Old Dog, New Trick

April 10th, 2015

As a kid, like so many of my generation, I harbored dreams of becoming a rock star. And failing that, I wanted at least to become a musician. But for reasons lost to the mists of time, I went with piano as my instrument of choice. My dear parents were wary: neither of them could carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, and they had no interest in filling the living room with a piece of furniture nobody would use. So while they agreed to pay for lessons, they told me that I’d have to find practice pianos elsewhere.

Luckily (at last in this respect) I attended Catholic school, so there was a church adjacent. And as churches often do, it had a basement that was home to a decent upright piano. So I attended my weekly lessons, and stole away to the church piano during lunch breaks, before and after classes to practice.

I improved, and eventually my parents saw that buying a piano would make sense. The found an early 1900s apartment grand (with a soundboard the size of a standard – not “baby” grand, positioned vertically to save space). It’s very much the kind one thinks of in old Western saloons. I still have it.

But as much as I developed skills on the keyboard, I still – on some level – wanted to be that rock star. And Elton John aside, in the 1970s and ’80s, keyboard players were rarely the focus of most rock’n'roll bands. So I decided I wanted to play guitar, too.

But clearly I didn’t want to badly enough to actually learn how. I picked up my first acoustic guitar at a garage sale, and used it mostly as a prop at home, pretending to play. It pains me to remember this – much less write about it – but one day while listening to The Who, I did a Pete Townshend jump with the guitar, managing in the process to kick it with the back of my heel, putting a huge hole in it as a result. That was pretty much the end of that.

Quite a few years later, around 1995 I think it was, a woman I knew asked me if I wanted to buy her husband’s left-handed acoustic (I am hopelessly left-handed). The price was right, so I bought my first proper lefty acoustic, a Fender F-210LH. It was a decent instrument, but still I never made any proper effort to learn how to play.

Fast forward again, this time almost twenty more years, to 2014. My kids have grown up, and I’m newly married. My bride has just endured with me the upheaval of moving to a new home, of combining our belongings into one household. And while I’m no pack rat (I’m actually tidy and organized to a near-compulsive degree), I do have a lot of stuff. So while I winnowed down my keyboard collection from about twenty instruments to less than a dozen, and even got rid of a few CDs and LPs (not many!), I still had massive amounts of…stuff.

And said stuff included not one, not two, but three stringed instruments. The Fender acoustic, a lefty Yamaha Pacifica electric I bought myself for my 35th birthday, and the Epiphone bass guitar I bought for my first wife before we got married. And I couldn’t play any of them. My new wife found this ever-so-slightly absurd. These instruments were more or less taking up space in our new home. She suggested that I either sell them or, y’know, learn how to play.

Those choices seemed reasonable. I chose the latter. Finally, nearly forty years after deciding that I’d like to play guitar, I’m finally doing something about it. I started weekly lessons last November, and I’m happy to say that I’m already a credible (though by no means skilled) rhythm guitarist. I have a long way to go, but I’m committed to going there. It won’t surprise me a bit if sometime before this year is out, I bring my new guitar onstage with one of my bands, and play a tune or two.

Oh yeah: the new guitar. When I started lessons and actually began to have some idea of what I was doing, I found that my big hands aren’t crazy about the thin neck on the Pacifica (basically a Stratocaster copy). And for whatever reason I’ve long had an affinity for the aesthetics of the semi-hollow body style of the Gibson ES-335 (think: Chuck Berry, BB King, Alvin Lee) and its cousin, the Epiphone Casino (think: John Lennon on the Apple rooftop). As it happened, a local left-handed guitarist was selling his Epiphone Dot for an exceedingly reasonable sum, so I bought it. It’s a beauty, and its high quality truly improved my ability to play.

I’m still not a rock star, and these days my desire to become one has long since faded. My life is filled with other rewards. But despite the old saw about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks, at 51 years of age, I’m finally becoming a guitarist.

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DVD Review: Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers

April 9th, 2015

The back catalog of Frank Zappa is massive, and massively intimating. Never the most commercially-minded of artists, the virtuoso Zappa recorded and released more than fifty albums during his lifetime. (His estate has more than doubled his catalog, with all manner of posthumous releases; his so-called “100th album” is due out soon.) With albums that explored everything from doo-wop to fusion, from big band jazz to musique concrète – not to mention a lot of scatological lyrical content – Zappa’s oeurve could easily scare off (or even repel) the casual listener.

None of which seemed to bother him in the least. Zappa was a restless innovator, and what that often meant in practical terms is that he’d make what could seem (especially at the time) as one musical left-turn after another. Just when you’ve gotten used to the early Mothers records, exemplified by We’re Only in it For the Money, Zappa fires the entire band and makes a weird orchestral album (Lumpy Gravy) and then a blues/jazz LP (Hot Rats).

