8

119: Tom Harrell, ‘Train Shuffle’

Posted by jeff on Sep 27, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Loath as I am to resort to gimmickry in matters as serious as jazz biography, (in contrast to the NY Times profile of jazz pianist Fred Hersch’s recovery from the muscular amnesia he suffered as a result of a two-month HIV-related coma), it’s hard to ignore the back-story of trumpeter Tom Harrell’s mental illness.

Harrell (b. 1946) has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since the 1960s. He hears voices, maintains (in his words) ‘a tenuous contact with reality’, is heavily medicated, and speaks like a zombie who’s just seen a ghost. Until he puts his horn to his lips, when he’s instantly and magically possessed by an utterly coherent aesthetic expressiveness.  If you want to see how that works on stage, check out this clip.

The bio on Harrell’s official site tastefully avoids mentioning his ‘deficiency’. But neither does he shy away from it in interviews. Well, it’s harder to hide than a hunchback. If you have a morbid fascination with the mental illness, watch him struggle to piece thoughts together, to elicit the words from out of the jumble of his mind in this interview:

Q: Has schizophrenia enabled you to paint a more serene picture musically? Your music is so different from that of all the other jazz trumpeters out there. It’s like your deficiency has been your strength.

A: That’s how I view it. The fact that I can’t always relate to people socially – I’ve spent a lot of time alone ever since the 60s, and that has enabled me to focus more on music, and also the feelings I’ve experienced have given me insights. The feelings that come out when I play, different social themes, it is a blessing… But schizophrenia can be a drag because of the tenuous reality contact thing. But as long as I take the medication I feel alright, because I’m able to do my work.

Riveting as Harrell’s background may be, it is of course the foreground that deserves the spotlight, his wonderful 40-year musical career. He’s worked in a very wide range of formats. As guest/session man/band member, he’s played with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Dizzie Gillespie, Bill Evans, George Russell, Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Sam Jones, Jim Hall, Charlie Haden, Phil Woods, Joe Lovano and Charles McPherson, and especially Phil Woods and Horace Silver. Wow!

He’s recorded close to 30 albums as a leader in a wide variety of formats, as big-band leader, orchestra leader, and especially combos from quartets to nonets. In recent years he’s developed a remarkably stable, tight quintet – with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Danny Grissett, drummer Johnathan Blake, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo.

Critics and musicians admire him unanimously. I once asked Billy Hart, a legendary jazz session drummer in jazz for the past 50 years, what it was like to play with him. He became very quiet, and responded in a hushed, reverent voice that playing with Harrell had been one of the most moving experiences for him in his entire career.

Harrell is a most generous leader. As a player, he never hogs the limelight, frequently soloing less than the piano or saxophone. His real forte is as a composer, the polar opposite of a leader playing the guys a riff and saying “Let’s blow.” The music is always controlled, structured, sophisticated, composed (in both senses). His composer’s voice is unmistakably contemporary, a savvy, open-eyed, challenging and restless explorer, but never straying far from his very melodic premise. Here’s a pretty characteristic cut from the 2010 CD “Roman Nights”, ‘Let the Children Play’.  Here’s the very next cut, Harrell at his most serene and romantic, the title cut, ‘Roman Nights’.

But for our Song of The Week, we’re going for a tune that’s captured our hearts and ears for years now, ‘Train Shuffle’. Harrell is never mordant, but this piece is unusually ebullient. Here’s the version from the 1999 big-band album, “Time’s Mirror”.  And here it is from the 1993 sextet album “Upswing” (I guess a loony can be as witty as the next guy), featuring Phil Wood, Joe Lovano and Danilo Perez. It’s a favorite of mine. I revisit it regularly, and it never fails to get me grinning and my foot tapping. Fine, fun, intelligent post-bop jazz at its best. No gimmicks.

