Thursday, September 1, 2022

AMERICAN ENNUI

New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg fretted the other day that our nation is in the gross depths of cultural stagnation, which is another way of saying that no one is getting excited by much new music, new authors, new movies, new visual artists. It's gotten to the point where we could say that "boredom" is the new cultural condition of things, the unintended consequence of the consumerist boom of the post-war period that never ended, despite what varied social scientists would have us think. Increased consumer demand intensified the research into more brutally efficient means of technological expertise and application to manufacture, distribute and deliver goods to consumers. The internet accelerated all this, to be sure, availing us of goods, nearly anything we desired, in quantum leap time. Now, in a pandemic that is still not over and with a population that had to spend unnatural amounts of time at home, the millions of us sought to distract ourselves with impulse shopping, insane amounts of streaming, the whole shot. Materials that used to amuse us and stand as symbols of how up to the millisecond we were now becomes evidence of the psychic entropy each and all of us became embroiled in. More than mere muscles had gone flabby, and our toys began to depress us.  Boredom settles in surely when everything is available to you at the instance you want it. There is no adventure in seeking new music anymore, there is no sense of actually discovering something obscure that's very cool, dangerous, going against the grain and mores of the time. We are in a situation of Marcuse's famous idea of "repressive tolerance", that by allowing the marginal voices, the dissenting notions, the philosophically malcontent full rights of expression and indeed making it easier for the nonconformist's works are easily available under the guise of a free press, they are revolutionary potential of these cranky, experimental, iconoclastic to inspire an audience to effect change in the System is neutralized. Punk rock, polka, country western, rap and The Last Poets become genres, matters of taste, not as vehicles to inspire and enliven the imagination. All the digital access to every book, movie, TV show, record album every created, instantly, creates the ennui of availability. Too often when getting the full of run of albums by Gunther Schiller, say, interest dissipates and the attention span requires something else to distract it for a moment. It seems to be the case that what we're talking about is commodity fetishism, which is the mere acquisition of things for having them and no more.

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Saturday, August 20, 2022

'BUGSY" starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening

 


Had a fine time watching Bugsy recently, a near gem of a modern gangster film. A 1991 effort starring Warren Beatty as Ben "Bugsy" Siegel and a then-unknown Annette Bening as a fast talking , smart woman Siegel takes up with when he comes to 1940s Los Angeles to muscle on the local organized crime boss.  Beatty is effective here as a man of  great charm and sudden violence, a man desiring to be a hard boss, enforcer , gentleman, and lady's man; the sudden swings in his moods and the turmoil that ensues are convincingly conveyed--little tell-tale signs in facial expression, a tilt of the head, a growing escalation in volume and intensity of questions being asked a character Siegel suspects of having stolen from him--are well-played signals that Bugsy is about to go off. This was a break through role for Bening , and she brings a sharp tongue and a quick wit to her portrayal of a lone woman alone in a town full of predator men who are liars, cheats, thieves, and killers all who falls for the charming if erratic Siegel. The recreation of Los Angeles of the period is very well done, and I rather enjoyed the dark tones used to suggest a noir quality--this has an aura of quality black and white photograph that was hand-colored especially well. The film does drag in the middle, but it picks up well, and the casting of Ben Kingsley, Harvey Keitel, Joe Mantegna  and Bebe Neuwirth is very fine. We must mention a small role for Elliot Gould as a lumbering, likeable , dumb oaf of a thug who is doomed .Directed by Barry Levinson, screenplay by James Toback, cinematographer Allen Daviau.

Friday, August 19, 2022

GARY MOORE WAS THE ERIC CLAPTON WE DESERVED


 The more cynical among us might dismiss this effort by bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker as a blatant money-grab to secure filthy lucre from nostalgic fans of Cream, replacing founding member Eric Clapton with stalwart blues—rock specialist Gary Moore. Two parts Cream is better than no Cream at all? But hold on a second, Moore's guitar work matches and very often exceeds the admittedly early brilliance of Clapton from those studio and live discs; Moore is technically far more advanced as a musician than Clapton, but what saves the Irish fret lord from being merely another wind-up virtuoso is his retention of the raw aggression, emotion, power of the blues.

 In this video, you'll note that he pretty well recreates Clapton's tone from the period and reveals great evidence of having spent hours, hundreds of hours playing EC with guitar in hand learning his phrasing, his timing, his dynamic sense. This is likely to be the best Clapton tribute that will ever come to be.Moore presents the particulars of EC's style that make me think that this was his (Clapton's) the best era as a guitarist. The timing, the tone, the frantic unpredictability of his blues intonations as the self-taught guitarist battled with the jazz-trained Bruce and Baker in those extended improvisations that were Cream's stock-in-trade.

 Moore brings all that to this performance, and effortlessly incorporates this fiery and swift riffing as well to remind you who's controlling the wah-wah pedal. Bruce and Baker, of course, are in fine shape as aging rock musicians, each improving and goading each other to different rhythmic emphasis, all of which Moore elaborates upon with inspiring blues improvisational escapades. It's refreshing that Moore seems to refuse to treat Cream's canonical songbook with any over reverence. He makes the material his own, and though Clapton's shadow looms over all of his flights, the Irish guitarist takes full possession of the solo spaces allotted and fills with a superbly honed manner, a gregarious aggression you might say.