To make dealing with his vast catalog a bit easier, fans, critics and the like have attempted to divide Zappa’s work – his so-called “project/object” – into eras. There’s certainly overlap between some of those era – his work doesn’t lend itself to neat classification – but it’s a worthy endeavor to break Zappa’s music into more easily-digestible pieces.

And the piece that remains most controversial among his fans is what one might call the Flo and Eddie years. From around 1970 until 1971, Zappa’s band was fronted by a pair of vocalists who – for contractual reasons – called themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. Better known as Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the duo had come to fame as the front men of The Turtles. The Turtles were always known for their sense of humor and lively stage personae, so on some level, they were a good fit for Zappa. Enlisting top-notch musicians who were able to play the increasingly complicated music that he was composing, Zappa brought Flo and Eddie on board to handle vocals, a task that was not among the strongest qualities of the original Mothers.

Taking a detailed and incisive look at this period requires backing up a bit to provide proper context. And that is why the new documentary Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers covers the period 1969-1973. Beginning with a quick history of the Mothers up to the start of that era, the lengthy (more than two hours) documentary seeks to put the work of the Flo and Eddie period into its proper historical perspective.

Another in the long series of music documentary DVDs from the Sexy Intellectual team, Freak Jazz relies on true experts to weave its narrative. Some of these are faces familiar to those who’ve screened other documentaries from the team: Zappa biographer Billy James and Mojo Magazine‘s Mark Paytress weigh in with their own informed perspectives. And a number of players and Zappa associates from that era provide their own accounts: Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons, Aynsley Dunbar, and (most notably) the late George Duke all get a good amount of screen time to tell their stories.

Two hours and forty minutes might seem like a long time, but it breezes by when watching Freak Jazz. The knotty twists and turns that Zappa’s music, band and personal life took during this period require a good bit of explaining, and this DVD does just that in an exceedingly expert fashion. The filmmakers rightly hold Zappa’s work to a high standard, and the onscreen commenters are unafraid to criticize what they see as ill-advised (say, “Billy the Mountain”) or just plain lousy musical output.

A good amount of time is spent discussing the film 200 Motels, and while there are very few clips from the actual movie (likely due to licensing issues), some behind-the-scenes footage helps tell the story. And while Howard Kaylan isn’t involved in the documentary, Mark Volman provides the Flo and Eddie perspective. Rarely-seen photos and onstage footage make Freak Jazz essential for the hardcore Zappaphile, but the conversational tone of the DVD makes it recommended viewing for even the most casual Zappa fan.

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Album Review: The Mavericks — Mono

April 8th, 2015

There’s much talk these days about the sorry state of country music. The genre – commercially, more popular than ever – is overrun with what its detractors call “bro country.” Hopelessly (some might say defiantly) clichéd songs about yellow beer, Friday nights, pickup trucks, mean ol’/clueless big city types and whatnot are the coin of the realm, and they all sound like one another. “Even non-fans are starting to take notice,” wrote one recent commentator.

It all largely passes me by, as I’ve never been a fan of modern c&w. Though I did briefly find it inescapable late last summer: I live quite near our city’s baseball stadium, home one sweaty afternoon to a concert pairing Florida Georgia Line and rapper Nelly. To call it awful and lowbrow gives it too much credit. And it was louder than most rock concerts (and I’d know) making it even worse.

Those who appreciate things like musicianship and authenticity (of a sort) in their twang seem to prefer music that falls under the Americana label. And while nobody knows exactly what is and is not Americana, there’s general agreement that it’s the better stuff. And on that I’d agree.

One of the best things about Americana today is The Mavericks. They’re widely celebrated among Americana fans, though I’m not convinced that they are country. Their approach is too wide-encompassing for that – or perhaps any other – label. Founded in Miami at the beginning of the 1990s, the group has released eight albums, including two since their 2013 reunion. Mono, their latest, features two founding members – vocalist Raul Malo and drummer Paul Deakin – plus two more recently-added members, keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden (with them since the mid 90s) and guitarist Eddie Perez (he joined in 2003). And the music on Mono might best be described – if we need a label – as norteAmericana.

There’s a strong Latin undercurrent to the songs on Mono, most notably the thrilling “All Night Long,” a musical cousin to Santana‘s “Smooth.” It’s a wholly successful hybrid of Latin rhythms, Cuban arrangement, and modern rock/pop. It has hit-single written all over it, though as of this writing it hasn’t in fact charted.

