4

099: Luciana Souza, ‘Baião à Tempo’ (“An Answer to Your Silence”)

Posted by jeff on Jan 11, 2018 in Brazilian, Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

 

Here we are, SoTW 99, and we’ve avoided until now dedicating a post to our very favorite artist of recent years. So before we add a digit, let’s correct that historic injustice. Ms Luciana Souza, this one’s for you. I only hope that I manage to do credit to the most courageous and wondrous music I’ve heard in the past ten years.

In the mere 12 years she’s been recording – 8 CDs under her name released in North America since 1999, in addition to dozens of prestigious guest spots – she’s worked in four distinct idioms. Chronologically: two CDs of vocal jazz (“An Answer to Your Silence”, “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop”); two of Brazilian songs accompanied by a single acoustic guitar (“Duos I & II”); one of musical poetry (“Neruda”); and three of more commercial ventures, American bossa nova (“North and South”, “The New Bossa Nova”, and “Tide”).

I have WAY too much respect for her to try to exhaust all I have to say about this prodigiously talented woman (b. 1966) in a single post. I was sorely tempted to start at the end and work backwards, because her three commercial CDs are so much more accessible. They include material you know, guests and collaborators of the first rank (she’s courted by luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Sting, James Taylor and Paul Simon).

But I decided to confine myself today to her first two CDs – the most obscure ones, perhaps the most difficult, and in my not-so-humble opinion, the best ones. Two CDs of singular, outstanding, innovative, beautiful genius – groundbreaking, underappreciated, and regretfully unknown. I promise to treat the easier ones down the road.

Sorry folks, but as interested as I am in turning you on to great new music, you’re going to have to slog through with me what might appear somewhat rarefied and obscure here. You can either trust me or not – but I’m telling you that “An Answer to Your Silence” is the most interesting CD I’ve heard in the last decade. If you don’t have the energy, I’ll understand. Really, I will. No hard feelings! I get that not everyone has the needs that I do to go hacking through impregnable jazz jungles or crawling across atonal minimalist deserts or getting lost in endless Nordic a cappella virgin forests.

But I’m just a bit compulsive when it comes to my music, and Luciana Souza’s first two CDs are quintessentially my music.

Luciana Souza hails from São Paulo, daughter of bossa nova founders Walter Santos and Tereza Souza, god-child of living legend Hermeto Pascoal, SoTW 068,  (with whom she toured for years–oh, what I would have given to have witnessed that!) She began singing radio jingles at 3, by sixteen she was an in-demand studio singer. She moved to the US, where she has been based ever since, studying and teaching at Berklee, the New England Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music.

Critics have been more appreciative of her than the public at large, although she’s making a living, as they say. But I’m of course going to drag us back to the time when she was hungry, and making music that arises from ambition, desire, hunger, those wonderful motivators.

I’ve never heard anything like Luciana Souza’s first two albums, “An Answer to Your Silence” and “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs”. In my SoTW about Esperanza Spalding, that other incredibly talented and ground-breaking artist, I proposed this typology:

Singer: one who sings songs, where the song itself takes center stage, and the performer doesn’t stray from it significantly; Frank Sinatra

Jazz singer: like the above, but taking material primarily from The Great American Songbook and/or improvising on the basic format; Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald

Vocalist: using the above elements, but with a degree of mastery and control of the material that he/she transcends it to make a personal artistic statement; early Barbra Streisand (see SoTW 009), Billie Holiday.

Vocal artist: an artist who uses his/her voice as an instrument, free of the fetters of ‘songs’ or genre, or clearly using them as vehicles for a personal statement. Kurt EllingBobby McFerrin.

Jazz vocalist: one who works in a jazz context, often outside the framework of songs, relying heavily on improvisation in open, challenging structures beyond the standard 32-bar format; I can’t think of a single such artist from the 20th century, but it does two young ladies, Esperanza Spalding, and Luciana Souza.

My examples have changed a bit since I wrote that (Kurt Elling’s singularity has focused on the individuality of his repertoire choices and interpretations, but he seems to be confining himself more to ‘songs’.) But I think it’s still a valid set of categories, especially to show just how unique Luciana Souza is.

