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268: Damien Rice, ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ (Natalie Portman’s Aunt)

Posted by jeff on Aug 11, 2017 in Personal, Song Of the week

 

Irish singer

Damien Rice — ‘The Blower’s Daughter’

Damien Rice is an Irish singer-songwriter, a former busker with three commercially successful, aesthetically appealing albums under his belt featuring close-miked, acoustic, naked songs, including ‘The Blower’s Daughter’, the haunting theme song for Mike Nichols’ 2004 film “Closer”.

Mike Nichols (ne Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky) was sent alone to America at seven with his three-year old brother to escape the Nazis. He’s the auteur not only of “Virginia Woolf”, “The Graduate”, but also of the disquieting film “Closer” starring (and they really are all stellar) Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owens and Natalie Portman, the latter two nominated for Oscars for their roles.

It’s an elegant, unsettling film I found more even more evocative, distasteful, and memorable in the second viewing (Law: “You kissed me!” Roberts: “What are you, twelve?”). Four beautiful actors portraying serially shifting couples, a morally repugnant ménage à quatre driven by three self-satisfied professionals and one enigmatic waif of a stripper. I just might suffer through the film a third time.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all we have to say about music this week. Full disclosure: ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ was nothing more than a tenuous (at best) excuse to talk about Natalie Portman’s aunt.

Buckeye princess

I went through high school with Leslie Stevens.
That’s a misrepresentation.
Leslie Stevens graced Woodward HS with her regal presence during the years I happened to be registered there.
Leslie will be remembered till eternity by everyone who was there as the epitome of beauty and grace.
(For the record, if anyone remembers me, it’s as “that loud kid who was always making bad jokes, all the teachers’ most unfavorite burden.”)

I don’t remember ever speaking to Leslie, even though we participated in a goodly number of stage productions together. Or rather, I somehow snuck onto the stage which existed solely for her to stand spotlighted in its center. I suppose we also took classes together, but those data cells have long since faded. Not so her face, her smile, her body in mid-dance, her aura. Those memories I’ll take to the grave.

What could a mere commoner (a coarse one at that) say to such an aristocratic presence?
“Did you do your geometry homework?”
“Your scene was stunning”?
“Your dance was breathtaking”?
“Your beauty is proof of God’s existence”?

Aaron sent me some clippings from the Bulldog Barks, including my review of “Rubber Soul” the month it was released, my first venture into the non-existent (1965) field of rock journalism. That means I’ve been writing about music for 52 years. I suppose I deserve some points at least for stamina.

In one of the pictures, I’m standing next to Leslie Stevens. If asked, I would deny ever having stood next to her. I suppose I went catatonic, so the event was never recorded in my adolescent ‘brain’. But the picture is there, proof of just how reliable my memory is.

Aaron played George to Leslie’s Emily in Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece “Our Town”. I played George’s father, Dr. Gibbs. I of course had no scenes with Leslie. Fathers-in-law in Grover’s Corner didn’t talk to their perspective DiL. (I’m fortunate enough to have a lovely one with whom I speak frequently and warmly.) Of course, Mr Webb has that great scene with his son-in-law-to-be; but, alas, such was not the fate of the lad that was me.

In the play, George kisses Emily. In other words, Aaron kissed Leslie. Aaron, full disclosure: I’ve never really gotten over that.

Skip forward some 15 years, to the early 1980s. I’m doing reserve duty as a medic in the Israeli Defense Forces in a clinic in an old British Mandate army camp in Jerusalem, right in the middle of Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox bastion. It’s late, it’s boring, and I’m playing Jewish Geography with the army physician on duty, a Dr Hershlag.

“Do you have kids?” he asks.
“Yeah, a daughter and a son. You?”
“A baby daughter, Neta-Li (נטע-לי). So where are you from originally?”
“Ah, Cincinnati.”
“Cincinnati? My wife’s from Cincinnati!”
“Really? What’s her name?”
“Shelley. Shelley Stevens.”
“Nope, didn’t know her. I knew a Leslie Stevens in high school.”
“That’s her sister! Hey, soldier, are you okay?”

