Thanks, Harry

My old desk does an arabesque in the morning when I first arrive.

It’s a pleasure to see, it’s waiting there for me to keep my hopes alive.

Such a comfort to know it’s got no place to go,

It’s always there

It’s the one thing I’ve got, a huge success,

My good old desk.

My old desk never needs a rest

and I’ve never once heard it cry.

I’ve never seen it tease it’s always there to please me

From nine to five.

HarryThere was a wonderful innocence about Harry Nilsson in those days. Like Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks, he was a singer-songwriter with a great appreciation for the commonplace, a love of old (1920s-1940s) music, and an iconoclastic way of telling a story. The Beatles were crazy about him. I was, too, and among those of a certain age, he was the odd musical hero. He never grew old enough to call his fans by name—as he described the slow fade of a pop star. Instead, he flamed out, but, somehow, Nilsson is not included  in most “rock stars who died too young” compendia.

The place to start is not his best known hit, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Fred Neil song that he happened to record because he and his producer liked the tune (it became the opening theme for the film Midnight Cowboy, so it became famous). His novelty song “Coconut” was also a top ten hit, but it, too, was an aberration. “Without You” (you know: “I can’t live if living is without you…”) is better, but not on my list of his best work.

Where to start? Early, but not too early. Set your time machine to 1968, 1969 and 1970. Each year presented a very special album by an extraordinary performer, a storyteller with a wonderful sense of melody working, on two of these albums, in spectacular harmony with the ideal producer for these projects, Rick Jarrard.

I would start with the album called Harry because it contains so many of my favorite Nilsson songs—each one handsomely presented with an elaborate arrangement. “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” and “Morning Glory Story”—the latter is a dignified portrait of a homeless woman, a topic nobody sang or wrote about back in 1970—make sense on an album with similar stories by Bill Martin, “Fairfax Rag” and “Rainmaker” (you know the story; he tells it especially well). And, there’s a song by Randy Newman, then no better known than Nilsson himself: “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”

Nilsson’s voice and style was especially well-suited to Randy Newman’s music, and so, the 1970 album was devoted entirely to his work. This is a spectacular pop music milestone, story after story, sensitively and imaginatively told: short stories, really, told with the full power of music and nostalgia. Every song is special, and, in its way, timeless.

The prelude to all of this, an album called Aerial Ballet, is filled with top-notch pop songs that set Nilsson’s bubbly, sensitive, smart style. It’s the album with more familiar songs than the others: “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “One” (a top ten hit for Three Dog Night) among them. It’s great fun, but I like Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman so much that this album takes third position. (In the early 1970s, Nilsson reworked this and an earlier album, including new mixes and some new vocals, to create Aerial Pandemonium Ballet).

If you’re interested in going further, some would claim that Nilsson Schmilson, produced by Richard Perry, is his best. It’s certainly his most commercial, most mainstream (it was produced with that specific intention, and I think it suffers for its success). Better is his salute to the music of the 1940s (mostly) in what turned out to be a career-killer (with a stupid title): A Little Touch of Schmilson in the Night (the link leads to a BBC documentary about the making of the album). This is lovely work, better than most of what Rod Stewart and others have done with similar material, and it’s worth owning. At the time, it was considered wildly narcissistic, part of a larger pattern of disengagement with the realities of the music business, and, sadly, a harbinger of the musician’s disengagement with anything resembling a rational, healthy life.

Nilsson bookThe early days, and the dreadful slide into substance abuse, crappy behavior and, ultimately, death, is told with appropriate accuracy and sensitivity by biographer Alyn Shipton. The book is called Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, and it’s difficult for fans of the early days to read and comprehend. Happily, the first half of the book explores the good times: the details of the relationships and creative decisions that led to the artist’s finest work, notes from the recording sessions, a rich history of the relationship between Nilsson and masterful arranger George Tipton, stories about so many songs that are so special to long-time Nilsson fans.

I suspect we all believed that Harry’s lyrics to Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song would come true, that each successive decade would find fewer and fewer of us grooving to Nilsson’s fine work and that, in time, the cult would become smaller and perhaps more intimate with a favorite musician from our youth or college days. It didn’t go down that way. Harry became a giant problem: tremendously talented, proven, light-hearted at his best, bad company at his worst. Later albums are, as a rule, dreadful, sarcastic, and lacking in the wonderful subtlety that made his work so very special.

If you feel the need to explore this work, and to try to make sense of the life that included the early albums and the likes of “you’re breakin’ my heart/you’re tearin’ it apart/so f— you” (which only began the nasty period), several options. One is to try to wrap your head around the awful Nilsson collaboration with John Lennon (who was also going through a bad period); it’s called Pussy Cats. Another is explore Knnillssonn with its strange (and sometimes lovely) production experimentation, and the return of the warmth that once characterized everything the man did. As Douglas Hofstadter might describe it, Harry was a strange loop.

Or, if you just want it all, there is a box set with just about all of his work. Click the link for a fascinating, detailed exploration of the whole 17-disc project.