A question posed to me on Quora

 

Bukowski is one of the best known modern poets, but not as a “great” poet. Charles Bukowski spent several decades writing about three or four things, which were drinking, staying drunk, screwing drunk women, playing the horses, and drinking. His was not a large world, and after reading a raft of short stories,three novels and five of his plenitude of poetry collections, it's safe to say that he'd run out of things to say about the redundant activities of his life. Hence,his redundant themes and the waning energy of his work as his life wore on, with he waiting for it all to be over with. Young people love him because Bukowski is as close to an actual nihilist any of them are likely to encounter in American fiction and poetry. His principle failing is his unwillingness to think harder or differently about the world of drink, cigarettes, whores,race tracks and flop houses and bad sex. This poem, as it goes, goes through the typical moves and ends on some winsome sigh about lost opportunity, faded youth, mauling over of some psychic pain that is somehow aimed at making us understand why he is such a luckless asshole. Ironically, few writers have been as lucky as this guy, lucky in that the game he ran on us held up all these years, and that it still has enough allure to sucker yet another acolyte who just entering their drunken -



Thursday, August 18, 2022

THE WOODSTOCK MALAISE

 

I had enough trouble maintaining an even keel when the film Woodstock was released in 1970. Even as a 17-year-old poet wannabe who loved the idea that Youth Culture, The Counter Culture, the new poetry found in the New Music would be of great transforming value for the world to yet to come, something about the famous account of the 1969 rock festival in upstate New York—something about the documentary concerning the famed rock festival had an off-putting hubris. All those hippies gathered for no good purpose, catching a ride on the swells of a collective ego, seemed a massive wallow in self-congratulations for being groovy beyond redemption. I remember mostly maintain my cool about the hype around the mythos of the event and the overpraise for the film, only to lose it finally in the matter when in 1981 NBC opted to broadcast the film on the concert’s tenth anniversary. Typical of a ratings grab, the network overkilled the entire enterprise. Rather than showing the film as it was (already noteworthy for its sense of self-congratulation), the powers that be at the network instead whittled it down into something safe and defused, entitled Woodstock Relived. In their production, NBC managed to change Woodstock from an historical footnote where pleasant memories can be derived and gave it the substance of a daydream. Woodstock Relived became, literally, naught but the magic land of Oz. and the audience, a gaggle of Dorothies stranded in a metaphysical Kansas of the soul, became suddenly transported to a land where dreams come true, and all endings are happy. NBC's purpose, I suppose, was to make the surfeit of long-hair, strange costumes, loud music, hints of nudity and free-love in the original motion picture somehow acceptable to the mainstream TV public by contriving a method that would "explain" the phenomena to an audience who might still be bewildered by the fête ten years hence. 


The primary proof of this is their choice of hiring Beau Bridges to provide a running commentary. Seated on a set equipped with a TV monitor, Bridges exuded the authoritarian calm of Walter Cronkite, seeming to adjudicate over a political convention. Where the first version of Wood51ock trusted the editing and the sequence of scenes to form their narrative—perhaps they had a better sense of who their potential audience was—the NBC editors would often flash the beginning of a musical act as Bridges would fit the film into a strained metaphorical context, as evidenced by two principal scenes in which the wishful thinking interpretation of the event belies its banality. In the first. Joe Cocker's head appears on the screen as the first strains of "A Little Help from My Friends" are played while off to the side, looking mellowly certain of his line. Bridges waxes poetic ~t: 'II on the spirit of cooperation that distinguished the event, citing the music as proof positive of his thesis with the words "When Joe Cocker began to sing. He told the world what Woodstock was all about." My response and others as well, was a loud "oh come on now." not because Bridge's analogy sounded stupid but because even a cursory examination of historical fact brings the whole notion of\ what the counter-culture actually was into question .ln fact, "what Woodstock was all about" was a matter of too many people showing up for an event whose producers expected less dense crowds, an alarming strain on existing food, toilet, sleeping and medical capabilities. And the remarkably benign response of surrounding townspeople. The National Guard and the Army to alleviate the hazards of overcrowding. 


And Cocker himself, being less than the spokesman for anyone, was a scheduled performer with only one US hit who had to play under the most unusual of circumstances. Wood - stock, in other words, was an accident of circumstances, and the fact that the crowd was more or less peaceful was little else but a fortuitous fluke. The NBC folks, though, wanted a structure in which to place the fair, a coherent "theme" with which to make the film an item one could stand, so they exercised their kind of historical revisionism, a revisionism intended to give the illusion that Woodstock can be understood in the most banal set of generalizations. More insidious than forcing the image of Cocker into a cheap, glittering cliché was the way they represented Country Joe McDonald. If memory serves me correctly. McDonald and his group The Fish were the mo t straightforwardly political of all the Bay Area rock and roll bands, going beyond the then trendy politics of the anti was movement and involving themselves with many new-left causes, including various benefit concerts for the Black Panthers, SDS, and other militant groups whose rhetoric frequently called for a "revolution" of a usually unspecified sort. 

