Video Review: Jeff Lynne’s ELO — Live at Hyde Park

October 13th, 2015

Electric Light Orchestra has long held a special, sentimental place in my heart. Way back in October 1978, I attended my first rock concert, ELO at The Omni sports arena in Atlanta. My eight-dollar ticket got me a seat in the high rafters, where this fourteen-year-old quickly learned about the phenomenon known as a “contact high.”

The concert featured ELO’s spaceship stage, a translucent clamshell affair that opened to reveal the band. To most observers it looked less like a UFO and more like a giant white hamburger bun, but it was like nothing most of us had seen before, what with lasers shooting out of it, and with fog machines cranking out clouds.

I learned much later that Jeff Lynne and company had made fairly extensive use of prerecorded tapes to flesh out their onstage sound. While that disappointed me at the time, looking back I acknowledge that live sound reinforcement was still somewhat primitive in the 70s, and that getting across the subtleties of a violin and two cellos in a room designed for basketball and hockey was a daunting proposition, especially with roaring electric instruments playing alongside.

I followed ELO’s music for awhile after that, in both directions. I went back and discovered the pleasures of On the Third Day and even the semi-legit The Night the Light Went On in Long Beach, and I even picked up my first compilation of The Move‘s music, Split Ends. And the new music that the group made was pretty cool, too, though with somewhat diminishing returns. Lynne eventually jettisoned the classical players, scaling the group back to a foursome, and relied more on a highly compressed drum sound for Bev Bevan that – to my ears anyway – grew stale and tiresome.

It didn’t help my ELO fan staus when I began discovering harder-edged groups of the early 80s. Soon I was mostly into other things. But my love for classic-era ELO has remained. I was excited in 2001 when Lynne released a new ELO album, the first in years. Zoom featured none of his old band mates save a brief appearance by keyboardist Richard Tandy, but it did include his pals George Harrison and Ringo Starr, both of whom, of course, he’d worked with in various projects. An ELO tour was announced, but in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and/or tepid ticket presales, the tour was scuttled before it began. Lynne went largely quiet after that.

Meanwhile, some of Lynne’s former band mates had taken to the road, various calling themselves ELO Part Two or The Orchestra. That didn’t sit well with Lynne (from 1972 onward, he wrote, produced and arranged all of ELO’s music), and that – combined with a renewed appreciation for the group’s back catalog – led him to schedule a handful of live dates. Those culminated with a September 2014 show in London’s Hyde Park, in front of an audience estimated at 50,000. As one would expect, the concert was filmed for the BBC, and a new DVD/Blu-ray is a document of that show. Pointedly billed as Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Live in Hyde Park is a return to the classic sound of the group; in fact, it’s a marked improvement.

The onstage band recalls in some ways David Gilmour‘s late-period Pink Floyd: plenty of musicians there to help create the sound that listeners hear on their CDs or LPs. And like Paul “Wix” Wickens in Paul McCartney‘s current band, it features a “musical director” (Mike Stevens) who, it would seem, looks after the musical activities of everyone onstage (except Lynne). Most of the musicians sing backup and harmonies, and a pair of vocalists ably fill in the remaining spaces.

The BBC Concert Orchestra is on hand to play the “classical bits,” as Lynne calls them, and they do so expertly. It seems quite likely that they’re working from Richard Tandy and Louis Clark‘s original album scores; the sound they create bears a much closer resemblance to what you’d hear on Out of the Blue or A New World Record than anything a synthesizer could manage, even in the 21st century.

And that’s the biggest change here. While the original 1970s ELO had three classical players, and the later era group had none, the reanimated Electric Light Orchestra delivers live what those classic-era albums promised. As such, Lynne can be said to be fulfilling the group’s original premise, to pick up where The Beatles left off circa Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour.

The sound quality is excellent, of course, and somewhat amusingly, the Blu-ray is mixed in stereo as opposed to 5.1 surround, because (as Lynne is quoted in the accompanying booklet), “It’s important to me that viewers experience the Hyde Park show exactly as it was performed in the night…in stereo.” (By that thinking, one supposes that had Phil Spector gotten his way, The 3LP Concert for Bangla Desh box set would have been issued in monaural!)

The set list is superb, drawing from most eras of the group’s history (though nothing from 1986′s Balance of Power or from Zoom). Longtime fans can delight to the early track “10538 Overture” and the deep album cut “Steppin’ Out.” Of the latter, Lynne explains onstage that he was never happy with the original recording, and that this live rendition will be “better.” That said, it doesn’t differ greatly to the original. And hearing just how perfectly Lynne’s ELO does the Traveling Wilburys‘ “Handle With Care” makes one think that — just maybe — Lynne’s role in composing the song is greater than he admits.

Fans can quibble about the songs they didn’t get to hear – they/we always do – but the only serious omission is the band’s 1973 cover (or, rather, reinvention) of Chuck Berry‘s classic, “Roll Over Beethoven.” I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the song had indeed been performed at this concert, only to be cut from the disc to save a few bucks on licensing/royalties.