Skip forward another dozen or so years, still BI (Before Internet). My high school friend Marc is sitting in my living room in Israel.
“Did you know that Leslie Stevens’ daughter got into the movies?” he asks.
“Not too shocking,” I reply. If she’s anything like her aunt, it’s no surprise, we concurred.
“Her name is Natalie something.”
I guess I had read about the child star of “Léon”, that she was Israeli-born. I processed this for a moment and responded:
“Not her daughter. Her niece.”

I’ve been probably more enthralled by Natalie Portman over the years than most humans, and that’s saying a lot.
It’s not just because I find her to be Beauty Incarnate. Everyone knows that.
It’s because she’s a dead ringer for Aunt Leslie. Not just those cheekbones. Not just the shape of her smile.
It’s the deportment. The regality. The perfection.

I’ve seen pictures of her parents. I’m sure they’re both very nice people, but her genes are those of her aunt.
This I know.

I was recently watching the opening shot of “Jackie”. I see that face and I say casually to myself, “Oh, there’s Leslie! My God, she’s beautiful.” And then I catch myself. It’s not Leslie, it’s the niece.

“They” often say that a man often resembles his maternal uncle. I know it’s true in my case. I saw him rarely during my life, but I always felt an mystic genetic bond with him. The coloring, the posture, the teeth, the penchant for telling shaggy dog stories. How often I would make some remark or gesture, and my mother would turn to my father and say “It’s Shim.”

Sister, niece

That uncle-aunt/nephew-niece relationship can be a landmine. Almost Parents, but who really cares? I know I always expected my uncle to understand me and care about me a lot more than he did, and it caused me no little disappointment at various crossroads throughout my life. But at least our relationship wasn’t as pathological as that of Uncle Charlie and Niece Charlie in Hitchcock’s masterful “Shadow of a Doubt”.

I have no idea what the relationship is between Leslie and Neta-Li, if there is one. I have no idea if the rest of the family is as acutely aware of the dopplegangery going on there as I am.

I do know one thing. That no matter how much the entire world thinks that Natalie Portman is The Most Beautiful Woman in the Universe – and I don’t disagree – I know she’s a copy. A divine copy.

But I know that you, Leslie, wherever you are, however you are, even if you weigh 350 pounds, have more wrinkles than a sea anemone, are drying out from multiple addictions and personality disorders, whatever ravages Father Time has wrought upon you—for me you will always be the most beautiful girl in the world.

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086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

Posted by jeff on Aug 1, 2017 in Classical, Other, Song Of the week

Different Trains (Parts I, II, III)

Need one apologize for listening tastes? You can listen to Justin Bieber or ‘Lawrence Welk Plays Your Polka Favorites’ all you want, I don’t care. I wish you wouldn’t tell me about it, but I don’t deny your democratic or aesthetic right to do so.

So I’m not going to apologize for the fact that in recent months I’ve become quite engrossed in Minimalist music. I realize this may not do much for my popularity at school or for the ratings of this blog, so maybe next week I’ll write about a Motown song, like The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself”, just to keep the Hit-o-meter popping.

Aware of the dangers, this week I’m going to share with you the unique experience I’ve been having with Minimalist music, specifically that of Steve Reich, specifically his composition “Different Trains”.

I admit that my tastes can run at times to the arcane, the rarified, the–well, let’s call a spade a spade–the weird. I try to mix up SoTW, but I’m aware that I’ve been on a run of crowd-displeasers recently, such as Shostakovich and Randy Newman (though I sure do believe that if people of taste made the effort to break through the unprettiness of the veneer, they could get to appreciate and love them as I do. This week we’re going even further. I really don’t think that Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” is for everyone. But it has been speaking very loudly, clearly, and affectively to me, so I want to share it with you. Here come some boring definitions:

Interior, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

‘Minimalism‘ is often applied to designate anything which is spare or stripped to its essentials. Minimalism began as a post-WWII movement in visual arts where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features; it expanded to encompass a movement in music which features repetition and iteration. The term has been used to describe a trend in design and architecture (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more”) wherein the subject is reduced to its necessary elements, often employing functional elements for aesthetic purposes (Buckminster Fuller). It has also been associated with Japanese traditional design and architecture; with the plays of Samuel Beckett, the films of Robert Bresson, the writing of Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Raymond Carver, with poet William Carlos Williams; and even with the automobile designs of Colin Chapman.

