Saturday, October 29, 2016

True Bru

Matching the disposition of his Swiss forebears, my father rocked out to a gentler beat. When he thought "Jazz," he heard in his mind the softer side of Swing: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw. Bebop and after was a foreign language left to me to reckon with... later.

In the mid-Fifties his (reluctant) military career took us to Turkey, where I proceeded to contract--or so the family legend goes--one of the world's first recorded cases of Asian flu. Whatever it was, my fever kept going up and my body kept drying out, so I was sent to the local military hospital to recuperate. While I was recovering, then, I kept hearing this strange music, rhythmically percussive and sweetly keening, emanating from elsewhere on the floor; and I soon went in search of the source.

What I found was a young airman, quarantined, with his Fifties-style portable record player and a few records by a group called the Dave Brubeck Quartet which he was playing repeatedly. The brief Modern Jazz primer he gave didn't make much of an impression on the 13-year-old rock 'n' roller I was then--I don't even remember for sure which albums he owned--but the exciting sound of Brubeck's live recordings must have stayed with me because when I did begin a rest-of-my-life fascination with Jazz a few years later, the quartet was at the center of my random, uneducated buying.

What I eventually realized was that among the Jazz LPs I listened to most, and I bought scores of Brubeck albums over the decades, were two early live recordings: Jazz at Storyville: The Dave Brubeck Trio and Quartet (Fantasy, with a mostly black record jacket and liner notes by Nat Hentoff quoting poet Wallace Stevens!) and Dave Brubeck at Storyville: 1954 (Columbia, offering a clever newspaper design front and back), the tracks on both of them pieced together from sets recorded at George Wein's Boston nightclub in the early and
mid-Fifties. Youth, joie de vivre, disarranged improvisation, the vivid contrast between Brubeck's Bach-influenced piano (alternatively, his locked-hands power and brutal hammering-on) and Paul Desmond's "dry martini" alto sax, these all became that most excellent rendering of Jazz as "The Sound of Surprise."

Over the decades I played and played and replayed the Storyville LPs, wearing out two or three copies of each. I reveled in the joyful abandon of "Crazy Chris" and the tender beauty (Dave practically alone for 13 minutes) of "You Go to My Head" and "Summer Song/Over the Rainbow"; those were the highlights on Fantasy, while the Columbia LP was just well-nigh perfect, first note to last--"On the Alamo," "Don't Worry About Me," "Gone with the Wind," "Back Bay Blues," "Here Lies Love," and "When You're Smiling"--which I certainly was.

I'm now grinning from ear to ear because some enterprising producer-collector in Europe has gotten his hands on master tapes comprising The Complete Storyville Broadcasts (early 1952 to July of 1954, on the Essential Jazz Classics label)--meaning the music from both LP albums plus another 120 minutes of hitherto unissued tracks of comparable sound and quality; in other words, four years of broadcast recordings now released on three 70-minute CDs. ("Wow" was my stunned response.)

There's some minor repertory overlap with other Brubeck albums (and announcer Hentoff works too hard at being both erudite and amusing), but any Brubeck fan can easily welcome the new old versions of "Stardust," "Undecided," and "All the Things You Are" plus uncommon bongo bashments ("Body and Soul"), frenzied fingerings ("Frenesi"), and rippling reminders of then-recent success ("I'll Remember April" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was")--a total of more than 40
performances added to the quartet's discography! (Actually, I was at first surprised that some eager Columbia producer hadn't, back then, combined a few of the earlier shorter pieces with the five dated February 7, 1953--"Love Walked In/I'll Never Smile Again," "The Way You Look Tonight," "These Foolish Things," and "Perdido"--in order to create a sequel, Jazz at Storyville Volume 2, say. But once my fan-boy enthusiasm cooled down, I realized that the found performances aren't really as compelling as those used in the original two albums from Columbia and Fantasy.)

No matter, I have them all now. It's been 60 years since the Asian flu brought me to Brubeck, Desmond and, eventually, Boston's Storyville. With this three CD set now as witness, I believe I'm as close as I'll ever be, this side of heaven, to that first magical encounter with something called "Modern Jazz," and with the Brubeck Quartet's exciting version of it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Who's Left?

