Monday, March 20, 2017

Lost Worlds

Hello, friends, confidants, and total strangers--anyone, I guess, who's been wondering if I am alive, or dead, or merely asleep at the switch. All I can say in my defense is: a day without blogging is sometimes as good as a year without Trump.

In reality (if such there be in this post-DT's world) I needed a break, and then the break kept getting longer and longer. But now it's been so long, I've grown a beard, outlasted a phase of Parkinson's and, as the big-time applers say, "landed a book deal." Yes, it's true, I am writing (or maybe EDiting) the text for a big picture book dedicated to the amazing and amazingly varied works of illustrator and artist William Stout. (Those with a long memory, or an interest in popular music, may recall that some years ago I wrote the Intro for a book of Bill's called Legends of the Blues.) And now I am rewarded with a longer challenge, a 300-page beauty published by Insight Books, presenting several hundred illustrations retracing Bill's 50-year career as comix artist, film designer, Disney Imagineer, defender of Antarctica, paleo-artist of the museum murals of prehistory, etc., etc., etc.

'Tis a puzzlement why Stout's not a household word. (He is, actually, in certain circles, where he is known as the "dinosaur man.") Anyway, I'm working to change all that... and my minor blog will just have to limp along as we see where Fantastic Worlds: The Art of William Stout takes us.

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.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


I'm hip deep in a new Jazz post but struggling to find the time and energy to finish it.

In the mean-between, here's a plug for the best TV series I never knew about during its six seasons on cable, the coal-blooded, Kentucky-fried, hick-but-hip Harlan-County Western called Justified, starring lean, lanky, laconic Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, riding herd and drawing down on modern-day do-badders hiding out in the hoots and hollers of mountain bluegrass country. This is the first and finest on-going film production ever truly to capture the sights and sounds and surreal mess-arounds of an Elmore Leonard reality. Oh, there've been superior versions of single novels (as well as crapulous misconceptions), but no regular series capable of recreating Leonard's irreverent characters mouthing his inimitable, pared-down, sly'n'wry dialogue.

Yeah, quick-draw Raylan's the real thang, and he ain't alone. There's boss marshal Art, brazen gift-of-gab villain Boyd Crowder, several sexy-yet-cerebral women (Ava, Winona, Rachel, Loretta, and maximally more), and two-bit bad guys caught up in cool mischief, coal mines, and cold-blooded murder. I binge-watched all fifty-plus hours one recent Netflixed week, and when the fine fun was over, I entered that storied, many-roomed mansion... justified.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Fairport, RT, and Me

It's been a weird Summer in the Pacific Northwest. After a mild Winter and a similarly drier Spring, we experienced very hot weather in June and July followed by a cool down in August. So all the growing came a month early, and now it looks like Fall will be early too. No climate change around here, of course... But I guess the Repugs have other Obama bones to pick over as the Elections "Season" heats up. (Can't we all just hibernate for the next 11 or 12 months?)

These Dog Days instead are a perfect time to check out the music, new or old, being offered at your local CD store, Download site, or Amazon supplier-subordinate. I've been especially song-conscious (see why below); here are five of my current favorites, lifted from five different albums:

Leading off--but dating from the fifteen-years-gone centenary, "Kurt Weill 2000," celebrated 'round the globe--is Karen Kohler and her version of "River Chanty," the
concluding track on Jam and Spice: The Songs of Kurt Weill. "River Chanty" is one of five songs Weill composed with Maxwell Anderson for a musical version of Huckleberry Finn, that died along with Weill in 1950. Ms. Kohler has a lovely voice (tending more to musical theater's stylings than to Opera's soprano screeching), employs idiomatic German, French, and English in the 16 songs offered, and evinces a general joie de vivre that makes the whole album a joy to live through and listen to. Plus she is backed by a crackerjack ensemble (including cello, clarinet, trumpet, banjo, and accordion) on all but one tune, arranged and conducted by Robert Rene Galvan; excellent versions of "Berlin im Licht," "My Ship," "Surabaya-Johnny," "Lonely House," "Youkali," et al, but none so sweet and simple, so alert but resigned, as "River Chanty" with its mixed-emotions refrain:
Where you been river, where you goin' today/ What you bringin' me river, river,/ What you takin' away?... Who you been stealin' from river,/ Who you been friendin' today?/ What you bringin' me river, river,/ What you takin' away?