But “All Night Long” doesn’t sound all that much like the remaining eleven tracks on Mono. What it has in common, however, is quality: this is a strong album that’s enjoyable from start to finish. Rock fans – and those with little musical grounding in country (in other words, listeners like me) – will find many musical touchstones throughout the album. “Summertime (When I’m With You)” sounds a bit like Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns crossed with Louis Prima. “Pardon Me” is Mono‘s only real country tune; it sounds like classic c&w of the late 1960s and early 70s, with Malo’s yearning vocal a highlight. “What Am I Supposed to Do” is a romantic midtempo number with a great singalong chorus. “Stories We Could Tell” feels like early dance-oriented rock’n'roll a la Bill Haley and the Comets, with a Texas swing feel. “What You Do to Me” could almost be termed ska-country; the accordion works quite well, and some Mariachi-flavored horn charts and electric guitar add to the tune’s excitement.

The stylistic variation continues, though in The Mavericks’ hands, it’s all somehow musically unified. “Let it Rain” is a lovely, lump-in-the-throat ballad. “The Only Question Is” is fifties-styled blues; one could easily imagine Stevie Ray Vaughan joining in on the tune. But here we get a honking sax solo with just a bit of electric guitar answering it. “Out the Door” feels a lot like The Sir Douglas Quintet. “(Waiting for) The World to End” is a swinging party number that no doubt goes over great live (I’ve seen The Mavericks live, and they’re fantastic). The song’s outro repeats the title lyric over and over, though eventually Malo sings, “We’re all waiting for this song to end.”

A romantic weeper, “Fascinate Me” sounds like a late-night barroom closer, with Malo’s voice and rickety tack piano out front. Listed as a bonus track, “Nitty Gritty” is a wry midtempo tune with loads of wonderfully cheesy combo organ (sounds like a Farfisa) that will remind sixties garage fans of Augie Meyers, Doug Sahm, Sam “The Sham” Samudio and other greats. The dialogue between accordion and electric guitar is a delight.

The good-timing Mono is a strong contender for my Best of 2015 album list. If any band is poised to “save” modern country and western music, my money’s on The Mavericks.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 2

April 7th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Next, it was drone time. The minimalist work of the duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen (joined by three additional musicians) was delivered in the bright, daylit room at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The hypnotic vibe of the group’s work lent itself to simply sitting back and closing one’s eyes. But AWVFTS was having none of that: mid-set, they stopped (“Usually, we never stop playing during a set,” they told us) and asked everyone to stand up instead. Fair enough, but I for one found it more enjoyable when relaxing.

Apparently the Kronos Quartet (described elsewhere as “the hardest working act” at the festival, and rightly so) didn’t have the opportunity to rehearse much with avant garde legend Laurie Anderson before their set. You wouldn’t have known it, though. A near-capacity Tennessee Theatre audience witnessed the somber “Landfall,” a work by Anderson that recounted her personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina. There’s always a winking, slyly humorous undercurrent to Anderson’s work that belies her reputation as an avant garde performer, and the Quartet conveyed a similarly informal approach, even while following a written score.

Max Richter is a modern classical composer, and his “The Blue Notebooks” is a piece performed on piano with string accompaniment, and a seated woman in formal evening dress reading brief written passages in lovely “RP” English. Modern classical has an undeserved reputation for being solely atonal, angular and jarring; Richter’s work is nothing of the kind: it’s elegiac, stately, beautiful and evocative. “Infra” did not feature the spoken-word component but was equally enjoyable. The intimate setting of The Bijou (an old theatre that has been home to many great performances I’ve enjoyed in the past) was the perfect setting for Richter’s work.

Unfortunately, by this point in the weekend, the cold that I had been denying was starting to overwhelm me. I stuck around long enough to take in part of tUnE-yArDs‘ set, and I am sure that had I been able to stay for all of it, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly. Brightly-colored costumes and a stage setup that put percussion out front (literally) were the hallmarks of their lively, uptempo set. They reminded me of a less-mannered Talking Heads with far more appealing vocalists, and their playful manner seemed focused squarely on having a good time and sharing that with the gathered audience.

By the time Sunday rolled around, it was all I could do to stay vertical, the head cold having overtaken me completely. I ventured down by the railroad tracks to the funky Standard for a performance (“installation” might be a more apt term) by Tyondai Braxton, presenting a work he calls “HIVE.” Braxton’s avant garde bona fides are without question: his father is jazz multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. The younger Braxton’s work is based equally on percussion and modern technology. “HIVE” was originally commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, but its arty beginnings belie its modern, techno-leaning qualities. Five musicians, each seated atop a table-sort-of-thing, are armed with all manner of sound-producing devices. Lights and fog are part of the scene, too, placing “HIVE” somewhere between highbrow art installation and all-night rave soundtrack. And it was very loud.

Unfortunately, after that, it was home and bed for me. As a result, I missed sets by Bill Frisell and others, but my overall impression of Big Ears Festival 2015 was one of awe. Big Ears is easily the best-run major music festival in the region. Bringing together the best characteristics of a festival (wide variety of artists in a compact area and timeframe) while minimizing or even eliminating its less-appealing aspects (crushing crowds, intimidating security, AC Entertainment and everyone else involved with Big Ears continues to do an amazing job, and in doing so they attract not only discerning music fans, but top-notch talent the likes of which are rarely seen nor heard in such a setting.

