Tuesday, December 09, 2014

I'll Have a Bland Christmas...

I've never really cared either way for the holiday perennial "Santa Baby." Eartha Kitt's original version was fine, complete with male "ba-boom" vocals in the background and Henri Rene's sly swinging bachelor pad accompaniment. Recorded in 1953, when Ms. Kitt's shopping list ('54 convertible, yacht, a big fancy ring) was mildly amusing, as few gals really expected to get that. Still as far as Christmas songs about riches go, I prefer Pearl Bailey's "Five Pound Box of Money," for its sheer audacity, not to mention the singer's easygoing honesty, as opposed to Ms. Kitt's iciness.

When Madonna covered "Santa Baby," it came as no surprise. After all she was known as the Material Girl, and who better to make like she was entitled to the fancy wish list (or should that be "demand" list.). From what I recall, her version is pretty much a carbon copy of the original, which begs the question, what's the point?

But, it's all in the delivery, right?

Now, granted I'm behind the times by about seven years on this. But I was forced to hear Taylor Swift's version of "Santa Baby" recently, not knowing it was her or that it'sold news. Yes, everyone does a Christmas album these days, because it practically guarantees that no matter how bad your career goes, you at least get some airplay one month out of the year. (I"m talking about you, Wilson Phillips)
The thing that's so annoying about Ms. Swift's "Santa Baby," is that the modern country arrangement of the song was done completely by the numbers. They got the chord changes right. But there's no feeling. There's no camp to this song. There's not even any, um, sexy quality to it. Swift was 18 when the song came out, so she can be excused for not giving it that quality.

So all we're left with is a big-voiced gal belting out a shopping list for Santa, which in post-millennial years doesn't sound as outrageous because we expect to see pop stars with all sorts of bling, like a fancy ring and a convertible. And Taylor already has the deed that gets mentioned in the song. Which is probably why she doesn't sound any more believable singing this song than some 7-year old big voiced kid who you'd find on America's Got Talent. But she really doesn't (or didn't) have the credibiliy to pull it off. She would have been better off singing "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas."

But then again, what do I know? I never get tired of the Singing Dogs doing "Jingle Bells."

Friday, December 05, 2014

CD Review: Bud Powell - Live at the Blue Note Cafe Paris 1961

Bud Powell
Live at the Blue Note Cafe, Paris 1961
(ESP-Disk') www.espdisk.com

This album marks the second reissue by ESP of live Bud Powell recordings this year, following the three-disc Birdland 1953 set of radio recordings that appeared earlier. While the pianist's output after 1954 is considered inconsistent, thanks in part to his mental instability, here he shows no signs on weakness, playing with sympathetic musicians (French bassist Pierre Michelot and American expatriate Kenny Clarke) who know how to lock in with him. Additionally, several tracks capture him stretching out, which is exciting to anyone used to hearing Powell in the three- to five-minute format.

The same year as these performances, Cannonball Adderley produced a Powell session for Columbia Records called A Portrait of Thelonious that featured four compositions by his good friend. Monk was clearly on his mind and in his set that year. "Thelonious" sounds particularly compelling because of the way Clarke accents the melody so tightly, right in the pocket with Powell, who adds the appropriate spark to the simple melody. While the composer recorded that tune several times, it rarely possessed this kind of interaction in tandem with his musical personality.

"Monk's Mood," a lesser known ballad with an equally lush and deceptive line, sounds strong too. "Round Midnight" was well on its way to becoming a jazz standard, but Powell keeps it fresh by attacking the chords with gravity.

The first three tracks on the album augment the trio with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. They stretch out on "Groovin' High," which includes two separate solos by Powell. "Taking a Chance on Love" gives everyone blowing time, with the pianist's melodic ideas sounding especially crisp and concise. Sims' subdued, somewhat smoky tone fits right in with the trio, most notably on the "Bud Blues," a mid-tempo 12-bar workout that segues into the set-closer "52nd Street Theme," another Monk tune. Bebop vehicle "Shaw Nuff" was the rapid tune that proved the mettle of players during this time, and Powell definitely flies here.

The sound quality is strong throughout the set, which is a good part of the reason this session sounds so rewarding: Michelot's strong walking line is heard clearly in a track like "Bud Blues," Clarke's bomb drops put Powell's creativity in high relief and, overall, the leader seems to have an unending, focused well of ideas. More than simply another collection of jazz evergreens, this album provides another worthy addition to the Powell canon from a time when he was still firing on all cylinders.