The Weill piece sounds like a 19th century folk tune, while Martin Simpson's astringent new love song "Dark Swift and Bright Swallow" (from Topic TXCD591, Murmurs as by super folk trio Simpson-Cutting-Kerr) could have come from any alert Romantic poet, and been written down at any time in the past 300 years.
Preeminent songwriter, songcatcher, folk-and-blues guitarist Simpson (plus Andy Cutting on diatonic accordion and Nancy Kerr on fiddle), has shaped a lilting, loving melody hiding a much darker story from WWII (see Simpson's notes):

April sun on Slapton Ley, between the lagoon
and the haunted sea,
I was thinking of war and cruelty when
Spring's first Swallow split the sky
And I was lifted above all care as the Swallow
swung through the salted air,
Come from Savannah and desert and sea to
mark another year for me...
And for you my Love and Eternity.

Love, death, war, two birds of Britain, and a birthday ditty too; at awards time this one should win song and performance of the year.

One remarkable sidebar of the British invasion of 1964 or so was the "trad arr": out-of-the-distant-past discoveries rendered 20th century-friendly by real green-fields, Blessed Isles Folk/Rock groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Fairport will soon celebrate 50 years together; only Simon Nicol remains from the original group whose list of important ex-Fairporters includes Richard Thompson,
Sandy Denny, and Dave Swarbrick). Simon, who writes rarely and sings reluctantly, functions as interpreter rather than creator most of the time, which forces the group to rely on current member Chris Leslie (often too "twee" or spiritual for me) or "friends of Fairport" like Ralph McTell, Rob Beattie, and P.J. Wright, for the latest song advancements. Still, their brand-new album Myths and Heroes (Matty Grooves MGCD053) is a corker--mixing jigs and ballads, rocks and reels, plus one beauty from the proud British tradition of songs shredding WWI. Credited to the unidentified Irish trio of Laird/Starrett/McRory, "John Condon" is a quiet, haunted, harrowing account of all that useless death:

Just a day another day, beneath a Belgian sun
Past grave on grave, row upon row, until I see the name John Condon...
And all around the harp and crown, the crosses in the ground
Stand up in proof, the bitter truth, the waste of youth that lies forgotten...
Heroes that don't come home
Sing out for all their souls
Here they lie in Belgian fields and Picardy.

Bitter, resigned, Simon quietly nails the coffin lid shut.

No lack of originality and brilliance on any album by the great Richard Thompson ("RT" to his fans); and his new one, Still (Proper PRPCDX131), offers solo guitar
moments, stinging electric excursions, solid trio rockers, and expanded-group elaborations, brought to fruition by producer Jeff Tweedy. Richard has several albums on various magazines' lists of all-time greatest (Unhalfbricking, Liege and Leif, and Full House with Fairport; I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Shoot Out the Lights, Hand of Kindness, and several more from his solo career--kind of listener's choice among 30 or 40 candidates). He has seen many of his songs covered by other artists, has received degrees and honors from academia and pop culture alike, eclipsed most other guitarists in both skill and originality, not to mention listenability, and somehow has managed to age, within Rock music, with dignity and distinction both.

I don't blindly love the new album yet, but here's one folk-related gem, its opening track, "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road," which has the melodic familiarity and Scottish "drone" that anchor his finest songs in the patented RT "doom and gloom":

In the old cold embers of the year
When joy and comfort disappear
I search around to find her
I'm a hundred miles behind her
The open road whispered in her ear

She never could resist a winding road
She never could resist a winding road
Maybe just around the bend
The rainbow waiting at the end
She never could resist a winding road.

The last song that's been tugging on my aural sleeve is, I confess, a ringer. Over the course of 40 years, I've written a handful of songs (the lyrics, that is) with Bruce Lofgren, my guitarist/big bandleader friend living in L.A., and Bruce has just released the latest album, Wind and Sand (Night Bird NB-4), featuring his terrific Jazz Pirates band, playing six originals, two covers (a great version of Bronislaw Kaper's
"Invitation"), and three tunes with lyrics by... me. The vocalist is Karen Mitchell, niece of Jazz bassist Red Mitchell, and she does a fine job overcoming the limitations of the lyrics.

Still, I can't get them out of my head, so here's a sample of the words to the frisky, some would say racy "Sheet Music":

My daddy's a master musician,
He rocks and rolls me right,
Composin' me
With close harmony,
Sweet sheet music every night...

Jazz me, Papa, that bed time song,
Rhythm followed by blues.
Write me some inner chorus
I can put vocals to.
Dot my sweet half-note, baby,
I'm treble and bass for you.

