Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Message To Love: To Jimi At 70

Dear Jimi,

Best wishes on your 70th Birthday.

Though we never met, and I never had the opportunity to see you perform, I am thankful to have walked the earth at the same time as you. Most of all, I am just grateful to have your music in my life.
I have a friend from high school who claims that I dressed like you for all of 9th grade. I think it was more that you blew my mind so completely that it was visible from the outside. All these years later I can still be surprised and wonder-struck by your music.

You are surely the greatest guitarist of all time, as well as a great songwriter, a wonderful singer, and a pioneering master of studio recording. The ramifications of your premature death will never be fully understood. Thankfully, due to bootlegs and a steady stream of reissues and posthumous releases, we have a better idea of what might have been. Somehow I think I know that whatever else you would have accomplished, it would have been beautiful and profound.

On July 17, 1970, you played your last concert in NYC at the New York Pop Festival on Randall's Island, less than five miles from where I grew up on the Upper West Side. Perhaps the sounds of your "public saxophone" drifted on the winds into a five-year-old's bedroom...

Rock on, brother.

Here's a sample from that concert:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Benjamin Britten

Today is Benjamin Britten's 99th birthday. While I'm sure there will be much fanfare for his centenary in 2013, I'm not going to wait to celebrate this wonderful composer. Here's how I found my way to him.

Often I find new music through other music. When I was falling down the rabbit hole of Dmitri Shostakovich's oeuvre back in the late 80's, I kept seeing references to Britten and simply got curious. Like many, I had heard The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra but never knew anything else.

My interest dovetailed perfectly with a major reissue project of recordings conducted by the composer. The attractive packaging pushed me over the edge and I gave the disc featuring the Symphonia Da Requiem and the Cello Symphony a try. It was love at first play. This was music that was complex, knotty, superbly orchestrated and, most importantly, warm, open-hearted and emotional. A door was opened to a rich catalog of operas, songs and orchestral and chamber works and I entered fully into it. Those qualities that I heard on first listen are almost always evident in varying degrees and almost all of his music is deeply satisfying.

Britten vies with Richard Strauss as THE major opera composer of the 20th century and would serve as a wonderful introduction to the operatic experience. Start with Peter Grimes or Billy Budd, or, for sheer delight, his wondrous take on A Midsummer Night's Dream. But here's a recording of the premiere of the Cello Symphony so you can start where I started.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Miles Davis: Live-Evil

It was back on this day in 1971 that Miles Davis let loose another shot across the bow of the jazz academy. After the astounding and confounding Bitches Brew and the guitar-and-rage-driven assault of A Tribute To Jack Johnson, along came Live-Evil, which was at times both of those things and at times neither. Assembled by secret weapon Teo Macero from recordings made at the Cellar Door in DC and shorter pieces recorded in the studio, the album was a sprawling affair. The expansive live tracks were closely miked, however, and blend in perfectly with the studio material.

The sounds ranged from the bite of John McLaughlin's guitar as it opens Gemini/Double Image, to the soothing vocalise of Hermeto Pascoal on Nem Un Talvez, and everything in between. Michael Henderson's bass and Jack DeJohnette's drums provide a nearly non-stop locomotion on the live takes, dividing and subdividing the rhythms like atomic scientists. Of course, there was also Miles's trumpet, sometimes processed through a wah-wah into an almost purely electronic texture, and sometimes a breathy and ethereal exhalation. The transformation of his horn into something synthetic is emphasized by the musical conception of his solos, often assembled from short rhythmic bursts that grow increasingly knotty.

As on Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, Macero deserves most, if not all, the credit for the structural integrity of the final product. As I understand it, Miles would record, record and record - and then go on the road, leaving Macero to sort through the tape and assemble something that made sense. Obviously, the live material was spectacular, (The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, which includes six sets from his residency at the club, is essential listening), but Macero made something that stood on its own as a work of art. Finally, Live-Evil was a confirmation that this new direction of Miles's was no passing fancy, but something he was going to pursue as far as it went. He continued to refine and expand the approach of these three albums until 1975, when he retired for five years due to drug and health problems.

Miles was so far ahead of his time during that period, that perhaps it was for the best that he took a pause. However, it took longer than five years for the world to come to grips with what he achieved from 1970-75 - and I was no different than the average jazz fan in this regard.