The sensibilities at NBC, though, were either afraid of the depth of McDonald's obvious activism or were just plain ignorant of it, and chose instead to reduce him, like Cocker, to little more than evidence for a foregone conclusion. Completely sniping out McDonald's "Fish Cheer" ("Give me an F," and so on, until everyone is deliriously yelling FUCK). McDonald is first shown half-way through his son~ "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die' on the set's TV monitor while Bridges, his eyes puppy-wide his voice dripping a honey toned sincerity, generalized about the turmoil of the period, mentioning the dissent over the Vietnam War as a demonstration of "thousands and thousands of young people who deeply loved America who had something to say about the quality of life in this country, not just for them, but for generations to come." Then almost as an afterthought. The rest of McDonald's tune is played uninterrupted. Other examples abound endlessly throughout the run of Woodstock Relived of the way the producers of the show sought to make the original film presentable: the excising of all nudity, the elimination of all strong language that formerly peppered the soundtrack, only a cursory depiction of the drug use and most galling, Bridges' insistence that Woodstock was nothing more than "kids letting off steam." During a sequence of shots that show kids mud-sliding after a heavy rain. 

Bridges literally said something to the effect that they were engaging in "not good clean fun , but what's the difference?" The festival sounds positively wholesome, all-American, like going on a weekend retreat or sending one's son off to Boy Scout Camp. By implication, the 60s are made to sound wholesome and good clean fun, just a period of rowdy behavior no more deadly than a fraternity panty-raid. The implication, though, goes deeper, hinting that the Woodstock festival itself can be held up in the light of history as being the quintessence of what the 60s were "about." All the Prepare for variegated strands that marked the cultural and political atmosphere of the decade had merged to a head at the festival, and that each had found its fullest expression. This revisionist arrogance galls me to not end - the assumption being that Woodstock can be called representative of the 60s - but the fault in this case must fall to the TV producers and not the original filmmakers. The original Woodstock was, to its credit, a documentary of a specific event that did not attempt to generalize a world view. Even with the paucity of good music, the cretinous photography of the acts and the inane good vibe banter of the concert goers, the original Woodstock is nonetheless an accurate, if obviously biased representation of the festival, treating the event as something in and of itself, within context, without any pretense of imposing an overall "meaning." Though, the film has dated badly. 

One can still see it and retain a perspective that keeps one's sense of propriety in order: something similar to people recognizing the follies of unrepentant youth. Woodstock Relived, however, denies the original film's generic integrity and transform into an effective additive to the cultural epidemic of nostalgia, a condition that has us believing in false Edens. Like an evangelical preacher citing Bible passages over the airwaves to legitimate their political stance in terms that transcend the machinations of human being, the how's producer composed for themselves a bill of good as to what the 60 meant and used the festival the Irrefutable Truth. Woodstock thus become romanticized to the point that excludes perspective for analysis. The 60s become trivialized with no attempt to take the longer more comprehensive view of the decade, and ultimately, all of our experiences of the period become cheapened, having fallen victim to a corporate reductionism whose ideology demands a narrative style that deliver us to a horde of dollar-eyed advertiser. The larger pity of this is that anything anyone was struggling for - a better world, peace, a society free of exploitation—become part of the mainstream, the birthday ribboned package of lies we tell ourselves to have the nerve to trudge ahead into a future with something like hope. Under the shoulder-to-the-wheel bravado we drape our waking lives in, our dreams tell us what we won't speak of over breakfast, at work, or even sitting alone minding our own business, that the future is not a destination legitimated with greater and finer purpose, but merely a station of merely passing through the days with what we've learned from being alive so far. The idea is that life in -the -moment exists in what we bring to it, our experience and the eventual gathering of personal knowledge sometimes called wisdom. The real terror of this life is we wonder if we've learned anything at all up to this point. 


Short Take: LOVE AND THUNDER IS A SHAPELESS MOB SCENE

 


The comic book fan website CBR.COM argues that director Waititi deserves better treatment than what he's gotten after the release of Thor: Love and Thunder, his second at-bat with the character. He’ll get a better treatment when he makes a better movie. His first turn on the Thor franchise worked because of a couple of smart decisions, the first being turning the film into a Hope-Crosby style road comedy and developing an effectively humorous relationship between the two. Moreover, it was very cool and effective to bring some Jack Kirby influenced designs to the look of the film. As far as story lie, line it was complete and with a satisfying resolution, Thor's hero's journey in learning what it means to be "worthy" of his mantel. Love and Thunder undoes by making the return of Jane Foster into a romantic comedy, a genre that generally requires the hero, Thor in this case, to be a self-centered, preening, emotionally immature dolt whose intellectual capacity is as dismal as his powers are impressive. The newly matured and worthy Thor of Ragnarök is erased. The film is overcrowded with too many characters, far too many gags that are essentially all set up and dud punchlines, tangents, spectacles, abrupt and unearned shifts in tone. It starts as a romantic comedy, wanders deep and far into Clash of the Titans territory, becomes a superhero version of a PBS kiddie show by the movie fourth quarter, tries to redeem the rioting themes, tones, and battalion of one-dimensional characters by turning it into a three-hankie weeper with the death of Jane. Worse, though, is the shallow grasp to keep fan loyalty by holding out the chance that we'll see more of the Jane character by showing in Valhalla, an afterlife I'm sure writers will no doubt contrive to enable Jane to leave and enter again as the franchise rolls forward. Waititi is a talented writer, director, and actor and one can expect good things from him again, but he overplayed his hand on his second go around on Thor. It was an unmitigated mess in all respects, as most of the Phase films have been so far.