Agnes Martin, oil

Hey, I know almost all of those! (Well, I picked mostly ones I know, and I’m sure going to check out that Colin Chapman guy.)

‘Minimalist music‘ began in the 1960s as an underground contemporary classical scene in New York and San Francisco, based mostly on “consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting.” [We may not know all of those terms, but we get the gist, don’t we?] The composers associated with it are John Cage, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Strong Minimalist elements can also be found in contemporary classical music employing traditional stylistic elements, such as that of Arvo Pärt (‘Holy Minimalism’) and John Tavener (‘Mystic Minimalism’), and even reaching back to composers such as Eric Satie, Carl Orff and Anton Webern.

 

Donald Judd, sculpture

New Age and much World music certainly huddle under the Minimalist umbrella. In jazz this aesthetic is rife; there’s even an entire label, EMC, dedicated to minimalist music.

[Here comes the neat part!] Minimal music is also present in pop music. Psychedelic rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s used repetitive structures and droning techniques to express the hallucinations of LSD and other drugs in a musical language. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale had an especially close working connection with La Monte Young. Minimalism also impacted Progressive Rock [a genre I’ve studiously avoided over the years], in artists such as Soft Machine, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.

[Here comes the REALLY neat part!] In the 1990s Trance dance music was largely influenced by minimalism, based on repetitive instrumental structures. A recent favorite of mine, the ultra-bizarre Antony and The Johnsons, exhibit a completely original style of art songs, what I’d call ‘tone poems’. I’ll introduce you to “him” sometime soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, back to Steve Reich (b. 1936). He studied at Cornell (thesis on Wittgenstein, whom he of course later set to music) and Julliard. While driving a cab for a living, jazz drumming for fun, and living with Phil Glass for company, he began composing experimental music in a variety of contexts in the 1960s. A lot of it employed sampling (which anticipated the emergence of hip-hop by decades) and ‘phasing’, a process whereby two tape loops lined up in unison gradually move out of phase with each other, ultimately coming back into sync. Here are some of his notable early works:

  • ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, a phased piece constructed out of a 13-second sample of a sermon by the minister Brother Walter.
  • ‘Drumming’ (inspired by a journey to Ghana) was scored for four pairs of bongos, three marimbas, three glockenspiels, and voice.
  • ‘Pendulum Music’ which consists of the sound of several microphones swinging over the loudspeakers to which they are attached, producing feedback as they do so.

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s “Point Blank” (1967)

But it’s not all just weird, I promise you. Well, it is weird, but it’s not just weird.

  • ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, one of his seminal works, in a very fine live rendition
  • ‘Clapping Music’ – one performer keeps a line of a 12-quaver-long (12-eighth-note-long) phrase and the other performer shifts by one quaver beat every 12 bars, until both performers are back in unison 144 bars later; here’s a live performance; and here’s a TOTALLY mind-boggling version using a loop from one of the great B-movies of all time, John Boorman’s 1968 “Point Blank”, with the incredible Lee Marvin and the even incredibler Angie Dickinson

In later years, Reich began to draw materials from his Jewish background, such as ‘Tehillim’ (Psalms).

And for our Song of The Week, we’re bringing to you ‘Different Trains’, a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape (1988), which actually won the Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Snippets of recorded speech are used here as a melodic (rather than rhythmic) theme.

The piece is Reich’s attempt, as an American Jew, to explore the legacy for him of the European Holocaust – a theme that has occupied me greatly throughout my life.

