Festival Preview: Transfigurations II

August 27th, 2014

Two thousand and four would not be most people’s idea of the perfect year to open an independent record store. Even without the benefit of hindsight – the economic meltdown of 2007 made consumers less likely to engage in such discretionary purchases as music – 2004 wasn’t exactly The Year Vinyl Broke (Again). But in August of that year, Asheville NC residents Matt Schnable and Mark Capon took the plunge, opening a good-sized retail space in the heart of “east West Asheville,” a part of town that was on the front end of a definite upswing. Their pioneering spirit was embodied in both their choice of location and in what they chose to sell: new and used vinyl.

Harvest Records (no connection to the Capitol subsidiary record label that gave us those early Deep Purple and Pink Floyd albums) has gone on to great success. In addition to stocking an excellent selection of new vinyl releases that caters to a wide array of tastes (no small feat in a relatively small city such as Asheville, with a population of only 70,000 or so), Harvest stocks a good selection of music-related magazines, and their used record section is reasonably priced and full of reliably good-condition vinyl.

Once a year Harvest holds a “basement sale,” during which they open the doors to their cramped, musty space full of Rubbermaid containers jam-packed full of all manner of used vinyl. Yes you’ll find the usual suspects – the Grease soundtrack, Frampton Comes Alive, and of course Herb Alpert and the Tijuana BrassWhipped Cream and Other Delights – but intrepid cratediggers will also unearth some real gems, all for a dollar apiece. At the most recent sale (less than two weeks ago) I scored over fifty records, mostly cool jazz titles by Ramsey Lewis, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and (a pre-vocal) George Benson. I also found a half dozen Frank Sinatra albums I didn’t already own. And, as I knew I would, I bumped into a half dozen of my friends, who, like me, are inveterate vinyl junkies.

In 2011 the store expanded, adding more merchandise, “elbow room,” stereo components, and a stage for in-store performances. They also sponsor some of the more interesting concerts scheduled in town; I sometimes cover those on my other blog, the twice-monthly “30 Days Out” on the Mountain Xpress site.

While waiting in line for the doors for the basement sale to begin, I chatted briefly with co-owner Matt Schnable. He told me that on occasion Harvest buys huge lots that collector/hoarders are looking to unload; after picking through those for items to sell in the regular retail space, the remainder goes in the basement. And sometimes, they sell huge lots: you know that recent story that’s been lighting up the internet of late, the one about the Brazilian collector who’s buying millions of records? Harvest has sold to him on at least one occasion.

Whatever Harvest does, then, they do it well. And to celebrate their tenth anniversary, they’ve organized a music festival. Taking place in Asheville and relatively nearby Marshall (population: 868), Transfigurations II is scheduled for this week, Thursday August 28 through Saturday August 30. I’l lbe attending the Thursday night set at The Grey Eagle, featuring headliners The Sadies. And on Saturday, I’ll make the short trek up Riverside Drive, along one of North America’s oldest rivers, the wild and beautiful French Broad River, to Blanahassett Island, site of the day-long segment of the festival.

Now, Blanahassett Island is a curious thing: a roughly 1500ft x 400ft bean-shaped lad mass in the middle of the French Broad. Years ago, when Marshall was a (somewhat) booming mill town, the local authorities thought it would be the perfect location for…a high school. Yes, because, you know, rivers never flood or anything, right? (The French Broad saw not one but two “hundred year floods” in September 2004, weeks after Harvest – situated on high ground, thankfully – opened its doors).

But I digress. No doubt thanks to the stature of Harvest and its owners, the lineup for Transfigurations II is quite fascinating. Unlike other locally-based festivals – say, Moogfest – there’s no discernible musical theme for this festival: there’s something for many tastes. For me, the most anticipated shows feature acts rarely seen on these shores, much less in the Blue Ridge Mountains. New Zealand’s The Clean are the act about which I’m most excited; the long-bubbling-under r&b sensation Lee Fields promises to light up the stage; Asheville’s own garage rockers Reigning Sound can always be counted on for an incendiary show; and Sir Richard Bishop (who I missed at Hopscotch – or was it Big Ears – last time ’round) provides some avant-garde guitar skronk for those attuned to boundary-pushing. And there are plenty of others; I expect I’ll come away having discovered a new (or at least new-to-me) group or three.

Keep an eye out on this blog after the festival is over for words and images about Transfigurations II.

Weekend Passes are already sold out, but tickets for individual days were still available when I hit “publish” on this piece.

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part Two)

August 26th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In 2012 I wrote a blog entry in which I suggested that Syd Barrett may have – consciously or otherwise – nicked the intro of “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” for Pink Floyd‘s “Astronomy Dominé.” The two are too similar for it to be coincidence, I think. And it’s well established that Barrett was listening to a lot of American music, having admitted to being inspired by the riff of Love‘s version of “My Little Red Book” when he wrote “Interstellar Overdrive.” So although the Electric Prunes weren’t active for a very long period back in the 60s, the band’s influence outpaced its record sales. Do you hear the sound and approach of the Prunes in bands that would come after?

James Lowe: I think what it probably was, most of all, was is that “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” was a really weird sounding record. So I think that we got thrown in the weirdo category when we were actually pretty normal. I can see why the music of that time became a sort of turning point, because things were going electronic. And with stuff going backwards and sliding around, maybe that was there at the right time. I like that record. A lot of people don’t like their hit records; I love it.

