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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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Artymiw’s awesome artistry

2013/10/14

This review was originally published in the March 2009 issue of The Metropolitan.

Lydia Artymiw gets a standing ovation

If you haven’t yet attended a Minnesota Sinfonia concert at Metropolitan State’s Founders Hall Auditorium, you should, but I have some helpful advice: Get there early.

On Friday evening, Feb. 13, 2009, hundreds of people—including kids—did, resulting in an overflow crowd for a thoughtfully programmed concert (especially for Valentine’s Day) by the Sinfonia, conducted by their Artistic Director, Jay Fishman.

An appetizer from Aaron
True to the orchestra’s mission of making classical and orchestral music accessible to kids (and adults who otherwise cannot afford tickets to Orchestra Hall or the Ordway), Fishman and the Sinfonia opened their Feb. 13 concert with a bit of Americana—the famous “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo.  While the slower tempo seemed a little unusual, the benefit to the audience was obvious: they could better hear the intricate rhythms and interplay between the strings. (This was especially nice for the Founders Hall audience, as they are closer to the stage than in other venues.)

And while the strings, winds and brass players were plenty competent with their parts, percussionist Kory Andry was the real star. Doing the work of several percussionists, Andry played the necessary parts on five instruments: bass drum, snare, wood block, concert marimba and cymbals ingeniously configured on a hi-hat stand.

Moved by Mozart
Sandwiched between the audience and the stage was the grand piano on which Lydia Artymiw fairly dazzled the gathered music lovers with a sublime reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 (K.467). A  distinguished professor of piano at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Artymiw was firm and noble where the first movement demanded, and then gave a thoroughly graceful and penetrating account of the famous second movement. Lest anyone think this was a relaxed ‘Muzak’ tour of Mozart, her technical command of the piano was manifest in her handling of cascades of pianissimo notes.

And here is where Artymiw stands apart from other concert musicians—a talented and masterful pianist, she was also a “sympathetic” soloist for the Sinfonia; not once did she overwhelm the orchestra accompanying her almost otherworldly grasp of Mozart.

In addition to her critically acclaimed recordings, Artymiw lately has been a juror for several international piano and chamber music competitions, a logical outgrowth of her appearances with major orchestras and in important venues all over the world. Surely the audience and the musicians of the Minnesota Sinfonia hope this is not the last time Lydia Artymiw performs for (and with) them.

And while the Sinfonia musicians did a creditable job containing their glee at their good fortune, the audience could not—they burst into a lengthy standing ovation, one Artymiw, Fishman and the Sinfonia musicians richly deserved.

Icing on the cake
Amazingly, some audience members left at the intermission, consequently missing two stunningly romantic and evocative pieces of music quite appropriate for Valentine’s Day. And, as well as the Sinfonia played the Mozart, they were just getting warmed up.

The non-choral version of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50, is one of his most famous pieces of music, where the melody is woven back-and-forth between the winds and strings. Here, Sinfonia flautist JoAnne Bartlett shined by carrying the melody with a clear-yet-breathy timbre later echoed by the violins. The supporting musicians in the Pavane, the violists, cellists and bassist Susan Allard were the rhythmic glue holding this performance together, delivering the under footing very precisely under Fishman’s conducting.

However, the most emotional and evocative piece of the evening was Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47. This composition is something of a well-kept secret and not widely known or played, so it was new to virtually the entire Founders Hall audience, who saw the Sinfonia semi-circle the string section principals in a visually unconventional manner. Elgar’s scoring for a quartet with string orchestra reminds of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, but on a smaller scale. The difference is that Elgar demands much more emotional playing from the strings, not just in dynamics but also in style, and the Sinfonia strings held true on all of the contemplative, plaintive and declarative passages.

Fishman and the Minnesota Sinfonia proved to any skeptics present that romantic and evocative classical music is often anything but milquetoast.

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.