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278: The Danish String Quartet, ‘Sønderho Bridal Trilogy – Part II’/Dreamers’ Circus, ‘Kitchen Stories’

Posted by jeff on Feb 9, 2018 in Classical, New Acoustic, Nordic, Song Of the week

Spring is here, even though it’s still February. My head is crunching and comparing and contrasting and generally consternating itself, but my heart is a-flitting and a-fluttering like a 17-year old girl in the throes of first love. For I have discovered joyous new music that makes me bounce and grin and tap my feet; and, gosh and b’golly, wish there were a Danish country dance floor for me to get out onto and jig and reel and polsk like a Danish country fool.

And you know what kind of music it is? It’s – I’m asking politely. No, I’m begging: Please read this paragraph through to the end – a Danish classical string quartet playing Nordic roots music. Now I know you may well have no great interest in roots music; no vested interest in Danish music; and no significant interest in a young string quartet. All I’m asking is that you listen. Because it’s passionate, human, engaging, irresistible, ebullient, and you can’t help but love it.

Danish String Quartet – ‘Gammel Reinlender fra Sønndala’

Dreamer’s Circus – ‘A Room in Paris’

Did you notice the same violinist in both groups?
Two hours after Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen was born in 1983 in a small Danish village, his parents (who had met on the folk-dance floor) brought in a traditional fiddler to play for the swaddler, to welcome him to the world in a properly harmonious way.

The Danish String Quartet

“The three of us [Rune, violin; Frederik Øland, violin; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola] met very early in our lives in the Danish countryside at a summer camp for enthusiastic amateur musicians. Not yet teenagers, we were the youngest players, so we hung out all the time playing football and chamber music together. During the regular school year we would get together often to play music and just have fun… All of the sudden, at the ages of 15 and 16, we were a serious string quartet. It all happened so fast that none of us seemed to notice the transition.”

The three drafted Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, a Norwegian cellist, and their career was off and running, despite the violinists’ full-time gig in the Copenhagen Philharmonic (where Rune was concertmaster!). They played the whole classical string quartet repertoire, Haydn and Beethoven and Shostakovitch, as well as the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (d. 1931). In 2013, the violinists left CPH:Phil to concentrate on The Danish String Quartet, which was busy touring worldwide and winning awards and whatnot.

But they’re not just ‘a covers band’, as Rune calls them. Almost from the beginning, DSQ would play as an encore traditional Scandinavian folk music they had arranged for the string quartet. They could do it sitting or standing on a formal concert stage.

But watch what happens when they let their proverbial hair down (of course, their very shaggy demeanor is part and parcel of their utter charm), lose the suits and don the Plastic Man t-shirts in this NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.

These guys aren’t just charming. And not just tighter than tight. And not just ridiculously good-looking. They’re playing music. It matters to me not a whit that it’s couched in a style far from what I grew up with. It’s human beings playing joyous human music.

DSQ has two fine CDs, “Wood Works” (2014) and “Last Leaf” (2017, ECM). They’re both rich, exciting, fun, exultant. I feel lucky to have discovered them.

Roots, Americana Newgrass

I wouldn’t want to have to take a blindfold test on distinguishing between some of the Nordic, Celtic and American roots music I listen to. I’ve asked more than a couple of Scandinavian professionals involved in this style about the affinity of Nordic to Celtic roots music. They all say, as if they were thinking of it for the first time, “Yeah, they do sound very similar, you know?”

It turns out that roots are roots, and it seems there is some sort of border-defying musical collective unconscious operating here.

DSQ’s roots music begs comparison with the whole burgeoning world of Americana roots music (aka Newgrass). Check out, for example, “Appalachia Waltz“, a fine album by Mark O’Conner, Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. Or this Newgrass all-star team Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, playing their own NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.

It’s fine, admirable music. Copelandean, as they would probably like to be called. I love the attitude and the gender-bending and the virtuosity. I’ve admired it for quite a while now, keep going back to it—and keep leaving, unsatisfied.

They just don’t got the voltage. Listen to the DSQ playing this original traditional-styled tune ‘Shine You No More’. I don’t know about you, but that gets my pulse racing.