And further deponent sayeth not.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Red Garland, Bill Evans: Miles Apart

I sometimes ponder Miles Davis's place in the popular history of Jazz. Leaving his music aside for the moment, first he battled heroin, that scourge of the Beboppers, going cold turkey back in the early Fifties. Then he survived beatings by white cops, and just got surlier, taking up boxing as his voice went from a scream to a whisper. And of course, every decade or so, he reinvented the sound of the Jazz he played, at least as recorded by various Davis quintets and groups larger yet, morphing from Parker acolyte to hard-Bop balladeer, from jigsaw gingerbread-man to hot-and-cold fusionista, from hip-hop funkster to late-Seventies master of silence--and the fans (white or black, in the U.S. and around the world) seemed to follow along every step of the way.

I guess you could say he was Jazz's first superstar (post-War anyway, ignoring the popularity versus cash sales of Satch and Bing, Benny and Glenn and the Duke). Did anyone ever actually count the number of copies of Kind of Blue and Workin' and Sketches of Spain that echoed from the dorm rooms of college kids in the late Fifties and throughout the Sixties?

At the very least he knew a top side-man (and potential leader) when he heard one, whether Paul Chambers or John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter or John Coltrane, Tony Williams or Jack DeJohnette. Just think of his main men at the keyboards: Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zavinul, and the two I'm about to celebrate here, Red Garland and Bill Evans.

A pair of recent 2CD sets (recorded live in 1972 and 1977, respectively) remind us of the post-Miles stature of Bill and Red. Listening to Evans' Momentum (Limetree MCD 0043) and Garland's Swingin' On the Korner (Elemental 5990426) both
reinforces one's conviction that the two are keyboard greats and then leaves one confused as to what Miles heard or saw that told him the time had come to move on from the locked-hands punch of pugnacious Red to the airy, impressionist modes of gentle Bill. Garland was clearly a cornerstone of the so-called first quintet, the five who recorded three-quarters of all the tracks Miles cut for Prestige (and earliest Columbia); he was versatile enough to sound like Ahmad Jamal when asked to by the boss, but his own approach tended more to the Blue Note/Prestige collective (Horace Silver, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, Wynton Kelly, Horace Parlan, et al) than to the chordal explorations of Evans.

Check out the long first track here, "Love for Sale," to hear the essence of Red. An
Errol Garner-styled a tiempo mystery-ballad opening suddenly springs into action, African-American soulful/earthy rather than European classical-attenuated, with Red's piano as an instrument more percussive than stringed. Philly Joe Jones and Leroy Vinnegar are his cohorts throughout this generous 150-minute selection of tunes (including fine versions of "It's Impossible," "On Green Dolphin Street," "Dear Old Stockholm," "On a Clear Day," "Autumn Leaves," and the inevitable "Billy Boy"), the East Coast drummer as un-shy and un-retiring as ever and the big West Coast bassman doing more "running" then "walking."

And that's the truth of Garland's solid set. It's energetic and exciting, the sound of three Jazz pros working together almost as one, sparring minimally, any solos pretty much played singly... and thus with most of the possibilities for piano-trio subtlety checked at Keystone Korner's front door. (I'm trying not to sound pejorative as I write this, because Red's lively set really is a welcome addition to his discography.) Evans' support, in contrast, came from Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums... singular Jazzmen who happened to be white and who played with a more Eurocentric approach.

After the stellar success of Bill's short-lived trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motion, he wanted all of his sidemen/partners to sound that convincingly complex and freely independent, every threesome blessed with big ears and greater understanding, the players somehow going their separate ways but still communicating with one another and moving the melody or changes forward.
There's plenty of that three-in-one going on here; follow whichever player you choose and hear an amazing "argument" sounded, point and point and not exactly counterpoint, more like deliberation and interpretation, concentration and inspiration. Eddie Gomez is especially aggressive (in rehearsal for the Eddie Gomez Trio perhaps?), but Bill and Marty insist on playing front and center as well. And the recorded sound lets each go his own way--brilliant, crisp and clear and undistortedly loud.