Springsteen has a new autobiography out, titled Born to Run (not to be confused with the 35-year-old bi-ography of Bruce of the same title, by Rock critic Dave Marsh). I'll probably buy a copy but I confess I still haven't read the similarly bulky tell-alls of Keith Richards and Pete Townshend (pictured at left). That neglect is partly the result of vision difficulties due to Parkinson's, but it's also a reflection of my increasing indifference to Rock celebrity-hood.

Springsteen snuck in and out of Seattle this past week, a stop on his book tour which I learned about only after the fact. I had seen him on Colbert's Late Show a week earlier, where he appeared oddly subdued and diffident. (Different spotlights make for different stagefrights, I guess.)

At least Bruce's book must offer some solid workingman's politics along with the Rock 'n Roll braggadocio; for example, he's already identified Donald Trump, correctly I'd say, as a "moron"--a judgment I'll bet that Pete Townshend of the Who would also render. Like Bruce, Pete and his lead singer Roger Daltrey were both known for their lippy, working class attitude. When I wrote about them a few years ago, it was in connection with the Who's lengthy masterpiece, the rock opera Tommy. Here's that three-parter revived:

1) Part the First.
2) Part Two.
3) Third Part.

Monday, September 26, 2016


My header up there claims to include Politics occasionally. With the Presidential debates upon us, and the election mere weeks away, I guess it's time to speak up. I loathe everything that Humpty Dumpty the bloated, race-baiting egomaniac thinks, says, and does. (Has anyone remarked on the number of negative English words built around that -ump sound?) I just wish I could be unquestioningly positive about his opponent, our ex-Sec of State. Hillary stands forthrightly for women, but she drags the Clinton name, infame, and a few scandals of her own around with her. Can't we just put a Constitutional ban on family dynasties (accent on the -nasties) in Politics and be done with it (or them)?

Anyway, here are some thoughts I keyed-in some time ago...

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Jack's Back

The small package in my mailbox yesterday held a welcome surprise, a brand new volume from the Library of America--The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings--no reprint this time, but a 450-page original collection that expands available Kerouac handily by dint of a mixture of quickie two- or three- page mini-essays, longer unpublished letters and journal excerpts, lifts from earlier drafts of On the Road, a cogent interview with friend John Clellon Holmes, plus The Night Is My Woman and Old Bull in the Bowery, two fiction novellas written originally in Quebecker French.

I'm a hundred pages into The Unknown already, fascinated by the unbridled flow of Jack's prose; it's not all essential of course, but the volume and variety can't be denied. (One timely aspect is the insistence by editor Todd Tietchen and translator Jean-Christophe Cloutier that Kerouac was acutely, painfully, aware of being treated as an unwelcome refugee, for speaking and occasionally writing a demotic version of French. Like the Cajuns who moved to Louisiana, the 900,000 French Canadians who migrated to New England had a hard time of it.)

And this gives me an excuse to call the reader's attention to my earlier posts on Jack. Together they cover most of the Kerouac items issued in the past 45 years. You might read them in this order:

1) Good Beat
2) Always Beat 2
3) Jack: The Crack Up

Jack and his pals and the many he influenced, past and present... the Beats go on.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Who's That Writin'?

April is not the bluesest month, except maybe this year...

Idly internetting recently, I found and bought what are sure to be the two best Blues albums of 2016, Blues & Ballads--A Folksinger's Songbook: Volumes I & II by Luther Dickinson, and God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson performed by a group of solid re-senders. (If I find any other candidate LPs with longer, wordier titles, well, I guess the Blues Millenium really will be upon us.)

But for now, if you know your Blind Willie Johnson, there's only one right answer to the question posed up top: "John the Revelator, wrote the Book of the Seven Seals." Of course, an equally accurate response might be "Blind Willie himself"--the great
gravelly voiced "Bluesman" of the Twenties; no relation to the other Johnson (Robert, that is, who also recorded a total of 29 songs, fixing the all-too-brief recording careers of both men). Willie's own unique repertoire included... {No Sinful Country Blues; Sacred Gospel Numbers Only} ...his "Nobody's Fault But Mine," "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time," "Bye and Bye I'm Goin' to See the King," "God Don't Never Change," "Trouble Soon Be Over," "Let Your Light Shine on Me," "John the Revelator," and the timeless, ethereal, mostly instrumental number "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," which decades back was chosen for the space capsule carrying music samples from Earth out to the Universe.

