Archive for the ‘Non-classical music’ Category

Tom Petty (1950-2017)

2017/10/03

Tom-Petty_2016-06-20For most of my life, I have not been a Tom Petty enthusiast, although I definitely enjoyed the original 1988 release by the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup that included Petty, the late Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and drummer Jim Keltner.  I changed my tune about Petty in the last three years or so.

The late Tom Petty obviously was one of a long string of rock artists that emerged during the mid- to late-1970s. But in my opinion, what set him apart from most of the rest, and what gave him such longevity in his career, was his song styling. Yes, he had some brazenly pop-flavored hits (“Don’t Do Me Like That”) and the occasional hazy, crepuscular detour (“Don’t Come Around Here No More,” co-written with David A. Stewart). But otherwise, Petty’s music had a distinct flavor of Americana, with the southern-American influence coming chiefly from his guitar timbre and phrasing.

This does not mean that Petty’s music sounded all the same – a well-worn perjorative that critics have taken at Antonio Vivaldi’s concerti for a couple of hundred years. Instead, Petty’s “Americana” is diverse and evident, in part in Petty’s music, but also in Benmont Tench’s organ and piano sounds. And even when Stan Lynch was replaced by veteran session ace Steve Ferrone, the drums had a consistent sound, feel and style. This often changes from drummer to drummer, so this stands as a compliment to Ferrone’s musicianship.

A number of fans, including Wikipedia contributors, have referred to Petty’s music as “heartland rock.” And while this is not a misnomer, “heartland rock” pigeon-holes Petty’s music a bit too much. The southern influence of the guitar work by Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell stands out, but the song styling is not as brazenly “redneck” as, say, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Oak Arkansas, and other similar acts.  For me, this is what makes Petty’s recordings that much more enjoyable.

Eddie Van Halen has said, “You want to be a rock star? Rock stars come and go. Musicians make music until the day they drop.” The ultimate compliment to Tom Petty is that he was a musician, not a “rock star.”

His songs did not all sound the same – but a measure of his consistency is that his newer material stands nicely alongside his late 1970s and early 1980s work. Played one next to another, very few of his compositions stylistically clash.

And as for the musicianship on those records, it is almost impeccable. The studio playing is clean, spotless, tasteful, and a comfortable blend of aggression and restraint. Likewise, in his occasional forays into side projects, Petty remained true to the music he was contributing, without losing his identifiable voice. His work with the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys remains a fine example, nearly 30 years on, and remains on my CD shelf for that reason.

The measure of strength of a musician’s output includes how long his records are enjoyed after their commercial release.  We still enjoy The Beatles, for good reason. But virtually nobody listens to Oasis, Bush, or the like – to say nothing for the unending junk-food diet of boy bands and girl groups like The New Kids on the Block, Bananarama, the Spice Girls, etc.  (Bleah!)

But we have been enjoying and appreciating Tom Petty’s recordings since the 1970s – and, undeniably, we will still enjoy them for decades to come.

Speaking as a bassist, I know that neither Ron Blair nor Howie Epstein was terribly prominent on Petty’s records. But speaking also as a studio bassist, I can safely opine that both of them turned in fine recorded performances that were not sloppy or ill-conceived. They supported the music in character and in time — and in fine form.

Thomas Earl Petty was born October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. He passed away following cardiac arrest on October 2, 2017 in Santa Monica, California. And while his life, like many of ours, was not perfect and occasionally messy, his was a musical life well and abundantly lived among musicians he admired.  They admired him in return – and that is why Petty’s passing is more sad than of the “average rock star.”

Rest in peace, sir.

 

(image via Wikipedia)

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Take Five – Belgium, 1964

2017/02/18

The late, great Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) composed several evergreen jazz standards, but “Take Five” might be the most famous.  Several noteworthy elements of this 1964 performance recorded for Belgian television (below) are worth the look and listen.

Paul Desmond’s vibrato and timbre here are enjoyable for several reasons, not the least of which is because they are not overpowering.  The extra air he inserts into some of his notes give his alto saxophone some “movement.”  While solo saxophone is rare in classical music performance, Desmond’s style in this performance would fit nicely.  And this is precisely what makes his solo here so elegant, but occasionally playful and eminently satisfying.

In his surprisingly melancholy solo in this reading, Mr. Brubeck displayed some of the style elements that have clearly influenced pianists like Lyle Mays.