Elizabeth Bishop

The pieces comprising “An Answer to Your Silence” are almost all original compositions. They’re all completely personal interpretations. In “Elizabeth Bishop”, she takes a number of poems by the quirky and thorny lesbian Modernist American poetess (1911-1979), sets them to her own music, and juxtaposes them with her own compositions of the same ilk. In both CDs, she employs a very hot jazz quintet—a rhythm section of acoustic bass, drums, piano; and two lead voices, an alto sax and – whoops! – a human voice!! Wasn’t that supposed to be a trumpet? That’s our standard jazz combo, isn’t it? Well, yes it is. But here, Ms Souza is the composer and bandleader, and a member of the group. It’s not a quartet backing her, as has been the practice in every single vocal jazz album since the genre was invented in the 1930s. It’s not about embellishing standards (see ‘Jazz Singer’ and ‘Vocalist’ above). It’s about using the voice as an integral instrument in a jazz context.

The example we’re bringing you is “Baião à Tempo”, an original. The melody winds and loops and envelops you. First it’s her, then it’s her and the saxophone in unison, then in harmony, then it’s the piano. The tempo? For all I know, it’s 17/3.5. It’s Brazilian, it’s jazz, it shifts and smiles with inscrutable insouciance and subtlety and panache. But it sure is uplifting.

From her website: “Luciana Souza’s singing has been called ‘transcendental’, ‘perfect’, and of ‘unparalleled beauty’.” Yup. I buy that.

In the end, it’s all her music, but she spends less time singing than in directing a bossa nova baião jazz gestalt. It’s complex, it’s virtuosic, it’s a completely original conception. It’s wonderful, wonderful, wonderful music.

“Baião à Tempo” is quite typical of all the music on “An Answer to Your Silence” and “Elizabeth Bishop”. Strong but challenging melodic lines, all the instruments sharing the spotlight (lots of great bass solos, excellent drumming, fine, strong piano and sax). A never-ending wonderland of twists and turns, all genuine, nothing done for show, all integral, honest, each partcontributing to a musical whole.

I can’t recommend more strongly purchasing these two albums and immersing yourself in them as I’ve been doing for several years.

One more point I’d like to add here. I’d like to group with the “jazz vocal” style in these two CDs one of her many notable collaborations, as singer in the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Maria Schneider, Luciana Souza

I’ve sung the praises of compositrice/bandleader Maria Schneider (SoTW 081). One crucial ingredient in some of her most beautiful music is the voice of Luciana Souza, who is featured on her albums “Concert in the Garden” and “Sky Blue”. Ms Schneider’s orchestra is composed almost solely of brass and woodwinds, with a lot of accordion and guitar. So in format, it’s almost a big band. But the sound palette, as we’ve discussed, is all Gil Evans – weightless, cerulean, as light as a perfect cloud in a perfect summer sky. Ms Schneider often employs Ms Souza’s vocals as a featured instrument in her aural pastiche. And what a choice of genius that is! Check out these live performances of pieces from the album “Concert in the Garden”:  Choro DancadoBoleria, Solea y Rumba; or Journey Home from “Allégresse”. Or my favorite, ‘The Pretty Road‘ from “Sky Blue”.

Divine music, created by a beautiful woman, her celestial symphony graced with “the only instrument made by God” – the human voice. Here, one of the most beautiful of human voices I’ve had the fortune to encounter, Luciana Souza.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also enjoy:

081: Maria Schneider, ‘The Pretty Road’
068: Hermeto Pascoal, ‘Santa Catarina’
020: Esperanza Spalding, ‘I Know You Know’

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 iTunes or Amazon. Likewise, the photographs used are intended for non-commercial purposes only.

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6

276: Leo Kottke, ‘Eggtooth’ (New Acoustic)

Posted by jeff on Dec 29, 2017 in New Acoustic, Song Of the week

Leo Kottke – ‘Even His Feet Look Sad’

Bert Jansch & John Renbourn – ‘Tic-Tocative’

Andy McKee & Don Ross – ‘The Thing That Came from Somewhere’

This week we’re going to try to sketch a portrait of a nebula of music–call it a style or a genre or whatever you like–that for the sake of convenience you can call it New Acoustic.

