Friday, October 13, 2017

American Mythology

How our Heroes Define and Divide Us 


I don’t like to post political stuff. While I believe that there is a profound need for open and intelligent political discourse, I get frustrated with the sheer number of people who “just want to add their two cents,” and through blogs and social media are able to give voice to their opinions in the most thoughtless, blunt, and belligerent ways, with little desire to add to meaningful discussion. Needless to say, however, recent events have weighed heavily on my mind, and I have been trying to sort through my thoughts the only way I know how.

The last few weeks have been heartbreaking. While historically it has been the tendency for Americans to come together in times of tragedy, I feel like those periods of unity are becoming shorter and shorter, the time of healing abruptly ending while different sides bicker about how we are supposed to unite and what to unite behind. Frankly, the divisions in this country are disconcerting and discouraging, and since the election last November I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out what happened and how we got here.

At some point a couple of weeks ago, during the window between Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico and the mass shooting in Las Vegas, I saw a video posted to Facebook in which Bill Maher broke down our cultural rifts succinctly by evoking the old Aesop fable “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” declaring that the divisions in America are not north and south, not red state and blue state, but urban and rural. To an extent I agreed, and frankly, it’s tough when I find myself agreeing with Bill Maher. He’s just so smug and self-righteous that it pains me a little to take his side. There are many in this country that view liberals as elitist and he does absolutely nothing to dispel this notion, even when he’s right.

So here he tried to explain his urban/rural schism hypothesis: “Something happens to you when you live in a city,” Maher asserted, adding that in an urban setting one has “a multicultural experience. Cities are places with diversity and theatre and museums and other gay stuff.”

Evidently he’s trying to needle liberals too. At least he’s being even-handed, even if it was smarmy and predictable. However, what followed was largely a tirade condemning country folk for being a bunch of unsophisticated rubes who were too dumb to realize that they were being conned by an egocentric, petty charlatan, concluding by admonishing that “you didn’t make America great again, you enrolled in Trump University.”

Way to get people on your side, Bill.

Still, again, I begrudgingly agree with Maher, but it is not as simple as he says (to be fair a stand-up monologue is not a dissertation and subtlety often gets in the way of laughs). The schisms in America are numerous, and in addition to the “rural vs. urban” divide, I will also suggest that the other main divisions are “instinct vs. reason,” and “individualistic vs. systemic.” Unfortunately, I do find that many of these divisions appear to fall along similar lines, a perfect recipe for an “us and them” society.

It’s as if we have polar opposite ideas of what it means to be an American.  We have different mythologies, different origin stories.

Essentially, we worship at different temples. One side worships at the altar of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Daniel Boone. These were men who explored dangerous territories beyond established settlements, who got along with their wits alone against the worst odds, and in the process, created the America we know, under beautiful, spacious skies. Rugged, individualistic, and cunning, these men epitomize the ideal of America as a land of opportunity, a land of endless bounty for those who work, who strive, and who dare. In short, it was the pioneer spirit.

One the other alter stands men such as George Washington, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. Men who balanced action and reason, they built a new nation based on ideas and ideals, freedoms and civic responsibilities, and believed that we were all created equal, in spite of the fact that many of them did not express their full faith in the creator (many were deists, who believed that a “watchmaker God” created the universe, but took no interest in it thereafter , not unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s “Church of God the Utterly Indifferent”). These were the men of the age that was dubbed “The American Enlightenment.”

As with most mythology, both of these are gross simplifications (i.e. bullshit). The most that can be said is that each represents a worldview, but both romantically misrepresent and simplify the realities of the times and environments. Still, they epitomize the diverging archetypes that Americans revere today, and I would argue that they are a significant root for the basic schisms in American culture.

A nation is created by a bunch of guys in leggings
We deify the founding fathers to such an extent that their human frailties and blatant hypocrisies become difficult, if not impossible to reconcile. They strove for a “more perfect union,” but ultimately tabled the conversation of equality (i.e. emancipation) until they themselves could no longer profit from the free labor that slavery provided (Washington and Jefferson included provisions in their wills to free some of their slaves). Still, the Constitution they created has become so venerated that, in spite of the fact that it was designed to be elastic and evolving (or amendable, so to speak), it now carries with it an air of ancient wisdom, making necessary fundamental changes to the laws of this country extremely difficult and unlikely. Even today, people refer to liberties addressed in the Bill of Rights as “God given,” even if they don’t know the specifics. "I think there are at least two constitutions of the United States," wrote constitutional law scholar and Harvard Law professor, Laurence Tribe. "There is a kind of mythic constitution that reflects widely held beliefs, slogans. And then there is the one that starts with a piece of paper at the Archives and has an extensive history."

As for our pioneer forefathers? While we can admire their grit and determination, we are talking about men who were largely uneducated, temperamental, and had, shall we say, strained relationships with the indigenous people of the continent. Some may idealize their relationship to nature, but I would argue that, for the most part, even that relationship was antagonistic. They battled the elements; They conquered the west. They lived in the wild, but I would argue, inharmoniously. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson would describe the dominant post-Industrial Revolution attitudes and relationship with nature by delineating a number of false precepts. These include that it is the individual above all else that matters, that we can and should seek to control our environments, and that the frontier is infinite (and infinitely exploitable). In his paper “The Roots of Ecological Crisis,” Bateson would emphatically state that: “The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself.”

Ecologically unsustainable, but it makes a great movie
Many still consider Bateson’s statements to be an affront to the American pioneer spirit, and in a sense they are. I know many who still believe in the myth of the wild west, and would suggest that I am somehow less American, perhaps less masculine, and generally a “snowflake” for questioning the sustainability of frontier principles. I get it. It sucks to find out there’s no Santa Claus.

So we see that in both cases the real history doesn’t quite live up to the myth, but it never really does. Still, it seems that we are stuck with these origin stories, and to whichever one a person gravitates appears to hugely influence how one relates to one’s surroundings and fellow citizens.

