The Most Amazing Musician in All History!

posted: 19 April, 2009
The most amazing musician in all history?  Really, Ripley, this might be pushing my ability to Believe - I mean, haven’t you ever checked out JACO?

The quest to innovate on an instrument can lead the journeyman improviser into strange realms.  Some great names (in my opinion) have written books on their art - Derek Bailey, Eddie Prévost - and these masters are certainly known for redefining the interface of person-with-instrument.

But there’s a fine line between brilliantly extending the instrument through unconventional technique and mere gimmicks.  Who am I to define it?  One one hand we have Roland Kirk, playing three saxophones at the same time, yet still dismissed by many of the jazzerati as a vaudeville act.  On the other hand, I remember a conversation I had in the 9th grade, with an intimidating 10th grader.  He had an impressive goatee (for a 15 year old) and was wearing a ratty Scorpions t-shirt, pre-’Wind of Change’, that lent his argument a certain type of cred.  We were discussing who was the best bass player in music - I was probably arguing for Mike Mills of R.E.M. or Tony Lombardo of Descendents - and he was insisting that it was the bassist for Gwar.  The reason, according to the 10th grader, was that he played with the bass turned around, so he was facing the fretboard and turning his hands around in a way that made it much more difficult to play.
I’m going to be a rock snob here and not even give the 10th grader the benefit of the doubt (as I’ve never listened to Gwar) - though I’m sure Beefcake the Mighty is a fine bassist, I probably wouldn’t find his records as interesting as ones by Barre Phillips, John Edwards, William Parker (or even Dee Dee Ramone).  Music is subjective, sure, whatever, but I’m gonna side with my prejudices here.

Karl/Carl Hermann Unthan’s talent is probably better compared to Rick Allen of Def Leppard, whose one-armed drumming blew my mind in 1988 but now is only a source of mean-spirited humour, or a human interest story a la Indomitable Spirit. Though I’m sure it was an amazing site to behold, and I don’t wish to develop a reputation for bashing the disabled.

I mentioned Dee Dee Ramone above because it doesn’t take a genius to know that great musicianship is more than just technical ability or gimmicks.  I hate to dismiss Unthan as vaudeville act, particularly because I don’t think he made any recordings (as he died in 1929), but I wonder just how emotive his violin solos could be.  But maybe he deserves the benefit of the doubt - moreso than Gwar - because I could listen to Gwar and not Unthan; maybe I am falling victim to the same attitude that Roland Kirk’s detractors held.


To be honest, I think Kirk is really underrated, and not just for the triple-horn technique (though that is amazing in a gimmicky way, it also truly extended jazz saxophone through the way he created chords).  His songwriting, particularly stuff like ’Volunteered Slavery’, stands out against the other jazz/R&B crossover experiments and his playing reveals a real intimacy at times.  Ripley died before Kirk made his first record* but I wonder if he might have instead believed, through his own criteria, that Kirk was the Most Amazing Musician in All History.  Regardless, I’m going to choose to Not believe this one, in protest of the very concept of all-time most amazing.  (Though Marky Ramone ….)

This is the second in a series of posts inspired by panels from a giant Ripley's - Believe it Or Not! book that my aunt gave to me for Christmas in 1988.
*Footnote: Ripley obviously used the same source photograph that Wikipedia has for his drawing, though I like to Believe that Ripley had access to all future Wikipedia entries through some amazing time/reality warp.
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