Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dylan Different: Ben Sidran

I’ve been reading Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz which I highly recommend. He places Dylan in a strong historical context and avoids the usual gossip and biographical minutia that most Dylan biographers can’t get over.  In fact Dylan barely rates a mention until the third chapter, as Wilentz, an award winning historian sketches out the wide ‘leftist/progressive’ classical and folk music scenes and the ideological battles over literature that set the stage for someone like Dylan to arrive. To many biographers and fans Dylan  simply popped out of nowhere. This book argues, instead that he was the culmination of many years of similar work by others and a link between one generation and the next. And so from that perspective, his arrival was not so much ‘out of the blue’ as inevitable.

Mazhar ul Islam
I’ve also been editing/translating a novel of an amazing Pakistani writer, Mazhar-ul Islam. The novel is called, The Symphony of Dead Flowers, and has to be one of the most imaginative and (dare I say) radical South Asian (non-English) novels I’ve read. It is unlikely that Mazhar knows much about Dylan’s work and yet the deeper I get into the book he seems to be his unwitting literary doppelganger. His turn of phrase and more importantly his use of few words to conjure fantastic possibilities is by turns hilarious, frightening, moving and confronting.

So you could say I’m tangled up in Bob these days. And why not? It’s a good feeling and a great state of being.

Dylan has been interpreted by everyone (and even himself) since he first arrived in the greater consciousness of the musical world, nigh unto half a century ago.  Without a doubt the most interesting and rewarding recent effort in this direction has been Dylan Different by Ben Sidran. An early compatriot of Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller, Ben Sidran has developed into a swanky swinging pianist with a laid back vocal delivery reminiscent of Mose Allison.  (Indeed, I may post his and Van Morrison’s and Georgie Fame’s tribute to the great Mo, some day soon) His artistic credentials are impressively backed by a PhD in musicology and a critically acclaimed book based on his doctoral thesis, entitled Black Talk. This guy is serious, but great fun to listen to.  What follows is from AMG.

Upon hearing “Everything Is Broken,” the opening track of Ben Sidran's Dylan Different, a collection of Bob Dylan covers that uncovers a near symbiotic connection to his source's material, one wonders what took him so long to record this. Sidran chose a dozen tunes from Dylan’s songbook and recorded them over four days in France, applying his requisite musicality, unaffected jazzman's cool, and streetwise yet elegant poetic imagination.

There is a decidedly old-school feel to the manner in which this material is recorded that recalls his late-'70s sides. Sidran plays Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, and acoustic piano as well as a Hammond B-3, and is accompanied by a killer backing band that includes trumpeter Michael Leonhart, drummer Alberto Malo, bassist Marcello Giuliani, saxophonist Bob Malach, guitarist Rodolphe Burger, and vocalist Amy Helm. His son Leo did the horn arrangements and played additional piano, B-3, and koto, and there are guests on backing vocals, including Georgie Fame, who duets on “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” and Jorge Drexler on "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." What it all adds up to is a truly new presentation of Dylan’s work that seamlessly fits Sidran’s aesthetic without removing the authority of these songs from their historical context. Check the nocturnal funky groove on “Gotta Serve Somebody” or the bluesy dual pianos on “Tangled Up in Blue,” on which Sidran does his talk-singing accompanied by female backing vocalists on the chorus and a restrained horn section. He turns the tune into a slippery, finger-popping club number. Dylan’s slide guitar anthem “Highway 61 Revisited” is given a lithe Latin treatment with Burger’s guitar referencing the original even as the piano and rhythm section make it a funky-butt slow-boiling rhumba. The minor-key swing in “Ballad of a Thin Man” accents the tune's poetry while extrapolating harmonies in the minor-key arrangement. Given Sidran’s treatment of the lyric, if you didn't know better, you might think he wrote it. (The bass clarinet solo by Malach is a sweet touch, too.) He took the greatest liberties with “Maggie’s Farm,” which is not frenetic guitar-based blues-rock here, but a late-night, shimmering piece of beat jazz with an eerie arrangement that extends the reach of the tune’s cultural and economic critique into the heart of the new century. Sidran even has the stones to redo “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He makes it as disturbingly inquisitive and world-weary as the song itself must feel by now, but without losing a measure of its poignancy.

Dylan Different reveals Sidran as being in full possession of his jazz and creative gifts but also his ones for interpretive song; by turns, with this fine album, he adds even more weight to the argument that Dylan is a writer of folk songs that transcend their eras of origin in relevancy.

         Track Listing:
01 Everything Is Broken
02 Highway 61 Revisited
03 Tangled Up In Blue
04 Gotta Serve Somebody
05 Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35
06 Ballad Of A Thin Man
07 Maggie's Farm
08 Knockin' On Heaven's Door
09 Subterranean Homesick Blues
10 On The Road Again
11 All I Really Want To Do
12 Blowin' In The Wind

Listen here


Rebecca said...

Brilliant, Nate. Your knowledge blows me away!

ajnabi said...

dhanyawad, bahanji. :)