I’m not saying that all who live in rural areas exemplify the rugged individualism of the frontiersmen, nor do I suggest that that attitude precludes those in small towns from a sense of community. In fact, this sense is often intensified by virtue of the sparse population. However, I do believe that there is a mentality in rural life that values its isolation, that still views America as frontier territory, and has a wariness, and often an antagonism for those outside of their immediate families or communities. I kept reading last year that the Midwestern states voted red in order to “stick it those folks in the cities who make all the decisions, but they don’t know us.”

It’s true that city folk aren’t necessarily kinder or more hospitable people. In fact, cities have a higher concentration of assholes per square mile. That’s just plain math. While at best, living in a place in which there is such a multiplicity of cultures, races, and economic classes can make the empathetic or open-minded person realize that one must think about interests outside of one’s own immediate concerns, oftentimes the population density results in resentment and irritation. In my observation, even the most sage-like and best intentioned New Yorkers vacillate between empathy and urban rage numerous times in the course of a single day. Still, in many ways cities are microcosms of society in general, illustrating its vastness and interconnectivity. At the end of the day, the systemic nature of society is more observable in the urban world if one chooses to see it. When you live and work so closely to millions of other people, one doesn’t need to be an altruist to see the value of better public health and education.

I am not sure that that mindset flourishes in rural areas. I have met many kind people from the Midwest, but whenever I ask them to see the bigger picture, either socially or ecologically, they always say things to me like: “That’s too much for me to think about. All I can think about is what’s best for me and my family.” That expression seems to sum up so much of the conservative mindset. Empathy that ends with your bloodline is not empathy.

Beyond empathy, beyond charity, however, I believe one either understands how one’s own well-being is dependent on the well-being of those around us, as well as the overall health and efficacy of the systems in which we live (ecological, economic, etc.), or one doesn’t. And this, to me is the most difficult divide to address.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to teach a person to think systemically, and even more so if the person does not want to be taught. In this case, the “reason vs. instinct” divide is made evident by attitudes towards education. On one side there are those that put a premium on education, and on the other there are those who value “good old fashioned common sense.”

The Founding Fathers had a strong belief in education as a paramount necessity to participation in democracy. Washington stressed that  “it is essential that public opinion be enlightened,” while Jefferson warned that “[i]f a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

UVA album Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Matthews Band
Jefferson, of course, would found the University of Virginia, with the aim that it be “so broad & liberal & modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other states to come, and drink of the cup of knowledge & fraternize with us."

As far as I know there were no universities established by Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone. Now, I admit that I know little about the intellectual acumen of those two men. However, it cannot be denied that a negative attitude towards formal education that would fester in the American frontier that they helped to settle and develop. In his seminal book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hoffstadter wrote of the frontier society as one “of courage and character, of endurance and practical cunning, but it was not a society likely to produce poets or artists or savants.”

Furthermore, he wrote, that the seeds for the refutation of the virtues of education were being sown as “men and women living under the conditions of poverty and exacting toil, facing the hazards of Indian raids, fevers, and agues, and raised on whisky and brawling, could not afford education and culture; and they found it easier to reject what they could not have than to admit the lack of it as a deficiency in themselves."

The effects of these attitudes still linger, and there are still pockets in America in which state and local authorities seek to undermine scientific education in favor of thinly veiled religious dogma, and teach history that downplays the atrocities of American slavery. I am not so naïve to think that local history and community values will not have some bearing on the education that a child will receive, and to  which texts he or she will be exposed, but if we are functioning within the same democracy should there not be some significant overlap from one community or state to the next? How are we supposed to have a meaningful discussion if we are literally not on the same page?

I could go on and find a myriad of other things that divide us. I haven’t even touched on the “religious vs. secular” issue, I have avoided specifically discussing the gun control debate, and the issue of race is largely beyond the scope of these ramblings. Frankly, finding and detailing more cultural rifts becomes tiresome and discouraging. If anyone reading this believes I have not been even handed enough, frankly, it’s because I haven’t tried to be. I do have a side in this debate, but at least I like to think that I am tryng to be as thoughtful as possible in stating my hypotheses. Believe me, exploring the depths of the divisions in this nation brings me no comfort. The fact is that these schisms are so profound on an existential level, going so far back into our history and mythology, that bridging the gap seems impossible.

And sadly, maybe it is. As long as different sides remain fixated on their own ideas of the essential character of this country to the exclusion of all others, there will be no bridging the gap. As long as we remain defined by our myths, and view our history through rose-colored glasses, there will be no moving forward. And as long as we remain “us and them,” we will never form that more perfect union of which our forefathers dreamed. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Substituting for The Who

A while ago, I was talking to a friend who was regaling me with stories of seeing The Who in New York on their first American tour. He told me how knocked out he was by their set, how he later managed to sneak into their hotel, and ended up spending the evening hanging out and chatting with bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon along with a bunch of fawning groupies.

He mentioned how he used to have the original 45 rpm single of “Substitute,” which was extremely rare because of the B-side, “Waltz for a Pig,” a strange, plodding, horn driven instrumental which, as far as he remembered, was composed by Entwistle, and was never re-released. After losing the single in one move or another, he never heard the song ever again.

I had never heard the song, but I’d heard of it. However, I remembered hearing that it was done by a different band, The Graham Bond Organisation. I wasn’t sure how the arrangement came to be, but I’d always assumed that it was a case of two British bands on the same label doing some kind of double A-side arrangement to break into the new American market. Why he didn’t remember that the flip aide was by another band was strange to me.

Evidently, he wasn’t the only one. The song appeared on several bootlegs of rare Who tracks, most notably the Trademark of Quality double LP Who’s Zoo. How did nobody know that this song was by another band?

As I looked into it (first reading about it in Tony Fletcher’s wonderful biography of Keith Moon), I discovered that it was not merely confusion or faulty memories. It was part of a bizarre incident that came out of an all too common story of a band starting out, signing a bad contract, trying to break free, and then finding themselves being bitten in the ass by old associates.