The big star of this video, however, may be Joe Morello (1928-2011), whose segue from Brubeck’s restrained piano solo ramps up the mood considerably.  Keeping the 5/4 time signature and tempo intact, Morello’s excursion here was both tasteful and tasty.  Morello tensioned his floor tom to an almost timpani-like sound, making clever use of it in several places.  In this musician’s opinion, Morello’s solo here is worth the study by any aspiring drummer or percussionist.

I am thankful to the Belgian broadcasters for having recorded this in 1964, especially to audio engineer Jean Muller, whose microphone placement captured many of the nuances of Morello’s drum kit, right down to the crisp flavor of the wooden drumstick tips riding between the bell and the body of the ride cymbal.  I would not be surprised if Monsieur Muller had experience recording chamber orchestras and not merely jazz ensembles.

It’s going to be a long night… #1

2016/11/24

You know that rehearsal is going to be a long slog when the operative phrase is, “I guess I’m going to have to listen to the original version.”

long-night-1

The “Watchtower Bass”

2016/10/09

If you are a cellist or bassist, the concept of “purgatory” has a real-world example in the eight-note ostinato ground bass of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D.  If you play bass in a rock or blues band, your equivalent is the three-chord bass line for “All Along The Watchtower,” by the folk-rock singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.  In both cases, it is the same, mind-numbingly repeating pattern through the entire song.

If you are a bassist with an IQ of at least 95, you know that “All Along the Watchtower” is five minutes of your day that you will never get back—longer if your lead guitarist is particularly greedy “inspired.”  But if you’re stuck on stage during a performance of “Watchtower,” and you want to make better use of your time, I humbly recommend that you arrive at the gig armed with a “Watchtower Bass.”

Like most of my ideas (well, except the solar-powered night-vision goggles), the concept is both elegant and simple:

If you don’t happen to have a second bass guitar, simply buy any crappy old used 4-string bass guitar; nobody will notice the difference.  Equip your extra bass with three strings.  Since my band (Elephant In The Room) plays the song in A, the bottom string would be an E-string tuned to F (F1).  The second string would be another E-string tuned to G (G1), and then the third string would be an A-string tuned to A (A1).  The fourth string is utterly unnecessary and can be discarded.
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Before the set begins, arrange with your food server to deliver a cheeseburger and soda pop just before the band plays “All Along the Watchtower.”

Once the song begins, simply begin playing the three notes on your three open strings. Your left hand is now available for holding your cheeseburger and/or glass of soda pop.

burger-004

“Hmmm.. I wonder when Mitch is done with his guitar solo?”  Urrrrrrrp!

The longer the band plays the song, the longer you have to savor your food and beverage without having to worry about annoying little details like fingering notes on your neck.  And since the bass line contains only three notes, playing a wrong note is virtually impossible.

By the time the band has finished playing the song, the lead guitarist, lead vocalist, and drummer will have gotten their jollies. Meanwhile, you have had time to savor some food and a refreshing beverage without having expended an ounce of worry or effort for a bass line nobody cares about, anyway.

Bassists of the world, you are welcome.

A dreadful way to start the morning

2011/11/23

Even before the sun arose this morning, I found myself on a Saint Cloud MetroBus after only 95 minutes of sleep and forced to sit next to someone reeking of cigarette smoke.  At the same time, the bus driver was blasting “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by the 1980s glam-metal group “Poison” from his boom-box.

  1. Minus 50,000 points to the bus driver for torturing us passengers.  Next time, buddy, tune your radio to FM 90.1 and leave it there.  #%$&!
  2. Minus 100,000 points to the cigarette smoker.  No further explanation is necessary.
  3. Minus 500,000 points to the group “Poison” for poisoning our the world with the music equivalent of the television show Jersey Shore.

After finally arriving home and getting a hot shower, five hours of sleep, and half-a-quart of Gatorade, these still were not quite enough  to scrub my brain.  This is one of those occasions that required “swatting a fly with a Patriot missile,” so to speak:  Deutsche Grammophon’s’s Mad About Baroque CD (DG, 439 147-2, 1993, NLA).  Specifically, Georg Friedrich Händel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from Solomon, HWV 67.

Beware the dangers of incredibly stupid music spewed forth on somebody else’s boom-box; it happened to me this morning and I lost about 65 brain cells.

Hip hop has jumped the shark

2011/03/18

Part of me wishes not to post a link to the dreadful hip hop video “Friday” by the so-called Internet sensation Rebecca Black, because as an actual musician who actually has good taste in music, I do not wish to subject you to this utter dreck.  It would be four minutes of your life that you will never get back.

