Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Terrific Musical Memoir

"I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those 
who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means 
'put down.'" 
  -- Bob Newhart

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I wasn't much of a country music fan. What I knew of it came from two sources: my father's Patsy Cline records, and the FM stations on our radio that played true country (hillbilly) music from West Virginia. I couldn't bear to listen to the latter for too long.

I became much more familiar with country when I became a Willie Nelson fan. By that time I had a sense of what a musical giant Hank Williams was in this genre. But now, after reading Rheta Grimsley Johnson's memoir Hank Hung the Moon and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts, I have a deeper understanding of what he means to Southerners.

This is a wonderful piece of writing, and a labor of love. Johnson, cleaning the attic after the death of a her husband, comes across the interviews he'd done in preparation for a book about Hank Williams that never came to fruition. The fact that this work was done with a former wife is no impediment to Johnson: she decides to draw upon these "Hank enthusiast's" research in her own book on the subject.

I love how at the start she quotes Elvis Costello on writing about music. He once said that "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's a really stupid thing to want to do."

Believe me, I can relate to this statement. How often I've read concert or CD reviews and felt the futility of the writer trying to describe a sound or a feeling created.  Johnson will go on however:

"But all of us who string words together in feeble attempts to tell a story half as well as Hank, all of us think we have something to add to the legend, another way to interpret genius. Mostly we want an excuse to get closer to the music and the man. For we need Hank for something more elemental than entertainment, sometimes in an urgent way. We need him to continue to function in this life, to make sense of things, to help wrestle down demons. We need him the way gandy dancers need their rhythmic chants to get through a ten-mile stretch of railroad repair. The way a beautician needs bobby pins. Hank was more than our troubadour. He was, in a way, our savior."

So we travel with Johnson to visit Hank Williams's daughter Jett. (She only learned she was his daughter practically three decades after he died!) We meet Hugh Harris, an accomplished Hank impersonator. Johnson also interviews Hank Braxton Schuffert, who knew Hank and, subscribing to a more temperate lifestyle, is around to tell the tale more than half a century later.

But the book is a memoir, and Johnson skillfully weaves in her life story along with the interviews. You get to appreciate what life was like growing up in rural west Georgia, and how Hank speaks for true country people.

Hank Hung the Moon has me eager to revisit Williams's music. I'll bet that it will have the same effect upon you. I'd like to end with a memorable passage from the book in which Johnson, reflecting upon the music lessons she took as a girl, draws a connection between music and writing.

"I have read and subscribe to the theory than any writer worth her salt needs to take a few music lessons and some sailing lessons before attempting to write. A writer, goes the argument, needs to know the poetry and the lilting language of both pursuits, those phrases that sound like what they are: crescendo and listing, for examples. You call on the language of music and the sea at every turn to make prose pretty. They become the memorable phrases, the ones with salt and sea spray and - shall I say it? - rhythm."

Isn't that terrific writing? Check out this book! Here's the author on You Tube.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Carly Simon

After reading the recent unauthorized biography on Carly Simon, I've been thinking a lot about her. I find her such an interesting artist, and a fascinating person.

Like most people, she's a tangle of contradictions. When you're a public figure, your foibles are thrown in high relief. So you have Carly Simon the exhibitionist who hardly ever posed for her albums without wearing something provocative. She's a beautiful woman, so why not? Square this with the fact that she has suffered from severe stage fright throughout her career, often to her own detriment.

You have Carly the singer-songwriter. She's the model for the confessional mode of songwriting: her life is in her song, almost as much as Loudon Wainwright's life is in his work. So she writes about broken marriages, past relationships, and her own fears. Yet she is an intensely private person. (Well, come to think of it, so is Paul Simon - no relationship, beyond the NYC connection!)

Reading the book turned me back to listening to her music. I've been enjoying her 1990 release Have You Seen Me Lately? My favorite from this one is "Life Is Eternal".

Life is eternal
Love is immortal
Death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
As we move into the light and horizon
With nothing save the limit of our sight

What a great lyric! Her voice is so distinctive: no lyric sheet is necessary because you hear the words the first time that she sings them.

I have always enjoyed her music because it hits my sweet spot. I appreciate music that is classified as "pop". I love songs that are constructed around hooks. Songs that make an unabashed effort to crawl into your brain and stay there. This is what Carly is adept at doing. It explains why she's in the Songwriters Hall of Fame along with some many of my favorites: Don McLean, Carole King, Peggy Lee, Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, et al.

When you read about Carly you quickly appreciate what a neurotic person she is. I mean, she has been holding a torch for James Taylor for so long, it seems like such a public embarrassment. But then, your heart goes out to her. She is incredibly true and faithful. Who hasn't been guilty of not moving on? Who isn't guilty?