For further listening:

Upswing’,  title cut from the 1993 album

Sail Away’,  title cut from the 1989 album

Rapture’, from “Moon Alley” (1985, with Kenny Garrett and Kenny Barron)

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

104: Charles Mingus, ‘Myself When I Am Real’/’Adagio Ma Non Troppo’

094: Brad Mehldau, ‘Martha, My Dear’ (“Live in Marciac”)

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)

 

 

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8

289: Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Old Friends/Bookends’

Posted by jeff on Sep 21, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

I interviewed Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sometime in early 1967.

I knocked on the door of their dressing room. Paul opened the door, all 5’3” (1.6m) of him, turned and called into the room, “Hey, Art, this guy looks just like you.”

Young Friends

Paul and Art were both 26, riding the tide of three straight hit singles: ‘Sounds of Silence’ (#1), ‘Homeward Bound’ (#5), and ‘I Am a Rock’ (#3). They were widely credited with inventing folk-rock, marrying the fun of rock and roll to the gravitas of folk music. No one foresaw that they were to become cultural icons.

I was 18, a music nerd away from home for the first time, at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, “tryin’ to do like the Gentiles do”. No one foresaw how badly that would turn out.

Young Jeff

Art and I, it turns out, were both early sporters of jewfros, a coiffure in style amongst some young members of our notoriously nerdy tribe. We thought that if we grew long kinky hair, maybe we’d be able to jump as high as Dr J or sing as raunchy as Wilson Pickett. Spoiler alert: we couldn’t.

I recently turned 70. So I’ve been thinking (in addition to finishing my tax return and watching the new season of Ozark) about stuff like The Meaning of Life.

I am now officially old. This is a new state for me. Most of my life, I haven’t been old. It only crept up on me recently. How do I know that I’m old? Because of a 1968 Simon and Garfunkel song.

Old friends, old friends, sat on their park bench like bookends.
A newspaper blown through the grass falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends.

Old friends, winter companions, the old men lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun;
The sounds of the city sifting through trees settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends.

Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy…

Old friends, memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears.

A time it was, and what a time it was, it was a time of innocence, a time of confidences.

Long ago it must be, I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories – they’re all that’s left you.

You see, in 1968, “there was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air”. It was us against them—the hippies vs the pigs, John Lennon vs Richard Nixon, “the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse” vs The Establishment.

Weinberg sans Jewfro

Jack Weinberg (sic), a harbinger of the revolution at Berkley in 1964, coined the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Our parents were over 30. Richard Nixon was over 30. We figured it must be true.

But as kids of 18 or 26, we were of course immortal. We could drink and drive, indiscriminately consume whatever drug was available, practice free and unprotected love whenever we could, stay up all night listening to The Stones and sleep through Logic class in the morning, with no repercussions. We were immortal.

Again, spoiler alert: It didn’t quite work out that way.

The Ohio National Guard shot four of us. We graduated (by the skin of our teeth, and only some of us) and had to Get A Job. We fell in love and tied the knot. We had babies. We signed mortgages. We turned 30.

And then 40.

And then 50.

And then 60.

And now 70.

Funny, she doesn’t look Jewish

As I said, this is new for me. Memories used to be ten years old. Then twenty. Now I have memories that are a lifetime older than I was when Paul said, “Hey, Art, this guy looks like you.”

I don’t know why I blame Garfunkel for that line. Simon wrote it, and deserves all the credit and all the blame. But it is who Art sings that B-part: Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy…

Well, Art (Paul), I got news for you. You got it wrong.

I don’t sit on park benches. I don’t wear high shoes with round toes. My ‘overcoat’ is a spiffy leather jacket, and I ain’t lost in it. And for damn sure, no dust is settling on my shoulders. So screw you.

I got me a new soul brother, William Butler Yeats. At 63, he wrote:

Old Art

What shall I do with this absurdity—
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
                      Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible—

Three months ago I started writing a novel. I’ve finished about a quarter of it, and I’m pretty pleased with the results. I’m determined to see it through to the end. It will be my first big work of fiction, after one stillborn attempt at a novel, one short experimental novel, one attempt that ended when I painted myself into a corner. No tragedy. As I learned very clearly from my playwrighting days (twenty plays in my forties, two a year for ten years), you learn immeasurably more from failures than from successes.