Friday, July 1, 2022

RECENT JAZZ CDs

 City, Country, City-- Jason Ricci and Joe Krown

Jason Ricci is easily one of the greatest blues harmonica players in the world, a master of the difficult "overblow" technique that allows this New Orleans-based musician to produce full chromatic scales on a modest folk instrument that's usually limited to the diatonic range. Briefly, through modification of the harmonica reeds and practiced application of novel approaches to em brochure, Ricci transcends the limits of blues structures and improvise with a particular complexity and brilliance and melodic invention that brings his playing closer to a good number of fleet jazz masters from who Ricci takes inspiration. Jason Ricci, make no mistake, is a blues harpist with both feet solidly in the tradition of Sonny Boy, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, or Blind Owl Wilson (of Canned Heat), a gritty player who makes the harmonica howl, growl, yowl, cry, and moan. There's the sweat and urgency of blues feeling, but one also notices on his frequent extended improvisational extravaganzas a fluidity of ideas, quotes from Coltrane and Django Reinhardt, high-octane bluegrass riffs alternating with Parker-era bebop flourishes, dense chord constructions, rapid fire train patterns. Ricci is a supremely fast player, to be sure, making the diminutive harmonica in his harmonica thunder ahead with the instrumental command of a spotlighted lead guitarist or divinely blessed jazz trumpeter.

 But like the best musicians noted for technique, speed of ideas and precision of performance, JR's long improvisations are master classes in solo building; he builds mood with a few notes, a partial duplication of the melody, and then ventures forth, filling out the ideas, playing  on, before and after the beat in playful investigation, surely moving toward a wondrous and prolonged stretch of cadenzas that deconstructs and reassembles the composition at hand. It's the stuff of wonder to behold Ricci start with bluesy aggression before eventually venturing off in various musical side roads to see if he can produce musical moments no one expected. Classical phrases, jazz chromaticism, fleet bluegrass pentatonics, hard power-trio blitzing, softer, lyric acoustic interludes are the elements this player has mastered, and which give his harmonica power. Jason Ricci, incidentally, played on Johnny Winter's Grammy  Award-winning album Stand Back in 2014, was invited by former David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer to play on "Born In Chicago" for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in   2015 (broadcast on HBO), and has released twelve albums with several  musical alliances including the scorching New Blood, with singer-songwriter J.J. Appleton, and most recently with the visceral Bad Kind. 

All that said, Jason surprises us again by stepping back momentarily from the manic tones that are his usual fare and brings now the superb City Country City. His partner in this endeavor is organist and fellow New Orleans resident Joe Krown, the sound rear is something of a throwback to an early jazz era of hard-bop, and organ trios, a domain of jazz grooves characterized by a solid rhythm and blues feel, a music grounded in funk. Bolstered by the unfailingly swing and verve of Big Easy drummer Doug Belote, this is a trio well grounded   in all the traditions, have all the right moves and add moves of their own to keep this gumbo percolating, popping and jiving. The title track “City Country City” many will recognize as being the instrumental from the band War for their 1972 The World is a Ghetto disc. The Ricci/Krown reimagining picks up the pace from War’s original, smooth and mellow inspiration. Ricci plays the supple intro figure as Krown supplies gorgeous chords, swells, and swelling tones, and each take steadfast, sharp solo breaks over Belote’s tight, on the note beats. It’s a terrific hook into a session of ancient school playing with a very contemporary edge. Soon enough, Krown and Ricci give themselves license to show their wares in full on the sexy and savvy strut of “Down and Dirty.” Krown takes the first chorus, blending gospel phrases and swift, skidding runs that make you think of Jimmy Smith in his bluest mood. Ricci then takes up the cause after his partner hands it over to him, making his serpentine harmonica work resemble at times other horn instruments; the angelic high notes of a clarinet, the throbbing undulations of a baritone saxophone, the hard and rapid cadenzas of a feverish trumpet player are suggested  Ricci mixes up the ideas, varies his attack, modulates his tone and his pacing as the solo progresses through its conventional blues progression. He keeps it intriguing; he brings you in, he keeps on the hook. The tune rocks like nothing else. From the opening bars, a jaunty theme that could be used as a jazz march, drummer Belote keeps things tight and moving along. The record as a whole is like this, full of Southern fried funk, edgy city blues, jazz fantasias of all sorts. “Jimmy Smith Strut,” “Don’t Badger the Witness,” “Good Clean Funk” are other highlights from this inspired trio. Jason Ricci is very much the best of the best in the blues harmonica world, and this trio collaboration with the estimable Joe Krown and Doug Belote is a grand place to become acquainted with the grace, power, and beauty of this artist’s playing.

Those intrigued about Ricci's other music should additionally seek the 2008's  Rocket # 9, credited to Jason Ricci and New Blood. Anyone with a strong need of hearing some of very fine and blistering blues harmonica work by a player dedicated to extending that small instrument's capacity to surprise a listener, I'd recommend getting the new disc by Jason Ricci and New Blood, Rocket Number 9. Ricci is one of those musicians where you can hear the influences of players he's "gone to school" on (sounding to me like a sweet blend of Paul Butterfield, Little Walter, Sugar Blue, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howard Levy, and a smattering of mainstream saxists ala Paul Desmond)who has blended what he's learned into a vigorous, original style. Rocket Number 9 is a glorious and tight blues rock album, with plenty of sharp guitar work, a rhythm section that balances tightness and an appealing, shambling looseness, all of this highlighting Ricci's serpentine harp improvisations and ragged-but-right vocals. What becomes obvious is that young Ricci is not stuck for an idea, and it's a wonder to hear his solos rage and soar and then transform into jazzier lines; one would have a hard time to finding another harmonica player with a better grasp of his technique and imagination or who makes as much of an effort to present fresh notions, configurations, and twists into his playing. There's a naturalness to what he brings forth, a sensual joining of his lines that is remindful of Butterfield at his most prime; rather than seeming like an upstart perfunctorily playing his warm-up licks before launching his super chops too soon and too often, Ricci, like Butterfield, has a jazz-players of dynamics. They're the rare skill of building and releasing tension that keeps on the edge, motivated by the band's virtuoso rhythms and the lead man's sober unpredictability. New Blood, as I said, is a tight, rocking, funkified band.

