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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.

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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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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’

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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.

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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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081: Maria Schneider, ‘The Pretty Road’

Posted by jeff on Jun 28, 2017 in Jazz, Other, Song Of the week

Our Song of The Week is ‘The Pretty Road’, by Maria Schneider. Here’s a teaser of the recording, from the CD “Sky Blue” (2007).

You can and should purchase this CD (and all her others) from her official Website or from ArtistShare or another vendor.

While you’re reading about Ms Schneider’s airborne music, you can listen to samples of it here, from her official Website.

Over the last four or five years, my musical tastes have become more eclectic, roaming far afield, exploring some rather arcane corners (Scandinavian Neo-Trad, Minimalism, Newgrass, a wide range of Brazilian styles, A Cappella Jazz), places where most boys weaned on Motown and The Four Seasons don’t go walking at night. But there have been four artists that I’ve encountered over the past five years who stand out in my mind as rising above the field, four artists who make worthwhile this constant, compulsive searching for interesting new music.

They are Kurt Elling (b. 1967) of Chicago, the best male jazz vocalist ever, period; Luciana Souza (b. 1966), a Brazilian singer, who turns to gold everything she touches; Esperanza Spalding (b. 1984), hailing from Portland, Oregon, a jazz-bassist/singer/composer prodigy; and Maria Schneider (b. 1960), a bandleader/composer of music residing somewhere between avant-garde jazz and modern classical, and the lady we’re button-popping proud to say a few words about in this week’s SoTW.

As I write these four names together for the first time, it occurs to me that they have much more in common than I’d previously noticed. Obviously, they all make (to my mind and ears) great, great, great music, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about them. But they all happen to be great innovators.

Not all great artists are innovators. There are plenty who are content to dig their own groove, conservative though it may be. Think of Bill Evans. Think of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. No revolutions there. Heck, as far as I understand, JS Bach dealt almost exclusively with existing formats.

The least adventuresome of my four, generically speaking, is Mr Elling. He is ‘merely’ reinventing what a jazz singer can be, expanding the boundaries that have been observed since people like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald invented jazz singing in the 1930s.

The other three, the ladies? What a remarkable three they are. Each one of them has invented an entirely new mindset, her own new genre. These are explorers on the level of Amelia Earhart and Pocahontas, aural aviatrices, creative artists on a par with—well, sorry, I’m not going to compare them to anyone. I’m not sure I could. They are fine, fine, fine artists, each of the three.

I’ve been writing SoTW for close to two years now, and I’m very much aware that I’ve shied away from these, the greatest artists I know of now at the height of their powers. (although I did dedicate a post to Esperanza Spalding; Kurt and Luciana, I promise I shall do my best to give you the unbounded credit you deserve). I guess I’m daunted, afraid I won’t be able to do them justice. Well, tough, Jeff, that’s why you’re here. And if there are some people out there who are serious about music and who read your ramblings and listen to your links, you’re damn lucky, and you have an obligation to tell them about an artist like Maria Schneider.

Well, sportsfans, there is this lady who hails from rural Minnesota and lives in New York. She studied under and worked with the great Gil Evans, whom we’ve discussed in SoTWs via his collaborations with Miles Davis in “Birth of the Cool” and “Sketches of Spain“, as well as his behind-the-scenes impact on the modal jazz of “Kind of Blue“.

(Just to clarify things, if the name Maria Schneider is ringing some deja vu bell, it’s also the name of the French actress who played with Marlon Brando in “Last Tango in Paris”. For my money, Ms Schneider the composer holds a much more subtle and enticing sex appeal.)

