Posted by jeff on Apr 19, 2017 in New Acoustic
, Song Of the week
Alchemy 101: Take a jazz banjoist, a classical double-bassist and a percussionist of traditional Indian music, mix vigorously, and waddaya get? “The Melody of Rhythm”. Oh, yeah, and if you’re feeling really rambunctious, or perverse, just for fun you can also toss in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the baton of maestro Leonard Slatkin.
Let’s see if we can demystify that, or at least demist it.
Like so many other New York kids, Béla Fleck (b. 1958) got turned onto the banjo by (snore) ‘Dueling Banjos‘ from the film “Deliverance”, where a city slicker plays acoustic guitar behind the front-porch banjo of an Appalachian backwoods idiot savant kid, before the latter’s uncle rapes the city guy just for fun.
That very famous clip is a Hollywoodized taste of bluegrass, which is a folk music from those mountains, popularized in the 1940s and 1950s by Bill Monroe and Earl Flatt & Lester Scruggs. Arising from Scottish-Irish roots, traditional bluegrass is typically based on a small set of acoustic stringed instruments including mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, dobro and upright bass. Note the absence of drums.
In the 1970s and northwards, some stellar musicians such as Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Andy Statman and Tony Rice played a lot of second generation bluegrass. Then in the 1980s a newer aesthetic began to evolve from these roots, progressive bluegrass or ‘newgrass’, led by Mr Fleck himself. These musicians retained the original orchestration of bluegrass, but incorporated a jazz-based musicality, resulting in a wonderfully unclassifiable new sub-genre with its own very loyal cadre of followers and an active festival circuit. Bela’s home base for the past 30 years has been his own band The Flecktones, who have made tons of innovative, marvelous music, but he’s also been involved in heaps of transient projects with a number of recurring partners, one of whom is Edgar Meyer, with whom he’s been fiddling around with for 25 years.
Jazz/classical/newgrass bassist Meyer (b. 1960) hails from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, received his classical training at Indiana, and in 2002 was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, “The Genius Award”, the neatest recognition bestowed on humans. Edgar has recorded in more contexts than would seem possible – Bach’s cello suites on bass; a solo album playing piano, double bass, guitar, banjo, viola da gamba, mandolin and dobro; the Coplandian Grammy-winning “Appalachian Journey” and “Appalachian Waltz”, collaborations with Yo Yo Ma and newgrass fiddler Mark O’Connor, a rarity case of respectable ‘classical crossover’; and several knockout concerti of his own composition recorded with symphony orchestras, one for double bass, one for double bass and cello (played by good old Yo Yo), one for banjo (guess who) and double bass, and a triple concerto for double bass, banjo and tabla that you just might read about below.
Zakir Hussain (Hindi: ज़ाकिर हुसैन, Urdu: ذاکِر حسین, in case you were wondering) was born in 1951 in Mumbai, son of the legendary tabla player Alla Rakha. Zakir was a child prodigy on the tabla, moved to the US in 1970 and began playing with the likes of George Harrison, John McLaughlin, Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, and Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. This was much to the chagrin of his father, who refused to condone this newfangled stuff until Zakir promised him that he would never stop playing traditional Indian music. I really don’t get what was bugging dad, who had himself appeared alongside Ravi Shankar (Norah Jones’ father) at the Monterey and Woodstock festivals, as well as recording an album with Buddy Rich! But Dad had some stature. Mickey Hart: “Allarakha is the Einstein, the Picasso; he is the highest form of rhythmic development on this planet.” The tabla, for the uninitiated amongst you, “involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different sounds, reflected in the mnemonic syllables (bol). The heel of the hand is used to apply pressure or in a sliding motion on the larger drum so that the pitch is changed during the sound’s decay.” That may not sound too intriguing, but just listen to how Zakir says it. Convinced, are you?
So these three guys get together in 2009 – sort of like a centaur, a mermaid, and a Toyota Prius in a ménage a trois – and record an album called “The Melody of Rhythm.”