 Jump Children --the Scott Silbert Big Band

Little else existing gets the blood pumping faster than the pulverizing rhythm of big band swing. Limbs twitch, hands beat a tempo on table tops, feet tap then turn and then twist in acrobatic dervishing as the ballroom floor fills with the righteous joy of dancers moving to the galvanizing pace of trombones, trumpets, and saxophones galore joined in a righteous 4/4 stride. In its prime in the 30s, 40s and up to the 50s, it was the music supreme. Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Harry James, the Dorsey brothers, and many others filled the ballrooms, the concert halls, and  radio airwaves coast to coast. 

It was rebellion, rhythm, pot, secret hooch in pocket flasks, riffs romance, the music of a Nation on the go on the dance floors, in the factories, on the march in the War to End all Wars as America seduced the world with the sweetest sounds this side of heaven. I'm nearly 70, born too early in 1952 to remember what monumental big deal the big bands were, but decades of speaking to elders kind enough to share their memories and record collections with me, I think it would be safe to assume that collectively those telling me tales of big bands, tour buses, and bandstands thought that this was a glorious thing that would never end. But it did. The eventual ascendancy of Elvis, Chuck Berry and rock and roll in general in the 50s, to make a complicated tale too brief in the telling, was a principal reason the Big Bands were pushed from the center spotlight. Though never completely out of the public mind, jazz in general and big band jazz in particular became marginalized. Efforts over the years to restart interest in the Swing Era brand of brassy sass have mixed results over the years. In a general way and in the interest of keeping this review concise, suffice it to say that college big bands, various sorts of revivalist ensembles and especially that faddish "Swing Revival" of the late eighties-early 90s, to varying degrees, struck me as academic recreations at best, gimmicky opportunism at worst. You couldn't help but wonder if anyone would happen along, unexpected, with a blazing take on this grand tradition, not as an ancient thing that needed to be refurbished or rehabilitated instead as a life force that can make the nervous system jump again in an age where modern music seems determined to deaden our wits.  

Jump Children by the Jeff Silbert Big Band is a choice step in that direction, a session of hard-rocking swing music, fueled by propulsive drums, two fisted piano chords and sharp, superbly textured, rapidly applied horn and reed arrangements. Silbert, a jaunty and fluid tenor saxophonist and arranger and a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, proceeds here as though Big Bands never went out of style. He's assembled a formidable fourteen-member band, players who lock together in common cause to move the listener through deep, brash colors, and intricate time signatures. There's abundance of ensemble electricity here. Or, more like an embarrassment of hot, very hot jazz.

A bold statement, but the music's galloping swagger is  evidence that enthralls and rattles the senses. The album opener and title track "Jump Children", a tune recorded in 1945 by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm (an all-women and integrated unit that found a measure of international acclaim) is  given a blasting, endearingly fidgety treatment here, with fine solos from trumpeter Josh Kauffman on trumpet and Grant Langford on tenor sax swiftly and lightly darting over and around the cut time horn arrangements, all of which boosts Gretchen Midgely's already animated vocals to heights of finger snapping jive. This collective of virtuosos through a rich swath of known and less known tunes from the period, performed with a superb rhythm section that makes the music move with a youthful flair you might not have expected. There is nothing dated here. There are many sweet spots, but I would point out two especially catchy numbers, the first being an intrepid  iteration of  1939's "In a Persian Market" by Larry Clinton indulges in magnificent stop-time fun after the main theme is stated. Second, the Silbert Big Band's treatment of Mercer Ellington's "Jumpin' Punkin" from 1941 is an elegant jaunt, a spare set of horn charts laced together with sublime statements from multi-reedist on clarinet and Leigh Pilzer on baritone sax. The album concludes on a stratospheric note, the warhorse tune "Stompin' at the Savoy" (composed by Chick Webb and  Edgar Samson), the trademarked horn charts soaring over a brutally effective swing section while a round house of soaring and succinct solos from Kauffman (trumpet), Jen Krupa (trombone), Silbert (tenor sax) and Ken Kimrey switch off with the unison horn lines in a melee of musical chatter.

Blue Kind of Miles --Peter Sprague

It's an odd situation when there's a jazz artist giving tribute to history's most acclaimed jazz trumpeter who proceeds with a band lacking what you'd assume is the  most essential instrumentalist. Yes, we're speaking of a Miles Davis commemoration that exists and moves forward without a trumpet player in their ranks. Odd, yes, but no quandary need apply here. In Guitarist Peter Sprague’s recent offering, Blue Kind of Miles, the absence of a trumpeter is strategic artistry. A reinterpretation of Davis’ music from his landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue, Sprague and longtime comrades (brother Tripp Sprague on sax, flute, and piano; Mack Leighton on bass; and Duncan Moore on drums give themselves the luxury to play with Davis’ seminal compositions. Anyone awaiting the chance to distract with useless complaints about how a younger horn player goes about playing the music of someone whose oeuvre many think invaluable can take the day off. Blue Kind of Miles, highlighting Sprague’s delicate arrangements of Davis’ mystical, modal, and near minimalist tone poems, allows the music to breathe with the fresh breath of this quartet’s sublime collective personality. 