Kind of Blue and In A Silent Way were staples of mine from high school through college, but it wasn't until around 1997 that Miles grabbed my heart completely - and it turned out to be his electric period that did it. After years of disarray, Columbia had launched a massive reissue campaign and I found myself confronting Live-Evil in the listening station at J&R Music World. Even though I had found Bitches Brew baffling, I thought I'd give it a try and selected the track called What I Say. And then...WOW. I literally began to cry when, after what seemed like several minutes of fabulous funk intro, his horn entered - gloriously.

Although many different motives and impulses have been assigned to Miles's push into this terrain, it occurred to me that by assembling these big groups of electric and eclectic players, he was just creating a place where he could BE. And isn't that something we're all looking for?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Isaac Hayes

Forty-one years ago today, Isaac Hayes released Black Moses, a massive double-album set that solidified his position as one of the most ambitious and commanding musical figures of the era. I grew up with his music but as I delved deeper, I found I had a lot to learn.

The only thing I can say about Ike is, if you think you know the man, you probably don't know the man. Like Shaft himself, he's complicated. Similar to Sly Stone, he had spectacular early success, first as the writer (often with David Porter) of some of the greatest songs of the 60's for Stax Records, and then with his second solo album, Hot Buttered Soul, and the Oscar-winning Theme From Shaft.

Couple years later, however, interest inexplicably waned. I'm always looking to go deep into anyone's music if they've had a long career - and I refuse to kowtow to received opinion without hearing for myself. It quickly became obvious that some albums I'd never even heard of (To Be Continued) were fantastic and ones that were often derided (Chocolate Chip) were good to great. Also, his voice grew on me a lot over the years, proving to be more nimble and expressive than it first appeared. As I soon began telling everyone who would listen, every Isaac Hayes album that I've heard so far has at least one great song and often more.

While it might have baffled some people that this iconic soul songwriter was mostly doing covers (and songs by Bacharach & David, Jimmy Webb and The Carpenters, no less), that was just an expression of his progressive nature. He'd already scaled the mountaintop as a songwriter and it was time to move on. Thus the outrageous arrangements, the heartfelt and sometimes hilarious raps and the overall EPIC quality of his music. Goddamned right he was the first African-American to be nominated for a soundtrack Oscar - who else but Black Moses had the vision and the skills to bring funky soul music to the big screen?

He made big, long songs because his heart was so big and he was so earnest in love. He wanted nothing more than for it all to work out but he knew, he KNEW, that sometimes your thing was blown and you had to find somebody new. The music would always be there for him, though. As it is for you - now listen.

At first I was taken aback by his version of Fever, from his dismissed disco era, but that was because I had to free myself from the (deservedly) beloved Little Willie John and Peggy Lee records. Now I hear a divine madness.

He could also take a second-rate song and make it into an object of fascination.

As for Black Moses, it has many highlights, but who could forget the indelible Ike's Rap II - sampled by both Portishead and Tricky in 1995 with amazing results.
Finally, the groove of Good Love can't be beat.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Aja Live: The Darcys On The Dark Side

Shine up the battle apple...Strike at the stroke of midnight...lay down the law and break it. These tough, hard bitten lines from Steely Dan's Josie have never sounded bleaker than when crooned by Jason Couse of The Darcys at the end of their set at Mercury Lounge last Tuesday night. Drummer Wes Marskell had left the stage and Jason, guitarist Michael le Riche and bassist Dave Hurlow created a backdrop that was rich and at the same time skeletal. The original Josie, which closes out Steely Dan's multi-platinum album, is almost a romp, bringing the implicit funk to the forefront and spinning a tale of a hellcat's riotous return. Hearing The Darcys take, I wasn't so sure I wanted to be around when Josie comes home.

Jason Couse
Covering Steely Dan is a bit of a fool's game. Few have tried and many who have get caught up in the virtuosity of the playing, leading to dreck like The Hoops McCann Band. As Jason put it to me after the show, "You can't make it better, so you have to make it different." That iconoclastic approach makes their version of Aja a complete success. Instead of getting lost in the fiddly bits of Becker and Fagen's rigorous pursuit of perfection, the four-man group from Toronto instead lose themselves in the dark tales and shady characters at the heart of this classic album.

Having enjoyed the album since its release earlier this year (the free download is available here), I leapt at the opportunity to see them perform it live. What I wasn't expecting was that the band would play nearly as fast and loose with their own version of Aja as they had with the original. Instrumental passages grew longer, sometimes launching into the ether, and there was a sense that they were still finding new crevices to explore in the songs. It was fascinating to watch how carefully they were listening to each other, which is likely what kept the thing from going off the rails.

