Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 2

April 17th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In the new documentary film Don’t Ask Me Questions, you come off very authentically as a sensitive, soft-spoken individual. But back in the 80s, like many people, I think, I was convinced of your reputation as an angry, sort of perhaps even confrontational artist. How and why do you think that reputation developed?

Graham Parker: Well [laughs], there’s some brilliant stuff from Bruce Springsteen on that, about my material. He said that there was always this “caustic sound.” And that’s true. Because when I started, I’d had pretty much zero experience. I’d written these songs, and was totally green to the whole process. And I found myself instantly with a record deal. I had found the right people, like David Robinson, who managed me and then got all those great musicians behind me. And once that had happened, there was a record deal. Out of the blue, really.

So my style was already very aggressive. That just seemed to be the way I was writing and singing at that point in my life, in my early twenties leading up to 1975 when we started. I developed that style of singing, and I didn’t really know anything else.

It’s still there in my vocals, but it’s softened a lot. Because I enjoy actually singing now. I think it’s much more suitable for the kind of songs I write, and probably would have been more suitable in the first place. But there again, hindsight et cetera.

You can’t help but hear it: “This guy is really pissed off!” And [laughs] I did it on love songs as well. It was a style; I just wanted to be harder and louder and nastier. Remember, in that part of the 70s, there wasn’t any punk rock or any of that, and I wanted to sort of change what was going on. And somehow I found this extremely aggressive vocal style, and stuck to it.

So it’s understandable that people have that impression. And that’s okay.

BK: You’re know for your heartfelt lyrics; A Graham Parker song is never a simple moon-june love ditty. But many of those deeply heartfelt songs – especially from the period during which you worked with The Rumour – were written by a man in his 20s. When you sing those now, do the lyrics still resonate with you, or do you feel that since you’re singing the words of a man less than half your age that they sentiments are somehow alien or even naïve?

GP: Ah, that’s an interesting point. It doesn’t strike me that they’re out-of-date. It doesn’t trike me that way at all. Because obviously – with or without The Rumour – I do play those songs from my early-early career. There’s a few periods where I might be doing shows where I’m really concentrating on a newer period, but there’s always old ones. Especially from Howling Wind; they seem fairly universal to me.

There are some songs where I think, “Nah, I don’t really want to do that.” They’re not quite right; they don’t quite sit right for me, now. But for the most part, I don’t listen to them and think, “I don’t understand this.” I know what I was thinking. They all make sense. Some of them I wouldn’t write now, but there’s nothing alien to me there.

BK: There’s a belief among some that conflict, turmoil and distress are somehow essential ingredients for artists to create enduring works. And while I’d say that that “Mercury Poisoning” is one of my favorite of your tracks, I’m not sure I buy the argument that – if you’ll pardon the horrible metaphor – you have to have sand in the oyster to get the pearl. What do you think?

GP: “Mercury Poisoning,” for instance, is a joke. When an artist starts complaining about his record company in his songs, you should start worrying. It’s not a good sign; it’s a sign of running out of ideas.

My manager was much angrier than me, and he told me to write an entire album of hate-songs. That’s literally how it came about! I wrote one, and said, “I’ve said it all in this song, Dave. That’s enough. Okay?” So I stopped there, thankfully, and wrote [the songs for] Squeezing Out Sparks. A much better idea, really; let’s face it.

People never, ever seem to get it. But the first album had songs like “Between You and Me” on it. And “Gypsy Blood,” though that’s a song I don’t like now; it’s a sort of maudlin, romantic song. But they don’t remember that, and so they think that “Mercury Poisoning” suns it all up. “New York Shuffle” is another one. And that’s really a very, very small part of what I do. But again, I would even do a love song back in the 70s as if I were trying to hurt somebody. And it took a long time for me to temper that with some actual singing.

