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!

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.

The 21st Century Pen

Great idea no. 1: pull a quill, dip it in ink, and write on parchment. The idea lasted about a thousand years.

Great idea no. 2: figure out how the ink can be contained within the pen. After a century or so of experimentation, mass production of fountain pens began in the  1880s.

Great idea no. 3: the ballpoint pen goes on sale in 1945.

Almost great idea no. 4: LiveScribe, a pen that remembers what you wrote, when you wrote it.

LiveScribe is, in fact, the brand name for several smart pens. The one I tried called is the Echo. Several Echo models are available for about $125-250; the difference between them is the amount of internal memory.  As you can see from the layout below, the pen records and stores up to 800 hours of audio, writes in ink, contains a small microphone and loudspeaker, and connects to your computer via USB for downloads and for charging. That’s half the story.


The other half of the story is the special paper required by the pen. It’s a tiny matrix of dots imprinted on “LiveScribe Dot Paper” available as notepads, sticky notes, journals, notebooks, sticky notes–you can even print the special paper on any laser printer. I think the notebooks are best–and I believe it is wise to invest in LiveScribe’s $25 Portfolio to keep both the pen and the notebook in a single binder so that neither strays far from the other. Both are required for LiveScribe to do its magic.

How does it work?

The Echo has an on/off button. When flipped on, I see the time and the remaining battery power. In the notebook, I find the crossed arrow and click on its center point. This causes the pen’s display to read (and the pen’s internal voice to say) “Main Menu.” Then, I choose another icon (located on every notebook 2-page spread) labelled “Record” and we’re off. The pen records audio and it also remembers what was written, by time. Press “Play” and you hear the recording. Click anywhere in your notebook’s written text and the pen will tell you when the text was written by day and date.

There are other features–and more coming as LiveScribe develops this ingenious device not only as a pen but as a portable computing platform. You can draw a small piano and play it with your pen. You can adjust date and time, configure for left or right-handed writing, adjust playback speed, calculate  (there’s a printed calculator on the inside front cover of the notebook–the result appears on the pen’s display).

It all works well, but the display on the pen is pretty small, and it’s not easy to remember every command. You can send any page, or group of pages, to Facebook, Evernote, to your desktop, as a graphic in a text message, or as a graphic in an email. The trick is to remember how to do all of these things, especially if you don’t use these features every day. Here’s how the system works:

One more term that LiveScribe has begun to popularize: “PenCast.” That is: you write and draw with the pen, narrate your work, then package it up for viewing. It’s a bit like a traditional presentation, a bit like a conversation around a whiteboard, and it’s quite effective.

Sending the pen’s contents to your computer requires the installation of some free software as well as Adobe AIR, which is also free. Although free, the connection process is not intuitive. Here’s where the teeny screen on the pen becomes awkward, and the lack of printed “Connect to…” commands on the notebook pages results in a tedious exercise. If you don’t use the LiveScribe pen regularly, it’s very easy to forget how to send notes to email, Evernote, your desktop, etc. And when you do, the result is not an audio-visual file, but just a pdf (without the audio accompaniment). To get both, you must produce a PenCast–not hard to do, but again, you must remember the special particulars of this device. Given the large number of clickable commands in each notebook, I sure wish the “send” commands were included among them. And, I sure wish there was more visual feedback coming from the desktop software, where character counts are not limited, as they are on the pen.

One more not-wild-about-it: the pen’s tip should be covered when not in use, but the small plastic cover is small, slick, easy to use. Hopefully, a future pen design will erase this concern.

Still, this is an impressive step forward in the history of pens (seriously, this is how progress looks). As the LiveScribe community grows–and it is growing steadily–the design inefficiencies will become non-issues.

It’s interesting that this is, in essence, a paper-and-pen product, a kind of enhanced notebook system, as opposed to a fully digital solution. It’s nice to be able to take notes in a notebook, to use a pen on paper, and to know that there’s some technology to enhance the experience, and to transfer all of it to a computer for storage or sharing. It’s old-school in its way, but when you get the system working properly and you use it every day (so that the commands become natural, not tedious steps along the way), LiveScribe is an impressive product indeed.

On Our Side

Ani DiFranco marching in DC for Women’s Lives in 2004. Her new album is entitled Which Side Are You On?

