Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 25: Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon (Conjure, 1988)

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In the 1995 book Plunderphonics, ‘Pataphysics & Pop Mechanics, guitarist Eric Rosensveig of the improvising trio called Fat, compares one of their projects to Kip Hanrahan’s projects, saying, “Players from a lot of different styles or schools, trying to create a music that doesn’t exist but nonetheless would sound very natural.”

Hanrahan, a producer/percussionist, has been pulling together such “non-existent and natural” music for decades now. One of the most enduring and fruitful of his collaborations over the years, that with the writer Ishmael Reed, produced two albums in the '80s: 1984’s Conjure: Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed, and this week’s Album of the Week, 1988’s Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon. There was third album in the series, Bad Mouth, which would eventually come out in 2005.

Conjure, as the group would become known by the release of Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon, was more of an institution than a set band proper. This album, Cab Calloway, features a core crew, comprising some of the finest jazz, funk, latin, and free-jazz musicians you could imagine at that time, and peppers the tracks with guest stars aplenty, not least Ishmael Reed himself. While the first record in the Conjure series mainly featured Taj Mahal as the lead vocalist, here, it’s the great Bobby Womack as the headliner. That said, one of the great draws of Cab Calloway is that the music was composed and arranged by various members of the band, and will often feature those very musicians singing lead on their tunes, and beyond that, the record features four additional guest vocalists throughout. With no track-by-track credit listing and so many singers, guitarists, percussionists, etc., one has to make educated guesses about who is doing what. Looked at another way, though, it gets you listening closely to the subtle shapeshifting between, and even within, songs.

Reed’s poetry is alive with the rhythm of the spoken—the spirit of the oral tradition. You could say that with Reed, the gateway between the written and the spoken has been busted wide open, allowing safe passage in either direction. Reed has said that the musicians who composed and played the music for these albums didn’t have to do much, since the rhythm was already there in the writing. A talking book turns into singing. In fact, where I note the few dips and fallings-short of this album is where those buoyant and pugilistic rhythms are forced into and constrained within a boxy framework, rather than allowed to bubble and blossom of their own accord.

Hanrahan is a cobbler and a catalyst, bringing together musical genres and personalities he loves, and seeing what comes of it; Reed is a self-described “ethnic gate-crasher," “a scavenger at work,” a “garbage recycler…reprocessing the trash and the throwaways of the American experience.” In this way, their aesthetics both mirror and complement each other.

In 1973, Deborah Lee of Ebony magazine reviewed Reed’s first collection of poetry, also entitled Conjure, saying that Reed “brought together a black magical selection of his poetry that would please any necromancer… While the poems are largely autobiographical, Reed’s experiences as a black man are universal enough to be embodied in a pan-cultural ethos which he calls Neo-HooDoo.”

Reed explained Necromancy to mean people going back to get “some metaphor from the past to explain the present or the future.” In the same interview, published in 1974, Reed cites the roots of the term: “Necromancers used to lie in the guts of the dead or in tombs to receive visions of the future. That is prophecy. The black writer lies in the guts of old America, making readings about the future.”

As for Neo-Hoodooism, Hoodoo has been referred to under many a pejorative banner, including black magic, witchcraft, and devil’s work; but it is also known to many as spirit work, root work, spiritualism, psychic work, and—the term that graced the collective of musicians herein—conjure.

This album’s title is pulled from Reed’s 1970 piece called Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon or D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful, originally published in the anthology 19 Necromancers from Now and referred to as a “coming attraction” for his 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo. “It was based,” Reed says of Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon, “not upon other writing, but upon examples of dolls I had seen in books and museums. Gris-gris dolls. I wanted to make a crude fetish that would put a “writing” on an individual considered an enemy of the tribe… aim a psychic “fix” at this individual.”

To the music!

The album begins with one of my favorite tracks on any record, "The Author Reflects on his 35th Birthday." Written by bassist Steve Swallow, and featuring Bobby Womack on vocal and the completely unstoppably Eddie Harris on tenor saxophone. Swallow’s bass and Don Pullen’s organ are a dramatic constant, meditatively whirling in tight circles as the narrator comments on how he hasn’t been mean enough thus far in his life, and to rectify this, he implores the personified “35”—his “old friend”—to make him all the types of mean he wishes to become now that he’s met the big 3-5: Mean as the town Bessie sings about “Where all the birds sing bass” / Dracula mean / Beethovenian-brows mean / Miles Davis mean / Don’t offer assistance when / Quicksand is tugging some poor dope under mean / Pawnbroker mean / Pharaoh mean…

Et cetera, et cetera.

The second track, "Loup Garou Means Changes Into," is funky latin written by and featuring on both tenor sax and lead vocals the aforementioned comPLETEly unstoppable Eddie Harris. Translated less poetically, Loup Garou actually means werewolf, the “eager Beast” inside oneself, which Reed, in his poem, looks to shed, or banish. Tied inversely to the lead-off track, mentioned above, the song ends before the poem goes on to note: “Folks say if you get to 30 / You can make it to 35 / The only stipulation is you / Leave your Beast outside.” While in “The Author Reflects,” the narrator is looking to welcome in that Beast at 35—that he hasn’t been mean enough getting there—here the Loup Garou is a liability. As an interesting twist, the laser-focused and funky, ever-under-control Harris plays a killer intro on tenor before handing sax duties off to—or perhaps more appropriately here, “changing into”—the wilder, free-ranging David Murray to tear things up as Harris sings Reed’s words.

Hanrahan has compared his role as producer to that of a film director, a position complicated (and perhaps even problematized) after hearing the snippet of Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon that Reed chose to excerpt and read within the fifth track’s medley. Reed reads:

“He chuckles to himself as he leaves his shop with the dog, three cents, on a leash. He has every reason to be pleased [with himself] because the night before he brought off one of the most difficult feats of sorcery. He entered a man’s dream and walked all over it as if he owned the place. He moved the scenes around with the deftness of a director from the Hollywood pantheon. He called the shots, edited the script, and gave the demons their cue.”

There is so much more to talk about on this album—Don Pullen’s sparkling and swinging vocal performance on his arrangement of the poem “My Brothers”; Reed’s solo-voice delivery of excerpts from his prose-poem “St. Louis Woman”; the solid vocal work by Olu Dara—father of the rapper Nas, for you hip-hop nerds—on the track “Nobody Was There”; and Reed’s relaxed and playful a cappella take on Cab Calloway’s big hit, “Minnie the Moocher,” backed up on the "hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi" call and response by Reed’s daughter Tennessee and, I’m guessing based on surname here, Eddie Harris’ daughter too, under the billing of “The Josephine Baker New Magic Chorus”… and on and on.

Suffice it to say that this is a many-layered album that, while not entirely spotless from stem to stern, is a powerful, living document, featuring an incredibly wide array of talent pulling out all stops. Hanrahan has talked about how he often includes not the so-called “perfect” take, but the one “where the mistakes were perfect.” On that take, he says, “the mistakes were showing what we were going for; [and] when we got it right, it was just reciting something that was composed before.”

Get to know your spirits and get thee to this strange orchard.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.