Recorded spoken phrases of his governess, a retired Pullman porter, and various Holocaust survivors are interlaid with the playing of the astounding Kronos Quartet. Reich compares and contrasts (“America-Before the War – Movement 1”) his childhood memories of his train journeys between New York and California in 1939–1941 (he traveled between his parents, who were separated) with the very different trains (“Europe-During the War – Movement 2”) being used to transport contemporaneous European children to their deaths under Nazi rule, and then (“After the War – Movement 3”) with the Holocaust survivors talking about the years immediately following World War II.

Kronos Quartet

A leading professor of musicology, Richard Taruskin, called it “the only adequate musical response—one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium—to the Holocaust”, and credited the piece with earning Reich a place among the great composers of the 20th century. Reich has been described by The Guardian as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”, and critic Kyle Gann has said Reich “may be considered, by general acclamation, America’s greatest living composer.”

You can find the definitive version of ‘Different Trains’ by The Kronos Quartet at the top of this page. You might also want to check out this striking rendition of Part 2 by The Smith Quartet from a BBC broadcast, a much more straightforward explication of the Holocaust elements in the piece.

I understand that Steve Reich sells fewer albums than Arrowsmith, and that The Kronos Quartet won’t sell out Madison Square Gardens performing this piece. Nobody’s going to put them on the bill with Justin Bieber, probably not even with Wayne Newton.

But I’m not alone in finding this work riveting, profound and moving.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as Amazon

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267: Boz Scaggs, ‘Lowdown’ (“Fade Into Light”)

Posted by jeff on Jul 21, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

MI0003833635Lowdown‘ (“Fade into Light”, 1996)

Harbor Lights‘ (“Fade into Light”, 1996)

Just Go‘ (“Fade into Light”, 1996)

Sierra‘ (“Fade into Light”, 1996)

I Should Care’, (“But Beautiful”, 2003)

Ballad of the Sad Young Men‘ (“Speak Low”, 2007)

I’m really tickled to be writing SoTW today, because it takes me right back to where I once belonged – blathering on about music that has me so excited I just might pop.

It started almost ten years ago. I got tired of running around the neighborhood, accosting bewildered strangers to demand they listen to my rantings about The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (SoTW 030) or my meeting the rhythm guitarist of an almost forgotten Midwest roots band almost 50 years ago (SoTW 015).

So I started pontificating in a weekly email to a bunch of soon-to-be-ex friends.
After a year or two, I wearied of the task of licking the stamps for all those emails and migrated to the Web site you all know and love. Somehow, the word spread (well, if Ebola can do it, why can’t I?) and today, 267 posts later, there’s a loyal cadre of unsuspecting readers out there (I’m still waiting for P.T. Barnum’s dictum of “You can fool all the people some of the time…” to catch up with me.)

This is perhaps a suitable place to say that a) I’m always happy to read Comments here and try to respond to them all, and b) I’d really appreciate it if you’d pass on the word about the blog to a few ex-lovers/ former employers/noisy neighbors/unfavoritest cousins who might just be gullible enough to take a look.

But the point is that I’m popping with excitement, and I sure am glad I get to let it out.

Groupie Jeff, Boz, 1969

Groupie Jeff, Boz, 1969

Boz Scaggs. I last heard Boz (on break from Steve Miller) playing with Mother Earth in 1969 at the Ludlow Garage in Cincinnati. The band was great, a favorite. Tracy Nelson was a wonder. I remember being moved to tears at the sheer beauty of the music – only time live music’s ever done that to me.

Mike and Bill and I worked the gate at The Garage (and ran across the river to Newport to buy booze for the after-show bash). We got to hang out with luminaries such as Bo Diddley (tried to pick up my girlfriend), Neil Young (obnoxious), Leslie West (barely made it through the door) and Boz Scaggs–not exactly a household name, but he wore very cool Haight-Ashbury striped pants which were quite a rarity in good old Cincinnati and had great hair.

