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!