Saturday, June 23, 2012

The President's Lady

In election season I probably get 10-20 political solicitations a day, most of which are deleted immediately. But once in a while I glance through something from MoveOn, or the President, or a petition forwarded by some friend. Michelle Obama is not only the Mistress of the White House, but a Mistress of Messaging too. (Tea Partyers and racist Repugs, that word has several meanings other than the one making you salivate.)

Some days you just gotta go with the flow. This is what I emailed to Obama headquarters a while ago:

Hello... Whoever.

I realize Mrs. O will never read this, but I just made a small donation, and decided I might also vent a bit. I am one of the many disappointed liberal/progressive/very-anti-corporate, displeased-with-Demos-too worker bees who fill this land of the fraud, home of the brazen chicaners and banksters. I wouldn’t vote for a Righty Repugnant if I were on fire and he was right (of course!) there holding a bucket of water in one hand and a fire-retardant blanket in the other!

Yet of course I am exaggerating. There have been many decent members of the GOP in the past, those fiscally conservative, Midwest-styled Moderate men and women who are so sorely lacking today—the House full of trash and the Senate full of aristocratic refuse(rs). So we elected a fine man, a prof and orator who sort of rose from the streets... but who turned out to be badly advised (by old boy insiders who should have been ostracized), or ineffectual, or too aloof from the fray for too long. Yes, the President has been trapped by economic Fate, battered and obstructed and subjected to racist vilification. But he hasn’t really fought back either; he seems intent on just holding the moral high ground and keeping the dirt off his hands and still-buttoned shirt sleeves.

You of the campaign, using the First Lady again, mailed out a splendid family photo along with the usual plea for support. This note (plus donation made) is in answer to the long letter and photo caption ostensibly written by Mrs. Obama. She makes reference to the magic words of campaigns everywhere: “real and lasting change.” A year into the first term I too pondered that phrase, and I dreamed up a nice-looking t-shirt that I gave to friends and strangers alike; it showed a giant buffalo nickel encircled by these words: “I voted for real change, not nickel-and-diming.”

And here are a couple of excerpts from the credo statement I wrote to hand out with the t-shirt; sadly they’re still pertinent today:

“...We’re trapped in this Grim Regression, praying for a Progressive President to arise—not retreat or appease—an F.D.R. full of stubborn spirit, a leader burning with the fire of M.L.K. and the hard grit of L.B.J., active and involved rather than aloof and above the fray, a scrapper who’ll kick ass, not kiss it, who’ll chop the neo-cons and turncoat ’dogs and conman Republican’ts right off at the knees!

“Over the past 30 years, Reaganomics and misbegotten corporation-funded administrations have ruined manufacturing, devastated the unions, outsourced the nation, and decimated the middle class...

“It’s time. No more pharma liars and Goldman Sachs cheats, feckless conniving Supremos and ‘best Congress money can buy.’

Yes, we backed a brilliant orator who brought us this far, but now we need an arm-twister and angry do-er... an activist President who stands with us and for us!”

I don’t think I’m the only worn-down citizen who feels this, even while continuing to vote Democrat. So please, Mrs. Obama, if you do see this note—on behalf of all us confused and disaffected--give the President a hug and a kiss and, please, a whole lot more gumption.

All best regards, Ed Leimbacher

* * * *
Some reading this may recall that ailing poet Robert Frost tried to read a new poem at Jack Kennedy’s inauguration, but had to settle for reciting his classic “The Gift Outright” instead… which states midway, “Something we were withholding made us weak…” But our embattled President actually reminds me of a different Frost work. If I may wax fanciful, he stands on the verge of the ocean of our nation’s problems, but so far seems unwilling to do more than wade the shallows, “neither out far nor in deep”—when he needs to jump in with both feet and swim hard for the horizon, ignoring sharks and storm-surge and other struggling swimmers, if he really wants to save himself and his beautiful family and the rest of US from drowning.

(Photo copyright Luke Sharrett and The New Yorker.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gil: Still Cool

Gil Evans, the brilliant, self-effacing, stubbornly dedicated arranger/composer, died in 1988, but admirers of his recordings and students of his amazing re-imaginings of other composers’ work, whether Tchaikovsky’s “Arab Dance” or Parker’s “Donna Lee” for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra; Gershwin’s “Summertime” or Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for Miles Davis; Weill’s “Bilbao Song” or the Willie Dixon Blues-assembly known as “Spoonful” (and howled by the Wolf) for Gil’s own bands--or for that matter his famous tunes like “La Nevada,” “Flute Song,” “Hotel Me” (with Miles), “Zee Zee,” “Las Vegas Tango”—marked the Evans Centennial on May 12th of this year. And they… I should say we, because I am one and we are many… we have great cause for celebration.

One of our number, a young composer named Ryan Truesdell, protégé of composer/bandleaders Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider and sometime Jazz musician, was curious about one long-lost work of Gil’s, inquired about it to the Evans family, was given access to great heaps of paper (scattered across the U.S.) representing Evans’ accumulated life’s work, and gradually found a treasure trove of unknown arrangements, some never used, others played but unrecorded and forgotten, from the five decades of Gil’s life in Jazz.

Ryan searched for all the elements for 15 or 20 of the more intriguing, found nearly every chart for those arrangements, and then applied to the ArtistShare program, which helps musicians raise the money for projects adjudged worthwhile, and which also provides a shared-ownership record label to present the results. But most of the production money comes from fans of each artist, who are invited to “participate” at contribution levels ranging from the price of a single CD up to several thousand dollars. (More about that below.) Among previous ArtistShare successes are award-winning albums by Maria Schneider, Jim Hall, Bob Brookmeyer, Pat Metheny, the Clayton Brothers, and other less familiar names.