Old Jeff

See, that’s something I didn’t know at 18. I’ve actually learned something over this threescore and ten—a failure isn’t the end of the world. I wish I had known that at 18. And at 26. And at 40. It would have given me solace and confidence to grapple with the challenges of those daunting years.

Yes, I’ve learned a thing or two. But I also realize that there’s much more out there that I haven’t learned than what I have. But that’s cool.

So, yes, Art, I am officially old. But you know what? I have more of my jewfro left than you do. If you want to feel old, you go ahead. I have too much to do. That other guy from back then sporting a jewfro, Bob Zimmerman, transcended the clichés of the time. He was 24 when he wrote ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’.

So, yeah, on paper I’m old. But I’ve still got my creative juices, such as they are, flowing like an agitated mountain stream in spring, choked and rushing furiously with melted snow; and I’m going to be spending the next month thanking the Almighty for blessing me with the health and energy to channel these energies into a project that keeps me off the streets and out of my wife’s hair.

Soon enough, I suppose, I’ll be sitting on a park bench with dust gathering on my shoulders. But I have a sneaking suspicion that in my earphones I’ll be listening to The Who’s Roger Daltrey singing “Hope I d-d-d-die before I get old”.

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7

203: Aretha Franklin & Ray Charles: ‘Spirit in the Dark’

Posted by jeff on Sep 6, 2018 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Aretha Franklin & Ray Charles: ‘Spirit in the Dark’

Aretha Franklin & Ray Charles- February 1971 Fillmore West sheet 909 frame 33aI live in what I like to call the only non-Christian country in the Western world. We’re Jewish here, and we have a looong history of being different. In high school and college, half of my classmates and most of my neighbors were Jewish, but the subject was virtually unmentioned. Unmentionable. Obliquely noted only on a very few holidays, it was not something you talked about. If you weren’t ashamed of it, it was certainly nothing to strut.

Why would you want to be different?

Well, most of my friends chose that route, and they became less different than their parents (first-generation Americans) and grandparents (European-born, speaking English with a Yiddish accent). The Old World was left back there, Hitler obliterated it anyway, we are all Americans. Well, most of us.

24-09-2014 12-21-26Our grandparents had rescued us from Hitler, our parents had couched us comfortably in suburbia. But in the throes of the Vietnam War, the Chicago convention and Kent State, the American Dream was going sour. My entire generation sought meaning elsewhere – Molotov cocktails, drugs, alcohol, feng shui, communes, even dentistry. A perverse few even did a retro backflip into the religion of their forefathers. A substantial number of them – well, us – found ourselves in Israel, embracing and embraced by Zionism, Orthodox Judaism, and 10,000 miles distance from our nagging mothers. I even wrote a song about this very odyssey.

We Jews have our own calendar. The day starts at sundown (yeah, I know, that’s oxymoronic), the month starts with the reappearance of the moon (whew, I was really worried it wouldn’t show this time), the year on Rosh HaShana (Head of the Year), which occurs (according to our half-lunar/half-solar calendar) somewhere between September 5 and October 5 (except after 2089, when it will come no earlier than September 6 – let me tell you, this is one tangled can of worms).

Spirit in the Dark

Spirit in the Dark

The event is proscribed in the Bible (Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1) as a day of blowing the ram’s horn. Nowadays here in this Jewish country it’s a two-day holiday. Everybody puts on their holiday finery, buys a lot of flowers and newspapers, and gifts for the friends who are hosting them for a holiday meal. This year it begins at sundown Sunday and runs till Tuesday night. So if you start counting from tonight (Friday night, the beginning of Sabbath) and take into account that nobody does anything constructive on Sunday other than cooking for the next two days, that makes this a five-day bacchanalia.