To talk about Gil Evans and Maria Schneider, we need to explain what they’re not. And to do that, we need to define the term ‘Big Band’. The standard format for a Big Band is 17-pieces: five saxophones (most often two altos, two tenors, and one baritone), four trumpets, three or four trombones (often including one bass trombone) and a four-piece rhythm section (composed of drums, acoustic bass or electric bass, piano and guitar). The first incarnation of The Big Band was Swing, a melodic, ebullient dance-styled music which captured the world’s ears and feet from the mid-1930s till after WWII. The most famous Swing Bands were white, led by bandleaders such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, with vocalists such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. A number of black Big Bands were less dance hall, more jazz oriented, and continued working into the 1950s and even 1960s, most notably Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Gil Evans arranged for the Claude Thornhill big band during the 1940s, providing dreamy, slow, rich charts, as opposed to the swinging dance sound more prevalent among the white bands. Throughout the 1950s his best work was by, for and with Miles Davis. He was the musical spirit behind the Birth of the Cool grouping (his apartment was the meeting place for all the adherents). In fact, he’s often credited for being the spiritual father of Cool, an aesthetic that has dominated much of the arts for the last 60 years. He made three great collaborations with Miles (“Porgy and Bess“, “Sketches of Spain” and “Miles Ahead“, as well as one very much in the same vein under his own name, “Out of the Cool”. During the 1960s he made several very fine albums with smaller ensembles (10-piece), planned a collaboration with Jimi Hendrix till the latter ODed, and in the 1970s continued to explore the use of electric instruments within the context of his big band.

Maria Schneider is very much Gil Evans’ pupil. She worked on a number of projects with him as his assistant, and very much carries his mantle stylistically. The ‘sound’ of the two is very close–dreamy, floating, cloudy, rich, infinitely intricate.

But Ms Schneider has gone so much further. Evans was primarily a promulgator of an aesthetic. His major achievements were brought to fruition in collaboration with Miles, and indirectly on generations of artists from all fields. Maria Schneider has opened up entirely new vistas. There are a number of contemporary big bands working today. It’s a genre I’m quite fond of, large-palette, orchestrated jazz, and there are some fine artists working in this medium. But none has reached the breadth of context or the heights of musical achievements that Ms Schneider has. No one in the jazz or contemporary classical media has found such a relevant, thoroughly contemporary mode for expressing such a large, ambitious vision. This is the big-time, folks.

Maria Schneider recorded six full CDs from 1992-2007 (where’s a new one?), despite all the financial and logistic difficulties of maintaining a large ensemble. Her band, by the way, has remained remarkably stable. It is said that the members don’t just play her music–they would take a bullet for her.

Her last two albums have been released via ArtistShare, where musicians finance their projects outside the traditional recording industry via “fan-funding,” with supporters directly contributing to the project invited in to follow the creative process (how far depending on the level of contribution–give enough, you’re even invited to the recording session).

Maria Schneider is managing reasonably well financially in this way, artistically even better. In 2005, her “Concert in the Garden” became the first album to win a Grammy without being available in retail stores. She’s been nominated for and won many more since. The critics adore her, as do the lucky fans who’ve discovered her.

But we’re neglecting the music. It’s been called “evocative, majestic, magical, heart-stoppingly gorgeous.” It defies genre-categorization. In format, it’s standard Big Band, but the music exhibits a symphonic palette, broad and complex and rich and intriguing. Her compositions are often compared to those of Mahler and Copland. They’re ephemeral, transcendental and melodic, often simultaneously. Not impressionistic, but carefully thought out and planned and considered. Incorporating the vast, open, airy Minnesota landscape where she was raised. Thoroughly modern, thoroughly American, thoroughly personal. She’s even been called Nabokovian! A brainy romantic, passionate, an aural aviatrix.

Her music is a wonder to me. Take for example her sense of pulse. Often there’s a drum playing straightforward rhythmic riffs. But there’s never a beat. You’ll never tap your foot. Your soul will soar with the music, not bounce around the dance floor. I don’t know how she does it. The drums don’t provide a beat, they provide a pulse. They propel it without anchoring to the ground. The music moves, but it floats. Can you dance to the wind propelling a cloud?

Here is a segment of a beautiful composition in a remarkable ArtistShare collaboration, “Vertical Voices“, in which two vocalists, Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh, perform most of the parts of Ms Schneider’s scores vocally, accompanied by the rhythm section from the original band.

Here’s Ms Schneider describing the project. This is groundbreaking stuff. And it’s beautiful. But still, the original, for my money, is the sublimely exquisite music.