BK: Also in 2012, Real Gone Music put together a complete singles collection of the band’s Reprise releases, The Complete Reprise Singles. The thing that made it special was hearing the mono versions of all of those songs. On the first couple of albums, what degree of input did the band have regarding things like arrangements, mixes and so forth?

JL: We did all the arrangements. And I did the mixes with Dave Hassinger, mostly. People have asked that before, about mono versus stereo. The first mix was always the mono mix. Because some people had stereo; some didn’t. So you’d sort of be making a stereo mix for a few people. But the mono mix was the thing that went on the radio. At American studios, we’d make a mix of something, and then we’d go out, transfer it to the car, and sit in the car and listen to it on the radio. Mono was very important. I know why a lot of people collect it, because it does sound different.

BK: It’s much punchier; if it sounds good through a crappy little car speaker over AM radio, it sounds good.

JL: Amen!

BK: That said, the stereo effects are cool. But I still prefer those mono mixes.

The songs on WaS: were they written expressly for an album or is the album a sort of collection of material you had floating around, and you just decided that now was the time to put something together?

JL: We had some things floating around. This was the album Mark and I were putting together before he died. There were some things that we had already recorded, and some things that were partially finished. And there were other things that we had sketched out, that hadn’t been completed yet. So WaS is sort of a compilation of all those things. And I think it represents what Mark and I would have done for the final album if he hadn’t checked out.

BK: I’m impressed by just how – dare I say – authentic sounding the new album is. In the age of ProTools and digital recording, it’s paradoxically, I think, more difficult to make an album that has that particular sonic quality of the mid to late 60s. I think you succeeded. What did you do special to make that happen?

JL: I think that a lot of the things that make it sonically the way that it is have to do with this: we always did everything through the amplifiers. On our recordings, when we wanted to get an effect, we’d get it with the amplifier. Rarely did we really use the studio devices to create an effect. So a lot of the stuff on disc is just the way we really did, trying to – for example – take a Fender Reverb amp and do something weird with it. And I think that makes a difference; there’s a certain kind of warmth to my ears. I like digital stuff, but this is kind of a combination of those things.

BK: I would think also that if you’re achieving the sounds that way in the studio, it’s going to be that much easier to recreate those sounds live onstage.

JL: It does, yeah. It at least gives you a handle to hang the stage act upon. So there’s nothing so abstract that you could never play it.

BK: What’s coming up as far as live dates in the near future for the Electric Prunes?

JL: I don’t know; I was hoping that you were going to tell me! We’re hoping to go to Europe. We keep getting these adventures offered to us, but the hardest part is to get people off the couch and to come out to a show and see the band. People always tell us, “Hey, I had no idea you were in town!” And I think, “Why not? Why wouldn’t you know?” It seems that people would rather hang and watch Netflix than they would go down to some place and see an old band play.

More information about the band and their new album can be found at http://www.electricprunes67.com/

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part One)

August 25th, 2014

In that heady summer of 1967, one of the songs that captured and embodied the zeitgeist was “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” a fuzzed-out psychedelic miniature masterpiece by the trendily-named Electric Prunes. While the original group managed only to squeeze out two albums – the debut LP titled after the hit single, and Underground (both released in 1967) – before surrendering to their producer’s vision, an approach in which their participation was minimal to nonexistent, they left behind a number of excellent tunes.

Serious fans of the band often dismiss Mass in F Minor and the two albums that followed it as not being part of the band’s true canon. But those early tracks, including numbers like “Get Me to the World On Time” and “The Great Banana Hoax” displayed a vibe that was as at times as dark as The Doors, but yet seemingly also possessing of a more good-timing disposition.

Bassist Mark Tulin and guitarist/vocalist James Lowe were the prime movers in that original lineup, and after a decades-long hiatus, the pair reactivated the Electric Prunes for the 21st century. A pair of studio albums – California (2004) and Feedback (2006) – showed that the group had new material in the vein of their 60s work, and their live shows displayed their onstage fire to a new generation.

Tulin passed away in early 2011, but by the time of his death, a new Electric Prunes album had already gotten started. Lowe and the rest of the band finished the material, released in 2014 as WaS. Recently, I spent some time in conversation with Lowe, discussing the new material, the old songs, and the forces that have helped the music of The Electric Prunes to endure for so many years. – bk

Bill Kopp: When Lenny Kaye‘s original and influential 2LP Nuggets compilation first came out on Elektra in the early 70s, how aware were you of it and the fact that “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” was on it?

James Lowe: I wasn’t aware [of it] at all. I didn’t know; I had no idea. In fact my son told me about it…I don’t know what year it was; years later. He said, “Do you know you’re on Nuggets?” And I said, “What’s that?” Here’s the thing: I didn’t tell anyone I had been in that band. I was doing commercials and films and stuff, and nobody knew me as the guy in The Electric Prunes. So nobody would bother to mention it to me.

BK: The first time I recall seeing your name was on liner notes for Todd Rundgren‘s Runt album; you engineered it, right?

JL: I engineered Nazz, Nazz Nazz, Nazz III, Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Someting/Anything…we did a bunch of albums together.

BK: So in the period during which the Electric Prunes essentially went inactive, and up until when you reactivated the group around 2000, what were you doing musically?