Dreamers’ Circus 

But that’s only half the story.

“We met by chance one night in 2009 during a folk festival in Copenhagen. Ale [on cittern, a traditional 10-stringed mandolin/bouzouki-ish instrument] and Rune were standing in the corner of a pub jamming some folk tunes. Nikolaj just came in, sat at the piano and began to play along. The three of us ended up playing together all through the night.”

Did you watch ‘A Room in Paris’? Wow. How can you not love that?

Want more? Check out the second half of this one, from 3’35”

And check out ‘Carrousel Prime’, the encore from that same festival. These guys are so much sexier, more charismatic, more fun than anything else I’ve seen in a long, long time.

See where Rune starts dancing? That’s not a Mick Jagger look-at-me dance, that the very human dance impulse, rising from the roots of many generations dancing the same dances to the same tunes.

And they also did a series of knockout concerts with CPH:Phil. They even present Mozart in Folk Style, roots trio + classical orchestra. Sounds a bit far-fetched? Just watch it. Want some more of this? Here’s ‘Prelude to the Sun’, a Nordic folk remix of Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, Preludio, ‘recomposed’ by Dreamers’ Circus.

Dreamers’ Circus – ‘Father Into It’

Dreamers’ Circus – ‘Fragments of Solbyn’. This ain’t no casual jig. It’s classical in form, Saturday night roadside bar for enthusiasm.

You think they only know how to rock? Check out the elegance and intelligence and utterly refined Danish aesthetic in ‘City Gardens’.

Check out their wonderful album “Second Movement”.

Rune, DSQ, DC and Old Stories Told Anew

Dreamers’ Circus has this amazing tonal blend, and they’re playing very tightly. I struggle (gleefully) to pick out which instrument is playing which note. It’s a pleasure I experienced with Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album.

Rune: “In DSQ there are four stringed instruments of same nature. When it really works, you can achieve one single voice. I brought that same mindset to Dreamers’ Circus. The violin has a great range of the types of sounds it can make. It’s primarily a melodic instrument, but it can also be percussive. The cittern is usually driving the rhythm, but we try not to lock ourselves into these roles. When I play with accordion, I’m very conscious of when I try to blend and when I try to stick out. You give focus and you take focus; sometimes you shadow, sometimes you solo. We’re striving towards an ideal of a unified voice. Before we go on stage, we remind ourselves: One voice, one story, one message, one instrument. That’s the way to convey a story.”

Every summer Rune goes to Sønderhø on Fanø island, with 3345 residents and 100 traditional local songs going back hundreds of years, almost all in D major or G major (only one in a minor key!). He dances, smokes a pipe and plays music. Sounds pretty hygge to me.

Why does the music of the Danish String Quartet and Dreamers’ Circus speak to me? Who can say why a piece of music speaks to you? Or what it’s saying, for that matter? But it does. Clearly, passionately, directly. From the roots up.

Thanks to Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen for agreeing to be interviewed for this blog post.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like SoTW 071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’, an overview of Nordic roots bands from a few years ago.

 

 

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8

277: Joni Mitchell, ‘Electricity’

Posted by jeff on Jan 26, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

Joni Mitchell, ‘Electricity’

106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’

141: Joni Mitchell, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’

163: Joni Mitchell, ‘For Free’

177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

215: Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’

259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

260: David Crosby/Joni Mitchell, ‘Yvette in English’

Photo by Norman Seeff

Joni Mitchell isn’t relevant for the 21st century. It’s tragic, I cry over it, but it’s true.

She used to evoke such admiration for her precision craftsmanship and such affection for her emotional stripteases, among the people of the era whose epithet she helped coin—The Woodstock Generation. And of course she’s spawned already several generations of introspective singer-songwriters, strong younger women building on the ground Joni broke, all of whom credit Joni as their soul-mother.

But she was of a different generation, and no matter how much the young ‘uns may pantheon her, I don’t believe they have an inkling of the world of which she speaks.