I wound up admiring her, and hoping that in the next year or two, when she's published her autobiography with a new album (I hope), she will sit triumphant once more. She has suffered tremendously over the past decade or so: breast cancer in the late 1990s, an ill-fated move to Beacon Hill a few years later, and - worst of all - the loss of millions of dollars to a Wall Street shyster. Then  her last album of original material (2008's That Kind of Love) that HearMusic failed to promote properly. (She lost her lawsuit over that debacle.)

After watching a Lifetime show about her in 1995 (back when she was promoting her wonderful Letters Never Sent), I've decided that Carly is someone whose spirit I'd like to celebrate. She is open-hearted and warm. She is authentic in a way that so many artists aren't.

I'll be adding to my vinyl the next time I head to the record shop, filling in the gaps in my Carly Simon collection. I am a fan. I'll never forget when she first hit in the early 1970s. And I agree with her friend Jonathan Schwartz (who's featured in the Lifetime special): her track record over the decades has been superlative. She's one of a kind.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cuttin' Capers by Doris Day

I'd like to devote this post to one song that's been rattling around my head lately: "Cuttin' Capers" by Doris Day. It's the title track from a 1959 album by her, and I think it's worthy of study in terms of what made Doris Day such a great singer.

First of all, to cut a caper means to "leap or frisk about" or to frolic. (I'm sure most people could figure this out by looking at the image on the album's cover and thinking about the lyrics, but I like to confirm.)

Now this notion of cutting capers seems peculiar to Doris. A decade earlier she recorded "Canadian Capers (Cuttin' Capers)", a nifty number in which she name-checks different band leaders as she skates through the lyrics, with a vocal group called The Sportsmen backing her up. A very playful number that encapsulates the optimism that is so central to her persona.

In 1959 Doris Day was at the height of her fame as a film actress. Her album sales were flagging, however. Her last best-seller was 1956's Day by Day. Apparently she and her managers had miscalculated on the follow-up Day by Night: according to the all music site the "chaste approach (on this album) may have been out of step with for the album market of the late '50s." So Doris decided to steer clear of the dreamy ballads and go up-tempo with Cuttin'Capers.

Apparently this album didn't hit the mark commercially- perhaps a continuing signal that Doris Day's brand of wholesomeness was out of step with the zeitgeist - but I find it tremendously appealing and filled with confident and creative singing.

Before I deconstruct the performance, let me give you some background on the song "Cuttin' Capers". The lyrics were composed by Joe Lubin, who had a year earlier written "Teacher's Pet" for the Doris Day/Clark Gable movie film of the same name. Lubin also worked with Little Richard on "Tutti Frutti". The music was by a man named Adam Ross (also known as Irving Roth). He had just written "That Jane from Maine" for a movie by the same name starring Doris, Jack Lemon, and Ernie Kovacs .

So we're not talking Rodgers & Hart here. These two men were basically given the charge: "We need a theme song for this album. Make it light and uptempo. Be sure it says 'You are in for some fun!'"

I think they succeeded brilliantly. Before we head to the recording, though, let's consider the conductor, Frank De Vol. His style is unmistakable if you have recordings with classic pop singers from the 1950s. De Vol's signature was to throw in an instrument that pops out from the strings and adds a touch of whimsy to the mood of the song. This style definitely feels dated and gimmicky- much more than Billy May's, another busy uptempo conductor from the time. (His horns were grounded in Dixieland.)

So on November 29, 1958 Doris Day records "Cuttin' Capers" with De Vol, one of four numbers she put in the can with him that day. It will be the track that establishes the theme, and she starts robustly.
(Click here to listen to the song as you follow my discussion.)

Hey, look at me! (high horn trill)
Can't you see? (lower trill)
I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love! (Declarations are run together)

(This is shouted out, separated from the next phrase; a variation of what just preceded it and a clever way of vocally saying "Wake up! Listen! I'm daft!")
Look at me!
I'm cuttin' capers
I'm on a spree, see (I suspect she added the "see". She slides into it like a horn. Sweet!)
I'm cuttin' capers

I'll do that town
the way that a clown does
gonna laugh, gonna sing, gonna have a wonderful fling (slight pause after each phrase)

So here I go
I'm cuttin' capers
On with that show, oh
I'm cuttin' capers

I felt this way 
the moment you kissed me
I'm in love
 (repeated 5 times!--slows down slightly with last one, making a lilting and playful sound for the initial consonant in "love")

Doris then returns to the top. When she arrives at the "I'm in love" again, it's time to put a bow on it and bring the proceedings to a snappy ending. Here's how she does it.

