Geri Allen: Smart and Wonderful

Geri-Allen-2-by-Dean-C.-Jones-copyGeri Allen is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose influence runs wide and deep, but somehow, has not become as well-known as it ought to be. She’s a pianist with a resume that begins with a serious educational foundation: a master’s degree in ethnomusicology that has served her well (easy for me to see this because I’m approaching her life’s work some 35 years into a very good story). Her professional work begins with Mary Wilson and the Supremes in the early 1980s, and Brooklyn’s M-Base movement not long after (here, she established a reputation beside Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby and other talented players). M-Base was a kind of updating of a jazz form, a structured modernist approach to improvisation. In 1988, she recorded a wonderful album entitled “Etudes” with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, followed by several more trio records with her two extraordinary (now, sadly, gone) creative partners, including Segments and Live at the Village Vanguard. (The best discography I could find appears on Wikipedia, part of a more complete story worth reading.)

UnknownThe awards began to roll in. Allen was in and out of the remaining avant-garde, which sounds much less radical now than in 1996 when she recorded “Hidden Man” with Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum. In fact, by 1999, she was sounding very comfortable in a commercial setting, recording her popular CD, The Gathering, with Wallace Roney on flugelhorn and trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums, and others whose names are well-known from mainstream jazz records. A 2010 record, “Flying Toward the Sound,” made it to the top of many critic’s best-of-the-year lists.

So that’s the beginning of the story. A very solid player, well-connected and well-regarded, a talented composer, comfortable in the mainstream and in the more experimental forms of jazz. Somewhat unusual to find a female musician in that role, but things are changing, and, well, it’s about time.

For much of this past summer, Ms. Allen has served as the Artistic Director of a special project at the NJPAC, New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center (and center of cultural life and city rebuilding) in Newark, New Jersey. The project is an All-Female Jazz Residency with a wonderful array of inspiring special guests including Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Carmen Lundy on voice, and more. Ms. Allen has been Professor Allen for some time now; she is the Director of Jazz Studies for her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. She recently received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. She’s got the performance chops, the compositional excellence and nowadays, it would be fair to say that Geri Allen is one of our nation’s most distinguished jazz educators.

Photo by Dean C. Jones

Photo by Dean C. Jones

As impressive as her professional accomplishments may be, there’s nothing quite like listening. Her latest work, recorded in 2012 and released last year, takes the pianist back to her home town, Detroit, Michigan (actually, she was born in nearby Pontiac but grew up in Detroit). Grand River Avenue was the big street that she crossed when she was old enough to do so. She describes “three years of intensive training by master teachers and Detroit artists in residence” at Cass Tech, on Grand River Avenue, then one of “the nation’s premiere high schools.” The CD entitled “Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations” is the third in a trilogy that began with “Flying Toward the Sound,” and continued with “A Child is Born.” In this case, the liner notes call her work “the new classical music” and state, quite reasonably and truthfully, that the music on the CD is “an exquisitely beautiful collection” based, largely, upon the Motown spirit. There are songs by Steve Wonder (“That Girl”), Smokey Robinson (“Tears of a Clown”), and Marvin Gaye (“Save the Children,” and “Inner City Blues”) and Holland-Dozier-Holland (“Baby I Need Your Lovin’”) but this is not an album of jazz versions of Motown standards. Instead, it is an intricate meditation on the musical themes and ideas that those composers expressed long ago.

Unknown-2Geri Allen has been one of those artists that I’ve wanted to know more about. Now that I’ve written this article, now that I’ve done some concentrated listening, I’m realizing that I am just beginning to understand what she’s all about. The latest album is elegant and wonderful, soulful and reflective, sophisticated and consistently interesting, but my collection is now woefully incomplete. I have listened to the two predecessors in the trilogy, but I want them for my very own. The same is true for the work she did with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, and for the work she did in 2010 with her group, Timeline.

Another discovery. I keep falling in love. There is no better way to listen to music.

BTW: Don’t miss this NPR conversation between two beloved jazz pianists: Geri Allen and Marian McPartland.

