort to reach for the high ground both creatively and in terms of artistic seriousness. And then in 1992, came Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes—a recording that begins with the thumping page-turner of a song, “Crucify,” issuing a very personal challenge to organized religion. The ethos of the album is something like a feminist response to the 80s—perhaps captured best in the sarcasm-rich song “Silent All These Years.” The entire recording is as honest and unpredictable as Frank Zappa and as crafty and beautifully arranged as Joni Mitchell. Sometimes the honesty is totally off-putting, as in the song “Me and a Gun,” in which Ms. Amos relates the story in a cappella, free-associative lyrics of her own rape. These twelve songs with their beautiful acoustic pianos and varied styles largely escape that synthetic late 80s early 90s sound. The songs show diverse influences; on “Happy Phantom” the whimsical, loping vocal reminds me of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The album closer, the title song, has a statesman-like quality as it catalogues the relatively small-scale experiences that shake our world and move us deeply (the love affairs, the deaths, the crimes etc.) even though they may barely shake the larger landscape. This album, for me, builds on and rewires the statement albums of the late 80s, and it shows where the “alternative” and popular music of future decades could go in the hands of a capable and driven artist.

 

24. The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket (2015)

Jim James and his collaborators in My Morning Jacket have forged a musical catalogue and a style that is an authentic and perfectly constructed combination of soul and rock with very crafty touches of country and folk elements. Those country and folk elements are sometimes simply a pedal steel guitar or a lyrical phrase or title that suggests a rustic setting as in the case of “Hillside Song” (one of the tracks from the expanded edition of this album). As a spiritualist and a skeptical agnostic, I simply love the opening track “Believe (Nobody Knows)” for both its melodic and conceptual sincerity. This music has very real echoes and voicings that remind me of The Who, Pink Floyd, and the Allman Brothers Band in very positive ways. The album as a whole seems to be wrestling with challenging life experiences and loss, but there is so much great work of transmuting these into the material for healing art. The guitars and synthesizers on this album sound fantastic, and if you happen to enjoy this kind of deep, thoughtful classic rock that contains equal measures of drive and reflection, every track has a pivot point that just kind of pulls you in and takes you further on the journey. Maybe the high point is “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall),” wherein the power of human belief and agency are affirmed in a way that does not shortchange the challenges of living in the world. Nature informs this art, and in turn this art comments powerfully on the nature of humanity.

 

25. Enlightenment, Van Morrison (1990)

The veritable font of mystical musicality that is Van Morrison is well known to many around this world. Before I was born, he gave to music the “Moondance” and the unforgettable portrait of the “Brown-Eyed Girl.” When I was 22 years old, I heard my mother’s cassette tape of this album Enlightenment, and it was the beginning of an ongoing commitment to his music. At that time, I was majoring in world religion as an undergraduate student, and I was deeply impressed with the way that Van had taken hold of memory and experience while putting them to music that is reflective and consumed in the search for spiritual attainment. The opener “Real Real Gone” starts things off with a driving electric piano, and it conveys a love of mythic proportions while invoking the names and quotations of great past legends of soul music such as Solomon Burke and Gene Chandler. The title track has a beautiful choral intro that perfectly positions Van to launch a conversation about the nature of existence. There are no easy answers, and the portrait of the self in the song is one that is happily engaged in life and puzzled at its mysteries but pushing to solve them and to find the right mind and way of being. Morrison’s Eastern mysticism in the title track is also paired with the searching Christianity portrayed in the song “Avalon” and its reference to the Holy Grail. The album contains a powerful tribute to old times and youthful memories titled “The Days Before Rock ‘n Roll,” an extended ode that features spoken word paired with singing to tell its story. This album contains so many beautiful moments of meditation on life balanced perfectly between lyrics and instruments, and the song “So Quiet in Here” may be one of the finest examples of this quality. The song features an incredibly sensitive performance on the piano by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, perfectly calibrated strings, and Van’s lyrical portrait of a night with sparkling lights in the distance, sailing ships, and beloved friends. The search for peace and fulfillment goes on, and sometimes we have moments like this one on the journey.

