Wednesday, November 16, 2016

MOSE ALLISON, RIP

A great musician has passed. Allison's was a name that flew below the radar when one started counting influential singer/songwriters. It's in retrospect that you realize his style , his originality in an African American art form, were the epicenter of whatever legitimate Caucasian version of "cool" might have developed during his prime period. He didn't attempt to sound or act black in music or manner, and he didn't hide from his white, Southern background. His singing remains a godsend in an area of blues, the sort played by well intentioned white players , who mostly sounding like rude noises from an garbled idea of American culture. Allison's voice was cool, reserved, talk-sung with the barest hint of blues inflection; where others got loud and raspy when the emotions poured down thickly, Allison remained calm, his voice hanging as far to the edge of musical phrase while still remaining , in some way, on , before or just after the beat. This was he subtle insinuation of skepticism, reserve, of keeping a center amid the chaos of events and conflicts and contradictions around him. Part Southern Gentleman and part Sonny Boy Williams, it was a style of singing that was clear and articulate but still made you think that was the voice of a man heavily marked by experience. Like wise his lyrics, which were cool, ironic, sardonic, spare but full of implication. I don't there have been many other songwriters who displayed as much wit with so much rhyming brevity. He was, of course, a unique pianist, cross referencing classical and hard bop with a seamless elegance and energy.

Friday, November 11, 2016

LEONARD COHEN, RIP: the best rock poet

Bob Dylan is, in essence, and in fact, a song lyricist who has a particularly strong gift for the poetic effect, while Cohen is a poet in the most coherent sense; he had published several volumes of poetry and published two novels prior to his taking up the guitar. Dylan's style is definitely the definition of the postmodern jam session, a splendid mash-up of Little Richard, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and a long line of obscure or anonymous folk singers whose music he heard and absorbed. His lyrics, however arcane and tempered with Surreal and Symbolist trappings--although the trappings, in themselves, were frequently artful and inspired--he labored to the pulse of the chord progression, the tight couplets, the strict obedience to a rock and roll beat. This is the particular reason he is so much more quotable than Cohen has turned out to be; the songwriter's instinct is to get your attention and keep it and to have you humming the refrain and singing the chorus as you walk away from the music player to attend to another task.

 Chances are that you are likely to continue humming along with the music while you work, on your break, on the drive home, for the remains of the day. This is not to insist that Cohen is not quotable or of equal worth--I am in agreement that Cohen, in general, is the superior writer to Dylan, and is more expert at presenting a persona that is believably engaged with the heartaches, pains and dread-festooned pleasures his songs take place. His lyrics are more measured, balanced, and less exclamatory and time wasting, and exhibit a superior sense of irony. Cohen is the literary figure, the genuine article, which comes to songwriting with both his limitations and his considerable gifts. All is to say that Dylan has Tin Pan Alley throwing a large shadow over his work. Cohen, in turn, is next to a very large bottle of ink and a quill. Cohen tends the words he uses more than Dylan does; his language is strange and abstruse at times, but beyond the oddity of the existences he sets upon his canvas there exist an element that is persuasive, alluring, masterfully wrought with a writing, from the page alone, that blends all the attendant aspects of Cohen’s stressed worldliness– sexuality, religious ecstasy, the burden of his whiteness– into a whole , subtly argued, minutely detailed, expertly layered with just so many fine, exacting touches of language.


His songs, which I find the finest of the late 20th century in English–only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell and Paul Simon, have comparable bodies of work–we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase that’s applied to his themes, his storylines. In many writers overall. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty ways I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he’s a better years about the quality of work he’s released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen’s songbook that wasn’t less than considered, pondered over, measured for effect and the achievement of the cultivated ambiguity that made you yearn for some of the sweet agony that accompanies a permanent residence in the half-lit zone between the sacred and the profane. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

DULLED TULL

Image result for ian andersonJethro Tull was a band of superb musicians who played music that was decidedly more work than pleasure to bear with. There's no denying that leader and chief composer Ian Anderson could cook up artful and impressive ensemble pyrotechnics for this or any number of the other versions of Jethro Tull to blaze through, but the leader's ideas were limited and one-note throughout the band's peak and into their decline. English folk traditions wedded with baroque fussiness, wheezy flute solos over craggy hard rock interludes, much of it seasoned with the admittedly agreeable sweet and sour fills and riffing from longtime guitarist Martin Barre. Skill and discipline aside, though, the plentiful progressive/art rock elements of JT's music was directionless, a trait that worsened as soon as Anderson responded to the grandiosity of Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer by going for the long format of single-song projects such as Thick as a Brick and Passion Play

Bits and pieces create sparks and actually ignite on both discs, but soon enough you're in a maze of a tricky time- signatures and agitated changes that are less inspiring and moving thematically. It was at this point in their career that Tull became a cure for insomnia. I'm the first to admit that Jethro Tull had "pretty parts", but I would reserve that classification for those musical moments where a shining bit of ensemble work actually clicked and highlighted a fine band raging happily along with some problematic time signatures. In that vein,

I rather like the Martin Barre - composed introduction to "Minstrel in the Gallery", a tour de force of quirky transitions and sculpted dissonance that rises to actual art. Compression and brevity are the keys to those instances when JT catches my attention, but as often as not Anderson refuses to move from his signature amalgam of styles he likes and provides then is needed, or even effective, in the then-mistaken belief that length of composition and promiscuously convolutions of theme equals serious art. I was always one who preferred their progressive rock not to drag along the road. Lyrically, principle songwriter Ian Anderson is not so stunning; he had an effective light touch with imagery in the early work like "Living in the Past" or the particularly riveting tune "Nothing to Say"; 'though perhaps guised in a fictional persona, Anderson, all the same, connects with a convincing humanity as matters of being alive without certainty are sussed through impressionistically and, yes, concisely, closer to true poetry . The man had a knack, in the day, of getting to the point and getting you to think about things other than material gain. That wordsmithing, I think, has been far less in evidence since their career took off, from 'Aqualung" onward.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

3 CASUAL RANTS


1.

Norman Mailer fancied himself  to be many things, some of them he mastered grandly and other roles not so grandly, embarrassing in truth. He was not just a public crackpot along the lines  of Russell Kirk, Dwight McDonald or Lionel Trilling, he was the Public Crackpot. His theories, emboldened by his fame and reputation for being edgy, if not actually on the edge, lead him to opine, pontificate, huff and puff theories that would make a white man weep and all others laugh. So why have I stuck by someone who's had a career of nearly dedicating equal amounts of energy between his worst habits as his best virtues? Well, no matter the idea he put forward, Mailer was never dull, and I rather liked the way he could take over a conversation and require the fussy right wing and left wing gadflies pull  up their pants and stretch their well-heeled dogmas in defense of their concepts of society, history and reality should work . Mailer was a born usurper, in Gore Vidal's words. The key thing to remember is that Mailer is a literary artist above all else that did, and since making words express those notions and impulses that don’t have coherent expression is what Mailer happened to excel at in his most inspired writing. It’s fair enough to loved language enough to abuse it in order interest to get his oft-script impressions across. But this is not a case where Mailer’s appropriation of the selected terms can be dimly understood by those reading him , a lot or just a little; he took pains throughout his books to make clear what he meant by his use of the terms cancer, hip, existential and totalitarian.

