Kind of Purple: Jazz Musicians On Prince

Kurt Gottschalk By

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"Do you know who Prince kinda reminds me of, particularly as a pianist? Duke! Yeah, he's the Duke Ellington of the eighties to my way of thinking."—Miles Davis

The tops of the pop charts isn't where we often expect to find genius. Brilliant performers sometimes, expert attention grabbers maybe more often, but it's not generally where ground is broken.

Prince may not have topped the singles charts in some time, but then the charts aren't what they were three decades ago when three singers, all born in the summer of 1958, owned them. After years of reluctance, Prince now takes advantage of the ways music is distributed in the 21st Century (if, still, sometimes fickley so). And he continues to sell out concerts and be seen as a vital force while his birthyear mates, Madonna and Michael Jackson, well in one case we can only speculate and in the other perhaps we'd rather not.

Prince also earns the respect of other musicians in a way that many million sellers fail to, and not just in the pop and R&B worlds.

On December 11 and 12, bassist Ben Williams put on two nights of Prince's music at Harlem Stage in New York City. Through inventive arrangements and a rotating cast of singers, Williams showed that Prince's music is wide open for interpretation. Although it was a shame that the strongest of the vocalists, Christie Dashiell, only got one shot at the mike, surprise guests Bilal (singing "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker") and a encore improv with flautist Najee brought the audience to its feet by the end.

Trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum has likewise put on concert-lengths programs of his own arrangements of Prince's music. Trumpeter Steven Bernstein has included covers of "Darling Nikki" and "Sign 'O' the Times" on his records. And James Ilgenfritz, Jamie Saft, Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell all count themselves as fans. We asked them each to select a song and tell us what it means to them.

Ben Williams: "Darling Nikki"

Tell me why you picked "Darling Nikki."

I've always loved everything about "Darling Nikki." The story, the music, the groove; it's sonically perfect. It has such an edginess and "looseness" about it. The Purple Rain album and the movie visually go hand in hand for me. It's impossible for me to hear any of the songs from that album without thinking about the exact scene in the movie in which it took place and how it fit into the overall story. "Darling Nikki" came at sort of an emotional climax in the film and I always feel that when I hear the song.

"Darling Nikki" is one of the songs he won't perform anymore. Any thoughts on him cleaning up his act, so to speak?

I respect Prince for making that decision, to "clean up his act." He is obviously at a different point in his life and as we all get older, we began to think about things differently. I don't get the feeling that he is ashamed at the content of some of his older material but I believe he looks at it as growth and progression. As artists, our art always serves as a reflection of where we are spiritually in our lives; as we grow and change, so will our art.

How did the "Dearly Beloved" project come about? Do you know if Prince is aware of it?

"Dearly Beloved" is a project that I've had in my mind for a number of years. I've always been a huge Prince fan (thanks in most part to my older brother who is a Prince aficionado) but I really started to dig a little deeper into his repertoire from a purely musical standpoint in recent years. I was familiar with much of his material but I began to realize how deep and revolutionary his music was on a technical level. There was another level, so to speak, of genius that I began to discover in his music; The greatest musician/songwriters have the ability to make even the most complex music accessible and singable. The same sort of genius I've discovered in the music of Monk, Ellington, Wayne Shorter, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, I began to see in Prince's music. Coming from the "jazz" world, I wanted to present his music from a different perspective. Prince's music is somewhat sacred ground for me but I thought it would be a great opportunity for my jazz fan base to realize his genius from a different angle. I'm not sure if Prince is aware of this project (I have had the opportunity to meet him on several occasions).

When did you first become interested in Prince's music?

Being born in 1984, I grew up during a time when Michael Jackson and Prince were on top of world as pop icons. My family, having a deep appreciation for music, was really into Prince. My household was filled with lots of Prince music (although some of it had to be listened to in secret due to the explicit content). My older brother is THE biggest Prince fan I know personally. He knows and owns almost every single piece of Prince material, bootlegs, side projects, and all (which is a LOT of music by the way). He's turned me on to almost all the Prince music I know. Apparently, when I was three yrs old I would find my way into our basement in early mornings, find the Purple Rain VHS, put it in the VCR and watch it. I guess I've been a fan since before I was even aware!

What is it that stands out most to you about his music?