Bringing together this caliber and variety of notable and groundbreaking musical artists is in and of itself a staggering feat. Doing so outside, say, New York or San Francisco is even more impressive. Taking the expertise gained from successful staging of massive festivals (Bonnaroo, for example, takes in more than 80,000 concertgoers) and applying those skills to a relatively small-scale, city-based festival, AC Entertainment has created and sustained one of the most remarkable festivals ever in Big Ears. For anyone interested in where “serious” music is headed in the 21st century, a springtime trip to Knoxville Tennessee can provide some clear direction. I hope I attend again in 2016.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 1

April 6th, 2015

Typically, I don’t make a point of attending “kickoff events” at the start of music festivals. My thinking is that they’re generally an opportunity to spotlight the event sponsors and so forth. That’s all well and good, but it’s not, strictly speaking, entertainment. But since I had gone to Moogfest 2014‘s opening event and enjoyed it, I figured, why not do the same in Knoxville. Plus, I was there, and no other music events were scheduled until later.

Lucky me. True, the event did include some speeches, but even those were worthwhile. Festival organizer Ashley Capps (he of AC Entertainment, the outfit behind Bonnaroo and many other high-profile festivals) gave a heartfelt speech that helped attendees understand the answers to two reasonable questions: Why Big Ears? And why Knoxville?

But the real highlights of the opening event were four musical performances. First off, Kronos Quartet and pipa virtuoso Wu Man staged a “popup concert.” Rather than make use of the stage, they set up their stools and music stands on the floor in front of it – all of six feet from where I had situated myself – and played a brief, unamplified set. It was sublime, and held the audience (a near-packed room at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Ann and Steve Bailey Hall) spellbound.

After that, we were treated to onstage performances from Hildur Guðnadóttir (futuristic-looking cello and vocals treated by sonic effects and looping), a sight-impaired teenage pianist Tate Garcia (an exceedingly clever mashup of his own arrangement of works by Scott Joplin, George Harrison and Chopin), and finally vocalist Breyon Ewing. In less than an hour’s time, the gathered audience had the essence of Big Ears Festival laid out in front of them. Things were off to a superb start.

Igor Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” is one of those classical pieces that you know, even if you don’t know you know it. A reading of the work formed the centerpiece of the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, and the onscreen visuals that accompanied it (dinosaurs, not Mickey Mouse) seared it into the memory of those who witnessed it. The work remains popular, and received perhaps its most innovative and outré reading by The Bad Plus on their 2014 album The Rite of Spring. The group (pianist Ethan Iverson, upright bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King) is nominally a jazz trio. But they’re jazz musicians playing classical music, and playing it with a rock (or progressive rock) level of power.

Whole sections of the Bad Plus’ take on Stravinsky’s work might be unrecognizable to those familiar with the original work, but the trio’s reinvention of the piece was thrilling; one couldn’t turn away. The interplay between the three was remarkable; even though they were working from sheet music (as did nearly every Big Ears performer I saw, yet another thing that makes this festival unlike any other I’ve witnessed), there was a jazz musician’s mentality of unspoken communication at work.

The trio followed up Stravinsky’s work with a set of their own original material; avant garde rarely gets as accessible as The Bad Plus.

Later on Big Ears’ first night, I caught a set at The Square room featuring guitarist Steve Gunn and his band. Musically conventional – at least compared to most of the other acts on the bill – Gunn and band showcased the guitarist’s impressive fretwork. Gunn’s not a flashy guitarist, not at all. But his powerful music was the closest thing to rock music on the entire three-day schedule. It was also plenty loud, not that that’s a band thing. (No doubt Swans were much louder, but having witnessed part of their punishing set at 2013′s Bonnaroo Festival, I made the decision to avoid a repeat.)

After a visit to a local used record store (something I try to do in every city I visit, because every town has its own used-record character), my Saturday list of performances began with Kronos Quartet onstage at the massive and beautiful Tennessee Theatre. Joined by Americana artist Sam Amidon on vocals and banjo, the Quartet applied their multigenre-spanning expertise to folk songs. At this point I thought to myself, “I don’t think I’ve ever taken in so much live classical instrumentation at one time before.” But it was lovely, and I even sat still for music that included banjo (one of my least-favorite instruments).

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Rick Wakeman, Cannonball Adderley, and Me

April 3rd, 2015

Today I’m going to indulge in a brief change of pace. I’d like to tell you about a pair of reissues with which I am involved. I won’t be reviewing either title – what would be the point? – but suffice to say that if I didn’t think they are superb albums, I wouldn’t have written the liner notes.