Nilsson box

Long Overdue

bobbywatson2colorBobby Watson is a musician’s musician, well-known in some circles, but not a famous jazz saxophone, at least not these days. Those who were paying attention in the mid-1980s, or who have done their research on the best jazz albums of that era, tend to love Appointment in Milano, and Year of the Rabbit; recorded and released nearly twenty years later, Horizon Reassembled is also terrific. Browse Watson’s All Music listing, and you’ll find a half-dozen superior albums by one of jazz’s best saxophone players. Watson’s Check Cashing Day surprised me by showing up in the mail last week. Made me happy. Made me think, too. You can listen to some samples here. Let me tell you more about it.

Recorded to remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago, Watson’s creative partner on this project is a fellow artist from Kansas City, Glenn North. He’s a spoken word performer, and poet who does his best to speak the truth (that second link provides a good example of his work—listen with your ears, and don’t worry about the so-so video quality). Mr. North is also the education manager at the Kansas City Jazz Museum, a kin with Watson who has doubled on the academic side for decades. North’s work is accessible with whiffs of hip-hop language and cadence, straight talk that carries the right messages:

Black is a flock of one hundred crows flying across the moon.

Black is hot water, cornbread and black-eyed peas served with a wooden spoon.

Black is the floor of the Atlantic Ocean covered with fifty million ancestral bones.

Black is the thundercloud over The Congo as the panther starts to moan.

Black is what was before before, when there was no time or space.

Black is the mistreated, the misunderstood, the magnificently beautiful race.

Black is a thousand midnights buried beneath the cypress swamp.

Black is four nappy-headed boys cruising in a beat-up Mitsubishi Galant.

Black is a thousand hornets ready to attack.

And even though Black ain’t went nowhere, tonight, Black is back.

Good poem, but so much better with the beautiful soundtrack provided by the sweet sound of Bobby Watson’s saxophone and the bowed bass so handsomely played by Curtis Lundy. This is what concept albums ought to be, maybe used to be, and I now understand that I miss them. Music with a purpose, a point of view, something to say, something well-said. Watson’s quartet provides some straight-ahead jazz tracks, perhaps the best of them is “A Blues of Hope,” but there are plenty more.

Check Cashing DayThe most ambitious track is Secrets of the Sun (Son) featuring wonderful vocal work by formidable performer, vocal arranger and composer Pamela Baskin-Watson (his wife), Glenn North’s spoken word at its confident best, and a splendid arrangement that allows the quartet to shine.

The more I listen, the more I appreciate what this ensemble has done. Sure, it’s a wonderful jazz album, but Watson does that just about every time. He’s a pro, he’s been doing this forever, and he’s gifted. But there’s a lot more heart and soul here, a coherent focus, a grown-up reflection on what has happened, and has not happened, and what has decidedly not happened, since Martin gave the speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. More from Glenn North, again presented with Watson’s spot-0n soundtrack.

I’m tired of welfare handouts and being played the fool.

I’m also tired of waiting for my forty acres and a mule.

Tired of being mis-educated in this country’s so-called schools.

Ain’t none of them teachers talking about my forty acres and a mule.

I bet you’d sing a different tune if it was me that owed something to you.

Save all the double-talk, and give me my forty acres and a mule.

You keep smiling in my face, but I know your heart is cruel.

Why else wouldn’t you give me my forty acres and a mule?

And why am I the one always getting arrested when you’re the one breaking all the rules?

You know my next question.

Where the hell is my forty acres and a mule?

I’ve been oppressed for over four hundred years, been the object of ridicule.

The least you could do is break me off my forty acres and a mule.

Compared to what you’ve done to me, what I’m requesting is miniscule.

You should be glad that what I’m asking for is forty acres and a mule.

The bill is up to four trillion dollars now and the man is way past due.

What do I have to do to get my forty acres and a mule?

The poet and spoken word artist Glenn North.

The poet and spoken word artist Glenn North.

After writing several articles about intellectual property and fairness, I hope this brief excursion into Glenn North’s poetry is okay with him (if it’s not, I hope he will contact me so I can remove it or otherwise change the presentation). I wanted you to get a sense of what this people have done, and because I think it matters, and because I think it ought to set the stage for more concept albums about important ideas, I provided more than I might otherwise have done.

Hey, this is good work, and it deserves recognition. If you’re trying to track down something interesting and different to buy for friends or family, this is a good choice to add to the list. Normally, I hate it when a website starts playing music when I arrive. In the case of www.bobbywatson.com, I had the opposite reaction. Turn it up and enjoy.

Monroe to Baker to Pikelny

Bill Monroe, as pictured on his entry in the All Music Guide. Click on the pic to see the bio and his extensive discography.

Bill Monroe, as pictured on his entry in the All Music Guide. Click on the pic to see the bio and his extensive discography.

