Saturday, March 3, 2018

Remembering Frank Zappa and The Mothers in 1971

May 18, 1971 was the date of a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at Bridges Auditorium in Claremont, CA.  I was a few weeks shy of 14, it was my first concert, and a life-changer.  And I had front-row seats, right under Frank's nose.

The Mothers at this time were the band of the albums Fillmore East – June 1971Just Another Band from L.A.; and to a lesser degree, Chunga's Revenge and 200 Motels (soundtrack).  

I distinctly remember the lineup including: Zappa, Mark Volman & Howard Kaylan (vocal), Ian Underwood (keyboards and sax), Aynsley dunbar (drums), Jim Pons (bass) and another keyboardist whom I assume was Bob Harris (in the photo above, behind Frank's left).  I vaguely recall seeing Don Preston, but I'm not sure about that.  There is a setlist of songs that were played at, much of which seems accurate to me.

I don't recall enough of the concert to provide a continuous narrative, but have strong recollections of specific moments, many of which have been added to by my bother Tony and our friend Brent Tannehill.  Here they are.  You'll need to know the albums I named above to follow all the references.

Zappa Himself

  • He was wearing bright "Easter colors," possibly pink pants and a yellow shirt
  • At concert opening, he introduced singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan as formerly of The Turtles, which drew expressions of surprise from the audience (including me).  Mark and Howie smiled appreciatively at their intro.
  • Zappa spent the concert on the far right side of the stage (stage left).  For the long stretches when he wasn’t playing, he leant casually against the proscenium arch and watched the theatrics approvingly, with much mirth and smiles
  • Visually, Zappa was an arresting site to anyone who first saw him for the first time in a photo.  Up close and in person, the effect was even stronger.  The blackness of his hair, the razor sharp nose, the emaciated body, the greasy mediterranean looks, were all very striking
  • His constant smoking was a surprise to me. It seemed to me like a very "bar band" thing that was uncommensurate with progressive Rock and Roll.  He wedged his cigarette between the nut and the tuning pegs of his guitar, and played while the thing burned away
  • His guitar was the SG with silver tailpiece he was known for during the period (and which Dweezil has been playing a likeness of in his Zappa Plays Zappa concerts).  His amp gear included Orange Amps, and of course he used the wah-wah a lot.

From “the Groupie Routine”

  • Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were generally very visually entertaining, and good actors
  • Mark Volman had his shirt off to portray the pregnant groupie.  It was really out of my experience to see a portly fellow display himself that way. 
  • Mark Volman & Howard Kaylan were generally being pretty lewd with each other, e.g. Howie rubbing Mark’s rubbing his belly lasciviously.  That kind of homoerotic-tinged acting was pretty out there for me. 
  • The “number one with a bullet” thing over and over really made us laugh
  • The crazy noise distortion “I can’t STAND it!” part had great visuals from Zappa, he "fucked his amp with the guitar" a la Jimi Hendrix, with crazy legs dancing
  • As Jim Pons played the slow two-note riff that happens through much of the routine, he would just rock his weight from left to right feet in a slow rhythm.  Looked like a wedding band guy playing "a casual"
  • My reaction to the bit about the “enchilada wrapped with pickle sauce shoved up and down in between the donkey's legs until he can't stand it no more”...let's just say it was a kind of sexual fetishism I had no frame of reference for.  And all the more so because they repeated it many times, making me wish they'd stop.  Remember, I was 13.
  • I remember the bits about ’Bwana Dik’, which were really funny
  • "The Mudshark dance," consisted of Mark and Howie, putting their hands together in a fish-shape and making a swimming motion, often between their legs
  • The climax where they performed “Happy Together” was a surprise that created a lot of laughter

From “Billy the Mountain”

  • Frank announced that this was the first-ever performance
  • Jim Pons doing his George Putnam imitation had us in stitches.  
  • I remember “Studebaker Hoch” being the main character
  • Memorable Aynsley Dunbar moment:  coming from behind his drums to do “THE STUDEBAKER HOCH DANCING LESSON & COSMIC PRAYER FOR GUIDANCE featuring Aynsley Dunbar...  Twirlie, twirlie, twirlie…"
  • And he played the hell out of drums, including the 8-measure solo from the Fillmore album.  His drums moved around a lot from the force of his playing, and he kept on having to drag his bassdrum back towards him.  His energy was a big mover in that band.  And a very photogenic guy to boot.

Other things

  • Ian Underwood was pretty hidden behind the keyboards the majority of the time.  He seemed to crave no spotlight whatsoever or was concerned with showmanship.  Mostly you'd only see him when he "whipped out" his alto saxophone and played it high and sideways over the keyboards.   
  • The playing of Peaches en Regalia, with Aynsley Dunbar's note-perfect intro, got us all very excited
  • The crowd demanded an encore, but we got the feeling that Zappa hated encores, so instead of a song, they quickly did the “left hand from the heart-ah, right hand from the heart-ah” routine that eventually was part of Billy the Mountain.

Our Bootleg Tape Debacle

A recording of the concert might exist to this day were it not for teenage foolishness and naiveté. Tony smuggled in a small tape recorder for the concert; he remembers it being cassette, I remember it being a tiny reel-to-reel.  (You have to understand that affordable consumer-level recorders still were very rare in 1971, and the cassette medium too.)

At the end, proud of his accomplishment, Tony (15 years old) played the recording as we walked to the car.  We took a circuitous route that brought us behind the auditorium, where we could see Frank, along with band members, women, and roadies leaning against a truck.  I remember seeing the glow of one of his Winstons.  This motivated Tony to show "how cool he was" by making it even more audible to those around us, including Frank and party.  Next thing you know, Herb Cohen (we're pretty sure) makes a beeline towards us, and demands the tape.  To try to make it smart a little less, he offered $5 for it.  When we handed it over, rapidly unspooled it and threw it high up into some eucalyptus trees where we could never get to it, and walked back to the truck.

Well, however tragic, let's just call that a concert memory we'll never forget!

Thanks to Murray Gilkeson for the concert poster.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Get To Know Jelly Roll Morton

A frequent activity of my obsessive, music-loving nature is to pick a musician I don't know much about, and then dig deep, and try to listen to everything they ever recorded.