The first, reissued earlier this week, is Rick Wakeman‘s final album for A&M Records, Rhapsodies. This 2LP set capped his association with Herb Alpert‘s label; the Yes keyboard player’s first album – The Six Wives of King Henry VIII – remains his best-selling (and arguably best) album, but Rhapsodies is a successfully varied lot as well. Though he had employed vocalists on some of his earlier A&M albums (even Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record, another album reissued with liner notes by yours truly), for Rhapsodies, Wakeman stuck to his strengths: piano, organ and synthesizer. A crack band is on hand, and as often as not they play in what might be termed a disco fashion, but the results are not nearly as gruesome as that description might suggest. Flashes of humor are shot through the album, and save for an interesting misstep (a bizarre reading of Gershwin‘s “Rhapsody in Blue”), Rhapsodies is a highly recommended album. My liner notes contextualize the album and even sort of review the tracks therein.

Out next week is an album that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve written often about how the music of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley changed my life, serving as my adult gateway into jazz. (Audrey and I even had “Mercy Mercy Mercy” played at our wedding last year.) Adderley’s final project was also his most ambitious: a sprawling double LP that combined Broadway, blues, folk tale, avant/free jazz, funk and more. Big Man: The Legend of John Henry was met with mixed reviews upon its release shortly after Adderley’s untimely death. But it’s a fascinating album, with a modern-day allegory that (to my mind, anyway) spoke to the Black Power concerns of the early 1970s through the retelling of a Reconstruction-era folk tale about the “steel drivin’ man.” Famed actor Robert Guillaume (known to a generation as Benson, a core character on Soap and later a self-titled sitcom) got one of his first big gigs providing vocals for this album. And Mr. Guillaume consented to an interview with me, which formed the basis of my extensive liner notes. I also did the package design for the reissue (which includes the entire work’s libretto) and got my first (co-) producer’s credit on an album.

At present I’m writing liner notes for another upcoming reissue, Iron Butterfly‘s classic Ball LP, which will be out later in 2015. With luck, there will be other projects to tell you about in future days.

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Beatles vs. Rolling Stones: Another Round

April 2nd, 2015

Back when I was a kid, the Beatles-or-Stones question was a real thing: among my childhood peers, one had to pick a side. That one could like both groups was, it seems, not a concept around which we could wrap our minds.

These days I’m much older and slightly wiser, and I enjoy both (Beatles still win by a long shot if I must pick). The folks at Cleopatra Records agree, as do the roster of acts whom they’ve employed to help create a pair of tribute albums (the label’s specialty). Magical Mystery Psych-out: A Tribute to The Beatles and Stoned: A Psych Tribute to The Rollings Stones bring together a cross-section of modern psych (and/or psych influenced) bands.

Of the two, the Beatles tribute disc plays it safer track-wise. Most of the songs on that disc are covers of material The Beatles cut in the Rubber Soul, Revolver and White Album eras. And the one outlier – “And I Love Her” – is given a relatively straight, faithful reading by The Lucid Dream. They keep the jangling guitar largely intact, and give the tune an arrangement somewhat reminiscent of what Best Coast might do. (A note-for-note copy of George Harrison’s guitar solo is a nice reminder that sometimes simplicity is the best approach. Electric Moon‘s reading of “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds a lot like how one might expect The Brian Jonestown Massacre to cover it (though BJM’s vocals are better than the weedy vox on this version).

While other psych tributes from Cleopatra enlisted the help of a few “name” acts (Allah-Las, for example) Magical Mystery Psych-out features groups who will be familiar only to the hardest of hardcore modern-psych aficionados.

A few of the featured bands on this set are clearly not intimidated by the massive popularity of The Beatles; maybe it’s because they’re young and have less reverence (which is a good thing in this case), but The Vacant Lots‘ “Julia” creates an arrangement that owes nearly nothing to the 1968 original. Kudos to them for thinking outside the box. The same can be said about The Ruby Sun‘s cover of “Martha My Dear,” though in this case they win on originality but lose on musicality; the dirge-like pace of their arrangement might make some listeners grind their teeth. The Underground Youth‘s trip-hop reinvention of “Come Together” is a curio if nothing else. Kikagaku‘s “Helter Skelter” is a eardrum-splitting, punishing noisefest that makes the original sound like ear candy. And Strangers Family Band‘s “Sun Kings” is evocative of nothing so much as the still unattributed not-Beatles bootleg outtake, “Candle Burns.”

At least musicwise, The Rolling Stones’ psychedelic period lasted for all of one album, Their Satanic Majesties Request. But on the psych tribute to the band, tunes from all through the Stones’ catalog are given the treatment. A highlight of the set is The KVB‘s cover of “Sympathy for the Devil.” Instead of building an arrangement around a familiar riff, they strip the tune down to its basic parts, rebuilding it in a hazy, gaudy manner that recalls The Psychedleic Furs or any number of 90s shoegaze bands. Well done.

