On the occasion of the presentation of his latest book entitled ” The noise of the soul, writing of jazz, rock, blues ” (Il Saggiatore, 2017), held at the Casa del Jazz in Rome a few months ago, Ashley Kahn met his readers and enthusiasts who have come to have the opportunity to exchange a few words with one of the most authoritative signatures of musical communication.
Among anecdotes, stories with personal implications, curious stories that changed the course of the music of which the journalist and writer was a direct witness, those present had the opportunity to speak directly with the one who of music, especially jazz, is considered one of the living “sources”.
From an encounter like the one I had with Ashley Kahn, you could draw innumerable ideas to deepen topics in the most varied directions; however, one of his phrases in particular impressed me, that is when the author claimed to consider his work only when the reader, intrigued by the writing, decides to put aside the book or article and go to discover more about the artist mentioned, listening to his music or going to one of his concerts.
On the other hand, it is worth remembering that music and creativity, according to Ashley Kahn, can not be rationally governed; they can only be indulged, like the current.
Following his advice and making us “drag by the river”, I had the opportunity to develop directly with Ashley Kahn some concepts in “The Sound of the Soul” for Just Baked readers.
This stimulating chat came out, full of reflections on our way of telling music and, above all, of living it.
Let’s start with the cover of the book: a white background, a big red heart, with arteries, veins and ventricles well visible, wrapped in a huge black deejay cap. Is the sound of the soul that natural instinct necessary to write music starting from experience and setting aside the theory?
“What experience, what theory? If I have understood correctly, with this question you are asking me what I think of the idea of concentrating more on interaction with music itself, rather than on an academic notion of where and how music was born. If so, the answer is certainly yes. In my opinion, the “theory” can often be a filter not to mention criticism and personal opinion.
A friend of mine who once worked for the magazine “Rolling Stone” wrote that the best musical journalism honestly analyzes music for what it is, not for what the writer would like it to be. That’s what I say to my New York University students when they write about music: first use your ears and your heart and then bring your brain into play. “
The book begins with the phrase “Music is a vocation”. What does this mean for you?
“That I managed to make a profession out of my life and I thank good fortune because I can do it every morning, every day.”
The noise of the soul is not the translation of a book already published in other countries; in fact the Italian version is the first version; Can you tell us why this choice and the link with our country?
“I was also lucky enough to find a home for my writings here in Italy, since my book on Miles Davis‘ famous album, Kind of Blue, was published by Il Saggiatore, almost fifteen years ago, and the president of that publishing house – Luca Formenton – was my guide, my business partner, my professional consultant, my psychologist, my collaborator and friend. Thanks to him and the help of his staff over the years, Italy has become an open door: I have come into contact with the jazz community and jazz journalists. I spoke at the university and participated in music festivals and congresses, from Rome and Milan, to Venice, Perugia, Bari and splendid countries such as Locorotondo, Cumiana, Feltre and Sassari.
I fell in love with Italy, its music and its culture and Italy has made me compliment in many different ways. The Assayer decided to be my only publisher – so far! – and to publish an anthology of my writings starting from my years in high school. It is the umpteenth testimony of a love story that I pray never runs out. “
It is 1957, Miles Davis punches John Coltrane in the backstage of the Café Bohemia in New York: Thelonious Monk notices everything and does not miss the chance to hire Coltrane as a saxophonist in his band. Can we say that Coltrane really became Coltrane on that occasion?
This and other episodes of which you speak in yours have helped to change the course of the history of music.
Nowadays, for those who write about it, it is easier thanks to the network but how to select reliable and authoritative sources for music?
“In my opinion, Coltrane became Coltrane when he faced his fears and doubts about himself and entered the band of Miles Davis and left Philadelphia, in 1955. He took a risk and regardless of what happened to him later and Miles, Coltrane appreciated and respected the opportunity given to him by the man who never stopped calling “The Teacher”.
As for your question on how to determine the veracity of the sources when writing about music history, I think the problem is not the Internet; I think there has always been a certain laziness or simply inexperience in understanding things to believe or not when researching the history of music. As for me, I always try to get as close as possible to the subject. It does not matter if the piece to be written belongs to Miles Davis or the Beatles or to Kendrick Lamar. First you have to find their words – interviews, autobiographies – through reliable sources, then find the words of musicians or people from the music world who have worked with them and have known them. At that point, consult the journalists who wrote during the period in which those musicians were active. And only then should we use our intellect and our critical sense and should not be considered truths deposited blogs, Wikipedia or other online sources.
Did Miles really punch John Coltrane in the stomach? To say it was Miles, but in reality Miles was rather short and Coltrane was bigger than him. Also, Miles liked to tell stories that could surprise and upset people. Once, he also said that he and Theolonious Monk had come to blows, and Monk was bigger and heavier than Coltrane. Apparently Monk claimed he would have torn the trumpet to pieces if such a thing had ever happened. So, it is important to ask oneself: how much do I have to believe in this case and how much is nothing but a story? »
Among the traditional media for the dissemination of music today, radio is still one of the most important tools, even if in a completely new way compared to the past, thanks to the network. What do you think are the characteristics that a radio format should have today and which music and in-depth programs you would like to recommend?
“Nowadays we use the word” playlist “and often it is an algorithm that indicates what a person likes, an algorithm that then creates a personal playlist for the user (like Pandora) or that uses other parameters to create a shared playlist for a wider community (such as “Discover Weekly” or “RapCaviar” on Spotify). It contains more information and is a more digital instrument than the idea of classical radio, but at the base the idea is the same: “I know you like this style or this genre, now let me show you some other possibilities …”
People still like to be surprised and hear new artists and songs and try new enthusiasm and people like to have a guide who knows the scene, a sort of musical Virgil, a great deejay of music (according to the old definition of ” dj “) like those of old times or old radio. Do you want to hear some online deejays that really know music? Try NTS in London: fantastic programs and really smart drivers. “
Graceland by Paul Simon, an album that has sold over 14 million copies, was born thanks to South African musicians in South Africa. An album that was also a cultural and social “case”.