 Mailer , of course, had odd ideas as to the cause and spread of disease and , in to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oats, was dangerous with some of his opinions because he expressed them so well, but I’d venture that “cancer” in particular was a metaphor he applied liberally to a social condition that set in on the collective spirit in of America during the Post War period. Strictly speaking, there’s something crackpot in how long he held on the Reichean notion that bad faith causes the cells to go berserk, but I think, for Mailer, it was a rather good spring board to his fabulous metaphorical flights; the absurd notion that too much comfort and lack of risk taking increases our chances of become cancer ridden is fairly much forgotten as those bits of fevered lyricism take over your attention and manage to do what a great poem ought to, engage at the level of the line where it reveals the substance that’s under the assumption of accord our daily routines by and to realize that much of what we assume is fixed is subterfuge , socially constructed restrictions embedded in culture, institutions and even the language we use to critique our assumptions. This leads us to his use of the word “existential”, which , while lacking the systemic critique of the philosophical idealism that preceded its rise in a Europe ravaged by world wars, revolutions, and genocide , all the same coheres nicely with the notion that existence has no “meaning” independent of what one brings to their life span in terms of deeds performed in good faith, actions for which the active agent, the Hemingway hero, the Sartrean doubter, takes responsibility for. It’s a personalized brand of existentialism, and Mailer offers his adjustment to the term a number of times through his books.


2.

You have to stop sometimes so you can appreciate what the senses have given you as you go your way through the world . You have to stop in order to write about the need to pursue the seductive logic of never stopping . But you have to stop before you go forward, as the brain absorbs only so much ; you stop , you breathe, you think, you connect what has happened recently with the narrative of a life already recorded. This engages you with the world, truly, this is where the poetry comes from, not gushing hot lava adjectives and verbs while writing that the world is made more real by moving forward, with out apology, without pause or reflection, following the string where ever it leads. But this is not poetry and it is not lyricism. The writer in those times they stop agitating the gravel and take pause to reflect, meditate, consider the thingness of the world they’ve blazed through a little too quickly, there arises the sense that one forgets that they are a writer, the self-appointed priest of making things happen on the fly; the writing becomes about the world , the people, the places, the things that occupy the same space as you, the same patch of land your visiting. It becomes less about the writer, the seeker of knowledge attempting to gain knowledge through velocity , the impatient explorer more concerned with inflaming their senses rather than being genuinely curious about and teachable within the world. You have to stop , take a breath, create a language, a poetry, a prose style that convinces the reader that they’ve actually encountered something extraordinary in their travels through hill and dale, river and inlet, village and burg, that they’ve actually learned something they didn’t know before. Otherwise , I believe, nothing is revealed because nothing was learned and, despite all manner of ranting and such protests defending one’s unique view, that view is forgotten and another opportunity is lost to move a reader in ways you might not have expected.

3.
Self acceptance is one thing, but it seems to me that changing oneself is required in order to maintain a level of sanity that can return you sanity after the batterings, high and low and in-between, human existence brings us. We cannot remain stubbornly the same as a means of spiting those who attempt to add us to their particularized set of neurosis; learning how to change is an essential skill. Perhaps “change” is the wrong word, as its been co-opted and poisoned by every fad pop-psychology has heaped upon our mass-mediated culture. More appropriate, more useful, perhaps, would be “grow”. Screw trying to change yourself into a internet meme, our tasks is to remain teachable and to grow into new experience, to learn, to become wiser and more full of the love for the world as well as love for ourselves. Too many of us pay a sorry price for having an excess of one or the other. We can grow into ourselves into the world we find ourselves, as individuals, as citizens, as members of a community . I realize the phrase “To thine ownself be true” is a cliche that makes many cringe, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bad way to go. It’s a matter of how we do it. Besides gaining knowledge through experience, we should be able to gather wisdom as well. Or one would think.

Monday, October 17, 2016


This recording of a live French radio broadcast of Larry Coryell (guitar),Jack Bruce (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums) has been circulating for years. Bruce and Mitchell were no longer with their respective former bands Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience (though Mitchell  would rejoin JH not long after this date) and Larry Coryell, recently of the Gary Burton group, was an emerging jazz-rock pioneer who'd already released a number of albums under his own name. The audio quality is excruciatingly bad, with the muddiest sound and scratchiest ambience imaginable. The sub par fidelity may be fitting, though, or at least ironic, as the mega power trio here, winging through a selection of tunes like "Sunshine of Your Love" and such features the energy of skilled musicians jamming against the static of the spheres. 

This is closer in spirit and execution to the proto-grunge thrash of  1969's Emergency, the first album by the Tony  Williams Lifetime, an early fusing of fleet improvisatory  fury and rock's bludgeoning power. Before it became slick, polished and professional,  before it morphed into the slick and largely gutless form termed "fusion", jazz rock was dissonant, blaring, something of a battle of hard tones and contrasts as much influenced by Ornette Coleman and free-jazz advocates. These were the pains of something raw and beautiful   coming into being. Coryell, Bruce and Bruce get some of that on this recording, slipshod though the presentation maybe. 

This is of historical importance mostly, I suppose, since none of these musicians would have signed off on some thing this woefully recorded to be released to the public no matter how cheaply it might have been priced. If you're willing to bear with the barrage, chatter and distortion,  you'll have a sense of what might have been. Bruce and Mitchell criss cross rhythms in ways neither of them did in their previous bands; both had jazz back grounds and this shows a little  of what they might have done . Coryell is at his choppy best, a veritable geyser of  dive -bombing  riffs,quicksilver runs, thorny power chords and swaths of strategically placed feedback. He plays like a man liberated, a high tension combination of Sonny Sharrock and Albert King, with more than a little Joe Pass and Link Wray tossed in. This trudges, stumbles, energizes and rocks the box it came in. Again, the worst  recording you're likely to encounter, but worth a listen.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

DYLAN DID NOT DESERVE THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE

Why Bob Dylan shouldn’t have gotten the Nobel prize for literature.:

The good news is that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The bad news is that the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Bob Dylan. Good because it gives an American the prize after a long wait for one of our own writers to be acknowledged. Bad because I have a difficult time thinking of Dylan as a writer as we normally think of them--poet, novelist, essayist, playwright.Stephen Metcalf, writing in Slate, argues that Dylan, despite the conspicuous profundity of his innovations and the global, generation spanning reach of his influence, did not deserve the Prize because Dylan is not a man of literature, but a rather a songwriter, a lyricist, not a poet. I wrote long and agitated on topic in 2007, which you can read at length here .To summarize ,Dylan is a not a poet, but a songwriter who writes lyrics, an art now distinct from poetry which he has taken apart and reconfigured and put back together as no one else has done. Yes, I realize many will make the argument are connected in past ages, but that there has been a split between what's done in song and what is done on the page quite a while ago and Dylan , for all his revolutionizing, did not bring poets back from under the shadow of Whitman. What Dylan lacks a proper category and here, I think, the Nobel folks shoe horn him into a classification that is and will remain an awkward fit.