Let’s start with Bill Monroe. Bluegrass bandleader Doug Dillard said, “God only lays a Bill Monroe on you once in a lifetime, so pay attention.” He was born in 1911, grew up on a 655-acre farm in Kentucky, learned to sing and play the fiddle from his mom and his uncle Pen (Pendleton), an old-timey musician who took young Bill along on church and school gigs. His parents died young, so Uncle Pen raised him, then moved up north to find work near Chicago in the factories. By 1934, Bill and his brother Charlie were playing music full-time, among “country music’s first generation of professionals,” according to the extensive liner notes that came with my 4-CD box set, The Music of Bill Monroe from 1936 to 1994, essential for anyone with even the mildest hankering to hear bluegrass at home or in the car. His brothers wanted to play fiddle and guitar, so he concentrated on mandolin. Charlie sang lead, and Bill sang harmony. The first year, they stayed in the midwest and built a following on local radio in Iowa and Nebraska, then headed to Charleston, South Carolina (WIS) and Charlotte, North Carolina (WBT), where lots of live country music performances filled the airwaves. By 1936, they were recording for RCA Records, and in two years, they recorded sixty songs. The story is a good one, worth reading. It winds through local baseball, the Grand Ole Opry, and, eventually, stardom and reverence for his contribution to country music. Along the way, Monroe’s band, The Blue Grass Boys, included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in the second half of the 1940s, and by 1957, a fiddler who stayed for twenty five years. His name was Kenny Baker.

Baker Plays MonroeYou can hear plenty of Baker’s work on the 4-CD box, and on many of the Monroe albums in the All Music discography. Baker’s name and work are held in very high esteem. Most knowledgeable fans agree that the one Baker album that everyone ought to own, or, at least, hear, is called Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. Recorded in 1977 and not much more than a half hour long, the album is loving described in All Music Guide, and I really couldn’t say it any better:

Is this the best bluegrass album ever made? No matter what choice might be made in this regard, it would surely inflame the passions of some picker who wouldn’t agree. Nonetheless, consider some of the circumstances. The maestro Kenny Baker is one of the most straightforward, no-nonsense, clean and clear-cut players of bluegrass and old-time music.

There are twelve tracks. Do take the time to click on the album cover and listen to the samples of at least a few of them. I especially like “Road to Columbus,” “Cheyenne,” “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Ashland Breakdown,” but every track is magnificent. Also featured: Bob Black on banjo, Joe Stewart on guitar, and Randy Davis on bass. Bill Monroe sits in on mandolin.

So now it’s 2013. Watch this.

Noam Pikelny is playing “Big Sandy River,” a song that Bill Monroe and Kenny Baker recorded back in 1962 (they wrote the song, too). But he’s not playing it on fiddle, the way Baker did. He’s playing a note-for-note version of Baker’s fiddle arrangement on his banjo. In fact, there’s  whole album of note-for-note copies played by Pikelny on banjo. The album is called Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.

These kinds of tribute albums are pretty unusual—the best-known in recent memory is probably Rufus Wainwright’s recreation of Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall Concert in 2006. But this album goes further than a simpler recreation.

Pikelny is a member of a particular class of musicians who have grown well beyond the homage into more rarefied artistic territory. I sensed this when I saw Pikelny’s partner in The Punch Brothers, Chris Thiele, playing with Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan (who plays fiddle on the Noam-Kenny-Bill album) last summer as Goat Rodeo. In their hands, this music (Americana, bluegrass, bluegrassical, whatever you would like to call it) becomes a kind of exalted, accessible art form, art music for the 21st century that’s fun to hear, deeply engaging, meticulously crafted, and so wide in its appeal, it is (in a term sometimes applied to Duke Ellington), “Beyond Category.”

Which is to say; here’s another of a select group of 2013 CDs that would make an absolutely perfect holiday gift. Enjoy.

YouTube, The Future of Classical Music

Valentina

For the millions who know her YouTube videos, this past Sunday’s full page article in The New York Times about classical pianist Valerie Lisitsa may be old news. I do love the quotes and the insights, mostly because the poke the sleeping bear that classical music has become.

“At pop events, audience members ubiquitously record the music, but the practice is invariably prohibited at formal classical spaces. At Carnegie Hall, ushers zealously race down the aisles to berate any device-toting offenders publicly.

I also admire the guts: when their bookings dried up, “they spent their life savings to hire the London Symphony Orchestra so Ms. Lisitsa could record the four Rachmaninoff concertos”

From Ms. Lisitsa:

There is a long train and we’re the last car on the train. Pop music is the first car. Now, any new song Lady Gaga does, she puts on YouTube first. And I don’t think she has any trouble selling her CDs.”

Here she is playing Rachmaninoff:

Three Old Pros

McBrideNow that I’ve written that title, let me check. Christian McBride qualified as a young lion in the early 1990s, but he’s just turned forty. He’s got some old soul, though, perhaps the result of coming up with Bobby Watson’s group, playing with Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson, and Freddy Hubbard. He’s a master of control, a craftsman of the first order and an ideal mate for the his very talented pianist Christian Sands, himself a protege of old soul Billy Taylor. Rounding out the trio is an equally top-rank player, Ulysses Owens, Jr. The name of the CD, on Mack Avenue records, is Out Here, and it’s very satisfying, clean and varied with tight, focused performances. This is jazz composition and performance of the highest caliber. There’s a lot of strong material here, but McBride’s own “Ham Hocks and Cabbage” is especially fine. Oscar Peterson’s “Hallelujah Time” is wistful, pensive, and sweet, nicely played by Sands. Dr. Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker” is another of the CD’s best tracks, mostly because of the strolling, gently swinging motion of McBride’s bass, and its interplay with the Sands’ piano. Best of all: McBride bowing his way through the sentimental melody, “I Have Dreamed.” Selecting individual tracks is fun for me because everything here is so well-constructed and winning, but the funk of “Who’s Making Love” is lots of fun–with McBride doing a bit of showboating on a tune that can easily handle it. If you’re beginning to think about gifts for the holiday season, this is one in the category of “you can’t go wrong.”