And here’s a glorious clip of her conducting her orchestra in 2007:

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Maria Schneider’s music may be deceptively light at first. It’s very easy on the ear. It’s beautiful and gentle on the ear. But I’ve been listening to it for several years now, a lot. And I’ve yet to plumb its depths. I listen to it over and over, always discovering new nuances and colorings and shadings. I never tire of it, and it never fails to make me feel as though I’ve been airborne.

In addition to her exceptional talents, Maria Schneider also seems to be a charming person. Here she is talking about her CD “Sky Blue“. And here’s a fascinating interview about her creative process.

Maria Schneider is a passionate bird-watcher. She often incorporates bird songs in her compositions. If you ask me, there are many birds who could learn a lot from her about how to fly.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 020: Esperanza Spalding, ‘I Know You Know’

SoTW 035: Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity’ (“Birth of the Cool”)

SoTW 041: Miles Davis, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’

SoTW 055: Miles Davis/Gil Evens, “Sketches of Spain”

SoTW 079: Miles Davis, ‘So What’ (“Kind of Blue”)

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265: Dion DiMucci, ‘Abraham, Martin and John’

Posted by jeff on Jun 23, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week
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Dion — ‘The Wanderer’

Dion — ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’

Dion — ‘Kickin’ Child’

Dion — ‘Spoonful’

Dion — ‘I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’

Back in my playwrighting days I used to tape a short note to the screen (it was the early days of word processors), right in front of my eyes, the key message I needed to focus on (“Put the girl behind the 8-ball! Keep the girl behind the 8-ball!!” or “He doesn’t take the gun out till the third act!” For this piece I resorted to that old habit: “Jeff, move it forward or you’ll never finish.” And of course I didn’t, and I didn’t’.

imagesI had hoped to cover the whole arc of Dion’s career here, but I of course got bogged down in his riveting, obscure years in the later 1960s and managed only the first 11 years (out of 49). That’s alright. Dion’s worth revisiting.

You all know ‘Runaraound Sue’ and ‘The Wanderer’. If you’re of a certain age, you might even know our ostensible Song of The Week ‘Abraham, Martin and John’. But chances are you’ve only scratched the surface. Our SoTW isn’t really about that song, it’s about Dion 1964-68, floundering careerly, knocking out lots of bold, innovative, relevant contemporary music during one of the most interesting periods in pop music – a legend languishing in drugs and obscurity.

Dylan (on “Kickin’ Child”): “If you want to hear a great singer, listen to Dion. His voice takes its color from all palettes–he’s never lost it–his genius has never deserted him.” You can’t always take Bobby’s recommendations at face value. This one I think you can. As a matter of fact, if you look closely, you might just reach the conclusion that Dion was the most respectable and successful and honest follower of his Columbia stablemate, both in covers and in original songs, as well as the entire nascent folk-rock sensibility.

c5dbf8747d64f5323c916ed993630d4eDion DiMucci is a really cool guy. A nice guy, a walking and talking legend who has been consistently (more or less) knocking out fresh, appealing music for longer than anyone else on earth, and deserves a whole lot of appreciation.

How many major recording artists from the 1950s can you name who successfully transitioned through the British Invasion to remain relevant, honest, creative musicians. I can name one. Elvis? He died in the army. Chuck Berry? Fats Domino? The Everly Brothers? No, no, and no.

Was Dion any different from Ricky Nelson or The Everly Brothers or Roy Orbison or Elvis Presley?
They all started as teen mega-idols in the late 50s. Their work has stood the test of time—they were the best of their era (excepting the great Buddy Holly, whose early death appears more tragic with each passing decade). These were never Fabians, but real creative artists (as far as that was possible in the Brill Building/Top 40 culture of the time. When the Brits came, they grew their hair and tried to remain au courant. Unsuccessfully. Each faded in his own way (Rick in a plane crash, Don and Phil in acrimony, Roy in personal tragedy, Elvis in pills and pitiful self-parody.)

dion-60s-2-500Dion sank into drugs in the mid-60s, disappeared from the public eye, struggled commercially for many years before finally attaining some degree of recognition for his ongoing musical achievements in his later years. But those struggles produced almost 30 original, interesting albums between 1967 and 2017!