Just understand that hip hop has finally “jumped the shark” and become a caricature of itself.  In the monumentally idiotic music video “Friday,” it is more than just the brain-dead lyrics, the narcissistic and cringe-inducing “look-at-me-I’m-such-a-rock-star” on-screen behavior, the really creepy cameo by an adult rapper, and the mind-numbing repeat four-chord hip-hop sequence that make this a repulsive song and video.

Little Miss Rebecca has an especially annoying touch of Carol Channing in her singing timbre.

She should be grounded for an entire month just for subjecting humanity to this waste of time, bandwidth, and valuable electricity.  Given that her parents helped finance this debacle, I would add that they should undergo a psychiatric evaluation, or at least receive a visit from Child Protective Services.

Minus 10,000 points and half a bottle of Excedrin.

Dissonant Creatures with The Swallows, May 27, 1010

2010/06/04

Cellist Aaron Kerr is like some musicians in that he has several projects going these days.  His own group, Dissonant Creatures, was paired with collaborator Jeff Crandall’s band, The Swallows at a slightly unusual venue — Station 4 (previously known as Ryan’s) in downtown Saint Paul on Thursday evening, May 27, 2010.

Make no mistake, Kerr’s musical background is solidly classical, but his music with Dissonant Creatures’ could be described as ‘atmospheric’ jazz and features some interesting work from his five-stringed electric cello, equipped with a low F string — and Kerr really knows how to make his instrument sing here.  The first of four songs the group performed was “Head Down Slowly Onward,” in which Kerr made his cello really sing and guitarist Jeff Crandall channelled The Edge (guitarist Dave Evans of U2) with his rhythm playing.  “Born Bad” is a 6/8 piece with bassist Matt Kanive pulsing underneath, subliminally urging on Aaron’s pizzicato melody, which was colored one octave above by Tyson Allison on synth.  “Scorpio Rising” is a C minor tune in 7/8 time featuring an ostinato bassline from Kanive; after Crandall’s guitar solo Kerr used his cello to signal some distant ‘lightning strikes’ while drummer Justin Deleon echoed him with a few blasts of thunder on his toms using mallets instead of standard drumsticks.

While the group’s music could have served well as the audio soundtrack to some of NASA’s Apollo documentary films, the sound definitely feels more rootsy than jazzy.  That said, Kerr and his group provided a few pleasant echoes of the seminal jazz-fusion group Weather Report, spiced with some tasty rhythm guitar from Crandall.
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Kerr and Crandall’s group, The Swallows, took the stage for the evening’s final set and immediately showed how much of the group’s music is eminently airworthy.  They opened with “Clear Sky Relapse,” a C major tune in which Kerr straddled the line between being playing the bass line and providing some of the melody on electric cello.  In “Hardball,” Kerr really muscled the low end while drummer Ben Steen went with him stride-for-stride, getting people moving on the dance floor with his drums and open hi-hat.  Crandall provided nice vocals and Allison, by now playing guitar, provided solid backup vocals in “Bottom Feeder,” which featured a nice cello solo by Kerr.  The fact that there was no bass line underneath his solo helped the song, rather than hurt it.  Likewise, Mike Nordby provided nice texture behind Kerr with his mandolin.

After “The Devil’s Hole,” which featured some excellent Hammond B3-flavored keyboards from Allison, Kerr’s nicely pensive bass line provided the structure for “I Won’t Let You Down,” which featured some excellent drumming from Steen, who delivered some thoughtfully-placed snare drum flams to spice up the rhythm and enhance the organic, rootsy flavor.

Four of the group’s best songs closed the evening: “Witchin ‘n’ Divinnin” has a subtle flavor of a lullaby and featured Crandall on steel-string acoustic guitar, which works beautifully over Kerr’s electric cello.  (Extra points to Nordby for his mandolin part that underpins Allison’s xylophone lines.)  “Long Long Shadow” found Allison on melodica, Nordby punctuating the song with some high Ds from his mandolin, and Ben Steen powerfully driving the song with an almost tribal feel, courtesy of his intelligent use of mallets.

In “Home,” Crandall delivered a Springsteen-esque vocal riding on top of Kerr’s double-stop cello, while Allison provided dollops and dashes of harmonica in-between B3-style keyboards and solid backup vocals, with Nordby accenting the overall sound, this time on percussion.  The Swallows closed with two other strong compositions, “Rattle Them Bones” and “Roam”, both of which could easily fly on radio.

