Saturday, February 11, 2017

Black History Month, Part Two

"Jazz is one of the most meaningful social, esthetic contributions to America.... it is antiwar; it is opposed to [the U.S. war in] Vietnam; it is for Cuba; it is for the liberation of all people.... Why is that so? Because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people."
- Saxophonist Archie Shepp.

Last week, in my own personal celebration of Black History Month, I wrote about those black musicians who had the greatest influence on my childhood development; specifically about several of the powerfully moving Black women vocalists, particularly Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn, and the two giant royals of swing: Duke Ellington and Count Basie. This week I wish to share about those radical innovators I discovered while in High School.

My friend, Gary Conroy, was the one who introduced me to the later, avant-garde work of John Coltrane. Live In Seattle, recorded in 1965 but not released until I was a Freshman in High School in 1971 totally turned my musical world upside-down. I had already been introduced to Eric Dolphy through the work of Frank Zappa. I loved his huge intervals and sharply angular melodies such as in “Iron Man” as well as his amazingly virtuosic fluidity and range on the generally unwieldy bass clarinet as brilliantly shown in the classic “On Green Dolphin Street.”

But nothing in my previous experience – not John Cage, Morton Subotnick, or Karlheinz Stockhausen – had prepared me for the burning intensity of John Coltrane’s late work, inspired both by his study of world music (most significantly the music of Africa and India), his spirituality, and the civil rights and black nationalist movement of the 1960s. The opening track, “Cosmos” already sets the warning: stay with this, and you will be challenged, broken down and rearranged: I remember thinking, “The Beatles were playing ‘She Loves You’ the same year this searingly intense performance was recorded!”

I needed context for this new-to-me music so I read Amari Baraka’s BlackMusic where I heard an angry, erudite voice that a white boy such as I, growing up in Queens, New York had never had exposure to; a voice that gave words to the critique and challenge of the music. Read the linked excerpt to get an idea of what I'm talking about!

After this, I was hooked. I barely listened to any white artists other than Zappa, Beefheart and The Velvet Underground for several years, diving deeply into what Muhal Richard Abrams, founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (from which the Art Ensemble of Chicago, among many others, had their formative nourishment) called “Great Black Music.”

During High School, it was the passionate musical expression of the “Free Jazz” movement that dominated my life: Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, EricDolphy, Art Ensemble of Chicago, and others were who I listened to along with more reading from such books as Frank Kofsky’s Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music which really made explicit the political and social aspects of the music.  

From the psychedelicized Dixieland roots of Albert Ayler's "Ghosts" and Ornette Coleman's deeply moving "Lonely Woman," which after forty years continues to be among my favorite pieces of music from any genre, to John Coltrane's spiritual expression of "A Love Supreme" and Eric Dolphy's "Meditations on Integration" as well as the Art Ensemble of Chicago's musical "play" depicting the history of Black people in America and Mingus' "Fables of Faubus" which is directed at the racist governor of Arkansas who called out the National Guard to prevent integration in Arkansas schools, please follow the links and remember the sacrifices made by these amazing musical icons. 

To my mind, this music captures a time when real societal change seemed possible. We live now in a time when such a revolution is long overdue; a time when we must do what we can to nurture, what a friend has referred to as “r/evolution.”

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Black History Month, Part One

Let's be frank; it's an expression of the institutionalized racism in our society/culture/nation that we have to even have a "Black History Month." Why the need to specify a month for Black history if there isn't the unacknowledged racist assumption that American history is generally White/European? This is made even more galling by the fact that Black men and women have made perhaps the largest and most influential contribution to American culture, especially music, which is the focus of this blog.

So, with that said, I wish to spotlight some of the Black singers, song-writers, musicians and music-critics that have had the biggest influence on my life. Throughout my life, music has had a central place in my development: my thinking, my emotional and intellectual understanding and my survival (not to sound overly dramatic, but following Nietzsche, I truly believe life withouyt music would be impossible).

This week, I'd like to share about those Black musicians who had the earliest impact on me, from when I was a child listening to Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Abby Lincoln, Della Reese and others that my mother listened to.

Sarah Vaughn's nicknames were "Sassy" and "The Divine One" and indeed her voice could be both sassy and divine -- often in the same song. She may have been my mother's favorite singer, but that may have had something to do with the fact that mom actually sounded a bit like Sarah when she sang "Tenderly" (Vaughan was proud of the fact that she was the first to sing this song, making it a jazz classic forever more) or "My Funny Valentine."