When Bill Evans draped himself around keyboard and bench, an evening would typically be filled with single notes and silences; but when he took a deeper breath and sat up marginally straighter, the chords and substitute chords and sideman-chasing harmonies would fly fast and furious. The list of tunes here ("Emily," "Quiet Now," "My Romance," "Turn Out the Stars," "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your
Life") sounds ballad-oriented--romantic, heartfelt, tender--but someone has fed Bill his Quaker Oats; like Eddie he tears into these tunes, shakes them every whichaway, and takes no limpid prisoners. To hear the two (or three) of them at their blended best, the opening original, "Re: Person I Knew," does more than nicely, with grace and balance and three-part invention all to the fore; but tune two ("Elsa") then comes surging at you like a battering ram. Morell lays down a continuous barrage that Bill takes up with both hands, while Eddie rips out an unstoppable solo that sounds more like a bajo sexto across his lap than a double bass under his fingers. On this particular night in the Netherlands, Eddie Gomez revised the sound of Mexico's "DeGuello," and the Bill Evans Trio took no prisoners.

Maybe, to return to the initial question about Miles' pianists, it was as simple as that. The rhythm section of his first quintet had become too familiar, too
predictable. Miles suspected (or "knew") that the Kind of Blue tunes, buttressed by Evans' chord changes and hovering modalities, would be mysterious and distinctive and open-ended, allowing for a new approach to soloing.

But if that's the case, why was there no further development, no second act, no encore? Because Miles chose not to follow up on it, Kind of Blue remains a miraculous one-off. Instead Miles went listening for a new quintet while, on their own, Red Garland just kept swinging and Bill Evans too kept on, exploring, reshaping the sound of Jazz piano, each man enjoying his own certain momentum.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Encore for Ozzie Bailey

When I wrote tentatively about little-known Jazz vocalist Ozzie Bailey (revisit it Here), somehow I touched a nerve. Both the Bailey essay and its sequel several months later (that one archived Also, Here) proved to be among the most-read pieces I've written in over a decade of blogging. (The Duke still makes a difference, it seems.)

Prior to that I wrote about another Ellington curiosity, his valiant attempt at composing in long-form, that odd
mix of Jazz, song-and-dance, and symphony known mostly as Black, Brown and Beige. Ellington's tone-parallel--as he defined it--to the American Negro, BB&B began as the music for a night at Carnegie Hall, rose and fell and reformed at various lengths and with select motifs, and finally limped over the line as a source theme ("Come Sunday") for the Duke's late quasi-religious "sacred concerts."

No version much pleased the Jazz critics and popular culture reviewers. Read about the Duke's long and painful experience Here As Well.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Kurt Weill and Gil Evans

As a new email from the Kurt Weill Foundation reminds us, that 65-years-dead composer's music still has surprises in store and even premieres awaiting performance... and so... the American premiere of The Road of Promise, a concert adaptation of his lengthy, unappreciated theatrical pageant (from 1937 or so) The Eternal Road, will occur early in May. Meanwhile, Weill's greatest champion among Jazz musicians--that would be Gil Evans--continues to have his say, three decades after Evans closed the keyboard and relinquished his baton. To put it another way, young arranger/conductor Ryan Truesdell is back with a new (second) CD of previously unknown/unrecorded big band arrangements by Gil; titled Lines of Color, this one was taped live in New York City last year and is co-issued now by ArtistShare and Blue Note.

I wrote extensively about both Weill and Evans and their remarkable, long and
winding careers a few years ago--an eclectic five parts dividing, sort of, as three for Weill and then two more for Evans, and each part set up as an independent essay. Since the five appeared piecemeal and separately but do have some significance in the annals of Modern Music, I'm re-calling them all now for an encore; I hope some other readers will enjoy discovering their convoluted stories.

Part One is a disguised Introduction to the European years, but including 40 or so photos of Weill LPs. Parts Two and Three take up Weill's career in America (on Broadway and off) together with his burgeoning impact on Jazz. Then Evans assumes the lead in the Fourth and Fifth sections. Finally, as a bonus and sort-of Sixth Part, comes a follow-up essay/review of 2012's "new" (but also old) Evans album, which of course also featured Weill--and which later won the Big Band Grammy award.

Centennial was a suitable conceptual name for that release, but for some unexplained reason this new one is called Lines of Color, its exterior offering an abstract pretty picture on the front cover, tiny print obscuring Evans' name, and no identifying photo of the man. Commercial this packaging isn't--Blue Note was just asleep at the switch--which is really too bad because the music is terrific, another excellent selection of previously unrecorded charts dating from the Thornhill Orchestra days up to Gil's more experimental bands of the 1960s. Centennial had
top session players and the thrill of important historical discovery; this one has the sound of a crackerjack Jazz orchestra working live, its creative engines firing on all cylinders.