To be continued…

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 1

April 16th, 2014

Once pegged as one of rock’s angry young men, these days Graham Parker is neither angry nor young. And while his profile these last few decades has been lower than in his commercial heyday (1976 to the mid 80s, and even then only a modest commercial success), Parker has continued to release a remarkably consistent string of albums that are true to the virtues he’s long championed. As he sang on his (best) album, 1979′s Squeezing Out Sparks, “Passion is No Ordinary Word.” But it’s a word that aptly sums up Parker and his music. As he told an NME interviewer in 1979, “All I want to do is send a shiver up people’s spines.”

Bursting on the scene in the late 70s, Parker thrilled critics but confounded the marketplace; was he a punk? Was he part of the then-nascent UK pub-rock scene? Was he part of rock’s heartfelt old guard (Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Phil Lynott)? Or was he – as the odd passerby still sometimes asks him – Gram Parsons?

A new documentary film, Don’t Ask Me Questions attempts to answer these and other burning questions. And it does so with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of Parker, who – surprisingly to those taken in by his angry persona – happily fields queries, reggaefied song titles be damned. Luckier still for me, he is happy to answer my questions as well.

Bill Kopp: When you were first approached about the film Don’t Ask Me Questions, what was you reaction? Were you skeptical? Suspicious? Enthusiastic?

Graham Parker: It was in the late 90s that I met them. I was doing a gig; I remember it specifically. It was something for the Long Island Brewing Company. I don’t know why I remember that, because there’s a lot of gaps in my memory! But that’s when (director/producer) Michael Gramaglia and his brother approached me. They had done the Ramones film, End of the Century. And I said, “Well, that’s a story: The Ramones.” It’s sort of Shakespearean, y’know. I said, “You won’t get much material from me. It’s boring, really.” But they didn’t really believe that.

It took a couple of years. I’d just put them off, really. I told them, “I just don’t think there’s the material there. I don’t think it’s worth it.” It would be a lot of trouble for something that would just be…a flop. I didn’t have any confidence in it.

In 2001, I had this short story book, Cod Fishing on Valium published. And I thought that was quite an exciting thing, that I’d got St. Martin’s Press behind it, and a literary agent who loved it. It was going very well, and then I did a little tour promoting the book, reading bits of it. And playing songs specifically written for the stories, which is a very gutsy, unusual sort of thing to do. I did about eight to ten gigs like that, mostly in the Northeast.

I called them up and said, “Why don’t you do a film about this?” And of course then I had opened the door. Once you open the door, all bets are off. So from then it just kept going. So every year, a few times, Michael might film a bit of me, come to a studio, do an interview. So now he’s got tons of footage of stuff that didn’t make it [into the finished film].

It just went on like that. That’s why it took so long. Filmmaking can take many, many years. And it was really finished…until I went and dropped the bomb. I’d done it: I’d re-formed The Rumour. And I was going to be in this Jud Apatow film [This is 40]. The documentary was finished; we’d already had a screening in New York. Three of The Rumour came, and we had all these [Kickstarter] donors. And suddenly I dumped this [reunion project which culminated in the release of 2011's Three Chords Good] on them, and so it wasn’t finished at all.

But then [Gramaglia] had the finish he wanted; he had always wanted something dramatic. And I had been telling him, “It’s not gonna happen.” I don’t work on plans; I work more on whims, really. But we got a more satisfying finish for the film.

Click to continue

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part Three)

April 15th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

One thing that has changed – somewhat – is Rod Argent‘s keyboard arsenal. “I would only ever use my real [Hammond] C3, a Leslie [rotating speaker], and a beautiful Steinway concert grand piano in the studio. When we are recording an album, that goes without saying.”

“But,” Argent admits, “on stage, it’s so convenient and so reliable to use the new modules. I think that onstage the Hammond XK3 holds up really well. It’s obviously about a tenth of the weight of a real Hammond organ. I have memories of those days of when I would help huff that ’round myself! I couldn’t play for two hours because my forearms would hurt so much. I mean, it’s a bloody nightmare. And it would go wrong about once every two nights because they are not made to be thrown around the world.” He adds an amusing vignette: “The first time I came to the States with Argent, we brought our English one over, it came up on the [baggage] carousel. The whole thing came up on the carousel, like a huge theater organ!”

