The 2013 Hyde Park Jazz Festival

Gerald Clayton by Dragan Tasic
September 27–Introduction. Much of the music at this two-day event will be presented on the campus of the University of Chicago in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. The founding organization for this Festival that began in September, 2007, is the Hyde Park Jazz Society; the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement stepped up in that first year to provide the necessary funding. Additional non-profit organizations and corporations have added sponsorship in years following. The purpose then and now is to honor the rich jazz cultural history of the South Side of Chicago and keep the tradition of creative arts alive. In addition to the Chicago ensembles assembled, several of the national and international performers on the schedule have strong ties to the City.

The performance locations include 11 indoor stages in the Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods, and two large outdoor stages on the Midway Plaisance of the UC campus. I expect to walk easily, but briskly, between venues; excepting two stages, the venues are close together. My tentative plan has me at the Smart Museum of Art for one-hour sets by the Frank Russell Group at 1PM and the John Wojciechowski Quartet at 2:30PM on Saturday. Thirty performances are on the schedule for day one of this two-day fest; a few other names include the Ari Brown Quintet, Frank Rosaly’s Green and Gold, Gerald Clayton Trio (Clayton is pictured above), Dana Hall Quintet, and Ken Vandermark Ensemble: Music of the Midwest School. The final performance on Saturday is Anat Cohen and Douglas Lora Duo at the Rockefeller Chapel ending at Midnight. The music is FREE.

Lest Denverites think I am slighting my current home town, I enjoyed a flight on Denver’s Frontier Airlines to travel to my former home town Chicago. I was a bit discouraged to learn that in-flight beverages were no longer complimentary; however, a cup of hot, fresh Boyer’s (a Colorado company) coffee was served for the price of $1.99 and they accepted my First Bank of Colorado debit card. A beautiful thing.

To get to the Festival from my lodgings at the International Hostel on Congress Expressway and Wabash, I rode the Green Line of the City elevated train system. I disembarked at the end of the line, 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. I walked north on Cottage Grove to 56th and Ellis and found the Smart Museum of Art. Surprise—the stage is outside in front of the museum and the seats are in the sun. I sat there while others headed for the shade of a few trees and took the folding chairs with them. I claimed one remaining chair in front of and near the musicians with maybe 30 other people—it really was not that hot and the sun was at our backs. I enjoyed two one-hour sets with a 30-minute break.

frank Russell albumThe Frank Russell Group. The leader Russell is a Chicago-based electric bass player. He was sporting and used three electric 5-string Lakland bass guitars and said, “I represent a music company. . . they want me to play all of them.” The personnel included Vijay Tellis- Nayak, keyboards; Marco Villareal, guitar; Charles Heath, drums; and Tim McNamara on various reed instruments. The band played songs from the 1970’s fusion period including works by Miles Davis, Chic Corea’s “Spain,” Bobby Irvin’s “Code MD,” and Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” September 28 is the date of Miles’ death in 1991 and Russell acknowledged the date.

The last two tunes included a rendition of “Oleo,” a compositon of Sonny Rollins dating from the early 1950’s and recorded by many. This piece featured a well-received drum solo; and, unlike his many other solo sections, Russell advanced with his instrument to the edge of us sun-resistant audience members to demonstrate his prowess on bass. At the onset of the eighth and last piece, Russell was informed he had but two minutes remaining in his one-hour set; instead of 2, he played a 7-minute song entitled “Ladysmith (Black Mambazo),” a song named after the African vocal group Frank Russell said he was associated with for six years. This is one of sixteen songs you can find on the Frank Russell album, Circle Without End, released in 2011 (and pictured above). I got the opportunity to talk with Russell and sideman McNamara after the set; while speaking of my association with public radio station KUVO in Denver, I learned that Russell’s band played at the Telluride (Colorado) Jazz Festival in 2012; and, McNamara was interested in my discussion of Chicago area locales I haunted in my youth. Talking about my two home cities is always a pleasure.

After a 30-minute break at the Smart Museum, we welcomed the John Wojciechowski Quartet to the patio. From the Festival program, “Saxophonist, composer, and teacher, John Wojciechowski (JW) has performed or recorded with The Chicago Jazz Orchestra, The Woody Herman Orchestra, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Toskiko Akiyoshi, among others. Completing the foursome are Ryan Cohan, piano; Clark Sommers, bass; and Dana Hall, drums.”

This musical set included five songs and all but one are Wojciechowski originals. The first three are from a project entitled Lexicon, beginning with the song “Pentatonic Tune.” That was followed by the title song “Lexicon” from this CD released in 2009. Then we heard “Lion and the Lamb;” the uptempo section (lion-like) was especially pleasing as the pace really quickened and intensified. Sommers soloed on his upright bass. The fourth song of the set was a slow ballad composed by Ryan Cohan entitled “Kampala Moon” with Cohan showing his virtuosity on the Yamaha piano and JW moving from his tenor to the soprano saxophone; this pleasant piece results from Cohan’s interpretation of his recent experience in Africa. Drummer Hall, whose own quintet was scheduled to play later on the main Wagner Stage this evening, sought some respite shade for this tune. The final number is another JW original and entitled “Title,” at least for now; lacking a suitable moniker, our leader says the title has become the default name from his composition software.

Keeping with my preference, I have sought out and written of the performers that come out early in the day of these quality summer festivals in the City of Chicago. All of the acts are good, the musicians are enthusiastic, and the early-in-the-day crowds are cerebral. I would estimate attendance at this early afternoon session on a pleasant, sunny day at 200 to 300 people.

Ben PatersonFor the last show of the day (that I was able to catch) it was with pen again in-hand taking notes that I experienced the Ben Paterson Organ Quintet. Paterson (pictured at left) seemed to enjoy and excel at talking to his huge audience at the West Stage at the Midway Plaisance near 60th Street and Ellis Avenue. I made note of his between-song quips. After playing a strong groove Jimmy McGriff “blues” tune, Paterson said, “There is not nearly enough blues in New York. It’s great to be back in Chicago playing some blues.” Spoken by a man who knows–although now based in New York, Paterson said he went to school here (UC) and identified the locations of his former Hyde Park apartments. The musicians in this group are young and they stepped up and played. The second song was the jazz standard, “Perdido,” composed by Juan Tizol and first recorded by Duke Ellington in 1942.

The third and fourth tunes were not named or recognized, but Paterson introduced the first as a “funk” tune and the second as a “ballad.” “Funk” they did, with saxophonist Scott Burns and trumpeter Marquis Hill demonstrating again that these two horns in an up-front duo segment blend well! The next song was identified by Paterson as a Dizzy Gillespie funk tune recorded in 1970, “Alligator.” At times the two horns will retire to a back corner of the stage, only to return to the fore to blow hard a duel solo for a wall-of-sound effect of a kind that we grey-haired people should recognize. Ben Paterson provides the deep bass groove and repetitive bass runs on the organ. The last selection was the Cole Porter tune “Silk Stockings,” featuring Burns on tenor sax and Paterson with his long bass lines forming the groove. No dancers–Paterson tried coaxing dancers throughout. Nevertheless, another pleasing performance at the HPJF.

Paterson’s most recent album is Blues for Oscar, a tribute to Oscar Peterson. As seems to be the custom at blues and jazz festivals, there was a brief sales pitch for the CDs and, “visit my web site” at http://www.benpaterson.com. And, so ended the first day for me at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.