 

Reservations, Equivocations, and Closing Thoughts:

This project of assembling and commenting on my favorite pop, r&b, rock, and blues albums was a journey into the past and a revealing self-examination. While putting this list together, it became difficult to establish or justify the choices of what is included and the tens or even hundreds of albums that I enjoy greatly but didn’t include—hence my list of additional favorites below that I just couldn’t leave unmentioned.

While the digital music age has produced incredible flexibility for choosing our own configurations of music for a variety of listening purposes, the album presents artists with a challenge. Can they craft and sustain a theme, a style, or a musical identity in a way that has the magnetic quality of bringing individuals to listen again and again?

This list is a travelogue of journeys across many minds and landscapes of emotion. I hope that these commentaries have some interesting elements for anyone who reads them. It is dedicated to my mother and father, who helped me to find my love of music.

 

Additional favorites:

Freak Out!, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (1965)
Twenty-something, Jamie Cullum (2003)
The Royal Scam, Steely Dan (1976)
Poetic Champions Compose, Van Morrison (1987)
Sunflower, The Beach Boys (1970)
Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie (2003)
Songs for Silverman, Ben Folds (2005)
Hymns to the Silence, Van Morrison (1991)
Rapture, Anita Baker (1986)
Slow Dancer, Boz Scaggs (1974)
Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen (1987)
Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, George Michael (1990)
White Album, The Beatles (1968)
No Guru No Method No Teacher, Van Morrison (1986)
Mothership Connection, Parliament/Funkadelic (1975)
Farewell, Simply Red (2011)
Thriller, Michael Jackson (1982)
Gaucho, Steely Dan (1981)
Hejira, Joanie Mitchell (1976)
…Nothing Like the Sun, Sting (1987)
Evolver, John Legend (2008)
It Serves You Right to Suffer, John Lee Hooker (1966)

 

Part 2 of The List

9. Abbey Road, The Beatles (1969)

I was born several years after the breakup of the Beatles, but I grew up with the songs of Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Sgt. Pepper. When I began my record collection in the mid 1990s, my father told me that I should definitely acquire Abbey Road. My twenty-year-old CD edition of this album is one that I almost always play from beginning to end without skipping tracks. It’s difficult to explain what brings the songs together in some cases— “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is a strange song to be paired with George Harrison’s beautiful “Something,” and yet these juxtapositions work perfectly because they show that one great freedom of music is the ability to recast lyrical tone through melody and delivery. The Beatles knew intuitively that language could do what George Carlin or Noam Chomsky illustrated—that one could say that “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and have fun with the contradictions in the same way that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” could be a lighthearted and danceable song about a serial killer. The album makes for a perfect swan song for the band. They incorporated strange portraits like “She Came in through the Bathroom Window,” transfixing harmonies in “Because,” storybook rock and roll lullabies such as “Golden Slumbers,” and even poetically delivered complaints about record companies in “You Never Give Me Your Money.” Why did the band cross the road? Clearly, they were on their way to make one of the best rock albums of all time.

 

10. Silk Degrees, Boz Scaggs (1976)

The songs of this album evoke the 1970s in an unmistakable way, and it turns out that this association works out really well. Boz took the best elements of pop, r&b, and soul and combined them each in different measures from song to song. These concoctions turn out to be lasting examples of music that is the nexus of hip, street-smart, and romantic. The songs are riffy and danceable in an irrepressible way. One of my favorites is “Georgia,” which is a great example of Scaggs’s incredible instinct for wedding a driving rhythm and gorgeous melody to a character-focused caper narrative—even if the caper doesn’t go as expected. Aside of the album’s great chart hits such as “Lowdown” and “It’s Over,” the album also has beautiful off-the-beaten-path moments such as the jazz fusion flugelhorn soloing at the end of “Harbor Lights.” Overall, it is an expertly realized album that puts forward the best of the sound of the ‘70s.

 

11. The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd (1974)

Along with Electric Ladyland, this classic by Pink Floyd is one of the two most rock-oriented albums on my gathering here. And along with What’s Going On, it is certainly one of the most serious in tone and probing of the human condition. It has a cinematic gravity to it because of the monumental power of each track and the many interesting sonic special effects that are featured. The background vocals on “The Great Gig in the Sky” are one of my favorite elements, and the expansive saxophone and guitar solos point the listener toward a vision of the grandeur and fragility of life itself. This is one of the best albums for highlighting the distinction between an album and a playlist. The Dark Side of the Moon has a cohesion and relationship from song to song that creates the feeling that you are on a journey to witness a fantastic and terrifying galaxy with Pink Floyd as the experienced mission crew.