Bob Dylan is a very rich and very, very famous International Rock Star and his being given the highest literary award there is shows the Academy was more star struck in their decision than awestruck by his actual writing. One cannot diminish Dylan's achievement, but the innovations, breakthroughs and creations he is responsible for and which influenced nearly every songwriter since his arrival are a songwriter, a different art altogether. As has been mentioned by many others, his lyrics are not the poetry we read when there's a need to get beyond the clatter and commotion and investigate perceptions between the words. Poetry that makes music from the meaning and intimations created with the language, not the notes of a scale. Dylan's lyrics,  often resonant with his minimal melodies and dramatized by his nasal, reedy vocals, are merely flat when off the page, to oneself. As lines of poetry, they do not move, swerve, or undulate, they lack their own rhythm, they create no cadence. They are, though, effective, very effective, and moving in Dylan's best material. He is not TS Eliot, his is not Marianne Moore, he is not LeRoi Jones, he is not Walt Whitman, he is not John Ashbery, he is not Frank O'Hara, poets whose work are respective delights to read , sans music. That Dylan's genius is something to behold, but it is not literature. 

This is like a sports statistic with an asterisk after the name. It could be , a slap to our face, considering a Nobel Judge Horace Engdahl, famously remarked in 2008 that American writers are second rate compared with their European counterparts" The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really take part in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining." So rather than deal with our rich selection of poets, novelists, playwrights who are deserving , the award goes to Dylan. What this means is that given the time its taken the Nobel Committee to come around and present one of our own as worthy of being a Nobel Laureate, we are assured that Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth are forever out of the running.

Monday, October 10, 2016

drop the tantrums


What irritates about some poets in these times is their habit of bringing their predilection for the intangible from the art they practice into the political arena, where it becomes mere wishful thinking. Voting for Jill Stein is the equivilent of Peter Pan imploring the audience to pray to keep Tinker Bell's light alive and lit. Hewing to "principle" and voting for a third party candidate brings a deranged ego maniac to the White House. It's time to drop the tantrum and vote against the creeping disease that is Trump.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Chick Corea and Friends pay tribute to Bud Powell

I've been pretty much an unreserved Chick Corea fan since meeting him (as a listener) on the M.Davis Bitches Brew, where he tag-teamed with fellow keyboardist Joe Zawinul to give that masterpiece its funky, layered, modal fever dream grounding. Corea since revealed in his solo and collaborative efforts to be a peerless pianist, fluent, fast, inventive, unflagging , and one his generation's protean composers. It wasn't that,as a composer, he could merely switch styles with acceptable aptitude; his excursions into rock, classical ,pop and Avant Gard were full throttle, probing, finding more similarities than one might expect , and when there weren't elements so similar, relishing in the contractions and producing intriguing music all the same. 

I am not one to say, perhaps, but I would say that Corea's body of work as a jazz composer match up against the greatest the Canon has awarded us with. That said, it's a pleasure to listen to Corea's tribute to one of his central influences, both as composer and improviser, Bud Powell, with his "Remembering Bud Powell" release from 1997. As a pianist, Powell's fingers knew precisely how to be dynamic when and where it counted; as his tunes were melodic but hooky , full of sudden but smooth shifts in tempo and direction, BP seemed to extemporize the composition at will. Matters beheld are unfailingly evident by energy and the inventive required by Powell's nicely involved songs. Corea, in tribute, positively swings on this session; lithe , percussive, bright. His band--Wallace Roney on trumpet, Ray Haynes on drums, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride on bass, Joshua Redman on sax--take the opportunity to swing this batch of progressions and augmentations for all the marvelously flowing improvisations they can collectively muster.

This Corea Bud Powell collection is notable for, besides dense and cutting improvisations, is the quality of Powell’s' compositions. Corea resists the temptation to Latinize or fusio-nize the material and instead plays the charts straight--Powell’s' sense of harmonic build-up and resolution is loopy, easing from sweetness to tart dissonance. All of which is the canvas for some good blowing. Corea reins in his extravaganzas and weaves around with a now untypical sense of swing. The efforts of Garrett and Redman are a reed lover’s idea of heaven. Roney has a cool, crystalline tone, and his phrasing is meditative, reserved, nicely so, though one desires a Hubbardesque scorch at odd times. Haynes and McBride are champs .


Straight ahead jazz fans need to purchase this fine album and then treat themselves further by acquiring recordings of the florid and exhilarating Mr. Powell himself.

PROSE POEM FOR A PHOTOGRAPH OF A MAN WITH LUGGAGE UNDER A STREET LIGHT

If I had a cigarette , I would light it and take a big , fat drag, hold in the smoke while it seared by throat, and then release it in a lacy stream of ghostly grey under the street light that shone down on me like it were the white oval at the end of a big, heavy flash light. But there was no cigarette, no matches, not even a brand name nor a single to sing it to, nothing was left in the imagination's bank of notions. Rather, I wondered capriciously about the gleam of the moisture on the cement and asphalt that had just been rained on , the  play of the light against the train station wall, shadows and brightness achieving depth of tone and suggestion. Lights were burning in each window, traffic was absent save for the rolling kiss of tires on slicked streets. The city seemed like a doctored photo you'd seen on a souvenir store shelf alongside a hundred just like it, a glamorous skyline after dark, lights and blackness swallows the world whole and slumbers  with the glow  of other angels radiating all the glow and glare coming with the first fingers of morning clamour and commotion.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

STONES DO BEATLES: nothing comes together

We've spent so many years marveling at the Rolling Stones for their tenacity, grit and commitment t to stay lean and rangy the upper reaches of their career that it becomes easy to overlook the pesky fact that age does take a toll. The matchup of the Beatles' "Come Together", a bluesy, curt, surreal two-chord swamp-rocker and the Stones is theoretically delightful, but from the evidence suggests it might have been done better years ago, say, around the time of "Some Girls", "Black and Blue" or "Undercover". The boys still had some strut in their stuff at the time.The Stones still had an edge then, and their scattershot guitar texturing of Keith Richards Ron Wood had the likely chance of making this John Lennon tune truly their own, a chunky groan from the drain pipes accompanied by brood guitar chords and one bitch of a bass line. That's fantasy, however, and what this video reveals is something less than a rehearsal of a song. This is a pointless cover,, as it is more stumble than strut, more bellow than boast, more idling than rock. And time has taken a toll on Jagger's voice. Never a great vocalist on stage, he is diminished further by age to being hoarse and nasal. Jagger's gift was the ability to sneer, lisp, grunt, growl, insinuate, mewl, bark, and bray in a manner that was appropriate to the extraordinary songbook he and Richards wrote over six decades; never a great singer, but always a great actor, a vocalist who could dramatize a lyric effectively. Not this time.