The eleven Johnson songs recorded this time around are performed by a suitably stellar cast: Lucinda Williams, the Cowboy Junkies (who incorporate samples of Willie's "Jesus Is Coming Soon"), Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Maria McKee, Rickie Lee Jones (a surprisingly beautiful rendition of "Dark Was the Night"), and Mr. Sui Generis himself, Tom Waits, whose gargle-and-grit vocal in "The Soul of a Man" is an almost perfect match for the Blind Willie original. Many highlights fill this Alligator Records CD, but let me just note that Blind Willie's muscular slide guitar stylings, even as refashioned here, are joyous and revelatory; and what some Philistines might call his "barbaric yawp" an acquired taste you really do need to acquire!

Meanwhile, serving as a suitable path to the Blues & Ballads CD is a hill-country
version of Willie's "Bye and Bye..." This track, as by Luther Dickinson and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, offers the outdoors, barbecue-and-dance sound (revived in recent decades by Mississippi's Fat Possum Records): tootling fife and martial drum, rollin'-reelin'and-rockin'-out to the glory of God. Luther (of North Mississippi Allstars fame) has honed his all-inclusive Blues over many years; the CD's tongue-in-cheek title and plain packaging (for one disc, not two), with hand-scrawled lyrics, are maybe meant to suggest a bootleg LP reissue of old-timey music, but there's nothing amateurish about the picnic-and-barbecue festivities. I hear rich slatherings of slide guitar over rockabilly roots, of Fred Macdowell and Mississippi John Hurt, of Memphis jug bands, Huddie Ledbetter, and Tommy the third Johnson (Robert and Blind Willie too)--the Country Blues of Texas, the Deep Blues of the Delta, some Piedmont South East picking, and languid music made on the Dickinson family front porch.

I commend to you a half dozen numbers in particular (of the 21 total, divided into two "Volumes" of ten and eleven tracks respectively, like the two sides of an uncommonly generous LP): "Hurry Up Sunrise," the opening track, is co-credited to the late Otha Turner, last of the hill-country, fife-and-drum Bluesmen, keenly resurrected here; soon followed by the piano thunder/slidin' lightnin' of dance number "Bang Bang Lulu," and then "Moonshine" with its gentle guitar harmonics, for a sort-of remembrance tree of nights spent playing in some back-country bar. This opening threesome leads to a shapelier fife-and-slide, gotta-dance anthem called "Mean Old Wind Died Down," plus "Ain't No Grave," a gospel soul hymn featuring great vocalist Mavis Staple.

And so, skipping ruthlessly over another five or ten gems, we fetch up against the haunted final track, "Horseshoe"--multiple guitars, fond memories of Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner, and others, and more harmonics ringing out to the very end. Blues & Ballads... & the Best of a whole vanishing tradition. Way to go, Luther!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

In Dublin's Fair City

My wife and I live in a two-separate-wings house with our two oldest granddaughters and their parents--i.e., the McEachern family.

Madelyn ("Maddie") is a senior in high school and a regionally, perhaps nationally known rower; long and lovely, she's also the team captain of her rowing club. She loves the ocean and would go to Hawaii for college if it were in the coral, but she has chosen the University of San Diego as next-best. There were many schools competing; as with her older sister, every college she applied to said Yes. (Or as Mrs. Leopold Bloom might say: "yes I said yes I will Yes.")

Lliralyn ("Llira") in contrast is a college sophomore--attending Bucknell University actually, in Lewisberg, Pennsylvania. Another smart and beautiful young woman, she's given up soccer in order to major in some version of Chemical Engineering (huh?) and will soon get to experience her junior year abroad, at University College,
Dublin. (Her own version of Portrait of the Chemist as a Young Woman perhaps.)