Michael le Riche
They obviously love Aja and know every nuance of it well enough that they can supercharge it or strip it down section by section. Jason told me that the deconstructive process of making the album was now informing their work on their own material. "We're more likely to take a song apart completely and put it back together," he said, "and we listen to each other more." His excitement about the three songs they've completed so far was contagious.

Their ability to continue to play around with Aja made the concert a thrilling experience, with the 35 year old songs sounding white hot, as if they had just been written. They took the stage wordlessly and slammed through Black Cow and Aja without coming up for air. Deacon Blues, with its unsettled rhythm, came next, and it was another case of Becker & Fagen's film-noir themes meshing perfectly with The Darcys approach. Peg still holds its place as the brightest song in the set, although the fast tempo and Michael le Riche's nearly punk guitar lent it an urgency that bordered on desperation. Le Riche's guitar deserves special mention overall. Through his use of effects, some of which he built himself, he has developed one of the most distinctive guitar sounds going, a sort of serrated yet sleek sound that is surprisingly versatile. It is equally well suited to the fine songs on The Darcys self-titled debut, released last year and also available as a free download.

The pedals of le Riche.
Dave Hurlow
Wes Marskell
Home At Last has the band drawing the most from the original, with Hurlow's rock-solid bass anchoring the "tired sea song" in much the same way Chuck Rainey did on Steely Dan's version, but it still sounds completely fresh. Instead of being frisky, I Got The News was almost introverted, like an inner monologue. As it ended, Marskell walked off (to run the merch table, it turned out) and we were treated to the horror-show apotheosis of Josie. Almost before the last notes faded away, the band left the stage and it was over. No encores. It was a scorched earth move which meshed perfectly with their dark take on Aja. As the crowd broke up, I was ready to break out the hats and hooters. Kudos to The Darcys for making this monolithic song cycle completely their own, first in the studio and again on stage.

For openers we heard Mexican rock band Rey Pila, who brought some intriguing hints of Bill Nelson and early Simple Minds to their colorful sound. Two things really stuck out as needing improvement, however. First of all, in a five-piece band, having no back-up vocals is a huge missed opportunity. The bassist and/or guitarists chiming in on the choruses and bridges would have obviated the singer's need to go all emo at those points in many songs. Even if none of the other guys can sing, he may want to look into the virtues of restraint as his voice sounded much better when he wasn't over-doing it.


Friday, November 09, 2012

The Beatles Thing

"But the Beatles thing is over," Paul McCartney declared in a Life Magazine interview 44 years ago this week. While it was not the official notice of the end, careful readers would have taken note of the finality of his statement and been seriously concerned. And it was true - privately the Fab Four had already determined that they would no longer continue as a group. But the Beatle thing is never really over, is it? Here's some thoughts on why that might be.

I can understand how easy it is to take The Beatles for granted. After all, my mom used to wake me up with a 45 of I Want To Hold Your Hand, which puts them very nearly at the earliest point of my nurture - close enough that I now consider them part of my nature.

Perhaps they are so extraordinary that's it's easier to see them as part of the furniture, so to speak, than to try to grapple with what they really achieved. "The blues is a chair," John Lennon said, so he knew something about music as furniture, but unlike the blues, the universe of The Beatles was essentially created by four very young men who followed their (both creative and commercial) muses never suspecting - at least not until the end - that they were essentially creating a one-band genre.

A defining feature of that genre is that anything went - add a string quartet, put the tape on backward, strip it back to naked human anguish, get silly, sing in French, make a collage, base your lyrics on a poster or a box of chocolates or the Tibetan book of the dead, get angry, write songs, get folky, sing other people's songs, etc. That's why I always say you can use the Fab Four to get exposed to nearly everything music can do. Listening to their music can be the start of a love affair with music, one that the listener can pursue down countless avenues. "I like the way that song makes me feel - where else can I find that?"

This far along from their demise, people are still trying to parse The Beatles, to see where they fit alongside other musicians and separate the strands of what made them work. "How good were The Beatles as lyricists?" or "Where does George Harrison rank as a guitarist?" are typical starting points for articles or blog posts. In the first example, if you examine the lyrics in the cold light of the dissection table, you might find some of them wanting. Not as deep as Dylan, or as clever as The Kinks or The Who, or as dark as The Doors or The Rolling Stones - to name only some of their contemporaries. As for the second example, while his style is quite distinctive and his technique excellent, I wouldn't put George in my top five guitarists.