I could tell you that Boz and I got very close, dropped acid together, picked up some groupies together and discussed The Meaning of Life. There’s no one alive who could contradict me, not even photographer cum novelist Rod Pennington, who so graciously preserved this magic moment from another world.

The truth is, I was this affected, clueless, justifiably insecure, horny, poseur, preening, uninformed, unworldly, horny Jewish kid masquerading as, ahem, cool; and Boz was a bona fide Rock Star who deigned to give me the time of day.

2d767316c29ed5ed22e8c2c81e0d5e91I vaguely recollect Boz as a really sweet, articulate guy. The hazy impression that remains is that he was more than polite – warm and generous.

But then fate drew me to a corner of the world without radio reception, the decades passed, and our respective roads drifted apart – me to the wholly holey Holy Land, Boz to a long career of moderate success as a working musician. I had a vague impression of him as a blue-eyed soul guitarist/singer. Little did I know.

I’ve listened to no one else for near on a fortnight now, and it is my pleasure, my that’s-why-I’m-here duty, to inform you: Boz Scaggs is one fine, fine, fine musician. Run and listen to him. I can’t imagine anyone not deeply enjoying his music.

1965-75, Boz was playing electric blue-eyed blues, with critical but little commercial success. Here’s ‘Loan Me a Dime’ from 1969’s eponymous album, with Duane Allman and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section lending support. Not my cup of tea, but certainly admirable.

1975-80, he shifted to smooth, commercial R&B soul, hit the jackpot with his 5xPlatinum album “Silk Degree”, featuring hits such as ‘What Can I Say’, ‘Lido Shuffle’ and ‘Lowdown’, receiving 4 Grammy nominations including Album of the Year . A number of commercial hits followed (‘Breakdown Dead Ahead’, ‘Jojo’, ‘Look What You’ve Done to Me’ and ‘Miss Sun’).

Boz Scaggs 1982

Boz Scaggs 1982

He then went into a fallow period, resurfacing in 1988 with ‘Heart of Mine’ from “Other Roads”. In 1989 he did the first of a couple of tours (again in 2010 as the Dukes of September) with Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan) and Donald Fagen (Steely Dan). He has other gifts, but I’m not convinced by Mr Fagen as a soul persona. But the comparison with Mr McDonald is telling. MM is a great singer, with an incredibly muscular tenor. BS owns a pretty amazing vocal range, with control in the upper ranges that many a better-known vocalist should be highly envious of.

But what’s been filling my ears and mind and voice and heart for the last couple of weeks is the last 20 years of his career, in which he’s gradually morphed into an intelligent, soulful, gentlemanly, smooth-as-melted-butter R&Bster – looking commercial tastes right in the eye without flinching, without compromising one whit on the sincerity more commonly associated with his rawer bluesy days. It all started with 1998’s “Some Change”, with gentler materials such as ‘I’ll Be the One’, ‘Sierra’, ‘Lost It’, and ‘Time’.

But then in 1996 he recorded a laid-back, acoustic album which included new readings of a number of his later hits. It’s a 5-star album which I’ve been listening  to more or less non-stop recently, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Cut after cut, this is finely-honed, emotionally engaging, sincere, intelligent commercial music. Admittedly, it’s not “John Wesley Harding”. But – honestly now – when’s the last time you listened to JWH?

51GPE87J8BLLowdown’, ‘Just Go‘, ‘Love T.K.O.’, ‘Fade Into Light’, ‘Harbor Lights’, ‘Lost It’, ‘’Sierra‘, ‘I’ll Be the One’, really every single cut – this is as good as pop music gets. I think of Norah Jones’ “Come Away with Me”, Alison Krauss’s recent “Windy City”, Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel” years, perhaps even Carol King’s “Tapestry” – indelible, memorable commercial music that grabs you, pulls you irresistibly into its emotional territory, pleases you immeasurably and leaves you feeling those were 45 edifying minutes.