Onstage, Richard Tandy doesn’t seem to have a lot to do; he takes an occasional brief solo, and does some brief, signature vocal parts via Vocoder, but other than that, he’s mostly seated quietly at a grand piano while two other keyboardists do the heavy lifting. Violinist Chereene Allen appears several times to turn out some note-perfect solos; in her somewhat garish skintight hot-pantsuit, she cuts a more alluring figure than the wooly Mik Kaminski ever could. The net effect of all the onstage activity is to sound almost Exactly Like The Record. The only real concession to spontaneity is Lynne himself, who often runs a half-phrase or so behind the music with his vocal lines. It’s not distracting, though; in fact it’s a bit endearing to see that he seems to have forgotten a few of his own lyrics.

Bonus features include closed captioning(!), a brief interview with Lynne from around the time of the concert, and the full-length documentary Mr. Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne & ELO. That film provides some insight into Lynne’s production aesthetic, and it highlights just what an impressive songwriter (and vocalist) he really is. Though ELO has always worn its Beatles influence proudly, Lynne’s music has never been about copying anyone (except, detractors might suggest, himself). Unfortunately, the film’s potted history makes only the briefest of mentions about Roy Wood, Lynne’s ELO co-founder; blink and you’ll miss it completely. The usual suspects (Macca, Ringo, Eric Idle, Tom Petty, Dhani Harrison) weigh in to remind us what fans they are of Lynne and his work. Mr. Blue Sky makes a nice companion to the concert, but it’s perhaps not essential.

For anyone who enjoyed ELO back in the day, Live in Hyde Park is highly recommended. It captures everything that was great about the old group, and improves upon it. And reaction to the concert itself was so positive that Lynne has recorded a new ELO album, scheduled for release in about one month’s time: Alone in the Universe will be out November 13. Wags have labeled “When I Was a Boy,” the album’s advance single, as “Free as a Beard” (a reference to his Anthology-era work with the Beatles). I think of it more as a sort of “Real Love (Slight Return).” It features Lynne’s signature over-compressed drum sound (something that Donavan Hepburn‘s drums on Live at Hyde Park do not suffer from), so it remains to be seen how the 2015 studio version of Electric Light Orchestra will be received. A tour is being planned.

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AmericanaFest Panel: Breaking Barriers Through #SocialNetworking

October 12th, 2015

I recently had the pleasure and honor of joining a distinguished panel to discuss social networking as it applies as a tool for musicians. In addition to my years as a music journalist, I have nearly three decades’ practical experience in marketing and advertising, and have been a freelance web developer (my rarely-mentioned “day job”) since 1996.

Even so, I was outgunned expertise-wise by every single one of my co-panelists. Moderator Cary Baker runs the boutique music PR firm Conqueroo; before that he was an A&R guy with I.R.S., Enigma and Capitol, had his own indie label, and – even farther back, which is where and when I first learned of him – he was an esteemed music journalist for print outlets very familiar to readers of rock criticism. Full disclosure: Cary’s also a good friend of mine.

photo courtesy Peggy French Photography

Nick Loss-Eaton is an independent music publicist as well (Nick Loss-Eaton Media), and I’ve known him since his days at Shorefire, one of the big boys in music PR. Katy Kirby is Director of Marketing for Thirty Tigers, the label responsible for (among other impressive accomplishments) the new Ted Hawkins tribute album, Cold & Bitter Tears.

photo courtesy Peggy French Photography

And as impressive as all of those experts were and are, perhaps the most interesting, valuable, and real-world information about the power and techniques of social media marketing came from the two remaining panelists: recording artist Amy Black, and BJ Barham of the group American Aquarium. Those two cut right past any sort of dry marketing theory and went right to the meat ‘n’ potatoes. Barham gave the capacity crowd (ok, it wasn’t a huge room, but still) specific examples from his own experiences. He’s pretty much established himself as the social media presence for his band, and he takes his social media contact with his fan base seriously. Very seriously. And not in a cynical, gotta-do-this-shit kind of way: this is an artist who clearly enjoys interacting with his fans, but who also knows how important it is to do so in a way that furthers the success of his band/brand.

photo courtesy Amy Black

Everything flew by way too fast for me to do anything like take notes or even remember the specifics; this introvert was too busy making sure he didn’t dribble water down his shirt or say “fuck” into the live mic or something like that (let alone try to make the occasional intelligent contribution to the discussion). And they didn’t make audio or video recordings of the panel. But if you’re a musician who’s interested in what it takes to communicate with your fans in a constructive way, you could do much worse than follow American Aquarium on Facebook or the other social media outlets they use. Also, listen to their music, and Amy Black’s music. And check out Thirty Tigers’ new Ted Hawkins set. And if you’re in a position to hire a PR firm, consider Cary’s or Nick’s services.

Which, out of the six panelists, leaves me. Please keep reading my blog. Thanks!