Additional musical one-hour sets I was able to catch the first day of the Festival included: Ari Brown Quintet, Gerald Clayton Trio, and the Dana Hall Quintet. On Sunday I enjoyed the performances of three ensembles with vocalists: the Chicago Yestet; Jeff Lindberg’s Chicago Jazz Orchestra with Tammy McCann; and the Dee Alexander Quartet. All are recommended!

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The Real Folk Blues with John Lee Hooker

John Lee HookerMurray, Charles Shaar. Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century. St. Martin’s Press. 2000.

The lyrical content of traditional blues music describes the emotional pain from lost love, cheating spouse, or vanquished hopes. Nonetheless, the music will make you feel good, and that is the power of this music. One guy with a guitar and a stomping foot is all that’s necessary. Simple materials and the expression of emotional pain evoke a satisfying response. Speaking of young people today, Murray writes: “The blues make them feel bad, and they can’t get past that. . . the blues is not about feeling bad, but about feeling good despite every factor in the world which conspires to make you feel bad. By telling his story, John Lee Hooker enables us to face our own. . . it is his (the bluesman’s) job to forgive us and comfort us, shoulder our burdens as he invites us to help him shoulder his own. I (Murray) remember what it is to feel so flat-out, rock-bottom bad that you simply, involuntarily, apropos of nothing in particular, begin to weep. And I know that, eventually, the weeping stops. And then the boogie begins (9).”

The Real Folk Blues. Murray provides a lengthy description of blues as a native art form and how it evolved and is distinguished from Anglo-American folk music (see chapter 3). “The most crucial . . . point about ‘folk music’ is that the constituency whom it most truly represents doesn’t consider it to be ‘folk music,’ but simply their music. Folk music—the traditional set of forms, styles and songs indigenous to a people, a culture or a locale—is radically distinguishable from ‘art’ music, of both the classical and avant garde varieties, and from ‘popular’ music, produced and marketed to a mass audience (52).” It is safe to say, however, that the music we call “blues” crosses over into all forms of music today—folk, jazz, pop, and rock; the genre lines are flexible and porous. The blues is a kind of folk music.

The folk singer draws upon the traditional arts and beliefs of the larger group to which he belongs—a clan, family, or local culture; a social chronicler with a song to sing. “In contrast, the bluesman’s vision is, almost by definition, personal. . . The bluesman makes himself the focus of his work; by placing himself at the center of his art, he is taking possession of his life. He is asserting his right to interpret his own existence. . . (73).” The bluesman is saying this is how I feel today and how the world is impacting me in my sadness, or happiness. One’s own perception of his present condition as expressed in song removes the ambiguity of the group’s emotional response and gives it a sense of realness that only the individual can convey—his personal psychology at the moment, so to speak.

African-American blues musicians recognize that there is “a strong and clearly defined tradition,” and “its practitioners are expected to improvise freely within it, re-creating it anew to meet the immediate needs of both performer and audience (54).” The traditional blues music themes lie in “dance songs, work songs, celebrations, laments, love songs, hate songs, and so forth.” These themes and the materials (riffs, chord progressions, melodies, etc.) employed to create them are available to all. “What counts above all in the blues is individuality: the development of a unique and unmistakable voice (54)” to place a personal stamp on the creative process and product. In this biography, Murray succeeds in using the historical perspective to trace the cultural events and personal experiences that helped shape the musical style and personality of a unique blues voice—John Lee Hooker.

Master Bluesman. John Lee learned to play blues guitar from his stepfather. His parents had divorced and, lo and behold, his new stepdad could show him everything on the instrument. “Will Moore gave his new stepson his next guitar–an old mail-order Stella. . .(34)” Quoting Hooker: “He would tell me what’s right and what’s wrong, and if he would tell me I wouldn’t do it, because back in them days if you did something wrong that you shouldn’t’a didn’t’a did, you get a good whuppin’. . . But he never had to do that because I never did get outta line. . . He wanted me to do what I wanted to do best, long as it was right. . . He is my roots because he is the man that caused me who I am today. . . What I’m doin’ today, that’s him. . . I wanted to play just like him, and I did, but he was so bluesy.” Moore played with Charley Patton and Son House, but he would not take 15 year-old John Lee with him. In describing his first hit, Boogie Chillen, recorded in Detroit some fifteen years after he left home, Hooker said, “That was his tune; that was his beat. I never thought I would make nothin’ out of it, and he didn’t either. But I came out with it and it just happened.”

The “Oral Transmission” of Folk Blues. Murray writes: “Hooker’s earliest musical experiences came through the oral tradition: from direct contact with Tony Hollins, who taught him his first chords and songs, and from Will Moore, who gave him the boogie. . . his most profoundly formative influences came from direct, face-to-face encounters with musicians who had themselves learned their stuff the hard way, the old way, the traditional way—from their elders, the elders who were themselves the first generation of bluesmen. . . they were his folk (61).” Hollins befriended the Hooker family in Mississippi and recorded in Chicago during the 1940’s but his work was never released on records; included were tunes such as “Crosscut Saw” and “Crawlin’ King Snake” that were popularized by others and were to become standards in the blues genre. The music and lyrics were not written for passage to successive generations, and Hooker learned directly from this “master bluesman” by word-of-mouth and demonstration, as we assume Hollins learned from his elders. In modern times, readers of liner notes and the center of vinyl platters may note the tune credited to “traditional.” The unknown creator did not write the tune for posterity and no one has the right to claim it.

In this short review for a blog format I have summarized, quoted, and interpreted from a lengthy biography of 491 pages with emphasis on Chapter 3, “The Real Folk Blues?” There is no reference list, but from Murray’s descriptions in text and footnotes I provide a few sources for additional reading:
1. Evans, David. Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues. Da Capo Books, 1982.
2. Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People from Charley Patton to Robert Cray. Secker and Warburg, 1995.
3. Charters, Samuel. The Bluesmen. Oak Publications, 1967

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T. Monk and the Origins of Bop

Thelonious Monk bookThelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Robin D. G. Kelley. 2009. Free Press.

Much that has been written about Thelonious Monk is assumed to be mythical—narratives based upon hearsay and innuendo. In this interesting book the author attempts to present more truth about this man. The writer is an academic historian employed at the University of Southern California. He is working to explain the personality and motives of a very complex and accomplished musician who is no longer with us. The book is heavy in conjecture as well as content. It is in our nature to reach conclusions based upon incomplete evidence—it may be necessary for human survival. Also, memories of historical events are known to be faulty; strong conclusions derived from anecdotal evidence are not warranted here or in a courtroom. However, the research is ample and supported by footnotes. Many people thought to be close to Monk are quoted from interviews conducted by the author. Also cited here are statements documented by previous Monk chroniclers—quotes that are recollections of nieces, nephews, and other family members collected and written in earlier publications. And, there are numerous quoted comments and testimonials from Monk’s musician colleagues. I will include some of those here. The numbers in parentheses are page numbers from the book.

In 1934, Thelonious Monk dropped out of New York’s Stuyvesant High School–it was his junior year. Grades during his high school years were mediocre, and there were no extracurricular activities per the author’s research of Stuyvesant High School yearbooks. No organized sports. Two things he liked to do most were hang out at the community center and play music mostly in his family apartment. He had an upright piano, or was it a “player piano” with a roll? He learned to play, according to Monk, by watching his sister, who received lessons. Monk received professional lessons only after he demonstrated an ability and acute interest. Playing the piano was something he was good at, and respected for by his peers. His parents were separated and his Dad lived in North Carolina. His Mom and the children left Carolina when Thelonious was under 10 years of age. Most black women in need of income did domestic work; Barbara Monk worked as an office cleaning women. Thelonious lived mostly in his mother’s apartment on West 63rd Street in Manhattan well into his 30’s. Steady work was elusive; the author speaks of Monk for one day working as a laborer. Defying conventional work, he began working hard to become an income-earning pianist. Of course, this was during the Great Depression, and families encouraged children to add to the household income by leaving school early and getting a job.