Friday, October 7, 2016

SORCERER -- magic from Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams,Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock


Image result for sorcerer miles davis
Sorcerer --Miles Davis (Sony)
Sorcerer, the 1967 album from Miles Davis, has been in my CD player the last couple of days and, to pun badly, I've been more than a little entranced by how amazingly well these improvisers,all of whom are distinct and potentially dominating in ensemble efforts, work so cohesively as a group.There's a perfect kind of modal combustion here, with Miles Davis contrasting his spare and fairly angular sense of improvisation with the formidable resourcefulness of this album's principal  ensemble, Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (double bass) and Tony Williams (drums). The music is a unusual  combination of  the unforced and the aggressive, resisting the temptation to either go slack in their pace or stray toward the harsh vicissitudes of anguished, strident experimentation,  a pulsing course of off-accented rhythms, musical swaths of varying tones and colors, and ingenious interlacing between primary soloist Davis, Shorter and Hancock. Ensemble exploration at its peak, it seems, as the three of them actively listen to and anticipate each other's ideas during the respective solo spots. This is what the great Davis groups did, find unexamined nuance and moods in the musical tones. 

 Davis and Shorter in particular offer up a few exquisite moments of dialogue as they answer, query, interrogate and respond to musical propositions put forth by the other. As great as the previous occupant in the saxophone chair had been, the redoubtable and effusively  brilliant John Coltrane, Shorter was a better fit for Davis' ideas for the ensemble at the time,  1967, when this disc was recorded His solos are less galvanic than Coltrane's were, more composed, filled with lithe and delicate phrases , wonderfully respondant to the rhythms and pulse Williams and Carter provided and the full range of ideas underscores and textures the sound with.Davis is at his best, lyrical, on the edge of atonal, bracing when needed, the tone of his notes isolated and longing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Collins in the Wall Street Journal

billycollins161.jpg

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins,in a recent chat with a Wall Street Journal reporter, talked about "banging his head" against the likes of Joyce, Pound and their attendant difficulties and his eventual decision to align himself with poets like Philip Larkin and Robert Frost and "poets, who dare to be clear." Superb models to use if you're aspiring to write in contiguous sentences unmarred by needless line breaks. 

Poetry readers should be grateful that Collins found his voice in the place where the conversations are actually happening, in the world and not the rheumy chambers of a book-addled soul. Difficult poetry that is actually good is difficult to write, and there are only a few among the millions who do so who actually deserve attention,praise, and continued discussion. At this stage,it becomes increasingly the case that there are far too many poets in the world who are trying to out- perform Stevens, Eliot, Stein, Olson in pushing the limits of poetry; the last group I paid attention to who managed difficulty that intrigued, provoked and which stopped making sense in a variety of works that made younger poets like myself examine the tropes I was using and attempt, with some success, to put it back together again, perception and images in newer works that come  out  just a little more out of the long shadow of previous and still present genius. 



So thank you LeRoi Jones, Ron Silliman, Rae  Armantrout, Paul Dresman, Bob Dylan and a few dozen others read in fifty years of reading for helping me , no, forcing me beyond my self-entombing idea of genius and moving me closer to the public square. No longer a younger poet stumbling in his attempts to master what seemed to be fashion at hand, I'm  old enough to accept the less stringent view that the only criteria for judging a poem's style, format, complexity and other such matters is in how well it works  on the reader who is reading it? Difficult or clear as glass, does the poem make a music one wants to understand? 

Billy Collins, of course, has his own amazingly effective style of clear poetry, and it's a marvel  to read how he begins with a scene,a situation performing what is often a banal house- hold task--listening to jazz, paying bills, a drive in the country, a bit of coffee in the city--and then a reverie of a sort,a memory triggered by some inane object , a recollection often seasoned with a light application of Literary Reference, just enough to expand the notion or expose a contradiction in his own assumption (the insight often being a dead sage's warning or mere reflection about matters of pride and exaggerated expectations)And  then there's a seamless transition to the scene from where he began his writing, the material world unchanged but, for the rumination that we've just read, is not the same as it was.His genius and  flaw are  the same heightened talent, his ability to produce these compact missives of everyday wonderment continuously.That's not to denigrate his skill at writing them, as the economy of his language, the resourcefulness of his imagination to find new twists and inlets within the limits of his style, and the genuinely  resonating effect of his phrase-making mark a writer who works his pieces; he is a professional, aware of his audience, aware of his materials, an artist who refuses  to let any of his ideas get muddied by the pretense   of deeper intimations.William Carlos Williams had the view that the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. Whatever one seeks to describe in the world one sees is already complex . Collins, more so than Williams, explores connections , fleeting though they are , of the things around to the world his imagination creates a frame for when he departs from home. His strategies, of course, are more varied than what I've described, but this is a recipe he uses as often as not, a template he can expand, revise, contract at will,  a habit he does splendidly. This makes him a good artist, a good craftsman, but it is also something that makes me want to call him a writer rather a poet.

He is , I think, the equivalent of the old school local newspaper columnist who would, twice or thrice a week, write 700 words or so about something in the news, in his life, whatever comes to mind, who would end his reflection that effectively left the reader reassured and just a little confused as to the purpose of that day's topic. The secret, though, was less to give meaning to the community one recognizes, but rather create the sense of texture. Columnist and poet Collins have skills that remind of things that you cannot quite put a finger on--something is lost, something     is joyful, something is sad or funny, but how, why , what is it?

I might mention as well that Collins' work seems to be a sequence of experiences that are uninterrupted by work situations.Others can, I imagine, provide me with poems of his where work is an element, a strong one, perhaps even the subject of the poem, but it occurs to me that Collins , at least in many of his poems, is a flaneur, a walker in the city, a watcher, the character who observes, records, relates the isolated bits of daily experience, testing the limits of his ideas, constantly re-acquainting himself with his own fallibility. Please don't mistake that for a bad thing. It's nice work if you can get it.



Friday, September 30, 2016

Stax of wax and wane

Well, creating a timeline concerning the rise and wane of Dylan's considerable talent is easy, but the criticism of his work is a more subtle enterprise. That is the actual analysis, inspection, parsing, interpretation, theorizing of the music and words themselves, and the taking into consideration the external factors --politics, fashion, religious conversions, divorces, age--that inform the creation of the music. Criticism is the x-ray we use to get inside the work and attempt to come up with adequate terms and descriptions as to how Dylan's material works and , perhaps, why it stands out among the throng of other singer-songwriters who hadn't near Dylan's resourcefulness.

