By Mike Jurkovic
When the subject of 20th century American songwriters pops up as they often should, for any conversation about the arts and sciences counterbalances the smoke screen theater of chaos that is our current political life, Dylan rears his crinkled countenance first and foremost. Which is only fair. But as brilliant and emblazoned upon our psyche as he is, much of his music (then and his near-recent, resurgent now) is scrutinized and tracked back to ancient reels, sea shanties, child ballads, and killer blues.
Then Brian Wilson, perhaps our greatest pop maestro, enters the discussion. But so much of his early work was so California. (And how fortunate we are that he sang about California and not, say, Kentucky, Utah, or South Carolina) Then we’ve got Woody and Wonder, Gershwin and Duke. Smokey. King-Goffin. Lieber-Stoler, Holland-Dozier-Holland. Bruce. How the hell did I almost forget Bruce?
Randy Newman, his classicism and wit ever present, gets my vote a-plenty, but he’s just too outside the Main Street vernacular. And despite grandma knowing “Short People” “It’s Money That I Love,” and “I Love L.A,” can she readily hum “Wedding In Cherokee County,” or “Real Emotional Girl?” or know how he’s infiltrated the grandkids with indelible soundtracks like Toy Story, Cars, The Princess and the Frog, and Monsters, Inc., just to name a few?
Laura Nyro, God rest her beautiful soul, died too young to leave a full body of work. You can rightfully argue for Tom Waits. Leonard Cohen could be really depressing. Besides he’s Canadian as is Joni, who should just win hands down without argument.
So, gloriously, Paul Simon it is.
To this very day, as he readies the last shows of his Homeward Bound tour, Simon’s new is as new as his old once was. When your most maligned works, 1980’s One Trick Pony, 84’s dark epic Heart and Bones, and 97’s errant Songs From The Capeman yields such lasting beauty as “Late in The Evening,” “Hearts and Bones,” “The Late, Great Johnny Ace,” “The Vampires,” and “Adious Hermanos,” a severe re-assessment is due. Add the deep listening of “How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns” reimagined here from its 80’s incarnation into a new jazz standard with Wynton Marsalis, pianist Sullivan Fortner and bassist John Patitucci. The doo-wop impressionism of the Hearts and Bones masterpiece “Rene and Georgette Magritte and Their Dog After The War” is presented on In The Blue Light as a shimmering orchestral waltz, courtesy of NY’s innovative yMusic sextet.
But something as non-satisfying as re-assessment is not what Simon is after. Instead, like all curious creators from Kew Gardens do, Simon looks back to move forward, and moves yet again far afield of his peers. He’s the street kid insisting “Hey! You missed these! Listen to ‘em now!” and delivering with ever broader strokes. “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor,” etched into memory on 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, holds its roiling blues wonder and goes deep, deep jazz with an un-repentable sweet, street swagger courtesy of pianist Joel Wenhardt, drummer Nate Smith, bassist Patitucci and his finger-snappin’ missus, Edie Brickell.
In The Blue Light’s scintillating take of “Can’t Run But” (Rhythm of The Saints, ’90) a composition only the originator would reconsider, doesn’t shy from it’s samba self, it just sets itself up as an exhilarating race with yMusic’s dancing woodwinds and strings reaching new consciousness via a pulsing arrangement by The National’s Bryce Dessner.
And yes the voice may sound its seventy- six years but these songs don’t. Exhibits 5 and 6 being two definitive songs from 2000’s underrated You’re The One. “Pigs, Sheep, Wolves” as scathingly Orwellian and reflective of our deteriorating culture then, is even more so now with the lyric “Let’s get him! Let’s kill him!” leaping from its brewing, Preservation Hall setting like an early morning tweet from Pennsylvania Avenue. The translucent love story that is “Darling Loraine” finds guitarists Bill Frisell, Mark Stewart and yMusic, winding their way around an assembled guitar solo by the late Vincent Nguini, Simon’s musical collaborator since the many triumphs of Graceland.
For roughly two-thirds of his often text-book, often touching Paul Simon: The Life, Robert Hilburn shows us a Simon who, if not obsessed with chart position and sales, then at least is overly concerned by them. In the Blue Light, on the other hand, gives us an artist tethered to none of that but his humanity and never flailing muse, daring himself and his listeners not to revise, but re-envision not only the music and the place it holds in our lives, but also where we hold ourselves within the greater scheme. Bravo.