I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love (These are delivered rapidly. Then she vamps.)
I'm in love (Emphasis on first word.)
So in love
(Pause. De Vol comes in with a filigree.)
I'm in love! 

It's an infectious 2 minutes and 41 minutes, well-plotted by the singer and the conductor. Sometimes I just listen and surrender to the song's happiness. Other times I get analytical and listen for patterns and repetitions, or think about how much of it was improvised that day in the studio and how much was planned in advance.

Whatever the case may be, it just illustrates why Doris Day is such a classic stylist. Recently Terry Gross scored an interview with Doris on the occasion of her 88th birthday. How wonderful to hear her voice again! Terry Gross opens by complimenting her singing, and her response is delightful. Check it out - you'll learn a lot about her!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Willie Nelson's Sharing of the Wealth

It's strange, but the introduction to the Wikipedia entry for Willie Nelson doesn't mention his enormously popular 1978 album Stardust. This record was my introduction to his world. It catapulted Willie to a completely new level. Instead of simply being the guy who wrote Patsy Cline's "Crazy" or a member of the Outlaw Country gang (of which I was completely unaware), Nelson became not only a master songwriter, but a singer. Why, let's revise that: the guy was a crooner in his own way!

I started learning the classic country songs thanks to Willie's subsequent releases,  just as listening to Pete Seeger taught me the traditional folk songs. There are so many things that I love about Willie, but the best might be what he did after he hit the pop jackpot. He turned around and recorded many duet albums with other great country songwriters. The albums showcased his partner's hits. Before long, I got to know the names Merle Haggard, Faron Young, Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizell, and Ray Price.

I've been listening lately to San Antonio Rose, a 1980 release with Willie and Ray Price. Impossible for me to tire of this collection. Favorite cuts include Willie's classic "Funny How Time Slips Away" with its stop and start shuffling rhythm and "Night Life", a song Willie co-wrote. Why does this stanza from that song always creep into my mind?

Many people just like me
Dreamin' of old used-to-be's
And the night life ain't no good life
But it's my life

It's the song's attitude that sticks - the mixture of regret and defensiveness. I also love the guitar licks that surround the bridge.

Listen to the blues they're playin'
Listen to what the blues are sayin'

What a fabulous song! Ray Price shows his vocal chops with Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War with You" and "Crazy Arms" (the latter an enormous 1956 hit for him). Price is credited with introducing something called the 4/4 shuffle. I read it was inspired by Bob Wills, whose work is also featured here in the title track and the lovely "Faded Love" that brings the proceedings to a close.

Willie Nelson chose to honor his friends when he inherited a mass audience, and I'm so grateful that he did because I have learned so many great songs. He is a singer and songwriter and artist who has moved me deeply for years. Give this duet album a listen. I know you'll get the bug and search out other collaborations from this period. It's a real treasure trove!

Click here to enjoy 82 year-old Ray Price performing in 2009. Man, everything is completely intact. What a singer!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Paul Simon's "American Tune"

Paul Simon has long been a favorite songwriter of mine. On this Independence Day, I'd like to consider one of his greatest but lesser-known songs: "American Tune".

Featured on his second solo album, 1973's There Goes Rhymin' Simon, "American Tune" stands in stark contrast to the generally upbeat mood created by the other songs on the album. It is a dark and exhausted look at what it meant to be an American at a time when the Dream appeared to be in tatters: long gas lines due to our first national fuel crisis, a disquieting end to the Vietnam conflict, and Watergate undoubtedly weighed heavily on Simon's mind during the composition of it.

Of course, this song has staying power because the Dream always does seem tattered, especially these days, right? Let's go through the lyric and contemplate what Simon is saying. He opens by stating baldly that America has disappointed him many times, not just at the moment he's singing.

Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I've often felt forsaken
And certainly misused

But then a stoic note is injected in the song, one that forms the heart of its message.

But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to the bone
Still you don't expect to be bright and bon vivant
So far away from home
So far away from home

Mention of home resonates, because you immediately think of America's place in the world, and how far we had fallen at that time as democracy's saviors in the Second World War. (I'll leave it to you to decide how steep the descent has been since then!)

But home also works as simply a metaphor: it's a place where you feel comfortable and secure. With the economy in the tank in 1973 and with little faith in our leaders, as a country we were truly adrift.

Simon continues:

I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
And driven to its knees

Now back to the resignation:

But it's all right, it's all right
'Cause we've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we've travelled on
I wonder what went wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong

Simon then transitions to the bridge. In his dreams he takes flight from his troubled mind.