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Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins

October 9th, 2015

I didn’t know a thing about Ted Hawkins and his music before arriving in Nashville. But among tastemakers, the long-dead folk/Americana (though the term Americana wasn’t in use during his lifetime) troubadour has clearly effected great influence. Though homeless and itinerant, Hawkins became a mainstay of Venice Beach music venues, and seemed on the verge of making it big when he died in 1985 of a stroke at age 58. Long a critical favorite, his often contrary nature arguably got in the way of any more commercial success.

The Thirty Tigers label has put together a tribute to the man, and Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins showcases some of the most revered and critically-acclaimed Americana artists performing heartfelt readings of his songs. (The album is unrelated to a similarly-titled 2009 Hawkins compilation.)

Above: James McMurtry performing Ted Hawkins’ “Big Things” at the Album Launch Party in Nashville, September 16.

A brief album release party took place at one of Nashville’s watering holes during the AmericanaFest in mid-September; a roomful of record company types, legendary musicians (Jon Tiven, to name but one) and in-the-know music lovers enjoyed intimate, one-off performances by James McMurtry (“Big Things”), Mary Gauthier (“Sorry You’re Sick”), Tim Easton (“One Hundred Miles”) and Randy Midwood (“My Last Goodbye”). Words from each of the artists and Thirty Tigers’ Jenni Finlay made it clear that all of the work that went into the making – and now marketing – of Cold and Bitter Tears is a labor of love for all concerned.

Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins will be released October 23.

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Concert Review: The Americana Music Honors & Awards, Nashville TN, September 16 2015

October 8th, 2015

I recently attended the Americana Music Honors & Awards show in Nashville, Tennessee. Wait, wait: stay with me here. While it’s true that I’m not known far and wide as a fan (much less an aficionado) of the genre, I’m increasingly finding that a slice of it now and then does appeal to me. In fact, upon attending and covering a previous AmericanaFest (and the attending conferences) in 2012, I came away rating it one of the best music festivals I’d ever experienced. More than three years later, I stand by that assessment.

As in 2012, a highlight of the entire multiple-day extravaganza was, for me, the awards show. Not that I have any special interest in award shows, but the nature of this one – highlighting the best that the big-tent genre has to offer – means that it represents an excellent sampler of what’s hot, so to speak.

The seats in the historic Ryman Auditorium aren’t comfortable (and they serve to remind me of one of several reasons behind my leaving the Catholic church half a lifetime ago), and the already scheduled-to-be-long-show was all but guaranteed to run well over time (which it did), but the show nonetheless made an excellent way to spend a Nashville evening.

One of popular music’s most engaging personalities, the genre-spanning Jim Lauderdale was once again the emcee. His easygoing banter made the sometimes long breaks between acts and awards (while the set crew rearranged the stage for the next act) go by quickly. The award introductions – and for the most part, the acceptance speeches – were generally far from memorable; the scripted banter served mainly to demonstrate which personalities were comfortable speaking onstage (Robyn Hitchcock, for example) and which weren’t (some male-female duo whose name escaped me, but whose male half reminded me of a Jack Black character).

A couple of the artists who won gave notable acceptance speeches: The MavericksRaul Malo got in a subtle jab about politics and American xenophobia without mentioning anyone by name, and Buffy Sainte-Marie had some very moving words in accepting her Free Speech in Music award. Elsewhere, God got thanks from Ricky Skaggs, and Don Henley (Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer) seemed to revel in finding a new audience that – unlike the rock world – doesn’t despise him and his every utterance.

I’m a huge fan of Steppenwolf, but I’ll be damned if I can sort out why John Kay was there. Props to his co-presenter — or Jim Lauderdale; I forget which — for calling out Monster as an important political statement. He didn’t even mention the new 2CD singles collection from Real Gone Music; c’mon, John, get a plug in there! (Oh, now I remember: he presented Buffy Sainte-Marie with her award.)

One supposes that a genre that used to take its sartorial cues from Nudie’s (these days from Manuel, whose clothing work looks quite similar) wouldn’t find the handmade “trophies” tacky, but from my vantage point, the garishly painted and decorated instrument facsimiles that passed for trophies were lurid and cheap looking at the same time. But hey, I didn’t win one, so no worries.

The musical number that opened the show featured a four-man gospel group and a three-woman gospel group, backed by the full house band. It put anyone who didn’t already know on notice that Americana is meant to include all sorts of indigenous American musical forms; some see it as an alternative to Garth Brooks, Jason Aldean and bro-country, but it’s much deeper and more meaningful than that (the dubious lauding of Don Henley notwithstanding).

Most of the acts up for the big awards took a turn onstage, making the musical parts of the evening very much a showcase event. Rhiannon Giddens (formerly of Carolina Chocolate Drops, whom I saw at the 2012 show) floored the audience with a multi-part number that showcased her fiddle playing and her stunning ability to sing both field-holler style gospel-blues and more commercial-sounding styles backed by a full band.

Lee Ann Womack sounded to this Americana novitiate very much like a cross between Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, proving that her star hasn’t diminished, even if her chart activity has (somewhat). Both Houndmouth and Shakey Graves showed why they were in the running for Emerging Artist of the Year. Shakey Graves’ performance was easily a highlight of the entire show.