Jelly Roll Morton:  an important figure in the early history of jazz, very active in the middle 1920's.  The other day I ran across some graphic novel work of R. Crumb's where he portrayed JRM's own description of the downfall of his career through voodoo.  That made me decide to take the plunge on JRM's music.  JRM was a bit of a 'factory' of endless hits, hours of similar sounding piano rags and New Orleans ensemble pieces.   But I found these great high points.

Beale Street Blues

One of his fun-time songs for New Orleans style combo, with crazy trombone glissandi, funny clarinets, everything.

Wild Man Blues

One trick of JRM's that brings a smile to my face is in one of his slow pieces when the tempo suddenly goes quadruple-time for a measure or two.  It reminds me of an early Saturday Night Live episode where Steve Martin and Gilda Radner did a suave ballroom dance with occasional moments of frenetic feet movement and insane jazz hands.

The Chant
Some wild early jazz, with a degree of frenetic that sounds like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  My brother Tony, a drummer, gets a kick out of the many choked cymbals.  Also features another early jazz oddity, a saxophone with a very clicky attack sound.

Grandpa's Spells
More early jazz fun hi-jinx.

Someday Sweetheart

A funny kind of sentimental 1926 pop, featuring a sad basset-hound of a melody, played by the mournful tones of the viola and bass clarinet.

If Someone Would Only Love Me
  Another broad, comic portrayal of basset-hound like sadness.

King Porter Stomp  
Possibly his most famous number.  Like Scott Joplin's rags, but with its own kind of vibrancy.

Billy Goat Stomp
A novelty song featuring a bleating goat, goofy and fun.

The title is descriptive of what must been very "progressive sounding" in JRM's time.

Oil Well
A musical portrayal of the good life that you'd have if you had an oil well in the 1920's.  Featuring that notorious stereotype of "society music", the broad-vibrato sax and clarinet.

I hope you enjoy JRM as much as I do.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review of Apple's HomePod

When you try the new HomePod at the Apple Store, you're only allowed to do generic things with it because the floor model is configured to disallow a connection from your iPhone.  This product costs $349, by the way.  But you can always try it out by buying one and returning it in the 14-day period.  Apple is there to help!

Admittedly I'm not exactly the target consumer Apple has in mind or the HomePod.  I don't wish I had an Alexa-like device around the house.  I never became a fan of using Siri commands on my iPhone.  I don't need Apple Music to be the source of music I listen to, and I already know that my eclectic music tastes are not well catered to by Apple Music's holdings.

But Apple always makes smart products, right?  When Steve Jobs presented the iPhone, he described it as a phone, an iPod, and an internet browser in one device.  Apple could have bait-and-switched us by providing some poor excuse for a phone, short on features and long on predictability.  No, Apple gave us a phone that was all they things we expect from a phone, plus more, with creative twists, and they changed the world.  So I should expect HomePod to charm the pants off of me and do a better job than some of the devices I already have around the house, like bluetooth speakers, and serve up my music with interactive voice commands.  I was quite intrigued by the potential for great sound by the extraordinary audio hardware inside:  seven beamforming tweeters and a high-excursion woofer.

So yes, it does fill the role of a bluetooth speaker.  I can play the songs that are physically on my iPhone from the Music app.  The quality is very good, it does fill the room with sound nicely.  But those charming, unexpected features that can change my life?  They aren't there.  In fact, HomePod is astonishingly not good at all the things you'd like it to be.

But I'll play nice, and start by listing what HomePad IS good at.

  1. Deep bass response.  When plugged in, it emits a low tone you can feel in your tummy, almost.
  2. You select HomePod as your audio device the way you would with any bluetooth speaker or Apple TV.
  3. Siri understands how to pause a song and advance it.  It takes request to get louder or softer.
  4. It understands a few conventional Siri commands to interact with iCloud and your iPhone to accomplish some tasks.  It will send a text, it will create a reminder.  
  5. Siri seems to know something about the genres of my music.  I asked Siri to play some Irish music.  She gave a vague reply about "playing all songs" but she actually did proceed to play Irish songs and fiddle tunes from my iPhone.  This is a mystery since Siri was unaware of my songs' genre tags (see below).
  6. If you can get Siri to understand you, it will play a song by name that you physically have on your iPhone.
  7. Siri hears you over the music it is playing for you.  It doesn't have to stop your music to take a command.
  8. Siri knows about the podcasts on your iPhone, and play podcasts that are on your list.

But here's the $349 bad news.

  1. Except for the two things I mentioned above, HomePod does not act as an extension of your iPhone, with Siri as your assistant.  It does not connect with your Contacts, Calendar, Notes or Phone over iCloud. You don't ask Siri to write an email, set a meeting, look up a contact, ask who you are, or set the name of your spouse or work address.  Siri will tell you, "I'm sorry, I can't do that."
  2. Siri has been endowed with no special intelligence when it comes to your music.  She's not combing through your music collection and priming herself to recognize the artists, titles, genres and playlists you're likely to be asking about.  You'd think that because I have McCoy Tyner's "Contemplation" physically on my iPhone, you think she'd be primed to play it on request.  Nope, Siri couldn't help me when I said "Hey Siri, play Contemplation by McCoy Tyner." 
  3. In fact, Siri is just as bad as ever at correctly hearing your words at all, in spite of the purported Adaptive Audio and the six microphone array.  She still regularizes all your unusual words to something more common, and completely gets wrong what you're asking.  Your motivation to speak naturally with Siri drops like a rock.
  4. Siri has no knowledge of my playlists, so I couldn't ask her to play my Thelonious Monk playlist.  And: "Hey Siri, add this song to my Christmas playlist" gets the response, "Hmm, I couldn't find a playlist with that name."
  5. Siri has no knowledge of genres tagged on my iPhone's songs.  I have several hundred songs tagged with a genre of jazz, but not according to Siri:  "Sorry, you don't have any jazz music."
  6. Siri will try to do things and follow it with an "uh-oh".  I asked to her create a note, and she said she did it, but it was not to be found on my iPhone.  She cheerfully agreed to rate my current song with two stars, and then said "something went wrong."
  7. There is a lag between the actions you take on your iPhone's music player and when you hear them on HomePod.  Pausing, resuming play and scrubbing all have a response lag that you do not experience with today's bluetooth speakers.
A few interesting or odd things:
  1. HomePod is heavy like a brick.  I'm not sure why the subwoofer would need a heavy magnet; new metals from rare earth minerals, like Neodymium, have made much lighter speakers possible.
  2. HomePod is battery-less and plugs into the wall.  It's not meant to be a totable device like your current bluetooth speakers.
  3. HomePod has a clever (or strange) relationship with the connection to your iPhone.  I started a song playing from my iPhone.  Then I disabled both BlueTooth and Wi-Fi from the settings on my iPhone.  The song did not cease playing, even after a long time.  In fact, the iPhone was no longer even the source of the sound; the controls were in paused state.  If I pressed play, it would play independently of the HomePod through its own speakers.  It appears that the HomePod is buffering audio, and making a seamless handoff to Apple Music.
  4. There is a 'Home' app on your iPhone which is your gateway to the HomePod, but you can't really do anything more than use it to disconnect from HomePad.
So I don't know why you'd want a HomePod.  Apple seems to have made a product that's meant for asking very generic things with simple words, and a gateway to the mainstream music to be found in Apple Music.  My advice?  Stick with your bluetooth speakers, and the for better quality, pay more.  

