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Words + Guitar (+ Beats + Skronk) 

What mattered and what splattered in pop, 1997

Wednesday, Dec 31 1997
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Page 5 of 7

3) The Miles Davis live '70s reissues, Cassandra Wilson's Traveling Miles (due in '98), and Javon Jackson's Good People As the boring run of music-school grads playing rote standards lets up, the jazz labels are finally realizing that the music is more relevant when it meets pop halfway.

4) Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes After all those years of being a tomboy in TLC, she emerged as a full-effect glamour woman in her video and during her performance of "Not Tonight" at the MTV video awards. If there is really a beauty sleeping deep inside everyone, Lopes' diva woke up big time this year.

5) Wyclef Jean & the Refugee Allstars Anyone who dismissed the Fugees for their bland covers of "No Woman No Cry" and "Killing Me Softly" is missing a great party. On The Carnival, Jean combined musical diversity, political savvy, and raucous humor to create one of the year's most compelling recordings.

6) Roni Size and the entire DJ movement Almost every week another DJ-based recording dropped and redefined the way we hear music, replacing melodies and harmonies with fragments of sound. Size's New Forms was the best.

7) The Love Jones soundtrack A good match for the movie's underlying theme about race and cultural prerogative, this collection of tracks by Dionne Farris, Lauryn Hill, Groove Theory, and others gave alternative R&B a self-perpetuating authority.

8) Billy Higgins' return The best drummer in jazz was out of action for most of 1996 due to a liver transplant. He returned forcefully in '97 playing concert halls with Ornette Coleman and nightclubs with Jackie McLean.

Sam Prestianni's Top Seven Transcendent Moments in Music '97

1) Globe-trotting from the homestead Rare aural snapshots of the world from four different CDs, including The Dance of Heaven's Ghosts, passion, sorrow, and joy from the cultural cauldron of the Greek islands, kindred to flamenco's soul-stirring duende; The Mystic Fiddle of the Proto-Gypsies, ecstatic trance rituals performed by the Baluchi people of Pakistan; Angels in the Mirror, spirited Haitian voodoo rituals that debunk black-magic stereotypes; and Susana Baca, an intense combination of sparse yet riveting Peruvian percussion, gut-string guitar, and Baca's ethereal vocals.

2) Hedonism and improvisation The scene was a party for friends and friends of friends at the home of the Modern Mandolin Quartet's Mike Marshall -- a heady mix of home-cooked vittles, fine wine, and music at an impromptu gathering. After dinner Marshall assembled some pals -- percussionist Aaron Johnston, clarinetist/saxophonist Harvey Wainapel, and Brazilian classical-guitar star Paulo Bellinati -- for a brief set of Brazilian choros, the original music of Carnaval. The ad hoc quartet essayed gorgeous melodies from a fat book of charts, then improvised a couple of tunes. Bellinati's virtuosic chordal accompaniment on the constantly modulating choros created a rolling effect of continuous waves of melody and grace. The guests were swept away in the current.

3) The difference between stripping and playing the violin In an effort to illustrate "the commodification of music, the body, ethnicity, and eroticism in our market-driven society," one-of-a-kind bandleader and kotoist Miya Masaoka gave lunchtime passers-by at U.N. Plaza far more than a Whopper and fries. The performance -- What Is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin? -- combined a 12-piece orchestra with the steamy gyrations of erotic dancers. The result: a juxtaposition of global-thinking avant-garde music -- Asian folk melodies, jazz improv, speed-metal riffs -- and titillating striptease that wowed hundreds of onlookers.

4) Tapping into the universal stream of music In September I went on a camping trip with a few dozen elementary-school students. (I work as a teacher.) I brought along a box of percussion instruments; a half-dozen fifth- and sixth-graders each selected one and joined me noodling away on guitar on a bench amid the redwoods. Without uttering a word, we collectively swayed into adventuresome, tuneful melodies and polyrhythms -- and during a certain five-minute span, the magical energy matched any of the best music I've ever heard, let alone played. None of the kids had ever before picked up an instrument. Some improvisers say that they don't play music exactly, but rather act as channels or conduits, tapping into a universal stream where all melodies and rhythms coexist all the time. Here was strong evidence of the phenomenon.

5) Alan Lomax's Southern Journey series The first six installments of Southern Journey, a 13-volume set of nearly 40-year-old field recordings produced by legendary folklorist Alan Lomax, document the Deep South's musical heritage more specifically than the year's most-talked-about collection, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. The range is mind-blowing: black and white spirituals, mountain music, country blues, prison and work songs, breakdowns, reels, on and on. These long-out-of-print and previously unissued tracks are significant collector's items, not only for their historical value as an archive of pre-Elvis culture, but because the music is raw, authentic -- not prefabricated in a digital studio by spoiled pop stars.

6) Steve Roach and Olivier Messiaen The introductory apocalyptic strains of "Heart of the Tempest," the lead track on ambient pioneer Steve Roach's new CD, On This Planet, drove me to pull out Quartet for the End of Time, the spellbinding suite -- written in a World War II prison camp -- by radical French composer Olivier Messiaen. Playing the two discs simultaneously, I created an in-the-moment "remix" that melted distinctive soundtracks, literally worlds apart, into a single, haunting entity.

7) Conlon Nancarrow, Sarah Cahill, and the power of radio One cool August afternoon in Berkeley, strange sounds snaked over the airwaves. Diamondlike, slightly off-kilter, and harmonically from another planet, they seemed like piano, but not quite. Pianist, critic, and KPFA DJ Sarah Cahill back-announced Conlon Nancarrow, the iconoclastic and influential 20th-century classical composer who had just died at his home in Mexico City. On the avant-garde of the avant-garde, Nancarrow devoted nearly half a century of his life to creating more than 60 immensely intricate studies for player piano, the rolls of which he hand-punched himself.

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