The Swallows’ appeal is more than just that Kerr replaces the traditional bass guitar; his electric 5-string cello vaults back-and-forth from a cello lead to bass underneath.  With more than just well-written and eminently listenable music, The Swallows also deliver solid musicianship, which makes this group more enjoyable than quite a few others in the Twin Cities area.

Diana Ross & The Supremes: The No. 1s

2010/04/22

Diana Ross & The Supremes: The No. 1s

UTV/Motown Records
Catalog # B0001368-02
79 min, 38 sec (ADD)
Released: 3 Feburary 2004

This time-capsule (released in February of 2004) makes a nice primer to the music of Diana Ross and the Supremes, including some of Ross’ solo material dating from 1970 forward.  Given the title, this is not a complete Supremes compendium.  Regardless, if you’re not familiar with this material nor with the legendary Funk Brothers, start with this disc of the Supremes’ re-mastered hits, but please, please also get the DVD “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” because the Motown founder Berry Gordy belligerently omits the musician credits the CDs — a common practice at Motown, unfortunately.  The Motown house band musicians (known as the Funk Brothers) are a huge reason why so much of this music was massively popular, and so the “Standing…” DVD is a great piece of music education by itself.  Most of the material on this CD also represents the excellent songwriting of the Brian Holland-Lamont Dozier-Edward Holland Jr. team, although a few duds and one cringe-inducing bomb from 1967 are here to illustrate the rare disasters.

This disc takes you through the Number 1 hits in chronological order beginning with “Where Did Our Love Go,” complete with the footsteps, the incessantly repeated – and occasionally out-of-tune – “baby, baby” backup vocals, and slightly overdriven bass of the legendary James Jamerson.  Interestingly, some timing problems among the musicians are revealed here.

“Baby Love” represents the Supremes’ second No. 1 hit, from 1964, and features the sweet precision of drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen, who died in June of 2002 but whose handiwork thankfully graces a large chunk of the Motown catalog, as well as a plethora of American jazz recordings.  The drums and bass you hear here underscore why Motown had smashing success with groups like the Supremes, who did not become “Diana Ross & The Supremes” until 1967.

1964’s “Come See About Me” is one of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team’s best songs, where the backing vocals of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are best integrated with Ross’ lead vocal, although Wilson and Ballard’s intonation is occasionally flat.  As carefully crafted and recorded as was much of the material here, it is interesting that they never went back to fix these problems.  Ross follows the text beautifully, from strong declarations in the beginning of the third verse, back to reflective moods with a breathy vibrato, and this shows her as a thoughtful reader of lyrics, not just a great vocalist. “Pistol” Allen’s drumming and James Jamerson’s bass powerfully drive this song, and the modern-day remastering comes close to bringing Allen’s hi-hats loud enough into the mix, where they really belong.  The song is punctuated by some tasteful (and very tasty) guitar work, but interestingly, the G-minor proximate chord leading to the D-major chorus is misplayed by the unidentified guitarist in the first tag.

1965’s “I Hear A Symphony” is popular almost 40 years on, but leaves me thinking that Holland, Dozier and Holland “mailed it in” — we get more “baby, baby” for this regurgitation of “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Baby Love.” It even begins in the same key: C major.  But hey, it was still a Number 1 hit.  Right?

(baby, baby…)

The Holland-Dozier-Holland team’s 1966 smash “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a genuine classic and one of the best-sounding recordings from this era; it translates well on this CD with the remastering.  The genius of Jamerson is evident here in that he often changes chords one beat before the rest of the band takes the same change.  This might sound like a bad idea until you realize that Jamerson is following Ross’ vocal relatively closely — a fine example of James Jamerson’s creativity and imagination.  Likewise, his fast, angular, impressive (and spotless!) playing powers another beloved Supremes classic, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

The track that truly represents wasted space on this CD is the horrid, cornball-upbeat swing disaster called “The Happening,” which was featured in a 1967 hippie film of the same name that starred Anthony Quinn, Faye Dunaway, and Milton Berle — supposedly it is as wretchedly bad a film as this is bad music.  The lyrics here are completely out-of-character with the too-happy arrangement, which goes over the top with particularly dreadful flute and piccolo parts.  Sadly, this was actually a Number 1 pop hit in 1967, which leads to the inevitable “what were they thinking!” question.  You can listen to it, but it will be three minutes of your life you will never get back.

