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Kind of Purple: Jazz Musicians On Prince

Kurt Gottschalk By

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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.

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