Monday, November 24, 2014

In Memory of John P. Shanley, Sr

Last Thursday, my dad, John P. Shanley, passed away at the age of 79. Without going into details, it was an illness that came on fairly quickly. The last couple weeks were really painful for him, which was hard to witness. I'm glad he's at peace, though I wish he was still here.

There were a lot of layers to my dad. He could be reserved and soft spoken. He could be loud and opinionated. He loved his spy novels, but he also loved vintage comedy, which seemed as funny to him in the moment as it did when he first saw it decades ago. Almost every situation was ripe for a wry comment or observation.  I remember him telling me that on his final day of work, when he finally retired from United Mental Health, Inc., he marked the end of the day – and really, the end of an era – by marching a toy robot out of his office to indicate that he was about to leave.

If he really found something hilarious, he would let fly with a raspy laugh that sounded like metal rake being dragged across cement – a Shanley family trait which I heard coming from my aunt Mary Jeanne many times as well.

When I was in college I frequently came over for Sunday dinner and Pop often slipped me a couple dollars. “Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say. And he didn't say this because Mum would object to me getting the money. It might have been her idea, for all I know. “Don’t tell you mother,” was a line from a comedy routine by Shelley Berman, based on a conversation he had with his father.

I discovered this comedy bit through my folks. In it, Berman recounts how he wanted to join his friends at acting school and needed to ask his dad for the money to do it. Too afraid to ask him in person, he calls his day at work – at a delicatessen. On a Saturday, the busiest day of the week. 

You hear the phone conversation only on the father’s side. He’s already mad that he’s being pulled away from work, and he gets even madder when he hears that his son wants money for acting school - something he consider frivolous.

But as the conversation goes on, he gets his son to commit to working in the shop and he’ll give him the money, including “a Christmas bonus,” which is why the Jewish father tells him, “don’t tell you mother.”
In the set-up of the routine, Berman jokes about his dad but also defends him, saying he’s a good person. And you hear that as the bit proceeds. The father’s anger turns to support – even if he thinks his son is crazy, he’ll be there for him, reminding him, “No matter what happens, here, you’ll always a home.” I love this comedy routine because in addition to being funny it’s also poignant – a homage to his dad.

I once had a phone call with Pop that I feel paralleled Berman’s. I was taking a class in college that I thought I was going to fail and I wanted to drop it. But I was worried about how that was going to affect my financial aid. So I figured I’d call the house and get some perspective – from my mother. If I talked to Pop, I figured I’d be in trouble.

I called my parents’ house – and Pop picked up. Here it comes, I thought. He’s going to give it to me.

I told him what was going on. I couldn’t hack the class. I was afraid I was going to fail. What do I do?
Much to my surprise – and relief – Pop was cool. And empathetic. Don’t give up. Talk to your professor. If you’re straight with her, she ought to understand. 

He went on to explain that when he was going to Duquesne, he had a similar experience. He was working overnights at the J&L mill, going to school by day and needed to talk to a prof, and the two worked things out. In talking about his combination of school and work, he had to lighten the mood with a joke, “You get a difference perspective on things when you have three squealers at home,” which affectionately referred to my three older brothers.

I knew that he had worked overnights and had gone to school during the day. But it never occurred to me why up until that point. That was what you did to support your family. The weekend performances at Churchill Valley Country Club – it wasn’t just a music gig, even if the band really swung. It was to support the family.

The impact of what he said on the phone that day might not have been immediate but I did realize at some point that if he could do all that, one anthropology class is nothing for me. I could pull myself up by my bootstraps and work a little harder. And I did. And I got an A. When I told him that, he said, “See I told ya.” And it wasn't a patronizing thing. It was said with that mischievous look in his eye, that had wisdom with it.

Sometimes the things that you learn from your parents are not the things they say to you directly. They’re the things you discover after they’ve put you on the path of your life. The in-between things that you don’t even realize at the time.

There were a lot qualities that my dad possessed. One of the biggest ones was that he was deep. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

CD Review: Charles Lloyd- Manhattan Stories

Charles Lloyd
Manhattan Stories
(Resonance) resonancerecords.org

2014 will probably be seen as a banner year for Resonance Records. Within a few months of each other they released John Coltrane's Offering: Live at Temple University (which is probably the most talked-about album of the year, other than Mostly Other People Do the Killing's Blue) and this two-disc set of two newly discovered live recordings by saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Like the Coltrane set, Manhattan Stories also comes with a huge booklet of photos and essays, including an interview with Lloyd, all of it added to the set.

