Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sheets to the Wind

I have some good news and some bad... or more accurately, I should just say: I have some great news, and some good news that should have turned out better.

Imperfect news first... In grad school (English Lit, University of Washington), creeping up on 50 years ago, I got to know a guy named Bruce Lofgren; he was taking Lit courses but really hoped to have a career in music. He played Jazz guitar, could compose and arrange too, and he was studying privately with guitarist Larry Coryell--who would soon head East to become part of Gary Burton’s Quartet playing a light version of Jazz-Rock (Lofty Fake Anagram and such).

Maybe Bruce picked up some of Larry’s tricks and style, but he maintained Lofgren
too. He moved to Los Angeles and carved out his career, playing mostly electric Jazz, doing some arranging, teaching part-time in the public schools, eventually forming and maintaining somehow for a couple of decades now a so-called “rehearsal band”--his Bruce Lofgren Jazz Orchestra meeting regularly for the joy of playing Big Band music, but only rarely getting anything more than a one-night gig, paid Musicians Union scale. (Famous examples would be the bands organized by Terry Gibbs in L.A. and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis back in the Apple.)

How or even why we became friends I don’t remember, but something connected us
tenuously; and one would check up on the other when passing through each other’s turf. I (indirectly) got to hire Bruce to work on the music for several commercials, and every so often Bruce would ask me to create the phrases suited to some song he’d composed--this even though, back in grad school, one night at a party held on visiting poet John Logan’s rented houseboat, Bruce had pinned me like Nabokov toying with a moth for his butterfly collection, shouting from thirty feet away, loud enough to be heard above the party din, “Leimbacher, you’ll never be a poet... you’re too normal!"

I’ve borne that hidden, never-quite-healed wound of words ever since, unable to claim otherwise. I write all sorts of things, it’s true, but--speaking objectively--I do rely on a quick wit and a slick surface patina that work well for headlines, slogans, ad copy, naming projects, puns and word play, etc. I stick with the brief and quick, and that includes lyric poems and the occasional song lyric.

So in the decades since college I’ve put words to maybe a half-dozen Lofgren tunes. The only one that might actually have been heard heretofore was the title song for Bruce’s album Move into Your Car--a timely suggestion now, but issued two decades too early! And even sung con brio and with suitable irony by moonlighting lead/harmony vocalist Janis Siegel, Manhattan Transfer’s superb nine-GRAMMY award-winner. But the album went nowhere, and our song went with it.

In late October of 2012, Bruce emailed me that over the Halloween weekend, his long-lived BLJO would be playing at an L.A. club, during which he intended to present the world premiere performance of the long-awaited second song from collaborators L&L, this one a sexy, double-entendre number called “Sheet Music” that I’d dreamed up, turning music terms into bedroom talk in a comically racy, slightly silly way.

After so much time gone by, I certainly couldn’t remember the words I’d worked up--still can’t--but that “Sheet Music” would finally be performed was good news. Bruce had better news too: the vocalist would be a charmer he’d met, a younger relation of the late, highly regarded Jazz bassist Red Mitchell (a granddaughter, he thought).

Best news of all, a friend of Bruce’s would videotape the whole gig and I’d then receive a duplicate DVD of it... “All right,” I thought, “this could be great!”

The weekend came and went; a brief email assured me that the performance was a success, the audience laughed and applauded our “world premiere,” and my copy
would be coming soon...

Six weeks later, Christmas drawing nigh, I finally held that CD-sized dream right in my hand, about to play the sweet proof of my royalties-rich future as a songwriter. I loaded the disc, pushed “Play,” waited another excruciating minute, then saw, and heard...

Good news: the BLJO is near twenty strong, dressed vaguely as pirates but offering no band routines; still and all, solid soloists and tight ensemble work on Bruce’s inventive charts.

Not-so-bad news: there was nearly an hour of other tunes before the vocal section began, but then “Sheet Music” came right after Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny"! Heady
company indeed.

Not-so-good news: Bruce’s video ace did nothing but set up a single camera--at an angle and distance to take in the whole band--then start the tape rolling and (probably) head to the bar for a couple of drinks. (Oh, someone changed focus a few times, but it might well have been Bruce himself since the framing didn’t include him much of the time anyway!)