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuredly

And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

This notion of sailing away was first encroached a couple of years earlier in Randy Newman's masterful album Sail Away. To quote from that song:

Here in America we get food to eat
Don't have to run in the jungle and scuff up our feet
We just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It's great to be an American

Later the song's narrator invites his listener to climb aboard, to sail away and "cross the might ocean to the Charleston Bay." But now it's the Statue of Liberty that's sailing - away from America!

I know that Paul Simon was a great admirer of Randy Newman. To me, it's clear that his ambition is to write a song as great in his eyes as Newman's. From what I know of Simon, he's a competitive guy and, according to Marc Eliot in his biography Paul Simon: A Life, the fact that "American Tune" did not become a hit was a "major" source of disappointment to him.

Let's get back to the song itself. After the bridge, we enter the song's conclusion.

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune

Feeling hopeful? Time to wake up from this dream you've been having!

But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed

Now for the killer couplet at the end:

Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all, I'm trying to get some rest

This is such a moving song, and so durable: I wish that it could enter the canon, and be there for all Americans to consider on holidays like the Fourth of July.

In any case, it's a song that is firmly lodged in the memories of anyone alive at the time. Another brilliant turn from one of our country's finest lyricists!

Click here for Paul Simon singing "American Tune" solo and here for a duet on the song with Willie Nelson.

Click here for Randy Newman's "Sail Away".

Finally, here is a link to a discussion of this great song.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Standards-Based Songwriter Succeeds!

Jill Barber is a Canadian singer-songwriter like no other. If you're a fan of the American Songbook, you must get completely behind this gal!

Her ambition is to craft songs reminiscent of the standards, and I think she completely succeeds. I urge you to give her CD Mischievous Moon a good listen.  My wife and I did during a long car trip, and it's fair to say that we were entranced.

In an interview with NPR, Jill explained how she wears her influences proudly on her sleeve. I really respect her for doing so. She has to endure the slings of critics who belittle her music as being "retro" and artificial. I understand their point of view, but I can't deny how much her music seized my attention. This is not a CD that I will retire to my shelf anytime soon.

Her album borrows sounds from different decades. They're some doo-wop to take us back to the 1950s, a little bossa nova to recall Jobim, and there's a boatload of strings. The latter really shows off the Nat King Cole influence that Jill cited in her interview. Her voice is warm and exceptionally adept at delivering a lyric. Very intimate, and strikingly different.

OK, so she has a "baby voice" like Blossom Dearie or Kat Edmonson. But that's not the only reason I like her. Jill Barber has some terrific songwriting chops! I look forward to her becoming more of a presence here in the States.

She's lovely to look at too. Check out this You Tube performance of "Chances" (the opening track from her CD, and by far the catchiest number of all).

Saturday, June 23, 2012

She's the Kats Pajamas!

What a wonder Kat Edmonson is. Not yet out of her twenties, she has forged a sound that is unique while it skims the surface of a boatload of musical references. After a few notes of hearing her, you'll immediately think Blossom Dearie. But other singers will come to mind as you continue to listen. Here's how Nate Chinen put it in The New York Times.

Trawling for a current reference point, you might come up with Madeleine Peyroux or Melody Gardot, or the softer side of Nellie McKay. Looking further back, you’d probably land on Blossom Dearie, who sang in the same girlish register as Ms. Edmonson, with a similar timbre and sublimated wit...
The singer relates in her biography that Nina Simone is a primary influence. One can hear Simone in the way that she leaps vocally from a light girlish tone to a full-bodied lower register to end a phrase. 

