George Martin was the first producer I knew by name.
The first time I heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I was 14 years old, and I didn’t even know what a producer’s job was. I just knew that there were four Beatles – John, Paul, George and Ringo – and a fifth guy whose name kept popping up in anything I read about the band. Between 1963 and 1969, the Beatles essentially reinvented rock and roll, and their 13 albums and numerous singles and EPs stand as one of the best catalogs in modern music. And George Martin was right there from the beginning, the architect of the Beatles sound in the studio.
I can’t imagine what my world would be like had George Martin not, one day in 1965, suggested to Paul McCartney that “Yesterday” might sound nice with a string arrangement. That started the Beatles’ unparalleled creative streak in the studio, and as their work became more intricate and imaginative, Martin stepped up to the plate again and again. Revolver and Sgt. Pepper remain two of the most astonishing, immaculately produced albums in music history. Listen again to “A Day in the Life,” which may be the Beatles’ magnum opus. Listen as if you’ve never heard it before. Now think about the fact that George Martin pulled that off using less advanced technology than you have on your phone.
Put simply, George Martin made me want to learn how to make records. I learned what little I know about arranging music, about picking it apart and figuring out how it works, by listening to his work with the Beatles over and over again. I can still listen over and over, and hear new nuances, subtle touches that still reveal themselves, 50 years later. And I wasn’t the only one – the Beatles, with Martin, directed the course of pop and rock music from that point on, as innumerable musicians and producers studied and took from his work. Martin was undeniably the fifth Beatle, and though he had a long and illustrious career, it’s those seven years he spent sculpting the Fab Four’s imaginations into sound that will live forever. His work over those seven years has meant so much to me for so long that I don’t think I would be able to put it into words.
George Martin died in his sleep on March 8. He was 90. A good long life, well lived. Rest in peace, George.
* * * * *
I’m a keyboard player. I tell people I’m a piano player, but I have always been interested in and captivated by the sound of synthesizers. And few people had as significant an impact on that love as Keith Emerson did.
Emerson was the keyboard wizard at the forefront of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, as unlikely a trio as the world has ever seen. I’ll admit to hearing Emerson, Lake and Powell first – specifically, the kickass “Touch and Go,” released in 1986 – but quickly learned where the really insane stuff could be found. ELP were completely, wonderfully ridiculous – Emerson played a piano that flipped around 360 degrees in mid-air, and led the trio through synth-rock arrangements of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. I remember hearing the extraordinary “Karn Evil 9” for the first time and thinking that I had never encountered anything like it. I’m not sure I have, even now.
Emerson kept working well into his late ‘60s – his last album was four years ago, a collaboration with a 70-piece orchestra. (Because of course.) He had been suffering from nerve damage in his hands recently, and on March 10 he apparently took his own life, which depresses me more than I can tell you. Emerson was 71. I hope he has found peace.
* * * * *
Wow, 2016 is doing a number on us. I think we could use some good news. How about this: I just heard the best album of the year so far.
Like a lot of people, I only became aware of Esperanza Spalding after she won the Grammy award for Best New Artist in 2011. I’m inclined now to declare that award the most accurate Grammy ever given, despite the fact that Spalding was riding her third album, the lovely Chamber Music Society, at the time. Spalding is a bass player from Portland, Oregon, and up until now, she’s worked in a jazz-pop vein, composing lilting melodies for her crystal-clear voice and crafting soulful, café-worthy, sometimes horn-driven tunes to go with them. She’s brilliant, with a sophistication that belies her 31 years, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that her work could find a home at Starbucks.
But holy hell, her new album sets all of that on fire. It’s called Emily’s D+Evolution, and it’s insane. Spalding has retained all of the intricacy and head-spinning musicality of her previous work, but she’s added an edge, an explosive quality that is like lighting a fuse under this record and watching it burst. This is the most alive, most vital, most captivating music Spalding has made, jumping wildly from acid rock to ‘70s pop to Zappa-style jazz-prog to a cappella to pure balladry, and often several of those within the same song. It’s a sure-footed step forward from an uncommonly gifted and visionary artist.
Emily is Spalding’s middle name, and she pronounces the title “D-Plus Evolution,” like one that barely made it to graduation. But nothing about this evolution scores so low. Opener “Good Lava” is so jarring, so fiery, that it will have you making sure Spalding’s name is on the sleeve. Guitars rage, Spalding’s vocal melody juts out at odd angles, drums flail, and the bass – that bass! – is everywhere. From that point on, nothing on this album follows any sort of safe path. Often Spalding seems determined to trip you up – even the catchiest songs here, like “Rest in Pleasure,” are off-kilter, melodies darting and swooping out of nowhere, guitars chiming in where you don’t expect, the band painting with noise. These songs mainly stay within the four-to-five-minute range, but each feels like a journey over light-years.
Spalding never loses her capacity to surprise – dig the harmonized, spoken intro to “Ebony and Ivy,” leading into a Zappa-esque guitar-driven piece of beautiful map-shredding. She’s assembled a power trio here, with drummer Karriem Riggins and guitarist Matthew Stevens, both of whom hail from jazz backgrounds but have experience pushing boundaries. Riggins’ work in hip-hop serves him well here – he probably didn’t bat an eyelash at a bass-driven slice of weirdness like “Farewell Dolly” – and the three of them play remarkably well together.
“Funk the Fear” may be the most straightforwardly rock thing on the album, the trio locking into a slippery, complex groove that brings Living Colour to mind. The song is about being fearless, and that’s a quality that lives in every pore of Emily’s D+Evolution. Even Spalding’s most fervent fans will not be expecting an album like this, one that ends by extending its most accessible song (the gorgeous “Unconditional Love”) to a mind-melting nine minutes of spacey rock. Hell, she covers “I Want It Now” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a demented acid show tune. That’s the kind of album this is.
Spalding is a brilliant original, and this is her finest and fullest album, one that leaves no doubt of her vision and her ability to realize it. I can’t get enough of this record, and I doubt I’m going to feel any differently in December, when it comes time to pick the year’s best.
In summary, she’s awesome, this record is amazing, and you need it in your life.
* * * * *
Next week, maybe The Feeling, and perhaps Little Green Cars, Grant-Lee Phillips, Jeff Buckley and Sean Watkins. And hopefully, no more death. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.