Song of the Week: “For Louie” by Lester Bowie

by Douglas Cowie on 9 December 2016

Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

This is “For Louie” by Lester Bowie:

I’ve been listening to a lot of Lester Bowie over the past couple of weeks. He’s a wonderful and intelligent trumpet player and composer, as you can hear on this composition.  “For Louie” pulls off an amazing (to my mind, anyway) feat: it pays homage to Louis Armstrong, one trumpet player to another, wearing that influence on its sleeve without sounding simply derivative or copycat.  The horns sometimes sound like Louis’s horn (at the opening especially, Lester’s trumpet even dips into sounding like Louis’s voice) but it’s always a little tip of the cap, or a coloration of something that always sounds like its own thing. As for the composition, “For Louie” sounds like one of those New Orleans second line funeral marches, just waiting to break out into an uptempo swing, though here, it never does, which is also a little part  of its genius: paying homage, wearing influences, glorying in those influences, without playing to an exact template.

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Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

This is “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine:

To a naive suburban teenager in 1992, “Some of those that work forces / Are the same that burn crosses” seemed a little over the top, if also challenging and thought-provoking, while “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” seemed like a fun and exciting thing to chant along with.  Now that open racists, white supremacists, and kleptocrats are joining the White House cabinet with each new day; police keep killing unarmed black men, women and children; and the National Guard is hosing, gassing and shooting Native Americans trying to protect their lawful land and everyone’s clean water supply; well, I hope to naive suburban teenagers in 2016 the lyrics don’t seem so outlandish, and the fuck you seems a little less fun and a little more urgent.  Rage Against the Machine’s lyrics often seem embarrassingly straightforward, but at some point you realize the embarrassment is the discomfort of being confronted by a truth that’s difficult to look into.

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Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

This is “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour:

This song was a real eye(ear?)-opener when I first heard it, and saw the video, at the age of 11.  Everything about the song seems designed to grab your attention: the Malcolm X recording that opens the song, followed by the entrance of that big guitar riff, for a start: yes! my brain shouted to itself, this is a language that I can easily understand!  The juxtaposition of Mussolini and Kennedy (I think it was at this time in school–fifth grade–that we were first really taught about fascism), of Stalin and Ghandi seemed dangerous and subversive, though I doubt I knew the word subversive then.  Those two guitar solos turned me on like crazy, too: the first, short, almost nonchalant one, and then especially that blazing long one towards the end of the song made me think nobody could ever play a guitar the way Vernon Reid played the guitar. Listening to it now, I think a few things: that one of the great appeals of this song, now, then, whenever, is the way that riff, neither fast nor slow, pins the whole song down like a good funk bassline does; that the guitar playing is no less exciting to me in 2016 as it was in 1988; that the lyrics seem no less dangerous and subversive, and the Kennedy, Roosevelt and Malcolm X splices still speak alongside those guitars, bass, drums, voice and lyrics in a language that everybody here can easily understand.  I also love the fantastic sense of layers and energy that Living Colour brings to a song built on a single riff, a bass, drums, guitar and a voice.

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Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

This is “Theme de Yoyo” by Art Ensemble of Chicago:

I listened to Les Stances a Sophie pretty constantly (though not exclusively) while working on my novel, Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago. I didn’t consciously choose it because of the Paris-Chicago connection, but because somehow the mood seemed to hit the right spot for the thinking and writing I was doing.  I wouldn’t want to get too mystical about it.  At the moment, as part of my research and thinking towards a new novel, I’m reading A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music by George E. Lewis, so Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the musicians playing here, are much more explicitly on my mind.  “Theme de Yoyo” is a powerhouse of a groove, with all kinds of eccentricities breaking out of it, from the squalls of free improvisation, right down to those similes in the lyrics. If you don’t know it, I suggest taking a listen to the full album, which is really a single virtuoso composition and performance, to my ears anyway.

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