Or Fingerpicking. Or American Primitive. Or Folk Baroque. It’s been going on for threescore years, but still has no clearly defined history or borders (born in the early 1960s more or less simultaneously in the US and in the UK, with  almost no cross-pollination). Or even a name for heaven’s sake!

It even has a first cousin it’s easily confused with, Newgrass (Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, Edgar Meyer, as well as frequent visitors such as Jerry Garcia, Yo Yo Ma, Mark O’Connor and Dave Grisman).

Paul Simon, UK, 1965

Perhaps it’s best to explain New Acoustic by two examples that you probably know.
Remember Paul Simon’s guitar solo ‘Anji’ from the “Sounds of Silence” album?
Oh, I loved that song.
Remember Pentangle?
Oh, I loved Pentangle.
They’re New Acoustic.

But the whole thing is as hard to grab hold of as a passle of melted jello on a Georgia highway in the middle of a highway in the middle of the day in the middle of July. So anything I say here is based on the most superficial, off-the-cuff, unfounded lack of knowledge you can imagine. Just picture me on that Georgia highway trying to pick up the jello.

There’s tons and tons of all this stuff, so I’m just going to give you a link or two for each of the gents here. For a change, nothing exhaustive. You’ll have to do the legwork yourselves.

What can we say about it? Well, to a great degree it’s intelligent and sophisticated. virtuosic instrumental music (sans vocals), fingerpicked on a 6-string steel string guitar (or 12-string, or banjo), using old blues and country technique, often with open tuning, infused with influences from far abroad, such as Indian ragas.

Leo Kottke

Early US Fingerpicking

John Fahey (1939-2001) was a key figure “the first to demonstrate that the finger-picking techniques of traditional country and blues steel-string guitar could be used to express a world of non-traditional musical ideas — harmonies and melodies you’d associate with Bartok, Charles Ives, or maybe the music of India.” Here’s ‘Poor Boy Long Ways from Home’ from his seminal 1964 album “The Legend of Blind Joe Death”. Fahey established Takoma Records in the early 1960s, which kickstarted the careers of fingerpicking disciples Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho.

Leo Kottke (1945-) is perhaps the best-known card-carrying representative of New Acoustic. Despite near deafness and an insistence on staining his performances with vocals (which he acutely describes as “geese farts on a muggy day”), he’s had a long and fruitful career. If you’re interested in delving into this morass, Kottke’s probably the best place to start. I find him impressive, enjoyable, entertaining. I’d gladly go see him perform. Start with the 1971 “6 and 12 String Guitar”. But be sure you get to his brilliant, bizarre, hilarious rambling monologs.

 

Robbie Basho

Robbie Basho (1940-1986) is understandably less well-known than Kottke and Fahey, darker and more challenging. ‘Haunting’ is his epithet. Check out ‘Song of the Stallion’– somewhere between those two disparate Johnsons, Antony and the-, and Blind Willie. With a little bit of Shlomo Carlebach thrown in. A genuinely riveting weirdo.

Sandy Bull (1941-2001) was the subject of a very recent Song of The Week, and all the enthusiastic responses to it encouraged me to try to slop all this melted jello into a box. Sandy is even less well known than Basho, to whom he’s often compared. Because he’s even further down the garden path. Which is of course why I love him so.

Meanwhile, back in the Old Country—

Bert Jansch, John Renbourn

Early UK Fingerpicking

Davey Graham (1940-2008), shared with Basho and Bull a background in folk/blues and the eagerness of the ’60s psychedelic rockers to stretch out and incorporate unpredictable influences into his music. In 1961 he composed ‘Anji’, (covered by Bert Jansch in 1965 as ‘Angie’ and famously by Paul Simon in 1966).