But the point is, they can't really be parsed. It was the hydra-headed foursome of them that made it all work and the unified quality of their output that astonishes. There is much we know now about the interpersonal difficulties they had, but that just makes it all the more remarkable. More than any other band, it is impossible to imagine The Beatles doing what they did with anybody other than John, Paul, George and Ringo. The dream of human unity - always just out of reach - is exemplified by their remarkable music. Even photographs of the four of them are inspiring.

"Not liking The Beatles is like not liking the sun," someone once wrote in Rolling Stone. While I believe that it takes all kinds to make a world, part of me agrees with that statement and maintains a mild suspicion of those who say flat out "I don't like The Beatles." Then again, being jaded by them might be worse, so dust off that musical furniture and try to listen to The Beatles as if you've never heard them before.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Elliott Carter: Century's End

Thinking about the extraordinary life and career of Elliott Carter, who died today a month shy of his 104th birthday, I'm humbled by all I do not know about his music - and all of his music I have yet to discover. I can say that The Minotaur (1945) is a great piece of theatrical music, lively and knotty like Stravinsky can be, adding layers of 20th century psychologizing to the ancient tale. I can certainly point to Night Fantasies (1980) as one of the definitive 20th century piano pieces. His string quartets are a fascinating tangle that are forever fresh at each listen.

I have always been a fan of percussion pieces (Nonesuch's collection was a seminal album for me) so I was delighted to discover Tintinnabulation back in 2010, when my daughter (then 11) and I made our first foray to Tanglewood for their Sunday morning chamber concerts. It turned out to be a great work for six percussionists, which displayed Carter's deep engagement with the percussion repertoire, and with the materials the instruments were made of. In the program notes he remarked that he made sure not to include anything, like marimba, that could add a touch of melody. This was about surfaces being struck. Percussion.

The crowd responded with quite an ovation, which only grew louder when Carter himself stood to acknowledge it. That was a nice surprise for my me and my daughter. Carter then sat down and enjoyed the rest of the concert, alert and involved at the age of 101.

Here's an excellent performance of Tintinnabulation. And there are hundreds more works to discover.

Elliot Carter - Tintinnabulation from Charles Martin on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Pere Ubu: Rulers of 1978

Although much of the world may have been unaware, Pere Ubu ruled 1978. They released their first two albums that year - The Modern Dance in January and, 34 years ago next week, Dub Housing, the astonishing follow up. They shared some characteristics with the Talking Heads, although they never had the improbable commercial success David Byrne and company enjoyed. Even so Pere Ubu have a firm place in the galaxy of what is often called post-punk and their first three albums are some of my favorite music ever. Here are some of the reasons why.

Named after the title character in Alfred Jarry's surrealist play, Ubu Roi, this band of avant garde misfits arose from the toxic industrial landscape of Cleveland, Ohio in the mid-70's. They didn't entirely reject the foundations of rock, but they warped them and folded them into their own twisted vision that included free jazz, dub reggae, musique concrete and lyrical preoccupations that were sometimes psychologically intense, and sometimes playful.

In addition to guitar, bass and drums (played by Tom Herman, Tim Wright and Scott Krauss), their line up included an EML modular synthesizer, played by Allen Ravenstine, one of the most original musicians of that or any era. Rather than use his electronic gear to imitate other instruments like horns or strings, he created purely electronic sounds which appear throughout the songs.

The drawing depicts David Thomas, lead singer of Pere Ubu, and one of the most courageous artists to enter a recording studio. Sometimes I think courage is the number one qualification for rock and roll. Think of the rogues gallery of outcasts and potential losers that have brought so much music into our lives. Where was the place for them before 1955? David Thomas was a hefty guy with a doughy face, exploding hair and a voice that was strangled, guttural and occasionally akin to that of Jackie Gleason's character Reginald Van Gleason III.

The music he and his compatriots came up with was often challenging at first listen but thrilling if you allowed yourself to buy in to what they were doing. I was well along for the ride when it struck me: this guy has GUTS. To put himself out there with no compromise, just as he is, take it or leave it - that takes courage. He was a riveting presence both on stage and record and had the band to match. While I haven't always gone along with all of his directions, either in Pere Ubu or solo, all these years later I still take inspiration from David Thomas's example. So give a listen to the opening cuts from those two landmark albums they released in 1978 and take a look at a wonderfully unhinged performance of a much later song. Maybe Pere Ubu will help you find courage when you need it.