Worse news: whoever was playing soundman was also a minimalist--i.e., one microphone, positioned for solos or full-band power only; an adequate solution, but...

Worst news: one not suitable for an unknown singer and song, with tricky lyrics obscured by an arrangement that perhaps zigs too loudly when the vocalist needs light zagging instead!

Yes, it’s true, the words could not be heard, nor the entendres doubled, unless the listener was sitting close to the singer. So the performance likely impressed no one; that premiere may have been its derniere as well.

Then, heaping insult on injury, the “Music Impossible” DVD dupe self-destructed
after just two viewings! Proving once again that “There’s many a Slip ‘twixt Sheet and Hip.”

* * * * *
Next: the good news, one of the best things that’s happened to me in twenty or thirty years...

Friday, January 4, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2012

I was living in the South in the mid-Fifties when the fusion bombs exploded--that is, when the radio channels reached critical mass, as Rhythm ’n’ Blues and Honkytonk Country collided over the airwaves, and the resulting blast left, rising from the no-longer-radio-active rubble of Segregationist racism, these remarkable developments:

1) Sun Records and Rockabilly and all-encompassing Elvis, Sam Phillips’ best hope for “A white boy who could sing Black”;

2) Integrated recording scenes taking root from Memphis to Muscle Shoals, from Stax to Fame;

3) Stunned white teenagers caught up in Black Music’s hot-rhythm excitement, varied sounds reaching from New Orleans (Fats Domino and Little Richard) as far North as Chicago (Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, even a brief sampling of the Blues electricity of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf);

4) The gritty heartbreak of Deep Soul, including Black vocalists happy to add Caucasian-country instruments and accents--for example, Joe Tex and Solomon Burke, Johnny Adams and Joe Simon.

No doubt there were other changes, but I want to focus on a related personal note:
even though Elvis’s fourth album was a 1957 special Christmas release, full-length Xmas LPs (“concept” albums, one might argue) by anyone other than a Pop Music icon like Bing Crosby or Perry Como, Andy Williams or crossed-over success Harry Belafonte, were still uncommon within the recording industry.

Singles like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “White Christmas” (the Drifters’ version) were seasonal hits that didn’t spawn albums. Pagan rockers singing Xmas carols might well be a red flag to the
culture police; Elvis’s LP was half regular gospel tunes, plus a couple of Xmas songs, one or two bluesy numbers and an innocuous take on “White Christmas” that Irving Berlin hated and tried to get banned and recalled!

In the mid-Fifties, I fed on a steady diet of Rockabilly and radio-friendly R&B, but no way could I imagine, say, a Rockabilly Xmas LP by Carl Perkins or the Johnny Burnette Trio, nor even an anthology album of similar tunes. I’ve been pondering such matters after hearing several Xmas LPs during the season just past--one demonstrating that it might well be possible now. (See below.)

It’s also time to compile my “Favorite Albums of 2012” list once again. While there
are too many albums issued these days for me to claim any one release as the “best,” among the hundreds I have heard, these can be strongly recommended.

Usually I choose an album or two for each genre on the list and write a review telling what governed that choice; but this year I’ve arbitrarily decided to minimize. I’m going to try to encapsulate each LP in seven words or less--unless there are two albums reviewed together; then I get up to 14 words. (The records will be mostly 2012 releases, but an older album I finally caught on to during the year might elbow its way in.)

Bob Dylan, Carnegie Chapter Hall 1961 (Euro import BDA CD104); and Bob Dylan, Tempest (Columbia 8725-45760-2). Alpha... omega, FIFTY YEARS! Terrific concert outperforms teapot “Tempest.” (But ride that “Duquesne” Train!)

Shemekia Copeland, 33 1/3 (Telarc TEL-33199-02). Pitches wang dang doodles all night long.

Chris Isaak, Christmas (Wicked Game/Reprise 2-48940). Latin-Rockabilly-Swing, five great originals unleashed.

Exception (suggestion rather than review): Establish your favorite version of Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler’s towering, unearthly farewell.