Bert Jansch (1943-2011) is probably the best-known habitué of the New Acoustic world. Coming from a Scottish/English folk background, inspired by Graham, he in turn had a profound influence on people such as John Renbourn, Donovan, Paul Simon, Jimmy Page and Neil Young, who said that Jansch did for the acoustic guitar what Hendrix did for the electric. As with Kottke and many others, we usually try to avoid his vocals (‘Needle of Death’). He’s perhaps best known for leading Pentangle, together with his buddy John Renbourn. My personal favorite of Jansch is his uncategorizable, atypical 1979 LP, “Avocet”, one of my most listened-to albums over the years.

John Renbourn (1944-2015) began as a soloist, made a mark in pairings with Jansch in “Bert and John” (‘East Wind’), before they went on to form—

Pentangle, an acoustic folk-jazz ensemble with Jansch and Renbourn on acoustic guitars, Jacqui McShee in waifish vocals, the wonderful Danny Thompson on double bass and Tony Cox on drums. Almost everyone I know seems to have listened to them frequently in college.

And that just gets us up to 1968.

 

Duck Baker

And Then…

There have been generations of young explorers from Australia to Zimbabwe who can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill. I’ve far from mastered this list, but I’ll try to give you a few quick pointers:

John Martyn (1948-2009) – a major artist, not strictly of this school, but employing with great success in his own unique singer-songwriter style. Much recommended. SoTW 166

Duck Baker (b. 1949) – a quirky favorite of mine, he recorded an entire album of the music of Herbie Nichols, the greatest unknown jazz pianist of the 1950s. SoTW 91. That’s the kind of cosmic synchronicity that gives me a warm, gooey feeling.

Andy McKee

Phil Keaggy and Mike Pachelli (both b. 1951)

Dave Evans (b. 1953) – “Sad Pig Dance” is one fine album.

Tommy Emmanuel (b. 1955)

Brooks Williams (b. 1958) – likened to James Taylor, which ain’t a bad thing

Don Ross (b. 1960)

Jack Rose (1971)

Andy McKee (b. 1979) – new age wiz, 56 million hits on this little gem

James Blackshaw (b. 1981)

Those fingers just keep picking. I haven’t found enough meat on the bones of those fingers to delve into this ocean obsessively and exhaustively, as is my wont. With the possible exception of Sandy Bull (and of course John Martyn), I’ve never found it to be life-changing music. Entertainment, rather than High Art. But I do keep returning to it. I hope you find it appealing. If you find anything indispensable, do let me know.

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13

107: The Association, ‘Everything That Touches You’

Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Hey, y’all, join me this week for a walk on the wha? side, a stroll along the tightrope between the sublime and the embarrassing, an exploration of the no-man’s land between refined taste and that which makes our blood bubble and our minds swoon. The confection of adolescence, The Pop Song.


I once took a paying job, helping a very untalented, Miss Piggy-clone wannabe pop diva (with wealthy, well-connected, criminally persistent parents) translate her lyrics into proper popper English. The music was so bad that—well, let’s just leave well enough alone, it was really bad. And after a week of working on it, I found the tunes sticking to my mind. Skipping through my synapses while I was shaving, ringtoning my brain while I was reading Rilke, subliminially muzaking beneath my consciousness while having a Meaningful Discussion with my Significant Other. And this was some terrible, terrible music. We’re talking stuff that makes Britney Spears sound like Baruch Spinoza.

So I said to my friend EG that perhaps they’re not such bad tunes if they stick to my brain like that. “Bubblegum,” he answered. “Your brain sat on a big pink pre-masticated wad of Bazooka. That don’t make it good. It makes it inextricable.”

Clearly, I think I learned something from that experience. Think back to the Top 40 songs of your Junior High School incarnation. I remember thinking – nay, feeling – that ‘Theme to a Summer Place’ was sublime, that ‘Enchanted Sea‘ was the pinnacle of exotica, that ‘Bernadine’ was about as sexy as a song could get.