The singer who made the biggest impression on me was, no doubt, Billie Holiday. I was entranced the first time I heard "Strange Fruit," and when my mom explained what the song was about, I cried and then got really angry. I was no more than four or five years old and could not begin to grasp how people could hate anyone just because their skin color was different. Today, writing this post, listening to this song, the tears and anger are still fresh. How is it that we're still fighting against such ignorance and hatred?

I could link to every song Billie sang; she made every song hers when she sang, but just check out the sweet-bitter of "The Very Thought of You.

Mom grew up a "jazzbo," hanging out in jazz clubs, dancing and befriending the musicians. The most famous she befriended was Count Basie, and I can remember her telling me about the parties she attended. She would put on some swing records and attempt to teach me how to dance (she had been a dance instructor for Arthur Murray).

Finally, a very early influence on me was the "Duke of Ellington." I loved him and his music. My mom even supported me in staying home from school to honor him at his funeral in 1974. Here's "Satin Doll" and "Mood Indigo."  There is no way I can mention the Duke and not share something from Ivy Anderson, perhaps the singer best associated with him. This was a song mom would often sing as well: "I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."   Just listen to the amazing alto sax work of the incomparable Johnny Hodges. The smooth glissando, a "trademark" technique of Hodges is sensual, sweet and sexy.

These are just some of the Black musicians who made an indelible mark on my 'soul' during my earliest formative years. I owe them a deep debt of gratitude -- as do we all.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The World Is A Very Scary Place

Listening to The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events from Stephin Merritt (the brains behind The Magnetic Fields) accompanied by Lemony Snicket himself, along with John Woo, while taking my dog to the dog-sitter, thoughts and visions of the Republican Convention and Donald Trump and Mike Spence kept coming to mind. Somehow, these songs took on a whole new resonance and relevance in light of the twisted and vile politics of the GOP.

I mean, when you hear the hatred, bigotry and fear spewing from the mouths of the speakers, you have to understand you are looking into the abyss.

"This abyss, this limitless void
This abyss of world destroyed
This abyss, all deep, all wide
This abyss of being denied..."

And it seems like Merritt had Trump himself in mind when he penned the lyric to Freakshow. That opening verse eerily captures what any sane person must be thinking:

"People gawk at the way you walk,
you're a freakshow.
People squawk 'bout the way you talk,
you're a freakshow.
People stare at your scary hair,
you're a freakshow.
People glare at that hat you wear,
you're a freakshow.

Real people want to know
what it is about your face that irritates them so
Real people stop and ask
why you wear that costume, and why don't you wear a mask."

And perhaps most scary of all, it seems like there's no way to slow this thing down!

Friday, January 1, 2016

The 2015 Shortlist

For some years in the late 70s and early 80s I was a dj and writer of music ‘criticism.’ And yes, I put scare quotes around ‘criticism’ because I saw my role more as a passionate lover and devotee of music and I just wanted to share as much of this love with others. So mostly I wrote about what I loved. I didn’t take much pleasure in trashing what I thought sucked; I just ignored it. Mostly.

So it’s been years since I wrote about music, though I am attempting to keep this blog where I periodically write a bit about something music related.  But recently, I had a lovely dinner with a friend who is an awesome DJ on KXCI, and for the first time in years I found myself sitting on the floor in front of the ole victrola, playing a bunch of stuff for her and feeling that familiar passion of sharing music that moves me. So I decided to post this shortlist review of my favorite cds/records released in 2015. I was going to keep it limited to five, (rather than the more traditional Top Ten) but I had to include the sixth. Just had to!

So, first of all, there is the completely brilliant and jaw-droppingly inspired performance of Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld in their first collaboration: Never Were The Way She Was. If you don’t recognize the names, Neufeld is a violinist for Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, as well as a guest musician on a shit-load of others’ records and Stetson is a virtuoso of the extended technique on various saxophones and bass clarinet, but if you are one of those who saw Bon Iver and Feist a few years back here in town, you saw him playing in both bands!

Stetson eschews looping and overdubbing, so when you understand that everything he is doing on his saxophones is being done live, that’s when your jaw drops! He’s several solo cds and Neufeld released her first solo in 2013 and has a new one coming out in February. Never Were The Way She Was, as I said above, is their first duet collaboration and I hope it won’t be their last. You can see their full performance at the Moers Festival this past May here. If the opening piece doesn’t draw you into their world integrating minimalist phrasing with classical, jazz and rock stylings they may not be your cup of tea, but I think you’ll find there’s no denying their originality and creativity. Passionate, primal, beautiful.