In 1997 and 2001 he released two fine R&B albums, “Come on Home” and “Dig” (‘King of El Paso’). In 1998, his 21-year old son OD’d.

Then in 2003 and 2008 (Boz now in his 60s), he recorded two albums of standards, “But Beautiful” and “Speak Low” which have absolutely nothing to do with the Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan forays into the genre. Boz is not a wrinkled pop idol looking for a new wrinkle to boost his record sales or grab at a bit of legitimacy.

YouTube Preview Image

There’s also a video from this period (2004) that I’ve been really enjoying, Boz with an excellent 9-piece band (bass, great lead guitar, two keyboards, two horns, two outstanding backup singers). The man at the very top of his game. Do yourself a favor, spend some time with it.

Boz Scaggs is a first-rate, knockout jazz singer. The impeccable choice of songs; the intimate, relaxed arrangements; the utterly convincing readings–he brings to life for me songs that decades of (you’ll pardon the blasphemy) unconvincing (for my ears) readings by a myriad of uninspired singers (the whole pantheon, all the Tony Bennetts and Mel Tormes) have deadened my ears to. Check out ‘I Should Care’. Or ‘For All We Know’. Or ‘Save Your Love for Me’. Or ‘Skylark’. (Hey, I wrote a posting about that song!) Or the killer ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’. It’s a remarkable song, and I also wrote a posting about its sister piece, ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’. The song is as daunting for a singer as Sonny Liston was in his prime for a pugilist. Listen to what he does to the last phrase. He hits that last note without taking a breath beforehand (equivalent to parachuting from a satellite in orbit), way at the top of a very high rising arpeggio–with utter calm, relaxed, confident, not a hint of strain, no sign of the enormous technical challenge in hitting it without a waver.

boz-scaggsHis voice is a wonder. Effortless, honest, expressive, technically the envy of many a crooner. It’s smooth and pure and controlled, at the service of what seems like a really nice, sincere guy reweaving well-known stories in a way that makes each and every one come to life.

But we’re not done. 2013’s “Memphis” (“a stunner. Scaggs is in full possession of that iconic voice; he delivers songs with an endemic empathy and intimacy that make them sound like living, breathing stories.”) and 2015’s “A Fool to Care” are finely crafted covers of Memphis music. Check out ‘Cadillac Walk’ or ‘A Rainy Night in Georgia’. As the excellent AllMusic pundit Thom Jurek says, “He delivers songs with an endemic empathy and intimacy that make them sound like living, breathing stories…He remains a song interpreter who has few — if any — peers.”

Yes, it’s commercial. Yes, it’s slick. And yes, I’ve been listening to it non-stop for two weeks. We need this music in our lives. It’s a rarity, intelligent entertainment. Not life-changing, not soul-scouring, but art that can inform and enlarge our souls.  Real music by a real person, a prodigiously talented musician singing to us with his own personal, human voice. Still going strong at 73. You’re my man, Boz.

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3

266: Vertical Voices, ‘The Cry and The Smile’

Posted by jeff on Jul 7, 2017 in Other, Song Of the week

Vertical Voices, ‘The Cry and The Smile’

Nando Luria, ‘The Cry and The Smile’

YouTube Preview Image

I have some really exciting news for you: This week, SoTW is going on a field trip!
I have some less exciting new for you: We’re going to be retracing some of the circuitous, tenuously coherent musical routes I’ve been taking over the last couple of weeks.

I guess in this digital age, we could call it Streaming of Consciousness.

I’ll give you a hint of where we’re going with this: Everything Is Connected.
Pretty profound, huh? Especially when we’re talking about the highways (no pun intended) and byways of the internal sonar roadmap of this little Yorick skull here.

