(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

So we're coming up on February and Black History Month, and the jazz bassist, Marcus Shelby, whose music you're hearing right now, he seems to know it.

His new album is one big meditation on the Civil Rights Movement, and it was just released. And NPR Music's jazz blogger Patrick Jarenwattananon is tapping his toes, actually, your pen, in the studio next to me because this is a recording you are very excited about.

PATRICK JARENWATTANANON: Indeed, I am. Good to be here, Guy.

RAZ: I know that a lot of jazz musicians took up the cause of civil rights in the '50s and in the '60s. How does Shelby do it on this record?

JARENWATTANANON: Well, in 2011, I would think you would have to do it in a sort of personal way, I mean, especially for Marcus Shelby. He was born in 1966, I believe.

RAZ: So he was a baby during this era, obviously.

JARENWATTANANON: Right. And so as far as the music goes, he approached it in three different ways. There were parts where he writes original music based on historical events like the lynching of Emmett Till. There's also music which he interprets from that time period, anything between Curtis Mayfield and Charles Mingus.

And he also goes into spirituals. Spirituals were, of course, an important part of the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement, and he arranges them for his large jazz orchestra, like the one we've been listening to, it's called "Amen."

(Soundbite of song, "Amen")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Amen, amen, amen, amen, amen.

RAZ: That's music from Marcus Shelby. The album is called "Soul of the Movement: Meditations On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

Patrick, what have you got next?

JARENWATTANANON: I want to play a bit from a much smaller band called Plunge. Its lineup has changed over time, but the one constant is a trombonist named Mark McGrain.

(Soundbite of song, "Tin Fish Tango")

RAZ: Wow, that's like - it's almost like a Balkan brass band meets a backup for a beat poet.

JARENWATTANANON: Yeah. Something like that. It's only three people: trombone, saxophone and stand up bass.

RAZ: And I'm certainly noticing an absence of drums here.

JARENWATTANANON: I think that's the idea. This song is called "Tin Fish Tango." It's the name of their new album as well. And for me, listening to this record, it's - I hear that Balkan thing. I also hear a New Orleans thing going on...

RAZ: Oh, you're right. Right.

JARENWATTANANON: ...because you get that low brass and bass connection.

RAZ: Yeah.

JARENWATTANANON: And that makes sense. These guys are from New Orleans.

(Soundbite of song, "Tin Fish Tango")

RAZ: Yeah. It's not that sort of party music, that kind of Bourbon Street sound that you hear out of New Orleans.

JARENWATTANANON: You know, you definitely hear the brass band roots here, but there's this other thing. There are these three tracks on this album where the three people just sort of collectively improvise. And there's some unusual structures into how the other pieces are laid out too.

So it's abstracted a little bit from the dance floor, which is very un-New Orleans, but at the same time, you can definitely hear the sort of New Orleans genetic material.

(Soundbite of song, "Tin Fish Tango")

RAZ: Music from a trio called Plunge off the album "Tin Fish Tango."

I'm here listening to new jazz releases with NPR Music's jazz blogger Patrick Jarenwattananon.

Patrick, what else have you got for us?

JARENWATTANANON: Here's another unconventional kind of a chamber jazz work, in air quotes. This is music by the drummer Paul Motian.

(Soundbite of song, "Mode VI")

RAZ: This is absolutely stunning, beautiful music. I think you said the drummer Paul Motian. I don't hear any drumming here, do I?

JARENWATTANANON: I did. These are Paul Motian's compositions. They're scored by a New York-based guitarist named Joel Harrison. But Paul Motian doesn't actually play on this album.

RAZ: So this is a drummer-less band.

JARENWATTANANON: Right. If you've ever heard Paul Motian drumming, you really owe it to yourself to check it out if you haven't. I mean, he's almost 80 now. And it's like, the older he gets - it's almost the weirder he gets, doesn't like to play straight time a lot, sort of dances in and outside of the beat.

And just as he's kind of a weird drummer, he's kind of a weird composer in a very good way, lots of fits and starts and sort of staggers the way he groups notes and rests and pauses.

He's also a master of especially ballads, these sort of free-floating, loose, odd-time feel, but ultimately really beautiful tunes.

(Soundbite of song, "Mode VI")

RAZ: That's Joel Harrison with "The Music Of Paul Motian." Patrick, we have time for just one more recording that you brought in this week.

JARENWATTANANON: All right. Let's go with a blast from the past.

(Soundbite of song, "Caravan")

RAZ: This sounds so familiar. It's on the tip of my tongue. What am I hearing?

JARENWATTANANON: It should. It's the melody of "Caravan," which was written by a trombonist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

RAZ: Right.

JARENWATTANANON: His name is Juan Tizol. This is, of course, not the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

RAZ: Right.

JARENWATTANANON: This arrangement comes from an Italian film composer named Piero Umiliani. He is best known for writing the tune "Mah Na Mah Na," of The Muppets fame.

RAZ: The Muppets song.

(Soundbite of song, "Mah Na Mah Na")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Mah na mah na. Mah na mah na.

RAZ: He wrote that, that same guy?

JARENWATTANANON: And in 1974, for whatever reason, he wanted to make a Duke Ellington record.

(Soundbite of music)

JARENWATTANANON: This is music that he really enjoyed. So he rounded up a bunch of Italian musicians and recorded it for a jazz label called Horo, H-O-R-O.

So enter this new Italian label called Dejavu, Dejavu one word, and they contracted with an English DJ impresario-type named Gilles Peterson, and he went through the whole Horo catalog, and the result is this compilation. It's called "Horo: A Jazz Portrait."

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Who was that Muppet who sang "Mah Na Mah Na"?

JARENWATTANANON: I don't remember, actually.

RAZ: Is all the music on this CD, you know, kind of wacky like this?

JARENWATTANANON: Well, I will say this is the most sort of schizo version of this song I've ever heard. I mean, it bounces from really straight-ahead swing to these sort of synthesized beeps and bloops.

RAZ: And now, all I'm doing is picturing Muppets playing the instruments.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JARENWATTANANON: You know, if I were to characterize this collection as a whole, there's a little less of that. What I hear most of all, really, is the lasting influence of John Coltrane.

So if this was the 1970s, John Coltrane had only been dead for 10 years, not even, and so you hear a lot of his innovations, a lot of the modal jazz exploration on one or two chords and a lot of the blowing techniques and the way he writes tunes and thinks about grooves in music.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Some Italian jazz recordings from the 1970s on "Horo: A Jazz Portrait." Patrick Jarenwattananon is a producer for NPR Music. And you can read more about all of these picks at A Blog Supreme. That's npr.org/blogsupreme.

Patrick, thanks again.

JARENWATTANANON: Always a pleasure to be here, Guy.

(Soundbite of music)

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