Both performances occurred during the summer and early autumn of 1965 and they represent an exciting "in-between" time for the tenor saxophonist. Lloyd had already logged time with the groups of Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley (the latter considered by many to be "mismatch," as Michael Cuscuna mentions in this liner notes). He also finished sessions for Of Course Of Course, his second Columbia album earlier that year with guitarist Gabor Szabo, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. By the summer, Williams was gone, replaced by Pete LaRoca, whose performances can inspire one to search out the few albums he made as a leader, to get a greater dose of his powerful, unsung playing.

One disc comes from a set the group played at the Festival of the Avant-Garde at Judson Hall. The other comes from a gig recorded at the infamous Lower East Side club Slugs' Saloon. The sound quality of both sets is impeccable, capturing the excitement of these four at a time before they became revered jazz legends, but clearly revealing why such designations eventually came along, at least for a couple of them.

Considering the direction of jazz in 1965 and the name of the Festival of the Avant-Garde, disc one doesn't find the Lloyd quartet heading outward in any extreme direction. But even with their feet remaining on the ground, the three lengthy tracks have plenty of fire power. "Sweet Georgia Bright," from his Columbia debut Discovery! (all these exclamatory statements!) goes on for nearly 18 minutes, none of it excessive, from Lloyd's somewhat throaty tenor to Sims' propulsive work all over his kit. The tender ballad "How Can I Tell You" stretches out for over 11 minutes, and Szabo's "Lady Gabor" has the leader on flute for the first of two versions of this 6/4 vamp.

Despite its fertile ground for musical innovation, Slugs' had a seedy reputation too. This was a place where pushers and hustlers co-mingled with musicians like Jackie McLean and Sun Ra, or Salvador Dali, who showed up at least once with an entourage. For better or worse, the space has gone down in history as the locale where trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot and killed by his ex-girlfriend in 1972, which eventually put the kibosh on the joint. So it comes as no surprise that audience chatter can be heard during the Lloyd set recorded there. But if anything, the rugged nature of the room brought out the best in the band.

Also consisting of three lengthy tunes, disc two begins with "Slugs' Blues" which Lloyd supposedly wrote virtually on the spot. While adhering to the traditional structure, the group mixes it up as they go. Most impressive is Carter who walks a bit, switches to rich double stops and then, in his own solo adds some flatted fifth to make it sound even richer. No wonder someone (maybe a band member, maybe an audience member) repeated yells, "Yeah," throughout the set. La Roca really drives the second "Lady Szabo," which gets all manner of ideas out of Lloyd, including a moment where he predicts the vocal style of Leon Thomas. "Dream Weaver," later to be the title track of high-regarded album, is heard here in its early, but clearly set, stages.

A year later, Lloyd would form his own "classic" quartet with Jack DeJohnette, Cecil McBee and Keith Jarrett, and the Lloyd band heard here would be remembered only by a few. Thankfully, a few people had the foresight to document this work, which serves as a reminder that legends have to start somewhere.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Loss of Another Friend

Death is a natural part of our day-to-day existence. We get older, our bodies don't work like they used to. All that carefree living catches up with us. And, of course, unforeseen things happen. That doesn't make it any easier to deal with loss.

I just found out last night, via Facebook, that my friend and former bandmate (very briefly) Erin Hutter (known affectionately to many as "Scratchy") died. Even as I type this, I wish I could be proven wrong. Details are sketchy at this point about what exactly happened. All I know is she was about my age, maybe a year or two older, which is too young to go.

Erin played violin and sang in the band the Deliberate Strangers, who were playing punk-influenced country long before there was a bandwagon to jump on. They knew their roots and their instruments. We got to know each other fairly well from their shows. Then, briefly we both played in the band Boxstep, although I didn't last that long in the band. That's when we became tight. When feeling frustrated, Erin was an empathetic voice. She was a school music teacher by day, which is probably where that patience and compassion came from.

I honestly can't remember the last time I saw her, and that's the part that really bothers me. As life goes on, your circles of friends overlap and shift gradually. It usually has little to do with rapport with people and everything to do with responsibilities we accumulate. But you always figure that you'll see someone again and be able to smack them on the arm when you say hi, and that warm feeling from the good old days will start up again instantly. I'm not one to quote James Taylor, but the reason I don't completely despise the song "Fire and Rain" is because the first verse and the chorus really nail that sense of loss on the head, with just a few simple words. "....but I always thought I'd see you again." (As far as I'm concerned, the song can stop right there.)