Given, prepubescent imbecility, including my own, is an easy target. The strange part, what’s puzzling me now, is the obverse side of that swooning, the songs that I am not inclined to stand up on a soapbox and praise as unacknowledged masterpieces, but yet that I’m also not ready to dismiss as pop pablum. I’ve called certain songs masterpieces without blushing, such as Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ (SoTW 28) and Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk On By’ (SoTW 34). But what about The Fleetwoods’ ‘Mr. Blue’, Skeeter Davis’s ‘End of the World’ or ‘It’s All in the Game’ by Tommy Edwards (SoTW 23)? I called the latter a “very beautiful, touching ballad that has been playing over and over in my head for almost half a century now”.  No gainsaying that these are pop fodder. But they’re also indelibly carved in our hearts and our musical minds, not mere wads of Bazooka.

Pat Boone in the film ‘Bernadine’

Fast forward to 1968, when the music, the world, and Jeff were all presumably more mature, sophisticated and discerning. “There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air.” A lot of very fine music. It seemed that every week, two or three albums were being released that demanded and justified repeated listening, some for weeks, frequently for months and years. Many for decades. Almost fifty years on, so much of the music of the late 1960s still speaks strongly and convincingly. Much of it is still inspiring and instructive. I listened this week to the first two albums by Love, who have a rabid following here in our little corner of the Middle East half a century on (found the first one weak but the second quite respectable), and to Moby Grape’s first (a 5-star album the day it was released, and still is today).

Um, Jeff, this is Song of The Week, right? Wanna get to the point?

Ok. The point is that the border between fine music and cheap pop is sometimes fuzzy, even to me, subjectively. So here comes a song. I’m not sure whether I should be shouting its praises or not speaking of it to anyone whose opinion I value.

The Association. They formed in 1965, one of the numerous California early rock groups with roots in the folk movement, bringing with them close harmonies and consciousness of the poetic potential of lyrics—The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, many others. The niche of The Association, a new term I just learned this minute, was ‘sunshine pop’, characterized by a cheerful attitude, close vocal harmonies and sophisticated production, the sound track of California escapism, including groups such as The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, and other lesser lights such as The 5th Dimension, Harpers Bizarre and Spanky and Our Gang.

Their first single, ‘Along Comes Mary’, was a charter member of the club of songs whose lyrics were reputed to obliquely refer to Devil Marijuana, such as ‘Eight Miles High’ (SoTW 226), ‘Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35’, ‘Mellow Yellow’ and even ‘Puff, The Magic Dragon’. ‘Along Comes Mary’ (live from the Monterey Festival) has Dylanesque long phrases, 60% More Words!! crammed inside a single breath. What happens if an infinite number of stoned teenagers spend an infinite number of hours trying to grab the words “Andwhenthemorningofthewarning’spassed, thegassedandflaccidkidsareflungacrossthestars, Thepsychodramasandthetraumasgonethesongsareleftunsungandhunguponthescars…” ‘Along Comes Mary’ was released in July 1966. “Sgt Pepper”, released a month earlier, was the first album to include lyrics. So stick your ear right up close to the speaker, kids, and write fast.

The Association’s material came from a number of sources, none of the band members providing a real auteur voice. Perhaps the strongest presence was producer Jerry Yester (brother of guitarist Jim), who went on to replace Zal Yanovsky in The Lovin’ Spoonful and contribute masterful arrangements to some of John Sebastian’s greatest compositions, such as ‘She’s Still a Mystery’ and ‘Six O’Clock’.

‘Mary’ hit #7, and was soon followed by three consecutive #1 hits: ‘Cherish’ (the beautifulest/shlockiest song ever recorded), ‘Windy’ (a sunnier version of New Yorker Paul Simon’s overcast ‘Cloudy’/’Feeling Groovy’) and ‘Never My Love’ (according to BMI, the second-most played song in the twentieth century!). In my ears today, they’re all respectable— memorable melodies, good harmonies, strong hooks, distinctive arrangements–but not songs I would put on my desert island playlist.

The song that’s been on my mind for the last couple of years is the last and commercially least in their string of hits, the runt of the litter, ‘Everything That Touches You‘. Written by vocalist/wind instrumentalist Terry Kirkman (also ‘Cherish’), the song is a rich pastiche of drums and bass and guitars and keyboards and chorus, an exuberant, loving melody, soaring harmonies, a hook-laden bass, a devotional love song, a hippie anthem.

