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Kind of Purple: Jazz Musicians On Prince

Kurt Gottschalk By

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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.

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'm not sure it matters—that's part of the magic of any pop master, that the complexity is hidden. When I was arranging some of his tunes, I did "Around the World in a Day." On a surface listen, it's just a great, catchy bit of psychedelia over a little 2-bar drum groove. When I dug into it, I realized the piece had a 15-bar bridge, which turns around the clave of the beat in the middle of the song form—a totally crazy thing for a pop song to do, but it happens so naturally I doubt 1 out of 100 listeners even notices.

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

I checked it out, but wasn't crazy about it...in general, I like Prince most when he is breaking the rules of genre, as opposed to playing within a genre. These days, my criticism would be each tune sounds like "Prince doing R&B" or "Prince doing smooth jazz" or "Prince doing rock," when my favorite of his material was undefinable. (Though I'll make a slight exception for "Prince doing funk." When he just throws down on some James Brown/Sly Stone/George Clinton pastiche you can't help but dig it, he does it so well.)

Do you think Prince is past his prime?

I would never say that. He is too brilliant and virtuosic a musician. I certainly hope to be thrilled and surprised by his music in the future. I would always be psyched to see him live, and even the stuff of his that doesn't work for me I'll still check out and learn something from. But as I mentioned earlier, I haven't loved anything of his top-to-bottom for a while. I think celebrity is something that can rarely be coupled with sustained creativity. The pressures and stresses of fame seem at odds with experimentation and risk. (Obviously speaking from personal experience here ;-))

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

Other than sitting in with my rebooted Prince project (I'm figuring he'll either do that or sue the shit out of me), what I actually want is to not be able to predict or even guess at what he should do next. In that classic run in the eighties, each album seemed to come out of nowhere, totally different than the album before and totally different than anything else on the radio at the time. My dream for Prince would be to do something I couldn't even imagine.

James Ilgenfritz: "Purple Rain"

What is it about "Purple Rain" that grabs you? Have you ever gotten tired of hearing it?

I don't ever get tired of Prince. I've never had a period of my life where his music wasn't important to me. I'm not fanatical about Prince, but I've never questioned the validity of my initial obsession from childhood, and I've never stopped listening to his music.

"Purple Rain" isn't my favorite Prince song, but it's one that sticks out in my mind for the way Prince's abilities as a performer and his abilities in the studio interact. A couple years ago a video surfaced of a 1983 performance, which was not only the debut of Purple Rain (and a few other songs), but this debut performance also became the principle track for the version on the album, which included some overdubs, and edits for a shorter intro, shorter guitar solo, and one fewer verses. It's pretty profound to lay down such a timeless track in basically one live take. It's not unusual for a song to be recorded that way, but how often do we get to hear the basic track with no overdubs—basically a complete and beautiful performance all by itself?


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