There are nine cuts on the CD, the middle three being the aforementioned Triple Concerto. Thom Jurek, the most effusive music writer around, calls it a “spacious, wide-ranging, beautifully paced concerto with the trio interacting on its own quite intently and with the DSO not as individual instrumentalists, but as a group in dialogue with the orchestra [in a mix of] jazz, Indian folk forms, classical music, Appalachian folk, progressive instrumental music.”
The first and last three pieces on the CD are just our three guys creating something wholly other – unique, transcending taxonomy like nothing else you’ve ever heard, as natural and organic as a single petal of a daisy, unforced, convincing and absolutely lovely. Here you are, our SoTW, ‘Babar’, the first cut from “The Melody of Rhythm”. Indeed.
For your further listening edification:
There are lots of YouTube clips of the trio performing live, all of problematic audio quality. Here’s a nice NPR article on the them with some links of better quality.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these off-beat recommendations:
068: Hermeto Pascoal, ‘Santa Catarina’
063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’
030: The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – ‘Pilentze Pee’
003: Garcia/Grisman, ‘So What’
Posted by jeff on Apr 14, 2017 in Rock
, Song Of the week
© Henry Diltz/Corbis
David Crosby, ‘Yvette in English’
Joni Mitchell, ‘Yvette in English’
David Crosby, ‘Arrows’
David Crosby/Phil Collins, ‘Hero’
David Crosby is one elusive sonofagun.
At his best, he’s as magical as a perfect high (‘Guinnevere’, ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’).
At his worst, you want to find something high to jump off of (‘Mind Garden’).
To tell the truth, he’s not much of a songwriter. Almost all of his best music is written/performed/created in collaboration. He most frequently shines in the light reflected off a partner he’s enhancing, as happened so frequently in The Byrds (‘Eight Miles High’) and CSN. Sometimes, he’s the best harmony singer ever (CSN, SoTW 171, Jackson Browne’s ‘Something Fine’).
Left to his own devices, I’ve found him to be more often than not just annoying.
But when he’s on, he’s just so damned good that you keep going back for more. Then you get ‘Where’s the meat?’ frustrated, and you leave. Then you come back, looking for just a “little bit of instant bliss”.
I followed Crosby closely up through “Déjà Vu”, even that lovely contribution he made to Jefferson Starship’s first album, ‘Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?’ – co-written (no surprise) with Paul Kantner. But then I admit, I abandoned starship. I tried to keep an eye out for what he was doing, all the subsequent CSN and CSN&Y reunions, and most of the solo albums – 1971, 1989, 1993, 1995, 2014, 2016. I even read his autobiography, for which I should get extra credit point.
But I just couldn’t generate the energy to really follow Crosby closely. There were always glimpses of magic, but in the morning I was left with a headache. The same with his buddy Stills, the same with CSN, not to mention &Y (for which I always had limited patience).
But then I recently had the urge to revisit some of Stills’ output over his latter decades, and discovered that Graham Nash had compiled box sets for each of C and S and N himself. The recent SoTW 258 on Stills was a result of checking out his 4-CD retrospective, “Carry On”. In short – if Stills were as sensible as he is talented, he would have been inside the pantheon instead of in the entry hall. Proof: SoTW 072, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ (from “Just Roll Tape”). There’s an awful lot of shouting and carrying on in those latter decades, very little memorable music.
Crosby’s 3-CD retrospective, “Voyage”, is more enlightening and more satisfying. The first CD includes 3 Byrds cuts, 5 CSN/&Y, 5 from his 1971 solo album “If I Could Only Remember My Name”, 7 from early Crosby & Nash. The earlier stuff is great, the latter fine. The third CD is unreleased demos which, for me, might better have been left unreleased.
But that second CD? It’s Crosby. Maybe not at his very best, but at his very good. It’s like staring at a beautiful woman, or (they tell me) a chemically-induced hallucinogenic experience: it doesn’t mean anything, and it leaves no imprint on the memory or the soul. But it sure is lovely while it’s happening.