Some long numbers revive and/or revise previous Evans tracks; "Time of the Barracudas" and "Davenport Blues" crackle authoritatively with dramatic solo work from trombonist Marshall Gilkes, tenor saxman Donny McCaslin, and trumpeter Mat Jodrell, while "Concorde" and the medley ("Easy Living/Everything Happens to Me/Moon Dreams") play the master's measures either more lightly, or layered more intricately. That last is certainly one of the album's highlights, with pianist Frank Kimbrough and tenorist Scott Robinson quietly leading the charts.

Other tracks sound like what they are, Claude Thornhill specialties from the early Forties ("Gypsy Jump") to the post-Bop Fifties ten years later ("How High the Moon"), two of them yet meriting special mention--"Greensleeves" for its one-take trombone solo by Gilkes, eradicating memories of Kenny Burrell's feature (on his 1965 album with Evans, Guitar Forms), and a chipper little ditty called "Sunday
Drivin'," dating from 1947 but featuring current band vocalist Wendy Gilles, which could have been a hit back then, and sounds like a radio-ready theme song right now.

One last note: conductor-visionary Ryan Truesdell once again provides exceptional annotation, and on "Moon Dreams" he writes convincingly about the Impressionist classical influences on Evans (Ravel, Prokofiev, et al), some of whom found a spot in Weill's wheelhouse as well... or at least that's still my Impression.

Monday, April 6, 2015

10 Ways of Losing Track of a Rock 'n' Roll Song

This is a book review of sorts. I don't know Latin any more than I know German. Caveat lector.

1. "It's only as important as your life." So claimed Van Morrison quoting James Brown, the hardest working man in show business--never caught with his pants down or even split, a becaped crusader of grit 'n' soul always on his toes and maybe yours too, sucking every cubic centimeter of air from any room he occupied. If you still can't breathe, recite "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" 13 times and then mutter, "Uncle."

2. Walt Whitman was a nurse. Emily Dickinson was a recluse. They met serendipitously in Ralph Waldo Emerson's daylight basement. "I need some Transcendental work," she said. "Where's Waldo?" responded Walt.

3. Inspired by ein sonnen haus of Son House,
the Viennese Secessionists chose to paint
with schadenfreude, but also Freud
in shades, filling every inch of canvas
with 33-and-a-third degrees of die blauen.

4. I ate the big bowl of borscht. Forgive me, but the gruel was not only good, it was Beat.

5. In the still of the guitar drag, she was crying, waiting, hoping to shake some action. "To know him is to love his transmission," she said. All I could do was cry out, "This magic money changes everything! That's momentarily what I want."

6. "Anthemic" as a term in rock criticism had no meaning until Jimi Hendrix digested his Wheaties on July 4, 1969. Sadly, he still thought six was nine and so missed his golden opportunity. Ninety-nine and a half wouldn't do.

7. So much depends
upon his readers
possessing the full
complement of kunst
und kultur
arcane to be obscure

8. Joe Strummer channeled Robert Johnson to write "Train in Vein," but Sid Vicious couldn't remember which needle to insert in the tone-arm.

9. The day the music died, eight-and-a-half-year-old Billy Jim Murray bounced his bicycle through frozen flower gardens around Willamette. He was dispirited... seeking earthly confirmation of that infamous airplane crash. He wished he lived in suburban Lubbock, or Shreveport, or Cincinnati, anywhere but the northwest environs of Chicago. That'll be the day, he thought, the dark day I light out for the territory ahead...

But you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Except maybe in this case. Because 34 years and 9 days later, Bill as "Phil""--brother under the fur to stuck-in-his-rut groundhog "Punxsutawney Phil"--did that time warp again for the first time.

How could any fan of rock 'n' roll not feel the chill that touched their heartbeat that day (and everyday one re-views the music of film)? Yes, unseen but present in fraternal dispensation, and sharing the stage with both of the on-air Phils, were the
high harmonies of Graham Nash, the lyrical tenor solos of Stan Getz, and the émigré exhilaration and despair of ex-patriate James Joyce--but couched in the elegant twists and repeats of Homeric prose slimmed down to the scale of a groundhog. It took Bill/Phil another 8 years, 8 months and 16 days to get life, love, and his weather forecast exactly right.

And if that don't change your way of seeing and hearing, buddy, you ain't got that mood indigo.

10. Ike Zimmerman is to Robert Zimmermann as Bob Dylan is to Dylan Thomas as Thomas Aquinas is to Greil Marcus Aurelius.