Monk formed a band at this time and made a little money—maybe $10 for the band per engagement. He met a female black evangelist who asked Monk and his band mates to go on the road. “She preached and healed and we played (41).” “I always played jazz. I mean, I was playing church music the same way.” Two years on tour, but Monk had very little explanation then nor in later interviews, and he was not a religious adult. Why did he do this, when he could have stayed in NY and play music—no one knows. This is a “life and times” book and the writer goes into detail, but there are no explanations, only speculation. The reading gets rather arduous here, as the writer contrasts the bombastic proselytizing evangelists with the formal and conservative Baptist and Methodist churches. The music of the former bordered on rock and roll—Monk was doing this during the evangelist revival meetings; the latter more formalized religious units had their organized choirs and hymns. This is the historian providing rich background. It is presumed Monk matured as a musician during this period of rambunctious piano playing in church; the musical experiences were shaping the young man.

Dr. Kelley may exhaust you with his detailed descriptions of Monk’s in-laws and friends, their early occupations, home locations, and how they came to live in the San Juan Hill neighborhood of Manhattan. The community was large in Monk’s life and is honored with expanding detail. Kelley found rich source material by interviewing Monk family members. The neighborhood folks in the early-Monk story are mostly of West Indian or Caribbean descent, light-skinned, and attractive. Monk, however, was descended from African slaves that resided in North Carolina. Kelley describes interpersonal conflicts people of color have experienced that are attributed to shades of blackness differences between combatants–interesting historical background for the patient reader.

Monk’s dad was named Thelonious, and the third child of Monk’s brother Thomas was named Theolonious—not my spelling error but that of Monk’s sister-in-law who misspelled the name on the birth certificate application. At the time of this nephew’s birth it was thought that Monk may not succeed as a musician, never marry, nor have offspring. This naming was an attempt to continue the legacy of the grandfather (Monk’s father), per an author interview with the nephew Theolonious. Monk was “uncommon,” beginning with this grand name his father, he, and the nephew bore.

Monk’s technique on the piano at this time is described by other musicians. Billy Taylor met Monk in the presence of a group of pianists practicing a cutting session in the back of a club—present were Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson, along with Monk. Hearing Monk play, Taylor noted he was playing like pianist Art Tatum, but he did not really sound like him or Willie “The Lion.” Quoting Taylor, “. . . and he (Monk) sat down and played a standard. I believe it could have been ‘Tea for Two.’ It doesn’t sound like anybody but Monk and this is what he wanted to do. He had the confidence. The way that he does those things is the way he wanted to do them (54).” And from pianist Teddy Wilson, “Thelonious Monk knew my playing very well, as well as that of Tatum, Earl Hines, and Fats Waller. He was exceedingly well grounded in the piano players who preceded him, adding his own originality to a very sound foundation.”

Author Kelley put it more technically, “He heard players ‘bend’ notes on the piano, or turn the beat around, or create dissonant harmonies with ‘splattered notes’ and chord clusters . . . displace the rhythm by playing in front or behind the beat . . . throw listeners momentarily off-track. Monk embraced these elements in his own playing and exaggerated them (55).” Monk learned from the stride piano players but his dissonance techniques went further to effect his own modern style.

In January of 1941 Monk became the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, and helped stamp this club as the legendary birthplace of bebop, or modern jazz. Here is how Kelley describes it: “Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie stood at its helm, playing circles around the old legends; Bud Powell transformed his piano into a horn at blistering tempos; drummer Kenny Clarke, guitarist Charlie Christian, and bassist Oscar Pettiford revolutionized rhythm; pianist Tadd Dameron wrote and arranged bebop anthems; and the wacky, eccentric Thelonious Monk taught his peers harmony and confused the hell out of everybody (61).” Kelley points out that in interviews Monk reminded the public that these story lines played out over a period of maybe ten years as the style evolved and transformed jazz music. Monk may have lost his steady nightly gig by year-end, but he continued for many years to attend the Monday night Minton jam sessions at which all of these players were regular drop-ins. Monk began composing great songs in 1941 while attending these sessions.

To further explain this phenomenon occurring at Minton’s, Kelley produces a Monk quote from a 1956 piece in Down Beat: “I had no particular feeling that anything new was being built. Its true modern jazz probably began to get popular there. But as for me, my mind was like it was before I worked in Minton’s.” And this statement from Kenny Clarke: “You know, we hadn’t really set out with the idea of developing any particular style of jazz. It was really unconscious (70).” Some of the 1940’s Minton sessions were recorded by a young Columbia University student named Jerry Newman; he used a portable Wilcox-Gay Recordio “disc-cutter” that recorded on to a 12-inch aluminum-based acetate disc or on a plastic-coated version that cost seven cents. Newman was able to broadcast some of these “records” on the C. U. campus radio station. Some of these discs are still available, although Newman says he ruined them by playing his trombone during the live on-stage recording. Monk has used these recordings to prove to the critics that he truly has technique and could play fast runs, but did what he chose to do; i.e. be himself! He preferred medium tempos and dissonant harmonies to what was popular.

Unemployed and short on club gigs, Monk spent his free time composing music wherever he found himself–at his mother’s apartment on his upright, at Shorty Smith’s house (another piano player), or anywhere he could play another’s piano with permission and at any time night or day, such as the apartment of Billy Taylor or at the home of his friend Mary Lou Williams. These friends would wake up to the sound of Monk tinkling the keys in their living room.

The commencement of WWII brought draft notices to the musicians. The prevailing view was that black musicians would fight battles on two fronts: first, make an effort to desegregate the army while fighting fascism in Europe; and secondly, battle the Jim Crow segregation laws at home. Blacks were not highly motivated to enlist. With their increased presence in the streets of Harlem, race riots and events of police brutality prevailed. Many of the establishments providing work for the musicians closed down—Monk’s second stint at Minton’s Playhouse suffered this fate and he was out of work again. At this time the musicians went downtown for work and the 52nd Street scene began to take shape; bebop had not yet been recognized.

Monk began to publish and copyright his compositions in 1944. His first inking was “52nd Street Theme,” a piece he originally titled “Bip Bop” that was picked up by several bands and favored as an opening/closing theme at various clubs. Everyone was playing it; however, he never recorded it–Dizzy Gillespie did so, on the RCA Victor label. Thelonious did not earn any money off it because he did the copyright under another title.

When struggling with the legal nuances and rights protection in the music composition field, a big break came Monk’s way when Coleman Hawkins offered him a job. Hawk, a swing era stalwart, had a popular hit, “Body and Soul,” at the time. He liked Monk’s approach to harmony and designated Monk as the new band’s arranger. A transformation in jazz styles was occurring. The Hawkins band personnel in February, 1944, included Hawkins, Monk, Don Byas on tenor, Little Benny Harris on trumpet, Eddie Robinson on bass, and Denzil Best the drummer. They played thru the summer at the Down Beat Club; by mid-year Byas and Harris were gone, but the rhythm section remained and with the addition of Vic Coulsen the band played the “Black Broadway” district in Washington, DC. Returning to New York, the Hawkins quintet played the Apollo Theatre for a week. That engagement evoked the following review from Herbie Nichols, a classically trained pianist writing in the black-owned jazz magazine Music Dial, “Thelonious Monk is an oddity among piano players. This particular fellow is the author of the weirdest rhythmical melodies I’ve ever heard. They are very great, too. . . he seems to be partial to certain limited harmonies which prevent him from taking a place beside Art (Tatum) and Teddy (Wilson). He seems to be in a vise as far as that goes and never shows any signs of being able to extricate himself (98-99).”