Naturally, family matriarch Sandie and I hope to visit Eire's umpteen green fields while Llira's resident there--both of us for the sightseeing, and me for the Modern Lit-inspired, romantic visions derived from the works of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Sean O'Casey. (Ireland remains the most conspicuous gap in my stamped-to-overflowing passport. How have I so cavalierly neglected the land of leprechauns, the Easter Rising, Galway Bay, and Guinness Stout? I even walk with the aid of a modified shillelagh these Parkinsonian days!)

So... as short and sweet as an April morn in County Clare... Slainte!

Monday, January 11, 2016


It's not much of a stretch to designate pianist Erroll Garner the Rodney Dangerfield of Jazz. From the Forties to--what?--the early Seventies, Garner was praised for the myriad sessions he'd cut for labels large and small--Dial and Blue Note, Mercury/EmArcy and Columbia--and he had (still has) one of the most popular and best-selling albums in Jazz history, his Concert by the Sea, recorded live in Carmel, California, in 1955.

Then his place in Jazz seemed to vanish. The Fusion/Disco/Rock Drums/Death of Jazz era came crashing down, maybe more on Erroll than others. His exuberant, happy piano was ruled fatuous and simplistic, partly because he couldn't read music. (So every session was truly improvised, first note to last.) The style he had devised--long, quizzical, inventive introductions followed by a kind of theme-and-variations dissection of the song, ending (usually) in a percussive, emphatic, slowing-to-a-stop of the music--was finally rejected as more ignorant than original, and his habit of grunting along with the melody sneered at (before Keith Jarrett brought a whole barnyard of ecstatic noises to the recording studio). Because the diminutive, elfin Erroll needed telephone directories to lift him higher on the piano bench, even this quirk was held against him. Yes, he couldn't "get no respect."

Garner died in the Seventies before the digital era and multiple-reissue CD sets brought artists back from Jazz obscurity. But throughout the decades of his eclipse, Concert by the Sea kept selling. I first heard Garner in the early Sixties, another college kid more ignorant than hip, drawn to the bouncy joy of his records, and then I got to see Erroll in action at the Seattle World's Fair. I didn't know anything about Jazz back then, but I had no trouble enjoying Garner at the keyboard; I subsequently learned of his proficiency (able to record enough tracks in one three-hour session to produce three separate 12-inch LongPlay records!), and I even loved his deluxe two-disc set of tunes celebrating Paris and France, many of them played on harpsichord. My vinyl copy of the Carmel concert had to be replaced a couple of times as the years passed, and I finally gave up imagining an expanded issue. But a couple of months ago, without much fanfare, The Complete Concert by the Sea suddenly appeared, 60 years on.

First we must acknowledge the startling largesse of this set--now twice as long as the hallowed original--launching 22 grand excursions instead of the merely wonderful 11 chosen for the classic Concert album. And let no man (no woe-man) beguile you with carping, because the new numbers are just as splendid as the long-familiar eleven. BUT the set now does bump up against a couple of minor matters: a possible surfeit of sufficiency, and (what we might call) the natural order of things. The Complete Concert now takes up two of the three discs, each totaling over 60 minutes in length, so we are farther than ever from the third-of-an-hour sides of the original 12" disc. It is unexpectedly clear that the LP era trained many millions of us His-Master's-Voice, Pavlov's vinyl dogs to live out our lives in 20-minute segments. I guess you could say that these 60-minute CDs are therefore easy to listen to but hard to hear!

Also, recreating the "new" full-length concert rearranged for a chronological placement of tunes, seems to destroy the structured rise-and-fall, the careful build-up to a musical climax, that I believe one can hear in the 11 selections as originally presented. (This arrangement you can hear on Disc Three of the new set. I suppose there must be hundreds of concert albums that silently offer a selection arranged for effectiveness, but being able immediately to compare the two versions I'll bet is uncommon.)

I don't want to belabor the matters mentioned. This three CD set is a veritable feast for sore ears. (As we used to say in Spanish class, Punto final.) Instead, I'm going to end the brief review right here by advising all Garner and Concert by the Sea fans to proceed with abandon rather than caution. What was for 60 years a concise source of piano pleasure has belatedly and amazingly become an embarrassment of riches... even if henceforth I may personally choose to program Disc Three ahead of the other two.