Her sophomore release, Way Down Low, has brought her much attention, especially from NPR and Steve Greenlee of The Boston Globe, who calls the album "one of the greatest vocal albums I've ever heard." Here's more of his gushing. 
...after listening to “Way Down Low” several dozen times over the past couple of months and never tiring of a single song on it, I say this with confidence: If Kat Edmonson were singing in the 1940s or ’50s, her name would be mentioned alongside those of Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Julie London, and Anita O’Day — maybe even Billie Holiday.
I'm not willing to go as far as Greenlee, but I will declare Kat Edmonson as a refreshing new supporter of the vocal tradition that he references. Let's think about this landscape for a moment.
You've got Michael Buble. Great sense of swing, he captures an audience longing for that Sinatra vibe while occasionally dipping into songs of a more contemporary vintage. Diana Krall is an accomplished pianist who tastefully renders standards and phrases beautifully. (I listen to her like I'd listen to Carmen McRae.) Madeleine Peyroux initially excited jazz listeners with her Billie Holiday-flavored voice, but she has carved out a niche designed to obscure that memory. Melody Gardot brings Peggy Lee to mind with her first two releases. Her catalogue doesn't feature many standards, but her songs resemble them. 
Kat Edmonson sounds like a singer from the sixties. (I was think of the TV show Mad Men when I'm listening to her. It must be not only the musical styles she employs, but also the melancholy that is at the heart of most of her presentation.) She's comfortable in the vernaculars of calypso, bossa nova, swing. In a chameleon-like fashion she threads through these styles, and then she puts the brakes on with very slow-paced renditions of Brian Wilson's "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and "Whispering Grass", a song popularized by the Ink Spots. They are striking surprises in the musical program. You hang on to her words, and Kat never disappoints.
She's an accomplished songwriter who pens songs that sound like standards. "What Else Can I Do" begins with this imagery:
What else can I do
But to sit and think of you
And how love walked through that door
And moved boldly across the floor
But love's not here anymore
What else can I do?
Gershwin's "Love Walked In" comes immediately to mind with this inro. Or consider the opening of "This Was the One".
It wasn't planned
Taking her hand to cross the street
Was as natural a thing as he'd ever done
He knew what had begun
She was the one.
She was the one.
Isn't that lovely? No longer can I go around saying, "No one writes these sentiments anymore. Where is the love in the music you hear today? The refined and delicate feeling?" It's with Kat!
My only complaint about this CD is that it drags at the end. The last three tracks are very drawn out, and her slow delivery starts to grate. Kat must take care with her pacing, although she certainly did for most of the CD.
An electric new talent is here! Check out this elfin enchantress. You'll be gushing like Greenlee before long and thanking the Lord that the vocal arts are alive and breathing!
Here's Kat doing 'Lucky", the opening song from Way Down Low.
Also, here she is performing "Hopelessly Blue", also from the CD.
If you want a full shot of the Blossom Dearie influence, check out "Champagne". Every time I hear this song I can't help thinking that Kat was getting her Cole Porter on with this number. 
Finally here's Kat doing a slower version of "I Don't Know". It ends the CD on too much of a downer to my ears. Enjoyed the sprightlier version of the song when it first appears on Track 2.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Music on the Road

How do you bring your music along on a long car trip? Depends on what you're driving, I suppose. Our car is a 2005 model, so it lacks a port for my iPhone or iPod. Once my wife and I attempted to feed our iPods through the radio, but it was terribly unsatisfying and only worked fitfully. So, as we hastily packed, I included a CD carrier that I'd used a couple of years before and hadn't cleared out along with a handful of CDs either purchased or checked out from the library.

Both Lisa and I found our tolerance waning the deeper that we got into a CD, no matter who the artist. We are still very much in a long-playing state of mind at home, rarely purchasing music piecemeal, but as a captive audience, and with the need for the music to keep us hyper-stimulated on the drive, we found we tired of an artist about halfway into the CD. "We need a change," one of us would say, and never was there a strong counter-argument.

 The most problematic listens for a long drive are the vocalists. As you know, I live for hearing a skilled vocal performance, but being hypnotized by Doris Day's graceful glissandos on various vowel sounds is not recommended for keeping your eye on the dotted lines of the interstate. Esperanza Spalding sounded terrific, but soon after putting her on I knew that we had to change the selection. Much too mellow for our needs.

 Instead we took a shot of Fountains of Wayne. Ah, some straight "power pop" that we could sing along to as the miles went by. Perfect! I then popped in K. T. Tunstall's new release. She was completely unfamiliar to me, but I found it terrific for driving. Every song brought a new rhythmic approach, and it was all very energetic.

One thing that I love about a vacation is that you wear out the music that you do bring. Sure, I've got my iPod, and Lisa has her iTunes library on the laptop, but mostly we use the old technology: the CDs that I have packed in the carrier, and the ones still in their cases, with their booklets to enjoy. In a way, I love being a captive audience to the CD that I put in our car player. Every insertion seems like a dive into a pool. How's the opening track? Did it catch your interest? Well, I'm into it, but what about my wife seated next to me?

 It's fun to also play DJ. While Lisa drove, I pulled out CDs and played favorite tracks from them, prefacing each song with an introduction of some sort. She seemed to enjoy this approach, as did our young boys. I can't listen to books as I drive because my mind wanders, but music seems just right—after the signal for NPR goes out, that is. It's a deep comfort for me to revisit CDs that I've purchased and to muse upon the passage of time, not only for the artist but for me, the faithful listener.

 Happy trails and terrific music to everyone who hits the road this summer!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Making It

So, how does a musician build a career these days now that the getting signed by a record company is no longer the ideal?

Well, perhaps you can gain some notoriety by pulling off a stunt like Giorgio Fareira did. Late last month he pulled into a Sonic Drive-In with his friends. As a joke, he pulled out his guitar and sang his order. His performance was captured by a friend's I-Phone and posted on You Tube. OK, so you know where this ends: over two million views, and then an appearance for Fareira on the February 14 edition of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show".

