Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A dream album from Peter Sprague and Leonard Patton

Dream Walkin--Peter Sprague and Leonard Patton

peter sprague_leonard pattonGuitarist Peter Sprague is a musician I’ve been listening to since my undergraduate days at UCSD. Sprague caught my ear because, though a young man, he found his inspiration in the old school jazz and his playing revealed the influence of fine, older guitarists like Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd, and Kenny Burrell. Sprague (who will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award this month by the San Diego Music Foundation) is his own person on the guitar, being a fleet fingered, vibrant stylist. This was a time when much of what was called jazz was, in fact, directionless riffing over static rhythms. Peter Sprague’s music, to cite a classic line, was the sound of surprise.

Dream Walkin’, his most recent release with vocalist and percussionist Leonard Patton, brings an intriguing variety of influences .A revelation is just how fine a vocalist Leonard Patton is. He has a rich voice, soulful with clear sense of dynamics. A jazzed-up take on the Beatles pop hit “Can’t Find Me Love” showcases him charging the lyrics with a trumpet player’s spirit, popping at the high notes and revealing a wonderful singing unison lines with Sprague’s agile chord work. Patton, as well, is an adept and responsive percussionist, preferring a minimal set up, in perfect sync with Sprague through the gorgeously modulated melodies and keenly swift improvisations.

The album has a diverse selection of songs that might suggest that the album would become too diffuse and seem likewise directionless in intent, but Sprague and Patton achieve a tight yet flexible sound, allowing music to flow without harsh contrasts. Sprague performs a heart breaking version of the classic “Shenandoah,” his guitar, reverberating and chiming on the aching build of tension and release, and Patton follows with a chorus that makes the song ache even more with the longing for missed people, places, and things. This segues, unexpectedly, with a galloping version of James Taylor’s song “Your Smiling Face,” the perfect resolution to the yearning of the song before it. Patton’s voice perks up, Sprague’s guitar picks up the tempo, and what seemed like a sad moment of reflection becomes joyful.

Dream Walkin’ is joyful in total. The arrangements are tight but not constricted, loose in the sense of musicians who know the structure, the subtle tones, and the unexpected detours of song and are able to anticipate each other’s next move. Also remarkable is the full sound the two create; one admires Sprague not just for his speed and technique, but also for the dexterity of his finger picking and the finesse he allows when he uses a pick. And you come to appreciate, with each listen, the sure, discreet work Patton brings to the percussion tasks.

(Originally published in the San Diego Troubadour, reprinted with kind permission.)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Over sold

(Barry Alfonso, a scholar, writer and a cultural critic of uncommon depth and equipoise, is a friend with whom I've having an ongoing conversation about many interests we have in common, Bob Dylan among them. I have been skeptical of Dylan's work since John Wesely Harding, and Barry has been an impressive defender. But with all things Dylan achieving critical mass , even Barry had to slam on the brakes. The dust mote that tipped the scale was an inanely praising review of Dylan's pricey retrospective, The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966 that appeared on the increasingly tone deaf news site The Daily Beast.  We had a brief exchange over what appears the relentless pouring over of Dylan's great period of work. We  both agreed, it seems, that it's gotten thick and mindlessly redundant. -tb)
Barry Alfonso:Ted, one of our first literary set-to's was over the value of Bob Dylan's work. I defended Bob -- as I continue to do for the most part, with reservations -- while you made him into a most delicious chew-toy. However, this constant regurgitation of Dylan's golden years is getting pretty boring, leading even the most dedicated fan to scream ENOUGH and go put on some Ken Nordine albums
Ted Burke:Most of our departures on Dylan's work, I think, was bout Dylan's post-John Wesley Harding album to the present day. I don't dismiss it entirely, but as a collection that accounts for his middle and late career, it is spotty at best. His is the problem of Having the compulsion to produce even when his muse isn't having lunch with him. But, yes, enough of exhuming of the glory days . As is, Dylan's work from that period is over examined and, I think, the tragic recipient of something that has cluttered and clouded appreciation of Shakespeare's plays, namely "Bardolotry", a near deification of the playwright. The writing that comes out of that is a slog. Writing about Dylan for most of the mainstream arts press, on line and print, has become a hagiographic exercise. The problem with the worshipful approach is that it obscures the real instances of brilliance in the work.

Barry Alfonso:I think some of that hagiography comes out of a fascination with Dylan as the embodiment of arrogant visionary youth circa 1965-67. His work after this period seems to exert less fascination. It also speaks to the lack of a commanding voice in popular music over the past 50 years. There's some combing and re-combing through the Costello catalog these days, but still there is no stopping the endless parsing of Dylan's prime era. His burst of brilliance speaks to the lack of similar bardic vision today.

Ted Burke:Umberto Eco, the novelist, has written that there are limits to how texts, in this case songs, can be interpreted and made to seem to have yield previously undisclosed meanings and nuance. He insists that there really does come a point where interpretations only repeat themselves if we wish to stay with what is actually in the material; beyond that,it is a matter of academics and pop music critics trying to stay in business. Dylan, not to diminish the greatness of his best work, has been over discussed , inspected, and extrapolated upon where the actual man who wrote the songs no longer exists and the songs becomes mere props to brace up the flimsy theorizing that dims the worth of the music. I am not sure if I would say that there haven't been other songwriters in Dylan's time or in more recent years who haven't had visions, bardic and otherwise, comparable to Dylan's; Van Morrison, Costello, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, off the top of my head, have written and recorded work over the decades that has moments of major greatness that is , I think , no less than Dyan's .