In October of 1944 Hawkins took Monk, Best, and Robinson into the studio and recorded two 78 rpm platters, approximately eleven and a half minutes of four tunes–two ballads and two swing numbers: “Recollections,” “ Drifting on a Reed,” “On the Bean,” and “Flying Hawk.” These were Hawkins compositions and being of short duration, Monk had few and relatively short soloes. Monk’s own composition “Round Midnight” was then being arranged and/or recorded by both Bud Powell for the Cootie Williams Orchestra and his friend and pianist Mary Lou Williams. Kelley writes at length of Monk compositions being recorded by others under different titles and the practice of “borrowing” phrases or whole songs, or the flat-out poaching by band leaders of songs written by sidemen. Compositions got passed around without credit being given to the writer. It is also stated that Monk may have done a bit of this as well—it was a common practice.

In 1947 Bill Gottlieb, a writer/photographer for Down Beat, introduced Monk to Alfred and Lorraine Lion. Lion was the founder of Blue Note Records. Down Beat had just done a photo profile of Monk; the Lions were considering signing Monk to a recording contract. In his apartment with the Lions as audience, Monk played a full version of “Round Midnight,” “What Now,” “Ruby, My Dear,” and other yet unnamed pieces. Lorraine Lion (later Gordon) remarked that “Monk made the transition for me (from thoughts of Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington), because I was hearing his great stride piano style from James P. Johnson and the blues and his great left hand.” Monk was allowed to assemble his own ensemble. For the first session Monk had a sextet; deemed a success, Blue Note had him back in the studio in a few days in a trio format—Gene Ramey on bass and Art Blakey on drums. They made six sides (one song per side of the 78 rpm records)–four Monk originals and two standards. The Lions felt the music was so great they should do more; in the final session Monk added two horn players, George Taitt and Sahib Shihab. Added to the list of recorded songs were “In Walked Bud,” “Who Knows,” “Monk’s Mood,” and “Round Midnight.” The first actual record was released in January, 1948—“Thelonious” on Side A and “Suburban Eyes” on the B side. This was the first Monk-led recording playable on a phonograph record player. Lorraine Lion, the Blue Note marketing department, worked tirelessly to promote Monk’s name throughout the music industry, ensuring he did not get pushed into the background as he had been before. But, progress on this front was slow due in part to trouble with the law.

In the summer of 1948 Monk was busted for marijuana possession and served 30 days in “the Tombs,” the Manhattan House of Detention. Kelley says that at this time in jazz circles, pot was as common as tobacco. However, city officials were out “to clean up 52nd Street and the Times Square area, which in their view had become a haven for crime, vice, and drug use. Thelonious had been caught in the dragnet (143).” In addition to doing time, he lost his cabaret license for a year. He was banned from working in alcohol-serving establishments in NYC.

With Lorraine’s help, Monk took his quartet into the Village Vanguard, a bohemian joint for folkies and poets, but bombed. The complaint was that the music was not suitable for dancing. With Billy Taylor’s band on standby contract with Vanguard owner Max Gordon, Monk and band were sent on their way. Monk would also play the 845 Club in Bronx where the cabaret law was not well-enforced. Here Monk jammed with fellow pianists Elmo Hope and Bud Powell; also, saxophonists Jackie McLean and Johnny Griffin were collaborating with Monk. The work was not steady. In early 1949 the jazz scene on 52nd Street died as “many clubs closed down or became striptease joints (148);” these were subsequently busted by city officials in a crackdown on burlesque. Ultimately, developers moved in and the neighborhood disintegrated. Musicians had to pursue out-of-town employment.

Monk continued to be ostracized for his weirdness (the word “weird” appears frequently in this book); the eccentric behavior, being late, or not showing up for a gig. Apparently, he got this reputation for unexplained absence in part due to not even being contracted for the job; promoters put his name on the bill to draw a paying audience and he was blamed for not being there. Everyone focused on his behavior; his genius at the keys was of secondary interest or misunderstood. Nevertheless, it was Monk who was creating the “modern music” – a term he preferred to “bebop.” Gillespie and Parker were making the money practicing the style of Monk, while Monk was starving as penalty for his “weirdness”. His celebrity status had been incubated, however. The press was sparking interest in his music, and the photographers highlighted his ever-present shades and French beret.

In early 1949, Kelly says Down Beat magazine wrote a critical review of Monk’s “Epistrophy,” concluding with the comment “nothing happens.” And the work “Evidence” provoked the following comment “can only appeal to the more atonally minded of the jazz gentry.” And, “Ruby, My Dear” is merely dismissed as “abstract (150).” That is from issues of Down Beat. But there was the rare favorable review of the Blue Note recordings of this period. Paul Bacon, writing in The Record Changer, “described ‘Ruby’ as a beautiful tone poem, played with great feeling and color, and praised his solo on ‘Evidence’ for its unity, a result of Monk’s habit of thinking of things as a whole, instead of a bar here and a bridge there (149).”

However, Monk could not sustain critical acclaim. In the company of Bud Powell, he was busted for possession of narcotics. Although insisting it was not his heroin, Monk was sent to a workhouse on Riker’s Island and Powell was transferred to a psychiatric ward. Unable to make bail, Monk served sixty days and was released the day of his court hearing. In detention, he worked in the bakery or shipping room. Then his luck changed—after three years of scattered gigs and loss of cabaret card, Blue Note offered to reissue previously recorded seven sides on a ten-inch LP titled The Genius of Modern Music—Monk’s first long-playing album and an event marking the end of 78’s.

This review of a literary piece describing the life of an American original is far from complete, but highlights the first 200 book pages and 30-plus years in the life of its subject. In your read, expect a serious historical work that is supported by more than three thousand footnotes of documentation. At this point in Monk’s life, he had defined himself as a musical artist and was well-known, but was not making much money. He had become his own man in the music business, and the story of his maturation was nearing completion. Appearing on the original The Tonight Show, Steve Allen described him as a “musician’s musician.” He was listened to by musicians and mostly respected, but some found him difficult to work with—read especially the sessions with Miles Davis or the testimony of numerous vocalists. Financial life got better, but the personal struggles continued–his mental health was an issue. To learn more on these matters and obtain an education on the origins of bebop and Monk’s “modern music,” read the book in its entirety!

Peter Furlong, PhD, volunteers at public radio station KUVO 89.3FM in Denver, CO, USA.

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Reviewing the Neil Young Autobiography

Neil Young bookWaging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream. Neil Young. 2012. Blue Rider Press. 497 pages.

Aging rock musicians and songwriters are writing again, but this time it is beautiful long biographies.  More entertainment, different format! These artists (Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, Carole King, et.al.) could grab our attention writing songs and performing; now we are seeing another side of their multi-talented characters.  Those of us from that era can take notice: retirement is time for pursuit of new talents and abilities, or slighted hobbies.  Rock on into oblivion.