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Creepy Tale in an Lovely Setting

In 1905, Grace Brown drowned in Big Moose Lake. In 2005, the Metropolitan Opera debuted an opera about what happened to her. This past weekend, just about 100 miles from the tragedy, I watched the story come back to life, at my leisure, on the shores of nearby Lake Otsego. In fact, the whole sad affair took place in Cortland (75 miles away) and Utica (40 miles away). To this day, nobody is completely sure what happened to Grace Brown, but her story is as captivating today as it was when her love letters to Chester Gillette were revealed in connection with his 1906 trial. Did Chester Gillette lure his pregnant fiancé up to the Big Moose Lake to kill her? Probably. Did he swat her with an oar and send her to the depths; or did he lose faith in his plan at the final moment and lose his wife-to-be in an unfortunate accident? Whatever happened, it was kind of cool and kind of creepy to sit through a retelling of the story not far from where the real thing captivated newspaper readers a century (or so) ago.

You may recall that journalist-novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a very fat novel called “An American Tragedy” about this unfortunate turn of events. Chester was hired by his uncle to supervise a skirt factory in Cortland, NY; got one of the worker girls pregnant and promised to marry her; captured the attention and the heart of a wealthy and pretty socialite; got himself all confused; and figured out that the best way to solve the problem was to end Grace’s life.

i-ftZBWGQ-LThe next character in what turned out to a fascinating Saturday night at the Glimmerglass Festival just north of Cooperstown NY is Tobias Picker. If you don’t know the name, you should. “An American Tragedy” is his fourth opera (and one of several he has written with Gene Scheer’s libretto—you may know Scheer from 1998’s “American Anthem”). Picker’s other operas include “Emmeline,” which is excellent and available on CD, originally a Judith (“Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) novel; “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (same Roald Dahl story that gave us the animated film); and “Dolores Claiborne”) based upon the Stephen King novel. Which is to say: Tobias Picker is writing contemporary American operas about American stories (not many people are doing this, so it’s well worth noting).

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Two wonderful women—what’s a guy to do? Keep the one with the money, and kill off the other. His downfall: he kept the working girl’s love letters.

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As for this particular performance, a good solid brava! A solid cast of about fifty performers benefitted from very articulate direction (and especially good lighting design). The production was lifted by several nice turns by Vanessa Isiguen as the most unfortunate (and richly voiced) Roberta Alden (the Grace character, renamed, and shown in the blue frock, above), a fetching Cynthia Cook as the socialite who owns the bad guy’s heart (the blonde, appropriately placed above our Grace), and an impressive final act performance by the bad guy’s God-fearing, God-loving mother, Elvira, by Patricia Schuman. I should note that Glimmerglass is well-known for a superior Young Artists program, and many of the performers in this production are among this year’s class. BTW: Lots more photos of the performance here.

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

I believe Glimmerglass is one of my favorite places to enjoy opera in the United States. The opera house (built in 1987 but still looking new) is about eight miles (and another world) north of baseball-crazy Cooperstown: peaceful, easy, civilized. The Alice Busch Opera Theater is handsome and easily navigated, a tremendous relief for the seniors who may find other opera halls far less sensibly designed. The acoustics are wonderful, the seats are comfortable,  and the dedicated musicians, performers, and staging staff do a great deal with a budget that would be a fraction of some big city companies. When the weather is hot, the exterior walls open up to cool the place down during intermission (how great it that?!).

Every summer, the  Glimmerglass Festival produces three operas and one musical. This year, I missed “Carousel” (the musical), almost managed “Madame Butterfly,” and “Ariadne in Naxos.” Next year—I vow to make plans early—the bill will be “The Magic Flute,” “Macbeth,” “Candide,” and the far more obscure, “Cato in Utica” (by Vivaldi). And I learned a very important lesson: if you are planning to go to Glimmerglass, do not assume that it’s easy to arrange for a hotel room (unless you are working well ahead of the desired date). Tickets for next year are available now—and presumably, you can arrange for a room long before next season begins.