For most folks here, five days of vacation and rest. For those of us who joined OAR (the Observe All the Rules club), it means the Day of Judgment, in which we’re called to account for our behavior during the past year. It’s the beginning of a ten-day period of soul-searching, climaxing in the Yom Kippur fast. In practice, Rosh HaShana is a 48- hour prayer marathon in synagogue, with occasional breaks for (a lot of) eating and (a lot of) sleeping and (a lot of) reading the newspapers. I want to tell you, 48 hours without screens is a very long time. Or, to put it more philosophically, “Life is short, but the days are very long.”

Some people, spiritually more highly evolved than myself, manage to engage the day in all its gravity. I overheard a young security guard at the entrance to the mall saying to a friend, in utter earnest, “It’s so frightening – on Monday we’re all gonna stand before The King in judgment. Scary, man!”

Concert-Fillmore-West-San-Francisco-Aretha-Franklin-Ray-CharlesI won’t tell you how challenging that prayer marathon is for me, because My Better Half reads this and she likes to try to picture me with a gray beard swaying in rapture.

I will confess that my two regular synagogue buddies and I occasionally exchange during breaks in the prayer a word or two (or a few trillion) about such spiritually lofty subjects as the new officially released boxed set of Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Z and D and I grew up with Lesley West’s Mountain more prominent in our landscape than Mount Sinai, and we all made a similar journey to the same pew in the same synagogue saying the same prayers for 72 hours that our great-grandfathers did in Eastern Europe. That’s a very gratifying concept, but great-grandpa was hardwired in a way that we’re not. Our attitude to spirituality is somewhat wry, to put it mildly. So it’s at times like this, with Divine Judgment hanging over our mortal souls, that Z and D and I and our like reach into the bag of cultural resources on which we were raised for a booster.

1208449-Aretha-Franklin-Jim-MarshallAnd there’s nothing more boostful than Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles’ rendition of her ‘Spirit in the Dark’ as performed at the Fillmore West on March 6, 1971. The folks up on the stage grew up singing their hearts out in churches in Detroit and rural Florida. The kids in the audience occasionally visited Temple Beth Israel in Squirrel Hill or Shaker Heights.

The 3-night gig was a big one for Aretha, her commercial popularity burgeoning. Jerry Wexler put her on stage in front of a white audience singing popular white songs (Beatles, Paul Simon, Stephen Stills) mixed with pop soul (‘Respect’, ‘Dr Feelgood). He replaced her road band with A-level studio musicians King Curtis and his band The Kingpins (featuring Billy Preston) and The Memphis Horns, with Aretha’s regular backup singers.

On the second night, she spontaneously brought Ray Charles on stage to duet with her on ‘Spirit in the Dark’, a quasi-spiritual she’d written and had a hit with a couple of years previously. She sings the song, then disappears off-stage, then returns with The Genius: “I discovered Ray Charles”, she quips, a reference to Flip Wilson’s Christopher Columbus 1967 skit in which “Queen Isabel Johnson” tells Chris that he can have “all the money you all the money you want, honey — You go find Ray Charles!” And shouting/testifying (drunk) from the dock, “Chris gonna find Ray Charles!”

God

God

We’ve written before about Aretha and about Ray. As Ray said, “There are singers, then there is Aretha.” She calls him “The Right Reverend Ray”.

The gig was documented in the album “Aretha Live at Fillmore West”, not one of her big hits, but gaining respect over the years. It includes a recording of part of the second night’s version of ‘Spirit in the Dark’ with surprise guest Ray. “I actually saw Ray a week or so earlier and told him what I was doing at the Fillmore but I didn’t think too much about it – until the night and there he was in the crowd. The next thing I knew he was up onstage and we were singing ‘Spirit.’ It was really a fantastic show and one that I’ll always remember.”

In 2005, Rhino Records released a 4-CD box set, “Don’t Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live At Fillmore West”, but the version of ‘Spirit in the Dark’ there is from the first night.

The entire duet with Ray is recorded in video, all 25 minutes of it. Technically, the quality is low. Musically, it’s sublime. Do yourself a favor, watch it all. Then watch it again. Watch it just before Rosh HaShana. Watch it just before Christmas and before Aid al-Fitr. Watch it before Martin Luther King’s birthday. Watch it before your own birthday. Watch it on your cat’s birthday. Just watch it.