 

12. Live – the Loom’s Desire, Laura Nyro (1994, released in 2002)

This album is the closest to a compilation/greatest hits recording on my list, and it is another double-CD recording, comprised of two performances on separate dates in 1993 and 1994. In the early 2000’s, I was not familiar in any clear way with who Laura Nyro was or what songs she had written. I borrowed this 2-CD set from my free library and was genuinely impressed with the beauty of the songs and the sincerity of her voice on these two live dates. She establishes a rapport with the audience in the short intros, brief asides, and especially the many standout songs that she delivers. The album has a very heavy dose of Sophia, Sappho, and moon-goddessy type of new age feminism that works perfectly and feels thoroughly natural and sincere. The songs, the concepts, and the ethos of these performances are never forced; they are remarkably full for just a woman, a piano, and the occasional support of a small female background chorus. The album opens with the Phil Spector co-written “Oh, Yeah, Maybe Baby”—it’s a perfect intro that instantly arrests the listener’s attention. As each set progresses, Nyro focuses heavily on her own original material, keeping the performances poetic but never too long and rewarding us with variety and melody. The only sad thing about this album is that Laura only lived to see the late 1990s. I hope that she knew how great these recordings would turn out to be.

 

13. Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder (1976)

This double album-plus was a Grammy award winner and a defining concept album in Stevie Wonder’s recording career. The album famously required several years of work and massive amounts of orchestration. Songs in the Key is an album with which I have a family connection—the lead guitarist on several tracks (including the amazing “Contusion”) and co-writer of the song “Saturn” is my uncle, Michael Sembello. Aside of the singles like the familiar “I Wish” or “Sir Duke,” there are many superb moments such as the outstanding melody and changing tempos of “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” As a concept album devoted to the elements and experiences of life, this recording delivers with 21 songs that span the range of human endeavors and knowledge. From the personal side of parenting in “Isn’t She Lovely” to the subjective intimacy of “Joy inside My Tears” or the social consciousness of “Black Man” to the cosmic consciousness of “As” and “Saturn,” there is a rich palette of colors and emotions that make this near triple-album worth exploring.

 

14. Astral Weeks, Van Morrison (1968)

My love of Van Morrison’s music is an inheritance given to me by my mother. This recording interested me even before I first listened to it because as a jazz and blues fan, I was interested in Van Morrison’s sound paired with a small group of jazz-oriented musicians. The album is cohesive, natural, and intuitive. Of particular interest alongside of the mythical and formative imagery delivered by Van’s outstanding voice is the acoustic bass of Richard Davis. The bass resonates in the album as a perfect pulse that is both a backbone and a muscle. The vibraphones and flute add the extra sonic touches that complete the ethereal feeling of the recording. The album sides one and two are significantly given the headings “In the Beginning” and “Afterwards” which hint at the transformation of innocence into experience. In selecting this album as a personal favorite, I have broken no new ground. As a late sixties hybrid of styles fueled by incredible sensitivity and creativity, this record stands alongside universally lauded favorites such as Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and the Beatles White Album in reputation. The album has many stirring moments, but one that has always haunted me is the apocalyptic sound of the soprano saxophone in the final song, “Slim Slow Slider.” If this is the same girl to whom Van sang in the song “Beside You,” then circumstances have markedly changed. Instead of serenading, the singing is more like a frank talk about what once was and the way that the girl is “going for something” and “won’t be back.” Sometimes the best rock music doesn’t sound like rock.

 

15. Black Moses, Isaac Hayes (1971)

This double album recording is a flat-out revelation of the incredibly musical capabilities of Isaac Hayes. The arrangements are of unexpected beauty and expansive depth. The Black Moses character is a man making a complete and intensive circuit of the experiences of attraction, love, passion, and rejection. After the opener “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Hayes creates a nine-minute exploration of Burt Bacharach’s “(They Long to Be) Close to You” that is simply transfixing. The quality of Isaac’s vocal, the spacious arrangement with horns and strings, and the gorgeous singing by the women on backup vocals have made this possibly my favorite song master take of all time. The virtue of this album is that Hayes is able to perform the songs of Curtis Mayfield, Bacharach, Gamble and Huff, and Kris Kristofferson in a seamless mosaic that stands as a sparkling exemplar of all that r&b music can be. Songs such as “Man’s Temptation” have an energy that still resonates agelessly more than forty years after its initial release. This is Hayes at his best, and he is a tremendously compelling musical presence on each side of this double LP.