Under review here is a great piece of non-fiction that is lacking for an Index, Table of Contents, and Discography. Some of the chapters have titles; others do not—a deficiency attributable to deadlines? Publishers, please educate me in the “comments” section below. However, showing good form is the inclusion of approximately forty-seven full-page non-glossy black and white pictures of people and bands, houses, cars, lyric notes, album covers, etc. that add to the fun of reading.  All things considered, this book is deserving of high marks.

For assistance in finding passages expanding upon the material and quotes I provide in this article, I am citing page numbers and chapters of the text.  Also, the quotes hopefully give you a feel for the spirit and tone that underlie this book. Young does not acknowledge the help of anyone in writing this book, but writes words of thanks to those in his life that become subject matter here.  For example, Thanks, David Briggs (music producer); Thanks, Larry Johnson (film-making collaborator); and Thanks, Elliot Roberts (manager) are just a few of the expressions of gratitude.

Note the subtitle of this book is “A hippie dream.” The songwriter Neil Young (NY) is a self-proclaimed hippie who likes to speak of dreams. NY is waging a war on the deterioration of sound quality in music products—“making heavy peace” describes that effort. “Waging war” would not suffice and does not fit his makeup. After he heard PureTone (now named Pono, Young’s new music sound delivery system), personal staff member Ben Bourdon “. . . asked me if I was making war on Apple. No, I’m waging heavy peace (p.143).” “I really feel sorry for kids with their MP3s today who can’t hear music the way we did then. What a bummer. I can’t imagine that. It really bothers me (p. 150).” Improving music sound quality delivered by CDs, MP3 players, and internet downloads is a major current project.

A dilemma today for NY is that there are two evils lurking: the first is his inability to write songs and the second is his fear of encroaching dementia. Young’s dad, a writer of books and a daily newspaper columnist, died at age 75 with dementia. A strategy has been to quit drinking and pot smoking to deal with this lurking problem; also, this behavior change is upon doctor advice.  The effect to date has been clear and real thinking for the generation of the 100,000 words that complete this fine book. “I’m not smoking weed anymore. I am a lot more focused now (p. 56).” However, quitting pot is believed to be the cause of the song-writing demise. “Smoking weed opened the door for me, and I miss that part, especially when it comes to songs and music (p.224).” In another place in the book, he declares that upon smoking a joint he writes a song; but, imbibing more than that and he is not productive. Smoking is a catalyst or spark for the creative process.

The abstinence continues—one must respect the muse, which operates in a deliberate fashion. The muse controls the distribution of songwriting and performance talent. It is the spiritual element in the art–determining who composes the great tunes and when. “When” is not now for Neil Young. Young has great respect for the muse, however; one must not push or try to force manifestation of the muse—it will stir the creative abilities in the man when the time is appropriate. Of course, he has produced great songs in the past and is now producing a fine book(s). Writing books is the direction his talents are taking him today.

The bands, the locations, and culinary delights.

The first band was the Squires out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the early sixties. The first long road trip was actually by train—up north to Churchill, Manitoba, “through Indian country.”  The trip was okay, but the venue was rough and the Squires decided they were too young and at the mercy of the locals. The decision was to return to Winnipeg unhurt and pursue the next road trip, this one a longer lasting experience in Fort William, Ontario and a gig at the Flamingo Club. The Squires were playing folk and folk rock on the hootenanny circuit, a region including Fort William, Regina, and Winnipeg.  One band to enter the circuit was the Company, a band with a guitarist and vocalist that sounded to NY like a soul singer.  Neil Young, meet Steve Stills.  They developed a friendship, these two lead guitarists that continued to this day.  But they went separate ways at the time, agreeing to stay in touch, and were to partner later in Los Angeles of course as part of CSNY.

Things got rough in Fort William: “. . . we lived on Spam and Ritz crackers we bought in a little liquor store across the street from the motel (p. 67).” The owner of the club they were playing at allowed the band to stay in a motel he also owned, Dinty’s Motor Inn. The hearse they were using as the band vehicle broke down in Blind River, Ontario. “. . . several days later we were still there and running out of money; we were living on roasted potatoes from the market. We hung out in an old junkyard/dump near the edge of town (p. 67).” The event helped lead to the band breakup–they split and scattered, NY ending up in Toronto.

About this time NY transitioned to electric guitar:  “. . . when the instrumental break came along in the song, ‘Farmer John’, I just went crazy on the guitar solo. I had just started to do that. One night it just happened, and now I was doing it all the time. . . Every note was out of the blue. . . I knew I was doing something that had just come out of me, not something I learned, but something that was me (pp. 278-279).” I credit this moment of catharsis as a manifestation of the muse so often referred to in Young’s writing.

It was the mid-60s in Toronto.  Young looked for work in Yorkville Village, the arts neighborhood. “I got a job at Coles Bookstore on Yonge Street and took a flat nearby at 88 Isabella Street so I could walk to work. I had a hot plate to cook on there; beans mostly (p. 275).” Both the job and the flat were gone before too long. He continued songwriting—the music took precedence over everything. He was writing folk songs; e.g. “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and “Sugar Mountain.”  He slept on the floor of a friend’s place.  For a while he shared floor space with John Kay, who later starred with the band Steppenwolf (see chapter 40).

In a brief sojourn to Detroit, “. . . after one night sleeping in some girl’s basement, to the amazement of her parents, I left one morning in a snowstorm and returned to Toronto. It was cold and I didn’t have any warm clothes. That was a long trip (p. 72).” Things continued badly in Toronto, and Young had to sell his Gretsch guitar and returned to acoustic playing. During a subsequent trip to Detroit, on a recommendation he checked out a group called “The Mynah Birds.” He was hired and got back into rock and roll when the band manager bought him a Rickenbacker electric.  About this time Young began to smoke weed, “I got high and loved it instantly. The music sounded like God (p. 72).” While playing with the Mynah Birds, NY shared a basement apartment with the lead singer Ricky James Matthews. “I became introduced to other drugs. I was trying amphetamines and smoking a little hash.  Looking back, I could have gone a lot deeper. Luckily I didn’t get too far in the stronger drugs (p.73).”

The band got a recording contract with Motown and was joined occasionally in the studio by Smokey Robinson with advice and the Four Tops with backup vocals. “We were on our way to the big time! And then Rick (lead vocalist), who was a U.S. citizen, got busted for evading the draft for the Vietnam War. He was gone, just like that. It was over. Zip (p. 73-74).”

It was time for another move. Young had met Stephen Stills in Toronto and they had agreed to form up some time in the future.  The States offered greater opportunities for a folk rocker.  Without work papers, a site along the border that offered easy entry was sought.  Driving west across Canada with bass player Bruce Palmer and others in a ’53 Pontiac hearse, “we immediately headed for Sault Ste. Marie, the most nondescript border crossing we could find (p. 125).” Upon being questioned at the border as to their purpose for being there, they announced their destination was Vancouver, B. C.; and, the roads across the northern United States were straighter and smoother than Canada roads.  No problem, you’re okay boys come on through.  Actual destination: Los Angeles. For many years Young remained in the U.S. illegally, living without a green card and driving without a California license. He did not visit Canada; returning to the U.S. would again require sneaking across the border. He finally got a green card, but that also involved an illegal act—see chapter 21 for the story.