There are three songs from the 1977 album “CSN” (‘Shadow Captain’, ‘Delta’, ‘In My Dreams’) and one from the 1988 CSNY “American Dream” (‘Compass’), then one from his 1989 solo album, ‘Tracks in the Dust’ . They’re lovely, but so blatantly lacking in the inspiration that made the early material an indelible part of our brains and our hearts that we’re left a bit depressed by the contrast.
‘Arrows’, from the 1990 CSN flop “Live It Up” fares a little better. But then come two cuts from a much disparaged 1993 “A Thousand Roads”, a collections of slickly produced cuts written for him mostly by mercenaries: Jimmy Webb, Marc Cohen, John Hiatt.
‘Hero’ is co-written with Phil Collins. It’s not a great song, perhaps more Phil than Dave. But at least it’s a song. It coheres, and I enjoy it every time I hear it. (And every time I hear it, it sounds like it came from Brian Wilson’s darned good new album “No Pier Pressure”.)
But then there’s one cut that made all this rather depressing work worthwhile, our SoTW, ‘Yvette in English’, co-written with one Joni Mitchell.
It’s a lovely, enigmatic bossa nova vignette. Like so many of Joni’s finest songs, it rings patently autobiographical – full of precise, evocative details, seeming to allude to real people, real events. I don’t know the back-story here. Joni recorded it a year after David, and the other persona in the song is a male. So my imagination draws Joni watching a French girl with short hair in a short skirt and black tights (I keep thinking Brigitte Auber from “To Catch a Thief”, but upon checking, that’s wrong; I guess Grace Kelly addled my visual memory there) sidling up to him and offering him some heavily-accented mind-altering substance.
When Joni’s songs work best, then entice you into connecting the details. That’s pleasure enough for me, but if someone out there knows The Facts, I’d be glad to hear them as well. From past experience, the real versions do not diminish the imagined ones.
How many other songs has Joni co-written? I can think of none.
But she certainly owes Crosby. In late 1967 she was just starting to attract attention as a solo artist. Even though her success today seems inevitable, Crosby was instrumental in jump-starting her career.
He ‘discovered’ her in Florida in 1967. They hooked up, he took her back to LA, got her a manager Elliot (Rabinowitz) Roberts and a record deal (including artistic control, a rarity for a rookie), produced her first album, and brought in his buddy to play bass, the recently unemployed (Buffalo Springfield) Steve Stills. The rest is history. Well, the rest for the 3-4 few years, anyway. After that we have 50 years of non-history.
So in 1993, with Crosby floundering in drugs and jail and sundry shit, Joni did him a solid, wrote him a song/poured a bucket of cold water on him to get him to co-write a song for his covers album. She recorded ‘Yvette in English’ a year later, on “Turbulent Indigo” – not one of her standouts, produced by Larry Klein shortly after their divorce. Still, it’s got soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.
Then Crosby got a new liver and a new son-bandmate. James Raymond, a young musician Crosby had fathered but didn’t know (as Joni wrote about her abandoned daughter, “my child’s a stranger/I bore her/But, I could not raise her”). They formed a band, CPR, which did little to resuscitate his career (sorry, couldn’t resist), but I’m sure gave him a lot of paternal pride. “Voyage” contains 5 songs by CPR—they’re mostly lovely, all forgettable.
Crosby’s had somewhat of a comeback recently. In 2015, Michael League, leader of Snarky Puppy, just about the hippest act in music these days, invited him to perform a song with them, ‘Somebody Home’. It may not be ‘Triad’, but it’s pretty darned affective. League then gave Crosby a butt-kick, inviting him to record together “Lighthouse”, a quickie album (Crosby was used to belaboring recordings to death), including 5 co-written songs.
“Lighthouse” won’t get Crosby inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as he was twice (as a Byrd and as C. But like so much of his corpus, it’s limpidly perfect one moment, annoying as stepping in dog-do the next.
Well, he’s still alive, happy, making music. That’s a pretty remarkable feat in and of itself. And if we look hard enough, we can still find some gems like ‘Yvette in English’ to remind us of just how pure a talent he was and, in his own unique 75-year old way, still is.
