Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Pieces Of A Man - Gil Scott-Heron

I first discovered Gil on an alarm clock radio.  It must have been about 1988 and I used to sit in my bedroom at my mum and dad’s house and listen to “Andy Peebles’ Soul Train” on Radio 1.  I remember he played a live version of “Johannesburg” and although the song wasn’t the best thing he played that night, and still not one of my favourites now, there was something about the writing that appealed as Gil’s band crackled out of the single speaker that night that made me investigate further.

I bought a greatest hits package and the diversity of it really surprised me, it contained most of the LP “Pieces Of A Man” plus some of his earlier poetry stuff such as “Whitey On The Moon” and “Brother.”  This purchase sparked off an admiration for Gil that I know I’ll have forever; it caused me to find out about Gil’s life, read his work and collect his music.  I learned about the first black footballer to play professionally in Scotland and I heard great beat poetry, soul ballads and jazz funk.  I listened to a lot of great music.  One such piece of music is his second LP “Pieces Of A Man.”

I’m not bad at dating records, not the best, but still pretty good, play me a bit of music and I’ll have a good go at telling you the year it was released.  I do this from either making a guess based on production style or instruments used, remembering some vague connection (especially useful with pop music, Style Council “Long Hot Summer?” Lyme Regis 1983, my brother refusing to take his fish tail parker off on the beach), or by just knowing.

I was born in 1971, so perhaps oddly; I can list some 1971 releases.  “Sky’s The Limit” by The Temptations, “There’s a Riot Going On” by Sly and the Family Stone, “Hot Pants” and others by JB (including “Revolution Of The Mind”), Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Carol King’s “Tapestry,” “Where I’m Coming From” by Stevie and Marvin’s epic “What’s Going On.”

And “Pieces Of A Man” by Gil Scott Heron.

The reason I’m wittering on about release dates is because it sets a scene.  It is all too obvious to write about artists influencing each other, of course they did.  Looking at the LPs above it is also obvious that artists were influenced by political and social changes that were happening, none so more than Gil.  It intrigues me however to know which of the above had heard of Gil Scott-Heron, Stevie Wonder namechecks him on sleevenotes a few years later and went on to tour with him (replacing Bob Marley) but were Marvin and Curtis digging him?  My money is on a very definite “yes”

He invented rap you know?  Of course he didn’t, that credit should go to countless other poets and preachers, but........ as any article you might find by working the google on the internet machine will reveal, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a seminal moment in hip-hop history, and it is the track that Gil Scott-Heron decided to open the LP I’m listening to tonight.

Ron Carter, most talented bass player of his generation?  Played with all the greats and could play complex virtuoso jazz pieces, so is that what he’s doing here?  Nope.  He’s nailing down a very simple octave funk line that is as memorable as it is funky.  A funky Pretty Purdie beat, some moody Hubert Laws flutework and we’re off, “You will not be able to stay home brother.”

It will surely be Gil’s most memorable legacy and could be critiqued line by line and is as relevant today as ever, but what makes it such an interesting piece for this blog is that on the same LP with only a few seconds of silence in between, it is followed by “Save The Children” a sublimely peaceful ballad about the world our kids will inherit.  This is the same writer and the same band as “Revolution” that’s why it is so special.
Gil demonstrates his knowledge of jazz heritage and the emotional uplifting power of music with the next selection “Lady Day And John Coltrane” is it any wonder that players like Ron Carter and Hubert Laws were taking him seriously? It takes my troubles away.

Gil’s troubles were never really fully taken away, by music or anything else.  What follows is a very personal and confessional song about addiction, the line “you keep saying kick it, quit it, Lord but did you ever try,” the way he turned the old proverb “home is where the heart is” upside down to comment on environmental influences on self control is a powerful, but simple bit of poetry.  I’d urge you to seek out Esther Phillips cover of “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” too, a Kudu funk classic.

All very deep and meaningful, but a whole LP of it would bring you down a little, that’s not Gil’s style though (we have Radiohead for that).  So Side A is finished off with a couple of lovely uplifting soul ballads “When You Are Who You Are” and “I Think I’ll Call It Morning”.  OK, “When You Are” is not the conventional love song, by I love it, especially the slightly cheesy bluesy guitar solo (“Come on Norburto!”) and the sax work.  The final track is like a soundtrack to a late spring Sunday morning. Great piano work and shuffling drums after the “be no rain” refrain.  He doesn’t have the perfect singing voice but it oozes character in its timbre, a great way to close Side A.

For the most part, Side b is an altogether more sombre affair.  Title track “Pieces Of A Man” and “A Sign Of The Ages” being particular examples.  “Jagged jigsaw pieces tossed about the room” a very sad song about the effect of unemployment.  Ron Carters double bass work suits both songs perfectly.  Writing this now, I can’t help wondering why whoever chose “Pieces Of A Man” as the LP title did so, it was probably because it made a catchy title that implied the songs were pieces of Gil, or did they want to promote the LP on this song?  Until we get a thorough biography, we will never know.

“Or Down You Fall” continues the dark themes, backed by great jazz chord progressions and words of crusading a message of perseverance until you....fall down.  Great flute solo, Hubert sounding classical in parts, bluesy in others.

“The Needles Eye” changes the tempo and mood slightly, but juxtaposed against the almost Northern Soul changes are lyrics that Bono would love to have written while nagging the rest of us to save the world,  “all the millions spent for killing, seems the whole world must be dying,  all the children who go hungry, how much food we could be buying, him that who don't fit through the needle's eye, him that just don't understand, understand, a brand new sense of freedom,  a brand new sense of time, him may go and stand alone now, and leave, the hate and fear behind.”  With its ecological views and nods towards the Old Testament it could be Marvin or Curtis, but this song is the work of Gil and longtime collaborator Brian Jackson.

“The Prisoner” closes the album and is perhaps the least accessible song, but please don’t let that put you off, the playing alone is worthy of a standalone instrumental jazz LP from the time and the lyrics, like the rest of the LP are well worth a second, third, one hundredth listen.  It is sparse in its arrangement compared to the ballads on side A, and challenging lyrically too, but remember: That is the genius of the man, critical, confessional, thoughtful and downright funky – all on one LP.

Gil Scott-Heron died on 27th May, this year, 2011, leaving what I hope will be a lasting legacy of music and words.  I have not aimed to talk too much about the man in this post, only about one particular LP.  If Gil is new to you however and you have even a spark of interest, please research the man further, he had a fascinating life that deserves to be commemorated, I'm sure there have been loads of obits and bios written since his passing, and loads of mixes by DJs who are fans.  Check some out

I’d appreciate anything you have to add, however short or long, and any suggestions or additions for the blog.  I’ve been off writing for a while but would like to get back in the saddle.

One more thing.  1971.   Did I mention “Live!” by Curtis Mayfield?  Find out why I love it elsewhere on the blog, cheers, King Canute.

1 comment:

  1. 1971 was definitely a good year for music!!! What a list!

    Great write up Matt, as usual.

    Looking forward to revisiting 'Blacks And Blues' with you soon.