That's the exception, of course. Conventional wisdom nowadays is that you steadily build a fan base and hold them close. Hope that your material gets picked up by a movie or TV producer. Then there's word of mouth.

I'm talking a lot lately about Jessie Baylin. How did I learn of her? Well, it wasn't Rhapsody or a piece on NPR. No, instead I discovered her when I was shopping for music in a store (yes, you can still do that - and in a music shop, to boot!). Waiting by the register, I indulged in an "impulse buy" - I chose her CD from the $1 rack because a) the price was right; b) Verve Forecast had seen something in her; and c) it seemed that she played her own instrument and wrote her own songs.

After listening to her and being gripped by the sound, I once again experienced that sweet tingle I get when I let serendipity rule the day and I stumble on something delightful. Jessie Baylin is a sweet mix of Dusty Springfield and Norah Jones. (In fact, Jesse Harris, who works closely with Jones, co-wrote a couple of songs with Baylin on 2008's Firesight).

Casting about for more information about her, I learn that she is well-versed in her pop music history, especially in the classic singer-songwriters. Performing Songwriter
captured her essence, I think, when it said:

When you hear Jessie Baylin sing for the first time, it takes a matter of moments to realize that she’s intimately familiar with pop’s history – but not at all interested in repeating it. Her songs—and her plangent voice—carry a classic pop tone that evoke memories of the Brill Building and Laurel Canyon in the ‘70s while retaining a decidedly modern, empowered worldview.

I learn that for her latest project she worked with names I've long-recognized from my years of studying liner notes: Jimmie Haskell (who worked with Paul Simon on "Bridge Over Troubled Waters"), Jim Keltner (worked with Loudon Wainwright) and Waddy Wachtel (all those '70s West Coast rockers: Browne, Zevon, Ronstadt).

So, I go to Jessie Baylin's website and - whaddya know - she's just out with the follow-up to the CD that I bought. It's been four years, but she's still hanging in. I visit her Facebook and find that things are definitely looking up for her. There's her show at the Troubadour attended by Kirsten Dunst and Bette Midler. I also learn that she's married to the drummer for the popular band Kings of Leon.

So it's clear that Jessie Baylin won't be driving up to a Sonic with guitar in tow. I mean, her latest release earned a review in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. And, when I went to the music shop today, it was available!

I'm giving it a good listen now because I also learned that she's coming to Boston next week. She'll be at a little club called TT the Bears on Tuesday night. I can't wait! It's a terrific little club: the last time I was there, a friend and I had a memorable time watching Ron Sexsmith play. (My wife and I also heard Eleni Mandell there. Another terrific show.)

Anyway, Jessie is gaining traction with me and I'm spreading the word. Give her a listen!

Click here for some background on the making of her new release, Little Spark

Click here for a radio interview recently with Jessie.

Finally, check out the video that Scarlett Johannson shot for "Hurry, Hurry" from Little Sparks

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Stepping Aside

Last week's Grammy Awards show diplayed once again, according to New York Times critic Jon Caramanica, how the academy "went with familiarity over risk, bestowing album of the year honors (and several more) on an album that reinforced the values of an older generation suspicious of change."

The story stung because there's more than a little truth to it. What sweet irony to have that charge levied at the baby boomers!

Oh, and to further sweeten the charge: Paul McCartney performed at the ceremony, perfectly timing his appearance to coincide with the release of the 69 year-old's "new" work: a collection of songs from the classic American Songbook.

I'm presently reading an interesting book for any music collector, Simon Reynolds's Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. It is not a pick-me-up for a baby boomer. In fact, I often put it down and stare at the shelves of vinyl directly across from my reading chair. Exactly what was the desire that drove me to hoard so much music? Why do I keep it when I know it's impossible to revisit it all? Reynolds has some theories, and some of them are not flattering. (For example, he suggests I might be suffering from a mild case of Asperger's Syndrome, or that perhaps I was substituting collecting for sex. The only way this is tolerable is that the author himself confesses that he's an obsessive collector himself!)

Anyway, to get back to the Grammy Awards: could it be the show reflects a reality that Caramanica simply can't accept? In this time when music of all time periods is so easily accessible, doesn't it make sense that the show isn't completely devoted to shining a spotlight on only the new? If the Academy's favorite song format is the ballad delivered by a female, doesn't that represent the mean in terms of the interests of the masses?

When I was young singers like Frank Sinatra weren't visible at the Academy Awards because his music was obviously out of fashion. The barometer for this judgment was record sales and radio airplay. Additionally, his music was so stylistically different from rock that it was easy to make the Grammy show all about what music appealed to the young people. That's where the money was!

