Okay. I’m going to write two words and I don’t want you to judge me. Because believe me, no one is judging me harder than myself right now. But please hear me out. ‘Smooth jazz.’ Yeah I know, but lately I can’t get enough. I blame politics. From Trump to the homophobic idiocy of the marriage plebiscite, there’s no doubt in my mind that psychotic lunatics control the word. And in this time of uncertainty and chaos, the smooth inoffensive, funky warmth of Grover Washington Jr and George Benson have offered me a peculiar kind of solace.
It started innocently enough, I found A Wilder Alias, the 1974 album from husband and wife vocalists Jackie on Roy on Creed Taylor’s legendarily smooth CTI records. With wordless vocals and funky fusion sounds from saxophonist Joe Farrell and percussionist Steve Gadd, it was loud, adventurous and playful and I was seduced by the gatefold packaging. So when I spied George Benson’s 1972 White Rabbit, with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Ron Cater and Billy Cobham I couldn’t resist. It’s so funky smooth, possessed by swinging yet safe covers of California Dreamin and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit. From Deodato to Ron Carter, Bob James to Freddie Hubbard its all been CTI. Creed Taylor had produced at Verve, brought Coltrane to Impulse and was given free reign on CTI to blur jazz and pop to bring jazz to the masses. In this crazy mixed up world it’s the only thing getting me by.
Whilst every producer at some time in their career makes a soundtrack to an imagined film, imagined soundscapes are a little rarer. This is where sound art and exoticism combine, creating an ethnographic hyperreal representation of an imagined faraway place. Filmmaker and sound artist Carlos Casas’ ‘Pyramid of Skulls’ (Discrepant) was inspired by the people of Pamir, Tajikistan and Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov’s notion of a ‘common task’ for humanity. His work is a re-imagined memory of his 6-month stay in the region back in 2015, with snatches of music and found sound, creating a collage of sounds that have never previously existed together By selecting, layering and processing, Casas has crafted a highly personal exotic world that’s full of possibilities and open to all manner of interpretation.
Between the strange obscure sounds and textures of this and also Discrepant label boss Gonçalo F Cardoso’s recent Visions Congo LP, there’s these gentle unexpected moments of bliss, where everything coalesces into gentle rollicking hypnotic rhythms. Cardoso’s recordings in the great lakes region in Uganda, Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Zanzibar form the basis of Visions Congo. Again, it’s an imagined fourth world where snatches of thumb piano or percussion exist alongside field recordings, newscasts, choirs and cicadas. It’s exotica musique concrete and it’s fascinating.
Finally, if you’ve been enjoying the sound design of the Twin Peaks revival, Lynch’s producer Dean Hurley has just released a collection of ambient soundscapes used in the show. You can find Anthology Resource Vol.1 on his bandcamp.
Three nights ago I dreamed I was in a barn in rural Virginia filled with farm equipment with which Mark Linkhous was recording his new album. Wearing welder’s glasses and greasy white t-shirt he sang some demos and we were eager to hear how the addition of a hay bale maker and chainsaw would alter the tunes. I woke up devastated. I’ll never get to hear this album because Mark took his own life in 2010 after a lifelong battle with depression and addiction. What he left behind as Sparklehorse is remarkable, particularly in the depth of emotion that I wasn’t equipped to comprehend in the mid-late nineties.
Back then I connected with his noisy upbeat distorted vocals, and studio experimentation. Yet listening back now to 1995’s Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot and 1998’s Good Morning Spider all I hear is fragility and frustration. It’s spiritual outsider music, a personal artistic vision unencumbered by whatever was happening around him. We later learned that he laboured over his lyrics, agonised, doubted and dreaded his music’s reception. Linkhous may have re entered my subconsciousness because I recently began listening to the podcast S-Town from the makers of Serial and it’s impossible not to connect with the despair, frustration and humanity of those who can’t fit into the world around them. It’s such a waste. In Linkhous’ case he couldn’t even bring himself to record vocals on 2005’s Dark Night of the Soul because he though no one cared. Decades years later I feel like I’m only starting to understand his musical vision.