Here's a sorry list of the many things I tried to get Siri to do with my HomePod.

ContextCommand AttemptedSiri's Response
My iPhone has song "Four By Five" by McCoy TynerHey Siri, play Four By Five.Sorry, you don't have a song called Four.
I have music by the Finnish musician Maria Kalaniemi on my iPhone.Hey Siri, play some Maria Kalaniemi.Sorry, you don't have any Maria Callas.
My iPhone has song "Passion Dance" by McCoy TynerHey Siri, play Passion Dance.Sorry, you don't have any dance music.
My iPhone has lots of music tagged with the jazz, rock and classical genres.Hey Siri, play some jazz|rock|classical.Sorry, you don't have any jazz|rock|classical music.
Hey Siri, who is the president of the United States?(Siri gives me a description of the United States.)
Hey Siri, do you have access to my iCloud Account?This is about you, not me.
Hey Siri, how can I get access to my contacts?I can't get the answer to that on HomePod.
Carol Sandell's mobile number is in my Contacts.Hey Siri, call Carol Sandell mobile.I'm sorry, I can't help you make calls on HomePod.
Milton Stern is in my Contacts.Hey Siri, find Milton Stern.I can't locate people here. Sorry about that!
Hey Siri, what time is Seinfeld on?(Siri gives me a list of movies with Seinfeld in the title.)
Hey Siri, what time is Seinfeld on TV?I can't give you information about TV shows. Sorry about that.
Hey Siri, what is my name?I don't know your name but you sound like a human being to me. I'm a big fan!
I have an Andrew in my Contacts.Hey Siri, send an email to Andrew.I wish I could.  But I can't help with emails here.
Hey Siri, what appointments do I have tomorrow?I wish I could, but I can't access your Calendar here.

Santa Cecilia Orchestra plays Beethoven & Handel, Feb 11, 2018

Sonia Marie De León de Vega conducted the Santa Cecilia Orchestra Sunday in a splendid program at Occidental College's Thorne Hall: Beethoven's Egmont Overture and 7th Symphony, and Handel's Water Music Suite. The playing was flawless, the phrasing and dynamic control magnificent, and we had superb sonics sitting in the fourth row.

I enjoyed Beethoven's orchestration to a greater degree than ever before, because each timbral element came from a definite spatial location. In my mind, with my eyes closed, I likened the music to a 3-D cutaway automobile with multiple levels of x-ray detail, which would "light up" here and there, revealing the whole auto by the sum of its parts. I guess it was a 50's car because certain of the elements would be the fins, others the chrome.

The string writing in Egmont was particularly wonderful and lush. Who can beat Beethoven at brilliant string writing? I am amazed how he can create effects with strings alone, e.g. certain material behave and sound like "brass parts". And the Santa Cecilia orchestra projected that wonderfully.

The 7th Symphony never ceases to amaze me. Those interior movements are friggin' long!! In fact, the scherzo made me laugh. It's really a scherzo with an atrophied trio that swallows the whole movement. He manages a recap of the scherzo, but it's so pro-forma and brief!

We got a nice, meaty bass sound all concert long because we were seated on "house left", and the "stage left" cellos were pointed right at us. At second desk there was a young (college age) cellist who was really emoting with her face and mannerisms all the enjoyment she was getting from the music. I'd hate to kill youthful joy, but the optics weren't great, because at first chair was a player with a controlled expression, but who could play the HELL out of her instrument. Afterwards, backstage, I told her: "you were a machine!" (which she enjoyed hearing).

Maestro De León de Vega said that this concert was managed with only two rehearsals. I don't know how you do that! There were so many demands of phrasing, style and tapered diminuendo/ritards in the Handel. And so much of the Beethoven effects are like "stunts" that you have to coordinate perfectly, or it's just slop. How would you find time to rehearse each one of those moments? Apart from one French horn clam, the whole concert was flawless. But no matter how it was achieved, Ms. De León de Vega showed that she is a magnificent interpreter of the music.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Mahavishnu Returns - Royce Hall, UCLA, 2017

Suppose its January 1969 in London and you're on your lunch break from your job in Saville Row.  You hear rock music being played from a roof, and there's a commotion on the street: most have figured out that it must be the Beatles playing on the roof of the Apple Corp headquarters at 3 Saville Row.  You follow some others to up to an adjoining rooftop, and you are there to watch the final Beatles concert.  History had already recorded the last audience to hear a Beatles concert: August 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.  But you cheated fate.  Now you're the last audience.

I too, have cheated fate.  I, and about 1800 other people, saw the last concert of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  It wasn't in the 70's, or the 80's.  It was a couple of weeks ago at Royce Hall, UCLA (Dec 9,2017). Because John McLaughlin put together an American tour called "Meeting of The Spirits" which was his first revisiting of the compositions of The Mahavishnu Orchestra in over 40 years, and Royce Hall was the final performance of the tour.  

Think it extreme to characterize these as two supreme events in history?  I'll go farther than that, I call both the Beatles and the Mahavishnu Orchestra supernatural.  The surviving Beatles feel that today:  it's other-worldy to them, they can hardly believe they were part of it.  They were vessels of something bigger than themselves or any individual humans.  And although The Mahavishnu Orchestra didn't enjoy the same scale of fame, they too are supernatural.  