Shiny Darkly‘s “Under My Thumb” is close to the original (if the original was recorded in an airplane hangar with squalls of echo and feedback). Yeti Lane‘s “Sway” is appealing in a zonked-out way. Clinic‘s drum-machine-led reading of “It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It)” sounds like Trio (“Da Da Da”), and doesn’t really work, but like some of the acts mentioned on the Beatles tribute, they score for originality if nothing else.

Sons of Hippies play it straight on “Gimme Shelter,” which raises an interesting question: on a tribute album, is it better to copy the original or reinvent it? Their reading of the classic Stones tune is just about the best thing on the pair of albums.

Surprisingly, The Allah-Las‘ version of “Stoned” is perfunctory; the certainly can do better. Pink Velvet‘s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is a slavish copy of the original, albeit one with the lead vocal bumped up an octave. But Pure X‘s reading of “Beast of Burden” is interesting and nicely textured, a sort of cross between indie rock and Martin Denny‘s bachelor pad tropicalia.

Like most albums of their ilk, this pair of releases aren’t likely to end up in most listeners’ heavy rotation, but they’re both reasonably well done. Thanks to somewhat more adventurous song selection, in this Beatles-vs.-Stones round, the decision goes to The Rolling Stones.

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 3)

April 1st, 2015

Continued from Part Two

I make the (not at all original) observation that many American musical forms seem to get more respect in Europe than at home. “That’s all right,” says Les McCann. “Ninety percent of the stations are playing the same thing every day. It’s about playing that number-one. And it’s songs, not really music. People talk about ‘rap music.’ I say, ‘Where’s the music?’ People have been talkin‘ on records ever since they were first recorded. You ever heard The Ink Spots? Early Eddie Harris? Ever heard of Les McCann? I’m talkin’ on my records. I’ve even got a record called Talk to the People. But every rapper I meet tells me they’re the greatest, they started all this. ‘I got the beat. These are my beats.’”

When I point out that his work has been sampled by quite a few hip-hop artists, McCann bristles. “Those guys who sample, they don’t know what they do. They’re not musicians; they’re technicians. It takes it to another place. I’m not calling it right or wrong, because it goes where it’s got to go.”

I mention to McCann that a yard sale purchase of Cannonball Adderley‘s Somethin’ Else LP changed my life. “That’s how it works,” he observes. “Some people say, ‘I just like what I heard when I was in high school.’ They hear something new that they enjoy, and it’s like, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s jazz.’ ‘Oh, I don’t like jazz.’ I say, don’t call it jazz. Just like it, and take it home with you.”

Something unclassifiable that many listeners liked and took home with them was the 1966 LP Freak Out, the debut record from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Inside the gatefold of the 2LP set, there’s a photo of – of all people – Les McCann with blues singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. The caption says the pair are “freaking out,” but there’s no further explanation. McCann laughs heartily at the mention of this. “Nobody ever believes me when I tell them about that!”

“It was a moment that happened,” McCann recalls. “I didn’t really know [Zappa] but I knew there was something he was looking for. As we talk about Invitation to Openness, it’s exactly the kind of thing that Frank Zappa did. He handed an instrument to everyone that walked into the room that day. There were more than three hundred people there, and he recorded it.” I note that the instruments assigned had nothing to do with a person’s ability to actually play them. “Half of ‘em weren’t even musicians!” McCann laughs. “And that was the beauty of it all; it was great. And I am sure that stuck in my mind as a great way to approach my music from a different angle, too. We’re all connected to each other. When something beautiful comes, expand on it. Take it to another place.”

Returning to his favored concept of life-as-school, McCann makes this observation: “The curriculum in this school is complete. There’s nothing that needs to be taught; nothing new that’s going to come around. We are all in school. And everything you think of is what you can have. Everything you think of – good or bad; I don’t care what you judge it as – it is happening. Period.”

Les McCann is a vocalist, a keyboard player, a painter, a photographer. He tends to view these various sides of himself as dimensions of the same creative and artistic impulse. “There’s one thing that’s same [in all of them], and that’s me. What mode we come out of and how we do it is a choice we make, maybe. Music is part of what I asked God to give me when I chose to be human and to have a great earthly experience: ‘Let me know what I need to do; take me to where I need to go.’”

“Sometimes,” McCann concludes, “we come in with different colors, different height, different sizes. We eat different food, we’re born in different places. That all accommodates the goal we’re looking for, and leads us to that. So you can’t go wrong. You can fight it, but it’s already in your DNA. My only message to the world is this: at all times, choose love above fear.” After I thank him for his insight, he laughs and says, “Now I’m gonna go smoke a joint and see if I can take it up a notch.”