In LA, Young failed to find his friend Stills; but on a lucky day while cruising he spotted Stephen walking down the street. Richie Furay, who Young had met in a short visit to New York, was hanging out with Stills–warm greetings all around. The band Buffalo Springfield was formed and within six weeks they had a regular gig at the Whiskey a Go Go. “Stephen and Richie sang incredibly well, and because of the diversity of musical roots, the band had a blend of music that was largely unknown at the time. It was kind of folk rock, but kind of country blues with a rock and roll edge. Richie’s great voice and Bruce’s unique Motown bass style brought depth. Dewey’s smiling face behind the drums was both incongruous and appealing. It was Stephen’s soulful vocals and phrasing that set us into another class. Stephen and I would play these intricate parts off of each other all the time that were largely improvised, and people could hear that it was spontaneous. It was exciting, and we were young and very alive. Everything started moving really fast (p. 388).”

The fan base was building. “Riots were happening on the Strip. Hippies against the war, cops against the hippies. Stephen wrote ‘For What It’s Worth’ about the riots. It was a great message song of the times, with his signature vocal phrasing (p. 390).” The group carried on for eighteen months and then broke up. Bruce Palmer got busted for pot and was deported to Canada. He was given a second chance and got busted for “driving down the Pacific Coast Highway on acid without a license. That was really the beginning of the end for the Buffalo (p. 406).”

At this point in the book Young discusses the importance of chemistry for any group. Speaking of his long-time buddy Palmer, “His roots in R&B were so important. He played like Motown, but he had an added flair (p. 391).” They tried other bass players, but an “essential ingredient” was irreplaceable. Band members became frustrated with their rhythm section problems. The band dissolved. “Thank you, Buffalo Springfield. There will never be another. It’s about chemistry. Love and chemistry (p. 393).”

In LA, his first place to live was the Commodore Gardens. “The Springfield was playing the Whiskey a Go Go, and I had some cash. Some girls from the Whiskey were living there. . . I tacked up some matting on the walls that I had bought at Pier 1 Imports. I put a blue light bulb in the fridge. It was an old fridge. I don’t know what I ever put in it. Must have been Cokes and Twinkies. I wasn’t into health food yet, that’s for sure (p. 423).” Later, Young was able to rent a cabin near the top of Laurel Canyon. “It was very simple, with only two rooms, a bedroom and a bathroom, and a little add-on porch where I kept my fridge. Who knows what I put in that fridge? It was certainly not much. I think I had a hot plate, too. I used it for pork and beans . . . probably (p. 150).”

As for Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (CSNY), NY hints that his primary role was to strengthen vocals for the group while on tour. This was not one of Young’s favorite professional periods. He does have kind words for the individual work of each member of the band (see chapter 33). The product of this mix of talent was energy. “But then came the fame, the drugs, the money; houses, cars, and admirers; then the solo albums. The band did not break up; it just stopped. We were all doing our own things. . . We had a golden time, and then we lost our way. Be great or be gone (p. 242).” Young wrote “Ohio” and “Southern Man” during this period. He expresses some regret for authoring the lyrics to the latter song.

In 1968, Young had recorded a solo album, Neil Young. About this time, he began playing casually with The Rockets, a group consisting of musicians that he would later lead as members of the band Crazy Horse (CH). Young now refers to this band as his band, meaning it reflects the ideals of country rock purpose and performance standard so important to him. This group seems to be his musical backstop. They had played together for pleasure in one another’s homes in Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon. An early project was After the Gold Rush, which included the songs “Cinnamon Girl”, “Down by the River”, and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” At the time, Young was actually sick with the flu, “but happy and high”, when he wrote these songs in one sitting in his Topanga living room with the personnel to become Crazy Horse. Young was soon to suffer a personal and professional loss with the death of Danny Whitten, the lead guitarist and vocalist for CH (see chapter 23). This was the first of several episodes involving drug overdose described in this book.

In 1974 in Chicago for the funeral of his girlfriend Carrie Snodgress’ father, he recorded a song at the great blues shop, Chess Recording Studio, with the newly reformed Crazy Horse—Poncho Sampredo had replaced Danny Whitten. “Poncho is Spanish, Billy (Talbot) is Italian, and Ralph (Molina) is Portuguese; three Latins and a Canadian . . . There was something sympathetic about the way we played together. It felt really fluid and hot, yet funky and solid (p. 382).” Crazy Horse went back to LA, but Young went to Nashville and recorded with his Stray Gator buddies, Jack Nitzsche, Kenny Buttrey, Tim Drummond, and Ben Keith. The album entitled Harvest, released in 1972, had included personnel from this latter ensemble.

Following that trip, it was back to LA and Malibu and David Briggs’ (Young’s long-time music producer) home studio for more recording. “We (Crazy Horse) set up a Green Board control room in Briggs’ den. We played in the garage. One day Bob Dylan, who lived nearby, came along and sang a blues tune with us. On a break, Bob and I took a walk around the neighborhood, talking about the similarity in some of the paths we had each taken. It was the first time we had ever really talked. I liked him.” “Those were some of the finest, most alive days of my life . . . making some good music, and starting to get a grip on something: an open future in my personal life and a new future with Crazy Horse after Danny (p. 384).”

NY had migrated to Northern California in 1970. He was writing lots of songs and recording; but, many of these songs were not released, and were stashed away in the archives. He released a solo album and bought property he named the Broken Arrow Ranch; he increased the building footage fourfold and lives there today. Albums have been recorded in his ranch studio; he is currently working on Crazy Horse: The Early Daze. This is a project to apply modern sound technology to the early unreleased tracks of CH that feature Danny Whitten on lead guitar and vocals. “I know that if I can bring them (tracks) all back in their pristine glory with PureTone, it will be a revelation for music lovers today, to actually hear these songs the way they were with the original resonance, creating the feeling that moved a generation’s hearts in the beginning. This is getting closer with every passing day (p. 14).”

I have written here of the early days in the musical career of a person who is arguably one of the greatest songwriter/singers in rock music history. Young is considered a man of professional integrity and deservedly so. Additional subjects discussed in the book include: filmmaking projects, a vintage automobile collection, other collectibles (“I am a material man”), touring band vehicles, live performance standards, women, lincvolt (an electric car he reconditioned from a Lincoln Continental), health issues, the environment, and this:

“I don’t make CDs or iTunes tracks. I make albums. I remember how I hated the shuffle feature on iTunes because it (bleeped) up the running order I spent hours laboring over . . . having the shuffle feature available sucks as far as I am concerned . . . I make albums and I want the songs to go together to create a feeling . . . I don’t want people cherry-picking the albums. . . After all, it’s my shit (p. 409-410).” So, my readers and listeners, retain the artistic essence of a musical project by not playing individual tracks out-of-order; and, you may refer to any recorded musical project as an “album,” preferred over “CD” if you choose.

Peter Furlong, PhD, volunteers at the public radio station KUVO 89.3FM in Denver, CO, USA

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Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell at Denver Botanic Gardens, Chatfield Unit July 20, 2013 by Geoffrey Anderson

            All my life I’ve wanted to play a concert in Littleton, Colorado. Tonight, I feel like I’m one step closer to my goal.

            Steve Martin first hit the national scene in 1977 when he released his first album Let’s Get Small. The album started off with him playing the banjo. After a few seconds of snappy banjo licks, Martin said, “Hey, this guy’s gooood.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=htTLWC1unMc That simple beginning revealed two Martinesque aspects that define him to this day. The first, and most obvious, is his banjo playing, something he has been doing much more of in the last few years. The second is a style of humor based on how great he is. (What’s the opposite of self-deprecating humor? Self-aggrandizing humor?) Both of these characteristics were well represented Saturday night at the Denver Botanic Gardens, Chatfield Unit.

            Some nights I play the banjo fantastic. Sometimes I play good, it could be better. I went to see Eric Clapton in concert a few weeks ago. I didn’t think he was so funny.