Where does one find a loose thread to start within the seamless continuum of time? Well, let’s start with what’s currently playing, and see where it takes us.

nando1Nando Luria, the albums ‘Points of View’ (1994) and ‘Novo Brasil’ (1996). Raised in Recife, Brazil, the self-taught guitarist/vocalist studied at Berklee College of Music. He plays an entrancing mix of butt-moving ethnic Brasilian sounds and intelligent New Age jazz. Lyricless vocals, classical guitar, shifting shuffling percussion, an airy, acoustic, sweet broth. He’s greatly influenced by Pat Metheny – they played together, and Nando is backed by Pat’s drummer (Danny Gottleib) and pianist (Lyle Mays). You can’t help but smile – he’s Brazilian.

How did we get to Nando, you might ask?

Aunt Zusha (R) in her wild youth

Aunt Zusha (R) in her wild youth

Well, not via Pat Metheny. I have a humiliating confession to make: I really do pride myself on being an open-eared, catholic (albeit Jewish), eclectic, latitudinarian listener. Yet non-Brazilian jazz guitar leaves me shrugging. I’ve tried Charlie Christian, Django, Wes Montgomery, even Jim Hall (how I wish I could fully appreciate his two collaborations with Bill Evans!), John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and everyone in between. My loss, I know. (In contrast, I’m a sucker for soprano sax. Give me my Aunt Zusha on the soprano and I’ll weep.)

My buddy, vocal visionary Roger Treece, told me I have to love his buddy Lyle Mays (see above). I’ve tried, Roger, really I have. The sound is a wonderful waft, both of him and of his guitarist bandleader Pat, but I always wind up feeling like I’ve just eaten an air sandwich with extra wind dressing.

Kerry Marsh, Julia Dollison, core of Vertical Voices

Kerry Marsh, Julia Dollison, core of Vertical Voices

I got to Nando through Vertical Voices.
Know what? It’s really hard to discern order in a process that is not based on order, but rather a fluid continuum of associations.

Last week I republished a posting about Maria Schneider, the composer/bandleader I so greatly admire, assistant to the legendary Gil Evans, mining the area between jazz and contemporary classical music. So I started listening to her again this week—it don’t take much to get me to listen to her. She relaxes me like a long walk in a Minnesota field, watching the birds and breathing the air. Which is actually exactly what her music is about.

YouTube Preview Image

And as I mentioned back there, there’s this husband and wife team of singers/arrangers, Kerry Marsh and Julia Dollison. In 2007, they recorded an album “Vertical Voices–the Music of Maria Schneider”, a collaboration with the composer, backed by members of her orchestra, but with the two of them singing all the horn parts. (Both Ms Schneider and VV are supported by ArtistShare, a fan-funding platform which I gladly support).

Four years ago, when I found that I had willed into being a 40-voice modern a cappella group, Vocalocity, I asked myself “What for? This is a new kind of music – rhythmic (that’s a euphemism for ‘rock’) music made solely by voices. Why not just use the time-proven Chuck Berry format?”

That’s when I got really weird. I started asking all my friends from the world of modern a cappella “What’s the raison d’etre for this music? I love it, but what can the voice do that other instruments can’t?”

idea-clip-art-lightbulb-idea-clipart-8236615I learned quite a lot (at the cost of not a few raised eyebrows). The voice can sing a single (singable) note, and change the sound—warble, twang, hollow, resonate, anything. No other instrument is flexible like that. A piano makes the sound of a piano. A sax pretty much the same. The voice can make a whole shitload of different sounds. Hey!

I understand that not everyone in the world loses sleep over this question (the fundamental nature of vocal music), but it turns out I ain’t the only one. Kerry Marsh (remember? V of VV): “The goal was never to directly imitate the sounds of the instruments themselves, but to present the music with the kind of life and emotion that only the human voice can provide, even without explicitly telling a story through the use of a lyric.”

That guy is talking my non-language. One of the very cool things about this cult I inhabit is the friendliness. People in the field talk to each other, even the stars with the mere peons like myself. I just dropped Kerry Marsh a line, telling him how much I appreciate what he’s doing. And he wrote me right back telling me how much he appreciates my appreciation.