There's probably more I could say on the subject, but that's it for now. Goodbye, Scratchy. XO

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

CD Review: Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Blue

Mostly Other People Do the Killing
(Hot Cup) www.hotcuprecords.com

I once attended a local jazz competition, where three groups were competing for different packages of studio time and the cost of a CD pressing. One of the group consisted of four (maybe five) guys, who looked to be around the age of undergraduates, give or take a year. They knew the ins and outs of their instruments and it showed in their demeanor, which for a few of them bordered on cocksure, especially the bass player, who donned shades even in the darkness of the club.

They opened their set with Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk." No simple task - especially when you consider how hard it can be to breath during that tune while blowing the saxophone - they nailed it, tightly recreating Brubeck's original arrangement. After doing the alternating 9/8 and 4/4 sections, the saxophonist and pianist probably played their own solos rather than recreating what Brubeck and Paul Desmond played on the original recording. But by that point, it didn't really matter. The guys had achieved their goal: they showed their roots and they showed their facility. And really, that's why anyone would play "Blue Rondo a la Turk." It's not a blowing vehicle. ("Take Five" presents more of a challenge that way, and that's even more of a crowd-pleaser in a general sense.)

On one level, it was impressive, and it was clear these guys had spent a great deal of time practicing and working together as a unit. But on the other hand - what's the point? It's almost better to play the theme of "Now's the Time," a much simpler melody, and show what you can do over blues changes (the same type of changes used in the solo section of "Blue Rondo" anyway).

Mostly Other People Do the Killing are known as jazz provocateurs, paying homage to their forefathers as they spoof the seriousness of jazz. Their early albums recreated cover art of classics by the Jazz Messengers, Ornette Coleman and Roy Haynes. The liner notes, often attributed to one Leonard Featherweight (and actually penned by the band's bassist and mastermind Moppa Elliot) play along straight-faced, sometimes taking the joke a tad too far, which has both amused and bugged me. When covering the iconic "A Night in Tunisia" drummer Kevin Shea not only referenced Art Blakey's drum licks but the entire history of drum solos, up through Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, with a little disco thrown in too, if I remember correctly.

But beyond the shtick, the band cooks, to borrow a phrase Featherweight, or Leonard Feather, might use. Elliot is a sharp composer who, throughout the band's first six albums, has penned music that picks up where Ornette Coleman left off, took inspiration from '20s and 30s' jazz and even claimed to honor smooth jazz on one album (it didn't, literally, but it was a strong album). Yes, irony seems to be a factor, even though they stated their cover of Billy Joel's "Allentown" was both sincere and in keeping with Elliot's early habit of naming songs after city's in his native Pennsylvania. (I'm still waiting for "Pittsburgh," Moppa.)

After all the big projects they've tackled, it seems like the logical next step would be to take on an iconic album. And what better album is there to tackle than Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, which routinely appears at the top of lists of great jazz albums? And what would be more audacious than to play the album note for note, exactly the way Miles, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb played it in 1959? The MOPDtK quartet - Elliot, Shea, trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon - plus pianist Ron Stabinsky did just that.

Somewhere, I read that the band has gone so far as to recreate the tape hiss of the originals. I haven't geeked out enough to check to see if they pitched the "side one" portion of the album a half-step faster, as all releases of Kind of Blue did until the '90s, but I am curious. They do effectively capture the warm echo of Columbia's 30th Street Studios.

They do it to a T. No surprises in the fadeouts. No crazy horn squonks. No drum splatters from Shea.  Hell, I even wondered if they'd recreate the false start of "Freddie Freeloader," where one of them would use the Miles rasp on Stabinsky, "Don't play no chord on the a-flat." Nope.

This album is pissing off a lot of people. A few days ago, someone on Facebook went so far as to say the estates of the original performers should sue because their solos are being recreated without royalties. Others are saying, "Why bother?"

The answer - to make a statement. Jazz has been called "America's classical music," and classical music is played the same way each time, in most situations. So no one should be surprised when jazz is played the same way. (I haven't even delved into the liner notes, a fake scholarly article by Spanish writer Jorge Luis Borges, which metaphorically explains an author's rewriting of Cervantes' Don Quixote.)

