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.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Twin Peaks s03e04 Spoiler Recap

There's a Lynch humor piece in this episode.  You don't laugh at it.  It's only funny in the way some SNL skits are badly acted but hilarious in their premise.

Back in Twin Peaks, the sheriff's station still has klutzy, whiny-voiced Lucy working the front desk, and hapless (and useless as ever), deputy Andy Brennan, sporting an absurdly high cowlick, along with a middle-aged paunch.  Not being terribly good actors, and lacking their youthful charm of the 90's, their return hasn't been particularly delightful.  The new element, though, is that they have a son named Wally Brando.  In fact, in this episode they are just receiving the news that Wally Brando (always mentioned by full name) has just arrived in town.  You see, Wally Brando is a soul of the road.  He rides his motorcycle hither and yon following his heart on an ongoing discovery of the American spirit.  Lucy and Andy are proud of him for it the same way that the parents would be for an olympic medal or Nobel prize winner.

Joke 1 is that Wally Brando is decked out in a perfect replica of Marlon Brando's biker from The Wild One (1953), and joke 2 is that he's played by Michael Cera.  Joke 3, the cruelest of all, is that Lynch graces us with a five minute (feels like twenty) soliloquy by Wally Brando, motionless, with Andy and Lucy looking on admiringly from his side, a seriously-delivered but cliché- and pablum-laden discourse on the truth and goodness of the great American highway.

Like I say, noone's laughing yet it's funny as hell.  Michael Cera doesn't even ride the motorcycle, just sits on it.  

The rest of the episode is similarly light in flavor, compared to the macabre dimension-travelling of the previous.  Agent Cooper's earthly persona is still mentally incapacitated, and having replaced the Cooper lookalike "Dougie", he is still assumed to be Dougie by those around him.  He pretty much just bumbles around like Peter Seller's Chance the gardener from Being There.

The dangerous hood Cooper character is now in jail, having been found with firearms and drugs in his wrecked car.  This turns out to be the Cooper that the FBI locates, not Dougie.  They have an interview with him, in which the jailed Cooper does a very leaden impression of the real Agent Dale Cooper, with obviously rehearsed lines, which fools the FBI not one bit.  In the meantime, we're given a major reveal about who this Cooper is (although it's been pretty strongly hinted).  It's Bob.  

He is Bob!  Eager for fun.  He wears a smile.  Everybody run.   
- One-Armed Man, Season 1   

Somewhere back in Twin Peaks history there was a scene where Cooper stared in a mirror and suddenly thrust his forehead right into the glass.  In the cracked, bloodied mirror, his reflection is Bob.  We also see the two of them together in the red room, laughing maniacally together like satanic frat brothers.  So the conclusion is that Bob took over Cooper's body, trapped Cooper's real identity in the Red Room, and has been running amok for the last 25 years.  Something's doesn't line up, though; Bob isn't inhabiting a being for evil (such as killing one's own Prom Queen daughter), he's more of a hit man for organized crime.

Andy Brennan, Wally Brando and Lucy Brennan

Twin Peaks s03e03 Spoiler Recap

In episode 3, there are actually three Kyle McLachlan characters.  Dale Cooper, FBI agent wearing his familiar black suit, is trapped in the other-worldly red room.  #2 is the hard boiled criminal character, also referred to as Cooper, and involved in FBI work.  Number three is a kind of duncey character named Dougie who lives in Las Vegas and sees prostitutes, but we've only seen him just lately, and briefly.

The entire episode (1 hour) is dedicated to showing the movement of characters in and out of their dimensions, and how they swap bodies.  We know from other films that Lynch loves to move the camera into other worlds.  The camera will follow the sound coming from a telephone earpiece, and go right through the holes in into the electronics.  Or the camera will travel through walls to show the spaces inbetween rooms, with dust, drywall matter, and rodents.

So here Lynch seems to have put quite a lot of thought into the experience of being in a strange dimension.  The black-suited Cooper leaves the red room and enters into a creepy limbo.  There is a woman with missing eyes who can't speak, in a room with a strange steampunk apparatus in a wall panel, and a metal door somebody is heavily pounding on from the outside. They climb up a ladder, open a hatch and climb out onto a platform suspended in outer space, very much like Le Petit Prince standing on one of those little planets, but more terrifying.  The woman falls of the platform and presumably falls for eternity.  Eventually Cooper climbs back down, and a woman in red by a fireplace advises that he must go NOW.  Cooper ends up passing through the steampunk apparatus, painfully...and leaving behind his shoes.

The other Cooper, and Dougie, back on earth, experience extreme vomiting.  Dougie shrinks to nothing and black-suited Cooper comes out of a wall socket in the form of a black gas, eventually appearing in solid form laying on the floor.  His faculties haven't recovered, and he is a Rain Man-style imbecile.  He ends up in a casino, and starting with a $5 bill, wins enormous payouts from every slot machine he tries.  He eventually gets picked up by the authorities, and he's reported to FBI headquarters where Gordon Cole, the hard-of-hearing senior FBI guy played by David Lynch himself, celebrates the news of Cooper's final return.

The tough-guy Cooper ends up in a car wreck, and we don't see what's become of him physically.