Keb Mo’ came out onstage, and to his left was a black hollowbody Gibson guitar on a stand. “Ladies and gentlemen, meet Lucille,” he said, before embarking on a heartfelt tribute to the recently departed BB King. He followed that with a performance — pointedly not playing Lucille, but instead serenading her — that paid additional tribute to King, while sounding more like George Benson.

But (other than that, and Giddens’ bravura turn) the best musical performances came from the established artists: Los Lobos (there to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award), Buffy Sainte-Marie (her still-relevant “Universal Soldier”), and the Mavericks. When the Mavericks won the Duo/Group of the Year, Malo gasped, “Holy shit! We won something!” He also won the biggest laugh of the evening for that quip.

The only artist who disappointed was one Nikki Lane; her shtick seemed lifted from the late Amy Winehouse, clumsily twanged up for an Americana audience. Even with Don Was out sick, the house band was superb in that Nashville way, with Little Feat‘s Bill Payne on piano among a who’s who of session players.

As I mentioned, the entire affair ran very much over time, and near the end quite a number of audience members (and performers) left so that they could make it to one of the multiple venues hosting showcase musical sets later that evening. I stayed until the very end, looking forward to the everybody-onstage closing number. This time it was Los Lobos, joined by, well, everybody backstage who had (or even didn’t have) a guitar. Lauderdale grabbed his acoustic, too. That whole all-in affair was sloppy as those things invariably are, worsened by the mid-song appearance of that male-female duo I mentioned already. They didn’t pay much attention to their fellow musicians; at the end of a verse, they both opened their mouths to sing, and their miscue threw several of the other players off their game. But everybody had fun, as did the audience.

The 2015 Americana Music Honors & Awards will be broadcast (in edited form) on PBS’ Austin City Limits later this year.

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Bill Dahl and I Discuss “Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63-’73″

October 7th, 2015

From a critical perspective, there’s not a whole lot to be said or written about Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63 – ’73. One either gets it, or doesn’t. Suffice to say that if you would enjoy hearing the contents of a jukebox in a 1960s African American juke joint, or if you dig the sides collected in the various sprawling Stax box sets, then you’ll luxuriate in the hundred-plus songs on this four-disc set. And you won’t have heard most of them before.

The box set’s liner notes offer something of an apology/justification for the dodgy sound quality on some of Groove & Grind‘s cuts; those words – though sincere – are not needed: the sound quality is just fine, and the quality of the music precludes any need for excuses. The rarity of some of these cuts more than justifies their inclusion here, and would do so even if they didn’t make great listening. Music historian and liner notes author Bill Dahl (author of Motown: the Golden Years) admits that he did his research on these often-unknown acts the old (or perhaps new) fashioned way: “between the internet, books and record” labels/sleeves, “you kinda piece it together as best you can.” Occasionally, he admits, “You can’t find anything about an act at all, and that’s distressing.” But he notes that a good bit of information – even if it’s merely context – can be gleaned from looking at the labels on the 45s. Dahl has a few – not many – of Groove & Grind‘s sides in his own record collection, but for others, he relied on photos of labels and other information he managed to unearth. He is careful to note that although “there’s a lot of information on the internet, sometimes it’s wrong. So you’ve got to be careful.”

And careful he was. Across 120-plus pages of the hardbound-book format of Groove & Grind, Dahl provides just the right amount of background on these soul tunes. Because as Dahl and I agreed during our conversation, the kind of person who’d pick up this 4CD set is the sort of character who will delight in the fruits of his careful research. Dahl’s writing is an essential companion to the music itself. (Those who crave the deep kind of background that this sort of a project requires will enjoy following some of the online links Dahl cites in his source notes; those links will provide hours of rewarding reading for the music anoraks among us.)

Liner notes author Bill Dahl
A handful of the artists spotlighted on Groove & Grind remain active today: Bettye LaVette, Bobby Rush and Eddie Floyd, for example. But even in their cases – and in the case of Ike and Tina Turner (“You Can’t Miss Nothing That You Never Had,” a 1963 side on the small Sonja label) – Groove & Grind focuses on material that only the hardest of hardcore fans would have known about, much less heard. Dahl and box set producer James Austin sought to find a balance. “I was trying to find a few records by people whom [listeners] would have heard of real well,” says Dahl. “If we just had 112 acts you’ve never heard of, people wouldn’t buy it! So we included a few names that would grab people, hoping that they’d hear the other stuff, and love it too.”

One of the things that Dahl’s liner notes convey is the manner in which pop music history is woven together: the way that, say, George Goldner of Red Bird Records had a hand in these tracks. It’s almost as if, had these tunes become hits – and many of them sound as if they well could have – then the artists involved might have gone on to do more noteworthy and commercially successful work. Dahl mentions Sir Mack Rice – “people know him as a songwriter; he did the original ‘Mustang Sally,’” as an artist who didn’t quite reach the commercial potential his music deserved. His “Gotta Have My Baby’s Love” is one of Dahl’s favorite tracks on this set. Ironing Board Sam is another: “He deserved a better shake than he got,” says Dahl. “He had a keyboard on an ironing board, for God’s sake! That alone should’ve got him something.” Sam’s “Original Funky Bell Bottoms” is included on the set’s fourth disc, subtitled Funky Soul.

