A Personal Top 20

I saw a reference in Esquire to Pandora, and ended up creating my own radio station tonight. The first artist I typed in was Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who I’ve been thinking about since this recent great MetaFilter post by Steve Silberman, and thus the program named my station Rahsaan Radio. Which is fine with me.

After him I added Miles Davis (the Picasso of jazz), Clifford Brown (the greatest soloist ever), Cannonball Adderly (I have about 20 of his albums), (the ridiculously talented) Buddy Rich, Benny Carter (a nice guy I hung out with once), and Gerry Mulligan (especially as teamed with Chet Baker) to my station as they came to mind.

I also stuck in The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and The Who right away. But then I realized that you can have any number of different radio stations at Pandora, and decided Rahsaan Radio should just be an instrumental station, mostly 1950s—1970s jazz. So I deleted those folks — I’ll put them on a different station later.

Next came Thelonious Monk (how could I have not mentioned him already?), Sonny Rollins (the second greatest soloist?), Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Smith (an early favorite), Herbie Hancock, Hank Mobley, Wes Montgomery, and Chick Corea (my favorite interview subject back in the 1970s). Then The Modern Jazz Quartet (who along with Coleman Hawkins were the first jazz legends I ever saw live, in the mid-1960s.) So far so good.

I realized that I had 16 artists, and 20 would make a nice number, so I looked through an online jazz hall of fame and added Stan Getz, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, and Ron Carter to round out the list. The station is working pretty well so far. It keeps trying to play Dexter Gordon and Bill Evans, neither of whom I really like (nor am I a big Mingus fan), but I’m enjoying it. (I’ve seen 14 of my 20 artists in concert, and have talked at length with a half-dozen of them.)

You can use Pandora for free, or pay ($36/year) for a version without advertising. It calls itself “a music discovery service… powered by the Music Genome Project, the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken.” You tell them what you like, and they find similar stuff in their library of 300,000 songs (from 10,000 artists) and play it for you. You can rate the songs it picks thumbs up or down (or ignore them altogether), and over time Pandora builds up a list of your favorites, as well as other similar tunes, to play on your station.

The program will even explain what it’s doing — i.e., I just asked it why it was playing Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Uptown Stroll (which I’d never heard before), and it said, “Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features classic jazz roots, an acoustic bass solo, a mid-tempo swing feel, major tonality, and many other similarities identified in the Music Genome Project.” Cool, man. I liked the tune a lot, and gave it a thumbs up.

If you say you dislike a song, Pandora not only kicks it off the station, it stops playing it immediately, and goes on to the next one. Nice, huh? I also like the fact that 10 minutes ago I was enjoying Jimmy Smith and Kenny Burrell playing an alternate version of Fever from their album Blue Bash (which I have, back on my shelves in Maine), but I really had to go to the bathroom. So I just paused Rahsaan Radio, saying I’d be right back, which worked great — Jimmy and Kenny waited patiently, then took up again when I returned.

Pandora isn’t perfect, of course. Entering a song title or band name is ridiculously complicated — you have to click five different times just to include somebody, and then it goes completely back to the beginning before you can add anyone else. And it would be nice to be able to rate songs more than just +/-. But those are minor quibbles. Especially since I had to leave my 3300+ albums back in Maine, it’s nice to have 300,000 songs here in the box on my desk.

My favorite new tune I’ve heard so far, from a band I’d never heard of before, was Odd Ones by Cowboy Bebop. This turns out to be — of all things —from the soundtrack for a popular anime TV series and movie of the same name, set in the year 2071. Actually, it’s three groups of musicians in Japan, New York, and Paris all called the Seatbelts, led by a producer/ composer/ arranger/keyboard player named Yoko Kanno. (They supposedly need seatbelts when they play because they swing so hard.) The Seatbelts don’t have a lead singer, which makes them perfect for Rahsaan Radio.

It’s a pretty nice station — if you’d like to check out Rahsaan Radio, go here. (Remember, I didn’t pick the songs you’ll hear, or even the bands that might be playing; I just set the general tone.)

Actually, you don’t need my station. Go ahead and roll your own.

As I end this entry, Pandora is playing Will You Still Be Mine, by Sonny Rollins. Yes, I will, Pandora.

* * *

3-20-06, 2:27a
Looking over my all-star lineup, I felt like hitting myself in the head with a board as I realize that I never included John Coltrane! (This is roughly like listing the finest New York Yankees of all time and forgetting to mention Babe Ruth. Or — speaking of Cowboy Bebop — listing the greatest Japanese movies ever and neglecting Shichinin no samurai.)

He’s definitely first-string, and immediately inserted into the lineup (let’s see… batting clean-up, after Miles, Cannonball, and Sonny Rollins). Ordinarily, I’d now have to sit someone down on the bench, but this isn’t a problem with Pandora, where the rule is the more the merrier. (I probably should draft Chet Baker as well, but then he might start singing.)

Also, looking at my Flickr photos, I realize I left Jaco off the team too! Unforgivable. And Sonny Fortune. James Moody. John McLaughlin and Ira Sullivan. Billy Bang and Alex Blake. I need to get a bigger dugout.

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