Like so many other London bands in the early 60s, the members of The Who were just a bunch of teenagers who were hungry for a life that broke away from staid Britishness and had been intoxicated by the R&B and soul records coming over from America. They had no plan and no business sense. Their first manager, Helmut Gordon, was so hands-off that he has become no more than a footnote in the band’s bio. However, through Gordon the band became connected to publicist Pete Meadon, a pill-popping mod who occasionally made up for his lack of stability and business sense with vision. It was Meadon who helped to give the band direction and associate them with the mod subculture. It was not until the band’s management was taken over by aspiring filmmakers Kit Lambert and Christ Stamp that there would be true forward momentum. The pair had a keen sense of drama (something the young band had in spades) and boundless imagination.

Left to right: Townshend, Talmy, Moon
To make their first recordings under this new arrangement, they reached out to American-born producer Shel Talmy, who had produced all of The Kinks’ recordings up to that point. Guitarist Pete Townshend was a huge admirer of the songcraft of The Kinks’ leader, Ray Davies, and fashioned his song, “I Can’t Explain,” to appeal to Talmy. It worked. He would sign the band to his production company and produce “I Can’t Explain,” backed with the Talmy-penned “Bald Headed Woman” on the B-side (it was not uncommon at the time for producers to have acts record their compositions, or to attach their name to songwriting credits, in order to reap royalties). The single made it into the top ten in England. They were off.

Soon after, the band went into the studio to record their first LP, My Generation. It was a hodge-podge of Townshend originals padded out with the James Brown covers that front-man Roger Daltrey favored singing. While it only hints at what the band would become, it was a raw, aggressive outing, and one that truly stands the test of time. However, the band was unhappy, partly because Townshend had greater artistic ambitions than garage rock and soul covers, but mostly because the contract with Talmy was highly unfavorable for the band.

Inevitably, the band acrimoniously broke with Talmy. This began a strange period during which Who singles would appear in shops under different labels. The band would record their new tracks with co-manager Kit Lambert at the helm and, having struck a deal with impresario Robert Stigwood, they would release them on his new label, Reaction. Talmy, however, would continue to issue singles from the My Generation album sessions on Brunswick records, often with such timing as to suggest that he was deliberately attempting to sabotage the band’s new releases.

The first recording they made after their break from Talmy was their classic, “Substitute.”  It was a definite step forward for the band, which had previously merely replicated their live sound in the studio. With the oblique and witty lyrics (including the nearly impossible to sing “the north side of my town faced east, and the east was facing south”) to the inclusion of acoustic guitar for added color, it was a far cry from the work they did with Talmy.

“Substitute” was released in England on March 4th, 1966, The B-side was a track called “Instant Party,” a re-recording  of a song that they had previously recorded with Talmy under the title “Circles.” The problem was that Talmy had been set to release “Circles” as the follow-up single to the band’s breakout hit, “My Generation.” (The B-side of that intended release was to be a bizarre doo-wop pastiche song called “Instant Party Mixture,” which evidently provided “Circles” with its new name. That track was ultimately shelved for the next several decades.) If the name change was intended to throw Talmy off the scent, it didn’t do a very good job. Talmy placed a legal injunction on the single, and to add insult to injury, issued the single, “A Legal Matter,” on March 7th. “Instant Party” was the B-side.

The classic lineup of the Graham Bond Organisation.
Bond, Heckstall-Smith, Bruce, Baker
Bruce would leave prior to "Waltz for a Pig."
In order to get “Substitute” back into stores, they needed a new B-side, and fast.

Enter the Graham Bond Organisation, the seminal British jazz/rhythm & blues combo. While never hugely successful commercially, the band was one of a handful of acts that instigated the blues/R&B boom in London in the early 60s, and the band’s alumni would later form some of the most venerable bands in the jazz/fusion and progressive rock genres.

The Organisation (British spelling), had played a number of dates with The Who (Stigwood was the booking manager for both bands), and apparently, due to this connection, were called upon to provide a triage recording to replace the contested “Circle/Instant Party” side. Within days, “Substitute” was re-released with “Waltz for a Pig” as the B-side, credited to “The Who Orchestra.” When released in America shortly thereafter, it would be credited to “The Who,” in spite of their complete lack of involvement. Discovering this, I could finally see that my friend, while technically incorrect, had not been wrong.
"Waltz for a Pig"
Credited to "The Who Orchestra"

The line-up that recorded “Waltz for a Pig” consisted of leader Graham bond (duh) on organ, Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax, Ginger Baker on drums, and Nigerian-born trumpet player Mike Falana, who joined the band after the departure of founding bass player Jack Bruce. (Bruce had left the previous year due to frequent, violent clashes with Baker. He vowed never to work with the brilliant, but notoriously unstable drummer ever again.)

The song itself is no masterpiece, but it was definitely a huge and delicious “fuck you” to Talmy (presumably the titular “Pig”). It’s an odd little instrumental, not even attempting to fashion itself in the style of The Who, but it does have an oddly arresting sound, with the horn section playing a dirge-like melody over the booming bass notes of Bond’s organ and Baker’s forceful beat. The writing credit was given as “Butcher,” but was in fact written by Baker (Get it? Butcher? Baker? Candlestick maker?). Though The Graham Bond Organisation did not receive an official credit at the time, it would eventually be released under the band’s name in 2012 on their retrospective box set, Wade in the Water: Classics, Origins & Oddities, long after the track had been forgotten by most Who fans.

The American pressing, credited to "The Who."
And after that? Well, The Who continued recording with Kit Lambert producing, their new output moving in a more inventive, pop-art direction, sharply contrasting with the “maximum R&B” of their early work. The legal battles between the band and Shel Talmy ended up hindering the band’s financial fortunes for the rest of the decade and lasted long enough to prevent a remastered CD version of the My Generation album from appearing until after the turn of the millennium.