Criticism, distinct from the consumer-guide emphasis with reviewing, is an ongoing discussion that seeks less to pass judgement than it does to comprehend large subjects thoroughly by interrogating one aspect of the work at a time. It is, of course, something like a make-work project as well, a means that some of us use to escape the terrifying silence that falls behind all of us at one point or another, that emptiness of space that sends a shudder down your spine when it seems even your thoughts are too loud and echoing off the rafters. Many writers keep writing, turning from mere expression into pure process, and it is with a good many worthy writers where we can look and see where their particular timelines became crowded with product that vacillates crazily between good , bad and awful, rarely matching what critical consensus considered their best material from their best period.


Edward Dorn is said that almost any good poet has written all their best work by the time they reach age 35, with the general output after that time becoming less daunting,daring, spry. Dylan is like this, I suppose, as is Woody Allen, John Ashbery , John Upidke, and Elvis Costello. I'd always thought that it was a hedge against death, that as the hair and teeth fall out , the arthritis escalates its assault on the joints and the memory takes on the consistency of swiss cheese, the writing, one poem after another, one novel after another, one movie, one song, one opera after another, the work somehow forestalls the inevitable darkness that awaits everyone. And criticism comes in again during these late period efforts of less notable content and turns itself into apologetics, where one theorizes about the proverbial canvas and kinds being changed, the brush strokes being bolder and less intricate as established ideas are played through yet again. It seems we're stuck with this crazy cycle ; even critics, great ones and mere carpetbaaggers, want to deny death in some sense and also avoid the idea altogether that they've nothing left to say about another man's words.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

the kids took over the city dump


In revelations still dawning, that hindsight suggests that if  the Sex Pistols had never come to being, someone would have been compelled to invent them. In fact,  someone did, Malcolm McLaren, an experimental fashion designer who felt that the music current at that time in the 70s--lots of Led Zeppelin, Eagles ,Journey and the Who being replayed beyond death and into the spinning rings of limbo--wasn't a suitable backdrop for what he wanted, a style, attitude , manner, a way of thinking relevant to the current wave of alienated youth. The 60s utopianism was a bad joke at this point, a snicker and a fluid snort of disgust at the mention, and the 70s up   til then amounted to nothing much of interest happening in music or radio. 


 The pretentiousness of the musicians and the gullibility of the audience had choked off the life force that made rock and roll exciting and worth caring about. Some of it might be laid at the feet of rock criticisms since the advanced discussions of Dylan's relationship to Chuck Berry's everyman existentialist demanded a musical technique and lyrical concept just as daunting. This is the danger when folk art is discovered: it stands to become something distorted, disfigured and bereft of vitality. I was lucky , I guess, in that I was a fan of the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges long before the Sex Pistols caught the punk wave. They and bands like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath were a grounding principle--rock and roll are beautiful because it's energetic, awkward, and stupid, but profoundly so. There are "concept albums" I admire and still like, if not listen to, but I won't name them here. 

I am pleased, though, that the idea of the Album being a literary object has been dropped in a deep grave and had dirt thrown over it's bloviated remains.I miss albums, though. I like holding them, reading them, mediating on their physicality while listening to the record. It was part of the experience of absorbing what the musicians were doing, instrumentally and lyrically. Albums made you think that their size and shape were part of the home you made for yourself--house, room, cave, apartment--and that the collection of them, along with books and other such things marked your growing interest in the world around you. Now it seems like disembodied noise too much of the time piped into devices, not really played nor considered before the music commences. It seems much of the time like a streaming hurry to get done with the whole thing and then move onto another distraction which , as well, will provide no real reward.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A fine saxophone blows this this

Image result for jc on the set james carter
JC on the Set--James Carter
Carter has a fat, honking sound on all the saxophones he uses, and this a good thing. He phrases wonderfully, and there is sass and a fast-quipping edge here, particularly in the galvanizing solo he takes on Ellington's "Caravan"; honks, blorts, grunts and street-crossing jabber make you think of a flurry of voices all singing into the same microphone. Ellington had made a name for arrangements that suggested "jungle sounds" ( so-called by critics who at the time still couched their praise in racist vernacular) , Carter keeps his notes crisp, sharp as pressed pleat or a knife's edge, nuance and edges of melodic creation and destruction timed with the lights of the Big City, a blues full of the funk of the city. Funk Carter has, as in the fatback workout of the title track. Did I mention that he lays out and reconfigures ballads with a rare artistry? 


This he does with the distanced eye of painter views a blank canvas and a palette of fresh paint. It's less important that he captures, after much labor and sweat and the semblance of agony, some questionable approximation of inner essences residing in the sweet notes that make up the melody than what he does to create new forms. There's a joyful aspect to Carter's playing that's perfectly contagious when he takes on the slower, more reflective tunes, and here one might guess that his soul is transformation, transcendence, recovering, a full swing of moods that he journeys through in order to regain the light of day. The playing on his exploration is marvelous, bubbling, never tentative. 

Carter excels here because he isn't afraid to mess with the material; these slow pieces are less sacred objects than they are sources of inspiration. One thinks that Carter's hand will come out of the bell of his sax and pull your face into it. That's a coarse image, perhaps, but it's another way of saying that the tone and phrasing are in your face (in the most pleasant way, of course), and is the sprite and fulsome virtuosity that won't let you ignore the grace and occasional genius emerging from the horn. The brunt of this man's playing is full-bodied blues and bluster. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

more words on verse that burns the envelope it came in


Experimental poetry used to be the kind of stuff that broke with established forms of verse writing , both in form and aesthetic . A good survey course in Western Poetry will pretty much be the history of one school of poetry arising in response and/or rebellion against forms that had long been dominant , with the more daring and expansive poetry influencing younger poets to the degree that the experimenters over time become the old guard. 


This goes on and on, exceptions to rules becoming rules until another generator of impatient experimenters come along with their contrarian notions of what verse should be, usurping fusty older poets and becoming the dominant ones themselves, fat, complacent and ripe for over turning. I don’t know if that’s a working dialectic , but it is something that has continued since literate men and women sought to express grand and vague inspirations in language that did more than merely describe or paraphrase existence. I feel that experimentation has become the norm and that we have these days are recyclings of previous Avant gard ideas and gestures, names if theories and practices changed ever so much.

But not so much.It’s gotten to the point that the school of poets who are referred to as the New Formalist, poets who’ve tired of free verse and variable feet and the several generations of “open forms” in poetry and compose poems that rhyme and which employ traditional meter, have become a controversial matter in that they threaten to usurp the hegemony of the Avant Gard tradition. To each their own. 

Myself, I am attracted to any kind of poetic writing that has that rare quality of being dually fresh and unique; I am less intrigued by the theory behind a poem, experimental or traditional than I am on it reads, on whether it works. If it produces a reader’s satisfaction, then it becomes useful to investigate what a writer has done as an artist in this odd medium, bringing skill and on the fly inspiration to bear in the writing. This can be the case with Ron Silliman, John Ashbery, two poets who arrest my attention with their creation of indirect address of the living expression, and it is the case for Thomas Lux and Dorianne Laux, two other poets who are not averse to letting in you follow their line of thinking and who still lead you results that are unexpected and extraordinary.