JL: I had a commercial production company, so I was doing corporate image films and stuff like that. Other than underscoring those things, I wasn’t doing any music projects.

BK: When you did reunite around the turn of the century, what was it about that particular time that made it right?

JL: A guy named David Katznelson from Warner Brothers wanted to release an album of our stuff from the 60s. And we couldn’t figure out why he did; we didn’t think anyone would want to buy it. He seemed so knowledgeable and involved, that we just sort of surrendered ourselves to him. So we made a compilation called Lost Dreams. And that reinstilled my interest in music. I had gotten Mark Tulin on board when they called me to do it. And with both of us sitting there listening to these old tracks after all those years, we thought that we didn’t sound that bad! I gotta be honest: it wasn’t bad.

BK: The liner notes the new album, WaS, are sort of cagey about whether this is the end: “Maybe the last we will ask you to support.” With Mark having passed, are you keeping your options open, or is this really the end?

JL: Well, to be honest with you, the band – the guys we’ve been playing with for the last seven or eight years – these guys really like playing, and they’re interested in still performing. So…I”m not sure if we’ll do any more records; we’ve got some stuff in the can, enough to do some more records. But these guys wanna play. And I wanna play, too. I’ve been playing this stuff for the last year, year and half while we recorded it. But it’s also a lot of fun to go out and play it for people.

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Please Come To Boston; We Said Yes.

August 22nd, 2014

Last week, my fianceé and I bumped into an old acquaintance of mine; he is a guitarist who, back in 2005, my then-current band had tried to recruit. It hadn’t worked out at the time, but I always remembered him as an especially good-natured and versatile player. When we were chatting, he mentioned that he had recently spoken to a woman who really liked that old band I had; sometime in 2005, we had played for her birthday party. Apparently now she was interested in asking if we’d re-form to play her upcoming birthday.

I replied to him that – for a long and occasionally unpleasant list of reasons – that would be extremely unlikely to happen, but the conversation did get me to thinking about that old band, and the highlight of its time together.

A little over eight years ago, I enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While I have been in bands on and off since 1980, it has been the rare case in which I’ve ended up playing a nice stage in a classy venue. As a (mostly) cover-band musician, I’ve generally found myself onstage in places with names like The Shovelhead Saloon, Frank’s Buckboard and the like, playing to often disinterested and/or drunk crowds.

This was different. And it almost didn’t happen.

In the aftermath of the death of my good friend and lead guitarist Dave, my bandmate and friend Mike decided we’d try again to put together a group. We got with Dave’s surviving girlfriend Susie, and she brought along her friend Debbie, an expert at crafting vocal arrangements. Eventually we added my then-wife Joan to compete the female vocal front line, and we held auditions and settled on a guitarist and a bassist. (The guitar slot would change often in the band’s brief existence.)

As we built our song list – focusing on “sunshine pop” of the 60s with strong emphasis on vocals, since five of us sang – we also began looking for gigs. We found quite a few local engagements; most of these were private parties, events and the like. We were not what you would call a “bar band,” and since in 2005-6 smoking was still allowed in North Carolina bars, we were none too keen on that kind of gig anyway.

One among our membership had a good deal of disposable income, and was often adding instruments to his collection. He kept up with the latest and greatest technological developments to a much greater extent than did the rest of us, and so it was he who first told us about a new PA system developed by Bose, the high-end audio company based in suburban Boston. Bose was attempting to break into the live sound reinforcement market with something they called the Cylindrical Radiator. To me, the thing looked like a portable basketball hoop with out the net and backboard. The round-ish base was about two feet across, and held most of the electronics. The pole was filled with loads of tiny speakers, a precursor to the sound towers now common in home theater setups.

As it happened, our bandmate decided to take a stab at an endorsement deal: he sent a letter to the Bose people, enclosing a CDR with a few of our performances on it. I seriously doubt he expected any sort of response.

To everyone’s surprise, he got one. The marketing people at Bose HQ liked our covers of tunes like “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” by Spanky and Our Gang, and “Happy Together” by The Turtles. And they made us an offer: (please) come to Boston and play a concert for us at our facility, and we’ll send you home with loads of equipment, yours to keep.

Oh: I left out a little detail. Right around this time, that wife I mentioned earlier informed me that she didn’t want to be married (to me) any longer. (It’s cool: eight years have passed, and we’re friendly now.) But at the time, this – as you might well imagine – put the band’s future in no small peril. As it happened, she and I agreed that we wanted to keep the band together and do this gig. So several weeks later, I, my estranged spouse, and my buddy Mike road-tripped the fourteen-plus hour drive north to Massachusetts. The other members traveled their own ways: some flew, and I believe one tacked Boston onto an already-scheduled vacation. The guitarist – quite understandably – decided the whole venture wasn’t worth the effort, and declined to make the trip.

But we did need a guitarist. My long-time friend Jim lives just outside of Boston; he and I played together in a band back in the 1990s when we both lived in the suburbs of Atlanta. I asked him if he’d like to do a one-off gig at Bose: all he had to do was learn a dozen or so tunes on his own. There would be no practice nor rehearsal. He gamely agreed, and he and his wife even allowed me and a few of my bandmates to crash at his place to save on expenses.


