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Music surrounds us every day, and yet so often it’s little more than noise, a background hum behind our shopping experiences. I’ve never been able to cheapen it like that; music deserves our attention, not our nonchalance. I know this puts me at odds with most other people, but that’s a familiar position for me.
I was recently “tagged” to participate in one of those Facebook shticks, the kind where the respondent writes a themed list of some kind and then asks a group of their friends to do the same. This particular shtick asks you to list the twenty albums which have had the greatest impact on their life; the catch is that you are to take no more than twenty minutes to compile your list. Two different friends asked me to participate, so I opened the ancient hi-fi hutch in the living room of my memory and rifled through the contents.
As I jotted down the names, I decided that this could be a more interesting exercise than most of these shared ideas. My musical evolution really does reflect my own personal development, more than many people, I’d guess. It may also give some clues as to why I ended up being so— difficult. However, quite a few of these require a bit of explanation, either to who the artist is at all, or as to why this particular recording shaped my growth. Not wanted to choke anyone with an enormous and frightening block of text, I have broken it into two sections; part two will be published this evening.
In (very) roughly chronological order, here is part one.
- The Royal Guardsmen: Snoopy vs the Red Baron — The first record in my earliest memories, this locked in an early love for novelty records. As one of my first exposures to recorded music, I hadn’t yet learned that music was serious and life-changing business, and not intended to be funny. The lyrics to the title song and many others are indelibly burned into my mind, meaning that they make occasional and often inappropriate appearances. (To my surprise, it turns out they are from Ocala, and are touring this year.)
- Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass: Whipped Cream and Other Delights — The sassy brass and catchy tunes caught my ear; it wasn’t until later than I found myself drooling over— er, admiring the album cover. The quirky pop horns and exotic marimba captured my imagination, and probably pushed me toward learning to play an instrument, too. It also stretched my Kentucky-born horizons a bit, introducing me (indirectly) to sounds from other countries.
- Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison — My parents really liked Johnny Cash, and I’m glad of it. Even though I was too young to understand the lyrics, the music, the timbre of his voice, and the general style struck a chord in me. I was singing “I know I can’t be free” back when the worst punishment I’d endured was being sent to my room (although when you are a kid that does feel like prison, I admit). Still, I knew that man with the gravelly voice didn’t care for doing what people said he ought to do, and how could a guy with a voice like that be wrong?
- Disneyland Records: Thrilling, Chilling Sounds of the Haunted House — I have loved Hallowe’en as far back as I can remember, so this isn’t much of a surprise. One side was made up entirely of creepy sound effects, although they weren’t really all that scary, even when you are seven years old. The b-side, however, was a series of stories told in sound, with just a few words to introduce each tale. With my imagination set free I scared the crap out of myself, over and over again. Listen to a quick clip here.
- Chicago Transit Authority: Chicago Transit Authority — When I was in middle school the concert band had an arrangement of a song called “25 or 6 to 4.” It was fun to play, mainly because the trombones got to play the opening bass line. Being rather musically sheltered, though, I knew nothing of pop music, and had no idea it was something you could hear on the radio. This album, heard at the house of a friend, became my introduction to rock music, leading me to erroneously believe that all rock and roll had a horn section. While I didn’t get my own copy of the album until a few years later, I probably wore out my friend’s copy.
- Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters — This was the first album I ever bought, courtesy of the Columbia Record Club. By this time I’d been playing trombone for several years, and music had become my sole focus in life, jazz in particular. Still, nothing I’d listened to at school could prepare me for the dark and glistening fusion tones of this recording. The free-form recombination of jazz, rock, R&B, and (then-new) electronic synthesizers opened my mind to the idea of a world without genres, where all that mattered was the sound. The bass riff behind “Chameleon” remains one of the funkiest grooves of all time.
- Maynard Ferguson: MF Horn 4 & 5, Live at Jimmy’s — By the time I was in high school I was fascinated by jazz, and an early favorite was the big band of Maynard Ferguson, a trumpeter known for his enormous range and willingness to cover pop songs. His over the top and completely bombastic arrangement of the generally reviled Richard Harris ballad, “Mac Arthur Park,” was amazing, boosting the pretentiousness of the original to wall-of-sound power. Once again the crossing of genres pulled me right in, and even today, “Mac Arthur Park” remains a favorite song. (Yes, I will admit that.)
- Don Ellis: Live at Monterey— It’s hard to underestimate the impact of hearing Ellis’ big band for the first time. Here was a jazz trumpet player who was writing hellishly difficult charts in non-standard rhythms, using non-standard tuning, and with non-standard instrumentation, and swinging like a classic jazz band. The song “3 3 2 2 2 1 2 2 2″ — the title reflecting the subdivisions of the 19/4 meter as played by the triple upright basses — worked into my brain and broke something in a good way. The blend of east and west, jazz and classical, acoustic and electric showed me that you can respect your roots and still go somewhere no one’s ever been before.
- John Williams: Star Wars — I saw the film on opening day, after having been tantalized by a full-page newspaper ad weeks before it opened. From the moment the film began I knew I was going to love it; by the time it ended I knew I would see it again, and did, at the very next show. It was the first time I’d ever really been swept up in the score for a film, becoming aware of how the music subtly (and not so subtly) reinforced the film’s themes. I bought the album as soon as I found it, and played it all summer long.
- Blood, Sweat & Tears: Greatest Hits — “Spinning Wheel.” “Lucretia MacEvil.” “And When I Die.” “God Bless the Child.” I spent a lot of time analyzing this album, mimicking David Clayton Thomas’ blues-tinged vocals with growls on my trombone, and then sitting down with paper to pick out and transcribe the horn lines. Through this I came to understand what an arranger does, and how many other people contribute to any project’s success, often without any recognition. It didn’t seem fair to me. Frankly, it still doesn’t.
As I mentioned, part two will be published tonight. In the interim, if you have any comments or questions, or want to share some of your own albums, please leave a comment.