 

16. The Bossa Nova Hotel, Michael Sembello (1983)

This recording was created by my uncle, following his time as a Wonderlove guitarist and co-writer with Stevie Wonder and much sought-after session musician. The album shows off the great musical instincts and conceptual genius of a natural and very practiced talent. The synthesizers of the 1980s are made to shine in the service of one of the most unusual collections of songs ever recorded. Never before has an album featured tributes to Godzilla, Jesus of Nazareth, a nameless African-American cowboy, and an android that can love. On the other hand, in songs such as “It’s Over” and “Talk (featuring a vocal by Cruz Baca Sembello),” Michael shows his great talent and expertise at writing the song of a romantic love that has been lost or shattered from within. While this album is not very well known outside of artists and people who were fixtures in the music industry in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the album features the ubiquitous hit single “Maniac” (co-written by Dennis Matkosky) from the movie Flashdance. The songs are the brainchild of Michael with the collaborative contributions of brother Danny Sembello and simpatico musician and friend David Batteau. The album has a very effective array of soloists such as George Duke on keyboards and Paulinho Da Costa on percussion. The recording stands as a perfect tribute to the artist, the era of the precisely engineered studio album, and all of the possibilities of the period both obscure and those bursting forth in summer movie soundtracks.

The List: My Favorite Rock & Pop Albums

Introduction and the First 8 Selections:

What can be said about the once mighty musical form known as the album? For a start, we can distinguish it from the embedded 21st century mix tapes known as playlists. Unlike the customizable mix tape or playlist, an album is a group of songs that come together as part of an artist’s vision or creative experience at a specific time. Some albums are driven by a central concept or grand design while others convey the freedom to change the subject and the tone over and over again. These album selections are not presented in a particular order or ranking system. The intent is not to provide a list of universally superlative or “best” albums but rather to share insights and recordings that have added a lot of happiness and resonance to my life. Without further ado, here is the first installment of 24 musical suites that have passed my own personal listening test in a big way.

 

1. The Seeds of Love, Tears for Fears (1989)

This album became a part of my life instantly upon publication at the beginning of fall 1989 and it was in part thanks to the exposure of the single “Sowing the Seeds of Love” and the frequent showings of its accompanying video on MTV (back in the days when MTV showed videos). This album has never ceased to amaze me with its beautiful arrangements, extensive melodic soundscapes, and introspective sincerity turned pointedly toward a sometimes turbulent world. For a just turned seventeen-year old me, it was a suite of songs that connected with my feminist convictions in songs like “Woman in Chains” and my idealism in the title track. In “The Bad Man’s Song,” the soulful voice of Oleta Adams contributes to a sprawling, lyrically idiosyncratic masterpiece that has always appealed to my sense of the power of atonement. Even 25 years after its release, the beautiful refrain in the song “Standing on the Corner of the Third World” is a stunning musical moment. The gospel organs, choruses, and symphonic flourishes all work beautifully with the album’s youthful outlook to make this recording an undisputed classic for me, and I hope that more people revisit this one or experience it for the first time.

 

2. The Stranger, Billy Joel (1977)

Billy Joel needs no introduction from me, but what is interesting about this album is that a couple of years ago I learned that The Stranger is the album that launched his mega-stardom. I was five years old when this album came out, so I grew up with its songs such as “Just the Way You Are” playing on the radio. However, I didn’t buy the album until much later—some thirty years later. When I listened to all of the tracks, I discovered several great songs I never remembered hearing before. Of these the one that stands out is “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” It showed such a powerful grasp of styles, transitions, and melody that it became an immediate favorite. The pastiche of images and experiences in the song and the story of the ill-fated run of the prom king and queen are all unforgettable for me. I don’t have a similar memory in my high school or young adult years, but the song makes me see it as clearly as if I had lived it myself. The title song was another hidden gem for me—the story of the masks worn in human relationships still has real substance and insight years later. My wife’s favorite is “Only the Good Die Young” with its earnest and just slightly overbearing take on an adolescent speaker’s wooing of a Catholic girl. The flaws, the natural talent, and the unexpected honesty of The Stranger make it worth getting to know this character and his (or her) many sides.