When seeing the band live today, a common reaction among audience members is, “Oh, gosh! I forgot they did that one!” Another is the look of sheer joy on many faces in the audience. I ask Colin Blunstone and Argent if they get a sense of that feedback when they’re up on stage.

“I always get a sense of that,” says Argent. “I always ask that instructions be given to the lighting people not to put the audience in total blackness. I don’t want them to be brightly lit, but I like to be able to just catch people’s reactions and movements so there is a real feeling of interaction between us and them. In the middle of this tour I am going to be 69, and I can’t believe it. But when we are on stage, it feels 100% the same as when I was 18 years old. That is such a privilege and it does not happen in many professions. And I love it.”

“You definitely do get a sense of it,” concurs Blunstone. “If you have an enthusiastic and supportive audience, that’s why performers want to perform. That’s what we do it for, really. It really lifts you, and it’s a completely different experience to that of playing somewhere where you’re not very well known, with a very quiet audience. You have to sort of work a lot harder to get a good performance in a situation like that. It’s incredibly important that you have that enthusiastic audience. It’s very easy when you go out onstage to a wonderful audience; they do it for you.”

The group are already at work on a studio followup to 2011′s Breathe Out, Breathe In. “We’ve already started recording. We’re rehearsing three or four songs, and we’ve recorded two tracks; we just did one the other day. And we’ve got one more day of recording next week. But after that, of course, we’ll be away for six weeks. Later in the summer – I think the end of June – we’ll start recording again. And we’ve deliberately kept the second half of the year quite free. So it will be a time of writing and recording.”

Argent elaborates, saying, “the other day, just for fun, we started doing a song called, ‘I Want You Back Again,’ which was a very little known Zombies a-side in France and was a very small hit there in 1965. And we played this original song for a very short period of time. We heard Tom Petty do it, and we thought, “This is a great song! Why aren’t we doing this?” And so we started doing it on stage. And, just for fun, ’cause we love doing it on stage so much, and we think the band sounds so good now, we wanted to capture the 2014 version. And, strange enough, when you just called me, we just had it blasted and I was just playing it through. It sounds great. It sounds so much in common with the original, but I think it sounds better. I think it has all of that fresh feeling, absolutely no overdubs at all. We recorded it live, like we do on stage. The vocal was live, everything was live but in a studio environment.”

Both men still feel they have a lot to offer musically. “We are having a ball doing it,” Argent says. “And we have discovered that we are not trying to be what we were in the ’60s, but there are a lot of parallel elements going on. We are just trying to make things work for us in the same way that we were trying to make things work for us when we first started out.”

Asked if any of the new, as-yet-unreleased material will be previewed on their tour, Blunstone is circumspect. “We haven’t been talking about that, no. But we may well play some at sound check, and if they start to sound polished, maybe we’ll experiment. We’ll be playing lots of hits and lots of newer material; I like to think that there’s something there for everyone.”

The Zombies will perform at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel on Tuesday, April 15.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part Two)

April 14th, 2014

Continued from Part One

“I can’t tell you why [Odessey and Oracle] wasn’t successful when it first came out,” offers Rod Argent, “unless it was the fact that everything was so much more based in the country where you lived in at that time. And we only ever had one hit in the UK. Fewer hits in the UK than anywhere else in the world! We later found out we almost always had a hit somewhere in the world at any point that we were together, except in the UK. And because our profile had got so low in the UK, Odessey and Oracle came out – and it actually got great critical reviews, let’s be honest – but it didn’t sell. There was no real viability to it.

Argent continues. “There are two reasons why it later became successful. One was that it was picked up by well-known people who became fans. Paul Weller became a huge fan, and then more and more young indie groups of the time. I mean, Paul was a young hotshot when he first came out in the UK and he picked this as his favorite album of all time. And that is something he still says now. And then just succeeding waves of young indie bands and established artists, people like Tom Petty and Dave Grohl have said absolutely lovely things about it all the way along. Now that has obviously helped.”