He met her in a French café, she slipped in sideways like a cat
Sidelong glances, what a wary little stray, she sticks in his mind like that
Saying, “Avez-vous une allumette?” with her lips wrapped around a cigarette
Yvette in English saying, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”
He’s fumbling with her foreign tongue, reaching for words and drawing blanks
A loudmouth is stricken deaf and dumb in a bistro on the left bank
“If I were a painter, “Picasso said, “I’d paint this girl from toe to head”
Yvette in English saying “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”
Burgundy nocturne tips and spills, they trot along nicely in the spreading stain
New chills, new thrills for the old uphill battle. How did he wind up here again?
Walking and talking, touched and scared, uninsulated wires left bare
Yvette in English saying, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”
What blew her like a leaf his way? Up in the air and down to Earth
First she flusters, then she frays, so quick to question her own worth
Her cigarette burns her fingertips, as it falls like fireworks she curses it
Then sweetly in English she says, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”
He sees her turn and walk away skittering like a cat on stone,
Her high heels clicking, what a wary little stray.
She leaves him by the Seine alone with the black water and the amber lights.
And the bony bridge between left and right.
Yvette in English saying, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”
Posted by jeff on Apr 6, 2017 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
Herbie Nichols, ‘House Party Starting’
Here comes the story of the most universally respected unknown jazz pianist from the 1950s. If you think there’s a heady mix of oxymoron and rarified obscurantism there, you might just be right. But there’s also some pretty fine music hiding in Herbie Nichols’ miniscule oeuvre.
Herbie Nichols (1919-1963) grew up in Harlem, studied a bit of piano at CCNY, served in the army (where, unable to play music, he turned his attention to reading and writing poetry). After the war he bounced around musically, playing in everything from Dixieland to Rhythm and Blues settings in order to pay the bills. He liked to hang out in public libraries and died at 44 from leukemia, a bachelor.
His only public exposure worth mentioning was when Billie Holiday added lyrics to his song ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, making it a signature song of hers and title of her autobiography. But I’m guessing that didn’t pay a lot of Herbie’s bills. By the time Diana Ross got to it, he was long gone. Here’s Lady Day’s version, and here’s Herbie Nichols’ original.
After years of pestering Alfred Lion at Blue Note, they finally agreed to let him record a couple of sessions in 1955 and 1956. They were trio sessions (it’s widely assumed that Nichols envisioned a richer setting for his very complex music), but he did have the gift of excellent bassists (Al McKibbon and Teddy Kotick) and legendary drummers (Art Blakey and Max Roach) accompanying him on these sessions. He recorded once more in 1957 with a smaller label, backed by George Duvivier (b) and Mingus’s Danny Richmond (d). This session has the best title of anything ever: “Love, Gloom, Cash, Love”.
His music is ambiguous, filled with warm dissonances and subtle rhythmic twists and harmonic turns. There’s a pervasive sharp intellect tempered with great warmth and a lot of resigned humor.
He saw himself not as a jazz player but as a composer. “My earliest ambition was to become a Prokofiev, but later decided to become an Ellington.” Jazz is widely perceived to be a fundamentally improvised medium, but there’s a rich tradition of composed jazz, which I frequently find riveting and to which Nichols belongs. The guy even scores the drum parts!
He’s as much influenced by primitive African rhythms as he is by Bartók’s harmonic aesthetic. “I keep remembering that the overtones of fifths created by the beautiful tones of any ordinary drum was surely the first music, the precursor of the historic major scale, no less, which was built on the same principles. That is why the cycle of fifths is so prevalent in elemental jazz.” Hmmm.
This guy knows what he’s doing. “Rhythms and patterns seem to be endless and I find them in boxing, architecture, literature, vaudeville, the dancing art of [Pearl] Primus, [legendary tap dancer Teddy] Hale and [Katherine] Dunham [pioneers of Black dance during the New Deal]. All the world’s a stage for the jazz pundit.”
Herbie Nichols’ music is often compared with that of Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). They’re roughly contemporaries, both with strong roots in the bebop movement, sharply angular, brilliant, humorous, inimitable. But whereas Monk was quirky, self-absorbed in his personal life and in his music, Nichols comes across as a really nice, normal guy who never got the break he deserved, the prototypical neglected genius. His music, for all its complexity and intricacy, is really quite fun. Monk finally achieved his recognition as a bona fide genius after languishing in obscurity for decades.
