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!