 

3. Electric Ladyland, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)

I do not remotely qualify as a hard rock fan, but this album is one that crystallizes all of the possibility of rock ‘n roll and also transcends the genre. As one of several double-albums on my list, it may be cheating a bit to select this and then praise its extended palette of musical journeys, portraits, and jams, but I’m going to go ahead and do that anyway. Listening to Electric Ladyland is always a special event for me. It is like a panoramic film with elements of danger in songs like “House Burning Down,” superhuman power in “Voodoo Chile,” and futurism mixed with fantasy in “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be).” Hendrix engages in unbridled sonic experimentation on this album with keyboards, guitars, and amplifiers and somehow also offers up the most beautiful of melodies—sometimes simultaneously as in the case of “The Burning of the Midnight Lamp.” Among the many talents of Hendrix was his ability to switch effortlessly and expertly from poet to narrator to vocal actor. Hendrix builds the opening of “All Along the Watchtower” with a gigantic, beautiful statement on guitar and then vividly paints the apocalyptic adventure in Bob Dylan’s lyrics. In “House Burning Down,” he delivers an unexpected moral question with perfect sincerity, “Oh, why oh why do you burn your brother’s house down?” Electric Ladyland is a place that rewards repeated visits, and it is difficult to imagine another artist who could be as joyfully riotous and yet so exacting in his craft.

 

4. Aja, Steely Dan (1977)

A woman returns from jail to lead her unruly pack again. Odysseus goes on his journey with a new soundtrack. An irresistible young woman becomes the focus of the camera. A talented but drunken artist on the verge of breakdown crafts a dreamt-of identity. A seeker runs to the arms of a foreign woman who will be his refuge from a world full of misunderstandings and superficial judgements. To begin at the end, the combat-ready “Josie” comes back to her crew riding the wave of an awesome guitar riff. In “Home at Last,” we get a compact but potent revisitation of the Odyssey of Homer. I always picture the storm-tossed ship when Donald Fagen dives into his synthesizer solo. Back in the 1990’s when I bought my copy of this CD, I didn’t know that there was a surprise song on the album (for me) that would have one of the most memorable hooks imaginable. “Deacon Blues” is the song, and it is possibly both the linchpin of the album and the best exhibition of Steely Dan’s ethos. The smoking and hard-drinking “expanding man” who is voiced so expertly by Fagen, confounds understanding and sympathy. He is overtly driving toward death and dissipation, but it is hard to resist his charisma. The song seems to stitch together Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, and James Dean, and it is a song that I never visualize with any images appearing in daylight. The title track is a rock-jazz composition that shows off the more evasive lyrical side of Becker and Fagen. What exactly is the “dime-dancing” of the narrator? Are the people who are “Up on the hill” snobs? At least there is more hope for this character than ‘Deacon Blues’ as it were. Wayne Shorter joins the list of all-time jazz greats to guest on a standout pop composition with his memorable saxophone solos. Concept album? Not certain, but it sure makes a statement.

 

5. What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye (1971)

This collection of songs is the concept album par excellence. The title track of the album starts the bidding off very high both in terms of seriousness of the content and beauty of the arrangement. The appeal to the listener is unmatched in its mixture of smoothness and sympathy. And perhaps, to digress for a second, Marvin Gaye himself turned out to have the quality that this album possesses, which is that the man and the record are both multifaceted and also imbued with a great sincerity. Mr. Gaye was not strictly an idealist or a master of soulful r & b. In this record, he portrayed the disenfranchised, the journalistic voice, the addict, the seeker, the brother, and the fighter (after the battle). The title track asks difficult if general questions while its sister track “What’s Happening, Brother?” pursues a more personal line of questioning. In order to craft this album and complete its production, Marvin Gaye had to overcome the Motown label’s objections to making serious, socially conscious music that moved away from their patterned hit factory model. What he created, anchored by impassioned performances such as “Save the Children,” stands as one of the finest suites of music that I have ever heard—regardless of genre. The haunting, almost gothic feeling of the background vocals has not dimmed in its effectiveness more than forty years after its initial release. Returning to the conversation about the cohesiveness of albums and the features of the concept album, this recording, like the Beatles Abbey Road, presents a dovetailing connectivity between the songs that powerfully conveys the sense of an underlying narrative or a musical drama. I think about this album the way that some people think of the film Casablanca or the musical Porgy and Bess. I’m really grateful to have heard Marvin Gaye’s music and message in this record.