“The other reason that I think it hasn’t faded away, if you like,” Argent adds, “is that we never tried to just be commercial when we made that record. In the same way that we recorded everything all those years ago – and we still do now, – and we don’t think, ‘How can we make a hit record?’ We never thought that; we just thought, ‘I’ve got this musical idea. How can we make it work?’ And that was always the focus of what we did, and that is the focus of what we do now.”

Colin Blunstone agrees. He says that “radio programmers ask, ‘What is it? Is it rock? Is it jazz?’ People don’t know how to program it. I think that is really a problem that the Zombies suffered from all the way through their brief professional career from ’64 to ’67. We didn’t really fit. We never wrote to have hits. We wrote what we wanted to write.”

“When you are honest like that,” says Argent, “it might not be the most commercial thing in the short term, because what you are not doing is trying to tap in to what used to be in the old days ‘zooming up the charts.’ Instead, you are trying to please yourself. In the long term, I believe that that means things don’t date quite as much as some other things. It is important not to try and make it with that in mind, but just try and do it for the right reasons. When young artists come up to me and ask what advice can I give, I say, ‘Well, there is not much I can give except really to say be true to yourself. Just do what turns you on. Do things for the right reason. Don’t try to do things just to be famous.’ There is nothing wrong with trying to be famous. But first of all, try to be the best at what you can do. If you asked an 18 year old when we started, ‘What do you want to be?’ he would say, ‘I want to be in the best group in the world. I want to be the best guitar player in the world.’ Nowadays you ask and they say, ‘I want to be famous.’ And it is a very different thing.”

“We still cut records now that we like,” says Blunstone, “and just hope that just hope that if we like them, and if the performances mean something to us, it seems logical that there is at least a chance there are other people out there that will derive the same pleasure that we do from these performances.”

I remark that Blunstone’s voice seems largely intact, having changed little since the group’s debut some 45 years ago. “I do work at it. Rod and I both started with a singing coach probably ten or fifteen years ago. Not when we were young; we did it in this incarnation of the Zombies. He taught us some things about technique, and I think it helped us to keep our voices strong and fairly accurate.”

“And it is important that your voice is strong,” Blunstone adds, “because we have to play…we usually keep it to five nights on the trot, five nights and then we try and have a day off. Because a lot of these songs we play are, for our voices, in very high keys. We’re really straining. All the songs we play are in the original keys. We’re singing in the same keys, in our late sixties, that we were singing when we first recorded them. When we were eighteen. It really does pay to have a little bit of singing technique, and to know how to support your voice. And to sing from your diaphragm.”

Blunstone believes something valuable is lost when a song’s key is changed. “The song won’t sound the same. By the by, [laughs] I do feel that I’ve strained my voice this week! And here I am agreeing with you about how strong my voice is. I’ve been singing a lot, and we’ve got a lot of singing next week as well. I’m trying to keep my fingers crossed; I do everything I can to keep my voice sharp, to keep it in shape.”

Click to continue

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part One)

April 11th, 2014

The Zombies are among the fondly-remembered cast of characters from the British Invasion (or, as they somewhat more succinctly call it in the UK, the Beat Era). While they certainly didn’t rock as hard as The Who, Yardbirds, or The Kinks, and enjoyed nowhere near the level of chart success that The Beatles and Rolling Stones achieved, their subtly jazz-inflected pop music has worn quite well. One of the more sophisticated (musically and lyrically) groups of the era, their hits – “Tell Her No,” “Time of the Season,” “She’s Not There” and more – remain staples of oldies radio, and sound much fresher in 2014 than anything by Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark 5.

The Zombies famously broke up – thinking they had gone as far as they could – -before their best album, Odessey and Oracle [sic] was released. And while that might have been the end of the story, the former band members remained quite busy. Keyboardist and vocalist Rod Argent started his own eponymous band, scoring the monster hit “Hold Your Head Up” and a smaller hit, “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” Lead vocalist Colin Blunstone went on to a solo career and did notable work on a number of Alan Parsons Project tracks.

