(Editor’s Note: R.J. Smith is author of the just out The Great Black Way: LA in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance, a really amazing book about Los Angeles’ famed Central Ave. and the cultural scene that grew up around it. He’s also a senior editor at Los Angeles Magazine. For his summer songs post, he wanted to go with a trio of instrumentals since, as he put it, “people talk so much in the summer, and listen so little. you know?”)
Hank Levine and the Orchestra: Image, Part One
From 7″ (ABC, 1961). Also on Teen Beat, Vol. 4.
I don’t know a thing about Mr. Levine or his band, but this piece of exotica instrumentalia solidly fits into a tradition of California music that reaches back to Ferde Grofe right on up to Brian Wilson. It’s a swoony seaside train chugging into the night. It’s a shimmery piano that gets all bitchycute at the outro. It’s a saxophone gliding above the sparkle. Just like sex on the beach, without the peach schnapps.
Johnny Guitar Watson (billed as Young John Watson): Space Guitar
From 7″ (Federal, 1974). Also on Out There.
Some kids get a pen when they graduate from high school – a few get a car. Young John Watson obviously got a messed up guitar. Up to about 1954, this Texas-transplant to LA was considered a rising r&b piano player with an attitude problem. But a piece of space junk clearly hit him on the head and turned him into one of the boldest, baddest guitarists of the decade. This tricked-out effects showcase doesn’t just foreground the guitar, it pushes it into your face like Hendrix would a decade plus later.
Luther Thomas and the Human Arts Ensemble: Funky Donkey
From Funky Donkey Vol. I & II (BAG, 1973).
This isn’t eat-your-peas free jazz that sounds like a blackboard equation, this is free jazz coming from an organ south of your stomach, coming from a place where old feelings and fresh ambitions are stored up waiting to bleed. Tripe stew for the soul. Radical big band funk with politics on its mind that captures the smash-this-place-up spirit of a band of bikers dismantiling a road house.
Monkeyfunk has a tribute to the late Johnny Jenkins.