So who’s older: pianist Keith Jarrett or vibraphonist Gary Burton? Both musicians started their career in the early 1960s, both have recorded dozens of albums, both are veterans of the jazz fusion era and managed to forge remarkable careers as collaborators.

2200 XJarrett’s work is immediately magical, glorious in its improvisation and sonic exploration. He’s been doing these albums for decades, and yet, every time I put a Jarrett CD on (or, for that matter, an LP), I’m immediately transported into the filagree of his imagination, sipping a drink at an after-hours jazz bar where the player is extraordinary and I just don’t want the evening to ever end. Recorded live at the KKL Luzern Concert Hall, the CD called Somewhere begins with the  mind-bending “Deep Space,” and here, it’s Jarrett’s show with just the right additional color and light provided by double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette; later in the track (the second part is Miles Davis’s “Solar,” their interplay moves the music into an even more interesting exploration, a testament to the extreme skill, experience and love of experimentation that these three musicians consistently offer. So that’s one track, again the first, and again, a favorite. (And I suppose I should mention that the sonic fidelity of these recordings is at such a high level, it would be difficult to imagine a disc sounding any better.) There are some favorite standards here (mine, anyway); it’s difficult for me not to be captivated by Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere;” and the less-often-heard “Stars Fell on Alabama” and the Jimmy van Heusen- Johnny Mercer tune, “I Thought About You.” Ooops–I’m listening to the wrong track–that’s really catchy, and less schticky than I remembered: “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”–well, a little schtick for me. Back to the dark night sky and mystery of “Stars Fell…” and my mind easily drifts to Perseids and stardust. What a lovely album.

GaryBurtonThe old guy in the crowd–Gary Burton is 70 to Keith Jarrett’s 68–opens with a Antonio Sanchez’s rocking drum, instantly establishing a more ambitious, brighter tone for the new Guided Tour, also from Mack Avenue. This is a quartet with Burton leading as one might do with a piano. Sanchez really drives this music. It’s a bigger sound than you would typically expect from a quartet. Burton is leading an exploration not entirely different from Jarrett, but more clearly articulated, more melodic, catchier. The difference is the way that Julian Lage is playing electric guitar, almost as if he’s playing in the style of Burton and his vibes on “Jane Fonda Called Again,” never passive or receding or relaxed, but instead, aggressive and punchy. Yes, they play pretty, too, working the pastoral mood on “Jackalope,”  and the Latin romance of “Helena” (especially nice guitar from Lage on this one), but it is so much more fun when these guys really go for it, with Burton playing fast and strong. Best example is probably the last track, written by drummer Sanchez, called “Monk Fish.” Scott Colley is the capable, but less showy, bassist; tough to get a word in edge-wise when the other players are clearly having so much fun. Far livelier than the other two CDs, Guided Tour is a terrific introduction to the Burton’s massive catalog.

What a great night of jazz listening. I haven’t enjoyed writing an article about anything in I don’t know how long. Thanks for the opportunity. Go–listen!

Life with Lenny

Dinner with LennyFor nearly all of his professional life, journalist Jonathan Cott has written for Rolling Stone magazine. In 1988, he pitched the idea of an interview with Leonard Bernstein to the editors, and a year later, Cott and Bernstein spent twelve hours together at Lenny’s home in Fairfield, Connecticut. They drank vodka (to better enjoy Lenny’s recording of a Sibelius symphony), ate chicken pot pie (Lenny to vegetarian Cott: “Vell, it vouldn’t hoit!,”referring to the old story…)

You don’t know the story? It really happened in the great days of Yiddish theater when the leading actor collapsed onstage during a performance. And a doctor rushed up to help him, but the actor was already dead. And out of the audience came a woman’s voice: “so gif him a little chicken soup!” And the doctor announced that the actor had died…and the woman called back to him, “Vell, it vouldn’t hoit”

For Lenny, it’s all about passion, the great story, the phenomenal breadth and joy of life. That’s the abiding theme of the whole conversation, one that spans, in book form (“Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein,” written by Jonathan Cott and published by Oxford University Press). Here, he speaks of Alma Mahler–the famous composer’s wife. Cott begins with a question: “I’ve heard that Mahler had to talk to Freud about that problem…”, then Lenny answers:

“You know, Mahler made four appointments with Freud, and three times he broke them because he was scared to find out why he was impotent. His wife, Alma, was then ***ing everybody was was coming by–Gropius, Kokoschka, Werfel, and Bruno Walter, among others–sent him to see Freud. He was twenty years older than she, and she was the prettiest girl in Vienna,–rich, cultured, seductive… She tried to get me to bed. Many years ago, she was staying at the Hotel Pierre in New York–she had attended some of my New York Philharmonic rehearsals–and she invited me for “tea”–which turned out to be “aquavit”–then suggested we go to look at some “memorabilia” of her composer husband in her bedroom. [Laughing] She was generations older than I. And she had her hair frizzed up and was flirting like mad… She really was like a wonderful Viennese operetta. She must have been a great turn-on in her youth. But anyway, Mahler didn’t pay enough attention to her–she needed a lot of satisfying and he was busy writing his Sixth Symphony in his little wood hut all night…”

Cott is a long-time Bernstein fan. The infatuation began when Cott, then eleven years old, on November 14, 1954, watched Bernstein explain Beethoven’s  Fifth Symphony. The the first page of the score had been painted on the studio floor. Musicians, with their instruments, were standing on each stave. Bernstein explained Beethoven’s creative process by dismissing specific instruments from the score–here’s how it sounded with and without this woodwind, that brass instrument–and then, Bernstein conducted the first movement as Beethoven wrote it. Cott “made sure to watch Bernstein’s other Omnibus programs, such as “The World of Jazz,” “The Art of Conducting,” and “What Makes Opera Grand?” At age 15, Cott took Beth (his first “real” date) to see Bernstein’s Broadway smash, “West Side Story.” He became a lifelong fan.

After listening to the solo clarinet that begins his own Columbia LP recording of Sibelius’s first symphony, listening, with Cott, to the clarinet solo that begins the piece, Bernstein announces that the president of Finland had appointed him “Commander of the Order of the Lion,” then “started to sing–humming, crooning, moaning, shouting-out gospel style–as he conducted and danced along to the four movements of the symphony…All the while he added recitative-like interpolations, explanations, words of approval and disapproval, and assorted comments for my benefit about this impassioned, mercurial, wildly inventive work. ‘Listen, child!’ the maestro announced to me. ‘Here’s the Jewish rabbi theme…There’s Beethoven…There’s Tchaikovsky–it’s Swan Lake–and just wait for some Borodin and Mussorgsky later on…Some Grieg (but better than Grieg)…And now comes Sibelius. [L.B. sang and quickly wrote out for me on an old envelope the distinctively Sibelian rhythmic cell we'd just heard...] Now a wind…sighing…And now a pop song…”

So that’s a taste of it. Twelve hours of conversation with one of the 20th century’s iconic figures in music, free-associating with a compadre who was smart enough to keep the conversation going and catch just about all of the references (in fact, Cott called Bernstein for a followup just to make sure he understand everything that Bernstein had said). Lenny is a larger-than-life character in every decade. He was the boy wonder who leaped at the opportunity to first conduct the New York Philharmonic, on national radio, with far less than a full night’s sleep and a reasonably serious hangover. He was the teacher who brought classical music to the baby boomer generation through the clever use of the new TV medium. He was the conductor who performed Beethoven’s Ninth on both sides of what was, moments before, the Berlin Wall. He was the conductor who led the Israel Philharmonic as a celebration of the glory of a new Jewish homeland. He was deeply committed to  Civil Rights and the movement to stop the Vietnam War, despised Nixon, and, as an intellectual, still struggles to understand what happened and why:

That was a very bad time. There was nothing positive about that time. We were living under the thumb of Richard (****ing) Nixon, one of the greatest crooks of all time. But the point I want to make is that anybody who grows up–as those of my generation did not–taking the possibility of immediate destruction of the planet for granted is going to gravitate all the more toward instant gratification–you push the TV button, you drop the acid, you snort the coke, you do the needle. It doesn’t matter that it makes you impotent… Anything of a serious nature isn’t “instant”–you can’t “do” the Sistine Chapel in one hour. And who has time to listen to a Mahler symphony, for God’s sake?”

Cott answers, patiently, “I do.”

Chipping in for Mother’s or Father’s Day

Some ideas, most of them digital:

A turntable. Yes, this may seem a bit retro, but vinyl is in the midst of a wonderful comeback. New records cost more than their CD equivalents, but it’s easy to build a terrific library of good used records by spending about $5 per disc (so you can surprise mom or dad with a whole box filled with favorites!). Assuming you still own some sort of stereo receiver and a pair of good loudspeakers–most likely as part of your home theater setup–you’ll be set. One good starter choice: Audio-Technica’s AT-LP60, which costs less than $75 including cartridge. Online research will turn up rigs costing up to a thousand times as much, but a few hundred dollars will place you on the quality path. To review good choices for several hundred dollars, visit the online store, Audio Advisor.

Apple TV. Before we bought one of these small plastic boxes for my office TV, I wasn’t completely sure what to think. Connect an Ethernet cable to your network, an HDMI cable to your TV, power up, and you can watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, movies and TV shows from iTunes, YouTube, Major League Baseball, HBO GO, and more (for some, a subscription is required). AND you can wirelessly connect your iPhone, iPad or Mac to the screen. For $99, it makes watching TV a lot more interesting.

airstashAirStash. Simple idea: load some movies on a 8GB or 16GB SD card–the ones you use in a camera that are about the size of a postage stamp–then wirelessly connect the small AirStash device to watch movies (or review documents) on your iPad, iPhone, or Android device. It costs about $125. Use it once and you’ll carry it everywhere, as I do.