But it wasn’t until the tail-end of the 20th century that Argent and Blunstone reunited, and not for several more years before they reactivated the Zombies. After mounting a UK tour that culminated in a live run-through of Odessey and Oracle (with the four surviving original members), The Zombies (Argent, Blunstone and other slightly younger players including Jim Rodford from 80s era Kinks and Rodford’s son) became a going proposition once again. They now tour regularly, and released an album of original music (2011′s Breathe Out, Breathe In) to positive reviews.

The Zombies bring their show to Asheville NC on April 15 – the band’s first time here – and I spoke to Argent and Blunstone ahead of the tour. In many ways they’re more popular now than they were the first go-round, some 45 years ago. Colin Blunstone offers his take on that conundrum: “I think that if you understood why we are more popular in one era than another – or if you understood why one record sold more than another record – obviously you could put the situation right and everything would be fine. The thing is there are so many unpredictable and unknown quantities in the music business, no one really knows the answers to those questions.

“For me,” he continues, “the most exciting thing that has happened from my career is this renaissance of the Zombies. We have a really, really great live band to go out night after night and play around our country, your country; we play around the world. And we have managed, without a hit record, to recreate some of that interest that was there in the original incarnation of the band in the ’60s. I think that is really exciting, because it is just word of mouth that traveled as a result of the performances.”

“The thing is that we did not plan any of this,” Rod Argent says. “Colin and I just got back together by accident when we did. We didn’t plan it at all. We decided to put a band together and do a half a dozen gigs for fun, not any particular focus on the Zombies. It felt so lovely to be working together again.

“It just sort of spiraled,” he continues. “It took a long time for us to embrace the original feeling of the Zombies. The last thing we wanted to do was just to try and go out there and milk it, do it to make a buck. We really did not want to look back; that wasn’t the reason we were doing it. We were doing it because we suddenly found ourselves having a great time working together again. But, when we started to write a little bit of new material, and to expand our direction in that way, it suddenly felt relevant, and not like a cop out, to go back and rediscover a lot of the old material.

“And then,” he says, “we realized that a lot of that old material that we had never played. Not least, the Odessey and Oracle stuff. Because we had never had performed that live. When we did that in Shepherd’s Bush in 2008, we played from start to finish. That’s the first and only time we reproduced every note from that album. We got other forces in because we had to, because we had overdubbed stuff on the original album. And I said to Chris [White, original Zombies bassist], “If we are going to do this, then we’ve got to reproduce every single note that was on the original album.” We did that. I even went out and bought a 1890s Victorian pump organ so we could get the exact sound on “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

Speaking (again) of Odessey and Oracle, I wonder why the album was such a slow burner, seeing as it now stands as an exemplar of that late-60s baroque rock style. Blunstone offers his perspective: “The obvious thing to say is that the band decided to finish before the album was even released. It was a time when the single was still important and we had released, I think, a couple of singles, maybe even three singles from the album. They hadn’t had any commercial success and I think everyone felt that we had gone as far as we could. And so the band decided to finish so there was no band to promote the album. I think that piece was a huge part of it.”

“I think that everyone in the band felt it was the right time for us to finish,” Blunstone adds. “We felt we had completed a musical circle. We had given all we’d got to give on that particular project, and it was time to move on and get involved in other projects.” He pauses and then goes further. “With a tiny bit of hindsight, I am probably the only one who feels like this: I would have been intrigued to have seen what we might have done if the band had stayed together. In particular, I think, Rod Argent and Chris White’s writing skills were really magnificent at that time. Really fabulous. They still are, but it seemed they just really sort of exploded just at that time in the late ’60s. I would have loved to have seen what we would have gone on and done.”