If you’ve not the time for a full performance, you may want to check out these cuts:

Second up is a rousing cd from Avec le Soleil Sortant de sa Bouche entitled Zubberdust. This was one of those serendipitous findings. I was at one of the best cd stores in Montreal, loading up on mostly ConstellationRecords stuff from folks I know, and this crazy, mostly instrumental, giddy, angular, funky, avant, guitar-driven rock was playing on the store’s stereo. I heard bits that reminded me of Nick Cave’s band The Birthday Party, but the wordless vocalizing seemed to alternate between Cave and early David Byrne.

I later found out that Aved le soleil sortant de sa bouche is a bit of a local Montreal “supergroup” made up of members from Montreal’s healthy and robust emperimental rock and post-rock communities such as Panopticon Eyelids, Pas Chic Chic, Red Mass and – also on Constellation – Fly Pan Am.

Zubberdust is comprised of two 20-minute multi-part pieces, the Constellation website nails in its description: “This is (mostly) instrumental rock that exuberantly succeeds in blending a primitivist, hypnotic energy with cerebral pleasures, seeding an addictive trail of sonic brain-candy throughout the mixes. The band wholly embodies and channels its inimitable square grooves, while teasing out the innumerable joys of repetition via micro-deployments of ever-shifting electronic overlays – along with the occasional full-stop and 180 degree turn.”

Just give a listen to these infectious excerpts:

Third on my shortlist is the eponymous debut cd from Ibeyi, (the word comes from the Yoruba language meaning “twins”) probably the best known performers to make my list. Ibeyi is a French-Cuban musical duo consisting of twin sisters born in Paris, but who had lived in Havana for the first two years of their lives. Lisa-Kainde Diaz and Naomi Diaz sing in English and Yoruba, the Nigerian language spoken by their ancestors before being brought to Cuba by the Spanish as slaves. Their music integrates elements of Yoruba, French and Afro-Cuban music with jazz, hip-hop beats and samples alongside traditional instruments like the cajon and bata-drums. As an aside, their dad was the great Cuban percussionist, Anga Diaz, who played in both Irakere and the Bueno Vista Social Club.

The first time I saw and heard the video for “River,” I was mesmerized by the imagery as well as the deep, sensuous sonority of their voices. No voices blend as exquisitely as sisters, and when you have twin sisters….

Then “Mama Says” just about tore me up, especially when one of the sisters, around the 3-minute mark seems to truly, spontaneously tear up. Chills!

Finally, I wish to share the video for this beautiful and achingly plaintive cry for love, "Ghosts":

“My ghosts are not gone
They dance in the shade
And kiss the black core of my heart
Making words, making sounds, making songs

Now you can feel my heart spinning
You turn my whole life around
I want to write a new beginning
Let go of the ghosts
Let dreams and hopes fly
And give our love another try
Should we just let it be?

Fourth up is Tucson’s own, Katterwaul. The first time I heard Brittany Katter was at my first Club Crawl after moving to Tucson in 2007 when she was singing in Fell City Shouts. From the first song I knew I was in the presence of raw talent. Since forming her own band – a great play on her last name – that talent has blossomed and it really shines on her latest release, 15 Forever.

Here’s a video for the title cut and a psychedelicized video for “Sound Of My Name.”

Fifth is another Montreal-based musician, MichaelFeuerstack, who has been one of Canada’s most revered songwriters and collaborator, found on the records of many other performers, touring with folks such as the Acorn, Land of Talk and Bry Webb, while also being a member of BellOrchestre, Wooden Stars and The Luyas. Along with releasing some thoroughly wonderful, crookedly wry and beautiful songs under his own name, he’s also released several cds under the alias of Snailhouse.

In 2015, besides recording a new Luyas cd due out sometime in 2016, Feuerstack released The Forgettable Truth. Typical of the mutually supportive Montreal alt-music community, you’ll hear contributions from Pieto Amato (Bell Orchestre, Luyas), Mike Belyea (Jenn Grant), Laurel Sprengelmeyer (aka Little Scream) and Nick Cobham (Olympic Symphonium) among others.

The Globe and Mail listed The Forgettable Truth as among their favorite things from 2015 and me too! Here’s two cuts for you to get some idea as to what to expect: 

And finally, yet again from Montreal (that’s four out of the six!) is the recent release from Surface of Atlantic entitled Fortunate Lives. Funny enough, none of my Montreal friends who are heavily involved in the Montreal music community knew about this band when I told them I had happened upon their cd release in September at La Sala Rosa.