Herbie continues to languish, despite a rabid cult following struggling to keep his musical legacy alive.
One musician on whom Herbie clearly has had a great influence is another favorite of mine, Andrew Hill (1937-2007), to whom I promise to devote his very own SoTW. Check out ‘Pumpkin’ from “Black Fire”. Strong melody line, enticing but elusive. The big difference is Herbie’s good nature and warmth, as opposed to Hill’s very dark, lunar landscape.
“Laughter is like a religion to me. Sometimes I may seem low…so low nothing will lift me up again…but really, I’m laughing like hell inside. This music is something to live for…something to be taken seriously, but not serious. Those musicians who get up on the stand and look they’re undertakers bother me. If I want to cry, I’ll cry in a corner, and cry to myself. Music is joy, and living—not death.”
In the early 1980s, Dutch avant garde pianist/arranger Misha Mengelberg got together a bunch of like-minded musicians (including Roswell Rudd and Steve Lacy) to cast some Nichols compositions in a medium-sized group. Here’s their stellar take on ‘House Party Starting‘, from their album “Change of Season”. And here’s Duck Baker, a real fine acoustic fingerpicker, doing his version of ‘House Party Starting‘ from his 1996 album of solo guitar Herbie Nichols covers, “Spinning Song“.
Here’s Steve Lacy (soprano sax) and Mal Waldron’s (piano) 1994 version of the song from the album “Hot House”. I’ve written about this duo before. They’re incredible – intense, lyrical, brilliant, passionate, and I just love them both to death for making such beautiful music. This cut, Lacy’s mournful soprano sax the perfect voice for Nichols’ grin-through-it-all irrepressibility, just bowls me over. The way his straight horn elicits the melody, the sweetness from the original. Oh, my my.
In 1994, pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison formed a floating group of highly respected avant garde jazz musicians called “The Herbie Nichols Project” to promulgate his ‘lesser-known compositions’ (yes, they really said that) and to couch them in a setting with horns, which the composer never had the opportunity to do in his lifetime. They’ve recorded three albums, titled after the Nichols’ songs “Strange City”, “Dr. Cyclops’ Dream”, and “Love Is Proximity” (they deserve a prize for album titles).
But we’re not going to deny Herbie a chance to stand in the spotlight. So here you go folks, Mr Nichols himself playing his composition ‘House Party Starting’, backed by McKibbon and Max Roach. It’s a wonder of ebullience, wit, panache and taste. Ladies and gentlemen, a moment of your attention please for the most famous unknown jazz pianist of the 1950s, the wonderful forgotten but unforgettable Mr Herbie Nichols. Heck, you could even invite some of your friends over to listen to him. You could start a house party.
Here are some more YouTube clips of Herbie for your further listening edification: ‘Sunday Stroll‘, ‘Infatuation Eyes’, ‘The Third World’, ‘Applejackin‘, ‘Love, Gloom, Cash, Love‘.
If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:
021: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, ‘Snake Out’
027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’
073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′
Posted by jeff on Apr 6, 2017 in Personal
, Song Of the week
Back in the days when I played a lot of guitar (well, to be more precise, I played a great quantity of very little guitar), this strange thing would happen. I’d hear a song, it would appeal to me, I’d write down the lyrics by running the cassette 3 seconds at a time, figure out the chords as well as I could (I was pretty good on the basics, till you get into the minor 7/Augmented 17+s), transpose it into a singable key, figure out some picking or strumming from the very limited repertoire of my right hand, and have a go at it. If it felt good, I’d pursue it, practice it, 20 or 30 or 40 times, and try it in front of an audience (usually starting with my wife while she was making dinner, striving desperately for a “That’s nice, Jeff.”). At that point, it still belonged at least some degree to the original from which I’d pinched it. But after a while–let’s say after playing it 100 times–it became mine. Even if it was a Beatles song which was hardwired in my brain, note for note of every instrument, my treatment gained its own autonomy, and became a living, breathing entity in my brain. It became the default version in my mind’s ear.