All around the country there are aspiring jazz musicians who think of Kind of Blue as jazz's brass ring and devote themselves to learning it inside out. Or maybe they're figuring out "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Where do you go after that? Does that prepare you for the jazz world? Elliot and the gang seem to be saying "no."

Maybe this album is a wake-up call, not just to those students (Elliot is a teacher) but to jazz musicians and critics everywhere. If we put jazz on a shelf, this is what we're going to wind up with eventually - something that sounds great, feels great but that ultimately sounds the same as what we've heard before. There's nothing wrong with learning an album backwards and forwards, but it's not a means to an end. (On a side note, I'd venture to say that if somebody attempted to learn an album like Andrew Hill's Point of Departure or Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch inside out, methinks that musician would probably come away with some of their own new ideas about how to play music. But that's a debate for another day.)

Some records deserve the highest credit (you know - five stars) due to their mere existence, either for the message they send or for their audacity. (My favorite example is here.) I'm not ready to give MOPDtK such praise. The album just came out yesterday, after all. Special kudos should be given to Jon Irabagon, however, because he has the formidable task of playing both Coltrane and Cannonball's solos, one of which must have been overdubbed to achieve such a seamless flow.

But the band deserves credit for have the guts to make that statement. Blue was released by Hot Cup, Elliot's own label, so no one can grouse about some label ignoring aspiring musicians in favor of this. He's putting his money where his mouth is. Further, this is just one dot on the MOPDtK map, of which there have already been several, with more to come.

Long may you run, Mr. Elliot. You and the guys never cease to impress me, even when I feel like some of the stuff you do goes a little too far.

Although you should've given Bill Evans co-writing credit for "Blue in Green."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I Almost Died Last Week

Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration but there were a few scary moments last Friday. Throughout the week I had been dealing with a bit of a cold and was also getting winded really easily (going up the steps in our house). I have an inhaler but it wasn't doing squat. (I found out later it was a for-everyday-use inhaler, which is really lame because it's 1/3 the size of a fast-acting one AND THREE TIMES TO CO-PAY). So I was hoping the over-the-counter Bronkaid would help. Plus I found an albuterol inhaler that expired last year but seemed to have a few puffs left in it.

Friday night, I used both, pill and inhaler, and still I couldn't catch my breath. The bus that stops about 100 feet from my house goes right by West Penn Hospital, so I got on and road over there. By this time, I had a little relief but my chest felt tight. I worried that if I took another albuterol hit, I'd have a heart attack and die. (A few days later, I was reminded that the drummer from Ladybug Transistor died of an asthma attack.)

I got in at the ER within minutes, and they made me drink two quarts of water and huff on a nebulizer about four times. (The first two times I didn't do it right.) By 4:30 I felt pretty normal. Normal enough to walk home. I was more worried about walking through Bloomfield  - having heard about people getting attacked recently - more than I was worried about keeling over on Liberty Avenue.

I had to work the next day because we were having a big event, and I only got two hours of sleep. But I honestly have to say that I felt great in the morning. I hadn't had coffee in about two days and it went straight to my head. Oxygen seemed to be flowing to my head too, because I felt more energetic at work. I still have a bit of a cough, but it's helping me get rid of stuff, if you know what I mean.

Damn, I turned 47 last week and was worried that this new age was bringing with it some serious ailments.

The night of my birthday, I went to see Mike Watt at Brillobox. He was performing with Il Sogno Del Marinaio ("the dream of the sailor"), a trio with two Italian guys, drummer Andrea Belfi and guitarist Stefano Pilla. I didn't know much about them, other than how they met. I figured it was another Watt "opera" with a new backing band. Their selt felt similar to Watt's last tour, a bigger piece made of up smaller songs. But it's largely instrumental, and Belfi and Pilla do as much of the writing as he does.

Pilla really seems to have studied his D. Boon and Nels Cline licks but rather than spewing out the same thing, he really make it his own. Same with Belfi, though he had some little gongs set up on the side, and seems like he'd be just as comfortable doing free improvisation on his kit. They played for about an hour. One encore, no Minutemen songs. No "The Red and the Black." Ed fROMOHIO was there but he stayed in the crowd. Unfortunately I missed the Sicks because I was downstairs having drinks with my friend Will, and they only gave the band about 25 minutes to play (or so it seemed).

Sicks member Sam Matthews used to be in the Bats, who I wrote about in last week's City Paper. You can read that here. The band also featured Michael Chabon briefly, long before he wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and other novels.

Now it's time to face the day.