I’ve been gorging myself on that corpus, but I’ve only partially digested it. He switched recording companies frequently, and some of his best work was never released or only in secret. But every single one is worth listening to (and talking about, thank goodness).

1957-60, Wop Doo Wop

Authentic doo-wop Bronxters, The Belmonts had hits with ‘I Wonder Why’ (“We sang ‘gna gna gna’ because the only lyrics we could think of all included ‘knockers’), ‘A Teenager in Love’ (Dick Clark’s audience painfully clapping on 1/3), ‘Where or When’ (from the 1937 Rogers and Hart musical “Babes in Arms”). In 1959, on tour in Iowa, he gave up his seat ($36 was a month’s rent for his parents) on the plane which crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper (‘the day the music died’).  Young Bobby Zimmerman saw a show from that tour, and if you’re wondering what effect it had on him, listen to his Nobel speech. By the next year Dion was being treated for heroin addiction.

1960-64 Tearing Open His Shirt

Where's 'Rosie'??

Where’s ‘Rosie’??

He recorded a string of hits which still are still utterly convincing today – ‘Lonely Teenager’ (this live acoustic version is so reminiscent of Buddy Holly’s apartment tapes; it’s delicious to imagine how John Lennon would have reacted to this), ‘Runaround Sue’ (time capsule material), ‘The Wanderer’ (more swagger than Jagger), the knockout ‘Little Diane’ (darkest, most manic kazoo ever), ‘Lovers Who Wander’ for the little Laurie label. He then moved to Columbia (their first ‘rock’ signing), where he had a string of moneymakers, including the oh-so-cool Leiber-StollerRuby Baby’ (originally by The Drifters) and ‘Donna the Prima Donna’, despite a burgeoning heroin addiction.

Dion wrote or co-wrote most of his material, an anomaly at the time. No one had yet dreamed of the term ‘singer-songwriter’.

1965-67 The Harbinger Unnoticed

Looking to leverage his pop success, Mitch Miller of Columbia tried to make Dion (“Last of the One-Name Singers”) into a Las Vegas crooner. But he was coming under the sway of producer John Hammond, with a pronounced predilection for the acoustic blues (e.g., ‘Spoonful‘) which he maintains till today.

05813584d5af614f7ff971bf79e73349Then he hooked up with Tom Wilson, the Columbia producer he shared with folkie Dylan. Conventional wisdom says that Wilson made Dion sound like “Bringing It All Back Home” Dylan. It seems at least as likely that Wilson made Dylan sound like Dion. Think about it. Who of the three of them really knew electric blues and rock and roll (Wilson’s background was avant garde jazz)?

On December 8, 1964, with Dylan out on tour, Wilson recorded Dion with the expressed purpose of trying to imagine what Dylan would sound like in an electric context. Here’s ‘So Much Younger’ from that session.

Then Wilson took Dylan’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and overdubbed a rock band on it. Dylan liked it so much he recorded immediately recorded the electric tracks for BIABH (January 13-15, 1965). (Wilson would pull the same trick on folkies Simon and Garfunkel, electrifying their acoustic ‘Sounds of Silence’ in abstentia with studio musicians.)

dion050710wDion’s 1964-65 discography is rich, intriguing and murky. Most of it wasn’t released at the time. Compilations were made in 1991’s “Bronx Blues”, 2007’s “The Road I’m On”, the 2015 box set “King of the New York Streets”, and the recently released “Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965” (given a glowing 5-star review by All Music’s Thom Jurek: “It’s absolutely one of the greatest folk-rock records ever”).