I revisited and became preoccupied with this song a few years ago when I was doodling over a screenplay project imagining an almost unknown band from the late 1960s whose one minor hit achieved an unpredictable posthumous grassroots cult following many years later (inspired by the true story of Eva Cassidy—see SoTW 029). You can read those doodles here. I needed to write lyrics for their one hit, which I imagined as a ‘hippie anthem’. Looking for a model, my first thought was ‘Let’s Get Together’ by The Youngbloods and the pre-Grace Jefferson Airplane. Apocryphal description from Life’s coverage of Woodstock: “There was a small car that drove very slowly with the throngs of young people walking along the road. A hippie girl sitting on the roof of the car with a little, battery operated record player kept playing The Youngblood’s version of this song over and over and over again; supplying a solid contribution to the ‘peace and love’ vibe that permeated the whole magical weekend.” I don’t know if it’s literally true; but I was there, walking down that very road, and I can attest that that’s the most truthful image I can conjure of the entire festival, more than anything that took place onstage. But I wanted a more commercial model. ‘Everything That Touches You’ wheedled its way into my consciousness, where it’s stayed since.

I’ve been listening to the song regularly for a couple of years now. Is it sophisticated bubblegum music that my brain sat on? Is it an elegant, inspiring pop gem? I really can’t decide, and I’d be most grateful to y’all if you’d contribute your thoughts and comments right here in the Reply box below.

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6

275: Sandy Bull, ‘Blend’

Posted by jeff on Dec 15, 2017 in New Acoustic, Song Of the week

Sandy Bull – ‘Blend’ (part 1)

Sandy Bull – ‘Blend’ (part 2)

I don’t know how many readers of this blog are geeks on the musical spectrum and how many are “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” fans. This week we’re going to indulge in sharing a bizarre, wonderful world-music harbinger, psychedelic groundbreaking fingerpicking guitarist I’ve been listening to for years now, Sandy Bull (1941-2001).

Betcha you’ve never heard of Sandy Bull.
Betcha if I tell you he’s a folk-era world music fingerpicker bridging the Kingston Trio and Ornette Coleman, you just click the little X and go play mini-golf.
Betcha if you listen to him a bit you’ll really like him. Because if you’re following this blog, that means music is more for you than tinting the silence.

Sandy was parented by Harry (editor-in-chief of Town & Country) and Daphne (banking heiress cum jazz harpist). They divorced soon after he was born.
By 12 he had developed a habit for cough syrup.
By 15 he had taken up banjo, inspired by a Pete Seeger concert he heard in school, eventually studying under Erik Darling of The Weavers.
By 18 he had shot heroin with jazz musicians and been arrested for trying to rob a pharmacy.
By 19 (1960), he was playing the Cambridge folk scene with the likes of Joan Baez and coming under the sway of free jazz (via Ornette Coleman), Indian music (via Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan),
By 20 he was playing atonal banjo and guitar on the Greenwich Village folk circuit (before the arrival of Bob Dylan) and including a bagpipe segment in his set.

Hamza el Din

By 21, he was busking in Europe and coming under the sway of Nubian (southern Egypt) composer and oudist Hamza el Din (who later collaborated with the likes of Steve Reich and The Grateful Dead).

By 23 he had recorded his two albums of note, fingerpicking on acoustic guitar, banjo, electric guitar, oud, electric bass and foot cymbal. Oh, and tape recorder. Not just double-tracking in the studio, like other folks. He even appeared live on stage in tandem with his recorded self.
This is at the time when the rest of the world was listening to Tom Dooley, Twist and Shout, Baby Love and FunFunFun, not to mention The Sound of Music and Al Hirt (“Honey in the Horn” was the second best-selling album of the year.)

Billy Higgins

Musically, it was a mash of acoustic fingerpicking (a la Leo Kottke and John Fahey) and a veritable UN of musical inspirations (especially Indian and Arabic), utilizing modal open tunings which enable his deep involvement in the ‘drone’. Not those cool little flying vehicles, but an unchanging, continuous low note. Sandy: ”It is so simple an effect and yet there is something eternal about it, sort of a foundation of music. I find it–and the kind of undulating rhythms which go with it–very moving.”