The author onstage for soundcheck at Bose HQ, Boston, June 2006
 

The day of the gig arrived, and we showed up at Bose. We were quite surprised at the VIP treatment lavished upon us: we were invited to dine in the corporate cafeteria; we were given access to a comfortable and well-appointed “green room” (quite different from the filthy bar bathrooms in which I’d usually dress for a gig), and – best of all – we had plenty of time to set up.

The venue was a “listening room,” full of chairs and a large, well-lit stage. As it was explained to us, Bose had promoted our performance locally ahead of time; tickets were free, but they had to be reserved in advance. The room held about eighty or so people, and it would filled to capacity for our show.

The stage itself was largely unadorned: the back wall, however, had nine of those Bose PA systems lined up and evenly spaced. One for each of our voices and instruments, we were told. The house sound engineer was on hand to guide us through this unconventional setup, and sound check went off without incident. We even had some time to run through two or three of the tunes for the first time with Jim on guitar.

Just prior to showtime, we were asked to wait backstage while the emcee introduced us. This was yet another first for me: I was used to wandering out onstage with the band, announcing our presence, and starting the music. Or this performance, we entered the room single file to the sound of room-filling applause. It didn’t seem real, and my memory of it sometimes feels like I’m remembering someone else’s experience.

The show went smoothly, with some between-song banter that nicely strode the gap between rehearsed and off-the-cuff. The seated audience was enthusiastic and engaged. When we prepared to launch into a cover of The Spiral Starecase‘s “More Today Than Yesterday,” I bought a bit of time by narrating what I was doing: loading a “brass section” sample (on floppy disk) into my Ensoniq Mirage synthesizer, a machine that was vintage equipment even in 2006.

The set ended as it began, with plenty of heartfelt applause. Our new equipment was shipped to us in Asheville not long thereafter. The band folded a few months later, after I organized and executed a final gig at Asheville’s Orange Peel, featuring a reshuffled lineup. As we all went our separate ways, the bounty of Bose equipment was sold off; with my share of the proceeds I bought an old but fully restored analog synthesizer.

The Bose people were kind enough to capture the entire performance in digital audio, one audio file for each of the nine PA towers. Sometime after the band ceased to exist, one member took those files into a local studio and got them mixed down to stereo. I still have a CD somewhere, and as I recall, it sounds pretty good.

Since then, more often than not, it’s been back to the bars for me, though in my most recent musical endeavor, I’ve been playing original music (written by the band’s leader) in some very nice musical venues. But every once in a great while – and I’m not especially nostalgic by nature, especially for the year 2006 – I think back on that experience, and I smile.

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“How did we get where we are right now?” A Conversation with Todd Cochran (Part 3)

August 21st, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: We’ve touched on this a bit already: there’s absolutely no guitar on the album. Was that a conscious decision on your part, to arrange the music without the use of guitar? As I mentioned earlier, I come from a rock background, so I’m still learning about jazz. And one thing I’ve learned is that, as often as not, the beat in jazz is implied rather than explicitly laid down. What I find on Worlds Around the Sun is that guitars are almost implied.

Todd Cochran: Yes. And that came from the Clavinet; that’s what I was thinking about. And the Fender Rhodes electric piano allowed me to dictate that rhythmic aspect much more clearly. The colors that the Rhodes gave to the music were pretty new. Some of those records that you were speaking of by Cannonball Adderley – “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and that period – feature Josef Zawinul on keyboards. He was using a Wurlitzer [EP200A]. The Fender Rhodes wasn’t happening yet. The Wurlitzer wasn’t as full and rich as what the Rhodes became. So with that instrument, the music was much more intense. What really changed were the rhythms that the drummers were playing. You’d be immersed in these rhythmic environment. And what the Rhodes and the Clavinet did was provide colors, with a precision that helped define the music more rhythmically.

And you had people who had been used to playing the piano; I had been playing since I was about three years old. So take someone who’s been playing and studying piano most of their life. Then they go into an instrument that’s not an organ, not a Wurlitzer, but something that has almost the full range (the 88-key Rhodes came later). So they’re taking a pianistic approach and applying it to something electric. You had a different kind of sustaining factor, and you might not have the harmonic interaction you’d have on an acoustic piano. But you could adjust volume, phasing, vibrato. And for a pianist, that was a fascinating world to enter.

We’d have these instruments modified – at no small expense – to make them more responsive, to make the attack more precise. And we’d work on the electronics, to make, for lack of a better word, an artist’s instrument.

BK: Sort of like a guitarist changing out his instrument’s stock pickups…

TC: Yeah. And they do things like shave the frets. The same idea. So we were getting into some areas that were pretty exciting. And the drummers were playing much louder to get the sounds that they wanted out of the drums. You would hear the drums on a rock record that you liked, but you would not get drums like that at a jazz club volume; forget it. So when they did play louder, that made it hard for pianists. Club pianos were not that great, so you’d bring in an electric piano, and create your own audio environment. And that had a lot to do with where the music went.

BK: Not that it’s the be-all and end-all of things, but at present there’s not even a Wikipedia entry for Worlds Around the Sun. I suppose that’s because it was unavailable for so long. Used copies of the original LP start at $60. Why do you think it went out of print, after receiving such good critical notices and selling reasonably well?

TC: I think that the company [Prestige], which was owned by Saul Zaentz, was a privately held company. So they had certain assets that they worked on. They could only give certain records a certain level of attention. They were not signing new artists, and I think eventually the company was sold to Concord. And so not only did they get the prestige of having this great jazz catalog, but I don’t think they knew everything that was in the catalog. And I don’t think Prestige was ever in the business of making jazz stars, either.