Mahavishnu, of course, refers to John McLaughlin himself, the name given by his spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy.  He too conveyed an out-of-body sense of proportion, in the evening's concert notes, referring to Mahavishnu in the third person:
The music of Mahavishnu is part of my personal and musical history, and as such it is inseparable from me.  To return to these pieces with the experience I've had for the past 45 years, is very exciting.  To play the music of Mahavishnu is not for the faint-hearted.  In fact, among the only people I know who have succeeded in interpreting Mahavishnu music are my two all-time favorite guitarists:  Jimmy Herring and Jeff Beck.
You have to wonder at what path took McLaughlin to choose this tour.  By 1976, McLaughlin moved on from Mahavishnu to a rich career of other kinds of musical fusion:  Shakti, trio albums with Paco de Lucia and Al Dimeola, The John McLaughlin Trio, The One Truth Band, The Fourth Dimension and numerous solo projects.  Songs from the albums Birds of Fire and The Inner Mounting Flame have not appeared in his repetoire for 45 years.  Some 15 years ago he said in an interview:
So many people come to me to ask me to play the music of Mahavishnu again.  I'm so flattered, but I tell them quite honestly, I'm a man in my 60's now, it doesn't fit.  (paraphrased)
Yet here he comes in 2017, as a way of showing gratitude to the audiences who helped make Mahavishnu what it is, he makes a farewell US tour at age 75 featuring the songs Bird of Fire, Miles Beyond, Meeting of The Spirits, The Dance of Maya, A Lotus on Irish Streams, Dawn, Trilogy: The Sunlit Path, Vital Transformation, Sanctuary, Earth Ship and Eternity's Breath part 1.  If Steve Jobs was the embodiment of the phrase, "The Greatest Second Act in History", then John McLaughlin has just nailed "Going out at your peak."  The virtuosity, brilliance and excitement seemed to exceed that of the original 70's concerts.

Photos show that other venues on the tour were of smaller, night-club-sized proportions, so with Royce Hall we were treated to a wonderfully vast space for the grandeur of McLaughlin's music.  Although I didn't make a careful inspection, the sound all seemed to be directly from the stage:  no bone-crushing house sound to wear you out prematurely, no elevation of everything to mind-numbing equal prominence.  Also, the presentation was gratifyingly hands-off:  no booming impressario's voice preceded them, the ovation that greeted them as they walked onstage was the only introduction they needed.  The sight of McLaughlin, relaxed, fit and smartly dressed as usual, with his new blue custom Paul Reed Smith double neck slung over his neck, his virtuosity and musicianship still peaking, etching The Dance of Maya's colossal cathedrals of sound on the canvas of Royce Hall's wide stage and high ceilings, was a sight and sound to remember forever.

Over the years I have learned to play several of McLaughin's Mahavishnu compositions, read the published scores, make my own transcriptions from recordings, and play them in bands, and because of that I thought that I had managed to take a bit of the mystery out of those Godly performances from the 70's; I see now that I was wrong.  Any band worthy of playing with McLaughlin is in possession of rhythm is so profound and uncanny, it is light years beyond what any melodic or rhythmic notation can capture.  These cats don't even have to look at each other to keep a fast 11/4 in time across countless syncopations and polymetric fills.  Their rhythm transcends a time signature label; although you can count off the 11, it doesn't put you in their metric realm.   My jaw spent a lot of time gaping wide that night, my eyes in large OMG circles.  

The tour was actually two existing bands, each with a set of their own, and a merging of the two for a closing Mahavishnu set.  First up were Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip:  Jimmy Herring guitar; Matt Slocum, B3 and Clavinet; Jason Crosby, Rhodes piano and violin; Kevin Scott, bass; and Jeff Sipe, drums.  Next was John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension:  John McLaughlin, guitar; Gary Husband, keyboards and drums; Etienne M'Bappé, bass; and Ranjit Barot, drums and Konnakol (Indian scat singing).

Jimmy Herring's band opened with an improv based on a composition titled---yes---John McLaughlin (a Miles Davis riff from Bitches Brew, 1968).  Low key, but with a delicious, swampy fusion feel.  The highlight of Herring's set was more in the contributions of his sidemen than the numbers they played.  Crosby's Rhodes playing and soloing was exciting and memorable.  Slocum played wonderfully as well, although he tended to play softly and one had to strain to hear the beauty of the B3 tone.  Kevin Scott on bass was a very capable fusion jazz bass player, but on the heavy-metal end of the spectrum: he added too much bombast and eliminated what subtlety might have been in the songs. I also didn’t sense that he was a very harmonic-thinking player; there were times he kept riffing on the root over chord changes.  Herring's guitar was virtuosic but unmemorable.  All the players would, however, show a new side in the Mahavishnu set to come.

John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension was every bit as beautiful and amazing as their albums Live At Ronnie Scott's (2017), Now Here This (2012), and To The One (2010) have shown.  They also played the compositions, and showed the brilliance of, many other McLaughlin projects of the last few decades:  the recordings of the John McLaughlin Trio (Que Allegia, 1992; Live at The Royal Festival Hall, 1989; and Belo Horizonte, 1981) and some of his more amazing solo projects:  Floating Point, 2008; Industrial Zen, 2006; and The Promise, 1995.  Gary Husband is a musician who can amaze not only with his keyboards and synth playing, but with fusion jazz drumming as well---how often do you see that?  M'Bappé's bass seemed a little subdued, musically and visually.  With black gloves on each hand, and moving very little he seemed a little distant from the band, like he was in a plexiglass booth.  But the intersection of the band's virtuosity with McLaughlin's compositional genius elicited standing ovations for two different numbers in  their set. 