Undulating it is, not to mention seriously entrancing and hypnotic. Many people (ok, that’s an overstatement—all of the very few sources I’ve found) have credited Mr. Bull with being a seminal originator of psychedelic music.

But what really got me hooked on Sandy was the eclecticism of these two albums. They are comprised of  two extended head trips accompanied by a jazz drummer, and pieces by or inspired by Carl Orff (contemporary classical), William Byrd (Renaissance), Scottish/Southern mountain folk, Ray Charles/Pops Staples, Bach, Louis Bonfa, 14th century Guilliaume de Machaut and Chuck Berry. Now, that’s eclectic.

1963 – “Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo”

‘Fantasia’ is a technical term from classical music, referring to a piece whose structure is a creation of the composer, rather than adhering to an accepted convention. Five ‘easy’ pieces:

  • ‘Blend’ (acoustic guitar and drums)– his pièce de résistance; a riveting 22-minute trip, the drone produced by a banjo-style open tuning (which he changes at about 9:40), accompanied by free jazz stalwart Billy Higgins. Part 1, Part 2.
  • ‘Carmina Burana Fantasy’ (banjo) – Bull’s “impression” of Orff’s popular and influential 1936 cantata, embraced by the Nazi regime. The American denazification authorities eventually changed his previous category of “gray unacceptable” to “gray acceptable”.
  • ‘Non nabis Domine’ (banjo, banjo and acoustic guitar overdubbed) – composed by William Byrd, a contemporary of Shakespeare
  • ‘Little Maggie’ (banjo) – a Southern mountain standard. The Scottish (think bagpipe) drone first cousin of the Arab and Indian music Bull was immersed in.
  • ‘Gospel Tune’ (Fender electric guitar, foot cymbal) – based on the Staples’ ‘Good News’ which was secularized by Ray Charles as ‘I Got a Woman’.

1964 – “Inventions for Guitar and Banjo”

‘Invention’ is the technical term for a short composition (usually for a keyboard instrument) with two-part counterpoint. The six pieces of silver:

  • ‘Blend II’ (acoustic guitar and drums) – a 24-minute sequel to Blend, incorporating (according to Nat Hentoff’s outstanding liner notes) themes from Ornette Coleman, Ali Akbar Khan, Pretty Polly, Lebanese music and North African popular song, and Oum Kalthoum. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.
  • Gavotte‘ (electric guitar) – from Bach’s “Suite No. 5” (I was unable to figure out what Suite this is. It’s not the French Suites, not the English Suites, not the Cello Suites and not the Orchestral Suites.)
  • Gavotte‘ (acoustic guitar) – from Bach’s “Suite No. 5”. Bull: “In a sense, it’s kind of a cop-out not to devote your whole musical life to Bach if you want to play his work.”
  • ‘Manha de Carnival’ (rhythm acoustic guitar, Fender bass, lead oud, overdubbed) – composed by Luis Bonfa for the 1959 Brazilian film “Orfeu Negro”, which marked the onslaught of the Bossa Nova craze. Here’s a whole SoTW on that phenomenon.
  • ‘Triple Ballade‘ (oud, banjo, guitar overdubbed) – written in the 14th century by ‘ars nova’ composer Guilliaume de Machaut
  • Memphis, Tennessee’ (rhythm electric guitar, Fender bass, lead electric guitar, drums) – Bull: Chuck Berry “may well be the folk poet of America today”. If you’re looking for prophets, this is years before the apocryphal quote of Dylan regarding Smokie Robinson.

But, heck, de Machaut followed directly by Chuck Berry? You gotta love the guy, even before you listen.

I remember being pleasantly surprised at how many readers reacted so positively to SoTW 092: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, ‘Babar’ (“The Melody of Rhythm”), a somewhat analogous indefinable East-West mix (also including Southern mountain fingerpicking elements with Indian and Western Classical music).

C’mon, folks, give it a go. Pour yourself a long one of your choice, kick off your shoes, and give a listen to Blend. And if your partner walks in on you and shries “What the dickens are you listening to???”, just answer, “Oh, that’s Sandy Bull. Betcha you never heard of him.”

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