They weren’t doing tour support or any big promotional campaigns. They worked really well with the press, but they weren’t in the business of out-marketing their competitors. But that’s me speaking with an executive hat on.

The thrust of the company was not that. When you get in that business, you have to have a steady stream of product that represents the brand. They had a great art department, though. It was there in Berkeley, so it had to be hip to a certain level. So that’s a second sort of what-if question.

BK: Worlds Around the Sun is an undiscovered gem that can now be discovered. And it’s great to see Omnivore Recordings doing it; they have quickly developed a reputation for very thoughtful crate-digging, for lack of a better word.

TC: Curating.

BK: Yes, curating: that’s a better word.

TC: And I think that has everything to do with the times. The music that I made at that time, 1972, the music of that time was so different from the expressions that had come before. I don’t think the social commentary and critics of that time fully understood where the music was originating. So it’s really great to be able to revisit it, and talk about it in an expansive way.

People are talking about some of the concept albums that the art rock bands were making; people are very interested in old Genesis records. I went on to work with Peter Gabriel, too. People are interested in Pink Floyd albums, and in these bigger concepts. Those are records that were talking about the emotional and psychological frame of mind of the times. And that’s still interesting to people as we ask ourselves: How did we get where we are right now?

For me, it’s always been about dreaming the life you want to live, and always being curious. When original thoughts are made into something musical, if it’s well done, there’s a reward for the curious.

And I’m excited to the point where I shot a video for one of the tracks from the record. The track “It Ain’t” is basically about the song from Porgy and Bess, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It ties into the idea of mythologies. It’s a big thing to go against those, because people have a whole lot of views about music, about people’s aspirations. And the revolution that the we attached to music in the early 70s meant that we were all looking at society and allegiances differently. And that’s fodder for some high creativity. And I’m very appreciative to have been a part of that. Because it set the trajectory of my musical ideals.

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“How did we get where we are right now?” A Conversation with Todd Cochran (Part 2)

August 20th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Todd Cochran: And I worked with John Handy, who was on Columbia. To digress a bit back to your earlier question, which is still going around in my head…John Handy had done some very interesting music with Ali Akbar Khan, who played with Ravi Shankar. Some very interesting music. So there was jazz being blended with East Indian classical music.

Bill Kopp: I didn’t realize that hybrid had happened! There was an album that came out about five, six years ago called Miles From India. But I had no idea such a thing had been explored that far back.

TC: Yeah. John Handy, who had been in Charlie Mingus‘ band, was really a very special player. He played all over the world, and he taught for a time at San Francisco State University. I played with John for about a year and a half. I worked with Woody Shaw; I played with Joe Henderson briefly. I kind of circled Blue Note, but it never “happened.” I ended up producing Freddie Hubbard for Blue Note many years later; I wrote an album for him called Times are Changing.

I’ll give you one little insight here. That record I wrote for Bobby Hutcherson, Head On, was produced by George Butler; Butler went on to be a very powerful A&R guy at Columbia. He was Miles Davis‘ A&R guy, and he also signed Wynton Marsalis. I did a lot of projects with George Butler with CBS/Sony. And it was really something I learned way down the road that Head On was the first record that he had produced!

But yes, to answer your question, Blue Note would have really changed my trajectory. It had a lot to do with the fact that I was in San Francisco. I learned my art there, and I’m very happy to have grown up in that environment. Again, it was about the balance of cultures. Haight-Ashbury, the free speech movement coming out of Berkeley, City Lights Bookstore, the American Conservatory Theater. It was the beginning of a lot of what we’re experiencing now: gay rights and such. It was all there. It was a place for ideas. And everyone was interacting with each other, because it’s a much smaller city, geographically, than, say, Los Angeles.

BK: I hadn’t really thought about the way that a city’s geography can affect its musical character…

TC: Absolutely. Very much so. In San Francisco, The Grateful Dead were playing. The [Jefferson] Airplane. There was Bill Graham, David Rubinson. So much energy. I would say that it was the centerpiece of the American cultural revolution. Forward-thinking ideas were driven by the intellectual community. And there was money there, too. And the money went into these great academic places, so this place that was rich with ideas meant that everyone could have their curiosities satisfied.

But a lot of people felt completely put off by it; it was too intense. People don’t realize just how much came out of that scene. Cal Tjader was there. Dave Brubeck came out of that.

BK: The whole West coast jazz scene…

TC: Vince Guaraldi came out of that too. And Duke Ellington did his spiritual concerts there, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Cornel West had a series that he toured with, with Rabbi Lerner; that was a great, powerful dialog. Everything was there for the taking.

BK: Your wah-wah work on the Hohner Clavinet D6 is a highlight of “Free Angela.”

TC: You must be a keyboard player…

BK: Yes, I am. The vocal chants add a great texture, more musical than lyrical to my ears. I know that there’s a point to what’s being sung, but I hear those vocal lines as a purely musical component. When you composed the track, was the idea of employing the wah-wah pedal – because you’re really pumping it – so prominently part of the original idea, or did it develop in the studio?