If there was anything significant going on, I must have missed it. Instead I saw: Pop-success females of feisty independence (meet Miss T.Swift) reigning over all, wisely ignoring the male hitmakers self-satisfiedly sidling on, and close-harmony groups vying for the award citing “most catchy name” (Rascal Flats, Lady Antebellum, Georgia Florida Line, four scores more and maybe the Civil Wars too). Meanwhile, Miranda Lambert’s marriage seems to have robbed her of impertinence and sass. (“Oh me, oh my, oh,/ Would ya
look at Miss Ohio,/ She’s runnin’ around with her rag-top down...”)

June Tabor & Oysterband, Ragged Kingdom (English import Topic TSCD 585). Tabor’s sabre edge shuckin’ the rock-riven Oysters.

Old-But-New (1968): Bill Evans, Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate(Resonance deluxe 2CD set HCD 2011). ‘Round midnight
Bill turns out the stars.

New-But-Old (various years): Gil Evans Project, Centennial: Ryan Truesdell Presents Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans (Artist Share AS 0114). Thornhill? Thorny Miles? Truesdell channels unearthed Gil!

New: Mumford & Sons, Babel (Glassnote GLS-0131-02). Big Country anthems, slyly exalted Christian answers.

Reissue: Peter Gabriel, So (Realworld deluxe 3CD box set PGCDRXUS5). Gabriel’s clarion call
re-Sounds across the heavens.

New: Gramps Morgan, Reggae Music Lives (De Dadason MWD1271). Reggae rules, 13 times. Bust it, Gramps!

Reissues (exception, three albums on five CDs): Various, Out of Many: 50 Years of Reggae Music (VP 3CD box set VPCD1962). Archival Scratch and
(great) Yabby/Tubby releases (Pressure Sounds). Bargain-wise, terrific 50 hits/years, Jah makin’ de worl’ smile an’ dance since ’62.

The Ace/Kent reissue label of England continues to mine the rich mother lode of Southern Soul, digging especially deep in the trampled ground between Memphis and Muscle Shoals, mapping the terrain, tapping the wealth of Soul men and
women--Black and White--singers and songwriters and instrumental aces, many of whom “graduated,” moved on from their early association with Rick Hall’s Fame Studio and label (or found their way to them later on), providing the hits for Atlantic and Cadet, Goldwax and Jewel, Monument and Scepter, Sound Stage and Vee-Jay, not to mention dozens for Fame itself! Among the many splendid discs reaching the States over the last year or so, I admire two in particular:

Candi Staton, Evidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters (Kent 2CD set CDKEN2 353); and Various, Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham (Ace CDCHD 1284). Candi is dandi, Penn/Oldham slicker&quicker--Do Right, Live Good, Slip Around, Lose All.

(Honorable Mention goes to Ace’s Dan Penn: The Fame Recordings, which showcases his Soulful songwriting and vocalizing, but nearly all of the 24 cuts are demos to “sell” his songs. I hope there’ll be
lots more Fame to contend with, whether hits by others or those Penned by Dan.)

The special collector reissues continued in 2012. Among hundreds of CDs, two in particular took pride of place, film scores of “grail” significance:

Jerry Goldsmith, composer/conductor, The Red Pony (1973 television remake, soundtrack on Varese Sarabande VCL 1012 1119). Jerry sees red: Copland by a head.

Basil Poledouris, composer/conductor, Conan the Barbarian (1982 film, soundtrack on Intrada 3CD box set MAF 1723). Orchestral magnificence uplifts barbaric yawp. Influential score.

Near year's end, master of sitar Ravi Shankar died. There was a time when America's idea of "World Music" was a raga by Ravi. And now?

Astonishment still awaits in the grooves of any disc by Persian/Indian group Ghazal. But you won't believe your ears...

Ghazal (Kayhan Kalhor, Shujaat Husain Khan), The Rain (ECM 1840). Kalhor’s kamancheh outspeeds gazelles, dawnlight, raindrops, Ravi.

And finally, of course, once upon a time a quarter century ago, in a galaxy far away...

Paul Simon, Graceland: 25th Anniversary Edition (Sony Legacy deluxe CD/DVD set 88691914712). The world shall be received... and was.