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kottke.org posts about Estelle Caswell

Kenny G and How Smooth Jazz Took Over the 90s

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2018

Jazz crossed over into pop music territory in the 70s, with jazz artists like Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson gaining airplay on the radio but losing the respect of “straight-ahead” jazz critics & peers. One reviewer wrote of a popular album by Benson:

Hearing George Benson on this album is like watching Marlon Brando in the Three Stooges movie. Such is the relationship between the artist and the “art”.

In this third installment of Earworm’s series on jazz, Estelle Caswell charts the rise of smooth jazz from its beginnings in the 70s right on through to Kenny G and the format’s eventual crash in the 2000s. There’s also a Spotify playlist of smooth jazz standards in case you’re in the mood to hear more.

Also, how perfect is it that the term “smooth jazz” was coined by a participant during a focus group convened by a market research firm? That’s so smooth jazz.

The Iconic Jazz Album Covers of Blue Note Records

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2018

In part 2 of Earworm’s series on jazz, Estelle Caswell talks to producer Michael Cuscuna about the iconic album covers of Blue Note Records.

Inspired by the ever present Swiss lettering style that defined 20th century graphic design (think Paul Rand), Blue Note captured the refined sophistication of jazz during the early 60s, particularly during the hard bop era, and gave it a definitive visual identity through album covers.

The covers were the work of Reid Miles, who was paid $50 per cover but later landed a gig making ads for the likes of Coca-Cola to the tune of $1 million per year. Here are a few of the covers designed by Miles for Blue Note:

Miles Blue Note

Miles Blue Note

Miles Blue Note

Miles Blue Note

Jazz Deconstructed: John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

A new episode of Estelle Caswell’s Earworm series is always cause for celebration. In this one, Caswell examines the title track off John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” album and what makes it so challenging to play & rewarding to listen to.

John Coltrane, one of jazz history’s most revered saxophonists, released “Giant Steps” in 1959. It’s known across the jazz world as one of the most challenging compositions to improvise over for two reasons - it’s fast and it’s in three keys. Braxton Cook and Adam Neely give me a crash course in music theory to help me understand this notoriously difficult song, and I’m bringing you along for the ride. Even if you don’t understand a lick of music theory, you’ll likely walk away with an appreciation for this musical puzzle.

This is me actually walking away with that new appreciation.

Aretha Franklin’s soul roots and gospel power

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

In this video for Vox, Estelle Caswell explores Aretha Franklin’s unique blend of pop, soul, and gospel, particularly in her cover songs and live performances.

Aretha Franklin will always be the Queen of Soul. In the 1960s songs like “Respect” became the symbol for political and social change. It’s likely the reason her music moved so many people wasn’t necessarily the lyrics, but the way she delivered them.

Aretha was raised in the church, and her life and music was rooted in gospel music. You can hear this so clearly in her live performances and covers, where every musical decision she made was in the moment.

Listen to any one of Aretha’s songs and you’ll understand the power of gospel music, but her live performance of “Dr. Feelgood” and her cover of “Son of a preacher man” are a great place to start.

Holy moly, what a voice.

The fascinating history of the “orchestra hit” in music

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2018

I’m a big fan of Estelle Caswell’s Earworm series for Vox, and this most recent one might be my favorite. It’s about the “orchestra hit” sound that became super popular in the 80s…but which has its origins in an unauthorized sample of Igor Stravinsky included with an influential digital audio workstation invented in the late 70s.

If you listen to the first few seconds of Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” (hint: listen to the Cardi B remix) you’ll hear a sound that immediately creates a sense of 80s hip-hop nostalgia. Yes, Cardi B’s flow is very Roxanne Shante, but the sound that drives that nostalgia home isn’t actually from the 1980s.

Robert Fink and the inventor of the Fairlight CMI, Peter Vogel, help me tell the story of the orchestra hit — a sound that was first heard in 1910 at the Paris Opera where the famed 20th century Russian composer Stravinsky debuted his first hit, The Firebird.

Here’s the isolated sound from the original sample:

I love that all these musicians in the 80s got excited about a bit of classical music composed for a 1910 ballet, to the point where it became perhaps the signature sound of the decade.

The popularity of the orchestra hit is also a good reminder about the power of default settings. The musicians and producers who used the Fairlight CMI could record and sample any sound in the world but they ended up using this one included with the machine. Even the heavyweights — Herbie Hancock, Afrika Bambaataa, etc. — went with a default sample.

Caswell made a playlist of songs that feature the orchestra hit, with songs from Keith Sweat, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, U2, and The Smiths. Not included is the song it was sampled from…you can listen to that here.

Where did rap’s now-ubiquitous “Migos flow” come from?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2017

Contemporary rap music has come to be dominated by a style called the “Migos flow” (after the group Migos, who made the style famous in a song called Versace). This video looks at where the style originated and why it’s become so popular.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m loving these music-deconstruction videos by Estelle Caswell (the most recent ones are part of a Vox series called Earworm), especially the ones about rap & hip-hop because a) I am listening to more and more of it and know relatively little about it, and b) the more I learn, the more I feel that the people making this music are/were goddamn geniuses.

P.S. Caswell made a playlist of songs that use the triplet flow.

P.P.S. Here’s Migos rapping the children’s book Llama Llama Red Pajama over the beat of Bad and Boujee:

The hidden rhythm in Radiohead’s “Videotape”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2017

In her first installment for a new Vox series called Earworm, Estelle Caswell takes a look at some weird musical stuff happening with Videotape, a song off of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. According to a longer video by Warren Lain referenced by Caswell, Radiohead has hidden a syncopated rhythm in the song that even the band members have trouble keeping straight when they’re trying to play it. Videotape is my favorite song on that album…maybe this is a reason why?

Also, don’t miss the short explanation of how “rhythmic sound synchronizes the brain waves of groups of people”. !!!

Kanye deconstructed: The human voice as the ultimate instrument

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 01, 2016

Kanye West is not a great singer. But he packs his songs and albums full of the human voice. Estelle Caswell explains how Kanye uses the human voice as the central instrument in his music.

The evolution of how rappers construct their rhymes

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2016

In this video, Vox’s Estelle Caswell and Martin Conner break down how rappers construct their rhymes and how it’s changed and evolved since rap’s early days. As someone who doesn’t know a whole lot about music and even less about rapping but appreciates both, this was super entertaining and informative.