“But,” he says, “I feel that is one of the main problems, as I was saying, there was no band to promote [Odessey and Oracle]. I think it is a unique album. The sound of that album is not really like anything else from that period.”

Click to continue

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Preview: The Graham Parker Interview

April 10th, 2014

I first discovered the music of Graham Parker in the early-early 80s, in the finale year of my high school career. This was before MTV; if I recall correctly – this was a looong time ago – I learned of him via his association with other British acts I enjoyed. People like Nick Lowe (who produced Parker’s Stick to Me album) and so forth. At the time, I didn’t know enough about pop music history to understand how Parker fit into the musical mosaic; later I’d appreciate this his music draws upon American soul and r&b as much as rock, and was part of the proud tradition of deeply personal and powerful singer/songwriters (see also: Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy‘s Phil Lynott) but even then I had the feeling that he was well apart from the punk/new wave scene.

I grabbed up his albums whenever I found them; I even snagged a copy of The Pink Parker, the 1977 EP that contained Graham Parker and The Rumour‘s thrilling cover of The Trammps‘ “Hold Back the Night.” But once the vinyl era ended, I began to lose contact with Parker’s music. Live! Alone in America was the last Parker album (cassette, actually) I heard for many years.

Recently I discovered that he’s remained active, and that I well should have continued to pay attention. He reunited with his old band The Rumour in 2012 for a well-received album called Three Chords Good. And the fire still burns brightly for Parker and his mates.

The other big bit of news is the release – this week, in fact – of the long-gestating documentary film Don’t Ask Me Questions. It’s an incisive look at Parker and his music, from the beginning ’til now. Available on DVD and download, it’s a highly enjoyable and well-paced look at Parker, and of course the music is stellar.

I was even more thrilled to have scored an interview with Graham. I spoke to him last weekend, and am rush-releasing the resulting feature for release next week. In the meantime, I highly recommend Don’t Ask Me Questions. Keep an eye out for my Parker interview, right here, middle of next week (around April 16).

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Book Review: The Evolution of Mann

April 9th, 2014

Lately I’ve been mulling the age-old question: what makes a bandwagon-jumper? Pop music’s history is filled with examples of bands and solo artists who have adopted stylistic u-turns in a naked bid for the commercial brass ring. Perhaps The Bee Gees are the most celebrated example: though they started out as a Beatles-lite sort of act in the 60s (and proved they could rock when backing Ronnie Burns; see Nuggets II for proof), they jumped on the disco bandwagon and reaped serious financial rewards for their trouble.

And then there are the artists who are constantly changing if only to amuse themselves. David Bowie and Neil Young have both built careers around stylistic reinvention, and both were (often but not always) rewarded with both commercial success and critical plaudits.

Such career reboots – of the commercial or artistic kind – are far less common in the jazz idiom. But the jazz artist who first comes to mind when one thinks of hopping from style to style is flutist Herbie Mann. Biographer Cary Ginell (also author of an excellent Cannonball Adderley bio, part of the same Hal Leonard Jazz Biography Series) takes a look at Mann’s long and storied career in the punningly titled The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz.

Though Ginell was lucky enough to have interviewed the flutist extensively several years ago (Mann passed away in July 2003), he steered clear of the sort of over-familiarity that leads to hagiography. Ginell is an unapologetic fan of Mann the man and Mann the innovator, but he doesn’t make outsized claims about the flutist’s musical abilities. No, in fact, he quotes many of Mann’s former associates as being somewhat unimpressed with his chops, his ability to improvise. But none of that takes away, Ginell argues (and I would agree) from Mann’s accomplishments. What he did do was establish the flute as a legitimate instrument in jazz, and the flautist (as opposed to a player who seconds on flute) as a legitimate jazz player. For that alone he should be honored.

Moreover, Mann’s endless restlessness did result in some pretty fine music. Herbie Mann at the Village Gate (1961) is an exemplar in the soul jazz subgenre, and Memphis Underground (1968) is an incendiary set that features both Larry Coryell and the waaay-out-there guitar sounds of Sonny Sharrock.