Omnivore Recordings’ deluxe reissue of Les McCann’s classic album Invitation to Openness is available now. And McCann’s book documenting his lifetime of photography, Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980, will be released officially on April 19. McCann made an in-store appearance last weekend (March 28, 2015) in Los Angeles, showing slides from his book and telling stories about the old days.

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 2)

March 31st, 2015

Continued from Part One

Among the most celebrated releases in Les McCann‘s extensive catalog, Swiss Movement is his 1969 live collaboration with saxophonist Eddie Harris. The album was controversial on its release thanks to its inclusion of “Compared to What,” a tune with lyrics that remain as provocative today as they were thirty-five years ago. In fact, a special “radio edit” LP of Swiss Movement clumsily bleeped out the offending lyrics.

The song’s lyrics might have hurt its chances for chart success, but McCann never worried himself about such matters. “It’s art. It sells, or it doesn’t sell. The word ‘abortion’ was not permitted to be played on the radio. And the station [that did initially play it] was fined $25,000 for playing the song.” Controversy or no, the single “Compared to What” ended up a million seller, as did Swiss Movement.

“I’ll tell you a shocking story,” McCann offers. “Six years before that record was made, when I first heard the song from Gene McDaniels (who wrote it) – he was a dear friend of mine, and he was in my band – I recorded it. But I knew that [recording] wasn’t it, but I wanted to keep that song. Whether I recorded it right or wrong, I know that at some point it’s going to come to me. So six or seven years later, it came to me. Onstage, at that very moment.”

So “Compared to What” wasn’t even on the set list for McCann’s Montreux Jazz Festival performance? “The band never made it to rehearsal!” McCann laughs. “Everything was spontaneous! Even the melodies for a couple of the songs: I’m telling a couple of the guys – trumpet players – and they’re scared to death! ‘Cause they didn’t know any of the songs. ‘Just do who you are,’ I told ‘em. And I trusted ‘em.”

He continues. “A great lesson for me was when guys came in and were writing everything down, and saying, ‘This is the way I want everything played.’ And we’d get to a big moment, times in my career when people wouldn’t show up for rehearsal, couldn’t make it to rehearsal. I’d get mad, and I’d say, ‘Let’s just play.’” Being in front of an appreciative audience no doubt helped. “In France and Switzerland, they loved me. I don’t know what it is, but from the very first moment I ever played there, they said, ‘you belong to us.’ Maybe,” he chuckles,” it’s because my name is Les.”

And his name is closely linked with what is known as soul-jazz. “I’m told that I was one of the first people the record companies put that title to,” McCann says. “The first album I did, on Pacific Jazz [in 1960], was called Plays the Truth. ‘Soul’ is just another word for feeling, and love. It’s all good. Soul is becoming aware of what’s inside of us. When you get passionate about something, you discover yourself.”

Cannonball Adderley is another figure closely associated with the soul jazz genre. One of Adderley’s basic beliefs was that jazz is the people’s music, that it can be boundary-pushing and innovative, but that it should be accessible, too. And that kind of philosophy is felt in much of McCann’s music. In fact, in Leonard Feather‘s liner notes for his 1961 LP In San Francisco, McCann is quoted as saying, “I want my music to hit the emotion of human beings.” He goes on to say, “If jazz is played so it can be accepted, it will be accepted.” Since that quote comes from near the beginning of his recording career, I ask him if he’d like to expand on his comment. His terse reply: “No.”

“That was then. I don’t go back, no,” he adds. “That’s what I said then; I’m not going to try and go back and figure out what I meant.” I press the subject a bit and ask if he agrees that music should be accessible. Again: “No. Don’t make no rules! Everything is already accessible. People say, ‘This is hard to play. This is hard to listen to.’ They have all these fuckin’ excuses. Shit. Give me a break! Just go do it. Find your heart, your passion. That’s the word. That’s soul, that’s love: everything that is the opposite of fear. We’ve all heard it a thousand, a million times. But we take a long time to heed the message.”

Not surprisingly, McCann has strong opinions regarding the current state of jazz. “Everything must change. And they’re trying to keep it the same. It won’t go nowhere; it died.” He observes, “Once you make a recording, it’s recorded that way: that’s how it is. And that’s the way that people who buy the records want to hear it.” That runs counter to the jazz aesthetic of never-the-same-way-twice. “Musicians understand that, but record companies are sayin’, ‘Fuck that. Make me some money!’”

“Jazz is dead,” McCann repeats. “We have to make it because we like it. I tell all the young people now, ‘If you’re really into it, it’s got to be a matter of life and death. If not, go find your passion.’”

