Any kid knows that when the genie offers 3 wishes the first wish has to be for every wish you'll ever want (prudent kids wish for every wish where a wish could override a prior wish). So this is what I'm thinking: if I were going to a desert island, I'd finally invest the time to convert some music to mini-cd or mp3 format—and so could, technically, cram a lot more music onto "five recordings." A whale of a lot more. But in the spirit of this exercise, I'll give myself the nominal limit of five sets, altogether less than would fit onto one solid mp3 drive.
1. Robert Ashley, eL/Aficionado and Improvement: An Opera for Television. I missed the début of his Celestial Excursions opera this spring, and from what I hear I'd be tempted to include it, too. These both buoy me with their intelligence and compassion: their American vernaculars, layered speech, precise staging, amblings in and out of plot. A lyric tonal descent which acts like a refrain in eL/Aficionado, sung by the baritone Thomas Buckner, would be almost unbearable, I'd imagine, alone in the fronds of seagrass. And plucky Linda in Improvement, dumped by her husband Don in what they used to call a "filling station," would give me the guts to go on.
2. John Coltrane, Live at the Village Vanguard: The Master Takes; Sonny Rollins, Horn Culture; Idris Muhammad, Kabsha; Abbey Lincoln, People in Me; and Ronald Shannon Jackson, Barbecue Dog. Essential. There are several recordings of John Coltrane's "India" out there, but this is the one I love best, beginning with a noodling entrance and ending with the ensemble's propulsive ta-das. This Sonny Rollins (with Mtume on percussion) and Idris Muhammad (with both George Coleman and Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax)—have amazing cuts and they're strong sessions throughout. People in Me's joy is infectious, and Jackson marks his ferocity with a spikiness to rival Cecil Taylor's.
3. Ida Cox, Wild Women Don't Get the Blues, a late recording where her gravelly voice channels humor and vigor; The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James, with its spooky, spooky, spooky "Illinois Blues;" and And This is Maxwell Street, recordings of Robert Night Hawk, Arvella Gray, Johnny Young and others from the center of the Chicago South Side universe in the 60s. This is a set that's hard to put a cap on, but these cds are the ones I couldn't part with.
4. J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals: The 6 Cello Suites and St. Matthew Passion with John Eliot Gardiner conducting The Monteverdi Choir, et al. The Casals version of the cello suites I will always associate with driving at night in Chicago. But it makes the list for more than nostalgia—the pure over-the top sentiment of Casals' playing still gets to me. And in theabsence of a eucharist, I'll be consoled by this recording of the Passion, which paints the text in air.
5. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft and a bootleg recording of two concerts in March 2000, in Santa Cruz. Bringing it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited were the main soundtracks to my adolescence, so it was a treat last year when my eleven-year-old niece Annabel, on her own, started playing "Like a Rolling Stone" over and over, snarling the refrain. I'd be tempted, too, to record and bring Self-Portrait, that much-maligned mish-mash of other-authored songs, supposedly recorded to stick it to his manager Albert Grossman. But it is a joy that Dylan's recent Love and Theft has insinuated itself so deeply, and the concert recording is an incredible slice of one moment's versions of his gamut.
--Originally published in Crossroads 2003