Far more than compensating in place of a trumpet is versatile reed man Tripp Sprague as the album’s secondary soloist, and throughout the disc he reveals what he knows about tone, phrasing, and constructing a soulful message. He fills his solo space with a bevy of melodic ideas on the album’s opening number, a high-stepping rendition of the Davis classic “So What.” His sound is warm and full. His relaxed yet agile playing commands close attention. Peter, as always, combines a precise lyricism to his guitar work; his ensemble work approaches a world-beating classicism, but as those who’ve followed his diverse career since he first appeared on the scene with Dance of the Universe in the seventies, there is an innate swing to his playing. Samba to bop to a bluesy funkiness, all embodied in this improviser’s statements. The haunting flamenco inflections of his spotlight section on Davis’ “Blue and Green” moves you in a way usually reserved for the saddest lyric poets.

“Freddie Freeloader” is a funky conversation among Tripp, Peter, and bassist Leighton—short, bluesy phrases and clipped riffs, something said, a pause, a quizzical response, an emphatic reassertion, another pause, and a musical shrugging of the shoulder. The band then finds the shuffling groove and makes it move steadily with sway and sass, led by Leighton’s fleet bass outing, making the bass run and skip through its walking paces and maintaining the feeling of a rag shop boulevardier seen in all his street corner majesty. Tripp and Peter provide their solos in seamless order; Tripp’s reed work is a moaning blues mosaic of deep-toned exhilaration, laying down a rhythm and blues inflected hard-bop grit he manages with  dexterity and lightness of touch. Peter’s foray into sharp notes, deft runs, and graceful octave work, following the bass line closely, hewing close to the spare theme, but lacing fleet lines at unexpected intervals. The proverbial sound of surprise. “All Blues,” likely the most covered Miles Davis composition, gets a shrewd modification in this outing, with a brisker than usual pace and some additional and tricky changes before the improvisations commence. It is to be expected, I’d say, given the universal familiarity of the original motif. Odd, but most of the versions I’ve come across over the years don’t alter Davis’ spare construction very often. This arrangement provides the atmospherics for a twisting pair of extemporization from the Sprague brothers, followed by a remarkable, rich bowed solo from Leighton. Drummer Moore, a champion on all the tracks as he performs wonderful rhythm section duties with Leighton, cannot be praised enough. Pulse, groove, flawless shifts in tempo, the man behind the traps keeps this session grooving the particularly provocative paths that Miles Davis laid out. Blue Kind of Miles is an intriguing and innovative tribute to the man’s singular vision as an improviser and composer.


 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

SOME NICE WORDS FOR THE FIRST PETER GABRIEL ALBUM

 

I wasn't and remain no great fan of progressive rock as a genre, although there were significant  stylistic enclaves hither and yon that gave me more than a few hours of enlightened distraction. Genesis, with Peter Gabriel as vocalist and contributing songwriter, were an  ensemble that provided some of those hours because, I suppose, these able musicians viewed themselves songwriters first, virtuosos second. Which meant, you see, far fewer meandering solos and classy art-moves, musically, to bolster what happened to be catchy, appealing, haunting, sad and beautiful songs underneath the occasionally overwrought arrangement. Pacing, spacing, self-editing, and sense of literate restraint enabled these guys, initially, to tell a tale through two album sides, four album sides, and pretty much give the world through the eyes of characters you didn't know could be imagined and come away disbelieving none of it. And their tunes could be hummed or sung with relative ease by a listener. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, to use a cursed term, is one of the very, very, very few rock operas to work entirely. Gabriel was no small part of that success. The first album, the first of a string of discs to be called Peter Gabriel with no sequencing qualifying the release title, is a masterpiece, a joyous and contagious bringing together of theatrical art rock, guitar chord burnishing, art-song, odd tales from Dark Forests--something very British, very Lewis Carroll, very C.S. Lewis. The melodies and the hooks get you and keep in their hold--"Here Comes the Flood", "Salisbury Hill", "Moribund the Bergermeister" morph, ascend and descend in pitch, mood, and modulation that your mind is pretty reeling with hooky riffs, phrases and the quotable yet enigmatic bits of lyric that is crazy making on sleepless nights, so much so that you feel compelled to play the disc again and yet again. Such was my case, sometimes thinking that I was delving into some library of forbidden journals, esoteric poetry or the keys to all metaphors that would, with close reading, unlock the qualities of the universe even the bravest poets trembled before. Peter Gabriel's has one of those voices that  puts its power and range int the service of his muse's highest standards. He is less a vocal personality that a set of personas that makes this album a joy to ponder, wonder about, scratch your head over while your ears behold some marvelous art rock that lifts the spirits to try harder and to feel deeper, more profoundly.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

DEATH OF A BOOK CHAIN

 The New Republic notes with justifiable glee that Amazon.com is closing all 68 of its brick and mortar bookstores. Goodbye and good riddance , they say. The idea was horrible, the stores were disasters and the whole operation was designed not to improve the experience of discovering new authors but to mine data ie, personal information from customers for the cynical and profit-seeking purpose of selling them more goods. Bookstores,in fact, are better for the death of Amazon's grotesque enterprise. Who says irony is dead? Read the piece here.