 

6. Rockin’ the Suburbs, Ben Folds (2001)

Having been a fan of the melodic pianos of Billy Joel and Elton John and their music for as long as I can remember, it is impossible for me not to have become a fan of Ben Folds almost instantly upon introduction to his music. I owe that introduction to columnist Tom Moon’s CD review of the great Ben Folds Five album Whatever and Ever Amen in the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 1997. Seventeen years later, whether in that earlier group of his or as a solo artist, arranger, or producer, Ben Folds has been writing consistently melodic, well-constructed songs that are rich in storytelling and rife with insightful stanzas about life and the experience of the youthful but aging white guy who is sort of in touch with his sensitive side. Rockin’ the Suburbs is a brilliant sequence of portraits that are presented in the voices of these white male everymen whom Folds selects in order to reveal their observations, confessions, and criticisms of self and world. The piano riff and hand claps that open the album build into a melody and chorus that paint the picture of an uncertain girl fixating on her absent boyfriend, but the last words of the song finally pull us out of the girl’s head and reveal the narrator, brilliantly shifting the focus of the portrait to the loner who is outside of her interest. An unimpressive father who comes in from the rain to greet his son with a combination of guilt, joy, and embarrassment is the subject of the song “Still Fighting It,” one of the most heartfelt numbers on the record. This is the song that perfectly captures Folds’s ability to be sincere and hopeful in a world of people who have gone not terribly but still visibly wrong. The stellar piano work and superbly crafted melodic structures come together in the brooding, probing “The Ascent of Stan,” in which irony and criticism are employed perfectly at the expense of a once-promising “text-book hippie man” who has become the entrenched and aging sell out. Rockin’ the Suburbs hits its mark because it is talent and craftsmanship applied with honesty. It is very serious and also hilariously irreverent. To appropriate one of Ben Folds’s own sentiments about one of his wives, there is no one word for what he does, and the man has ears.

 

7. Dino & Sembello, Ralph Palladino and John Sembello (1974)

In a flourish of favoritism, I introduce the most obscure album of this list but in some ways one of the most accomplished. It is the first and last complete LP of a pair of songwriters who combined folk, rock, and r&b as part of their drive for self-expression and the search for the lost chord. My father John Sembello and his partner Ralph Dino worked together on a great many musical projects together, and this album captures their interest in the power of compact portraits in song form. This album came to fruition from their partnership with the old songwriting duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (writers of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and co-writers of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”). Upon publication in the mid-seventies, this album did very little in terms of immediate commercial impact. However, within a few years, the album had begun to work its magic as a combination of upcoming and established artists began to mine the record’s many great songs. The album was never officially remastered or sold in the digital music era, but it is possibly the best recording to listen to the stellar singing and rich voice of Ralph Dino. On a ballad named “Helpless,” Ralph sings a shimmering love song that is akin to the classic songs of Motown in its beauty and ethereal string arrangement. On the more driving songs such as “Feels So Good” and the oft-recorded “Dancin’ Jones,” John and Ralph are a vocal team of great harmony, energy, and coordination. In the mid-1990s, two of the album’s gems were discovered by the producers of the Broadway play “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” which was a musical revue of the many hits of Leiber and Stoller. Despite its obscurity on this out-of-print album, the song “The Neighborhood” was selected along with “Pearl’s a Singer” (one of Leiber & Stoller’s biggest hits in the UK) for inclusion in the Broadway revue. While the Broadway version has a certain pomp and charm, the original version of “The Neigborhood” recorded on this album with its stately arrangement and Ralph’s vocal is my favorite. It is a ballad of sentiment and sincerity that conjures up images and memories of life and times in the America of the 1950s and early ‘60s.