Talmy’s output would soon slow down. He would continue to record The Kinks and other bands through 1966 and 1967, including the classic hit by The Easybeats, “Friday on my Mind.” However, by 1968, Ray Davies would take over production of The Kinks’ recordings. Sadly, changes in the music scene ultimately rendered his approach passé. It may be easy to vilify Talmy in this story, but it needs to be remembered that he helped bring The Who to prominence, and he did so by making records with such a rawness and immediacy that they would influence virtually every kid who would ever start a band thereafter.
Ginger Baker

The Graham Bond Organisation would break up not long after. Reed player Dick Heckstall-Smith would subsequently do a stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before forming the jazz/rock outfit, Colosseum, with drummer John Hiseman. Ginger Baker would grudgingly reunite with his old nemesis Jack Bruce at the insistence of Eric Clapton to form Cream. The pair would be thorns in each other’s sides until Bruce’s death in 2014. Little information was available about Nigerian-born trumpet player Mike Falana, apart from that he passed away in 1995. Bandleader Graham Bond never achieved the success that he arguably deserved. He died on May 8th, 1974, having either fallen or thrown himself in front of a train at Finsbury Park station in London. His growing obsession with the occult has some curious music fans speculating on the nature of his death to this day.


“Waltz for a Pig” faded into obscurity, and probably rightly so. It’s not a Who song. It’s barely even a good song. However, it served its purpose at the time: To get “Substitute” back on the shelves and help usher in the next phase of The Who, when they wanted to broaden their sound and extricate themselves from a creative and financial relationship that they believed was toxic. It’s a wonderful little curio, one of those little lost gems that sounds good in context of a broader story. It’s one of those tracks that obsessive weirdoes like me love.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

(Probably Not) The Final Word on the Pronunciation of "GIF"


The pronunciation of the popular image file, "GIF," (an acronym standing for "Graphics Interchange Format") has been a subject of intense debate over the last few years. There are those who argue that the "G" is soft, choosing to pronounce it like the ubiquitous mass-marketed, over-sugared peanut butter, and others who maintain that it should be pronounced with a hard "G," like "gift" minus the "t". And then there are others who wonder what the hell these geeks are arguing about.

Well, I happened to be one of those geeks and I will say that arguing about minutia is a proud past time of geeks everywhere, and we are not ashamed of this. In addition, I will propose that accuracy and correctness are still important, in spite of what an increasing number of people seem to believe these days.

Some have tried to say that both pronunciations are acceptable.  I disagree. GIF is a recent entry to the lexicon, so it has not been subject to the same linguistic evolution that older words were, with their pronunciations changing over time and being twisted with regional accents. The word "aluminum" may sound completely different on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, but there should be agreement on GIF.

So how do we decide who's right? For me, it's simple. Go to the source. Steve Wilhite, the inventor of the GIF declared in a comment to the New York Times in 2013: “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations... They are wrong. It is a soft 'G,' pronounced 'jif.' End of story."

That should be the end of the story, right? Yet, people come out of the woodwork to contradict the man on how to say the name of his own invention. Really? Would you go up to a mother and tell her that she is mispronouncing the name of her child?

Personally, I always said it as "jif." I don't remember anyone telling me that was how is was said. That is simply how it sounded in my head when I read it off the screen (if it was "Graphics Interchange Format File" or "GIFF," I would definitely pronounce it with a hard "G.") But I must be a weirdo because culture writer Joanna Brenner declared in a Newsweek article last year, that "our brains logically just want to pronounce it with a hard G."

So I guess I do not have a logical brain, at least as far as Brenner would define it.  And, evidently, that is the case for many others as well. The fact that this argument rages on is a testament to that fact.

To be fair, Brenner does make a compelling point in her article when she asserts that "every word that starts with G, then a vowel, then an F, is pronounced with a hard G... For example: Gaffe. Gift. Guff. Guffaw."

I am tentatively willing to concede that point, even though I cannot attest to the veracity of this claim. I do not have a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to pore through to find a counter-example. All I can respond with is that English is a highly irregular and elastic language, that there is a first time for everything, and that this linguistic observation is not enough to dissuade me from my immediate impulse.

The biggest argument that I hear all the time, though, is that the "G" stands for "Graphic," and thus should be pronounced with a hard "G." Mic drop.

I will admit it. That one had me stumped for a while, but the other day I realized something. Yes, GIF is an acronym, and acronyms can get tricky. Even looking at acronyms of other file formats, we can see how the rules of pronunciation can be fluid. JPEG (short for "Joint Photographic Experts Group") is pronounced "JAY-Peg," and not "juh-PEG." To be fair, two consonants together can make things difficult, and JPEG is really a compound of an initialism (like "BBC") and an acronym. The pronunciation is merely something that is easy to say and easy on the ear.

GIF (consonant-vowel-consonant) is relatively straightforward, though, and follows the definition from Merriam-Webster, being " a word (such as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term."

Examining the examples provided in that definition, one would immediately find that the pronunciation of acronyms are unrelated to the sounds that the letters made in the original words. For example, though the "A" in NATO represents the word "Atlantic" (as in "North Atlantic Treaty Organization"), it is not pronounced as such. The "A" in "Atlantic" is pronounced as an open front unrounded vowel, the same sound as in "at" or "apple." However, the acronym, NATO, is pronounced "NAY-to." The letter "A" sounds quite differently in the acronym from the way it sounds in the original word.

While we're at it, let's look briefly at the other two examples in the Merriam-Webster definition. We pronounce "Radar" (RAdio Detection And Ranging)  as "REY-dahr," but if one would pronounce the word with the second a representing the word "and," it would sound more like "rey-DARE." Breaking down "Laser," normally pronounced "LEY-zer," given that the "E" represents the word "emission," it would be pronounced  "lahy-ZEER. "

So even though these are vowel sounds and not consonants that are being twisted around, I still will put forth that within this specific published definition of the word, acronym, there is evidence that the pronunciation is independent of the original words.