TC: I was fascinated by the guitar. I always loved guitar. I’m a pianist, and I come from the classical world. But people were doing such amazing things with that instrument, and then they figured out how to modify the sound electronically. And I’m sure it was some great accident of mis-wiring, but then they created this pedal where you could control the variations in that signal. And it became a complete sound experience. I liked that it gave me the opportunity to get close to what I loved about what guitarists were doing. It’s a bit like what people were doing with brass instruments, using a plunger or other hand mutes. So it became a sort of vernacular expression. You could do it rhythmically, or you could just slowly adjust it. A closed sound would be like the downbeat, and the open sound on two and four would be like the backbeat.

Another thing that I was just learning it that when it was amplified, when you’re in the proximity of the amplifier, you could actually sustain sounds. Feed back sounds. That’s something I explored a bit down the road. But it was a lot of fun.

BK: Worlds Around the Sun is wonderfully difficult to classify. There’s out-there avant jazz, soul, funk, rock texture, pop melodies. There’s something for everyone. You were only 20 when you made the record; what were your thoughts going into the sessions? Did you want to make a record that explored your interests and abilities, to have commercial success, or just to best deliver the set of songs you had written?

TC: All of the above. It was really important to me to be authentic musically. I enjoyed so many musicians, and been inspired by so many great players. I played the Hohner Clavinet with Herbie Hancock on a film called The Spook Who Sat Behind the Door. I was really proud of that; Herbie conducted and I played keyboards on the film score. And the film has gone into the National Film Registry as a representation of the period. I was exploring the D6 a lot on that.

And that’s what the film needed to have, to be fully relevant. I came up at a time when folk music was great, and r&b was moving into these wider expressions where it was not just relegated to subjects of love.

BK: Right; it became much more personal-to-the-universal.

TC: The whole range of expression was opening up, particular for African Americans. And commercial success was important, because that allowed you to be able to go out and play your music. Commercialism was perhaps secondary, as the idea was to make a connection with an audience.

The songs themselves on Worlds Around the Sun had a thematic conceptual approach. Songs like “It Ain’t” were about looking at certain mythologies. The light was shining much more brightly than it had previously; the main commitment was to playing the music as well as it could be played. And the desire to communicate was very, very important. There was music being made at that time that was very technical. It may have been brilliant, but it was not necessarily inclusive; it didn’t invite you in. You might see musicians playing, and you’d be taken in by this mighty relationship they had with their instrument, whereas my interest was to make music or art that was inclusive, that brought them into the melodic and thematic dimensions of the music, where it created a space where maybe we could think about an idea, together. That was what was important to me; not a display of brilliance and technique.

BK: A balance between appeals to the head and the heart…

TC: Absolutely. And I think that’s really important.

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“How did we get where we are right now?” A Conversation with Todd Cochran (Part 1)

August 19th, 2014

Earlier this year, I spent a delightful and fascinating afternoon in conversation with Todd Cochran, aka Bayeté. His 1972 album Worlds Around the Sun has just gotten the deluxe reissue treatment from Omnivore Recordings.

Our discussion began informally as we discussed where I was coming from. As a relative newcomer to jazz, I approach most everything new I hear with the ears and sensibility of a rock fan. That has led me to two specific types of jazz: the highly melodic, pop-leaning work of Cannonball Adderley, and the fusion-leaning experimental jazz of the late 60s and early 70s. As it happens, the latter genre is well-represented by an Adderley album, Black Messiah, recently reissued by Real Gone Music. I wrote the liner notes for the reissue, and a brief discussion of that project helped establish some common ground between Cochran and myself. That said, we quickly discovered we had much more than a love of that album in common, but it served as a touchstone to get our interview going.

We began the more structured part of our conversation discussing the philosophical framework and outlook that Cochran brought to Worlds Around the Sun. — bk


Todd Cochran: The thing that we all come in touch with, once we’re touched by a piece of music, by something that the player wanted us to experience, is that we’re breathing the same air. And the day cycles are the same. We live in parallel existences. I came to a realization, summed up in one sentence: there’s a ring around the world. All of it can be reached at the emotional level. And it’s very exciting when we reach that place.

All creative musical forms are only one generation away from extinction. So they have to be explained and described in a way that people can absorb the important aspects of the forms. Like folk music: to really understand that it’s a fundamental type of creativity. So it’s important that we understand how it came into existence. When we try to represent that experience, we’re really re-creating something. And then it takes on an art form in and of itself. And I feel that’s the foundation of jazz, soul, r&b and rock. They take those folk elements to the next level and interpret them.

Bill Kopp: For a brief period – probably no more than a few years – in the early 1970s, there was a rich cross-fertilization between jazz, rock, and what we now call world music. You were in Automatic Man; Stomu Yamashta did his Go albums with some of the same artists; and people like Cannonball Adderley were enlisting musical help from Mike Deasy, Airto Moriera and so on. What do you think it was about that era that provided the fertile ground for these sorts of hybrids to occur?

TC: I feel that it originated with the intensity of the times. There were many different aspects in the cultural stream, all intersecting at the same time. What we saw with younger people – of which I was one; I was very young at that time – were ideas that were new, and a lot of assertions that were often completely opposed to those of our parents. I think that what we experienced on the outside, the expression of that, was revolutionary. And the rebellious part was us reacting to our parents’ outlooks, and their attitudes about us coming into our own, finding our own ways to express ourselves.