The combined 9-piece band brilliantly covered all the Mahavishnu ensemble requirements and made a dream recipe for reincarnating the sound.  Slocum's B3 brought the requisite sound of for songs like The Inner Mounting Flame's Meeting of the Spirits, although again, disappointingly low in the mix.  However he used a Clavinet to great effect, with a wah-wah when funk was needed, or straight to give a sharp tonal edge to the melodies and solos.  Crosby, switching full-time to violin for this set, attempted no imitation of Jerry Goodman, but brought the string timbre which is so essential to Mahavishnu's sound, and gave beautiful, if not electrifying solos.  Similarly, Husband stayed put on keyboards, and gave many touches of synth that evoked some of the genius of Jan Hammer's playing.  Two drumsets, with some exciting Konnakol interludes, created the immensity needed to call to memory Billy Cobham's power and virtuosity.  Two bass players are a tricky feat for any band to accomplish, yet Scott and M'Bappé did so brilliantly by spelling each other on the more improvised material, and playing in unison on the head parts of the songs.  Several members contributed singing for numbers such as Eternity's Breath Part 1.  Herron’s less memorable contribution in the first set became God-like here with his screaming sustain, brilliant speed and articulation that filled the shoes of Hammer and Goodman as McLaughlin's melodic counterpart. And McLaughlin himself again showed that technically he is still peaking at age 75, handily equal to the challenge of Mahavishnu's machine-gun-fire virtuosity, and layering his old compositions with the patina of his 45 years of stylistic evolution, such as his Miles-like inflections on the whammy bar.  Also, novel twists in A Lotus On Irish Streams heretofore unknown from existing recordings showed the composer-as-performer ever evolving his material.  

The concert drew a fascinating crowd.  People-watching in the lobby beforehand, I saw many with guitarist DNA etched in their faces, some of whom I suspect are well known session cats or performers in LA and Hollywood. Seated to my left was a woman who brought her six-year old daughter.  

Taking their final bows, the band's body language seemed to say “that’s it, we don’t play encores, thank you very much, goodbye.”  But this sold-out Saturday night L.A. audience would not take no for an answer, so the ovation continued unabated until they returned, for two more Mahavishnu encores.

There was a sense of unbelievability to the evening.  My friend and I kept exchanging wide-eyed OMG glances with each other as the evening would delve into yet another masterwork from the Mahavishnu canon (such as the lesser-played Trilogy-Sunlit Path and Earth Ship).  I realized there could be no phone call, no social media post, photograph or video that could convey what this evening felt like.  Just being in the same room as John McLaughlin held his hand on his heart, his face overcome with emotion, and clasping his hands in thanks to the waving arms of the standing ovation just inches from him, felt other worldly in a way that cannot be described or forgotten.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Remembering Waves

Electric Jazz Orchestra

Waves was a band I played in from 1974-76.  Before I tell you anything else, I think the music best speaks for itself, so take a listen to this sampler of excerpts and watch the slideshow of old photos!

Let me set the stage first of where this band was coming from, because it wasn't a rock band or traditional jazz ensemble.  Our goal was to do something very original, or at least similar to what the leading artist/composers of our time were doing.  We were striving for something insanely great, like how the Beatles sounded to us in our pre-teens, or how great classical music moved us.

That period of the seventies was a fantasic time musically.  We liked progressive rock, "jazz-rock", funk, and jazz fusion.  The fact that it got rare or no play on the radio made it all the better to us.  We didn't equate artistic value with its earning power.

Earning money playing music was a nice idea in principle, but that had several problems.  One, to get gigs at bars, dances and weddings, you'd have to play hit radio music (99% of which was the opposite of "insanely great").  Two, you'd be spending your creativity channelling other musicians' energy rather than your own.  Three, even if you worked for years to get a nice safe niche as a gigging musician, you'd be earning a barely above the poverty line income at best.  Four, as your uncle might advise you at Thanksgiving, the way a musician earns a living is through teaching.  Right: get taught by your high school band director, take four years of college, and then become him...not quite what we signed up for.

Instead, many of us took the "bohemian displaced labor" path:  finding the highest paying part-time job that afforded the most free time to devote to music.  We were in our late teens and early twenties.  We figured that marriage, kids, a home, etc. were all several years down the road, and our musical energy was not something you could bookmark and pick up again later as a hobby.  A Seize-the-Day kind of thing.  We had hopes we could pole vault over all that earn-your-dues stuff, get discovered, and join the greats like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever with their big label recording contracts and concert tours.  Naive?  Sure.  But better than the alternative.

So you've got a lot of like-minded, talented musicians of a similar age together, where did the music come from?  Jon Rothe, the guitarist and leader of the band, composed many songs, and others composed a song now and then.  But regardless of the source, it wasn't the "solitary genius" model of composing.  It wasn't like Gustav Mahler composing a whole symphony from start to finish in his summer cottage and passing out the parts at Vienna Philharmonic rehearsals for the fall concert season.  A Waves composition was built from contributions of the players and the unique experiences each had with the music we loved.

For example, Jon might come to us with guitar riff or chord sequence where we could hear echoes of say, a Mahavishnu song.  The drummer not only had the instinct for the song effect, but through technique and study, could create effects similar to those drummer Billy Cobham played.  As the bass player, I might add a different element.  Instead of mechanically covering the roots of Jon's chords, I'd invent a melodic bass line that crossed the bar lines of his phrasing, reminiscent of Chris Squire's bass lines with Yes, or Paul McCartney's playing on Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Each of those contributions would in turn create new directions, which created even more, and compositions grew as a kind of chain reaction of ideas.

To be the "electric jazz orchestra" we called ourselves, we needed to recruit strings and winds players, which are different creatures than guitarists and drummers.  If they were any good, they probably got that way in school music programs:  orchestra, marching and concert band, stage band, etc., and it was that repertoire that was in their ears more so than Weather Report's.  Jon was, as now, a fantastic teacher, and spent hours with everyone helping them bridge the gap.  A violinist who, to say the least, would never have played blues in a garage band or know how to improvise a solo, got taught and encouraged.   If they wanted to try their hand at writing a song, and they had the ability to write parts, and the gumption to get the band to realize their vision, their song would go on the next concert.

One of the musical techniques we liked the most (along with everyone else in progressive rock and fusion jazz at the time) was odd time signatures: 5 or 7 beats to the bar, or even 11 and 13.  We regarded them as having magical powers that represented nothing less than the arrival of the future in music, similar to the way Schoenberg believed in the 12-tone system.  We also allowed ourselves the smug satisfaction that we were exploding the heads of musicians who weren't ready for that future.

We got gigs at colleges, benefits, art fairs and summer festivals.  Once we even played for the mental ward of a hospital, and that's not even the whole story.  We brought in our equipment, which included carrying our upright piano up a fire escape, did a sound check, and went to lunch.  When we came back from lunch, we were informed that inbetween the time we left and returned, the building had become condemned!  Somehow the gig happened anyway, and it was a gas.  Some of the patients on the ward danced to us, in very much a "dance like noone's watching" kind of way.

