African Flowers

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the duke, surrounded by “african flowers” — google img search, 1 sept 2010

I was really thrilled with the reception of my “Galangs” mashup last week. To see the video get passed along by the likes of the Village Voice, NY Mag, & NPR, and especially to get this sort of response from SFJ, was really unexpected and delightful. Most of all, that Vijay himself dug it made it feel pretty justified. (Word is out on whether MIA gives a shit. I’m guessing no.)

As it happens, this week a new Vijay Iyer album came out, Solo. And it just so happens that for the recording Vijay decided to take on one of my absolute dearest jazz compositions. (He also plays through “Human Nature” and “Darn That Dream,” two cheeseball songs I find quite endearing; it’s like he’s daring me to make more mashups!) Vijay’s “African Flower” reworks Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine,” which I know (&love*) from the sublime session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach that yielded Money Jungle.

Considering that Ellington and Mingus are, for realz, my two favorite jazz composers — & that each cultivated unique voices on their instruments (as did Roach) — the album has long held a special place in my life / collection. Mingus’s fluttering bassline, and then his melodic moaning during the B section of the composition, make my heart ache. And I love the idea, as widely reported and fairly audible, that the session had its share of tension, with Mingus playing almost aggressively “out” while Ellington maintains composure, Roach’s tuned-toms knitting it all together.

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As a solo take, Vijay doesn’t have to contend with any bandmates playing at cross-purposes, but somehow, one imagines, he needs to sublimate the engaging energies of Money Jungle into his own performance. (Or maybe not. I suppose we’d have to ask him whether the composition itself served as his guide, or whether his experience hearing Duke&co. play the tune has indelibly stamped it.) To my ears, Vijay’s version is at once reverent and distinctive, as the process of lining these up demonstrated to me in great detail — and hopefully as this mashup will suggest to you.

About the process: while the making of “Galangs” was relatively clear cut, the very same procedure in this case presented some serious technical and ethico-aesthetic challenges. MIA’s “Galang” is, of course, rather metronomic, since it moves to a drum-machine / programmed / quantized beat, and since Vijay & his trio-mates attempt to emulate that consistency, it was neither difficult, nor IMO problematic, to warp the two recordings and line them up. With “African Flowers,” however, there was no such steadiness; rather, Duke & co., although pretty odd-swingingly propulsive, are rather elastic in their relation to each other and the pulse, and Vijay, playing the tune solo, takes some rubato liberties to be sure.

So even though both recordings have palpable pulses — and indeed, Mingus and Roach, for all their outtitude, still play rhythm section — it felt a little odd / wrong to snap them onto a grid. But there’s no making a mashup without that level of correspondence, unless one wants cacophony, and that does not a good mashup make. So I made a deal with the Ableton devil and disciplined each to a click-track.

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One thing I (re*)learned while warping them is that “African Flower” is not as straightforward as it sounds. Despite its stately sadness and surface simplicity, it contains some surprising twists, including one place where a measure seems to skip a beat. Grappling with this through Vijay’s performance, and then again on Duke’s, I was thrilled to hear, in the end, that they generally lined up.

But while they shared the same underlying form, the process of juxtaposing the two also brought to my attention some remarkable macro and micro differences. In the end, I again struck a compromise with regard to whose performance I would “subordinate” to the other. I decided to favor the brevity of Duke & co.’s rendition, so I chopped off the latter half of Vijay’s performance, essentially a repeat run through the changes, with all the signal differences one expects of a great jazz musician. At the same time, I decided to loop Duke & co. in order to leave in tact Vijay’s creative stretching of the form whereby he repeats the first section (12 bars) of the tune (after a 4-bar intro), as you see in the screenshot below. In the end, just one splice a piece, essentially —

money jungles

Once I started mucking around with the snap-to-pulse stuff, certain dilemmas arose with regard to what degree of manipulation I would employ. Sometimes the whole point (of jazz, etc.) is that the musicians play a chord or a figure a little before or after the beat. As much as possible, I wanted to maintain the individual approaches of each performance, so as to bring them into greater relief when combined. In the end, I did my best to strike a balance between preserving the original feel of each while letting them line up when not too coercive a procedure. Perhaps only Vijay, or an astute mashup-analyst, will discern the micro-tweaks of tempo and articulation.

Even though I’ve done some quasi-violent clobbering of an occasional gesture, I’d like to think, as with any of these endeavors, that the mashup I’ve made justifies its existence as more than an exercise in arithmetic, but rather, as living up to the new math of the form.

But that’s a question I’ll leave to y’all.

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Here’s the mashup, again in video form to help listeners track the changes and the degree of overlap / departure. One thing I’ve done in this case is to split the audio in the stereofield (Vijay on the left, Duke & co. on the right), to aid with hearing them in tandem. I’ll offer two different audio versions for your listening pleasures, one stereo-split and one centered/combined. It’s nice to hear Vijay playing on a nearby platform, but also to hear two pianos on the same stage. (Because the effect was so helpful, edifying even, I’ve gone ahead and made a stereo-split version of “Galangs” as well.)

vijay iyer + duke ellington, charles mingus, & max roach, “african flowers” (w&w mash) (stereo-split MP3 | centered MP3)

african flowers from wayneandwax on Vimeo.

* Incidentally, just in case you doubt my longstanding admiration of the composition, here’s a version of “Fluerette Africain” which I myself put together — programmed note by note, using FruityLoops! — way back in 2001:

wayne&wax, “african flower, transplanted”

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