Prince's music stands out because he has carved out his own lane in music. As an individual and as an artist, he has blurred and virtually erased so many lines in pop music/culture. He defied all expectations of what it meant to be a black artist, a pop icon, a rock star, and as a man. Prince was all about breaking the rules, which is so important to the world I live in musically. He challenged his fan base in a way no other artist had done before. His music forces you to think for yourself and can even make you uncomfortable at times. How do you even categorize Prince as an artist? Is he R&B? Is he Soul? Is he Funk? Is he Rock? The answer is all of the above and then some.

Prince is one of the biggest selling artists of the last 30 years. That would suggest a "lowest common denominator" effect to at least some people. Do you think his music is understood for what it is by most people?

I absolutely agree that Prince's superstardom has created a "lowest common denominator" effect with many of his fans, though this is very common when artists reach a level of superstardom, Prince has always interrupted that pattern. He could've easily released a follow-up to Purple Rain to piggyback off of its enormous popular success but he stayed true to himself and released a more experimental, less commercially viable album instead (Around The World in a Day). In the same way Miles Davis had done throughout the course of his career, Prince made his fans follow him on a journey through his ever-changing artistic development. I believe this has created a large population of "lukewarm" fans and a smaller, but super-devout fan base.

Are you familiar with Prince's "jazz" project Madhouse? What did you think of it?

Yes! Madhouse is amazing! Super funky stuff. It's kind of like listening to a Prince record without Prince (singing at least). He's always had great bands and Madhouse was a great display of instrumental prowess.

What sort of project or direction would you like to see Prince take on that he hasn't?

I'd hate to ever say that an artist as prolific as Prince could exhaust their creativity, but I think he definitely had a period of extreme creative genius between 1981-1990. Though he made great music after that period, I believe his most iconic material was created during that time. Is he past his prime? You could definitely argue that but I think he's still making great music.

I would love to see Prince collaborate with some of the young artists on the vanguard of the jazz/hip-hop/soul scene like Robert Glasper, Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, etc. I'd love to see him with the Roots.

Taylor Ho Bynum : "Crystal Ball"

You picked a song that some people might not know. What is it about "Crystal Ball" that grabs you?

"Crystal Ball" was originally going to be the title track of what later became Sign 'O' the Times. Prince wanted it to be a 3-album set, but Warner Brothers forced him to do a 2-album max. So Crystal Ball became a sought-after bootleg for years. It later was released on a collection of bootlegs and rarities (also called Crystal Ball) that Prince self-released.

I certainly hear the arguments for Purple Rain as Prince's masterwork, but for me, the Sign 'O' the Times/Lovesexy period is my personal favorite—incredible band (Sheila E killing the drums), live horns, long form narrative arrangements, totally unique song structures. (This is where you understand Miles' Ellington analogy to Prince—the songs exist in a pop context but follow their own rules, just like Duke's 30s and 40s material.) "Crystal Ball" is some seriously operatic shit—post-apocalyptic lyrics ("As bombs explode around us and hate advances on the right / The only thing that matters, baby, is the love that we make tonight"), from minimalist drumbeat heartbeats to post-Schoenberg orchestral washes (props to Prince's great orchestrator Clare Fischer, RIP), to insanely funky breakouts, "Crystal Ball" has it all—11 minutes of freak-pop perfection.

I did a project of my arrangements of Prince tunes a couple of years ago (one of these days I will revisit and record it), but the whole thing was basically an excuse to sit in my basement and listen this particular composition over and over and over again.

When did you first become interested in Prince's music?

My older sister first turned me on to Prince when I was in high school (she got to see the Lovesexy tour on consecutive nights, something I remain envious of!). In my teenage years, I was figuring out what I liked, part jazz-nerd, part P-Funk junkie, part wanna-be metal-head rocker. Once I got over my avant-garde pretensions (I liked to think I was too cool for anything top 40), I realized Prince hit all those buttons, that he was a genius.

What is it that stands out most to you about his music?

In his prime (for me, 1980-1988, or Dirty Mind through Lovesexy, with a couple of amazing tracks on the albums on either side of that window) Prince was, as Anthony Braxton would say, a "trans-idiomatic master." He was clearly schooled and fluent in any number of musical styles, but his music resisted categorization, a wholly personal amalgam of his influences, totally weird and totally pop at the same time, a beautifully impossible balancing act.
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