Ron Satterfield Rises Again

Ron Satterfield. Photo by Michael Oletta.
Ron Satterfield.
 Photo by Michael Oletta.
(This originally appeared in the
San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).
It’s July 15th, and it’s jazz pianist/guitarist and vocalist Ron Satterfield’s birthday. Satterfield is preparing for a performance with flutist and long-time collaborator Lori Bell and versatile percussionist Tommy Aros at the cozy lounge just off the lobby of the Handlery Hotel in Hotel Circle. He’s diligently setting up the PA system, adjusting mic levels, securing a confusing cross section of wires and other attachments. The room is filling up nicely prior to the performance while Satterfield concentrates on perfecting the sound system just so. Bell greets us and provides a gentle warning… “Ron is in his operating mode before a performance, getting everything ready. It’s generally, not the best time to try and talk to him.” We repair to the bar, watch as the room fills even more, eager for the performance.

Satterfield’s due diligence with set- up pays off, noticeable when the troupe ( also known as Trio de Janeiro) works their magic. The sound is warm, bright, and fills the room comfortably. Nothing overwhelms the music. On guitar, Satterfield has the instincts and phrasing of seasoned pianist, not a soloist as much as he creates a feeling for accompanying the others. His chord work is delicate, off center, teasing various accents and melodic texture, linking with the sure, deft, and insistent percussion of Aros. Over this percolating combination of rhythm and melody is Lori Bell’s flute work, a combination of virtuoso precision and heartfelt swing—swift, jumping lines ranging from low bluesy swoops to exhilarating escalations in the high registers. With this come Satterfield’s vocals, a seductive combination of pop, jazz and Latin styles, a warm vocal instrument versed in the split-second wit of scat, the vowel stretching wonder of up-tempo vocals. He has mastered his voice, gracefully applied over a variety of styles. Pop tune to torch song, salsa to samba, blues to bosa nova, Satterfield does it all—distinct, swinging, and classy.