You may say that I have not proven myself completely right, and I will respond by saying that I don't have to. In this case, all I have to do is prove that I'm not wrong. And I think that even if I may not have completely discredited them, I have at least challenged most of the arguments that say that "jif" is not a viable pronunciation. Given that, I think maybe it's time to drop the arrogance and defer to the designer.

Get my gist?


(Now for those who would dismiss my analysis by scoffing and saying that I have too much time on my hands, I am issuing a preliminary middle finger.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Larry Coryell: Ruminations

Iridium Jazz Club 2/17/17
Larry Coryell, the pioneering jazz/fusion guitarist, passed away on Sunday.

I'm assuming that anyone who would be reading this knows that already, so I don't have to go into the details.

I do get tired of my blog looking like one long series of obituaries, an effect that was particularly pronounced in 2016, but when artists who were so prominent in my mind and often were so pivotal in my aesthetic development pass on, I am simply forced to try to process my thoughts the only way I know how: To sit down, put on a record, and try to describe what I loved about their work, how they influenced me, and how grateful I was to have experienced their artistry in a live setting (or regretful If I didn't). Often, these musings are more for my benefit than anyone else.

As I sit here writing, I am listening to my old LP of Larry's solo guitar arrangement of Ravel's "Boléro," and thinking about the last time I heard that piece. It wasn't that long ago. In fact, it was last Friday, February the 17th when he was performing at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City.

He was playing a set with his trio which included the rhythm section of drummer Steve Johns and the young upright bass prodigy Daryl Johns. The band wound their way through a set including old standards and Larry's own compositions, with the father-son rhythm section locking into a psychically linked groove with Coryell weaving his own lines within.

Coryell, always generous in sharing the spotlight and showcasing his fellow musicians, gave Daryl ample space to solo. Playing with a steely intensity, the young musician showed the audience why he has generated such a buzz in recent years. He was equally generous in his praise of the drummer, complimenting him on his sophisticated economy of style. "When the drummer is so unobtrusive, it shows what a great drummer he is."

And then he played "Boléro."

Iridium Jazz Club 2/17/17
Playing acoustically on his own, he freely explored ideas and textures, improvising a beginning to the piece based on mood and atmosphere before laying down Ravel's melody. Though he had been playing the piece for decades, it felt like he was exploring it for the first time, toying with the familiar melody, leaping off from it, and touching base again just before he went too far. Even when he started to sing along with his playing (I never thought that Larry's singing was his strong suit) his delight in rediscovering the piece and seeking out sounds in the moment was infectious. The performance was thrilling and made my hair stand up on end. Concluding, he received a well-deserved standing ovation.

As the band returned to the stage, Larry welcomed up saxophonist Bob Mover, with whom, he hinted, a collaborative recording was in the works. As the band tore into the last piece of the evening (I honestly don't remember what it was) Mover, in spite of his seeming frailty contributed some thrilling be-bop inflected soloing, ending the set on an energetic note.

Of course, I had no inkling as I left the club that that would be the last time I would see Larry Coryell perform. I simply assumed I would be seeing him in the summer with a reconstituted version of his old band The Eleventh House, as they toured in promotion of their new album, the yet to be released, Seven Secrets. The last I saw of him, he was looking to the future.

It's just weird to wrap my brain around it. His passing in his hotel room on Sunday doesn't fit the narrative that I had in my head. These shows at the Iridium were supposed to be the beginning of the next chapter.

By the end of last year, I was so shell-shocked by the sheer number of beloved artists that were leaving us, I think part of my subconscious felt that if we just survived 2016, we would somehow become immortal, and we would never have to bury another hero ever again.

2016 had been a rough year for Larry as well. He had seen the loss of longtime collaborators including bassist Victor Bailey, and his Eleventh House co-founder, drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Furthermore, he did not get out of the year unscathed himself. He had had severe health issues last summer after a botched sinus surgery resulted in a viral infection, leading to several cancelled shows and a long painful recovery.

But he had seemed to come through it all. He appeared to be in fine health and seemed full of new ideas, speaking about numerous new projects and collaborations. There was no hint of the turmoil of the previous year.  It still seems unreal.

Obviously, my thoughts go out to his family. I think about his wife, Tracey, and her sorrowful note regarding how he died on the road. "I'm heartbroken- you never came home." Though I never knew either of them personally, it's hard not to feel a personal sadness at such a sentiment.

But even if I never actually knew Larry, he was my guy, if you know what I mean. When I got into his music, I felt like I was joining a secret club. It's well known in jazz circles that, as time went on, Larry did not maintain the same profile as did many of his contemporaries and the musicians he inspired. Many see that as a gross injustice. Some view it as just bad luck. But in any event, Larry was not on my radar when I was first exploring jazz and jazz/fusion music. In fact, I didn't discover Larry until I had over a decade of rabid music collecting under my belt.


I remember the first album I bought. I was at a used record store in the East Village where I found a copy of Level One, the second album by The Eleventh House. I had definitely heard his name at some point, and I remembered pulling the album out, noting the presence of Mouzon, who I knew from his playing on the first Weather Report album. The guy behind the counter looked at my acquisition and commented simply: "The only word I can use to describe these guys is 'relentless.'"

That was enough for me. Listening to the album, however, I found that, while tracks like "Nyctaphobia" fit the record store guy's description perfectly, I found other words aside from "relentless." I heard pieces that were more lyrical, more funky , more wistful, more mysterious. It didn't become an instant favorite, but something made me want to find more.

As I searched out his material, I found that so much of it was difficult to find. Even now, some of his finest albums from the 70s are out of print. Of course, at the time, this was both frustrating and alluring. As a record collector, half of the fun was in the hunt, and scouring record stores throughout the city and beyond yielded little thrills whenever I would find clean copies of albums like The Restful Mind or Standing Ovation.