Judgment

Judgment

It’s magic. It’s inspired. Know what? It’s spiritual.

Aretha is ostensibly singing about God, but it’s one very gritty God: Are you gettin’ the spirit in the dark?/People movin’ oh and they groovin’/Just gettin’ the spirit in the dark/Tell me sister how do ya feel?/Tell me my brother, how do you feel?/Do you feel like dancin?/Get up and let’s start dancin’/Start gettin’ the spirit in the dark./Riiiiide Sally ride/Put your hand on your hips/Cover your eyes/And move with the spirit.

Ray may be singing a church tune, but he’s doing it across the street in a honkey-tonk: Every time you get a girl singing with you, can you feel it deep inside?/When my woman wake me up in the morning, she give me the spirit/I gotta find me a woman tonight, ‘cause I feel the spirit.

Maybe Brother Ray can find The Spirit in a honkey-tonk or at the Fillmore West, but me and Z and D, we’re going to be in our neighborhood synagogue, and if we do any singing it’s gonna be a whole lot more bowdlerized than Ray’s. What can I tell you? We didn’t grow up in Rev. Franklin’s church. Well, we didn’t grow up in Grandpa’s shtiebel either, but each of us decided that those are the roots we choose to embrace. Not drugs, not Moonyism, not Fillmorism. We’re gonna sit in shul for three days and be bored out of our minds and try real hard to reconnect with where we came from and seriously ponder our destiny for the coming year. And maybe here and there we’ll even sneak in a little schmooze about Aretha and Ray’s ‘Spirit in the Dark’.

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9

160: Smokey Robinson & Aretha Franklin, ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ (Live)

Posted by jeff on Aug 16, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Smokey Robinson & Aretha Franklin, ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ (Live)

Last week I talked about Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ from a very personal angle. But the song just wouldn’t leave me alone (yes, it’s infectious as the bubonic plague), so I did some snooping, and discovered a few things.

One is that Smokey really does have an uncommonly beautiful voice. I knew that was true, but somehow I always wind up absorbed by the gestalt of his recordings, not him as a vocalist per se.

Another is that he’s abused ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ horribly in a slew of embarrassing glam celeb duets that I very strongly recommend you not listen to: with Lucy Lawless (lawless indeed, there really should be a law against such demeaning appearances); with Ashanti (her plastic singing oudone by her affected hand gestures and ludicrous slinky walk); with Darryl Hall (all forced joviality, carrot-up-the-ass smiles); and even with Linda Ronstadt (whose schlocky 1978 cover of the song made us swoon for years. But neither she nor her treatment have worn well – here her floozy appearance is rivaled in bad judgment only by the stage set, with both Smokey and Linda concentrating more on avoiding tripping and stepping on each other’s toes than on singing the song).

But the discovery that’s been haunting me for days is this one, a spontaneous, honest homeboy and girl moment.  Aretha Franklin (b. 1942) Smokey (b. 1940) grew up in the same Detroit ‘hood, knew each other since forever. Here she’s the featured guest on a TV show called Soul Train, and Smokey’s a guest of the guest. Watch the banter, the comfort and immense mutual admiration. Watch the emcee challenge Aretha live on camera to come up with a Smokey song. Look at the total focus with which she engages the task, bestowing on it both gravitas and the most serious of fun.

Listen to these two remarkable voices, velvet and steel. A magical meeting in a magical song.  It’s not chemistry, it’s alchemy. Their emotion is palpable. As has been mine for these several days now. So will yours.

No matter that they botch the harmony at the end of the second verse. No matter that they omit the third verse entirely. At the beginning of the second verse (3’00” in the clip), Smokey takes the solo in the most transcendent, celestial voice produced by an earthbound human; then Aretha graces it with her blue note ‘mmm-hmm’, and it’s as miraculous as the rising of the sun.

Unrehearsed, glitzless. Watch it and say a little prayer of thanks for being present at the creation.

 

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