A couple of years ago Paul Simon called a young Italian electronic music producer, Cristiano Crisci aka Clap Clap, for his latest album “Stranger to Stranger” struck by his musical sensibility. Is the collaboration between artists, even of different backgrounds, the signal of an evolving musical scene?
“Collaboration between musicians is a fantastic and inevitable fact. Music detests emptiness and can not survive in a vacuum. He constantly needs collaborations and fresh input and new ideas, just as we need the next breath of fresh air. It is the natural course of music, in the same way that the water finds its lowest path, flowing from the hills to the sea. That’s what I learned by following that river for decades. ”
In the meeting with the public in Rome on the occasion of the presentation of the volume you recalled your experience following the artists for several years and on more than one occasion emerges the key concept of “respect”; Tell us about “respect” for all those involved in this adventure that is called music and that today seems to systematically fail in relationships.
“Well, first of all, let’s stay positive and be more optimistic, if you do not mind. I do not see any “system failure” in the music scene or between music journalists. Indeed, I see more and more people involved in music journalism that supports music and helps to celebrate it in all its styles and genres and sub-genres. Any difficulties and obstacles could be online, because anyone can post anything at any time and, simply, you write too much stuff on the music – and you do too much music – to read it and listen to it all.
Once upon a time, the musical information was concentrated: a limited number of music magazines, television programs and radio stations that provided us with everything we could know. It was simpler, but also more frustrating and crowded. Any novelties had to struggle to get attention in that restricted environment.
The respect of which I wrote in “The noise of the soul” is a timeless question: how do we approach a new and unknown music or a style unknown to us or, perhaps, against which we are prevented?
My answer is that any musician who makes music – even the most commercial and pop-oriented instrumentalists or the authors looking for a hit – have devoted time and energy to creating something that deserves listening without judgments. In fact, I firmly believe that the more we listen and we stifle the instinct to express an opinion, the more we will learn. This, however, is also valid outside music, in all relationships, personal, professional and even political: listening and thinking and showing respect before speaking always has advantages. Still, think about how politics are discussed on television, at least in America. Everyone talks and shouts simultaneously and who is listening?
According to the formidable producer Quincy Jones, there is a reason why God gave each of us two ears and a mouth. Because we should listen twice as much as we speak. Amen.”
For a few years you were the tour manager of the African group Ladysmith Black Mambazoo. From your words it emerges that this experience in the last years before the end of apartheid has profoundly affected you.
Recently a great musician has disappeared whose name is Hugh Masekela who was a symbol of the lot against apartheid and an icon of African music and original jazz. What do you think about the fact that in the contemporary scene symbolic figures like Masekela are now endangered?
“In what way is the symbolic role of Hugh Masekela – or was – in danger? Are you referring to his spiritual heritage? It does not seem to me in danger at all. I think Hugh was extremely proud of the music he created, of the impact he had on the world, of his role in the explosion of Graceland, of when he had played with Paul Simon in the 1980s, and of his own career that he carried on until a cancer at the beginning of the year if he got it. He was celebrated in life and was honored when he died and will be remembered by the hundreds of thousands of people who saw him play or who heard his music in one way or another.
I know that I will never forget it. I remember he once explained to me why, at the height of apartheid, when the situation of South African blacks was terrible, their music was so happy and full of joy. “Because we have already won,” he said. And he was right. “
Have you ever met Frank Zappa? What do you think of the role he has had in the history of music and what could be considered his legacy?
“I would have liked. I am a big fan of his music, his spirit, his sense of humor and his autobiography. In my opinion, it is still one of the most intelligent and passionate books written by a musician I have ever read. And to say that he was considered a gruff. After answering your questions, I will listen to your wonderful Hot Rats record. Thank you for mentioning it. “
Let’s talk about jazz. Today the scene is very lively and revolves around two city-laboratories for new trends, Los Angeles and London: on the west coast you play jazz contaminated with hip-hop while in the capital city the Caribbean sounds are mixing with the return of British jazz. Is there a risk that such movements become fashionable and lose their identity?
“I do not care about what is fashionable or whether it has an identity or not. This question has to do only with the way music is classified in one geographical area rather than another. Music always melts everywhere. Pure music does not exist. Point. Every sound and every style is a fusion. I must say that the use of the word “contaminated” implies an area of music criticism and a way of thinking about music from which I prefer to keep away, thanks. “
Alice Coltrane, an extraordinary character with a profound spirituality.
Last year the label of David Byrne, Luaka Bop, published a collection of unpublished The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda curated among others by his nephew, the producer and musician of LA Stehpen Ellison aka Flying Lotus.
How do you see this parable of the Coltrane family, from the beginning of free jazz to the abstract electronic hip-hop?
“It is well known that the McLeod family of Detroit is very musical; as are many other families. If a story can be found in their story, it is in the fact that there is an early musical education and a precocious creative expressiveness that have great value, that we should start at home and among relatives and continue to school and other aspects of experience of all children.
The secret of the McLeod family is similar to that of many other Detroit families: parents supported children who wanted to learn music. Some arrived later than others: saxophonist Ravi Coltrane started as a teenager and is now a leading musician here in New York; his elder sister Michelle is a singer in Los Angeles. They also benefited from their mother’s dedication to music, as well as their spirituality.