What makes American music great?

African Americans, creating a musical language out of their collective experiences of slavery and oppression, are the source that raised American music to greatness in the 20th century. As each new style emerged into the larger culture, it was initially denigrated and criticized, much like society denigrated the black men and women it had forcibly brought into its midst. The loudest critics were not always whites, though. Churchgoing blacks once upheld a dichotomy between gospel (God’s music) and the blues (the devil’s music). Continue reading →

The rise of compassionate music

For centuries, people have been singing about romantic and erotic love. It is the subject of most popular songs, although there has certainly been enough room left over to sing about God or the seasons. (The world’s oldest song, inscribed on the wall of an Egyptian tomb 4,300 years ago, is a love song that basically says, “I love and admire your beauty, I am under it.”) But starting in the 1960s, a new subject matter began appearing in popular songs that represented a shift in consciousness: brotherhood and how we treat one another. The songs come from divergent sources, everyone from Dionne Warwick (“What the World Needs Now,” by Bacharach and David) to Madonna (“Why’s It So Hard”). MeShell Ndegeocello takes up the topic in a number of songs, as does Angelique Kidjo. Some of the songs have been outright hits (“He Ain’t Heavy” by the Hollies; “This House” by Tracie Spencer; “State of the World” by Janet Jackson). Continue reading →

Concept album masterpieces

Isolated examples of concept albums appear from the 1950s on, including efforts by Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, but the idea really took off with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles in 1967 — not surprising given how it was a time of great cultural and creative experimentation. Paralleling the rise of the singer-songwriter in the 1960s, the term “concept album” became imbued with the notion of artistic purpose.

Today, that notion of artistic purpose has become so pervasive that, whether consciously or unconsciously, artists routinely infuse concepts into their albums, or feel compelled to come up with a snappy response when a reviewer asks “so what is the CD about?” I want to share four examples of especially interesting, artistically successful concept albums that stand out from the crowd. Continue reading →

Making music on the wild Sonoma coast

Sonoma coastGemini Soul just returned from three days at Sea Ranch, where we recorded a new CD to be titled “The Nefertiti Xperience.” Instead of going to a recording studio, we decided to rent a house in the quietude of Northern California’s wild and scenic Sonoma coast. Rain greeted us, the first in a parade of winter storms sweeping in from the north. We set up our instruments in the second-floor living room, where two large windows looked out over the Pacific. Deer cavorted in the meadow beside the house. Continue reading →