                About the same time as his first album, Martin really became a wild and crazy guy and started hosting Saturday Night Live. A movie career followed kicked off by the erudite The Jerk. During that time, the banjo seemed to play second fiddle. Now the banjo is back.

            We’re enjoying the excellent weather, the beautiful sky and playing for your cellphones.

            Over the last few years Martin has been recording and touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers, a straight ahead bluegrass band from North Carolina. The five piece band does everything a bluegrass band is supposed to do: instrumental prowess, if not virtuosity, on the main bluegrass instruments, guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass (all acoustic) and tight three and four part vocal harmonies essential for creating that high, lonesome sound which is indispensable to true bluegrass.

            I’m doing two of my favorite things right now, comedy and charging people to hear music.

            For the most part, Martin played his banjo and told jokes. He provided some “response” vocals on the hilarious “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” a Martin original. See link, below. Another comedy song was “Jubilation Day” which was actually a break up song. The majority of the tunes, however, were fairly serious bluegrass fare. Most of the songs in the program were originals written by the Rangers, Martin or Edie Brickell. The originals were in traditional bluegrass style and would fit right in next to standards like “Rocky Top” or “Wabash Cannonball,” had the band chosen to play tunes like that.

            Coming back on stage after the Rangers played a tune without him: I got to do something just now most of you didn’t, I went to the bathroom. In the bathroom was a sign that said, “Employees must wash hands.” That couldn’t be referring to me! Me?!? An Employee?

            Coming back on stage later for the encore: There’s quite a commotion backstage. The police are there. It turns out I am an employee and they were insisting I wash my hands. They had soap and towels….

            Edie Brickell seemed to be a fairly unlikely candidate to be part of a tour like this. Best known for the hit “What I Am” from her first album in 1988 and married to Paul Simon, she didn’t exactly seem to ooze bluegrass. Her comedy resume also seemed somewhat lacking. (Wait, that’s Martin’s department. Never mind.) But earlier this year she released an album with Martin called Love Has Come for You which gets down to the earthy bluegrass sound with the Rangers backing. Martin wrote the music for the album and Brickell wrote the lyrics. Several songs from this album were on the evening’s set list.

            You could follow us on Twitter. Or you could do something meaningful with your life.

            Brickell was on stage for about half the show. Her presence added some vocal diversification to the evening. The Rangers can sing, no doubt, but the female vocals in the harmonies were a pleasant addition.

            I don’t think of the Rangers as my backup band. I think of me as their celebrity.

            Comedy and bluegrass; two types of entertainment that usually don’t go together, but Steve Martin can do both and he pulled it off.

Atheists Don’t Have No Songs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wogta8alHiU

 

Set List

Katie Mae
Instrumental
Daddy Played the Banjo
The Crow
Get Along Stray Dog (with Brickell)
When You Get to Ashville (with Brickell)
Yes She Did (with Brickell)
Love Has Come For You (with Brickell)
Instrumental, Rangers only
Just Got to Heaven (a cappella)
Atheists Don’t Have No Songs
Jubilation Day
The Great Remember (Martin solo)
(Brickell on remainder)
Sun’s Gonna Shine
You Can Stay with Me
Pretty Little One
Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Train
Auden’s Train

Encore

Dance at the Wedding
Remember Me This Way
Pour Me Another Round/So Long Now

The Band

Steve Martin, banjo, vocals, jokes
Charles Humphrey, bass
Graham Sharp, banjo, guitar, vocals
Nicky Sanders, fiddle, vocals
Mike Guggino, mandolin, vocals
Woody Platt, guitar, vocals
Edie Brickell, vocals, guitar
Mike Ashton, percussion

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Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters at Red Rocks, Denver July 10, 2013 by Geoffrey Anderson

           Image Sometimes a man has to get back to his roots. After several years, a couple albums and a couple tours exploring American folk, roots and country music, Robert Plant has returned to the music that first grabbed him as a teenager in the early ‘60s. The blues provided the underpinnings of Led Zeppelin’s early heavy metal sound and Plant has been revisiting his home base on his current tour by revivifying many of Zeppelin’s original mainstays.

 

            The first four Zeppelin albums were the source of most of the evening’s material. The other major inspiration was Plant’s 2005 album Mighty Rearranger which was his last before his extended dalliance with Alison Krauss and, later, Patty Griffin, whom he married. (Did Krauss turn him down? Did he ask? Enquiring minds want to know! Well, maybe not.)

 

            Mighty Rearranger paid homage to blues and R&B greats like Bobby Bland and Ray Charles. It had a dark and menacing sound throughout. Wednesday night’s show recreated that ambience, and no wonder because Plant reassembled nearly the whole Mighty Rearranger band for the current tour. The only changes were David Smith on drums and, notably, the addition of Juldeh Camara from West Africa.

 

            Camara only played on about a third of the songs, but his contribution was unique and immense. He played a couple different African instruments, one resembling a violin and the other similar to a banjo. His playing Africanized the proceedings. However, unlike the results with bees, this Africanization proved to be much more pleasant and satisfying. 

 

            A particular highlight was Plant’s cover of “Spoonful,” a tune usually credited to Willie Dixon from around 1960, but with versions going back to the 1920s by Charley Patton, Papa Charlie Jackson and Luke Jordon. Howlin’ Wolf recorded one of the more well know versions. Plant’s interpretation incorporated the brooding and mysterious sound of Mighty Rearranger and some of the darker Zeppelin sound. This rendition sounded like it could have been arranged by a band of Ring Wraiths. Camara entered the creep-show about half way through with his violin-like instrument and transported the proceedings from Mordor to West Africa. Although his playing changed the flavor, the mood remained the same.

 

            “Black Dog,” a blues rave up from Zeppelin’s Fourth Album, was another that benefited from Camara’s African sensibilities. This version, less bombastic than its original incarnation, nevertheless oozed the blues and continued to express concern over the eternal salvation of big legged women. Camara made an appearance on this tune, this time with an Africanized banjo and again shifted the dimensions of the familiar song to something heretofore unknown and unheard.

 

            Although Plant and company rearranged most of the familiar subject matter, the band played straight-up versions of several songs including the opener “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” from Zeppelin’s debut album which set the stage for the blues-based festivities to come. “Going to California” also received a treatment fairly close to the original version and provided a brief respite from the dark and the blue.

 

            The Sensational Space Shifters closed their main set with an epic version of “Whole Lotta Love.” The classic guitar lick was intact and by the time the band got around to it, the tune sounded a lot like it does on Led Zeppelin II. However, it took a few minutes to get there. Zeppelin was criticized (and rightly so) for ripping off blues tunes and failing to give attribution to the songs’ authors. “Whole Lotta Love” is one of those. The tune is but a minor variation of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love.’” Certainly, the heavy, distinctive guitar lick played a big role in the song’s popularity, but justice, fair play and good sportsmanship all demanded that Dixon’s name should have been added to those of the four Zeppelin band members who were credited as the composers on the early editions of the album. (Later CD versions have added Dixon as a composer).

 

            In any event, Wednesday night’s version at Red Rocks began with a long introduction that featured Plant singing the original lyrics somewhat in the style of 1950s and ‘60s Chess Records, from whence the song sprang. Interestingly, the vast majority of the audience didn’t catch on until the electric guitar started to do its thing.