The only website about them is in French, so I still know nothing of them except that their live performance mesmerized me with it’s ambient-chamber-rock. Though all of them have French names and the website is in French and all their between song chatter was in French, their vocals are in English! Make of that what you will. It’s difficult to isolate any single songs here because with Surface of Atlantic, the sum of the parts really is greater than the parts taken individually. So I strongly recommend that you pour yourself your favorite beverage (wine, whiskey or tea) and sit back and let this roll.

If you’re not yet willing or able to do so just yet, then try these out:


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Surface of Atlantic

Montreal is a beautiful city. For a native New Yorker like me, it's food and drink culture alone makes it an incredibly livable city. And for music, few cities can claim such fertility and diversity. I was there in September. Whenever I'm in a different city -- especially where I don't speak the local language, I enjoy a kind of physical/energetic/emotional displacement; a kind of poignant aloneness that isn't quite loneliness, but sometimes touches upon it. It's a sweet and a bit bitter, and totally alive feeling that penetrates bodymind. Walking the streets at night, this feeling can sweetly overwhelm.

This time, I made it to La Sala Rosa (and the fact that I was married in La Sala Rosa in the Palazzo Vecchio in Fierenze added a resonance to that for me) for the cd release of the latest cd from Surface of Atlantic, Fortunate Lives.

Maybe it was the fact that I was surrounded by folk speaking French; maybe it was the similarity of the room to rooms I've attended in NYC and in Amsterdam; maybe it was the two boiler-makers, but the sense of being alone in the midst of a swirling sea of sound, alone together with this room full of others heightened for me the magic of the music.

I'd never heard of the band, but I was mesmerized by their sound which seemed to wash over the room, enveloping us in this lush ocean which made me wonder if that's what's behind the fairly strange name: Surface of Atlantic.

The songs I've linked to here are actually from a previous cd, A Frame Per Season. If it's autumn where you live, I think you'll enjoy these as a soundtrack. Sit back, perhaps with a nice glass of cabernet or a smoky whiskey and let it wash over you.

Monday, May 12, 2014

My Mother Is Dead

For the last five years of my mother’s life, I would share with people that the Alzheimer’s had already taken my mother; that the woman who birthed and raised me had already passed. It was, to my mind, a most dramatic example of the buddha’s core teaching of anatta or “not-self.” With the erasure of her memory, it was all too painfully obvious that she was truly gone. Of course, this was true all along; the woman who would make my favorite Italian specialties when I’d visit my folks in Florida, during the 17 years they lived there after living their whole lives in New York, was not the same woman who had wiped my ass, broke my skull, taught me how to dance, shamed me more than once and generally been there for me through thick and thin. And I, of course wasn’t the same boy or young man who had experienced this woman as his mother.

But Alzheimer’s made it starkly real: my mother was dead.

While the mother who had raised me was long gone, as long as she had her memories that we could share, there was the persistence of the evolving process of our relationship. With the fading of memory, and the loss of her ability to retain from one moment to the next who I was, there was no real way for the intimacy of relationship. I could be her care-giver, but I was no longer her son. Those who romanticize “living in the moment,” haven’t really thought it through: it’s why I’m so critical of the modern reduction of the buddhist practice of satipatthana to just “bare attention” to the present moment. With such a reduction of attention, what is lost is what is most real and important in human experience: relationship. We see what’s present, but we don’t make the connections to what in the past led to what is present; we fail to see how what is in the present will determine the future. Real mindfulness requires memory and it is memory that allows for the fullness of relationship and the understanding of context. All that was gone. I had my memories, but true relationship requires the mutual remembrance and recognition that was no longer possible to share with my mother.

My mother was dead.

The woman who had been an Arthur Murray dance instructor, and who taught me to Lindy, Mambo, Foxtrot and Cha-Cha; the woman who ignited my passion for music with her stories of hanging out with Count Basie, and who would debate with me as to who was a better drummer, Ginger Baker or Buddy Rich, and who sang while washing the dishes sounding a bit like Sarah Vaughn, and sometimes singing along to records by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington; the woman who also turned me on to Hank Williams, Charley Pride and Jimmie Rodgers as well as Stravinsky, Debussy, Vivaldi, and the operas of Giuseppe Verdi; the woman who would be knitting in my bedroom listening to Frank Zappa’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich when I returned home from school; the woman who tolerated the many bands I had, sometimes making more noise than anything resembling the music she had shared with me and yet never complaining.