I was laid off for a period from my UCSD job, one which I was eventually rehired. Meanwhile, I interviewed for a bookseller position with Amazon books for their University Towne Center location: I had to sign a Do Not Disclose agreement before they gave me preparation materials for the interview, a lengthy pamphlet on how the stores operated, job requirements, all that kind of stuff. 

The actual interview was at a hotel near UTC, located in a series of sixth floor conference rooms. There was a table with a tray of pastries and water pitchers and plastic cups, on chair where I sat on one side of the table, and three chairs on the other. I was to be interviewed four groups of two-three interlocutors representing different management aspects for the Amazon stores implementation. One team would interview for ten minutes or less, they would thank me and instruct me to wait for the next pair to arrive, until all the teams had a chance to check my suitability. The way it worked was the those who'd just queried me about various Amazon-centric matters would smile, nice, tight grins on tight, white faces, shake my hand, and tell me to remain seated and another pair or trio from another company concern would be in just a few minutes to question me about their specific concerns. Remarking that this situation was Kafkaesque is cliché and is expected, but the comparison is unavoidable as it is irresistible. Anyone who's read Don DeLillo's Kennedy assassination novel LIBRA would see this description as similar to a chapter in the book where various CIA analysts come in and out of a room where the secret files about the assassination are inspected. At varying intervals, paired members of the team would arise and leave the room, leaving the documents behind, and then another pair would join the ensemble of analysts. As it worked out, only one pair of inspectors were at the table all the while. 

It was my soul-saving good fortune that the Amazon folks didn't call me for another interview. Note that few of the questions had anything to do with books or customer service. Months later I went to the Amazon Bookstore I interviewed for to see what it was like, and it was despairing, antiseptic. I've seen many airport and bus station kiosks that had wider and more impressive selections of books. So goodbye and good riddance.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

AMERICANA : MUSIC FROM SAN DIEGO

The Innocent Bystanders are a San Diego-based troupe of roots-rockers who’ve assumed the mantle of being this area’s premier practitioners of a music that is often called Americana. To clarify, Americana is a contemporary musical approach that combines and blends many kinds of American roots-oriented genres. There is a always the threat that unrestrained eclecticism can make a flavorless goulash, but the knowing musicians, those with the fabled “big ears,” able to craft skillfully, the plaintive, the soulful, the swinging, and the rocking from the disparate schools of folk, blues, rock, country, and soul (most definitely soul), speaking to audiences in ways commanding attention. More than that, the best of it supplies the shock of recognition: the insistent blues licks, the ethereal gospel-tinged choruses, the plaintive, scrappy vocals drawing from Appalachian and Memphis influences, which send a shiver down your spine, makes you at various times needing to laugh aloud or shed a tear for no immediate reasons. You have the feeling that you’ve just returned from a long adventure to unknown parts and met a bevy of fascinating Americans in doing so. Then the lights of the living room lights come back on and in the quiet realize you’ve been transported.

This is the magic that the best of the Innocent Bystanders creates. Comprised of vocalist Deborah Darroch, Jessica LaFave on tenor saxophone and backing vocals, Ben Nieberg overseeing acoustic guitar and vocals, Steve Semeraro on electric guitar, Donny Samporna on bass, and Steve Berenson behind the drum set. The band brings their distinct skills for the marvelously funky and frayed variety that occupies their second, The Book of Life. The tone is gritty and soulful in ways that transcends barriers and speaks plainly on matters of life on life’s terms, death, getting beaten down but getting up again, and putting one’s shoulder to the wheel again. You get this feeling of strength and resilience in the album’s opener, “No Place to Go,” tenderly offered in a Stevie Nicks-ish croon by Darroch, guitars; drums and bass lay a delicate yet sinewy weave of rhythmic momentum as the tale of hard years, travel, an uncertain fate haunting the troubled road unfolds. Darroch’s vocal delivery hasn’t a trace self-regret; this is a person making peace with their regrets and sorrows with the conviction to move onward, forward. A remarkable song about seeking in the midst of desolate circumstances.

The mood kicks up a notch later in the record’s flow, especially with the saxophone oomph of LaFave’s tenor sax goosing the gospel/ soul-train testifying of the suitably chugging “This Train.” Steady as she goes, Nieberg proffers suitable rhythm and blues wailing on his vocal. This train might be the same conveyance that Curtis Mayfield foretold his listeners with the classic “People Get Ready,” an evocation of that same train as it pulls from the station and goes through the quizzical paces of leading a full and useful life. 

The Book of Life covers a broad swath of musical approaches that are lovely to behold in the effortless expressiveness the Innocent Bystanders bring to their well-wrought expanse of American styles. The concluding song, “Lost Things,” evokes Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, with a trace of the Arc Angels making this rugged ballad even more alluring than it might have been. Nieberg’s vocal takes on a husky rasp, the band swells and recedes and swells again at points in the narrative for splendid dramatic effect, and you find yourself imagining that there is a man in the center spotlight taking stock of the trajectory of his life and realizes that each trauma, heartache, birth, death, celebration, and catastrophe has all been worth the years of struggle and hard-learned truths. The song seems, to me, to be the point where one’s experience evolves from a sullied timeline of conflicting emotions to becoming wisdom, a living philosophy. The Book of Life is wonderfully unpretentious in the blessedly small-cap wisdom the songs bring us. This is rich, evocative music in a very American grain.


