In this week’s Monday Mixtape, Marco Cartolano lists some of his favorite instrumentals. Find this week’s mixtape on Spotify here! Transcript below.
[“Green Onions”-Booker T. and the M.G.s]
Hello everybody and welcome to Monday Mixtape. I’m Marco Cartolano. I often talk about the importance of vocals on these mixtapes, so I thought it would be cool to dedicate this episode to songs that were never meant to feature a live vocalist. From the complex soloing of jazz to the layered sampling of hip-hop, instrumentals are more than just incomplete songs. You just heard “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.s., As a seminal instrumental track from the early ‘60s, the track combines the fundamentals of the blues with an energetic organ. When you mix them together, you get soul. Particularly, the more groove-focused soul of Stax Records. Songs like “Green Onions” set Stax apart from the more traditionally polished soul of Motown.
[“Take Five”-The Dave Brubeck Quartet]
One of the most popular jazz songs of the ‘50s, “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet became a smashing success while defying jazz traditions. The name derives from the song’s odd time signature, a quintuple meter. In layman’s terms, saxophonist Paul Desmond wrote a composition with a drum pattern more common to Eurasian folk than to American jazz. Outside of the showy experimentalism, the composition also features a memorable piano vamp and a catchy sax melody. “Take Five” was considered a great risk at the time, but it paid off for the band in the end.
[“Midnight In a Perfect World”-DJ Shadow]
For a more modern instrumental track, I recommend one of the fathers of instrumental hip-hop. DJ Shadow’s debut album, Endtroducing....., pioneered sampling techniques and proved that a producer can craft a coherent album from samples. “Midnight In a Perfect World” is a standout track. Featuring a downbeat drum sample and sad pianos, “Midnight In a Perfect World” demonstrates how hip-hop production can be atmospheric. Vocal sampling, a production technique that turns the human voice into another instrument, is used to add an extra layer of melancholy and excitement to the track. DJ Shadow inspired countless record aficionados to use their collections of obscure albums to craft great music.
One of DJ Shadow’s musical offspring, the dearly departed J Dilla crafted a masterpiece while on his deathbed. Donuts is a glimpse at a restless artist trying to put every musical idea he has in a final album. Possessing a gift for reworking samples into unrecognizable new forms, Dilla’s instrumentals tended to be unpredictable. “Workinonit” samples the rock band 10cc, the Beastie Boys and the old school hip-hop group Mantronix. The dense sampling could give a three-minute song the depth of tracks that are twice as long. The vocal cuts work as little jolts of excitement. Dilla’s offbeat drum patterns anchor the sonic manipulation. Gone too soon, Dilla left an indelible mark on indie hip-hop and even influenced the production style of Kanye West.
[“Meeting of the Spirits”-Mahavishnu Orchestra]
When most people think jazz, they don’t exactly picture crazy guitar soloing. “Meeting of the Spirits” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra could change that perception. Lead guitarist John McLaughlin earned his reputation as a guitar virtuoso for his speedy and complex playing style. A key musician on Miles Davis’ most acclaimed jazz-fusion albums, McLaughlin further explores the intersection of jazz, funk and rock on this track. Outside of McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra also featured the legendary drummer Billy Cobham and keyboardist Jan Hammer, who composed the Miami Vice theme. Tracks like “Meeting of the Spirits” show what happens when masters of a craft come together.
The British dubstep producer Burial might not like publicity, but fans can’t be blamed for wanting to know more about the creator of such great tunes. “Archangel” shows the influences of British electronic music with its skipped drum pattern. The uptempo beats still seem fragile and minimal. Burial’s vocal samples are pitch shifted to the point where they blur the lines of gender. Thanks to Burial’s sonic manipulation, “Archangel’s” R&B sample sounds both robotic and achingly human. Dubstep is usually associated with the in-your-face wubs of Skrillex, but Burial takes the genre to a more ambient and intimate direction.
[“Peaches en Regalia”-Frank Zappa]
The last song comes from one of rock’s biggest iconoclasts. Frank Zappa took a break from making fun of hippies to release a mostly instrumental album. That album’s opening, “Peaches en Regalia,” has become a modern standard. While Zappa gets credit for composing the song, multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood deserves praise for playing various wind instruments and keyboards. From the breezy keyboards to the triumphant saxophone playing, “Peaches en Regalia” retains a sense of fun that many standards lack.
And that’s all for Monday Mixtape. This week’s playlist will be available on Spotify at mondaymixtape. Make sure to subscribe to Monday Mixtape on Apple Podcasts so you get a notification every time we post a new episode. These instrumentals are all great and they helped me further appreciate how talented these musicians are. I’m Marco Cartolano, see you next time.