Frank was only in his 50s when this occurred. Think of what a long run in the spotlight the boomers have had! Why are they still on the field, so to speak? It's because their music still sells - this time to younger generations who, more often exposed to a variety of musical styles, is much more open-minded and curious.

Now, when the CBS is trying to attract eyeballs to the Grammy Awards, they not only tease viewers with the newest sensation of the year (cue Adele) but they mention appearances by legacy acts like Paul McCartney and the Beach Boys.

It's very strange, I must tell you, to watch the Beach Boys and think, "Hmm. Let me think. They're around the same age as Perry Como was in the 1980s when I couldn't believe that old guy was still around!"

I'm enjoying Simon Reynolds's book, but I can't completely buy his thesis that "retromania" is some kind of disease that is preventing music from moving forward creatively. Yes, listeners like me are in love with the past, but it's a location that I enter out from to listen to new acts. Young listeners go the opposite direction: they venture from the present to an appreciation of the past, which is at their fingertips, a digital cabinet-full of musical spices just waiting to enrich their appreciation.

May the currents of music keep flowing in and out from decade to decade. It's a wonderful journey that lasts a lifetime!

Click here to hear Paul McCartney talk about his new album

Monday, February 6, 2012

Memorable Musical Hires

New England jazz heroes Gray Sargent and Dave McKenna

Dick Kniss

Recently Dick Kniss died. He was the longtime bassist for Peter, Paul, and Mary. His passing made me think of other supporting players associated with big names. Do they consider themselves lucky to have established a gig that last decades?

Take Tony Bennett for example. For over four decades Ralph Sharon was his pianist. It's understandable why it's so important that Tony have someone he trusts at the helm. Think of how unnerving it would be to have to get comfortable with someone new every couple of years. As a singer, if you lack confidence in who's backing you, then you're insecure - and boy, does it show when you sing!

Yesterday I was enjoying Tony's Duets II film about the making of Duets II now airing on PBS. We should all thank Tony Bennett for offering us a model of how to age gracefully and always aspire to be the best. The production value on this video, and on anything that Tony does, is incredible. Well-executed, and with the deepest respect for the material. I also love the interviews with each of the singers that he chose to accompany him.

I noticed his new piano player. Well, new in the sense that he's probably only been with Tony for a decade! Also accompanying Tony was guitarist Gray Sargent. He's been with Mr. B for at fifteen years! Gray is from New England. I'll never forget hearing him accompany Margaret Whiting one rainswept Sunday afternoon (indoors - very intimate!).

Gray Sargent is referred to on one site as a "swing-bop" player. Tony first heard him play at a party on the Cape in the early '90s, just a few short years after he'd triumphantly returned to Columbia (with 1988's The Art of Excellence, an album arranged and conducted by Jorge Calandrelli, who has worked for Bennett for over twenty years! You'll see his name on each page of sheet music on the PBS special).

At the time Bennett heard Sargent, he was probably on the lookout for a fresh flavor to his trio. At that time swing was experiencing a brief burst of popularity (think of Brian Setzer). He was back at Columbia, but he couldn't continue doing exclusively string-oriented musical settings on his albums. It wasn't fashionable and besides, it was more demanding on his voice. So, Sargent came aboard, and Tony's career continued to prosper.

Now back to Kniss, the bass player. At the time that Peter, Paul, and Mary were starting out, they were seeking a way to differentiate themselves from the competition that, given that it was the folk revival, was significant at the time. So, besides their tasteful song selection and beautiful vocal arranging, they seized upon the idea of having a bass player provide them some ballast.

"Dick is continually re-inventing approaches to our songs", said Noel Paul Stookey of PP&M several years ago. "Sometimes he's there at the beginning; helping to create the tone or mood of a piece while the trio's vocal parts are still evolving. But personally", continues Stookey, "I think his greatest contributions come nightly! I can't name another bass player who improvises so tastefully within the framework of folkmusic".

After Peter, Paul, and Mary disbanded in the early '70s, Dick Kniss was snatched up by John Denver. Again, a memorable hire: Kniss helped co-write "Sunshine On My Shoulders", a song that catapulted Denver to fame (along with "Rocky Mountain High" and "Country Roads"). He stayed with Denver until PP&M reunited at the end of the decade.

Here's to the players behind the singers who provide them inspiration and awaken their musical imaginations!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Allen Toussaint

I am an unabashed fan of songwriters. It's been a lifelong interest: as a kid, I was already an avid reader of liner notes, and I always carefully studied who wrote the songs I enjoyed.