 

As veterans of the 1970s well know, the Led Zeppelin II version of the song has a spacy interlude with Plant yelps and other noises shifting back and forth from speaker to speaker. (Scene from a dorm room at CSU circa 1975: several freshman are gathered there listening to this song on a pretty good stereo with, shall we say, a little volume, and stuff. About a minute into the spacy interlude, one of the attendees blurts out, “Oh wow, they must have made this for people who are stoned!!!” (DUH!) Never has so much incredulity occupied such a small space.) The interlude in the 2013 version, instead of offering space shifting sounds, featured Camara for an African interlude. While the dorm denizens of the mid-70s may not have thought this idea was necessarily a good one, it sounded pretty good to 21st Century ears.

           

Plant chatted with the crowd, commenting on the majestic rocks and the altitude. He also explained his early love for the blues and how he got a chance to see many legendary bluesmen in the early ‘60s when they came to England and were welcomed as heroes at a time when they remained in obscurity in their home country. One of those bluesmen was Bukka White and Plant covered one of his songs, “Fixin’ to Die.” The other blues cover (in addition to “Spoonful”) was a brief taste of “Who Do You Love” tossed in the middle of the aforementioned “Whole Lotta Love.” Besides the blues covers, the early Zeppelin and the Mighty Rearranger tunes, Plant played two others; “I’m in the Mood for a Melody” from his second album, 1983’s The Principle of Moments and “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” from Band of Joy which is actually his most recent album.

 

The voice: Plant sounded good. He no longer goes into the stratosphere, but he can still reach higher than Colorado’s 14ers. Wednesday night, he displayed power, the ability to set a mood and much of the drama he’s been known for over the past four decades. Also, according to recent interviews, he has been relishing the freedom to sing unchained from the need to harmonize with another singer. Getting back to your roots can be a liberating experience.

 

Set List

Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (I)

I’m in the Mood for a Melody (The Principle of Moments)

Tin Pan Valley (Mighty Rearranger)

Spoonful (Willie Dixon and others)

Black Dog (IV)

Another Tribe (Mighty Rearranger)

Goin to California (IV)

The Enchanter (Mighty Rearranger)

Free. Percussive jam

Four Sticks (IV)

Friends (III)

Fixin to Die (Bukka White)

What Is and What Shall Never Be (II)

Bluesy intro You Need Love (Willie Dixon) >>

Whole Lotta Love (II) >>

African interlude >>

Who Do You Love tease >>

Whole Lotta Love

Encore

Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down (Band of Joy)

Rock and Roll (IV

 

The Band

Robert Plant, vocals

John Baggott, keyboards

Justin Adams, guitars

Skin Tyson, guitars

Billy Fuller, bass

David Smith, drums

Juldeh Camara, African instruments

 

Muddy Waters, “You Need Love:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-VCiYLX9ts

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Spotlight on Tara O’Grady

Tara O'Grady at the Refinery Hotel Photo by Richard Velasco

Tara O’Grady at the Refinery Hotel
Photo by Richard Velasco

Tara O’Grady’s relationship with jazz started with a distinctive pair of dark mushroom-colored eyeglasses. Tara’s optometrist was wearing these glasses during an examination, and Tara requested the same frames for her new glasses. Her doctor, who went on to play guitar for Tara for 14 years, said only jazz musicians can wear these glasses. Knowing she could carry a tune and had a good voice from singing Irish trad at family gatherings and singing along to the Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline records her Irish mother played, Tara said she was a jazz singer. When her doctor asked her to sing some Billie Holiday, however, she responded, “Who’s he?”

Her optometrist directed her to a weekly jazz jam session. Each week the musicians would send her home with a new assignment: learn a song by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, etc. After a year of faithful attendance and hard work studying songs, Tara earned the glasses. But by then, it wasn’t about the glasses anymore, of course. Tara had fallen in love with jazz singing. Compared to the Irish folk songs and rock n’ roll she had been singing before, she felt jazz was more relatable and allowed for more expression of herself.

On July 9th I caught Tara’s set at the Refinery Hotel in New York City and had the opportunity to chat with her a bit about her music, life, and band. Guitarist Michael Howell and bassist Dave Hofstra filled out her band at the Refinery. Both players bring very impressive bios, with Michael having toured for years with Dizzy Gillespie and Dave, as one of the most in-demand bassists in New York, having worked with everyone from John Zorn to Marshall Crenshaw. Dave anchored the band playing basslines that clearly kept the form and changes while bringing enough variety to his playing to keep the pieces engaging and interesting. Michael comped expertly, alternating steady quarter notes in the style of Freddie Green with short bluesy breaks responding to Tara’s melodies. And when he soloed, his playful inventiveness shone. He played some stellar bebop melodies and beautiful block chord passages. Always enjoying himself immensely, he included little jokes that made the band laugh, for example, quoting “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” during “Stormy Weather,” and Woody the Woodpecker’s laugh in “L.O.V.E.”

But Tara’s stunning voice was the star of the show, channeling all the jazz greats. At one moment she’ll sound like Billie Holiday, the next, Nina Simone. She attributes this in part to the fact that not being able to read music, she learned all these songs from recordings. Therefore, when a certain phrase from a particular singer’s rendition of song moves her, she’ll incorporate that into her own sound. Her setlist included not only old jazz standards, but also some songs made famous by Elvis and Sam Cooke (including “That’s Alright, Mama” and “You Send Me”), traditional Irish tunes (like “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and “Nora”), and her own originals, all sung and swung with Tara’s signature smoky, sultry sound.

The arrangements of two traditional Irish songs mentioned above come from Tara’s first album, Black Irish, which is made up completely of traditional Irish songs, which Tara arranged almost entirely on the subway riding to and from work. She puts a brand new spin on these classic tunes, singing them in a swinging jazz/blues style. Many of the originals she sang on Tuesday came from her second album, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait, which she began only two months after the release of Black Irish at the encouragement of some Nashville producers who really enjoyed the first album. Instead of doing more traditionals, this album is made up entirely of songs Tara wrote or co-wrote. Hearing these songs, the listener can tell that Tara is not a strict jazz purist, embracing folk, rock, and pop influences, too. I asked Tara about her composing process, and she said she tries a variety of techniques. Sometimes a melody will come to her first, and other times, she’ll focus on a theme she wants to write about, getting some words and phrases first. Even now, she often gets her best ideas on the subway. The bridge to the title track of Good Things Come to Those Who Wait popped into her head one morning on the way to work, and not wanting to lose it, she was unable to speak to anyone until she got into her office where she could record it.

Her third and most recent album, A Celt at the Cotton Club, combines these worlds into a bluesy, jazzy, folksy album that flirts a bit with country at times, featuring both traditional Irish tunes and originals. A favorite of mine is her bossa nova take on the traditional “Black Is the Color,” which she also played on the 9th. The album version is particularly notable for an electrifying solo by saxophonist Michael Hashim.

A Celt at the Cotton Club album cover Photo by Richard Velasco

A Celt at the Cotton Club album cover
Photo by Richard Velasco

But music isn’t the only creative outlet Tara is pursuing currently. She has also just completed a memoir, chronicling a 2011 road trip she took to reconnect with a grandmother she never met. In 1957, her father’s mother set out from the south Bronx for Seattle in a Chevy Bel Air to see the wild American west. When Tara approached Chevy with this story, for their hundredth anniversary, they sponsored her trip. From New York, to the site of Granny’s first milkshake in Idaho, to a mining hotel in Butte, MT and back, Tara followed her grandmother’s route, and Granny’s spirit followed Tara. It’s a beautiful story, to be published as Transatlantic Butterflies and the November Moon. Keep an eye out for it.

Check out Tara’s website for more information: http://www.taraogradymusic.com/.

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