On why I love music

1 Mar

My earliest memories are of music. I have a fuzzy, vague, distant memory of being in a car seat and hearing a song on the radio that my dad ALWAYS played on the stereo at home. He had this John Mellencamp album (was he John Cougar then?) and I knew every word of that album before I could even really talk. My youth involved much exposure to Steely Dan, Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, The Beatles, and Bill Withers.

I was 10 years old and riding in my dad’s pickup with him to school. This was back in the days when my brother and I would spend every other week with my dad and one of us would have to cram into what constituted a quad cab on a Ford Ranger because there were only two seats up front. One time, I got a migraine (I had no idea what it was at the time) while squished into that “back seat” and wound up puking into a 7-11 cup so I wouldn’t mess up the upholstery.

Dad always had an extensive collection of cassette tapes (for the younger readers, cassette tapes were plastic receptacles containing a strip of magnetic tape onto which a song would be encoded. The tape deck would then pull the magnetic tape through a set of “teeth” and that would produce the sound through the speakers) in the truck. Good stuff, esoteric stuff.

On one of those trips, dad put Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” on the tape deck. To this day I can point to the exact spot on 87th St. in Lenexa where I first heard that album. That was the moment and the place when it occurred to me that music was the only path. I had never felt that way before. I heard that album and I was transformed. WHAT A SOUND! I was a 10 year old girl and I wanted to know what to call this music. I didn’t know the words “jazz” or “pop” music. I knew John Mellencamp and REO Speedwagon and Blood Sweat & Tears and Marvin Gaye. I just thought of it all as “music,” and what an incredible musical world it was.

This was a sonic world I had never heard before. Mitchell recorded the album with a backing band, Tom Scott’s L.A. Express. This band was a straight-up post-bop entity (it was the early 70’s). Their playing smacked of influences of Dizzy Gillespie and a band like Yes! – they were a jazz band with a prog rock vibe. The incredible orchestrations of the backing band are what sell this album as one of the  1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die – and it was Joni herself who did the bulk of the orchestrations.


Joni was using the L.A. Express as her very own instrument. To hear this album now, it is obvious Joni wrote for the players she had at her disposal. Duke Ellington would die three months following the release of this album. I don’t know if Duke was ever aware of C&S, but I hope he was proud of influencing another prolific American composer to write for their individual players. The only other contemporary mainstream American composer who writes exclusively for their players is Maria Schneider, but she’s a story for another day.

Joni Mitchell had been well known prior to the release of this album as a folk singer, but she had been slowly adding elements of rock into her sound. She had, prior to 1974, resisted incorporating jazz. But then “Court and Spark” came out and she didn’t just come out of the jazz closet, she busted it for kindling. Keep in mind – Joni had been touring with Neil Young for a while and her songwriting on C&S would come to show influences of Young, while retaining a staggeringly original voice.

The other thing that grabbed me and smacked me around was something I now know as texture. There was an incredible palette of color on this album – woodwinds, brass, chimes – and Joni used every single color at her disposal to make this album, an album that I have yet to hear anything remotely emulate. The guitar effects are absolutely perfect every time. The melodies are complex but eminently hummable. Mitchell’s vocal performance and arrangements ranging from delicate to raucous are exquisite. The performances by the musicians are absolutely smokin’. This is a shared artistic vision that only comes along maybe a handful of times in a generation.

I knew there was something about this album, this music, that moved me. All music moved me. I was prone to break into bouts of tears while listening to film scores because I was so moved by SOMETHING in that score. This is before I had any sort of musical education and my parents weren’t musicians. I finally convinced them to buy me a cheap Casio keyboard so I could figure out this music thing.

I started learning songs by ear and learning to play them on the piano. I didn’t get much practical training in elementary school band so I had to teach myself to read music AFTER developing rote knowledge. I didn’t have the vocabulary to express this at the time, but what moved me the most in music were a few things: dissonant, crunchy chords; interesting, active bass lines; and irregular meters.

I didn’t know, 18 years ago, that those were the things I loved about music. But now I know that. Because they’re the things I still love.

“Court & Spark” had all of these elements and then some: memorable melodies, fascinating lyrics, and a level of white-hot creativity that I struggle find any  other album that is its equal in that regard, except perhaps for “In Rainbows” by Radiohead.

Joni became a trusted musical friend. I liked to sit up in my room and just blast the music and walk around the room, listening. Soaking up the different lines and counterlines. Rewinding the track to hear a crunchy chord again. Playing the melody so many times on the Casio that it was nearly confiscated.

From Joni, I discovered Ben Folds Five’s “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.” Somewhere in that time, I heard the introduction to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” – that high, mournful, savage bassoon solo at the beginning. I can tell you where I was sitting in the SM West band room when I heard that bassoon.

I could literally share similar experiences all day, and maybe I will soon. Maybe this is “Part One” of why I love music.

I don’t understand why Europeans and South Americans can take more sophistication. Why is it that Americans need to hear their happiness major and their tragedy minor, and as jazzy as they can handle is a seventh chord? Are they not experiencing complex emotions? – Joni Mitchell


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