A good pair of binoculars. If you’re contemplating an outdoor hobby such a birding, Bushnell’s 10×42 NatureView is a good tool to get you started; it costs about $125. In fact, you can buy binoculars specifically designed for safari, sports stadiums, theater, opera (fancy!), sailboating, marine exploration, the list goes on. For more information about binoculars than I have ever seen, visit Best Binoculars Reviews. There are digital binoculars, but optical binoculars remain far more popular than their initial counterparts.

A monopod. Yes, that’s right, the equivalent of a one-legged tripod. Not as steady as a tripod, but not as heavy either, and far more likely to be taken along. Used properly, a monopod can provide enough additional stability to allow your camera or camcorder to shoot with a bit less light, or to with a bit slower shutter speed. The best ones are made by Manfrotto, and Gitzo, and cost about $150-350, but good monopods are available from Slik, Cullman, Oben, Velbon, and other companies. A large selection of monopods and tripods are available from B&H and other online retailers.

Zoom-VideoA ZOOM Q2H2. With cameras and camcorders now built into phones, why buy a small video recorder for $199? Because the sound and the picture quality is outstanding, but the device is small. What do I mean by “outstanding?” Video: 1920×1080, 30p HD. Audio: 24 bit, 96 kHz PCM. Record the results on an SD card.

A Røde VideoMic Pro. Whether you’re using a DSLR or a camcorder to make your own home movies or independent films, this $230 investment will make at least some of your work sound a whole lot better. It mounts directly on the camera’s hot shoe, and its design won’t make your camera (or, most cameras) unbalanced or difficult to carry.

A digital drum kit.. You know you’ve always wanted one! Nowadays, you can buy a decent setup for a few hundred dollars. Yamaha’s Electronic Drum Kit DTX400K costs $500 and includes a 7.5-inch snare, three similar sized toms, a 10-inch hi-hat and other cymbals, and 169 digital voices. You can spend half as much (PylePro’s PED04M), twice as much (Roland’s TD-11K), more. Once again, B&H is a good source, but musicians may prefer Sweetwater.

DrumKit

Enjoy spring, enjoy the holidays!

Donna and The Herd

Donna the BuffaloWestern New York turns out to be one of those creative hotbeds that most people don’t know much about. Ever since 1874, summers at Chautauqua have been filled, for a fortunate 100,000 visitors, with recreation, arts, lectures, and spiritual fulfillment. Buffalo, Rochester and Ithaca have long supported outsized music scenes. And then, there’s Donna the Buffalo.

Donna is one of those bands I’ve heard from time to time, but never really discovered. They come from the Finger Lakes region, and they remain the creative core of the annual Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in tiny Trumansburg, New York (this year, the festival begins on Thursday, July 18, and I’m hoping to be a part of it). Donna the Buffalo has been playing and recording together for over twenty years. It’s not too late to join the party.

Truth be told, before I started writing this article, I had never completely listened to a Donna the Buffalo album. For the past month or two, I’ve been listening to a half dozen DTB CDs over and over again. They’re terrific. I really like this band. They’re authentic, deeply rooted, and seem to be having a whole lot of fun. They seem to get the commercial thing–this music is neither experimental nor challenging–but they’ve managed to keep their integrity, to stay just to the side of the commercial craziness of the music business.

Tara-NevinsOn every album, there’s a great feel for Americana, healthy doses of country and bluegrass, an old-timey sensibility when it feels right, pure form rock n’ roll, bits of soul and funk. It all comes together with a superior sense of how it all ought to be arranged and presented. What do I like about this music? I guess I like the sound of the two lead vocalists: Tara Nevins with her country style on some tunes, and Jeb Puryear with a folk / rock / rockabilly / country style on others, but that’s just the start. There’s Tara’s fiddle keeping time on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and Jeb’s pedal steel on “Temporary Misery.” I like the way Kathy Ziegler sounds on backup vocals, a nice complement to Tara’s voice. I like the way the music dips into country music and rock, then goes funky.

The work is really tight–I love it when a band is really tight, really together, hitting every musical idea with perfect timing. Most, but not all, of the work is original, the vast majority written by the band’s lead singers, Nevins and Puryear. They tend to write catchy songs with memorable hooks, and after nearly 200 original compositions for this wonderful group, they know how to make it all work. They do touch base with respected influences: an especially handsome version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” pays homage to Ralph Stanley, for example.

Allow me recommend a few of the albums I’ve especially enjoyed.

PositiveFrictionSo far, I think my favorite is Positive Friction, released in 2000. This is album that I seem to play most often, probably because I enjoy Tara’s vocals, the chorus, and the arrangement, the catchy “No Place Like the Right Time” almost as much as I enjoy one of her other tunes, “Yonder.” The latter is both appealing as a catchy tune and as the kind of earnest social commentary that is so much of Donna the Buffalo’s creative approach. Nice lyrical treatment, too; here’s an example:

The waters led to the promised land

Seeds of  greed washed upon its shore

White footprints in the settling sand

Brought the ways of an ignorant man

Silverlined is a newer album, circa 2008, is a more mature work, more subtle, more varied in its instrumentation and soundscape. Puryear’s “Meant to Be,” for example, reminds me of Emmylou Harris’ work on Red Dirt Girl. “I Don’t Need a Riddle” combines Nevins’ more mature voice with a Cajun accordion and an interesting, vaguely funky rhythm track. The songs roll on, but they seem to be more contemporary, more artful, arranged less to please an audience ready to dance than a single listener enjoying a handsome combination of an interesting arrangement, a plaintive voice, and thoughtful lyrics; “Beauty Within” is a good example with Nevins on lead vocals.