I love Ani DiFranco’s commanding version of Pete Seeger’s classic, “¿Which Side Are You On?” Her vocal is strident and scolding, hopeful and demanding. With each verse, she raises important questions, and insists that we, at least, think about the answers. The backup voices, percussion and increasing distortion suggests a dark revolutionary march; she’s in front of the angry crowd, instructing, inciting, leading the charge. She’s terrific.

She’s provocative when she sings about “Promiscuity,” offering a cool lyrical analysis with “promiscuity is nothing more than traveling, there’s more than one way to see the world.” She’s fully exposed on “Life Boat,” a song about a failed mom’s sadness and self-image featuring “red scabby hands” and “purple scabby feet.” She’s political and forceful when she proposes an “Amendment” to provide civil rights to women, a good song that promotes the “right to civil union with equal rights and equal protection, intolerance finally ruined.”

This is Ani DiFranco’s ambitious, righteous, significant side. She is a songwriter and a performer who thinks, and isn’t at all afraid to tell us what she thinks and why.

Then, there’s the other side, the side that confuses me, the writer who takes the easy way out, as on “Zoo,” where we’re treated to “I can no longer watch TV cuz that shit really melts my brain…” and “I go to do my food shopping and all I can see is packaging and a mountain of garbage about to be happening…” Sure, every record’s got its B-sides, but DiFranco’s good work is so strong, I wince when I hear work I wish she had done better. Moreso because her lyrics are both interesting to the ear and smart enough to be worth reading. And, even moreso because her songs quickly become old friends, worthy of replays for weeks on end. The more I listen, the more I like what I hear.

But I do keep coming back to the Seeger song. He plays some banjo at the start of it, but it’s Ani DiFranco’s power that electrifies the song and its meaning. And it’s that song that anchors this album, a nod from one authentic performer to another. Wouldn’t it be fun to hear her perform an album filled with Seeger songs, a female counter to Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, or maybe, even better, an album exposing lesser-knowns who took sides in their time: Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, maybe Joan Baez, too.

Buy the album directly from the artist’s Righteous Babe label.

Extremely Long Player

1980s: I’m buying lots of LPs.

1990s: I’m buying lots of CDs.

2000s: I’m downloading lots of music files.

2010s: I’m buying lots of LPs.

What’s going on? As record companies contemplate the end of CD production, LPs are gaining popularity. TIME magazine caught the trend early, but failed to mention activity in vast used LP stores (separate blog post, in the works).

For newcomers, or those whose memory was fogged by digital d-rays, here’s what you need to know…

You need a turntable, a tone arm, a cartridge, a stylus, some cables, a phono per-amp, an amplifier, more cables, and loudspeakers. Back in the day, all of this stuff was combined in a “record player.”

Here in 2011-12, it’s more complicated–and that’s without the USB connection to your computer.

One popular, convenient choice is Audio-Technica’s PL-120, available for about $300. It includes everything you need except the amp and speakers. And, you can connect it to your computer to create digital versions of your LPs.

Rega's RP1 Turntable, an audiophile choice.

If you’re willing to invest more money for better sound, the audiophile choice is Rega’s RP-1, which includes a superior tone arm, a better drive system (to spin the platter) and other features that contribute to a cleaner, more focused presentation. The cartridge (which typically includes the stylus) is an accessory–each cartridge design possesses unique sonic characteristics–is a separate purchase. Rega’s RP1 accessory kit costs an additional $200, and includes Rega’s Bias 2 cartridge and several useful accessories.

Audio-Technica's all-in-one, lower-priced USB turntable.

Better would be another favorite cartridge, Audio-Technica’s ML-440. With turntable, tone arm and cartridge in place, you need a phono preamp. At about $150, one good choice is Music Hall’s PA 1.2. I leave the choice of amplifier and loudspeakers to you–the old system stored in your basement or found in a good used stereo shop will be just fine. Audiogon.com is an online store specializing in audiophile equipment, but a local dealer may provide both friendly advice and a place to listen before you buy.

How about a used turntable? Maybe from a reliable high-end dealer, but not from some random eBay source. Used cartridge? I wouldn’t do that. Instead, I would opt for the all-in-one Audio-Technica PL-120. But first, learn from:

Jerry Raskin’s Needle Doctor, which sells all sorts of cool stuff, not just needles!

Audio Advisor

Music Direct

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