I would not do without these. Can't help sometimes thinking someone swapped my blood with these melodies.
1. Three strokes of the tom-toms and David Byrne's sinister yell: 'Hah!' And Remain in Light begins with 'Born Under Punches'. I'd heard two of the songs on that album already ('Crosseyed' and 'Lifetime') but there is no adequate preparation for the first side of Remain in Light. The sequencing is flawless: from the midtempo Tourettic machinery of 'Punches' to the mean-spirited rock of 'Crosseyed' to the dancefloor velocity of 'The Great Curve'. After the first 15 minutes the album almost seems to face a choice: get even faster, undanceably so, or find a way to bring down the tempo while still boosting the intensity and scope of the tunes. Byrne/Eno/et al.'s solution to this problem is the cynical uplift of 'Once in a Lifetime', once of the ten or so best pop tunes of its time. Even though its instrumentation is actually more spare than on 'The Great Curve', 'Lifetime' has an air of pop melodrama and celebratory richness that links it sonically (in my mind) to the skittering album opener; the very slight swing feel in the drums - that lazy tom-tom hit on the damn chorus! - ties off the opening quartet of songs like a bow. 'Once in a Lifetime' is perfect in its place on the album. That the live version from Stop Making Sense is even better is a distillation of the reasons to listen to rock music in the first place.
2. After McCoy Tyner's five-fisted piano solo on the Live At Birdland version of 'Afro-Blue', Trane returns with one of his wailing upper-register siren calls on the soprano sax, heralded by a stomach-churning roll on the floor tom by Elvin Jones. Until Trane comes in it's almost inconceivable that Jones could play his drums harder; with the leader back in the fold, soloing at the top of his voice for an intense handful of minutes, Jones simply murders the drum kit. I realize something now about the moment of Trane's reentry: I'm accustomed to that kind of transition between soloists, from the many 'jam bands' I've had the good/bad fortune to listen to, but in mainline jazz, that kind of continuity and 'narrative arc' to a series of solos, by which they coalesce into a 'jam' (if we must use that term), is actually kind of rare. What's equally rare is that Trane sustains the volume and intensity of his solo for several minutes, climaxing with that long tag under which Jones apparently decides he wants a new drum set, and so like a six-year-old child smashes the shit out of it until it has to be replaced. It's an exhausting track. It's followed with 'Softly As a Morning Sunrise', bursting at the seams with invention and infectious energy, and its famous a capella outro: a precursor in 1963 to Coltrane's impossibly variegated melodic readings on Interstellar Space, long waterfalls of sound embellishing each melody note two or three ways in rapid sequence, the melody and pulse always present but hiding, playful. 'Softly' is sweet without being sugary; it brings you back to earth after the explosive 'Afro-Blue'. On my desert island 'Afro-Blue' plays everyday to call out the moon.
3. The unexpected cover of 'Izabella' during the epic second set of 12/6/97 is only one of a string of thrilling moments on that famous night, a high point of Phish's fall tour. But it's the transition into a unique, funky version of 'Twist Around' that goes with me to the island first. Instead of of the idiosyncratic, off-kilter guitar accompaniment that usually fills in the middle of the song, Trey Anastasio keeps playing his cow-funk rhythm guitar as the song kicks in, following hot on the heels of one of the more interesting rhythmic exercises of that fall, Jon Fishman's drumming feathery and Latin-tinged. The song itself is one of Anastasio's groovier compositions of that period, featuring all four band members on interlocking vocals during the refrain, and on that night the band glides out of the tune with an eerie, noise-washed whispered chant, ushering in a frenetic rendition of 'Piper' before closing out well with 'Slave to the Traffic Light'. The improvisation preceding 'Twist', and the dense, effortlessly funky performance of the song itself, make up the best 10+ minutes of Phish from 1997, topping Hampton, topping the Great Went, topping the Amsterdam 'Stash' with its yearning improv and bass solo, topping even the jaw-dropping 'Sally' → 'Taste' from 12/30. In the span of six months Phish would have begun to change direction entirely again, and by 1999 that kind of playing would be gone from their live repertoire altogether, having metastasized into a textured spaciness that never really held my attention. The crazed energy and fearlessness of those Fall 97 dates is their creative high-point. As they always say: get the tapes.
4. Remember the final scene of Edward Scissorhands, where Edward is making snowfall for the town by shaving enormous blocks of ice into a statue of Wynona Ryder? (It sounds ridiculous when I say it that way. Actually it is ridiculous. But don't let that stop you seeking it out.) The music that plays underneath - Danny Elfman's theme for female voices and strings - is just this...
I - iii - I - iii - ii - ii - IV - V
...under a yearning choral melody. For a time in high school it was, to me, the musical soundtrack to not getting the girl, or feeling like I hadn't. I heard the soundtrack before even seeing the film, at a friend's insistence (hi Jeremy! Wherever you are...); the first four seesawing chords are so simple, with just that root of the melody moving up and down a half-step to the seventh and back, that it's almost criminal how susceptible we are to its effect. The seventh changes the sound from sweet to bittersweet; it may in fact be the elemental definition of the word. Last night I heard part of Danny Elfman's Batman soundtrack, bombastic and well-suited to the outsized Gothic melodrama of that film, and realized again what a sweet, intimate thing the Edward score is. The main theme - a love theme, of course - is a child's thing, sing-song and simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. As all things are, down deep.
5. There's this one phrase in Miles's solo in 'Freddie Freeloader' on Kind of Blue. You probably know the one, if you know the tune: at the beginning of his last chorus, he starts by blowing an open-bell lick at the seventh coming off the slow-burn buildup of the previous chorus, unexpectedly assertive, then settles down to the root, where he plays a couple of quiet notes. Wynton Kelly plays three delicate chords high up on the piano. And that's the first four measures.
Miles pops up an octave and a third, and plays nothing more than a blues scale descending into his golden lower range, singing each note, a phrase so simple it might have existed before 'music' was invented. It's piercing, the upper notes thin and steaming, then opens out, unfolding a surprise with each tone. The keening blue note up top. The hair-raising vibrato he gives the low F. The cocky filigree that ends the phrase, how Miles would slide up to a note, keeping it just a little flat, a sudden toe-tap to walk out. After that the thing has been said, and the final four measures wind down the proceedings, bringing in Mr John Coltrane, who starts strong and clear in his wheelhouse and goes and grows from there.
Drummer Jimmy Cobb famously said of Kind of Blue that it 'must have been made in heaven.' It's a nice thought. Nicer still to think it was just six or seven guys in a studio singing to one another, smoky and slow. I'd live there if I could.