A few of the tunes on Groove & Grind will be familiar, but not in the versions found here. “I really like Lezli Valentine‘s ‘Love on a Two Way Street,’” says Dahl of the 1969 single. “It’s the original version, incidentally. I like a lot better than The Moments‘ version.”

Dahl remembers another act worth of special praise. “Another Chicago act, The Mandells. A really good group; they had about five or six singles. They were pretty darn popular on the west side here in Chicago, but they never really made it out of here. They deserved a higher profile. Good production quality, too. You listen to all of their stuff back to back, and you think, ‘How did this group not make it?’”

Part of the answer to Dahl’s rhetorical question is the challenge of distribution. “There were so many tiny labels out there doing quality work,” he observes, “but they didn’t have the pull of a Motown or a Stax. And as a result, a lot of stuff just fell through the cracks.”

It was Dahl’s idea to subdivide the tracks on Groove & Grind into subcategories: urban, group, southern and the aforementioned funky soul. Each of the four discs focuses upon a particular sub-style. “We needed some kind of context,” he admits. “If you just throw 112 songs on four CDs without any kind of context, it’s a little harder to grasp.”

Occasionally a title vetted for inclusion on the set would be left off because the compilers couldn’t locate a clean copy of the recording (much less a master tape). But Dahl hastens to add that there is plenty of worthy material out there – from soul music’s heyday – that still hasn’t been compiled onto a CD collection like Groove & Grind. “It’s amazing how much great soul music was recorded in the 1960s,” he says. “As much as r&b as there was in the 1950s, it seems as if there’s three times as much soul” in the following decade.

Start to finish, Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63 – ’73 is a fun listen, and provides superb value-for-money. It’s an illuminating window into little-known music from forty-plus years ago.

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Patrick Moraz: MAPping Out the Future, Part Two

October 6th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Speaking of Moog, the K2000 dates from the period when Dr. R.A. (Bob) Moog was doing work for Kurzweil; he actually created many of the sounds for the K2000.

Patrick Moraz: Even farther back – in 1975, forty years ago! – I had recorded the backing tracks for The Story of I in Brazil. Sixteen percussionists recorded on twenty-four track tape. Bob was in Buffalo and had developed the Polymoog. And he came with it to me and to Keith [Emerson]. And in the first three weeks of [that] September, I was able to invite Bob and his [first] wife [Shirleigh] to the villa where I was staying in Geneva. So he was with me for the first three weeks of the recording sessions for I. Some of the sounds you hear were very, very enhanced by his genius tweaking, so to speak. Bless his memory; he was a very, very good friend.

I remember [Bob Moog's work on the K2000] very well! Because at the time – and even in 1985, before Bob Moog came to Kurzweil – I was one of their very first endorsers. At the 1985 NAMM show in Anaheim, I was representing Kurzweil. At that time I played Mozart‘s “Concerto #13 in G” [whistles melody], and I recorded all of the sequences note by note, just exactly. And I had learned the flute part by heart. I played it at the big party for Kurzweil. Ray Kurzweil and I have remained friends ever since.

I love Kurzweil keyboards; I still have three of them, including a K2500, and the new PC3. And I have the my old sounds saved. What I like about Kurzweil is the touch of their keyboards. For me, it feels very good, because it has a lot of possibilities and dynamics: pre-touch, touch, and aftertouch.

And on this album with Greg Alban [MAP: Moraz Alban Project], I was able to include some licks exactly the way they were played, not edited afterward or anything like that. I was born in Switzerland, a country known for its precision, for making the trains arrive to the minute when they were supposed to arrive. And the precision of the watches. So I grew up in that very precise environment.

When I was thirteen, I broke my right arm. And six weeks later when I was getting the cast removed, I was offered a pair of roller skates! So of course my friends came with two bicycles and a rope, and they said, “Okay, try your roller skates!” And I did, and I broke the four fingers of my right hand. My hand still shows the architecture of that accident. I was told by some of my teachers – I was preparing to be a competitor in a classical music competition – “You will never play classical music.”

But not only was I able to train my left hand, to learn “Concerto for the Left Hand” by Maurice Ravel, I was able to compose more and more of my own music. Which I was unable to play!

BK: We’ve touched upon this a bit already. One of the things that I find appealing about the Moraz Alban Project album is that while the music is rooted in fusion/progressive styles, there’s a strong emphasis on memorable melodies. That’s something that’s often lost in ambitious music of the progressive type. When you’re composing, is the idea of a “hook” central to your goals?

PM: Absolutely. It’s such a natural process. I was fortunate – I thank God all the time…or whomever’s up there or out there in the universe – when I started choosing the sort of life I was going to lead. I was fortunate to play with some very good jazz musicians; some very famous ones, and some less-famous ones. And then as I progressed – I had a trio at the time – the two agents that worked on my behalf helped me learn about the strength of melody. Learning to play standards – “Autumn Leaves,” “’Round Midnight,” “Blue Moon” and so on – really helped me. The agents told me, “Patrick, if you want to succeed in your music – whether you’re playing, or composing for another band who will play your music – always make sure that there is a very strong and memorable melody.” It should be based on between three, four, seven notes. But it must be memorable. And then you can do whatever you want with it after that; it doesn’t matter, because the melody is what the people remember.