Another funny memory is the period of time where we rehearsed in a gas station.  Gas stations around that time were converting from service optional to self-serve only, and you'd pay (on the honor system!) a cashier sitting behind bulletproof glass.  Jon had the cashier's job at such a station that previously had been a gas plus repair shop.  Seeing an opportunity, the two now empty repair bays became our acoustically cavernous rehearsal space.  We played our jazz fusion while the ghosts of Camaro oil changes and Pinto brake jobs swirled around us.  That spot remains a working gas station to this day, on Holt Avenue in Pomona where it intersects with the 71 (Corona) freeway.

For the program we handed out at our 11/15/74 La Verne concert, we asked our alto saxophonist Dave Hindson, a gifted cartoonist, to draw some cover art.  I remember Dave at a rehearsal with a little notebook, taking a look at each one of us and writing something down.  When he came back with the art, we died laughing.  Besides the hilarious likenesses, he had noted incredible specifics, like my boots and zippered shirt, Marc Hellman's tendency to face to the side and the muffling in his twin bass drums, Lori DeLong's manner of holding her flute when she wasn't playing, and Jon's intense concentration as he channelled the guitar Gods in one of his solos.

Dave Hindson's cartoon for our November 15, 1974 concert at La Fetra Lecture Hall at La Verne University.  Greg Sandell, Dion Sorell, Marc Hellman, Jon Rothe, Lori DeLong, Dave Hindson.

Our concerts had some marketing elements to them as well.  We had great posters and fliers, all of which can be seen in the video.  The arrangement of equipment and players on the stage was conceived with the flow and symmetry of Greek architecture.  Flutes and strings would each be on their own riser, which I refer to now as "peanut galleries."  Drums, bass and keyboards would be arranged as the "back of the house," and two spots up front would be for lead instruments like guitar or sax, whose space was articulated by a beautiful oriental rug.  Jon, who has a gift for concert logistics (including begging and borrowing cool instruments like Minimoogs, Hammond organs, tympani and gongs), would even recruit roadies for efficient setup and teardown.

The Songs of Waves

Waves' songs made up for their lack of vocals by having interesting titles and origins.  The Backroads Regatta of Inyo County was about an experience Jon had at scout camp where a jeep raced a dump truck.  The Serpent of Aquaadit was about Nixon and Watergate, and the title of my 12-tone composition Pissing Contest derived from a quote from Nixon himself on a Watergate tape. James Monroe by Dion was a tribute to a beloved high school teacher.  My song Jesse's Pig was about our JCT 605 bandmate Jesse Moreno's '73 Dodge Charger which could guzzle a can of oil in a week.  P Jug is a song about the path of kidney effluent from origin to collection through a bunch of looped tygon tubing.  Cheap Incense and Warm Beer was about a disappointing date night.  Empty Tranquility on the Road to San Francisco was a contemplation on relationship difficulties.  Dion's beautiful The Dance of Death was about martial arts.  Jon's epic piece Notes on J.H.G. was musico-biographico tribute to his close friend and mentor John Harry Gingrich.  And Johnny and Joel was about Gingrich's sons whom Jon sometimes babysat.  Another song was inspired by a commercial that ran on one of L.A.'s second-tier TV stations for the moving van company Bekins, in which an un-telegenic octogenarian named Betty Rains would flatly deliver her endorsement, I Like Bekins Work Very Much.  I wrote a solemn chorale for piano that captured my feelings of walking around Pomona College in the rain, imaginatively titled Pomona College.  Ballad for a Mahayana Buddhist was about beatnik writer Jack Kerouac.  New Voyage captured in its lyrics the direction Waves took with its new strings and flutes orchestral configuration.  A melody I wrote, Miles Davis Would Not Be Impressed was inspired by a photo of the great taciturn trumpet player, and it worked its way into Metamorphosis as my bass solo.

And although it wasn't in Waves' repertoire, it must be mentioned that Jon once titled a piece San Andreas Ain't Yo Fault.

The History of Waves

I'd played previously with Jon in a band called Junction 605 (aka JCT 605), a horn band that wrote some original songs and covered numbers by Chicago and Tower of Power.  By March 1974 it was broken up for the usual reasons bands do...increased work or school demands, people leaving for college, parents or sweethearts applying pressure.  But Jon got offered a one-night gig at La Verne College (as it was known back then) for March 20, so he put together an ad hoc band with four JCT 605 players, and hotshot kid cellist Dion Sorrell.  Out of that gig came the first iteration of Waves:  Jon, me, Dion, Marc Hellman on drums and Karen Daughs on sax and flute, and Dan Ashby on trumpet.  We played one gig around June in this configuration at La Verne College.  Here's a picture from our early rehearsals (minus Dan):

Standing:  Marc Hellman, Greg Sandell, Karen Daughs, Jon Rothe.  Above:  Dion Sorrell.  In Glendora, May 24, 1974. 

Marc Hellman, Greg Sandell, Karen Daughs, Dion Sorrell, Jon Rothe.  In Glendora, May 24, 1974.

In the next iteration, both horn players were replaced with alto sax player Dave Hindson.  Dave had an admiration for Paul Desmond, the smooth, golden-toned alto sax player who played with Dave Brubeck.  While the fit with some of our rock-flavored fusion material was a little interesting, our more melodic material and slower ballads shone with incredible beauty under Dave.  Meanwhile, Dion Sorrell had been developing more and more as one of Waves' front men, showing an ability to take electrifying solos, play some Stanley Clarke like sounds on the bass, and write some unique compositions (two of which can be heard on the video).

It's still 1974.  We did a big benefit concert for Amnesty International at La Verne College on August 2.  The following weekend we played at the L.A. County fair on August 9, and an hour before the gig, watched Nixon's resignation speech on a small TV we brought with us.  For a concert in a La Verne College lecture hall on November 15, we added flutist Lori De Long (photos below).

Dave Hindson, Jimmy Dunn (roadie), Greg Sandell, Marc Hellman, Jon Rothe, Dion Sorrell (out of shot).  At Founders Auditorium, La Verne University, benefit for Amnesty International, August 2, 1974.  You can hear this concert here.