Furthermore, as I listened to his early work as a sideman, playing with the likes of Chico Hamilton, Gary Burton, and Herbie Mann, I started to really see what set him apart from guitarists like John McLaughlin and Al DiMiola, players of consummate skill who arrived on the scene slightly later, essentially walking through the door that Larry broke open. I began to notice that Larry's playing was the intersection between the past, present, and the future. More so than the guitarists who followed, I could hear the rhythm and blues influence, while at the same time hearing the echoes of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Barney Kessel .

Coryell in 1982
After he released two albums under his own name which melded rock, blues, jazz, and even country, he released Spaces, an album on which he brought in musicians John McLaughlin, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Miroslav Vitouš, and drummer Billy Cobham; All musicians who would change and define what jazz would be over the next decade. Even though I wasn't even alive at its time of release, listening to that album I can hear how he was straddling tradition and a thrillingly wide-open future. Along with Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and The Tony Williams Lifetime's Emergency, that album was a pivotal point in the development of what would later be dubbed fusion, and more people should know it.

(Again, I know that I am probably preaching to the choir, and that most of people reading this are going through the same period of remembrance and contemplation. If you are reading, I thank you for indulging me.)

But beyond that, I just always found that his playing had an edge to it that I didn't find elsewhere. Whether that edge was anger, or vulnerability, or whether it was a burst of some other unforeseen emotion, there was simply this other intangible quality. Nobody played like he did. He wasn't simply about virtuosic pyrotechnics, there was a connectedness, and a spontaneous expression of an agile musical imagination. He didn't want to show what he could do. He wanted to see what could be done.

I think some Larry fanatics revel a little in his relative obscurity. It may be a bit (or a lot) pretentious, but there is some delight in being in the know about something that other people aren't. There have been times when I have been hanging with friends at my apartment, and after a few drinks I'll say: "Hey, do you want to hear something that will blow your mind?" and play them a track like "After Later" from the Live at The Village Gate album, or "Ruminations" from Offering. And I can think of a number of conversations that I have had with musicians who respected my opinions just a little bit more after they found out that I was a full-fledged member of the Larry club. If you were into Larry, you were definitely hip.

So, yeah. He was my guy.

I regret never meeting him. Obviously I wanted to. I'd seen him hanging around venues before or after shows, but I didn't want to intrude. When I found out that he would be playing at The Iridium, I planned to reach out and ask if I could get a few minutes for a casual interview, but I figured it was too short notice. Also, I'll admit it, I chickened out. Plus, I didn't know what to ask.

There were the obvious questions about new projects and whatnot, but there were other questions in
my mind that I wouldn't dare ask. I wanted to know how he was feeling after his health scare last year. I wanted to know how he felt about touring with an Eleventh House without Alphonse Mouzon kicking it behind him. I wanted to know his thoughts on growing older as an artist, what he felt like he's learned and what he thinks he might have lost. I wanted to ask if he felt as underappreciated as I believed he was. Maybe I should have just asked the easy questions and then thanked him. Maybe he wouldn't have been available anyway.

I definitely would not have simply come out and told him to his face that I thought he was one of the most daring guitarists I had ever heard, how much I admired his capacity for invention and reinvention, how amazed I was with his ability to take risks, how exploring his catalog yielded endless delights, and that the hunt to track down those old LPs proved to be such a great source of fun and pride, and that seeing him perform live was enthralling. Maybe I would have said the last one.

But I'll always have "Boléro."

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Scott Sharrard with Connor Kennedy, Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 1/20/17

Scott Sharrard
Last Friday, at Rockwood Music Hall in New York, guitar ace Scott Sharrard and a group of musical cohorts marked the occasion of the Presidential Inauguration with a scorching performance of Pink Floyd's classic album, Animals.  By his side was guitarist Connor Kennedy, with whom Sharrard previously played this material at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, and who, additionally, handled much of the vocals. The band also included friends and frequent collaborators including Scott's bandmate in Gregg Allman & Friends, Brett Bass on bass, along with Eric Finland on keyboards, Fab Faux drummer Rich Pagano, erstwhile Ratdog sax player, Kenny Brooks, and Broadway performer, Joshua Kobak, providing additional vocals and spoken word interludes. Together, they blazed through the entirety of Floyd's scathing work of progressive rock socio-political criticism, making no bones about where they stood in regards to the events of the day.

The band bookended the set with other memorable Floyd pieces which highlighted the evening's theme. Opening  with "Us and Them" from Dark Side of the Moon, the show began on an apocalyptic note as the band vamped behind Kobak while he recited the classic Robert Frost poem, "Fire and Ice," in which the author asks himself in which of these two will the world end, and whether it will be brought about through passion or hatred. Segueing into the song, the sonic tone of the evening was firmly established. The dynamics inherent in the original material were even more emphasized in this intimate setting as the band glided between delicate passages and dramatic bursts of incredible power and flesh-melting volume.

The set ender, "Comfortably Numb" from The Wall, arguably one of Pink Floyd's most well known songs and a crowd-pleaser, provided a cathartic conclusion, and the audience was encouraged to sing along. The song, originally about a jaded rock star, took on a new meaning in the context of this performance, and contributed to the theme of the evening.


Sharrard and Kennedy
The event was organized as a benefit for ProPublica, a New York based, public interest oriented, non-profit newsroom. Sharrard was intent that the evening was to be "a celebration of freedom of speech and transparency in media that is vital for our collective survival." The band pulled no punches, musically or politically, but in the end, the feeling in the room was of unity and not anger. And though Roger Waters'  caustic lyrics on Animals seem even more relevant today, I felt that the real theme of the evening was summed up by the first and last songs, and that we must recognize and heal the divisions between us, that we must be vigilant and aware, and not allow ourselves the luxury of simply becoming "Comfortably Numb."

Monday, January 9, 2017

Brand X at Iridium, NYC 1/3/17

Founding members John Goodsall and Percy Jones
"Thanks for having us back... Especially after last time."