Twin Peaks returns! Season 3, episodes 1-2 spoiler recap

I just finished episode 1 of the new TP, which is two hours of David Lynch amazingness. It's real "Holy Fuck" stuff. However it is not a return to the goofy fun of the original TP. In fact, of the many story lines, few have any evident connection to the Laura Palmer story. The short bits that have original cast members are sometimes weak and perfunctory, as though DL is using a TP season three as a thinly veiled opportunity for doing new work that interests him more. But in other ways not so much...too soon to judge. In sum, this is very possibly one of DL's great works and deserves to be taken seriously. But it's also true that if you're not up for a lot disturbing horror material (masterfully done), TP season 3 may not be for you.

I'll say this about the "Dale Cooper" in this episode. He's not just a linear extrapolation of the quirky, one dimensional FBI man of years ago. He's more the product of someone who has had dramatic life changes and choices over the course of 25 years, i.e. like real life. And in keeping with Kyle McLachlan's acting weight, he is carrying a lot of the film.

Log Lady appears to have been filmed "in time" before the actor's demise, but her illness is evident in her scenes.

Some actresses with girlish charm in their twenties keep it on into their fifties, but Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer) doesn't seem to be one of them. She and Dale Cooper are in dream sequences in the red room once again, but they don't work as well.

So the thing about Dale Cooper (or whoever Kyle M. is supposed to be...not clear)
is he's now a real "heavy", a very dangerous guy, who has various shady thugs people working for him and "gun moll" style girlfriends, all of whom are under constant threat and intimidation by him. Picture below.  He wears a leather jacket, long hair, speaks in a low-pitched gruff voice, his scenes are all in seedy hotels and restaurants and rustic lodges, and has a bit of a southern air to him, ...someone joked that it's "Twin Peaks meets Duck Dynasty."   So he seems like a criminal, but at the end of episode one he gets on a computer and logs into an FBI portal, so he must actually be in some kind of deep cover.

Log Lady is sad to watch, as you can see from the pic below, she really was very ill when they shot her scenes.  She's holding the log in that pic.  She is instructing "Hawk" (Sheriff Truman's spiritual American Indian deputy) with clues (i.e. what her log is telling her) about where to find things, over the phone.

Anyone of our age group has gotta detest the actor who plays James Hurley's ability to defy age!  23 yrs old then, 50 now, he looks like a hipster single guy in his 30's.

One more thing, there are lots of clips from the original season 1 series, and the very opening clip is original footage of Laura Palmer in the red room saying "I'll see you again in 25 years."  Yes, that really happened!

They also re-enact, in their current characters, a famous bit of Red Room dialog from season 1:
Cooper:  "Are you Laura Palmer?"
Laura:  "If I feel like I know her, but... (in agony) sometimes my arms bend back."

Dale Cooper, the heavy

Log Lady, passing on clues from her Log to Deputy Hawk

Log Lady as we knew and loved

James Hurley, defying age

 Deputy Hawk

 Laura Palmer

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Washing Machine

I recently started collecting Boogie Woogie tracks off of YouTube and learned some interesting stuff along the way.

I started out thinking about BW as being some early form of rock and got excited about finding songs from 1930's and earlier that had BW traits, thinking they were extraordinary gems.  Then I found out (see Wikipedia for this) that BW goes back to even before the twenties, and indeed, is as old as jazz itself.

Next I learned that BW became kind of a cultural virus around 1947, and virtually everyone was recording at least one BW song.  Almost every song from that period has 'Boogie' in the title, usually "XXX's Boogie".  All the hitmakers of the day have BW songs, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, etc.  Check out YouTube and you'll find scores of BW playlists.

But it gets more interesting than that.  BW began in east Texas logging camps and developed organically with the expansion of railroad.  Ground zero was (is) Marshall, TX, where they celebrate that heritage to this day.  BW style in Marshall remained unchanged, but at each train stop (logging camp) the style became more evolved.  You could estimate the distance from Marshall by how evolved the BW style sounded in the bar you were in.  BW pianists spent their years traveling from camp to camp on the RR.  And to state the obvious, sonically, BW reflected the sound of the engines and clatter of trains.

Pinning down the beginning of rock is nigh impossible.  For some odd reason there are people who want to say that Ike Turner's 'Rocket 88' is the first rock song, apparently due more to its popularity than its innovation.  Infectious dance beat and riotous swing?  Hell, the very earliest BW of the 20's has that.  Sexual suggestivity?  BW lyrics sometimes exhort the women to shake their asses.  Did BW walking basslines get replaced with something else?  Nope, early rock by Elvis still has standard BW basslines.  Electric guitars?  Now you're talking.  I would say that the earliest BW having an electric guitar is a good candidate for pioneer rock. That brings Western Swing (Bob Wills, Spade Cooley) into the fold.

The most insightful statement I've ever heard about the origins of Rock was by Robbie Robertson of The Band, in the film The Last Waltz.  It's country...it's Louisiana gumbo and Cajun...it's blues...all of it.  It's genesis was in religious revival meetings and county fairs, where late into the night after the community leaders had gone home, you'd have musicians throwing these styles all together in unorthodox ways, and doing crazy stage antics (e.g. Chuck Berry's duck walk).

Something I love in the earliest rock is a particular sonic quality in the rhythm section that I call the Washing Machine.  The recipe seems to be double bass (acoustic), piano and drums with brush sticks.  When they're playing really tight, the three fuse into a single rhythm-machine timbre.  A wacky, anthropomorphized Washing Machine drawn by R. Crumb comes to mind.  You hear it on a lot of early Elvis tracks.