Originating from Des Moines, IA, San Diego based singer-songwriter-and guitarist Michael J. Dwyer has a voice that has an appealing husky texture, dusty and measured in how it mulls over a lyric and shares it with an audience. He sounds like the better moments of Dylan or Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, throughout the length of his new release of eight original songs, Borderland 2. As the flinty edge of his voice suggests, the disc is a series of confessions, admissions, declarations, resignations, estimations of life lived long and fully enough that a timeline of hard living, fast loving, revelry, and ruination mark the beginnings of wisdom.

The material here, however, aren’t about ruing a past of blown chances or plans that didn’t pan out; Dwyer speaks additionally speaks from resilience, putting his shoulder to the cracked a wheel again and persevering. Borderland two is less the tales of a survivor, but a man who relishes the life he has yet to lived. This is somebody who isn’t hanging up his guitar or walking stick anytime soon.Borderland 2 is a fascinating evocation of divergent styles, be it folk, country, blues, or rock and roll. In other words, Americana, the alluring synthesis of North American roots music. Electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, banjo, harmonica, and drums are the essential seasonings here, organic textured, earthy, and homey, creating an evocative intimacy as the stories unfold. One would expect an entire ensemble to provide a musical outlay this rich, but the credit goes to two musicians, Dwyer himself on guitars, harmonica and vocals, and his associate Ronald E. Golner, who handles the other instruments, who also oversaw the recording, mastering, and production of the sessions. (Let’s note that trumpeter Brett Wagoner provides his skills to good measure on the track “Fuego Grande,” a sizzling Spanish-flavored torch song). The sound resonates, punchy, each note and chord landing precisely on target.

Again, the record is not sallow caterwauling of life gone wrong. Dwyer informs us that he’s got a lot of life left and a lot of fight to go with it, amply laid out in the opening track “I’m Not Afraid.” This is the telling of an old timer, declaring himself as a fool who might have dismissed in some instance, that he’s too old to dread what life might bring to him that do, that he’s been alive too long through too many circumstances to care what the world at thinks of how he lives his life. He sounds more than willing to put up his dukes to defend his right to not care what you think. 

 Resilience is a theme that runs through these songs. These are notes from an ongoing journal of a man who arises again and yet again after that, convinced to his core that the shame isn’t in falling down, but in staying down. “There Comes a Time” ends the album with the message to the young, the impatient, the impudent, the cocky, the alienated, the arrogant, the afraid, to anyone convinced that their life is at a hopeless dead end so early in their years to take chances, take risks, be unafraid to make mistakes, to fail, to get up and go again when your face is in the dirt, to do something, to do many things to ensure that on reflection  that one didn't spend their life weeping. Michael J. Dwyer, a traveler, a songwriter, a man tempered by time and dared to feel his experiences deeply, tells us with Borderland 2 that it’s worth it all, and he’d do it again if he could.


(Originally published in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with permission).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Sunday, February 27, 2022

FEARLESS OR LESS FEAR?

 

Fearless is a fine word, but a bit melodramatic. Blues musicians and musicians in general, I suppose, can be expected to engage in a bit of high-rent hyperbole when discussing matters musical. It's a trait I engage in. In any case, I look less for “fearlessness” and all its Saturday matinée associations and seek instead musicians who have confidence in what they're doing. There is that threshold we must all cross, built of self-doubt, stage fright, anxiety, when we're about to step onto the stage, but the one who will be the professional, the one who is going to turn in stellar performances more often than not, is the one with the instinct, the knack, the desire to entertain, delight and amaze others to convert fear, bad nerves, doubt, the shakes into energy that fires the brain and the limbs and makes all the synapses fire; the training, the practice, the wood shedding stops being experimental and preparation and transforms itself into confident, self-assured professionalism. It's a quality of being that allows the musician to pretty much do anything he or she has their mind on doing.

Concepts do not exist of themselves, self-contained. The idea of courage is meaningless until one grasps fears, embraces it and walks through that wall of uncertainty that would otherwise prevent the person, musician or not, from doing great and original things. It's walking through your fears and getting to the other side, stronger, tempered, with greater confidence in one's abilities. Fear I believe is a great motivator toward acts of personal courage. It should be turned around, I think. One cannot be “fearless”, but one can live with less fear by taking risks, advancing toward goals one might not otherwise have attempted. Less fear. That seems closer to the real human condition, something that is achievable. Doing away fear is a nice goal in an abstract world, but eliminating this element from the range of human emotion threatens to turn musicians into automatons, machines. If one does not know fear by experience, consequentially one cannot know courage, that is, one cannot be brave. 

These are polarities that depend on one another to be useful in any discussion using either of the terms. Neither fear nor courage make sense without the presence of the other. Sans fear, an element I believe is always present in every human being (unless one is a sociopath), courage is not possible. That is why I'm thinking reversing the term to that of having “less fearing” is more useful and presents a more coherent picture of what you're attempting to get at, as it describes how fear, always present, can be mastered to an extent and turned to one's advantage as the hero, a musician in this case, advances toward that quality called courage. It saddens many to realize that fear cannot be gotten rid of or dissolved in any way because it's an intractable element of the intractable human desire for self perseveration. It can, though, be eliminated, and people can be taught/trained to perform wonderfully despite the fears they have.