Sometimes it's tough to figure out English humor. The "last time" to which John Goodsall, founding guitarist of the classic progressive/fusion band, Brand X, was referring was the band's appearance in October at New York's Iridium jazz club, their first gigs in the city in over a decade. Goodsall's self-effacing jibe notwithstanding, the hotly anticipated reunion shows went off brilliantly, with the band proving that they were still a powerful force, musically: Tight, yet free, aggressive, yet ethereal. Brand X was back.

It was the initial run of shows with this new line-up, which featured Goodsall and co-founder Percy Jones on bass, along with Kenwood Dennard on drums, who had done a stint with the band in the late 70s (after the previous drummer, Phil Collins, went back to his day job in Genesis), and two new members, Chris Clark on keyboards, and Scott Weinberger on percussion. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of their live LP, Livestock, the set lists of those shows had centered around material on that album and their previous studio releases: 1976's Unorthodox Behaviour, and 1977's Moroccan Roll. The reconstituted  band executed the material admirably, and the music felt energetic and fresh.

Percy Jones
However, the band that returned to the Iridium stage last Tuesday was even more confident, more cohesive. It was clear from the start that the band was gelling even more than they had in October, and the unique skills and personalities of the new members were becoming more evident. "We're a real band," Goodsall announced, and if the shows last fall had a feeling of testing the waters, on this evening the band's future seemed brighter and more certain.

Still largely basing their set around Livestock era material, in the past several months, the band began expanding their repertoire, opening this show with "The Poke," from their 1978 Masques album (the first time with this current band, I'm told), and later including a playfully funky instrumental cover of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." Also, the band continued to assert its musical identity by playing the older material based not on how it had been done before, but based on the styles of the current members. The differences were sometimes subtle, drastic at others, but always noticeable.

Scott Weinberger 
This band's reading of "Euthanasia Waltz" was more driving than its original recorded version, with drummer Kenwood Dennard creating a more propulsive groove while percussionist Scott Weinberger played on top and in between, alternately adding elegant splashes of color and jarring counterattacks. Weinberger's unique percussion rig, self-constructed of numerous disparate pieces, including an actual mounted garbage can lid, was sight to see, an ingenious construction, and he used it to great effect.

Meanwhile, "Born Ugly," from the band's debut album Unorthodox Behaviour had been taken down in tempo, with Dennard burrowing in deep alongside Jones' bass which churned out deep, gurgling, bubbling tones to create a raunchy, swampy funk that gouged right into the gut. All the while, Chris Clark's piano dexterously danced on top, weaving the melody in unison with Goodsall's guitar.

Kenwood Dennard
The band pulled out the stops on the concluding song of their first set, "Nuclear Burn." The hyper-
kinetic performance dazzled listeners with its frenetic pace and the band's ability to start and stop on a dime. Did I say a dime? I meant a goddamned ha'penny (look it up). Meanwhile, Dennard was playing with such head-shaking intensity, that his plastic New Years Eve prop hat fell off his head.

Jones opened the second set with a bass solo that exhibited his dazzling technique and his capacity to generate atmospheres. Improvising over a loop that evoked a digital didgeridoo, his bass work ebbed and flowed, harshly percussive one moment, lyrical and harmonically dense the next.

Dennard joined in with Jones and the two set off on a high energy, be-bop fueled duet , before the rest of the band came in to play "Nightmare Patrol," the opening track on Livestock. Co-written by Dennard, he displayed here an energetic, flamboyant showmanship that would appear distasteful on a lesser musician. As it stands, though, his pure, uncut chops stand above all else, and the visual element of his performance is simply icing on the cake.

Chris Clark with Jones, Goodsall, and Dennard
New member Chris Clark, on the other hand, showed himself to be the complete opposite, visually. In contrast with the with the cliché of the prog rock keyboardist, instead of hunching behind a giant array of keyboards, he sits high above his noticeably scaled back rig (after all, you can do more with far less these days)  perfectly postured, poignantly free of eccentricity while his interprets the songs with a dexterous ease (his reserved onstage demeanor is fitting given his time John Entwistle's solo band). His solo piano interpretation of "...Maybe I'll Lend You Mine after All" from Moroccan Roll, was a stand-out performance, working dazzling improvisations into the haunting, simple melody.

They concluded their set with "...And So to F...," arguably the band's best known song (mostly due to the fact that former drummer Phil Collins frequently would include it in his shows when he went solo). A good old fashioned rave-up, or at least the closest thing you'll find in the prog/fusion world, the high energy workout had the crowd enthused and chanting along with its wordless chorus.

After the band bid the crowd good night, the more astute members of the audience not only knew that there had to be an encore, but knew exactly what it would be. There was just a feeling like something was missing, like there was unfinished business. Sure enough, the band returned to the stage and broke into "Malaga Virgen." Originally featured on Moroccan Roll featuring Collins on drums, Dennard's version on the Livestock album reinvented the track with a mind drilling beat which he was more than ready, willing, and able to recreate here. For a band that refuses to be pigeonholed, "Malaga Virgen" does a great job of encompassing their style and strengths. At times propulsive and at others atmospheric and then somehow managing to be both at the same time, it features a delicate, tickling, crystalline melody dancing over an intense groove with sudden changes of mood and vector.

John Goodsall
In all, it was another excellent show by band that is continuing to coalesce. In retrospect, I think it was a bit strange that they ended their set with "...And So to F... " and encored with "Malaga Virgen." It was a little like having crème brûlée for dinner and a forty ounce porterhouse for dessert. But at the end of the day I'm always glad to see a band changing it up. They're trying out new things, rediscovering instead of rehashing, continuing to explore. After the show, Jones told me that they are going to continue to expand their set lists, both through further digging into the back catalog as well as writing new material for this current band. That, of course is welcome news indeed.


In short, Brand X came back, they delivered, and they showed that they still have more to deliver.