Greg Sandell, Dion Sorrell, Marc Hellman, Jon Rothe, Lori DeLong, Dave Hindson.  At La Fetra Lecture Hall, La Verne University, November 15, 1974.  You can hear this concert here.

1975 was "dark" for Waves, possibly related to it being my senior year in high school.  In 1976 we started taking a new direction that let us adopt the "electric jazz orchestra" moniker.  The Mahavishnu Orchestra released the album Visions of the Emerald Beyond which featured a female singer and orchestra, and that inspired us to start adding voice and lyrics to our music.  So we added Liz Hangan as our singer, and Barbara Belmont (flute) and Andrew Levin (viola) as our mini orchestra.  Martin Maudal replaced Marc Hellman on the drums.  We played two gigs at Pitzer College, on February 20 in a dorm lounge and then at the Kohoutek Festival on April 17.  After that we added more to our 'orchestra':  Linda Jones and Claire Ann Sabino on flutes, Jenny Black and Lorene Ivory on violin.  We played with that 11-piece ensemble on May 8 at La Verne College's drama venue, Dailey Theatre, June 10 at Glendora High School (which can be heard here), and July 26 at Memorial Park in Claremont (with Laurie Smith trading for Linda Jones at flute).  There was also a concert at the L.A. County Fair on September 24 about which all I can remember is Jon had a gold-top Les Paul stolen when a roadie guarding the equipment looked the other way.

Liz Hangan, Dion Sorrell, Barbara Belmont, Claire Ann Sabino, Linda Jones, Jon Rothe, Greg Sandell, Martin Maudal, Andrew Levin, Jenny Black and Lorene Ivory.  At Dailey Theatre, La Verne University, May 8, 1976

Andrew Levin, Liz Hangan (blocked), Barbara Belmont and Martin Maudal (cut off). At Pitzer College, Feb 26, 1976. 

Claire Ann Sandino, Laurie Smith, Barbara Belmont, Liz Hangan, Dion Sorrell, Andrew Levin, Martin Maudal, Jon Rothe, Greg Sandell, Lorene Ivory (hidden by music stand), Jenny Black.  At Memorial Park, Claremont, CA, July 26, 1976.  You can hear this concert here.
Poster from September 24, 1976 concert.

Two more concerts in 1976 still featured an orchestra configuration but with a few personnel changes.  Dion Sorrell departed, and new singer Catherine Robinson took Liz Hangan's place.  Barbara Belmont was moved to a front role on the stage, and in Claire Ann Sabino's place, two flutes were added, Karen Weinberger, and Anónima Desconocida.  The string section grew to four with the addition of Kim Sigona on cello, and Martin Maudal was joined by drummer Tony Sandell, turning Waves into a percussion powerhouse.  We gave a concert at the Griswolds Art Fair on a beautiful sun-kissed day on November 7, and Dailey Theatre again on December 18.  

Martin Maudal (out of view), Jon Rothe, Greg Sandell, Lorene Ivory, Karen Weinberger, Jenny Black, Laurie Smith, Andrew Levin, Anónima Desconocida, Kim Sigona.  The Griswolds Art Fair, Claremont, CA, November 7, 1976.  You can hear this concert here.

Barbara Belmont, Tony Sandell (behind on drums), Greg Sandell, Catherine Robinson, Martin Maudal (hidden, on drums), Jon Rothe.   The Griswolds Art Fair, Claremont, CA,November 7, 1976.
Poster for December 18, 1976 concert.

In 1976 I had a kind of one-foot-in, one-foot-out status in Waves, as my classical piano studies at Cal State Los Angeles were getting the lion's share of my musical attention, and the geographical distance took its toll.  Waves went on to do some gigs without me, with bassists Mark Silva or Victor Patron and guitarists Michael Ferruchi up through 1978, at the Boiler Room in Claremont June 8-11, 1976, the LA County Fair on September 16, 1978, and at the White House club in Hermosa Beach.  By 1979 Waves had split and Jon started a new orchestra-like venture called Appollonicon.

In Conclusion

I've had fun doing the archeological work that it took to gather all the old recordings from cassette tapes (some of which required repairs with magnifying glass and scotch tape).  Thank God we held onto them and the audio survived reasonably well, and now it's up on YouTube.  Thanks to the late Bob Mathieson who was often the one who made sure a tape machine was running, the mike properly placed, and the levels well set.  Thanks also to Jon Rothe for his many photos, tapes and facts, and for Barbara Belmont's eidetic memory for the who's, what's and when's of 40 years ago, and for her description of P Jug.  Thanks to Andrew Levin for remembering the hospital mental ward gig.

There's so much good music here, it's a shame our labor of love did not receive the audience and distribution it deserved at the time.   Maybe someday someone will take notice that Waves was emblematic of an extremely rich period of progressive rock and fusion jazz music.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Remembering "Fool's Gold"

In the mid 80's I moved to Ithaca, NY, home of Cornell University and Ithaca College.  I didn't move for school; I just thought Ithaca would be a cool place to live.  I played music, worked as a research assistant, put hours in at the Food Co-op, made friends, took walks in the rural surroundings, danced, ate vegetarian, and had lots of fun.

I was at a New England-style contradance when I saw Fool's Gold providing the music.  They were interleaving Klezmer with celtic fiddle tunes and other traditional repertoire, and the audience was going nuts!  I walked right up and asked if they needed a pianist.  One rehearsal, and I was in!

So we were:  Eric Pallant, clarinet; Paul Viscuso, accordion; Betsy Gamble and Willow Soltow Crane, fiddles; Ted Crane on percussion and calling; and me on piano.

A lot of the Klezmer energy came from Eric.  First, he knew the Klezmer tradition:  traditional songs by Sholom Secunda, The Barry Sisters, and energetic new instrumental tunes by Mike Bell.  Second, he could make his clarinet wail like a banshee and quack like a duck.

Paul had a knack for composing and finding soulful, beautiful tunes with multi-part melodies that made for some wonderful romantic waltzes.  He was also a titan of the keyboard accordion, and could make the dancers really move with his rhythm.  He was the band's leader, too, and he did it with just two words:  NEXT!! (for changing tunes) and OUT!! (for ending the dance set).

Betsy Gamble had incredible traditional fiddle chops, and Willow no slouch either, and together they worked out many double-fiddle arrangements that brought a lot grit to the songs with the rosin on their bows.