During mid-1965, Dion and Wilson (with help from one Al Kooper) recorded the tracks on “Kickin’ Child”. They include some of the most honest readings of Dylan songs I’ve ever heard, some of them obscure gems: ‘Baby, I’m In the Mood for You’ (Dylan’s version), ‘Farewell’ (Dylan), and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (Dylan). There are also Dion-penned cuts that, to be honest, aren’t all that distinguishable from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ et al, such as ‘Kickin’ Child’, ‘My Love’, ‘Two Ton Feather’.

728b3454c652aa8016efdf36c61414c7You have to remember that Dylan was being heard only by folkies, and there was tremendous pressure by The Suits to capitalize on his potential in the pop market (“Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan”). There was also a desire by some of the more open-minded folkies to explore the lands discovered by The Beatles. Thus was born folk-rock, the dominant aesthetic in serious popular music for the past two or three generations.

Cher, The Turtles, Them, The Byrds – all of a sudden everyone was generating hits from Dylan songs cast in a rock context. They all were of course misdirected. Does The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (also electrified in the studio) illuminate Dylan’s original? I think not. I think it’s a commercially-successful, historically significant but artistically insignificant gesture.

pepperdionColumbia and McGuinn/Clarke/Crosby/Hillman should have understood – let Byrds be Byrds, not Dylan wannabes. Dion was never a bandwagoner. He was a rocker before The Beatles (of enough stature that they’d put him on the cover of “Sgt Pepper”; together with Dylan, the only live Americans to be so honored).  Dion’s Dylan recordings are genuine, honest, and as opposed to all the aforementioned hits—totally legitimate readings.

Most of the recordings went unreleased at the time, so Dion reunited with The Belmonts on ABC records in 1966-67 for another musically ambitious album very much of the era, “Together Again”.  The album tanked in the US, but generated a number of charted covers in the UK, including the flower-power ‘My Girl the Month of May’ (covered by The Bunch, including Sandy Denny and Richard and Linda Thompson) and ‘Your Own Backyard’ (a minor 1970 hit, a confessional account of his ongoing struggles with H, successfully covered by Mott the Hoople).

Thought I saw him walking along a hill...

Thought I saw him walking along a hill…

In 1968, following another period of cleaning up his habit and getting reacquainted with the Church of his youth, he went back to the little Laurie label to record a mix of (again) forward-looking contemporary covers. It includes a soft, acoustic ‘Purple Haze’; a very cool ‘Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever’ (this is years before James Taylor or anyone else gave intelligent, gentle white readings of Motown power classics); songs by Canadian brand-newcomers Joni Mitchell (‘Both Sides Now’) and Leonard Cohen (‘Sisters of Mercy’); and a mash-up of the Dylan gem ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ with Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ (a year before Nilsson’s version), as well as a few respectable originals – very similar to Judy Collins’ influential album of covers from the year before “In My Life”.

But little Laurie had a caveat – Dion had to include ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, inspired by Martin Luther King’s and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations (tied to those of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy), perhaps the last patriotic song to come from ‘our’ side of the fence before the shit hit the fan several weeks later in Chicago.

hqdefaultThe song was written by Dick Holler and produced by Phil Gernhard, who had worked together back in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, where Dick led The Rockets (later The Holidays), a local band that included at times Jimmy Clanton, Dr John Rebennack and Johnny Rivers. Holler had a minor hit with ‘A Double Shot of My Baby’s Love’ (better known as the cover by the Swinging Medallions) and a major one with ‘Snoopy vs. the Red Baron’ as recorded by The Royal Guardsmen.

‘AM&J’ was a major hit, still covered today. Perhaps not Dion’s most typical song, but respectable, touching. (Who among us is not profoundly saddened by those assassinations and the change they wrought on our world?) Okay, that harp is just a bit gushy (Dion added some classical guitar just to class it up a bit–gee, we never even got to talk about what a fine guitarist he is.)

Ah, there’s so much more to tell. But my time has run out, as I’m sure has your patience. So I’ll just have to leave y’all cliffhanging till the next installment of that long, tortuous road Dion has travelled, and the fine music he’s made along the way.

We hope to continue the Dion saga. In the meantime, you can keep yourself busy with his unknown masterpiece, SoTW 082, “Sit Down, Old Friend“.

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