Mann wasn’t always admired – much less taken seriously – by his peers, but he was known for crowd-pleasing, and for paying his sidemen atypically well. But back to the question of bandwagon jumping: Mann was an early proponent of the bossa nova movement that swept the USA in the very early 60s, but because of label delays and other factors, his releases came out later than, say, the Getz/Gilberto stuff. And others – notably Adderley –were well into the soul jazz bag before Mann was. As such, Mann was often criticized for following trends rather than setting them.

But, he might well have asked, what’s so bad about that? Mann was always more interested in making the fans happy. He adopted a rock star persona (one look at the cover of 1971′s Push Push makes that clear), with all the groupie-excess that connotes. By the 70s he had hitched his musical wagon to the disco train, and while his credibility took a big hit, he sold lots of records, and lots of concert tickets. And he doubtless got laid a lot.

Ginell charts Mann’s rise and fall (and sort of post-fame rise) with a reporter’s eye, drawing on interviews with those who knew him best, most notably selected sidemen and Mann’s third wife. Ginell recounts how, in Mann’s waning years as he dealt with prostate cancer, the flutist re-engaged with the ethnic sounds most dear to him. And in reconnecting with his earlier Brazilian musical bent (plus the music of his Eastern European roots), Mann – intentionally or not – made a final compelling case for his stature as an innovator in what we now call world music.

Ginell never paints his subject as a hero or a world-class musician, but he makes a strong case for Mann’s importance thanks to his popularization of his instrument, and for his role in the mainstreaming of ethic sounds into the fabric of American pop and/or jazz.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: Magic Sam — Live at the Avant Garde

April 8th, 2014

Soulful blues guitarist Magic Sam (Sam Maghett) was only documented on album-length studio recordings twice in his short career. West Side Soul in 1967 and the following year’s Black Magic – both released on the venerable Delmark label – showed the electric guitarist to good effect. But quite a few live recordings (of varying fidelity) provide a more intimate sonic portrait of Magic Sam. One of those – this newly-released set – documents a date at Milwaukee’s Avant Garde in summer 1968.

Fro a field recording, the recording quality is superb. While it’s a bit thin and tinny in places, all of the instruments come through: Sam’s piercing guitar and thick lead lines, Big Mojo Elem‘s tight bass work, and Bob Richey‘s rock solid drumming are all well-placed in the house mix, and so that’s what was captured by Jim Charne‘s multiple-microphone setup.

The recording was planned and carefully executed; this was no “reel-to-reel hidden inside a bag” sort of recording. Though Charne was merely a high school senior when he captured this performance, he clearly knew how to operate the equipment. The resulting tapes are, as Charne writes in the set’s liner notes, a faithful document of the show: “When the band went on, the tape rolled. What we heard in the room is what we got on the machine.”

And what they got was Sam and his bandmates confidently running through sixteen tunes in just over an hour. Blues standards from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters are prominently featured, alongside several Magic Sam originals and modern blues numbers like Freddie King‘s immortal “San-Ho-Zay” (the set opener). Soulful lead vocals and plenty of tasty guitar solos abound. Even on the nearly-one-chord workout “Feelin’ Good,” Sam thrilled the assembled small crowd with his singing and guitar work while Big Mojo and Richey provided peerless support. The slower blues (such as Lowell Fulson‘s“It’s All Your Fault Baby” were just as exciting in their own way as the more uptempo blues numbers. A highlight of the set is a reading of Amos Blakemore‘s “Come On In This House,” in which Sam engages in call and response between his vocal and guitar licks; every lyric line is answered with some fleet-fingered guitar work; the rhythm section lays back and provides their most subtle backing on the set.