And in case you’re curious, the name Glimmerglass comes from a James Fennimore Cooper novel involving Lake Otsego. Cooper’s father founded the town that bears the family name. It’s a beautiful place, as lush and green and perfect as a summer’s day. I’m sure Grace was thinking the same thing when she and her husband-to-be floated out on July 11, 1906. Creepy enough that I almost drove up to Big Moose Lake to see what there was to see. But I thought better of it, and spent just a bit more time hanging around Lake Otsego, probably all for the best.

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Karin, Hard to Find

karin_forsideIn 1969, most people, even those who were following the progression from jazz to fusion, hadn’t yet heard the work of a British guitar player named John McLaughlin. That was the year that he recorded his first album, “Extrapolation.” At the time, it was wildly experimental, but as I listen to it in the background while writing this article, it’s really delightful, gentle, meditative, not at all explosive. McLaughlin is a gifted guitar player and composer. He shares the stage with an another young British musician, a man who plays the somewhat unusual combination of soprano and baritone sax. His name is John Surman. At the time, Surman was already recording on his own for the Deram label (later famous for Moody Blues LPs). As a guy who tended to read album liner notes, I probably made a mental note about how much I enjoyed Surman’s work, but that’s didn’t amount to much.

Jumping far forward in time, all the way to 1995, I was writing a book for Billboard about the story of jazz, told through about 500 of the best jazz CDs. I worked with every jazz label, and welcomed their suggestions. Some of the most intriguing jazz CDs came from a European label, ECM Records. The music on ECM differed from the work on other labels: it was sophisticated, experimental, as much a soundscape work of art as a record album. One of the most intriguing of the ECM recordings was made by the Nordic Quartet, led by John Surman. I’m listening to the first track, and I can easily understand why it caught and captured my attention. Surman and his electric guitar partner Terje Rypdal had so thoroughly updated the explorations of the “Extrapolation” era. Weaving through the first track, UnknownTraces, there is a deep female voice whose sound more closely resembles an instrument than an upfront vocalist—and she’s singing phrases that feel more like poetry than lyrics. She was not credited as a singer, but instead, as “voice.” Her name is Karin Krog.

By this time, I was very well organized, and my note about finding more Karin Krog music stayed with me for (yikes) nearly twenty years. I liked what I heard, but in time, I forgot where I heard her voice. I’d visit my favorite deep inventory record stores, and nobody had ever heard of her.

Over time, I continued to collect John Surman CDs, and loved most of them. (Note to myself: I need to update my Surman collection because all of the CDs I just fetched from the shelf pre-date 2003), but there was no mention of Karin Krog on any of them.

Krog_4_lresEarlier this year, late at night, I decided to do a Google Search on Karin Krog. Bingo! She released her first single in 1963! (Clearly, I have missed a very good story that spans lots of decades.) We connected, and she was kind enough to send a few CDs. While the package was in transit from Europe, I found an LP called “Some Other Spring” in a used record store, copyright 1970, by Karin Krog and the brilliant Dexter Gordon (with the equally formidable Kenny Drew on keyboards, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass—they were working together in a Copenhagen jazz club). I was impressed by the good company, but I was a initially disappointed because the magical soundscape I had so enjoyed on Nordic Quartet was absent here; then, I listened more carefully, and with more of an open mind, and began to understand her versatility (it was her plaintive version of Jobim’s “How Insensitive” that won me over). As the CDs were making their way to me, I explored the depth and breadth of a discography that includes dozens of albums.

The CDs arrived. I decided to listen in chronological order, so I started with what I now understand to be a work from the mid-1970s (fitting nicely into my story), an album called “Cloud Nine Blue.” Gosh, it’s rich! (The liner notes from the modern re-release mention something about remixing—completely unnecessary!). So here’s the incredible depth of John’s bass clarinet intermingled with lines of synthesizer and the siren qualities of Karin’s voice, accents and filagree from John’s soprano sax, a kind of avant-garde meets religious exaltation on “Eyeless in Movement,” no lyrics, just sonic expression, then a half-spoken, half-sung song from Karin. Gee, this is interesting music, the kind of work that makes a top-quality sound system worth the investment so each of the artists’ ideas are allowed to fully show themselves (listening on a lesser system is fine, but you’re missing half the show).