Photos by Jeremy Gordon

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Greg Lake: An Epitaph

Greg Lake died yesterday after a long bout with cancer. He was 69 years old.

I hate everything about that sentence. So dry and perfunctory, yet devastating, and all too common this year. 2016 has gotten me really tired of writing about death. Unfortunately, the artistry of so many of the people who have passed this year had such an impact on me during my youth that I couldn't not explore my thoughts in writing.

Just a few months ago, I wrote a tribute to Keith Emerson, the legendary progressive rock keyboardist, who took his own life in March. Today, I find myself weighing in on his old bandmate, Greg Lake, bassist, guitarist, singer, and songwriter in the supergroup, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

A seminal figure in progressive rock, both he, and arguably the genre itself, emerged onto the scene with King Crimson's 1969 album, In the Court of the Crimson King. The album was a milestone, influencing all so-called progressive music that came after. In a thrilling fashion, it combined rock, jazz, classical, experimental styles, with even a substantial helping of heavy metal aggression on its opening track, "21st Century Schizoid Man." As such, Lake's singing was notable for its versatility, from the brutal attack of "Schizoid Man," to the delicate lamentation of "Epitaph."

Lake (second from right) with King Crimson, 1969
It was his voice that made Keith Emerson desire to form a group with him in 1970. Emerson, who felt that his own band, The Nice, was unable to explore more nuanced, dynamic music, had been drawn to Lake's vocal abilities and capacity for lyricism. Lake left King Crimson and the two recruited Atomic Rooster drummer, Carl Palmer, to form Emerson, Lake & Palmer. They soon gained the attention of the world after their grand performance, their second ever as a group, at the Isle of Wight Festival that year.

Greg Lake first came to my attention in what I think was the most appropriate way: A friend playing me ELP albums while sitting on a dorm room floor smoking something other than cigarettes. It was the mid 90s, and I was a college freshman year acting major who had dipped, a bit too heavily, perhaps, into musical theatre music when I was in high school. By the time of that evening, however, I had been subsisting on a steady diet of The Who, Frank Zappa, The Police, and Cream, with a little Sublime thrown in just to seem current (they were actually still a functioning band at that time). My friend was a pianist and played me pieces like "Karn Evil 9" and "Take a Pebble" to illustrate Keith Emerson's prowess on keys. I was dazzled and it led to my journey into prog rock that continues to this day.

I can't overstate the importance of that moment. Getting into prog rock opened my eyes to possibilities in music and art. And though I recognize now that prog is pretty grandiose and pompous, so was I at time (who wasn't at 18?), and don't we always hold onto the music that we cherished in childhood?

I wish I could say that I was immediately wowed by Greg, but I wasn't. While I was intrigued by Keith Emerson's strumming of the piano keys on "Take a Pebble," I didn't know that Greg had written this ethereal piece that gave Emerson his place to explore. I wasn't even that knocked out by his voice just yet. I discovered the extent of his vocal chops later when I heard tracks from Tarkus and Trilogy, such as "Time and a Place" and "Living Sin," that showed his aggression and wide vocal range, while songs like "From the Beginning" showed his softer, nuanced, and emotional touch. Though it was perhaps to Keith's resentment, it was, in fact, Greg's ballads that provided the group's greatest chart successes.

Lake with Keith Emerson, who died this past March
Though I knew he was a great singer, it was only as I got older that truly recognized how expertly and uniquely Greg filled his role in the band. Both Emerson and Palmer were classically trained musicians, both with dazzling technique. Greg's bass playing, on the other hand, was agile, but consciously avoided the pyrotechnics that were a hallmark of many of his colleagues. It would be a cliché and uncomplimentary to say that his playing "grounded" the trio, and moreover it would be inaccurate. Though on some of the faster pieces his bass lines could be a tad simplistic, his playing was, more often than not, elegant and melodic, and instrumentally added the same lyricism that his voice provided. (The fact that he was recruited to play bass on "Real Good Looking Boy," the first single by The Who after the death of John Entwistle is no small praise.)

Still, I believe it will always come back to his songwriting and his voice. Working within a genre known for its high-mindedness and bombast, he provided the delicate touches that gave the music its dynamics. While prog rock was known as music of the head, he wrote the melodies and words that kept the feeling of the music from moving too far from the heart. Moreover, as producer of all of ELP's albums during their 1970s heyday (and, it has been said, handling the majority of the work on the group-produced debut by King Crimson), he showed a talent for creating albums that balanced all of the band's disparate elements. In a group that was pulling in more directions than it had members, it seemed that, for a time, he could find the balance in imbalance.

A couple years after that night on the door room floor, that same friend and I went to see ELP at the Harbor Lights Pavilion in Boston. The show was delayed by what seemed like hours, and a wiring malfunction caused a small fire onstage (actually in the Hammond organ that Keith was going to use for the finale) resulting in an interruption of the show right in the middle of "Tarkus." However, the band was so well oiled and powerful that, in spite of these things, we did not leave disappointed. Greg's voice had lowered by this time into a deeper baritone sound, that was so expressive and rich, that his high notes were not missed. The band seemed to have plenty of life still in them.

It was not be, of course. They band broke up again the following year, only to reunite for a one-off festival performance in 2010. Because of this, I am glad for that night in the dormitory when my friend pulled out his book of CDs and indoctrinated me with his favorite music. If I had gotten into ELP a couple of years later, I probably never would have seen them perform. So while I am sad, I have nothing to regret.

So once again I'm dwelling on how 2016 has done a hell of a job of taking away pieces of my childhood. Greg's death came as quite a shock, as I had no idea he ill. The fact that he was a part of so much of the music that made up my late adolescence and still listen to today makes his passing stand out for me even among the so many others that have passed this year. So in spite of the fact that 2016 has been a confusing  year, hopefully artistry and lyricism will be Greg Lake's epitaph.


(The prog rock geeks will get that last reference.)