Let me take one song, try to explain why it was so relevant and meaningful back then, and then why I think it’s so irrelevant to the 21st century: ‘Electricity’, a fine, overshadowed song on a fine, overshadowed album, “For the Roses” (1972), wedged between the masterpiece of intimacy (“Blue”) and the large-canvas grandeur of the orchestral (“Court and Spark”).

The song employs an extended metaphor of love as electricity, the two lovers grappling with the throes of shorts and frayed wires, Joni at her most literary. Methinks the lady doth protest too much at the critics relating to her songs as mini-romans a clef, but that’s disingenuous. She must enjoy sprinkling her songs with all those intriguing, intimate details such as James Taylor’s suspenders in the preceding song, ‘See You Sometime’. It’s a signature device–deny it as we may, we all revel in Joni’s juicy (or even gooey) autobiographical details.

To explicate ‘Electricity’ in the broadest of strokes, there’s a couple dealing with an electricity problem/outage which symbolizes their relationship. It’s all a mess (“She’s got all the wrong fuses and splices”; ”The masking tape tangles, It’s sticky and black”), and neither they together nor she alone can “fix it up too easy”. It’s a real, undeniable problem–the circuit just keeps shorting.

There are two difficulties in parsing the song. First, the chronology is chopped up. To put it in order (but you know this already; we’ve all experienced the same arc in a transitory relationship):

1.  We were in love. (we floodlit that time)

2. He sang her soothing songs that (still) run through her circuits like a heartbeat

3. He moves to a different place (with a good dog and some trees, but his heart over-icing) where she doesn’t fit (She don’t know the system, she don’t understand)

4. The relationship short-circuits (The lines overloaded, sparks flew, wires lashed out.)

5. She holds a flashlight for him, to fix the fusebox/relationship.

6. She even holds a (non-electric) candle for him, begging him to fix things.

7. She’s left with love (heartbeat) unfixed (heartbroken).

 

But the ending is all the Joni we know and love: No rancor, elle ne regrette rien. Just stoking the star maker machinery, grinding out indelible songs one after another. It’s that Joni Mitchell territory we know and love so well—she begs him to show her how to fix it, but he won’t. He just leaves her with his song coursing through her bloodstream. Okay, James has gone and married Carly, but I got a good album out of it.

Joni’s canonized today as a harbinger of a new perception of the female of the species, and justifiably so. I know lots of young musicians of the female persuasion who place Joni’s bust on the mantle of their heroes and heroins, right alongside Jim, Jimi, and Janis.

Worship of certain of the Gods of My Generation has become canonized. Praising J, J and J has become a knee-jerk genuflection. I admit that I sometimes take advantage of that superstition. More than once in conversation with a Millenial have I taken a cheap short-cut to garnering Street Cred.

I do it more and more frequently as I despair of creating any meaningful dialog. I simply flash my “I was at Woodstock” badge, or just shove into the conversation “I saw the Beatles perform” and watch their jaws drop. It works for a while, but I know they’re worshipping false gods. The Paul McCartney touring today isn’t the Paul of ‘Penny Lane’. Bob Dylan singing ‘That Old Feeling’ or ‘As Time Goes By’ (better them than ‘The Best is Yet to Come’) is not Bob Dylan singing ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’, or even ‘Forever Young’.

Remember the Y2K bug? (I know, it was 17 years ago, so how could anyone under 35 be expected to remember it? Well, I remember it well. I took it half seriously—that at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999, the world would collapse. Not just the computers of the world–the world itself. The sun would extinguish. The earth would stop spinning. FACEBOOK WOULD COLLAPSE IRRETRIEVABLY! (Launched in 2004, I know, but still.)

Then

But it passed, and nothing seemed to happen, so everyone thought Doomsday was a marketing ploy.

It wasn’t. The Y2K bug passed. But unbeknownst to all, the seeds of the Millennium Plague had been planted. It was the night when humanity as we know it was infected by cannibal electrons.

I always preferred young people to those my age. They were vital, creative, excited and exciting. You could well attribute it to arrested development. I preferred to think of it as fuel for my creative bent.