Ron Satterfield had a high profile in the bustling San Diego jazz scene in the 1980s when there were many lounges and restaurants that booked jazz regularly, and an impressive roster of local jazz musicians to play the engagements. It was a time when Elario’s, Chuck’s Steak House, the Blue Parrott, the Crossroads, and Our Place were alive with musicians like Peter Sprague, Charles McPherson, Hollis Gentry, Joe Marillo, Kevyn Lettau, Mike Wofford, Jim Plank, Bob Magnuson, and many others, Satterfield not the least of them. It seemed one could find a place to hear live jazz every night of the week and, as often as not, find Satterfield performing in one of the many musical combinations, singing, playing keyboards or guitar, as a utility player, a musician that brightened the stage. During the period I had seen him a dozen times by my estimation and was usually impressed at what he brought to the night’s music. Satterfield was a significant player in an active and rowdy music community, the special ingredient on the bandstand with whomever he was performing, bringing verve, a sense of swing and sway that transform many nights out into concentrated moments of transcendence. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a needed man to have around.
Satterfield was (and still is) prolific across the board, involving himself in a dozens of different combinations of musicians in a far stretch of jazz and jazz-pop styles, torch song to blues, scat to samba, more poppish, radio friendly songs, to New Age. He had an ear for finding the center of a groove, the soul of a chord progression, and the harmonies they underscore and create a host of sprite, inventive takes on whatever he decided to take on. His Allmusic.com page reveals that he’s been featured on 28 album releases from 1986 through 2007 with a stellar string of musicians ranging from Dave Mackay, Lori Bell, Holly Hoffmann, Peter Sprague, and many others, and in four albums as half of the duo called Checkfield, a new age-Windham Hill-ish instrumental and vocal collaboration with John Archer. In his time, he was a busy man with large talents who, oddly, had all but disappeared from the local radar. As the 2000s commenced and the number of venues offering live jazz continued to recede, Satterfield disappeared from the scene as well. There was little jazz to be heard and virtually no Ron Satterfield among the few who could be seen playing live. So, what happened?
The original Joe Marillo Quartet at Chuck's Steak House, late 1970s: Satterfield, Marillo, Tim Shea, Gunnar Biggs. Photo by Michael Oletta.
An old story—drugs and alcohol—the curse of too many creative men and women who come to suffer. Falling prey to addictive substances, Satterfield was, by his own admission, a mess, a man doomed to an alcoholic death, a man with nowhere to go and no idea of what to do. Satterfield’s is a story of hitting a vulgar bottom, but it it’s also one of how he found help from a source he’d didn’t expect. But first, he had to hit what the recovery community terms “a bottom,” that point at which one has a moment of clarity, that one is truly powerless over drugs and alcohol, a point where they can begin a road back to the mainstream. Back in his East Village apartment on muggy August afternoon, Ron relates a crucial instance with long-time music partner Lori Bell. His voice trembles at times in the recollection.
“My decline was obvious because of my behavior. I feel I’m representing. I want people to know about the Salvation Army and that it’s available. I was a functioning alcoholic for a long time; I kept my drug use at home. It was something for when I got back home after a gig, when it was head phones, and I would snort away, smoke away, drink away, what have you, be it cigarettes, grass, alcohol. It never went with me. Cocaine had become impossible to find.
“Then I met with methself esteem and everything was about perfection. What I didn’t realize until getting sober was how much emphasis there was for approval and justification. Lori picked up on my lack of self worth.
“Back in the day many jazz musicians in were in the habit of overcompensating, that thing of saying, ‘I’m the best, I’m better than you,’ nasty sarcasm that always comes around. I always gravitated more toward female performers because I always got more love; I was terrified of men. Lori is very loyal, supportive to a degree that’s frightening. Once the meth came in, that was the first was the first time I started bringing alcohol with me to the gigs. It was in the car. Poor Lori would have to sit in the passenger seat probably terrified that I was drinking and driving. I had a little wine container that I carried my wine in; I tried 7-Up cans that didn’t work, and I finally came up with a coffee canister to hide my alcohol in; it looks like you’re drinking coffee. Alcohol, though, is really ethyl alcohol and it burns your liver; the first thing the liver wants to do is get it the hell out. It comes out of your pores, your breath, your pee, whatever it takes to get that stuff out of your body. I was bringing alcohol to engagements and I was not eating. I have a video of me doing a concert at Dizzy’s when it was downtown. I was emaciated because I wasn’t eating. I started drinking vodka with orange juice to rationalize that I was getting sustenance. I looked like an Auschwitz victim. Lori’s husband was telling her to be prepared, saying, ‘I don’t think Ron is going to be around much longer.’”
There was a fiasco in Carlsbad that was an instance of clarity for Satterfield, but his transition to a sober and productive life had a few false starts, among them a couple of “geographic cures,” the illusory idea among those struggling with their addiction that if they move to another city or state, they’d leave their problems behind. To coin a phrase, “wherever you go, there you are.” Satterfield sought his late brother’s help, who showed up in San Diego in 2007 to take him to a Kentucky asylum where they thought he could get the help they needed. Soon after he was admitted he realized it was a mistake.
“Every week I would I see the counselor who was ‘treating’ me, so to speak, and it would essentially be them asking me how I was feeling. I would tell them and they would write it down in the record and then say that they thought they should keep me a while longer.”
Realizing this was more a racket than a treatment for his malaise, he found out that he was entitled to a phone call, a privilege he used to call his brother to come back to the asylum and sign him out. Afterward, there were false steps and stumbling attempts to change his direction, more geographic cures and wavering attempts at being a truck driver. But for all his efforts to change his behavior with new locations and new occupations, his addiction was still active, and relapse wasn’t infrequent. In 2011, returning to San Diego from his last location in a car he’d borrowed from the late jazz saxophonist and mentor Joe Marillo, Satterfield received a suggestion that was the beginning of his return to sobriety and music making.
“I came into the Salvation Army program in 2011 because I had reached the place all people in addiction face: choose life or choose the street. I did the typical geographic, which didn’t work out; I went to friends and that didn’t work After losing everything, everything the last person I had a relationship with said, ‘I cannot help you, but I have one recommendation and that is the Salvation Army. I can’t think of any other place you can go and rebuild your life.’ That information was passed on to Joe Marillo, God bless him; I was coming back from Arizona with a car he had loaned me where I tried to build a life. After my final DUI, I realized I might as well come back to San Diego and give Joe back his car. I had no plan, had no idea what would happen, but I could do at least one thing right, which was to give Joe back his car. It was in God’s hands from there.
“On the way down I stopped off in Alpine because I ran out of gas. I had friends there, and a girlfriend from a past relationship said, ‘I have no money to give you, I have nothing to give you, I don’t really want to see you, why don’t you try the Salvation Army?’ Her daughter took pity on me and gave me enough money for gas; she bought me breakfast, and then I made a phone call to Joe. I called Joe and told him, ‘I am here, I’m on my way.’ I told Joe that I had gotten one suggestion about the Salvation Army and that I had no idea what to do with that information. Joe told me to make my way down to San Diego while he made some calls. God bless him, he made some calls. When I got to Joe’s, he said ‘Ron, I have some good news—I contacted a man named Steve Self at the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center. He said he doesn’t know what condition you’re in and you can’t go into the program unless you’re sober, so why don’t you crash here for a couple of days and sober yourself up and then we’ll take you down.’ That was April 21st of 2011, and that’s my sobriety date.
“I wasn’t as bad as I could have been, but I was beaten. But, Joe drove me down here. It turned out that we were so excited about the possibility of this that we got there almost two hours early before they even opened the doors. We had to go get some coffee and stand around and then, all of a sudden, the place starts to come alive and there were people flying up the hallways, down the stairs, and on and on and Joe’s saying, ‘Wow! These people are energetic!’ When I met with Steve Self, Joe took off, and the rest is history.
“I had no idea that this even existed. All this time help was available and I had no idea. Like everybody else I thought the Salvation Army was a place for homeless people, and they ha thrift stores, and they come out at Christmas with the Santa Clause suits, ring the bell, and ask for donations. This is a full-fledged six-month program. It has counseling, it has AA meetings, sponsorship, it has relapse prevention classes; the list of services is so wide, it goes on and on, and it was exactly what I needed. When you’re as far gone as I was, as much as you would like to go to family and friends for help, they cannot possibly understand your behavior and desperation, so coming to a professional environment with people who have the experience… what I got here was love and support, which I desperately needed.
“I was so filled with guilt and shame. This place is about life and rebuilding; they give you tools. I came here from the standpoint of desperation; it was a simple choice, the street or a program. It was exciting to realize that this was available. And this is free. They will feed you, they will clothe you. You need to have an open mind coming in here. Sometimes you have to go on a waiting list because there’s room for 100 people, but I lucked out.”
His two-year residence at the Salvation Army gave Satterfield the structure and order that he lacked during his seemingly endless battle with drugs and alcohol. Admitting that he was out of answers and weary of what awaited him if he didn’t try something different, he gave himself over to the program the recovery unit, making use of their many services of counseling, classes in relapse prevention, work therapy duties, 12-Step meetings, and, most tellingly, becoming part of the Center’s worship team. Spirituality and a reliance on God (or a Higher Power, as many 12-steppers prefer to say) is strongly emphasized in this path of recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, an element many new to recovery struggle with. Ron, however, had no qualms turning his life over to a power greater than himself. His struggle was something else.