The woman who was such an amazing cook that three different people offered to back her in opening a restaurant if she only gave the word but who wasn’t interested in turning her love of cooking into a business; though she would volunteer for every church event, cooking up a storm; or filling in for the chef at the Boys’ Club Camp where I was the Corral Hand, making breakfast for 140 kids so the cook could go home to be with his ailing mother. The woman who taught me to appreciate good wine and whiskey, and then joked that I had “champagne taste and a beer budget,” when I was making $15 per music review while living in the East Village, New York City. A woman who never questioned the strange and wonderful people I’d bring home, but instead made sure they got a solid meal.

The woman who taught me how to read before I was in Kindergarten, whose passion for books continues in my life, and now in my 3-year old daughter whose library continues to grow almost weekly.  The woman who turned me on to science, especially biology and who did all she could to support and encourage my interest, and then just as fully supported my sudden turn to philosophy and literature after my sister died when I was sixteen.

My mother is dead.

I’d thought I’d done my grieving throughout the five years Alzheimer’s progressively claimed her mind and took her away from me, my father, and my daughters.  And despite having felt like I’d lost my mother when Alzheimer’s took her mind, as the first Mother’s Day approached since her death this past February, I became conscious of a strange feeling; a void. It was like becoming aware of a blind spot: you don’t know it’s there because you don’t see it and only when you bring your attention to it do you see what is missing. The hole in one’s vision is finally seen but what you are seeing is an absence. When I finally looked into this feeling, I could see it was the space left by my mother’s absence. A deeper absence than was present for the five years before her death. With a suddenness that surprised me, the words from Alban Berg’s Wozzek sprung up in my mind’s ear:

Du! Dein Mutter ist tot.”

And then, the other night, my three-year old daughter asked to play one of her favorite cds on her mini-cd player, the one she "inherited," along with the cds, from my mother. As she was drawing with her colored pencils, "La Donna E Mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto played and I saw how a naturalist form of karma is playing out here in my home. I asked Giovanna if she remembered how she came to have the cd player and the cds: "I got them from Old Grandma!" And with that, she gave me a smile that was all I needed to understand that my mother's life continues in the memories of those who loved her.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Laurie Anderson

When I first heard "O Superman" as it was released on a single, I felt shivers up and down my spine. Here was a new voice, a new way of presenting provocative ideas through music and performance! It was exciting.

So when her debut LP, Big Science was released, I was overjoyed to get my reviewer's copy. My review, needless to say, was positive. Not only did I think the LP was fabulous, I now had a crush on Laurie Anderson! I am sure I was only one of many men -- and women -- who nurtured such a crush!

I saw her perform at every opportunity, amazed at the breath of a piece such as United States which indeed seemed to ramble all over the place, and then end with a motif that simply tied the whole sprawling performance together! A true tour de force. I followed her career for the rest of the 80s and into the 90s, but somewhere along the way after that she simply dropped off my radar.

At one time, she was a fairly regular patron at a restaurant I worked at. I remember overhearing her talk about her -- at the time -- new budding relationship with Lou Reed! I was happy to hear that they married a few years back.

But perhaps the biggest impact Laurie Anderson had on my life was when I fell in love with a Laurie Anderson look-a-like! Back in the 80s, there were quite a few of such women in the downtown scene. I remember being at a party, and seeing Laurie Anderson, with her spiky haircut, dressed in her signature white linen baggy jacket and pants standing at the bar. It was an open bar, so my offer to buy her a drink got a wry little smirk. By then I realized my mistake, but this woman was hot none-the-less and willing to hang with me, sharing our stories. We also shared phone numbers when my friend, Rachid walked over and said that we had to go to our next stop of party-crawling!

I cannot mention this woman's name as she was indeed a well-known artist. Our affair did not last long. She had a boyfriend. I was seeing several other women, but the fact that she looked like Laurie Anderson and was a bit over two decades older than I was at the time I found extremely exciting. Through her I got to meet John Cage. When I told him that I had been a fan ever since I found a copy of Variations IV in a cut-out bin at Woolworth's when I was ten years old, he responded with a hearty laugh, "Oh, your poor mother!"

The beginning of the end of our relationship was sparked by a romp on the nude beach out at Jones Beach. A case of crabs, spread to her boyfriend, did not go over very well! But in all this time, I've often thought of her and wondered if she was still active in the art scene. As I prepared to write this, I googled her and found that indeed she is! I am happy to hear it.