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 1)

March 30th, 2015

Invitation to Openness is not only the title of one of jazz great Les McCann‘s most celebrated albums (newly reissued; more on that later); it’s also the title of his new book of photography and essays. Throughout his storied career as a touring and recording jazz musician, McCann came face to face – in personal, intimate settings – with legends in music, film and public life. An accomplished amateur (though he’d effectively “go pro,” as well see), McCann shot countless photos in crisp black-and-white, capturing his subjects in a knowing manner that (for example) publicity photos often fail to convey.

And one of the book’s most striking qualities is its variety. McCann’s lens captures onstage photos, backstage photos. He includes posed shots, candids. His subjects are famous musicians and unidentified people. Comics like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx are featured, as are photos taken at pro basketball games. Yet somehow, with all this diverse imagery, there’s a unifying aesthetic within the pages of Invitation to Openness. “Every artist, every creative project has a sequence,” McCann says. That gives the finished work flow and rhythm, he says. A project like his book, then, is “based on something you haven’t seen before. So you’re looking at [the raw material], assessing it: now what do I do with it? And maybe you can’t do it, so you get somebody whose eye you can trust.” And in this case, McCann had a pair of collaborators that he describes as his “corps of angels”: his longtime manager and confidante Alan Abrahams, and Pat Thomas, author of the book Listen Whitey: The Sounds of Black Power. “I took all of the pictures,” McCann says, “but then I put it in their hands.”

There was some healthy back-and-forth involved in the book’s creation. “I gave them all my pictures,” McCann recalls. “And they came up with about 700, I think. And then we narrowed it down to about 300 or so: ‘What do you think of these?’ ‘Yeah, I like that.’ ‘No, I don’t want that.’” McCann notes that initially, the project was to focus only on his photos of jazz musicians. “But my photographs are not just one thing, like my music is not just one thing. So they got the message.”

Some of the photos in Invitation to Openness are left to speak for themselves; others include McCann’s annotation. McCann writes that the book’s early 1970s photos of jazz great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley are some of his favorites. “There’s a little story that goes with that in the book,” he says. “It was the first time somebody picked one of my photographs, saying, ‘We’d like to use this.’ And they paid me for it.” But the Japanese magazine made an amusing error. “They put my name in there as ‘Les McCann Keyboard!’ I liked that, y’know? I’ve been all over the world, and people have called me everything.” Reflecting on fellow soul-jazz giant Adderley, McCann says, “I have nothing but fond memories of his joyful life, his joyful music, and his zest to be great. And [seeing him] was the first time that I went to a club and was totally blown away with everything I heard the band play.”

Asked if there’s a subject he missed the opportunity to photograph, McCann answers quickly: “God.” Pausing a beat, he wryly adds, “The day I met Jesus, he was in a hurry to get someplace.” After the laughter subsides, he continues. “I can’t think of anyone, no. ‘Cause I met everybody. I’m not talking about me being onstage and all that; I was put in a position to just be everywhere. Everything I ever wanted to do, I ended up doing ten times as much…stuff I didn’t even plan on. I came into this life with the beautiful understanding that I was ‘in school.’ I’m here to learn what this Earthly adventure is about. I might mumble and stumble, but the goal is to love myself. And then by loving myself, I’ll know how I want to love and treat everyone else. Because I truly love people, and everything that’s on this Earth.” He adds, “I’m not confused about it; not anymore.”

McCann’s 1971 album Invitation to Openness is a landmark release, as evidenced by the fact that it’s been kept in print and/or reissued so many times since its original release. The latest CD reissue, on Omnivore Recordings, is produced by Pat Thomas, and features a bonus track, a live reading of McCann’s signature tune, “Compared to What.” When I suggest that it’s one of his best releases, McCann is quick to correct me. “You can never say that; I don’t think you say that about any music. Because for me, it’s kind of personal. When I came to do [Invitation to Openness], I went into New York City and within one day I had told the producer what I wanted to do. And then organizing the people who’d be on the record – over fifteen people – and having them all in New York at once, it was a magic moment. The whole project was. So my special feelings and memories about it are about the session and the people.” He also notes that the album “was extremely well recorded. They captured the essence and ambience of what people were doing.”

McCann recalls his reaction at the Invitation to Openness session: “Oh my God: it really worked!” He says, “What you have to do is experiment. I’m creating 24 hours a day, and that’s the message I try to share with people. We came from creation; therefore, we are creation. It drives me crazy when people say [about themselves], ‘Oh, I wish I had a talent; I can’t do nuthin’.’ I say, ‘Shut the hell up. Get quiet, and look deeper into yourself. Not outside; look inside, and you’ll find everything you’re looking for.’”

“A song may live awhile, but as far as style, you can’t keep doing the same thing. That’s another reason I’m so happy about the idea I had for Invitation to Openness. I gave very few – if any – instructions. No rules; just play. Swiss Movement broke the door open for me: don’t lock everything into a set pattern. And that was very enlightening for me.

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