The punk music that came forth in the late 1970s and early 80s was an expression of that rebelliousness very directly, whereas the music of the late 60s and early 70s was actually an expression of revolutionary ideas. We all eventually come into a time in which we want to feel something very deeply, and the massive shift in the social dynamics of this country allowed a lot of people to have that deep feeling. And it was certainly transferred into musical forms. And when you have things that are impacting each other, the operative response is to try to find balance. And there were a number of people who were working to find that balance. And that resulted in a lot of experimentation. And one thing that made it very interesting is that a lot of people were able to follow this change in musical tastes; that wasn’t true with the events leading up to this period, with the avant garde. Because these were not avant garde, margin ideas.

BK: Worlds Around the Sun was initially released on Prestige, and had a relatively low profile in the commercial world. Adderley was on Capitol, Miles Davis was on Columbia. I wonder if your album had been on a more mainstream (as in, less associated with jazz) label, if it might have gotten wider notice.

TC: It probably would have. I was on Prestige at the time, along with Hampton Hawes, and Bill Evans had been there. I was signed by Saul Zaentz, who went on to become and auteur in filmmaking. He had tremendous taste; of course everyone knows him for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The English Patient and Amadeus; he had really very refined and sophisticated tastes. And he’s known for Fantasy Records, and his association there with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Saul was married to Charlie Mingus‘ second wife.

My first recordings were on Blue Note, an album I wrote for Bobby Hutcherson called Head On. That featured a twenty-one piece orchestra. And then I did a record with Duke Pearson on Blue Note. I was never signed with Blue Note, though; I wrote a record for Hadley Caliman on Mainstream Records, where I worked with producer Bob Shad.

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Album Review: The Soul of Designer Records

August 18th, 2014

From a certain point of view, gospel music can be pigeonholed as a bunch of love songs all written to or about one person. But as with any music genre, there’s much more than one dimension to it, especially if one digs a bit deeper into the music. And that’s certainly the case with the (mostly) African-American gospel cut for Designer Records, a tiny “custom” label run by the colorful Style Wooten.

Designer was a precursor of what would later be called a “vanity” label: acts would come in, pay their fees, and cut a song or two. Rarely did anyone scheduling a session harbor the anticipation of scoring a hit single. Especially in the case of the gospel sides cut for Designer (many, many hundreds of other artists in other genres recorded tunes under Wooten’s supervision), it was often a case of traveling gospel groups coming to town for a church gig, passing the hat to collect “love offerings” and then dropping by the studio to cut a one-off, low budget track.

Of course all of this is wonderfully described in Michael Hurtt‘s liner notes that accompany the 4CD set The Soul of Designer Records. Packaged in a lavish and sturdy sleeve that mimics the gatefold LP jackets of old, this compilation showcases 101 recordings done for the label. And even for those not attuned to gospel, it’s a wonderful set of music. The musicianship – provided by local Memphis players including guitarist Roland Janes – is surprisingly first-rate: Designer and its myriad sub-labels might have been cut-rate, and Sonic Studios wasn’t exactly Stax or Ardent – but most everything about these tunes is first-rate.

As Roland Janes (quoted in one of Hurtt’s accompanying essays) said, “Style [Wooten]…didn’t know a thing about music.” But that didn’t stop him from making sure these recordings were as good as they could be. It certainly helped that the vocalists tended to be in super-tight, road-tested outfits who were able to give a high quality performance in a few takes. And while exactly zero of the tunes on this collection would go on to any measure of distribution (much less financial success), The Soul of Designer Records is a treasure trove of excellent music. Though the players on many tracks were drawn from the same relatively small pool of musicians, the instrumentation never once sounds phoned-in: there’s a surprising variety of styles on display, albeit within the confined framework of gospel. And the performances handily and vividly illustrate the musical cross-fertilization of soul, rock, blues, r&b, country, gospel and other forms.

The liner notes include brief biographies of some of the acts preserved on this set, but what is most remarkable is the lack of detail: the information simply doesn’t exist. Hurtt provides what information he can, but in many cases, a sentence or two (or nothing) is all that remains to document these groups’ sessions for Designer.

Except, of course, the music. Thanks to modern-day label Big Legal Mess and the archivists behind this ambitious project, hours of fine music is now saved from total obscurity. With luck, the release will be remunerative enough for the label that they’ll see fit to issue future volumes, chronicling Style Wooten’s recordings of rockabilly and other musical styles. The Soul of Designer Records is enthusiastically recommended; I won’t be a bit surprised to see it nominated next year for a Grammy Award or three.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 5

August 15th, 2014

My week-long run of hundred-word reviews wraps up with five new and recently-released jazz albums.


Michael Bellar and The As-is Ensemble – Oh No Oh Wow
Keyboards anchor this varied release that goes in many directions at once: even on the opening (title) track, Bellar alternates between creamy, fusion-y electric piano and Vince Guaraldi-styled acoustic piano runs. Too melodic to be prog, too rocking to be jazz, too adventurous to be labeled rock’n'roll, Oh Now Oh Wow is delightfully all over the map. The ten instrumentals – all Bellar originals save a reading of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile” and a Bob Marley song – show a dizzying command of instruments, the studio, and arrangement. Your ears might fool you into thinking you hear guitars. (You don’t.)