Today is the 74th birthday of Allen Toussaint, a living legend for anyone who cherishes joyful music that's firmly rooted in a musical tradition.

You can open up my links to read his biography. You'll be astounded by his songs that became monstrous hits for others: "Southern Nights" (Glen Campbell,1977); "Yes We Can Can " (Pointer Sisters, 1973); and "Working in a Coal Mine" (Lee Dorsey, 1966). You will also note how ubiquitous Toussaint has been throughout his career as a producer and supporting player for projects by many popular artists.

I first encountered Toussaint in the 1970s because I greatly enjoyed two songs of his that Bonnie Raitt and Geoff Muldaur had recorded. Raitt rendered "What Do You Want the Boy to Do? on 1975's Home Plate and Muldaur recorded 3 Toussaint numbers on 1976's Motion: the title cut, "Southern Nights", and "What Do You Want the Girl to Do?"

Turned out that Toussaint toiled for Warner/Reprise at the same time as both Raitt and Muldaur. Motion, his 1978 release produced by Jerry Wexler, is a treasure. It's with this album that you learn the Toussaint style: joyful numbers (like "Happiness", a song that never fails to lift me) mingled with smooth and seductive ballads ("With You in Mind"; "To Be With You"). Raitt and Etta James provide backup vocals for many of the tracks here.

Why Toussaint never made a name for himself as a singer is perplexing to me. But he didn't, and he was cast off Warners along with Van Morrison and Arlo Guthrie at the dawn of the 1980s. I fell out of touch with him then, not only due to his not releasing anything but because I was consumed with learning the Great American Songbook (courtesy largely of Sinatra and Fitzgerald).

In 1994 I spied his name on Crescent City Gold, a lovely collection in which he chipped in half a dozen songs. Then there was 1996's Connected - which gave me a chance to introduce my wife to his artistry. She liked it mostly, even though I enjoyed torturing her with these lyrics from "Computer Lady":

I met this lady while surfin' on-line
I believe she's a lady
she created that image in my mind
She came through as if she knew exactly what I needed
When she described herself to me my floppy overheated

She said she'd like the man who is so inclined
to had a strong imagination such as mine
and we could trip off when she could be free
to share some of her software with much of me

Computer lady (c'mon)
make my night
drive me crazy
with your megabytes
I don't know if you're real
but until I do
Keep my modem hot, computer baby
Keep my modem hot, computer lady

Soon as I get inside, the very first thing I do
is boot up my you-know-what
and I look for you-know-who
and - whoo! - there she is just filling up the screen
with all sorts of sweet talk, just a little bit short of obscene
Saying things that we can do when face to face someday
or maybe some night based on the games we play

Just for a moment I sat back to breathe
and thought about how far we'd come from Adam and Eve


Computer lady, computer lady
visit without hesitation
Computer lady, computer lady
We've got a major situation


Keep it hot
keep it burnin'
keep it on fire
keep it hot
(repeat and fade)

Listening to this track again, I'm swinging along, feeling the happiness, and I'm also gently amused by his humor. Another reason I love Allen Toussaint is that he reminds me of a musician I knew in Chicago, a piano bar entertainer who was a beautiful player like Toussaint and who'd have surely performed this eye-rolling number. Your spirit lives, Les!

Around that time Lisa and I went to hear Allen Toussaint perform at a free concert at the bandshell in Boston. I recall sitting and waiting for the show to start and observing Allen walking alone along the Charles River. I could have easily approached him, but I thought better of it. The image will stick with me, though. Hey, it's better than the memory of saying something stupid!

Another quiet decade ensued, but then Toussaint's cherished city was leveled by a flood in 2005 and ever since then he's been working tirelessly. Prominent efforts include a collaboration with Elvis Costello (2006's River in Reverse) and actor Hugh Laurie (2011's Let Them Talk). He has subbed for Paul Schaeffer on Letterman and performed in residence at Joe's Pub in New York.

Allen Toussaint is your classic songwriter. He's little-known outside of serious musical circles, but his contributions to the field are deeply appreciated by any serious listener or player. You are in for a treat if you haven't heard of him. Come dip into some of my links and then keep your eyes out for his next project or when he sails through your hometown!

Here's Allen performing "What Do You Want the Girl to Do?". His opening remark about Bonnie Raitt will make you chuckle!

Here are the Pointer Sisters singing "Yes We Can Can". I know we can make it! Yeah!

Amazing photography in this YouTube video of "Working in the Coal Mine"

Great to have a clip of Allen singing "Southern Nights" on You Tube!

Irma Thomas had a hit with Toussaint's "It's Raining".

Are you a Robert Palmer fan? Enjoy this photo montage of him as he sings "Night People" by Allen Toussaint.