But there are many high points on Live at the Avant Garde, and those who enjoy blues guitar work will want to hear it all. The question that arises at the end of listening to this CD is: are there even more Magic Sam live treasures waiting to be released? While we wait for an answer – should one even be forthcoming – this set should provide many hours of pleasure.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: Tower of Power — Hipper Than Hip

April 7th, 2014

For quite a number of years – primarily the mid 90s to around 2006 – I was immersed in a consuming hobby of sorts: I collected and traded bootlegs (aka ROIOs or recordings of indeterminate origin). For me, listening to unreleased recordings of artists I like – studio outtakes, live concert tapes, radio broadcasts and the like – provided an additional window of understanding into their work, a depth of understanding often unavailable through more conventional means.

With the rise of faster internet speeds and peer-to-peer sites, the trading of physical artifacts has largely died off. In the same way that trading of those physical CDs put a practical end to the for-profit (and illegal and unethical) practice of commercial bootlegging, the end of trading came on suddenly.

But a desire for these kinds of recordings persists. And just when one thinks the unreleased cache has been completely mined, something new turns up. The latest example of this is Hipper Than Hip: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Tower of Power. This 2CD set documents a WLIR radio broadcast from Long Island’s Ultrasonic Recording Studios on May 14, 1974. While Real Gone Music focuses primarily on rare and archival reissues, Hipper Than Hip is two-plus hours of previously unreleased material.

Tower of Power was (and remains) an eleven-piece band to be reckoned with. They brought the energy and fire of funk by expanding the basic rock lineup (guitar, bass, drums) with keyboards, percussion and a horn section. With Lenny Williams fronting the band on vocals, TOP tore through their tunes, giving ample spotlights to soloists. Chester Thompson‘s keyboard work is the centerpiece of many of these tracks, often engaging in incendiary dialogue with the horns (trumpet, two tenor saxes and a baritone sax).

Recorded in the studio but with a live audience, the recording is the best of both worlds: high quality recording techniques and the energy that can only be captured when the band plays in front of real human beings. The 2CD set captures the band at the height of their success, running through their hits (“Soul Vaccination,” “You’re Still a Young Man,” and “What is Hip” along with perennial favorite “Squib Cakes”) and a dozen others.

Led by founders Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka (both of whom remain in the band today, along with a couple others from back in the 70s), Tower of Power provided a sort of updating of the hard-charging road bands of the swing era (Duke Ellington‘s band, for example), injecting the music with heavy doses of soul, r&b and the ever-present funk.

From start to finish, Hipper Than Hip is a thrilling document of a band and horn section at their best. Whether it’s a smooth soul ballad such as “You’re Still a Young Man” or an irresistible groove, Tower of Power delivers. The liner notes provide a bit of history and context along with some background on the sessions that produced this historic recording. As successful as the studio albums of that era were (1974′s Back to Oakland was the group’s then-current release), it was in concert that Tower of Power were best experienced. And while they did release a live album in the 70s (1976′s Live and Living Color) that contains versions of four of the numbers on Hipper Than Hip, this new 2CD set is worth having for its combination of up-close-and-personal with studio production values.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 3 (Part Two)

April 4th, 2014

The final set of performances we took in at Big Ears 2014 were all centered around the work of minimalist composer Steve Reich. It was all deeply thrilling, visceral, emotional stuff, the kind of thing that’s quite difficult to put into words. It might sounds like a cop-out to say so, but this is music that must be experienced live. I had never heard most of it in recorded form, so I claim no point of reference. But it was stunning and beautiful in ways I find myself unable to articulate. So instead I offer some photos. They don’t quite get at it either, but they’re cool nonetheless. If you find my writing about music at all resonating with you, just trust me when I tell you that this music was amazing. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead solo, then a couple other Reich pieces by Ensemble Signal.




I don’t consider the word “commercial” a pejorative term, but neither do I consider it an essential component of worthwhile music. Big Ears 2014 was for the most part far, far, far from commercial, but I sincerely hope that the organizers made their earnings goals. Because as festivals go, Big Ears 2014 was well-run, incredibly thoughtful in terms of artist selection, and user-friendly in the extreme. An unqualified success. I truly hope they schedule another one soon, and if they do, I’ll make every effort to cover it.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.