Dylan is the case of being the first one out of the gate, the mood of the times and the songwriter's desire to excel as no else had creating a synergy that changed the way the rent gets paid. I almost think it was merely a happy accident that it was Dylan who became the poet, the spokesman, the prophet, all that rot; if it hadn't been Dylan, another musician would have filled the need.Or maybe not. Phil Ochs, who I think is Dylan's equal as a "rock poet" , certainly had the talent but not, from what I've read about him, the temperament to get to the top and remain there. Dylan understood the complications of persona. In any event, it maybe a case of that if Dylan had not existed, the times would have created him, or someone like him. Contrarily, there is the Great Man Theory of history that puts forth that events of historical consequence are the result of the impact "Great Men" have on the destinies of the countries they rule . In this instance, if Dylan hadn't been born, we might still be wearing side burns and be listening to Como and Clooney through cheap car radio speakers.

Barry Alfonso:Yes and yes. Dylan did a lot of things first. And he changed. He rebelled against the rebels. Phil Ochs was an eloquent advocate and a poignant chronicler of his own disintegration. But he lacked that cruel streak, that arrogance that people seem to gravitate towards. The Great Man theory in history is pernicious and leads to the sort of blood and thunder hero-worship Carlyle and Wagner engaged in. But there is some truth to it and, yes, Dylan may have saved us from unchallenged Comoism.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The best of what remains is what it meant all along

 I had the fortune of being a music writer for the San Diego Reader in the mid-seventies , a time when I was lucky enough to meet  a good many musicians I admired greatly. It was also a period when I was teaching myself how to write. Among the best pieces they published by me was an interview with bassist/vocalist/songwriter Bob Mosley, best know for his work with Moby Grape, a short-lived critical favorite at the height of the San Francisco rock scene of the Sixites.  Critic and pop music historian John D'Agostino had given me a contact phone for Mosley back then, and with a couple of calls to the musician, we arranged for a interview. The Reader piece , if you're interested, can be read here. 

The question, I suppose, is does the fallibility of our music heroes lessen the quality and worth of the words and music they made. It's tempting to think so, it's convenient to take the causal short cut as to why innovations and styles of the sixties began to go stale, go wrong and in general lose any useful edge they might of had on the artists themselves. False prophets, fakes, liars,  they fucked it all up for the rest of us. Nothing of the sort, I would say. No musician ever conspired to harsh my mellow during that supremely self-regarding decade.

 Suitably enough, D.H.Lawrence wrote in his 1923 book Studies in Classic American Literature that we should "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it". In this case, what matters is how resilient the work is , resistent to fad, fashion, moral outrage and critical dismissals . And, we should add, reader disappointment in author's character. It is the work itself, viewed as works of art and subject to criteria that is quite apart from a moral compass (the artist obeying his muse, not his indoctrination) , which needs to be considered wholly. It is the work, studied for structure, theme, conflicts, resolutions, and philosophical underpinnings , all independent of a creator's success or failure as a full actualized human being, that we must regard solely. 
It is only then that we can draw legitimate pleasure, insight, illumination, catharsis. My current favorite critic, Harold Bloom, has a view coinciding with Lawrence's view that it is the work that only , finished volumes with their beginnings, middles and conclusions, that we can trust, free of the expectations that the author is someone to personally regard as a role model. Literature's sole value, he says, is to help us,the readers, think about ourselves in a world that contains millions of other citizens who , as well, have their own sense of personal narrative. 
For Mosley and Moby Grape, they are victims of the times, with easy access to sex, drugs, a wide spread contempt for conventional morality and the institutions that enforce them, and they fell apart at their prime; just at the precise moment when they seemed poised to truly dominate the underground rock scene and perhaps far beyond that, drugs and insanity laid them low. Much the same is true of Electric Flag, Blind Faith, Cream, the original Butterfield Blues Band. Ego, drugs, and the intervention of a reality that didn't quite curve with the zeitgeist , brought these bands to an end and ,as a consequence, began the spin that personalities , not talent, was responsible for the music we loved and took to be harbinger of a historical dialectic in process. 
A collective depression fell over the audience, musical innovation became stale formulations, radio became rigidly formatted yet again, underground newspapers folded, we suddenly noticed a lot of our friends dying on the vine or going crazy . So what remains? Some good music, things we can still listen to five or so decades later and not be embarrassed by the passe add ons of bad poetry, fad, fashion, and so on. Bob Mosley wasn't a saint, not a poet, not a philosopher, not a visionary, and neither was anyone else in Moby Grape and certainly not any other rock musician who rose to prominence in the Sixties. They were musicians and their genius, or the radiations of talent ranging from mediocre to good to genuine excellence, lay in their skills as instrumentalists, singers, songwriters. When the embarrassment fades, the pontifications abate, the audience resentment at their heroes letting them down as heroes, it is the music, the actual work that was done, that will be judged. Mosley, in my quirky estimation, had a hand in writing and performing a handful of truly great songs from a band that, however great they happened to be for a period of time, could not keep their collective muse engaged. They couldn't hold it together. They drifted apart, re-grouped in different formations in series of "reunions", and never approached anything like the best , most sublime moments of their first two records.
This is assuming that a listener from back in the day survives the trauma of getting older and finding that the cosmological suit they were wearing no longer fits, that one has merged well into the the territory called adulthood and developed an interest in other things--books, politics, ongoing education, new and different kinds of music and other arts--and can be amused by their presumptive , youthful arrogance and find among their old vinyl records those solid pieces of work,those great songs that remain rivetting today, that something good did come out of the Sixties, something was indeed added to our lives that made it better.