 

8. Extensions, The Manhattan Transfer (1979)

This recording is decidedly not a concept album, and this fact may be its great strength. It is a recording that brings together multiple eras of jazz, pop music, Broadway and a very prominent streak of Los Angeles, California of the turn of the 80’s. The selection of material includes the vocal version of what is possibly the greatest jazz hit of the 70’s in ”Birdland” and an energetic (if disco-ized) interpretation of the Twilight Zone theme. Of the many made by the group, this recording in particular displays the vocal power and perfect bell-tone of Janis Siegel, who sings the lead on several of the songs. The Transfer (which also features the hip Alan Paul, the airy Cheryl Bentyne and maestro Tim Hauser) takes a sort of Spielbergian approach to putting this record together. They take songs from a variety of sources and then apply their magical ability for arrangement and precision performance. For the jazz fan, the album has several songs that are of great interest, particularly “Body and Soul” as a vehicle for the group’s sophisticated harmonization. The album is replete with superb vocal performances, but the group’s interpretation of the gruff voiced Tom Waits’s song “A Foreign Affair” is a masterpiece of a sentimental and resonating album closer. Thirty-five years after the original release of this album, it is a very unusual aggregate from a sonic standpoint. The jazz and harmonies of the album are packaged in what I would call the sound of Los Angeles, Burbank, and Hollywood. The synthesizers, the polish and the glitz of the music convey much more of a sense of Manhattan’s West Coast counterpart in Southern California than they do the Big Apple. Even in Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland,” a song at least nominally devoted to Charlie Parker’s New York scene, the opening lyric (by jazz great John Hendricks) rockets the listener “5000 light years from Birdland.” So the operative word for this recording may not be Manhattan but rather transfer as the group dances across styles and extends itself across jazz and pop to great effect.

Comic Book Saviors and Science Fiction Prophets

The story of the savior and the prophet have come in many forms, and recently I examined two instances of this story archetype in different media. Sometimes, the would-be savior is massively powerful, and other times this prophetic figure is miraculously intuitive or possessed of hidden knowledge. In Marvel Comics’s The Avengers: The Korvac Saga, the story is of a highly intelligent and super-powerful man-machine of the future who is transformed from a more typical villain of intergalactic scope into an aspirant to be the one who controls the course of all life for eternity. Characters of untold power from the ancient myths such as Odin, the All-Father of the Norse gods, and Zeus, the supreme god of Greek and Roman tradition, possess no ability to foresee or challenge the power of this being. This story arc from 1977-1978 turned out to be an enjoyable read and a refreshing experience because of my years spent away from the world of comics and immersed in the field of English education as a teacher and a language arts content specialist. The villainous character Korvac becomes the super-being known only as “Michael.” He chooses a female immortal as his mate and plans to end all of the petty temporal conflicts of history. He plans not on destroying but rather redirecting and controlling the course of events and action in the universe.

The relationships between the Avengers characters resonate at times in an unexpected way. The characters of Captain America and Iron Man—longstanding Marvel Comics figures of high status, active wisdom, and tremendous field generalship—argue and challenge each other over the leadership of the group with a real humanity. They are ironically more real in some ways than their live-action movie counterparts. While the dialogue in these comic stories might not be seen by some as the graphic arts equivalent of the novellas of Henry James, I found in this reading that there are many moments in which the craft of the characters and their authenticity is quite vivid. Fundamental questions are put forth and also answered definitively but with an appropriate complexity. These questions are as follows: What if an all-powerful being who has greater knowledge than we do steps forward to assume ultimate authority? What if his claims of knowledge and power are possibly authentic? What if humans can surrender their temporal lives of error and choice to be led by a seemingly perfect being? And the answers are provided: It doesn’t matter what kind of perfection is promised to us (or forced upon us) if we cannot voluntarily navigate the paths of life and live according to our ability and choices. And thus, this need to be free and self-determined produces the desperation, curiosity, and warlike spirit that pushes us to oppose the power of gods, kings, and prophets–and to win out. What the Avengers win is not glory but a reaffirmation of the idea that life is a struggle and a process.

As a Religion major and a lover of dialogue and ideas, there was a brief sequence of dialogue that struck me. In Avengers # 171, there is a moment when the superhero and Norse deity Thor is with his fellow Avengers in a Christian convent that has an attached chapel. As they are walking in search of a hidden enemy, the character named Scarlet Witch has this short but scintillating exchange with Thor:

Scarlet Witch: You seem a bit uncomfortable, Thor!