With this Evans hundredth-year project, simply titled Centennial, the combination of splendid subject, important discoveries, applicant’s proven experience (and connections), and willingness of Evans fans to cough up some serious money carried the day; and so last fall Truesdell assembled a modern Evans-styled orchestra made up of New York’s top Jazz band musicians (including a few who had played for Gil), and they recorded ten of the best or most interesting arrangements, with pride of place, the opening track on the terrific resulting album, given over to “Punjab”--the missing tune that began Ryan’s unplanned quest--revealed as quintessential Sixties Gil, a wandering and wailing (piano and alto sax, respectively), 14-minute, tabla-driven journey, past Bangalore and the Hindu Kush to regions unknown… or, if I exaggerate, just think of an open window with a view of the richly exotic East, and then look beyond. (That tabla, by the way, was Truesdell’s own shrewd addition to the Evans arrangement.)

Complexity and a sheath of eerie dissonance mark Gil’s revision and extension of Kurt Weill’s “Barbara Song,” the ten-minute earlier version of which had appeared on the Individualism album. But Gil revisited and re-arranged it for a 1971 Berlin concert of his compositions; allowing for plenty of the Evans-patented, unresolved, hovering chords, the new version also leads to a more driven and insistent second half. Truesdell in turn has allowed the “Orkester Neo-Gil” (I made up the name) to wind and find its own way, like an Evans band of the later Seventies, through colors and silences and drifting solos, and with a vibraharp guiding the arrangement--in place of the original’s startling piano cues and Wayne Shorter’s haunted, lyrical tenor--providing a musical spine that seems to rattle a bit like the skeleton-ribs vibes in some Thirties b&w cartoon. (Anyone confused by that sentence, mea culpa, and be assured that the resulting 12 minutes of “Barbara” may well be the CD’s piece de l’existence.)

There are many other gems here—a beautiful expansion of “The Maids of Cadiz,” once a trim highlight of Miles Ahead; three delicate but craftily constructed vocal tidbits, two meant for Thornhill and the third for Astrid Gilberto years later, plus a peripatetic fourth chart maybe played by both Tommy Dorsey and Les Brown (think of all these as small steps on the path of a scufflin’ arranger); a three-tune Evans medley, a melange of meandering melodies meant to nudge his players into leading from within; plus the late-evening chart that Brookmeyer remembered playing during his brief time with Thornhill's band, and that he recommended Ryan track down as well. (It was “How About You.”)

All the tracks merit further attention, but I want to discuss participating in ArtistShare instead… because I did.

I had purchased direct from the organization some excellent CDs by Schneider and Hall, so I received email notice of the Evans/Truesdell project, with an invitation to help make it happen. “Wow,” I thought. “…If I only had the money.” As the saying goes, Be careful what you wish for…

A day or two later, I heard from my friend Ken Wiley, radio station KPLU’s Sunday afternoon deejay, playing the whole history of Jazz for 30-plus years now. Ken wanted me to help him sell some duplicate Mosaic-label box sets on eBay. (He proudly owns no computer.) I’d have done it as a favor, but he insisted on splitting the money on any sales made. Long story short, the collectors were buying; Ken made out like a band leader, and I fell into a first chair spot. Suddenly I had some discretionary money. I hemmed and hawed and then went ahead, sending the cash for a Bronze-level participation.

Each project sets its own definitions for rewards and, I suppose, light responsibilities—for example, buttonholing other fans to contribute or to join. The Evans project so far has posted well over a hundred videos, downloads, interviews, caches of session photos, rough mixes, reports from Ryan, and more—all available to participants only (but that includes single CD buyers too). Each of us also received a Signed copy of the Evans biography by Stephanie Stein Crease, and one or two peripheral notices from Ryan. Also per the system, the big-bucks Silver or Gold-level participants might be invited to recording sessions or club dates; and all of the "metal" bearers have their names listed prominently on the elaborate double-fold digipak (which also comes with separate burnt-umber booklets housing Ryan’s informative liner notes and session-musician photos). Altogether, First Class treatment and a First Rate experience… and with Gil Evans involved, one can claim to be contributing, however slightly, to the serious History of Jazz.

Meanwhile the Centennial disc keeps spinning and gleaming. Chords hover and solos turn sharply. Trombones bark and trumpets sound, saxes swirl and woodwinds moan. There’s tuba and tabla, bass clarinet and clarion bass, horns a-French and flutes afloat, oboes ever and—oh, man—all over his drum kit, the great Lewis Nash. Ryan conducts with assurance, Frank Kimbrough channels Gil at the piano, altoist Steve Wilson hard-charges inside and out-... and together they transport the band from the lost history behind to the Free Territory ahead.

Spread the word, shout it out, write it on the walls:

Evans Unearthed… Gil Lives.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Under Reconstruction

Uh, that would be me, not the website. I figured this silence might be deafening someone, or at least defining me not as I would like to be known. So here's an interim dispatch from the front... or, I should say, from a region of the body politic further south:

The pinched-nerve pain persists, in the lower back and elsewhere. Makes focussing difficult. I nod off at the keyboard from pain meds and can't sit for long comfortably, anyway. But I'm hopeful nonetheless. Some days are better than others, and I'll soon be getting a cortisone shot in the lumbar part of my spine.

Meanwhile, during this unwanted break I'm actually working on three different mini-essays at once, so there are new posts on a Jazz celebration, a cult film, and a slide guitarist all looming.

As Ahnold accidently threatened, "Ah'll be Bach." (My, my. Imagine all those Messes and Fugs, Gould-plated yet, if it were so.)