Ted called the dances, and added some rhythmic drive with his percussion.  He played the bones, and, to make our Contradance-Klezmer fusion all the more absurd, played the Irish Bodhrán.  

Fool's Gold had a great tonal palette.  Fiddle, clarinet, and accordion makes for a magical, sensual timbral quality when you play them on a melody, or in harmonies.

Something I love about Klezmer is that you almost can't exaggerate the craziness.  One thing I used to do on the piano is an upward glissando from the lowest bass notes right before nailing the root on the downbeat.  It makes a funny, growling, sweeping sound.  In a lot of music I'll save such an effect for one key moment, because a little bit can go a long way.  Not in Klezmer!  You can do it over and over, and the music just gets funner and funnier.

Once we played at the annual Ithaca Festival.  During one of our Klezmer numbers, the crowd spontaneously formed an Isreali-style circle dance.  I love New York.

Life in Ithaca NY doesn't stay still much, because many people are on the move.  People are in town for a few years for school, and then move on.  In 1987, some of us were moving on to teaching jobs, others moving away for grad school elsewhere.  So we gathered at Andy Ruina's house on Teeter Road and recorded using his wonderful baby grand piano with great growling bass notes.  We did it in a short time, with no overdubs, and very few takes.  If there was a blemish here or there, or one or two songs were maybe not quite ready for prime time, we laid them down anyway and put them out there.  It reflected the spontaneous nature of Ithaca, our youth, and the joy of living in the moment.

I have just put all the tracks of our cassette (and later CD) "Contras From the Old Country" up on YouTube.  The playlist of the full album is here.  Enjoy!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

New Roxy & Elsewhere video!

Roxy And Elsewhere (1974) is held by many Frank Zappa fans to be his single best album, so it was a  seismic event when the video of the live performance became available in the form of the Blu-Ray release Roxy the Movie.

Now new video from the same performance, but absent from the Blu-Ray release, has come out on YouTube.  I don't know why they were excluded, but it could be due to the more "adult content" nature of two of the three songs, which in this 21 minute clip, are:

  1. Pygmy Twilight, featuring the erotic antics of Pamela Miller, a long term Zappa family friend and actress in Zappa projects.  If you thought the "Brenda the Harlot" segment in Roxy the Movie (during the Be-Bop Tango of the Old Jazzmen's Church) was spicy, that's nothing compared to this.  As a release, it leaves something to be desired because Ms. Miller's caresses interfered a fair amount with Napoleon Murphy Brock's singing.
  2. Oh No, a standalone version without being followed by The Orange County Lumber Truck as it often was.  
  3. Dickie's Such an Asshole.  Performed as an encore, with minor 'audience participation' at the end.  It's a shame this Zappa song is lesser-known, as it's a good one.  

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Don't Die" Twin Peaks s03e06 Spoiler Summary

What could be more Lynch-ian that doubling down on frustrating your audience?

Kyle McLachlan's acting talents are still being spent on the nearly-a-zombie "Dougie" character.  The needle has moved just so slightly in that we learn he's an Idiot Savant at accounting fraud.  Though a series of lines, doodles and drawings of ladders, he was able to show his boss something actionable in some case files.

I suspect that Lynch is going to finesse this all in the end, and here is my theory:  Agent Cooper is actually sentient inside Dougie.   He's stuck inside there just like he was stuck in the red room, the intermediary limbo dimension, and the glass cube.  Like prisoners of war who find ways to communicate through taps and scratches, Coop has found a way to manifest crude actions through Dougie.  When Coop finally comes out we'll learn he's been solving crimes and tying together the loose pieces of this season's numerous plots.

And Lynch is still introducing them.  We have a semi-midget hit man who kills with an ice-pick, a psycho organized crime boss, and a disgruntled underling of same who runs over a child in his truck, and the return of the trailer park manager from "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me."

And so I'll solider on, hoping for better in episode 7.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Twin Peaks s03e05 Spoiler Recap

The title of this episode is "Vegas, Baby."

Not the best episode so far.  The dangerous-Agent-Cooper-in-jail story line has moved along an inch or two, when Cooper uses his one phone call to somehow (with touch tones alone) hack into the jail's alarm system.  We see the incapacitated-Agent-Cooper-as-Dougie at work (he's in Life Insurance), but it all seems for comic effect; story line barely moved at all.

Most of the rest of the episode is devoted to short vignettes introducing new characters with new threads, which we know from Lynch' Twin Peaks work in general (especially season 2), might be relevant, or might be false leads.  For some reason Lynch likes producing that kind of fatigue in his audience.

Specifically:  we meet a young couple who is sponging off of Shelly, who still works at the Double R Diner ("NOW, Shelly"...that Shelly), a misogynist/drug dealer who hangs out at the Bang! Bang! bar, and a military career gal who's going to get the "Area 52" branch of the military involved in the ongoing murder investigation in South Dakota.

There is one bright spot in the Dougie story.  Although he has a long way to go to recovery, the incapacitated-Agent-Cooper-as-Dougie shows momentary sparks of recognition.  Every now and then someone says a word or phrase that strikes a chord in Dougie's FBI self, such as "case file":  he stops, repeats the word, and seems to think about it.  The best one is the effect the word "coffee" has on him, that really gets a rise!  He actually gets his hands on a cup of Starbucks and suckles it likes it's a baby bottle containing life itself.

The brightest spot in the episode is our learning of what Dr. Lawrence Jacoby has been doing with himself.  We've seen him receiving a shipment of standard hardware store shovels via UPS.  Later, he painstakingly spraypainted them gold.  And now we see that he hosts, under the name "Dr. Amp",  a periodic video/podcast show about conspiracy theories, the evils of government, and the poisoning of our environment by multinational corporations.  He's got a great audience:  Nadine, the eye-patched wife of Big Ed Hurley watches.  And Jerry Horne, the ne'er-do-well younger brother of Northern Lodge owner Benjamin Horne, tokes up while listening. 

And how does Dr. Amp fund his show?  He offers his audience a solution: they have to "dig themselves out of the shit."  He even shows himself shoveling himself out of a waist-deep pit of brown muck, with what else but his $29.99 Gold Shit-Digging Shovel, available by mail, Order Now!  By God, Lynch still has the comedy touch.