I’ve worked with young people all my life. In my 20s and 30s and 40s I surrounded myself with teenagers, as a teacher and dramatist. They invigorated me. I actually learned to speak their language (teenagerese), and wrote successful plays in it. In my 50s and 60s I worked in hi-tech. When I started, my colleagues were in their late 20s; despite all the rumors about ageism, we got along just fine.

Now

At social gatherings over all these decades, I’d look for an excuse to sit at the young peoples’ table. The girls were prettier, they guys were handsomer, and there was a lot more laughter going on.

But recently it’s fallen to my lot to be involved with Generation Y or Z or whatever, those who spent their formative years staring at screens, those who got their first iPhone before their first kiss. I tell you authoritatively: these creatures are post-Woodstockian zombies.

They engage in nothing. You could get dirty. Word of the Century: “Whatever”.

They commit to nothing. They are way too cool for that. Jobs, bands, relationships.

They feel nothing. Emotions are so passé. Give them shots and apps.

They won’t even talk. There’s a 40-year old colleague who shows sparks of caring, with whom I’m trying hard to cultivate a creative relationship. I recently texted him, all fired up, “I got this really cool idea, when can we talk?”, to which he responded in all his Millenial jaded phlegmatism “I don’t have time to talk. Text me.”

Of course I didn’t bother to respond. I’m learning.  Slowly and painfully. I may not be ready to give up my belief in communication and caring, but at least I’ve begun to figure out that it’s a gene they lack. I’m even starting to stay at the adults’ table.

They no more believe in pain and love and human intercourse than they do in the need to know how to do long division by hand or to remember telephone numbers by heart.

What do they believe? They believe fervently that Bill Gates created the world in six days. They believe that Wonder Woman is a profoundly true representation of a new social reality. They believe that there is no distinction between Facebook and the real world.

These kids, they don’t know from fuse boxes any more than they know of the human heart. Electricity ain’t no thang, as long as the iPhone is charged. But they even have external energy packs for that.

We denizens of the 20th century know why we can’t hear as well over a cell phone as we can over a landline. It’s because the bits and bytes are compressed, and the frequencies cut off at the knees and at the shoulders. You get only the bare binary data necessary to process the speech. We also know that our hearing isn’t what it once was.

What the Millenials don’t realize is how much of their humanity is lost in the restrictions of that digital compression. Emojis replace emotions. Write nothing other than the obvious and the factual in your text messages, because ‘everyone knows there’s no nuance in email’. Well, you can always add a smiley.

These Generation Whatever kids, they may idolize Joni, but they will never begin to really get her. You and I know that. Joni is the one who created for us a world of passion and pain, of knowing that you’re going to get burned but throwing yourself into the throes of a doomed relationship. Feeling and caring, no matter what the cost.

Joni knows she will not fix everything ‘so easy’, but that electric passion is her heartbeat. It will keep her going for as long as she’s alive. She will never write a song entitled ‘Electronics’.

We all know that the Millenial zombies will rule the world after she (and we) are gone. In the meantime, I guess all we have left to do is to listen to Joni. Over and over. And to bewail and bemoan the emotional holocaust this generation is wreaking upon us. Perhaps if they would only really listen to her…

The Minus is loveless, he talks to the land,

And the leaves fall and the pond over-ices.

She don’t know the system, Plus, she don’t understand,

She’s got all the wrong fuses and splices.

She’s not going to fix it up too easy.

The masking tape tangles, it’s sticky and black.

And the copper proud-headed Queen Lizzie
Conducts little charges that don’t get charged back.

Well the technical manual’s busy, she’s not going to fix it up too easy.

And she holds out her flashlight and she shines it on me.

She wants me to tell her what the trouble might be. 

Well I’m learning–It’s peaceful, with a good dog and some trees

Out of touch with the breakdown of this century.

They’re not going to fix it up too easy.

 

We once loved together and we floodlit that time–

Input, output, electricity.

But the lines overloaded and the sparks started flying,

And the loose wires were lashing out at me.

She’s not going to fix that up too easy.

But she holds out her candle and she shines it in,

And she begs him to show her how to fix it again,

While the song that he sang her to soothe her to sleep

Runs all through her circuits like a heartbeat.

She’s not going to fix it up too easy.

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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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