One must remember that when you compose your music, you are alone with yourself. But when people hear it for the first time and after, they only hear it maybe three time a year! And they want to remember something, and that’s the melody. So I always remember that.

BK: Are there any plans for live dates to promote Moraz Alban Project?

PM: Not only are we discussing and planning how we’re going to do that, because we’re all players – and if I may say so, we’re playing our asses off – I’m also planning to do some concerts by myself. More than ever, I’m back in the saddle to record. I have multiple projects in the pipeline, and they will come out as they come out. I also have some classic music in preparation, and some other new stuff that’s going to knock your socks off.

But yes, to answer your question precisely, we’re in the planning stages to do some MAP live dates. Not only promotional dates, but proper concerts.

BK: I know that one of your projects in development is a symphony in four movements…

PM: I’ve always been interested in composing larger and larger works, and this project – which has been in development for years now – is called A Way to Freedom. I don’t want to talk too much about it; I want to keep it a surprise. But what I can tell you is that it’s not just one CD, one album. It’s a bunch of different works for myself at the piano, with a band, with a trio, orchestra and choirs. That’s why it’s taking so long. In this kind of work, you can never say exactly when it’s going to be ready.

I have other symphonic works [in development] as well, including the completion of my “Children’s Concerto” for orchestra. I’ve added some orchestral colors to it…but I like to keep some mystery about what I’m doing!

I have also been expressing myself by writing poems, either in French or in English. And I’ve already recorded some of them. And I’ve almost completed a double CD with my other group in Switzerland; that’s going to come out..probably not this year or next year, but after that. I have at least two other albums schedule to come out. But for now, MAP is taking priority. I’m extremely interested in its development. I’m involved in the promotional aspect of it, which I’ve never been able to do [before], really. Not for, what, forty years? [laughs]

Note: Here, the “official” part of our interview ends. But our conversation continues, and Patrick Moraz relates a story he believes I might find interesting. He’s correct.

PM: One day, I was at the NAMM Show; maybe twelve years ago. And I met Mr. [Ikutaro] Kakehashi from Roland. I had been endorsing for Roland at the time for many years in different countries. We eventually came to talk about the Octapad MIDI electronic drum that Roland came out with in 1985.

I just happened to tell him that in 1975, I invented an ancestor of the Octapad – and I used it on my first solo album, The Story of I – and it’s even in the promotional video that was done in ’76. It had ten pads, and it was analog and digital at the time. It didn’t have a sequencer. The guy who built it did so to my specifications and design. And he also built a sequencer that had eight tracks of ten thousand notes each. And we hooked those two machines together for the recording of I. There are even some old tapes lingering of experiments I did with it.

So when I told Mr. Kakehashi that I didn’t patent my idea, he said, “Oh, Mr. Moraz, you should have patented it!” And he said, “Come with me.”

The same night he took me to the Roland warehouse, and he said, “Mr. Moraz, this is for you.” And he gave me one of the first electric, MIDI – but sounding very acoustic – harpsichords. It’s called the C80. And I still have it in my studio!

[At this point, Moraz walks away from the phone, across the room to where the C80 is set up.]

And it’s still the first thing that I play each day!

[Moraz proceeds to perform a roughly one-minute piece on the Roland C80 harpsichord, live, over the telephone, for his audience of one.]

I love that instrument! When I put the light on in the studio, it comes into my path before going to the other instruments. It has the shape of a harpsichord; it’s beautiful. And the sound of that instrument is absolutely staggering.

BK: With the studio and the various projects we’ve discussed, it seems that you’re busier now than you’ve ever been.

PM. Yes. Because my children are grown up, and because I’m not committed, contracted yet – yet! [laughs] – to tour with a big band with my music, I have more time. And I’ve developed a very interesting studio here in Florida. And I was asked to play on the Cruise to the Edge; I was supposed to play two concerts, but the promoter asked me to play an extra piano concert, which I of course accepted very, very excitedly. Because I love to play something spontaneous and impromptu; that’s the last bastion of our emotional humankind expression.

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Patrick Moraz: MAPping Out the Future, Part One

October 5th, 2015

Quick: name a famous Swiss rock musician.

Okay, a few of you might be able to name-check Celtic Frost, Brainticket, or Yello. But for those who aren’t hopeless music nerds, there’s pretty much only one answer: Patrick Moraz. The keyboard virtuoso first came to fame – in the rock idiom, anyway – as a member of Yes from 1974-1976. After a couple of years as a solo artist, Moraz played with The Moody Blues from 1978 to 1990.