In 1964 a frat band called the Rhondells from Lafayette College in Easton, PA (not to be confused with the Rhondels from Virginia Beach, VA) was playing a seedy, pre-gambling resort in Atlantic City. They were heard by Nat Weiss, a would-be entrepreneur who actually did book The Beatles’ Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium concerts in 1964 and 1965. Weiss got the band some gigs in Greenwich Village, changed their name (apocryphally upon advice from his buddy Brian Epstein and Brian’s client John Lennon) to The Cyrkle.
After Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel recorded their first LP, a derivative collection of folk standards with a couple of Simon originals thrown in, Paul split for London. Unbeknownst to him, a Columbia Records producer had overdubbed drums and an electric guitar, resulting in the career-making hit “The Sounds of Silence”. Paul had no idea this was going on, and was having a great time with a girl named Kathy and writing a couple of songs with a Bruce Woodley of the Australian band The Seekers (‘Georgy Girl‘). These songs were never recorded officially by Simon and Garfunkel, which makes no sense at all, because they were stars without a catalogue of songs to perform. Don’t blame me, I just bear witness to the events.
By the way, this was the time I saw S&G perform in Meadville, Pennsylvania, just the two of them, acoustic, playing their hits ‘SoS’, ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘I am a Rock’. I walked into the dressing room to interview them, my frizzy hair all a-frizz, when very short Paul looked at his partner and said, “Hey, Art, this guy looks just like you.” They were warm and open interviewees, but mega-stardom was still a year or so away.
S&G went on tour, with Cyrkle member Tom Dawes playing bass in their band while his co-founder bandmate Don Dannemann was doing reserve duty in the Coast Guard (I’m guessing you might not have known that fact). Brian Epstein was managing The Cyrkle by then, which gave them no small degree of aura. Paul offered his two songs to Tom, who recorded them under the supervision of master producer John Simon. ‘Red Rubber Ball‘ reached #2 on the charts; and the very lovely ‘I Wish You Could Be Here‘, teetering between maudlin and moving, made it onto their rather unmemorable album (yes, I owned it, and once upon a time knew it by heart). They toured as the opening act for The Beatles in the US in 1966 (now that I think of it— that’s when I saw The Beatles. I must have seen them! I have no recollection of The Cyrkle. I’m really, really sorry, guys. But I guess you probably got enough out of that tour for my not remembering you to not make a serious dent in your memories or bank account.) They had one more hit, the lovely ‘Turn-Down Day‘, which I remember air-guitar singing in a Pepsi Cola factory with my friend Aaron. See, I do remember some things.
And I certainly do remember the song ‘Red Rubber Ball‘, because I performed it about a trillion times. It became a sort of signature song for me in the teenie-weenie cyrkle of venues I used to play back then.
So here you go, all you bulging and balding baby boomers: ‘Red Rubber Ball’ as performed by The Seekers (I recommend skipping this one), by Simon and Garfunkel in a live recording released on the “Old Friends” compilation in 1997 (don’t miss this one), by Jeff Meshel (use your discretion), and by good old Cyrkle, the version everyone remembers and knows and loved, way back in good old 1966.
If you enjoyed this SoTW post, you may also like:
078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’
043: The Left Banke, ‘Pretty Ballerina’
Jeff Meshel’s Music (only if you’re really compulsive)
I should have known you’d bid me farewell
There’s a lesson to be learned from this and I learned it very well
Now, I know you’re not the only starfish in the sea
If I never hear your name again, it’s all the same to me
And I think it’s gonna be alright
Yeah, the worst is over now
The mornin’ sun is shinin’ like a red rubber ball
You never care for secrets I confide
For you, I’m just an ornament, somethin’ for your pride
Always runnin’, never carin’, that’s the life you live
Stolen minutes of your time were all you had to give
It’s a story from the past with nothin’ to recall
I’ve got my life to live and I don’t need you at all
The roller-coaster ride we took is nearly at an end
I bought my ticket with my tears, that’s all I’m gonna spend