Thor: Aye, Wanda, verily! This house of Christian worship hath no regard for the Asgardian God of Thunder!

Scarlet Witch: Should it?

Thor: Nay, Milady! E’en my father, mighty Odin, who is called All-powerful, doth lay no claim to supreme divinity…and yet, t’would seem that many mark my very existence as an affront to this edifice!

Whenever I see examples of transference of principles or philosophies, even in the smallest gestures, I am always interested in those moments. This sequence involves a very high-level awareness of religious assumptions and concepts on the part of the character of Thor, and to a certain extent, Wanda as well. The comment by Thor that even his powerful father does not claim supremacy in divinity serves as the subtlest critique of religion imaginable. It is possible that Thor is conceding to a higher power and uneasy because of it, but it is just as possible that he is questioning the idea of such a concentration of supreme power. An irony is achieved perfectly because a character of legend walks in the actual world of the story, while the church’s almighty God is put almost into the realm of myth. It is a remarkable moment in a comic magazine, which some might associate with serial adventures on par with costumed cowboys and Indians. However, experienced readers of the many outstanding illustrated stories in the comic and graphic novel genre know that these stories have produced many of these insights and significant moments.

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Religious themes and criticism are more overtly on display in the movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which was originally released in 1989 and was directed by William Shatner. Just a few days after having read the Avengers story arc referenced above, I took a new look at this film, which I believe has a shaky reputation among Star Trek’s most devoted fans. The story involves a character named Sybok who is an apocryphal half-brother to the character Spock. This Sybok is a man who rides into view on a galloping horse on a nearly defunct ‘planet of peace’ and immediately converts or wins over almost everyone he meets by a combination of telepathy and empathy, putting them in touch with their “secret pain” that he says we all carry in some way. Unlike the “Michael” character in the Avengers story, Sybok is not all-powerful, but he appears to be an interesting combination of a snake-oil salesman and a genuinely psychically skilled and ultra-intuitive person–albeit one who is openly very emotional and idealistic.

As I watched the film, I enjoyed revisiting its challenge to religion, salvation, and prophecy. The idea that a compelling prophet, a deity, a paradigm shift, or an overpowering insight will solve the major questions of life and definitively direct our pursuits is put to the test in the film (if sometimes in a ham-handed way), and this notion is found wanting in the film’s general assessment. A refreshing element in the film’s second half is that the antagonist, Sybok, played with sincerity and some pluck by actor Laurence Luckinbill, does not play out as a liar or a being lacking in self-reflection. The plot of the film is unevenly stitched together, and the premise of flying to the center of the galaxy to encounter the supreme being is patently absurd. And yet there is something to the film that hangs on and makes its point in a way–probably due in part to the rich and impressive soundtrack. One of the most striking commonalities between the Avengers storyline and the film is that the self-possessed antagonist in each story takes a final course of action at the climax that saves the lives of the heroic individuals who have opposed him.

In an interview in 1996 with Terry Gross of NPR, Roger Ebert stated that what he may think of as a bad movie can be altered with the passage of time. Ebert says that 20 or more years later a movie can “become more interesting…simply because of the time that has passed. It is now a time capsule. It has intrinsically interesting information in it that I couldn’t see at the time because when I saw it, it was now.” So a film may reveal information about the time in which it was made. Seeing this movie again made me think of the zeitgeist of the time and current events of the period. The televangelist scandals of Jim Bakker and his wife and Jimmy Swaggart had been major tabloid and media events of the late 1980’s. The character of Sybok may have been developed partly as a criticism of the charismatic religious “answer man” who is not what he purports to be. To his credit, William Shatner aims deeper than strictly the send-up of the religious hypocrite. In a line that is both wise and sentimental at the end, Captain Kirk responds to Dr. McCoy’s question, “Is God really out there?” Kirk says, “Maybe he’s not out there, Bones. Maybe he’s right here—human heart.” Ten or fifteen years ago, I didn’t appreciate that line very much. However, now I feel that that this way of thinking about life and spirituality shouldn’t be underestimated. These visual stories are simply more recent forms of our ancient cave drawings, and they fulfill expression of old yearnings and questions in their own methodology. The two sagas explore the self-appointed supreme savior and the charismatic prophet with much spirit and constructive skepticism.

 

CS

April 5, 2014