DIGIPAK-4PANEL 1TRAY [Converted]A band that counts its time together in decades ought to encourage some solo work, and that’s precisely the approach here. Right now, I’m enjoying Wood and Stone, a 2011 solo album by Tara Nevins. Here, there’s a healthy amount of straight-ahead country (perhaps bluegrass / old-time / country is a more accurate description), as in “The Wrong Side” with some lovely instrumental breaks. Nice version of “Stars Fell on Alabama,” too. It’s all easy, natural, and a wonderful side journey just close enough to her work with Donna to keep fans happy (I’ll include myself here).

After I wrote all of this, I figured I would check on what others have written about Donna the Buffalo. On Amazon, Alanna Nash wrote this:

Donna the Buffalo–hard to categorize, but easy to love–are meant to be heard live. The six-member group thrives on jams and grooves, blending, bending, and veering from Appalachian country to Cajun, reggae, zydeco, folk, and roots rock often in the same song (check out the nearly 13-minute “Conscious Evolution”).

Intrigued, I kept reading:

Frequently compared to the Grateful Dead, DTB evoke Jerry Garcia and pals, both musically and with their rabid, nomadic fan base (the Herd). But in mixing tribal celebration with spiritual, social, and political issues, the band, which travels the country in a 1960 tour bus, recalls so many other hippie-era ensembles.

Not so sure I agree. DTB reminds me of at least a dozen other bands, but the Dead wouldn’t be high on that list. This doesn’t feel like a California band, not to me, anyway. Instead, I’m hearing a distinctly Appalachian vibe here, probably by way of Nashville, with a mix of lots of other styles I associate with Mississippi, Virginia, and other places on this side of the country.

LiveFromTheAmericanBallroomThen again… there’s this live album from 2001, probably a better representation of the band than the individual CDs. It’s a compilation of tour recordings called Live from the American Ballroom. The sixties are alive and well on “Conscious Evolution,” a kind of tribal chant by way of rock n’ roll, world music, Cajun, funk, lots of styles bubbling up to the surface, then fading into the next musical idea. In fact, the whole album is filled with long songs and the kinds of improvisation that filled so many live albums in the 1970s. I think my favorite is “Standing Room Only,” kind of Cajun, kind of a chant, great dance song for a Saturday night.

Those days are gone (but available online and from any well-stocked vinyl-oriented record store), but Donna the Buffalo keeps on going. A few months ago, I wasn’t sure what these guys were all about. Now, I like them enough to recommend them to you. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all meet up in the Finger Lakes in July.

Enjoy.

P.S. Lots of Donna the Buffalo video on You Tube.

Before I Shelve These CDs…

It’s winter, so I’ve spent more time indoors than out. And that means weekend afternoons listening to lots of fine music. Before these CDs get lost on the shelves, allow me to share some recommendations:

Fahey Takoma

(Yes, I know this is vinyl, not a CD. Please read on…)

John Fahey was an acoustic guitar player with a nearly mythical story. He lived from 1939 until 2001. Beginning in the mid-1960s and until the early 1970s, Fahey recorded a remarkable series of acoustic guitar albums, each firmly rooted in the 1920s acoustic blues of the south, and yet, in their own way, contemporary and wholly original. For some time, these records were hard to find, but nowadays, there isn’t much music that’s hard to find. And in Fahey’s case, there is now a series of wonderful CDs available at popular prices. Two of my favorites are The Legend of Blind Joe Death and America. In time, I will make it my business to listen to most or all of his work. And, along the way, I intend to track down a film produced about Fahey in 2010. It’s called In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, and it’s the source of the image at the top of this paragraph. Click on the picture and you’ll see the trailer.

Karl Jenkins. Be sure to search on his image on the web. This is a very conservative portrait of a very colorful guy.

Karl Jenkins. Be sure to search on his image on the web. This is a very conservative portrait of a very colorful guy.

When I was visiting the UK this past year, I stopped by Blackwell’s Music in Oxford and requested listening recommendations. I left the store with several Oxford choral CDs, and with a three-CD box by composer Karl Jenkins entitled The Platinum Collection. According to his website, he is “the most performed living composer in the world.” Who knew? I missed him completely, and again, I’m only now getting up to date. Jenkins came up as a jazz guy, playing at the famous Ronnie Scott’s club in London, then forming the popular jazz group Nucleus with Ian Carr, and then, as part of one of my then-favorite British progressive bands, Soft Machine. After a period of writing music for commercials, he composed Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary which is included in my box set. Like the other two discs, Adiemus combines a contemporary approach to choral music, a wide range of instruments (classical, jazz, rock, whatever works best), and a wonderful range of energy from contemplative to soaring. At first, I’ll admit that I listened to Jenkins as background music (bad idea). This is music that requires full-throttle listening, preferably on a top-notch sound system with the widest possible dynamic range, accuracy, and superior reproduction of vocal parts. Jenkins can be a crowd-pleaser in the sense of, say, music composed for the Olympics, but I found more nourishment when I listened carefully, and allowed myself the time to pay attention to these works in their complete form.