Karin-Krog-Oslo-CallingJumping to “Oslo Calling,” it’s now 2008. The execution is cleaner, more modern (heck, it’s more than thirty years later!), somewhat more traditional in its jazz arrangements. Karin’s voice has gained luster in the lower ranges, and boundless confidence. When a song is a soundscape, it’s slicker, less experimental, and I miss the freer thinking of the earlier work (but musicians must evolve, and the range of both John and Karin has been remarkable, over so many years). I especially enjoyed “Three Little Words,” a Kalmar-Ruby tune that’s been forgotten by too many performers—her interpretation is sassier than the others I’ve heard.

mr20_smallKarin_5_tbnOf the three CDs, the most interesting is also the most experimental, a cycle of songs originally composed for a 2010 jazz festival. It’s called “Songs About This and That,” and I like it because it recalls my earlier interest in their exuberant experimental side, but places it in a more artful, more carefully arranged setting. There is a sense of open time and space to explore, to allow for long lines, an ease with the maturation of Karin’s voice. On this CD, I think my favorite track may be “Cherry Tree Song” because the poetic lyrics wind so gracefully around John’s baritone sax and bass clarinet, a warm combination of electric guitar, vibraphone, and John’s bass recorder. In fact, I jotted down some other favorite tracks, and found the list was too long to manage, but I will mention the vibe solo that begins “Moonlight Song” and Karin’s waking-up voice, looking backward on memory. Wrapping up an article I’ve so enjoyed writing, I happened to notice that Karin’s credit on this CD is what it was so many years before, not “vocals” but simply, “voice.”

A lifetime of work. So much fun to discover, to listen attentively because there is so much to hear.Thanks, John, thanks, Karin. I want to hear more.

 

 

Goodbye Charlie

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Several days after his passing, bassist Charlie Haden’s website hasn’t heard the news. But I know. And a few minutes before midnight during the week after his death, I feel it in my heart. I suppose the sense of loss struck me when I listened to the first track of one of my two favorite Haden CDs. The track is a spare version of “Here’s Looking at You” from an album celebrating the songs of the 1940s, in contemporary settings. I especially like the track because it opens the album with lush strings, the simplicity of Ernie Watts’ plaintive, lovely, long tenor sax reaching from the past, nostalgic, perhaps the best thing that Haden and Quartet West recorded. Alan Broadbent, the pianist who arranged the strings, is every bit as lovely for his solo. And there’s Haden, subtle but always there, just enough bass for me to follow his line as Watts comes in for his second theme. Not quite visible, but always a presence.

Haden recorded in a lot of settings, but I think I liked him best when he played an album of spirituals with Hank Jones. Just the two fo them, sounding as if they’re in an old church in South Carolina or Mississippi instead of Radio Canada’s Studio B in Montreal. “Steal Away” is an album of “spirituals, hymns and folk songs.” It’s one of my very favorite albums, and after , their work together on “We Shall Overcome” gets me every time.

From the liner notes: “They were called ‘Sorrow Songs’ because ‘they tell of death, suffering and an unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways…” yet (W.E.B.) DuBois…knew that ‘through all of the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence.”

I listen to “I’ve Got a Robe, You Got a Robe (Goin’ to Shout All Over Heav’n)” and I find comfort in the music that Haden and Jones made twenty years ago. I listen to “Steal Away” and I hear the soul of a good man, a provocative artist whose range of experimentation spanned so many forms, a family man who carried a show business tradition, someone who made me think and gave me pleasure.

I hope you will be inspired to listen, first in a quiet room to the whole “Steal Away” CD, then to the joy-filled “Now is the Hour” by Haden and Quartet West.

Finishing up the article, I wandered over to the website. And I smiled. Two reasons why. First, it caused me to remember the dozen or so Haden CDs that are sitting on my shelves, and I want to listen to them all, again. Second, I realized that there were at least a dozen more CDs that I’ve never bought, never heard. So there’s more of Charlie Haden for me to discover. And that makes me very happy.

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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.

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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.”

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