Following my disastrous attempt to self-proctor a “blindfold test”, I opted to try a more traditional method. I conscripted my friend Dan Plonsey to play the role of interlocutor. Dan is saxophonist and a prolific composer of astonishing breadth and beauty. He is also very knowledgeable about all sorts of matters pertaining to records: the intricacies of Sun Ra and Lee Perry’s discographies, Bollywood composers and performers of note, Pere Ubu, Classical records of the 60s and 70s, independent artist-run labels, and on and on. Another reason Dan seemed like the perfect choice was that he was very familiar with my listening tastes, biases, and potential blind spots, and so could choose accordingly.
One afternoon a few weeks ago I brought my portable recorder to Dan's house in El Cerrito, and proceeded to record us talking and playing records. Thanks very much to Surry Flavinoid for transcribing the audio into the text you read here ( I have added some comments and "stage directions" in italics).
Dan Ok, so you sit there, with your back to the speakers. I arranged a seat there, there’s a glass of water…
John Yeah, this way seems much better, not being actually blindfolded.
Dan I was thinking of having you wear those headphone-like things they wear for directing traffic on airport runways, that isolate the ears and shut out sound, and then play you the records. Or just play the records from the farthest away room in the house, so you could just hear them very faintly.
John Perhaps we could do a whole series of them. One where you play the typical twelve different records, but all at once, and the person has to guess and evaluate all of them. One where you have a live band try and replicate the recordings. One where you have a musician from a non-Western culture try to recreate the records all by him or her self, using er-hu or rebab or what have you. One where you call the person and play them records by holding up your cell phone to your iPod earbuds.
Dan One where you’re playing a gig, I keep approaching the stage and trying to play you these records. “Excuse me, could you identify this trumpet player?”
John One where I wake you up, I’m suddenly playing records in your bedroom in the middle of the night.
Dan Stalking someone: at the supermarket, public restroom, always with a boom box, playing Jazz records, pulling up alongside them on the freeway, rolling the window down, “What does this make you think of?” Or they’re driving across the Bay Bridge and you’re there standing on the bridge by the side, holding a sign that says “Do you recognize the pianist?”
John Well, should we get started?
New Monsters: New Boots For Bigfoot (Posi-tone, 2012)
personnel as guessed
John (after the head) Hmm, that was cool. Electric Bass, that narrows it down. That's an odd Tenor sound. This feels familiar … is this the New Monsters record? Yeah, oh right, that’s one of your pieces, I might have played a different version of that piece.
Dan Do you remember who’s on the record?
John The New Monsters CD? Uh, well, yeah, you and Steve Adams, Scott Looney, and Steve Horowitz, and, uh, I can’t think of his name… the drummer…
Dan Rhymes with “anchovy”.
John “Paul E. Phony”?
Dan “If you’re feeling mazel-tov-y, then you should call ___”
John I don’t know. “Bramwell Tovey?”
Dan Jim Bove.
John Ok. Should we move on?
Dan Plonsey: L Is For Legitimate “Understanding Human Behavio” (Limited Sedition, 1999)
John What is that? Is that… an oboe? (listens) Oh, this is that record you made, the oboe one, uh, Understanding Human Behavio.
Dan Do you remember the name of this track?
John Why are you asking me that? No, I don’t remember the name of the track, or the drummer on the New Monsters record. But I did identify the records! Do you expect me to know every record of yours, the titles, the personnel…?
Dan It’s called L Is For Legitimate.
John Ok, fine, it’s great. Can we keep going?
Dan Plonsey: 12 Different Boxes of Jello Have I “Jazz” at Yoshi’s (self-released, 2002)
John Dan, I’m on this record!
Dan Ok, sorry, tee-hee, ok, wait, here’s another:
Count Basie: The World Is Mad (Part 1) Okeh
Lester Young – saxophone; Dicky Wells – trombone; Buck Clayton – trumpet; Freddie Green – guitar; Walter Page – bass; Jo Jones – drums.
John Ok, this sounds great. (during sax solo) Lester! Huh, well, I don’t recognize the composition, but that’s Count Basie and Lester Young, so that’s probably Dickie Wells on trombone. At first I thought it was Hot Lips Page on trumpet, from those half-valve effects, but it’s probably Buck Clayton. Or "Sweets" Edison? And of course, Jo Jones, Freddie Gr-
John Really? “Nope” to Freddy Green or “no, it’s not Count Basie”?
Dan It’s Duke Ellington, with Ben Webster, Lawrence Brown, and Cootie Williams.
John Really? Really?
Dan Yup, Ellington.
John Wow, that’s, that’s amazing… what’s it called?
Dan “Police Officer Stomp”.
Dan Yup. Pretty sure.
John “Pretty sure”? What does that mean? "Police Officer Stomp" doesn’t sound like something you could call a song in the thirties!
Dan Are you ready for the next one?
John Could I look at that Ellington record?
Dan Let’s keep going for now and then at the end we can look at everything.
John Ok, but you have it here?
Dan Actually, a lot of these are on a CD-R that I made.
John Oh, man. I sort of thought –
Dan Ok, check this out:
The Rolling Stones: Brown Sugar Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones Records, 1971)
John (immediately) Dan!
Dan Just guess!
John Ugh… Dan!
Dan Just guess!
John This is guessing – you’re supposed to play me something that is tricky for me to identify!
Dan Just guess!
John Uh, “The Rolling Stones”? “Brown Sugar”?
Dan Oh. (someone disappointed) Yes.
John This is dumb.
Dan Ok, one more.
Dan Plonsey: Open Door Dinosaur Open Door and Desire (Felmway 2000)
Dan Plonsey, saxophone, keyboards, scat singing.
John (clearly annoyed) I’m going out on a limb here, and saying, oh, I don’t know… Dan Plonsey?!?
Dan What record is it from?
John I don’t know what record it’s from! You have, like, seventy records! (Listening to “scat singing”) I can’t believe you put this on a record!
Dan Ok, one more.
(simultaneously) John You're supposed to - Dan I just - John ...records that -
Dan ...let me play ONE more... John ... have to do this all again -
Dan Just one more, ok... good...uh, don't peak... ok:
After ten seconds I heard a "needle drop", and then the familiar sound of a scratchy 78. This went on a little longer than it should have; a real 78 would have had the music enter after a few seconds at the very longest. It was a full eight seconds before a sax drifted in, singing an Ornette-like song, sounding like someone pining for family after too long away. It took me a long second to realize what should have been obvious: Dan was playing sax out in his backyard, directly behind the living room. This clumsy little ventriloquist act, which should have been no less annoying than everything that had come before, made me suddenly and unexpectedly happy. That one second of not knowing just what I was hearing, even though I was completely expecting it to be a prank, indeed had already known that it was a prank before the sax entrance, that one second, alone in Dan's living room, was worth the aggravation that had led up to it. In fact the aggravation had probably made that illuminated moment possible. This is a lot like Dan's music, which in rehearsal can sometimes seem incoherent and formless, only to reveal itself in performance as unique and strangely profound.
All right: no more messing around. How much could it cost to hire a real, actual Jazz Critic to play me records?