Sunday, June 29, 2014

Track of the Week: Les McCann & Eddie Harris, "Compared to What"

In our world of digital music it is easy to think that it's so much easier to be exposed to music now than in the bad old days when you had to go out and buy CDs, tapes, and records if you wanted to listen to your favorite songs.  Digitization has certainly helped me explore genres that I had barely known before and to better find new music that I like.

That being said, the old days offered their own opportunities for discovery that no longer exist today.  Movie soundtracks have helped me find lots of great music.  For instance, my ears had never been graced by the Velvet Underground until I bought the soundtrack to The Doors, and heard "Heroin."  I was never the same.  Another great discovery came via the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's Casino.  I liked the movie, but also thought that the soundtrack was superb, an interesting mix of jazz, blues, rock, vocal pop, and even classical.

There was one song that I'd only heard a snippet from in the film that really intrigued me, but not having access to Shazam and this coming in the early, undeveloped days of the internet, I had no way of knowing what it was called.  Once I bought the soundtrack, I discovered that the song was "Compared to What" by Les McCann and Eddie Harris.  I was thrilled by the relentlessly driving piano, fiery political lyrics, and the pairing of soul singing with killer jazz playing.  (The original recording, by Roberta Flack, is good, but not nearly as intense.)  "Compared to What" quickly become my favorite song on the soundtrack, one filled with gems like Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug."  Recorded in 1969, "Compared to What" came out at a time when soul and rock acts were increasingly bringing in jazz influences.  (Think especially Jimi Hendrix at this time, the Allman Brothers Band, and the soon to come Steely Dan.)  In many respects this meant greater musical complexity and virtuosity, which is perhaps why "jazz fusion" is a dirty word for many rock critics, who tend to fetishize feeling and spirit over ability.  As much as I love punk rock's noise and the subtle rhythms of classic R&B, the older I get the more I appreciate jazz's pure musicianship, a great slice of which I discovered almost by accident.

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