Holland-Dozier-Holland’s excellent “Reflections” then redeems the CD with Jack Ashford’s tambourine and a muted Rhodes piano setting a pensive, yet soulfully pulsing mood.  The slightly unexpected chord changes are accentuated by the fact that Ross’ vocal begins not with a verse or chorus, but with the tag that leads into the first chorus.  Likewise, the song ends not with a chorus, but with more verse material, which goes far in complimenting the “unbalanced” mood.  The irony in the music here is that the D-flat major chorus helps Ross convey a resigned feeling while the bridge — which is in a minor key — stylistically offers a sub-conscious “glimmer of hope” before the third verse plunges us back into reality in B-flat major with the blues seventh-note coloring the mood.  This is one of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s best-ever songs, sung in character to a “T” by Ross.

1968’s “Love Child” contains some polish in the form of a string part in the right channel, but the bass, drums, syncopated single-note rhythm guitar, tambourine, and xylophone help adequately convey the driving, urban grittiness represented by the lyrics and the excellent instrumental opening of this song.  One of the other impressive elements here is that the snare drum is held from the first chorus before returning to accent the beginning of the second verse, and then to power the remaining choruses on each quarter note.

The Gamble and Huff-penned (with Jerry Ross) “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” – recorded with The Temptations – is an interesting piece in that it possesses the older, early-1960’s Motown style, but with the updated (ca. 1968) recording technology, we get a cleaner result.  Eddie Kendricks’ wonderfully expressive falsetto in the first verse meshes nicely with Ross’ voice in the following verse, and the background vocals are sung excellently and in-character.  The mostly schmaltzy string and horn parts mar this track (again, the piccolo rears its ugly head); a spare horn section not only would have been more in keeping with the endearing early Motown catalog, it would have allowed us to hear more of the backup vocals from the Temptations and the Supremes.  But then, we are talking about a song recorded in 1968.

The excellent Ashford and Simpson composed-and-produced “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (from 1970) begins the final third of the disc, which consists of Ross’ solo material.  This piece that often sticks in the minds of listeners as being the best from this era.

“Touch Me In the Morning” (written by Ron Miller and Michael Masser) would have been best left as it started, simply with piano and Ross’s voice.  Had this been done, we might have been left with a stunning, evocative piece of music.  Unfortunately, we get the pre-disco, Las Vegas lounge-flavored drums, harp, strings, and horns.  OTOH, the theme from the film Mahogany, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” contains much the same instrumentation, but for the most part it fits better and is slightly better music.

Four disco tracks follow, none of which represent Ross well, but certainly sold lots of records between 1976 and 1981.  “Love Hangover” and “Upside Down” hit Number 1 on the pop, dance, and R&B charts.  From a musical perspective, the best of these four is the four-minute version of 1980’s “I’m Coming Out,” which kicks off with an extended overture of Nile Rodgers’ tasty guitar (unfortunately played on a Fender Telecaster, rather than a sweeter-sounding Fender Stratocaster), the late Tony Thompson’s excellent, booming drums, and the gritty-yet-wonderfully slippery bass of the late Bernard Edwards.  These three guys, who were the core of the 70’s group Chic, set such a funky, urban mood that Ross’ smooth vocal seems as much out of place here as the trombone (!) solo; Ross doesn’t let loose stylistically until there are a mere 14 seconds left in the track.  Even then, she should have gone back and sung something different than what she actually commited to tape.

This compilation closes with the syrupy “Endless Love,” sung with Lionel Richie and still an incessant staple on soft rock radio stations.  Ross delivers a better vocal on this track than on the four tracks preceding it, but unfortunately her vocal was not placed as prominently in the mix as it should have been.  The “bonus track” (such as it is), a remix of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” is as much a throwaway as the remake of this song that hit the charts in the mid-1980’s.

This disc goes a long way toward illustrating the durability and strength of Ross’ voice, as well as the popularity of a good cross-section of the Motown sound as it changed with the times – many times.  If you are familiar with only one or two of the songs contained herein, buy this CD and get up-to-speed on this important part of American musical history.

(baby, baby…)

Super Bowl 44 halftime show

2010/02/08

A review (in haiku) of The Who’s halftime performance at Super Bowl 44 (CBS-TV) on Sunday, February 7, 2010:

Marketing research?
halftime stuck in classic rock
What is hip, Goodell?

Uneven playing
drummer missed the closing chord
find two marching bands

KISS on Late Show with David Letterman (CBS)

2010/02/02

A review, presented in Haiku, of KISS’ appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, October 7, 2010 (CBS-TV).

Thirty-five years on
still can’t play decent music
freaking loud paint job