But his esteemed career extends well before – and well beyond – those two high-profile rock gigs. Before joining Yes, he was a member of progressive rock trio Refugee, alongside two ex-members of The Nice, Lee Jackson and Brian Davison. And even before all that, the classically-trained pianist had a thriving (if not yet world-renowned) career as a jazz artist. His 1976 solo debut album, The Story of I, is highly regarded as an early example of the synthesis of progressive and “world” music.

He has released more than twenty albums since that debut – including two with acclaimed drummer Bill Bruford – and remains very busy with composing and performing. His latest release is MAP: Moraz Alban Project. A collaborative effort with American drummer Greg Alban, the album exclusively features music, themes and arrangements by Moraz.

The keyboard legend currently lives in Florida. I recently chatted with him about his life, career, new album, and future plans. What follows is an edited transcript.

Bill Kopp: I’ve long been a fan of keyboard-based music that makes use of then-current technology. But one of the traps into which that kind of music can fall is having a “dated” sound. For example, when you hear a Synclavier, it pretty much screams very early 1980s. And the Mellotron, my favorite instrument, is associated with the late 60s and early 70s. How do you approach technology in a way that avoids creating something that will sound “stuck in time” a few years down the line?

Patrick Moraz: The nature of your question is very interesting. As you know, Moraz Alban Project is not a solo album; it was commissioned by my very good friend Greg Alban. And the music I wanted to compose, I didn’t want it to have too many sounds that were completely out of this world. Because the music is fairly simple…well, it depends for whom [laughs]!

How I approach keyboards: of course I’m always into the newest technology, but I always keep a foot not only in the past, but in the legacy of sonic hierarchy, if you will. In terms of acoustic instruments [like] harpsichord, organ, and percussion instruments from Africa and Brazil, in the last few hundred years we’ve had them sounding better and better and better.

Drummer Greg Alban
Even nowadays in terms of sampling instruments, nothing will replace the real McCoy, so to speak. But they’ve really improved. At the end of the day, music is music. A sound is a sound. But creating it – using those sounds, and here I’m talking about modern technology – are artists like Isao Tomita. Even now, fifty years into this sonic hierarchy, I feel able to produce amazing sounds, whether they are completely analog, analog and digital, or sampled. It’s a world; no, it’s more than a world: it’s a universe!

Creativity is about combining these in within a state of dynamic tension, creating a balance between the extreme forces of sounds from five thousand years ago and modern synthesizers built one or two years ago. To be able to combine these, and also to play live with a drummer, a bassist and so on, really knocking doors down, that’s what it’s about. It’s about people playing at the height of their ability, at the highest level of information transfer. To put it mildly! [laughs]

BK: So Greg Alban asked you to compose music to which he could add drums. Can I take that to mean that you composed, arranged and recorded the music, and then he went in and added his drum parts? Or did the sessions unfold some other way?

PM: No, no. No. Some other way. It was a balance between the two. We played together and jammed and so on. The music was composed, first and foremost. Actually I composed more than [the] nine pieces – at least fourteen pieces – and then I let him choose the ones that felt the most comfortable. And when I say “comfortable,” I’ll tell you what: he took the challenge to play the drums on “Jazz in the Night,” which is such a challenge for a drummer. Because although one can tap your foot to it in 4/4, it’s never really in 4/4. He said [to me], “I’d rather not read the music; I’d rather not even write it down. I’m going to listen to it.” He’s very good. Absolutely fantastic.

Greg and I and [bassist] John Avila, we can now play that music with our eyes closed! We can play it the way it is [written], but we can also jam. And that’s what we will do for the next album. We are really, really determined to put out a bunch of albums together. We had so much fun making this album, and we still have fun listening to it now!

BK: You’ve worked in many idioms – progressive, fusion, jazz, and world music. When you’re composing music, do you approach it from a point of view such as, “Okay, now I’m going to write some music destined for a world music project”? Or do the works sort of tell you, “this is what kind of music we are”?

PM: Not at all. Really, in that respect, psychologically and artistically speaking, having paid my dues, I’m still learning and being influenced.

One day when I was sixteen, I met John Lewis from The Modern Jazz Quartet. He was in Switzerland for a concert and a sort of masterclass. And he told me, “Patrick, I love the way you play, and the way you understand music. You are not [held back] by any boundaries or barriers. Your mind can assimilate and express a lot of different ideas. And I’m urging you to carry this on further, and to listen to the music of the world, and interact with the people [who make it].”

Since then, I was fortunate enough to go to Africa three times, when I was still very young. 1952, 1953 and so on. And after that I went to Japan with a very good friend, and I was chosen as musical director for a ballet with a band that [included] four percussionists and eighteen lady dancers. We toured the whole Far East. That really helped me, not only to assimilate, but to become comfortable in every kind of musical idiom. Well…maybe not every, but quite many!

I also met Pierre Boulez when I was very young, and met Karlheinz Stockhausen several times in the studio. And that’s where I got the knack to learn everything I could about synthesis and contemporary music, whether symphonic or on an individual basis.

