LUIS GASCA / “Spanish Gypsy”
I don’t know why I’ve been listening to long songs lately. Actually, that’s not even true. I’ve been listening to songs the same way I usually do: with my iTunes on random. What’s true is, whenever I hear the introductory noodling to what I recognize will eventually become a long song, I perk up and give the speakers a little extra attention. This morning, it was Luis Gasca’s “Spanish Gypsy,” a jazzy/funky/salsa-ish hippie thing that I heard many, many times before I finally realized why it had sounded so familiar to me the first time I heard it: because it sounds just like War…except with more highly-developed musicianship. War liked to call themselves ‘The Music Band,’ but when you listen to their long jazz-like tunes back to back with something like “Spanish Gypsy,” you realize that a funk band playing jazz is still a funk band. It’s as if both artists are exceptional athletes, but they play different sports. Michael Jordan may very well be the greatest athlete of the 20th century, but remember when Jordan tried to play baseball? Jordan had been a capable baseball player in his younger days, but since that time, he’d molded himself into the best basketball player in the world, and in so doing, he’d developed all sorts of specialized methods, muscles and instincts, all of which were appropriate for basketball excellence but when it came to baseball, failed him miserably. And some of it was just a matter of physics: as a basketball player, Jordan was the perfect height – tall enough to leap over the opposition, short enough to retain full body coordination; but as a baseball player, Jordan’s 6’6” frame and open batting stance saddled him with a strike zone so tall and wide that opposing pitchers must’ve found pitching past him about as difficult as lobbing pebbles into the Pacific. On the basketball court, Jordan looked quick, sleek and graceful. In the batter’s box, he looked lanky, slow and awkward. Of course, everything is relative. If Jordan were to show up and your or my weekend fast-pitch softball game he’d be a destroyer: effortlessly cranking out of the park everything thrown at him; in the outfield, he’d provide his team an unfair advantage by running down every ball hit in or near his general direction. Which is why I can recognize that War’s bassline on “Gypsy Man” (from 1973’s Deliver The Word) is a little wooden and I can recognize that the interplay between the musicians leaves a little something to be desired and I can recognize that the tune would benefit from some actual solos, but despite recognizing all of that, I can still like “Gypsy Man,” just like I’d like to sit in the bleachers and watch Jordan play baseball. If I had my choice though, what I’d really like to do is watch Jordan play basketball. For me, listening to Luis Gasca’s “Spanish Gypsy” is sort of like that. It’s Latin jazz played by musicians who excel at playing Latin jazz. There has to be other music out there that sounds like Gasca’s but the only other stuff I’ve personally heard that resembles it is some of Miles’ Bitches Brew-era output. To me, the rhythm section (I’m talking both Gasca and Miles) sounds something like dense vegetation looks. There are so many angles and twists and colors and tones to it that it’s hard to grab hold of. But that’s only if you’re looking (or listening) closely. If you close your eyes sort of halfway and just let it be, it turns into a groove and you can hear what they’re getting at. It’s like they’re trying to play funk, but they’re too restless, too complicated and too educated (in terms of music, not books) to actually play funk. And those solos. Man. Gasca’s sounds like he’s playing with a torch instead of a trumpet. I never remember what happens after those opening notes. For the next three or four minutes, those molten blasts just echo around in my mind until, eventually, I realize that I’m not actually listening to the record and I tune back in, but by then, Gasca’s usually done. I read an interview in which Gasca described himself as “wildebeest, centaur, minotaur and part gypsy” and the woman interviewing him summed him up as “not indefinable” but “often enigmatic.” You can hear all of that in Gasca’s playing. If he isn’t a great soloist it isn’t because he doesn’t have the skill, it’s because he doesn’t have the patience. Gasca comes in blazing and after that, he seems willing to let whatever happens happen. Somehow, it works. It never hurts to have stellar personnel around you – that goes for all types of music, I suppose, but especially for jazz - and at least on this recording, Gasca certainly has that support. The large line-up includes tenor-man Joe Henderson (who takes the second solo around the seven-minute mark), Lenny White (on drums), Coke Escovedo (on percussion) and Carlos Santana (who apparently loaned Gasca most of his band for this session). One other thing about this tune: I first heard it on a Joe Claussel compilation (excellent collection of songs, by the way, including a very wide range of music) but the album it originally comes from, Gasca’s 1972 release For Those Who Chant, features some of the best cover art I’ve ever seen. I haven’t heard the rest of the album, but one of these days I’m going to track down the original LP, if for no other reason, just so I can hang the cover art on my wall. —Mtume ya Salaam Déjà vu Mtume, you’ve heard the whole album before. Probably many times. It was a favorite at 1708 Tennessee. Including the cover art. When you told me you were doing Luis Gasca, I smiled, said yeah. After downloading your write up, I read your words and again I was smiling. Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson may have been who initially attracted me to Gasca’s recording back in the early seventies. For certain “Joe Hen” (as he was sometimes known), for certain he was a big reason I listened so often to that recording. If my memory serves there was a second Luis Gasca recording (but maybe not—I don’t put much stock in my memory these days). But beyond the music I do know that I tracked down the artist who did the cover art and we featured some of his art work in the Black Collegian magazine back in the seventies when I was the editor. As for the music, Gasca is heavily influenced by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. The sound of the music is Pharoah Sanders. Man, this sparks so many memories. Like little pieces of fire lights, standing around a 50 gallon drum with log wood burning and the wind blowing and the embers swirling up and out of the barrel. But mostly how in motion we were at that time. We as a people and specifically “we” your parents, relatives and our comrades. Driving to Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta, Jackson—we almost lived on the road. Hooking up with like-minded fellow travelers. The Congress of Afrikan Poople. Afrikan Liberation Support Committee. Black Women Conferences. South African Divestment demos. Anti-Klan rallies. No sidewalk was foreign to us. We were at home all over the country. La musica. La luta. We were connected. For me this music is more than music. This music is struggle soundtrack. I can not separate it in my head from all the political activity that was our life 24/7/365. So Mtume, I smile when you describe Luis’ horn playing as “molten blasts.” That’s accurate. We were black volcanoes erupting on the American social landscape. God, what an importantly beautiful time the early seventies was. And you could hear it in our favorite music. The optimism. The strong surge of forceful action. The claiming of the Third World. Not just the rhythms. But the insistence of the melodies. The harmonic complexities. The world. The whole wide world. We were open to all of that, which is why we organized a trip to China in 1977. Which is why our movement was never simply a back to Africa trip but rather a forward with Africa exploration. Mtume, let me lay another Gasca track on you: “Motherless Child.” Again Joe Henderson is featured on tenor (and how mightily the man burns—this is a Jazz solo with a capital "J"). Don’t know if it’s from the same album. Got the track on a Latin Jazz compilation I downloaded from somewhere. Who knows? Regardless of the source, just look at the Gasca with Joe Henderson picture above. You can see these cats had something on their minds… early seventies! —Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, May 13th, 2007 at 1:05 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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