I’m equally intrigued by the Kronos Quartet, a forward-thinking classical ensemble I’ve been following for decades. I missed out on their 2009 2test-600x0release, Floodplain, and now that I’ve got a copy, I’ve been playing it a lot. It’s an album of music from various nations and cultures located in and near the Middle East, mostly instrumentals, some traditional, played with the deep knowledge that this music was composed in the part of the world where “human civilization was born and first flourished.” There is respect and beauty. Respect because this is not Middle Eastern music. Instead, there is “Lullaby,” which is Black Iranian but affected by other cultures, and there is “Wa Habini” a Christian devotional song sung on Good Friday, part of the sacred tradition of Lebanon. “Tew semagn hagere” (Listen to Me, My Fellow Countrymen) comes from Ethiopia, and it is played on instruments constructed for Kronos by their designer, Walter Kitundu, who hails from Tanzania. The album opens with a hit song, from the 1930s, from Egypt: “Ya Habibi Ta’ala.” In fact, many of the songs were hits long ago. This is music you’ll want to buy on CD: the liner notes add texture and important background to the listening experience.

Garth KnoxGarth Knox’s 2012 release, Saltarello, was released by ECM New Series in 2012, and it, too, has become a favorite. Knox performs on viola, viola d’amore, and fiddle. As he performs an interesting selection of old and very new music, he does so with the attentive accompaniment of Agnes Vesterman on cello and Sylvain Lemetre on percussion. The repetoire here begins with the early British composer Henry Purcell (“Music for a While”) and continues on the old track with Hildegarde von Bingen, and John Dowland. I like the idea that this music is contrasted with work by, for example, the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and that Knox manages to pull it all together as a cohesive whole. The Saariaho piece is challenging, extreme in its special effects. To be honest, I had to check the unfamiliar name–Guillaume de Machaut–to determine whether he was an old composer or a new one (he lived in the 1300s, and was equally famous as a poet whom Geoffrey Chaucer apparently admired).

300px-Machaut_1

Well, I found this tapestry on the Wikipedia site for Machaut. Clearly, he is not a contemporary composer.

Andy Sheppard

Andy Sheppard (click on the link for a bunch of neat pictures of Sheppard at play.)

Also on ECM, and also from 2012, Trio Libero is an album that I’ve enjoyed time and again. It’s one of those albums with a distinctive series of opening notes that sounds wonderfully familiar, and causes me to follow the lead line all the way through the first song (“Libertino”). Here, I’m listening to a terrific saxophone player named Andy Sheppard (he also plays soprano sax). Sheppard’s solo leads to a long, comfortable bass solo by Michel Benita (who is a major presence throughout, moreso than one typically finds on albums by a sax trio). As I said, I’ve listened to this album quite a few times, and now that I’m listening while writing about it, there’s a smile on my face. It’s just really good jazz. It’s quite varied. There’s a nice tender rendition of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” on the third track, a Weather Report-like texture entitled “Space Walk, Part 1.” And, the more I listen, the more I come to realize how much I enjoy listening to a well-played soprano sax. This is one of those albums where everything comes together beautifully, and I encourage you to be among the (inevitable) few who come to enjoy it as much as I do.

Okay, everything on this list now gets placed on the shelves, making room for the new, or, at least, for music that’s new to me.

Film with Feeling

Alex Kirke is a director with a keen interest in the cinematic experience, and, as it turns out, an equally keen interest in the measurement of biophysical responses to storytelling. Inevitably, this led Mr. Kirke to the development of software that would read sensors attached to the bodies of audience members. The sensors provide real-time feedback on muscle tension, perspiration, heart rate, and brain wave activity. As the software collects the data, it compiles the results, and, in accordance with the director’s wishes, the film automatically branches from one audio-visual file to another.

By using this technology, a director can amplify or dial-down emotional impact, shorten or lengthen the story, cut to another sequence entirely, and so on. Of course, all of the branching must be worked out before production begins because each sequence must be produced, edited, and integrated into the file management system.

Says one of the actresses:

It will be quite interesting to know, so well, how the audience reacts. The ending they choose reflects their reactions.

Not just the ending, of course. Anywhere in the film, the story can change course. So, too, can the soundtrack. Or any visual or visuals. In theory, there may be a large number of branches (for the professional, this becomes an obsessive, difficult way to tell a story, but it’s interesting to consider the possibilities). And, in theory, the sensors could be connected to the seats or the armrests throughout the theater, but that’s all in the future.

For the present, do watch the video. It’s rough, more of a professorial demonstration that any sort of slick production, and, if time permits, have a look at Mr. Kirke’s blog, too. There, he covers an interesting range of technical innovations related to entertainment and storytelling.

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