Elias Haslanger – Live at the Gallery
This disc features tenor saxophonist Haslanger’s quintet at their weekly haunt, Austin Texas’ Continental Club Gallery; the gig is known as “Church on Monday.” And the group does testify, as they blow their way through a mix heavy on standards (“Watermelon Man,” “In a Sentimental Mood”). Jake Langley‘s electric hollowbody guitar runs are alternately mellow and biting. Dr. James Polk’s B3 adds a soulful foundation to the mix. The inventive yet solid rhythm section (Scott Laningham on drums, bassist Daniel Durham) take their turns in the spotlight as well. The appreciative but unobtrusive audience adds the right amount of texture.


Alessandro Scala Quartet – Viaggio Stellare
I’m still working to be as well-versed in jazz as I’d like to be; I suspect it will be a lifelong process. But the opening strains of “Mood” sound to these ears like a hard-bop reading of something off of Dave Brubeck‘s classic 1959 Time Out LP. It’s more than the 5/4 meter; there’s a vibe that this Italian quartet-plus-two seems to achieve effortlessly. But then that’s the trick, isn’t it: making the difficult seem effortless. Perhaps it was: the entire eleven-track album was cut in a single Summer 2012 session. Fun fact: the album title translates as “Star Trek.”


Yves Léveillé – Essences du Bois
This light, airy and gentle album is full of classical-leaning instrumentation (flute, oboe, Cor Anglais, clarinet and bass clarinet) along with instruments more readily identified with jazz (piano, upright bass, saxophones and drums). The result is pretty, impressionistic and contemplative, but not really adventurous or exciting (the subtle and varied drum work of Alain Bastien is a notable exception). Only on the strutting “Monarque” (with a very nice bass solo and some skittering piano) do things get inventive. Extra points are happily given for the fact that all eight pieces by this French Canadian ensemble are pianist Léveillé’s original works.


Vincent Gagnon – Tome III Errances
This 2013 Québec concert date showcases the compositions of bandleader and pianist Vincent Gagnon (plus one cover). The small band consists only of Gagnon plus two sax players, a double (upright) bassist and drummer. But that quintet makes the most of what they have, and the result feels like refined yet swinging Eurojazz, occasionally leaning in a big band style (if not arrangement). There’s a pleasing groove even when the rhythm section is blowing in something outside the 4/4 format. Plenty of tasty solos abound on this seven-track collection culled from the best of a three-night stand at Palais Montcalm.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 4

August 14th, 2014

This set of five 100-word reviews focuses on new music, some of which is from familiar names; others might be new to you. All are worthwhile and enthusiastically recommended.


Murali Coryell – Restless Mind
This son of legendary fusion guitarist Larry Coryell is charting a musical path quite different from his dad: he plays tasty blues with a clear melodic rock sensibility and a well-developed playful sense of humor (see the Sammy Hagar-ish “Sex Maniac”). Fans of Robert Cray and Eric Johnson will dig this well-produced (but not slick) album. Not as fiery as Steve Ray Vaughan, this guitarist prefers the slow burn. The disc features a nice cover of Marvin Gaye‘s “Let’s Get it On.” Bonus points to Coryell for titling his album with a sly reference to one of his pop’s records.


Worldline – Compass Sky
Compass Sky is the kind of music they rarely make any more. Worldline creates alluring melodies with that hint of melancholy you might find in a Pink Floyd record (or a Porcupine Tree CD). Brian Turner‘s synth lines don’t aim to dazzle as much as they help carry the song along, and Andrew Schatzberg‘s strong vocals bear the influence of most any great band of the 70s you can think of, but they’re more classic (in a good way) than retro. The record’s strong start to finish. They’re from my hometown (Asheville) but sadly I’ve yet to see them live.


The Verve Pipe – Overboard
I can almost hear you thinking, “weren’t these guys a 90s band?” Yes: they scored a few chart singles in the second half of that decade, but haven’t charted since 2001. As is too often the case, the music is better than the chart performance suggests. While the album artwork is derivative (Storm Thorgerson? Bill EvansUndercurrent?), the music is fresh. Only leader/producer/songwriter Brian Vander Ark remains from the 1990s lineup. Their breezy, heartland-styled rock is vaguely reminiscent of fellow midwesterners Semisonic; the melancholy “Crash Landing” is nearly anthemic in its arrangement, but there’s lots of varied texture throughout. Recommended.


Global Noize – Sly Reimagined: The Music of Sly and The Family Stone
Sylvester Stewart didn’t fare too well on his most recent comeback/self-tribute, but there’s no denying the strength of his 1967-73 material. This aggregation, put together by producer/keyboardist Jason Miles, shows the enduring power of Stone’s songs, interpreted here for modern audiences by a long list of players. The marquee names here are Family Stone drummer Greg Errico (on four cuts), Nona Hendryx (lead vocal on three cuts), Roberta Flack (sultry vocals on “It’s a Family Affair”) and – for the young folks – turntablist DJ Logic. Sly Reimagined is the next best thing to the originals, and that’s saying something.


Ian McLagan & the Bump Band – United States
Former Small Faces and Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian McLagan told me about this forthcoming album last year when I interviewed him about the Small Faces box set. Long having relocated to Austin TX, London-born McLagan shows influence of American musical forms more than British ones. A New Orleans flavor is shot through his bluesy tunes; using the widest interpretation of the term, the music on United States can reasonably be termed Americana. Mac’s always-engaging keyboard work (acoustic and electric pianos, organ) are the highlight but never steal the show: this really is a band, not some guy with faceless sidemen.

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