“I never had a problem with the Lord; I never had a problem with religion. I’ve had a problem with organized religion, evangelists seeking financial contributions so they could have Lear jets, but I was brought up Presbyterian so I was pretty wide open. Religion for me was a personal experience. What I did have a problem with when I came into the program was that we were required to sing. It is devotion at seven in the morning, and then devotion later in the day. On Sundays and Wednesdays, they have other programs going on. It’s all about the Lord. The primary function is God and it’s very open; it’s not in your face, it’s to put you in touch with your higher power, your ‘wise advocate,’ however you want to address your Higher Power. What got strange for me was singing. My first experience was singing about God, and Jesus was kind of strange for me. I was so shut down that I didn’t want to sing. After a while, I would sneak down to the chapel, even though my hands were still shaking, and play the piano a little bit. I had to play the piano. Of course, somebody heard me and they realized that ‘this guy is a little more accomplished than our average rock band guy.’”
As a once-thriving jazz musician, Satterfield had reservations about playing music that praised and beseeched God exclusively, but in short order he was game enough to get beyond his prejudices and investigate the songbook used for the religious services. This was the beginning of his return.
“The resident manager at the time led the worship team and he was also a musician. He had a time of it. He was trying to work with me and I was so shut down. As time went on, I became more comfortable with the environment. We used to sit and talk over coffee and he asked me what I thought of worship music. At the time I was very opinionated, coming from a jazz background, and I said, ‘Well this ain’t Miles Davis, it’s not Bill Evans, what is this?’ And he asked what background I had, and I said ‘folk.’ And he said, ‘That’s perfect, that is where this all came from.’ The original worship music was people sitting around with guitars, singing about God, and now it’s grown into a contemporary thing. It’s amazing. All he had to say was folk music and that opened the door. I got beyond my reservations about the requirements of the program and started listening.
“That was when my musicianship and experience kicked in and I realized ‘oh my’ from a melodic and harmonic stand point that this is very well-crafted. I stopped listening to the lyrics and just listened to the music. I went to the piano and started playing the songs and got a completely different perspective on this. As fate would have it, the resident manager and music director got a new assignment, and he came to me. I was drafted; he asked me how I would feel about taking his place? I told him I was not up to that kind of responsibility, but I thought about it and wound up saying okay, but under one condition: if you let me get together with Major Dina Graciani and work with her one on one. She is now the head of San Diego Salvation Army, but at the time her husband, Major Henry Graciani, was. She is one of the most gifted singers I’ve ever worked with, a pure soprano. But there was one problem. My predecessor arranged all the songs in the key he was comfortable in, and Major Dina was singing in a key she wasn’t comfortable with. I thought this was unacceptable and told her we needed to change the book so she could sing in the keys that are natural for her range. She asked if we could do that. And I said yes, we could. Singing harmony became easier for me, I created the book with her. We started writing arrangements. Everything changed.”
Satterfield became more involved with the Salvation Army’s program, working full-time at one of their stores in San Diego County as cashier, receiver, and general retail duties, as well as organizing and directing the facility’s musical program for the weekly worship service. He reorganized the ‘The Book,’ the body of songs used for the services, giving them new arrangements, which allowed, as he explains, to do wonderful collaborations with Major Dina. He became close to both Majors Dina and Henry Graciani, a couple he came to trust for direction, advice, and wise counseling. He was becoming increasingly comfortable with his natural skill set as a musician once again, but there was a personality conflict he had with one of the workers at the store he worked in. The friction didn’t sit well with him, although, unknown to him, that would soon change.
“I was still working at the retail store, but I was having difficulty with the main person, the person who runs all the things in the store. I’d been talking to Major Henry about the experience. He said, ‘You’re going to be even stronger. Give it time.’ Lori [Bell] brought me in for a performance, my first live outing. She thought it might be fun to get together with [pianist] Dave MacKay, because he was getting older and it would terrific to play with him again. She was doing the Fourth Friday series at the La Jolla Community Center, so she booked the engagement. I invited Major Dina and Major Henry, telling Lori that I would like them to see the performance. I didn’t think they’d say yes, because what we’d been performing isn’t worship music, but they surprised me and said they would love to be at the performance. So they came down and were in the audience. Major Dina came back afterward and said, ‘I had no idea. How do you do that? I only know you from the worship music, but this… this is who you are.’ A little later Major Henry takes me aside. The show was over; everyone was milling around and he and I walked down a hallway. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You have a gift. This is what you’re meant to do. I want you to do something for me. I want you to take a risk. I want you to leave the store you’re working in. Go back to your roots. I think you’re ready.’”
Fortune smiled on Satterfield, it turns out. Shortly after quitting his job at the Salvation Army store to focus on returning to being a working musician, he began receiving royalty checks. Unknown to him, his partner John Archer from the Checkfield days had converted their albums to “library format,” a digital conversion that allows for easier distribution of material. “The music is still out there,” he said, noting that there was a Japanese company that had a television show, which discovered Checkfield’s music. “They used the music, like 20 seconds here, a minute there, a two-minute dub on something else, and they paid. I started to receive quarterly royalties at about the same time I quit the store unconditionally. That went on for two years! That was extraordinary.” With the aid of Major Henry, Satterfield shored up his financial resources, continued his weekly duties directing the music for the Sunday worship services and ventured out into the world around him again, collaborating with the ever-creative and inspiring Lori Bell.
In fruitful collaboration with Bell, Satterfield hardly seems the shot-out shell of a man he described himself as, but is rather the picture of a confident, buoyant performer, a person with rhythm and wit and a contagious enthusiasm for the jazz music he performs. A look at the scheduled appearances with Lori on her website [loribellflute.com] shows many dates, already played and forthcoming, which highlights a musician intimate again with his muse and finds himself once more in the mainstream of life.
The jazz audience in town should do itself a favor to seek out Satterfield’s work with Bell around San Diego. Evidenced by the many live performance videos that have been posted on YouTube, one may well, in a live performance, behold enthralling arrangements of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” or Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” two songs that are part of Trio de Janeiro’s set list. Syncopated, highlighting sterling solos, and a harmonies that offer a suggestion of just the right amount of complexity, Aros furnishes engrossing percussive accents. Bell carries the melody, leans in for sweet fills and short comments, and riffing echoes of Satterfield’s vocal lines, proffering a glorious bit of spontaneous composition with a solo or two, all of which underscores, showcases, and provides a frame work for Satterfield’s swinging vocals. One hears bits of influences in his style—strains of James Taylor, Kenny Loggings, Mel Tormé, and others, Satterfield has absorbed his influences, made them his own, and created his own, natural, swinging expression. His voice has a warm texture, malleable in the way it can be clear and precise in diction and then slide up and down the scale. The notes the chord progressions provide, animating the lyrics of bliss, yearning, and loneliness, with deftly applied emphasis on unexpected syllables, the percussive impact of consonants, and the soft, suggestive urgings of vowels. He finds the music tone in the sound of the words; he sings them to cohere with the pace and texture of the performance. More than a singer, Satterfield’s voice, on occasion, acquires a rare distinction: the transcendent quality of becoming a lead instrument.
I also suggest that jazz aficionados stay current with the local music calendars and seize the chance to attend a concert if they come across a listing featuring both Bell and Satterfield. Available also on YouTube are Bell and Satterfield in collaboration with pianist Dave Mackay and, elsewhere, with keyboardist Mike Garson. There is a stirring, Latin informed version of “Motherless Child” that highlights the rich, succinct lyricism of Mackay’s piano work, the left-handed chord work, and the hand accents and chord modulations performing miracles under the efforts of Bell. His solo, of course, is a wonderful combination of verve restraint. Also on YouTube is a wonderful reading of “Stella by Starlight,” highlighting pianist Mike Garson, formerly with David Bowie and Stanley Clark, along with Bell and Satterfield. It’s one of those renditions of a classic that makes it seem that one is not so much watching a musical performance as much as taking a journey. Here, Garson glides and persuasively guides the rhythm along, while Bell negotiates an obstacle course of rhythm and chords, segueing to a wonderful bit by Satterfield. He first offers a short guitar solo and then begins to sing, rhythmically matching his piano—suggestive guitar words to the flow of clipped language, creating harmonies one didn’t expect to emerge from a man with just a voice and guitar. And Garson, a musician for whom both impressive classical and jazz techniques are second nature, reveals a light touch on the keys, precise but not pristine on the fast runs, clean yet emotionally fulfilling.
What occurs to this writer is that at five years clean and sober, Ron Satterfield has found that the road he’s travelling is narrower than when he first began his journey into recovery. What may have seemed like a profession he couldn’t return to for fear of relapse and degradation worse than that he’d experienced previously is now an exciting and rewarding chance to recover his musical gifts and bring his art to the audiences of San Diego and, perhaps, the world beyond our zip code and time zone. Witnessing Satterfield live, it seems that one can only agree with what Major Henry told him: that he was ready to return to live performance, a day at a time, and a gig at a time. Ron Satterfield is a gifted and humble man, grateful to the good people at the Salvation Army and in the broader recovery community in helping him find his footing, find his sanity, find his voice again, a voice he brings to the audiences of San Diego. The gift he has recovered becomes his gift to all of us.