What I”m saying here is that I’m really comfortable in many idioms: I love Armenian music. I love polyrhythms. I love Buddy Holly. For this album, I wanted to make it palatable. For some people it might sound complex; for others, it may sound extremely easy. “Canyon Afternoon,” for example, I composed in only one take. I played it with the guys, and that’s how it came about. The other pieces – like “The Drums Also Solo” – that’s one I had in mind for a long time. When I used to play with Bill Bruford, we used to have a great piece with a drum solo, composed originally by Max Roach. I admired Roach so much, because at the time he was playing with the top jazzers of his time. I was fortunate enough even to jam once with him…

But anyway, Bill had a piece called “The Drum Also Waltzes.” Having recently seen that extraordinary movie Whiplash, one realizes how intense and difficult [it is] to play drums in any kind of capacity. It’s ironic that near the beginning of the movie, they have the scene with the famous jazz drummer Buddy Rich. He says, “If you can’t play jazz, just join a rock ‘n’ roll band.” I have a very good friend of mine, Jacob Armen – on whose album I played a piece called “Cachaça” [originally on The Story of I] – and his album will be out very soon…I don’t know when. He played a “drum battle” with Buddy Rich when he was eight! So when I saw that Buddy Rich line in the movie, that really made me laugh. Because, I’ll tell you what: at the end of the day, it’s the feel and the beat, and a band is only as good as its drummer. And sometimes it’s very good to have the beat laid down very simply, not with millions of notes. (Though that’s good too.) Parts of this work with Greg show that very simple things can be [expressed] with a beat that is able to be followed by the general population of listeners.

BK: I know you make extensive use of Kurzweil keyboard gear. I have a K2000 myself. The sounds that come with the keyboard are pretty good; when you’re looking for a specific sound, do you use a preset, tweak an existing sound, or start from scratch? Put another way, do you enjoy the technological side of things – the development of sound textures – as much as you do composing and playing?

PM: Absolutely. I don’t use presets; all the sounds that I have, I’ve created myself. If a pianist plays piano, he has his own style and his own sound. When I play synthesizers, I can have much more advanced sounds, but I can also have my own vocabulary of sounds which I have preserved and tweaked. I learn [how to program each synth] from scratch.

So you have a Kurzweil K2000?

BK: Yes.

PM: That’s like Smithsonian piece! A piece that will never go away. Like a Minimoog. Or a Stradivarius violin.

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Album Mini-review: Tommy Keene — Laugh in the Dark

October 2nd, 2015

File Next to: Marshall Crenshaw, Smithereens, Matthew Sweet

A dedicated soldier in power pop’s ongoing struggle for critical and commercial success, Keene is at the top of the genre in terms of both quality and consistency. His preternatural abilities – crafting a sharp hook; wrapping it in a memorable, powerful melody; and applying heartfelt, often melancholy lyrics – make him an exemplar of what power pop can be at its very best. After the tangent of his deep-cut covers album (2013′s Excitement At Your Feet), Keene returns with another winning set of originals. He blasts out of the gate with the chiming near-perfection of “Out of My Mind” and continues with nine more tunes boasting muscular backing. The shimmering “All the Lights Are Alive” demonstrates Keene’s skill at delivering lump-in-the-throat emotional content in the guise of an impossibly catchy pop song. Laugh in the Dark shows that Tommy Keene’s muse hasn’t failed him yet.

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Album Mini-review: Holly Golightly — Slowtown Now!

October 1st, 2015

File Next to: Chris Isaak, Lucinda Williams

A recording artist with an extensive back catalog, Golightly and her backing musicians showcase their stylistic breadth on this oddly-titled album. Electric guitars sit comfortably beside upright bass in these sparely arranged but fascinating tunes. Golightly sings all self-penned material here, save a smoking, fuzz-guitar-ified cover of Rudy Clark‘s “Fool, Fool, Fool.” Imagine a female Chris Isaak crossed with early sixties girl group (less the wall of sound) and you’ll have a vague idea of Golightly’s métier. Her arrangement and production choices all serve to highlight the strength of Golightly’s songwriting; the unflattering cover art, however, does not serve Golightly well and detracts from the package. Still, the singer proves once again her mastery of styles: garage rock, rockabilly, cocktail jazz and more. Listeners would be hard-pressed to come up with a genre label that applies to all these tunes, so why bother? Just dig ‘em.

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Album Mini-review: Jimi Hendrix — Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival

September 30th, 2015

File Next to: Cream, Buddy Guy

By the time of this historic July 4, 1970 concert – in front of his largest-ever American audience – Hendrix had broken up the Experience, briefly formed Band of Gypsys, and re-formed a new Experience. Joined by bassist Billy Cox and returning drummer Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix focused on his “older” (1967-68) material, previewing three numbers from his then-current recording project. The manic “Room Full of Mirrors” provided a clue to what would have been Hendrix’s new direction. Musically, the trio with Cox doesn’t sound all that different from the Noel Redding-era Experience. The band is very together, and the live arrangements stick closely to the studio versions; only on the slow blues of “Red House” does Hendrix stretch out, doubling the song’s length. Though most of the performance was released on the 1991 box set Stages, this long-bootlegged recording finally gets official and complete release.

An edited version of this review appeared previously in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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