Vertical Voices

Vertical Voices

Where were we? Oh, yeah. After the Maria Schneider project, in 2010 Mr and Mrs Marsh/Dollison added two more singers to Vertical Voices and released “Fourward”, which has been riveting my attention all week long.

Compare Bob Mintzer’s group Yellowjacket’s ‘Timeline’ to the cover version by Vertical Voices. The original is lovely. I gotta listen to Yellowjacket more—that’s near the top of the listening list for next week, right behind a more exhaustive examination of the entire, wackily diverse catalog of Snarky Puppy.

Jacob Collier, Becca Stevens

Jacob Collier, Becca Stevens

Or compare Nando Luria’s ‘The Cry and The Smile’ to the cover version by Vertical Voices. Nando floats. VV soars. Nando’s guitar and drums and voice are beautiful. VV’s voices (with rhythm section) are beautifuller. You know what? They achieve aural climax. The human voice. Oh, man!

Or compare Pat Metheny’s ‘Travels‘ to the cover version by Vertical Voices. Pat wrote a charming, affective tune. VV’s version? Someone (I suspect arranger Kerry Marsh) has been listening to the celestial choirs of Brian Wilson. They’re both made out of air, but there’s a big difference between vapid and celestial.

Or compare Imogen Heap’s ‘First Train Home’ to the cover version by Vertical Voices. Imogen Heap has inspired a lot of the a cappella/vocal artists I listen to (check out Vocal Line’s beautiful ‘Let Go’). She’s done some of the most interesting vocal explorations in recent years (‘Hide and Seek’). Her and that guy Bon Iver (‘Woods’). Not to mention Jacob Collier.

Snarky Puppy

Snarky Puppy

Twenty times this week:
“Listen to this ‘Fourward’ by Vertical Voices! It’s a cappella with a rhythm section!”
“Jeff, you’re contradicting yourself. A cappella means without instruments.”
“Yeah, I know. But they’re doing something new. A vocal mindset, with a little help from friends. Releasing the singers from the ‘technical’ tasks of percussion and bass-drive. That’s new!!”

And then, as I’m starting to go through Snarky Puppy’s discography, what do I trip over? Them backing up a young singer named Chantae Cann. The first cut—‘Da Da’n Da’. Do you want to tell me that she hasn’t been listening to Maria Schneider? Or at least been informed by it? Yeah, it’s Snarky Puppy, but she’s doing all these voices! I swear, she’s a musical cousin of Dollison and Marsh.

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Chantae Cann with Snarky Puppy, in my musical mind, lives next door to Dollison and Marsh. That’s what gets me – how do you get from VV to Chantae via Snarky Puppy? How does each connect to Michael League’s collective? That’s the fascinating synapse that I think people should pay more attention to. Or am I the only one hearing those voices? Whoops.

Screw the voices, I’m going to tell you anyway. There’s a commonality there. A way of perceiving the aural universe around us, that these artists have in common. Maybe they watch the same TV shows, read the same on-line magazines, affect similar styles in dress and hair. Maybe it’s just the sound of our times. But in my mind, it’s all connected.

5033f2144a2a6abebace6e773e45262fThe next YouTube clip is Snarky Puppy with Becca Stevens and Väsen. (Väsen is a Swedish Nordic Roots band, another sonic world that I’ve developed an addiction to). Becca is a knockout young singer whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing extensively on this stuff. She’s played with Jacob Collier (and he’s of course also recorded with Snarky Puppy). She sings in a trio with who’s also recorded with Rebecca Martin and the fine, fine Gretchen Parlato as Tillery,  not so far afield from other chick groups doing cutting edge vocal work all over the musical globe, like the all-star alt-Americana group I’m With Her. And tell me that they’re not connected to the very ballsy Finnish a cappella quartet Tuuletar. Or, in the other direction, to The Staves.
Cool, creative young women singing.

You see what I have to deal with? This hurly-burly jumble of voices in my mind? Beyond my willful predilection for inventing chains and associations and comparisons and tangents, what connects it all?

The human voice. The only instrument fashioned by God.

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