Archive for December, 2012

ravi shankar, 1920-2012

Ravi Shankar.

The one and only time I interviewed Ravi Shankar, I felt myself more than a little tongue-tied, trying to put into words a personal reaction to the Indian classical music that he had spent a lifetime bringing to the world. I attempted, however amateurishly, to describe the impact of hearing the meditative solace of ages-old ragas he has recorded over the decades blossom into a firestorm of improvisational intensity.

When I was done, Shankar paused, much like a professor might when an eager but grossly naïve student had blurted out so banal an explanation of his life’s work.

“I see,” Shankar said. “And this is how this music seems to you?”

It was the kind of reply that quickly made one feel, despite the appreciative intent, a little out of his depth.

“Well, to tell you the truth, this is how it should be. The music should never be concocted or forced. It should always be spontaneous.”

Shankar was an artist of tremendous patience and kindness. I got to witness that firsthand. All you needed was one of the scores of recordings he cut through the years to realize that. But Shankar, who died yesterday at the age of 92, was more. He was more than a master sitar player and improviser. He was, especially to American ears, a gatekeeper to a musical culture that many of us knew little or nothing about.

Sure, it took a connection to the psychedelic music fashioned in America during the late ’60s and, especially, a well-documented friendship with Beatle George Harrison to help unlock those doors. But once unbolted, the grace and contemplative beauty of Indian classical music became part of a world lexicon. No single artist before or since has raised awareness of Indian music and, perhaps, culture to a global level.

“Once in a while a musician comes along who takes a tradition of a country and moves it to the next level up,” said the acclaimed Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain ahead of a performance Shankar gave at the Singletary Center for the Arts in October 1995. “This is what Ravi Shankar has done.”

critic’s pick 258

Who could have foreseen the day when Graham Parker would reunite with his famed ‘70s band, The Rumour, and, as if by chance, simultaneously become something of a hip Hollywood attraction?

That is pretty much what has happened with the release of Three Chords Good, a splendid blend of terse lyrical expression and warm, soul saturated melody. Though Parker has been recording albums like this for ages, Three Chords Good represents the first collaborative work between the British singer/songsmith and The Rumour in 31 years.

Such a reunion might sail under the radar of all but the most devout of Parker fans if it weren’t for the fact he is also serving as the unlikely focal point of the new Judd Apatow film, This is 40. With Parker and his Rumour mates portraying themselves, This is 40 tells the story of an over-the-hill rock troupe vying for a comeback.

Three Chords Good isn’t exactly a nostalgia ride, however. In place of the punk-era immediacy that drove the band’s early records, the new album focuses on the other prime influence that fed into Parker’s robust ‘70s music – specifically, vintage soul. But even with the latter inspiration, the arrangements reflect a sound that has understandably settled with age. For much of the album, in fact, the twin guitars of Brinsley Schwartz and Martin Belmont take a back seat to the orchestral R&B warmth of keyboardist Bob Andrews.

Parker, however, hasn’t calmed down one bit. Three Chords Good opens and nearly closes with condemnations of the United States – or, more specifically, songs that address some of its most antiquated prejudices and imposed fears.

Set to a sleek reggae groove, Snake Oil Capital of the World outlines the saga of a beastly land that hustles foreign policy, as well as its own domestic righteousness, indiscriminately (“The old weird America, it never went anywhere”). But the really scary entry is Coathangers, a frighteningly topical tirade that takes a purposely prehistoric view of women’s reproductive rights (“Getting knocked up by your daddy is all your fault”).

The latter tune, which has been issued as a single, comes packed with Three Chords Good’s most infectious, rockish backdrop. It almost masks the subject matter. But the sobering title serves as a gruesome reality check.

There are other testy moments as well, like the warmongering Arlington’s Busy and the rockabilly-ish A Lie Gets Halfway ‘Round the World… (“… before truth gets its boots on”). But the sting of Parker’s songs is artfully balanced but the unexpectedly tempered soul cushion comfort of The Rumour, especially the ever-industrious and regally tasteful drumming of Steve Gouldling.

An ageless vocal hothead matched by a band’s scholarly sense of cool – now that’s rock ‘n’ roll.

In performance: The Robert Cray Band

Robert Cray. Photo by Jeff Katz.

He’s a crafty one, that Robert Cray. For the better part of his first Lexington performance in nearly 15 years, the guitarist and singer, along with the longtime band that still bears his name remained steadfast in a portrayal of the blues that has sustained their music for the better part of three decades. In other words, he remained a master of a blues sound that really wasn’t the blues at all – or at least wasn’t until the performance’s devastatingly potent finale.

Performing last night at the Lexington Opera House (directly across Broadway from the location of the long defunct Short St. club The Bottom Line where Cray made his local debut in 1984), the Cray Band operated far more within the boundaries of soul and Southern R&B than the blues. And that was perfectly fine. That has long been Cray’s comfort zone. His guitar work remained unfussy and expressive, a perfect compliment to the clean rhythmic drive of his band – especially, the keyboard work of Jim Pugh, which regularly referenced shades of rich, unforced gospel.

Of course, all this worked as a backdrop for Cray’s singing, which last night sounded ageless. From the mid-tempo cool of the show-opening Anytime to the playful juke joint strut of Chicken in the Kitchen to soulful solace of I Can’t Fail (one of the more hopeful slow blues tunes you are likely to hear), Cray sang with a range, warmth and emotive clarity than most of today’s big league R&B stars can’t muster. As was the case with the no-frills precision of his guitar playing, there was no grandstanding in the vocal department.

Imagine that – a blues program without the shredding and guitar god posturing and an R&B show without the screams and shouts that pass for passion, all rolled into one.

But just when you settled into this inviting soulfest the way you might settle into a booth at your favorite diner, Cray dropped the bomb. Closing the show was an extended blast of new, original blues called I’m Done Cryin’ that outlined the tale of family man who loses his home and his job but not his dignity.

The guitar work shifted between a very clever chorus riff that sounded like a cross between a march and a bolero, although the serene solos – especially ones that used Pugh’s B3 organ-style keyboard colors as a harmonic device – brought to mind the great bluesman Otis Rush. Cap it all off with vocals that soared into the upper register as the tune’s desperation mounted and you had a serving of serious blues rooted in the real world to balance the tasty comfort soul food that preceded it.

In performance: Frode Gjerstad Trio

Frode Gjerstad Trio: Jon Rune Strom, Frode Gjerstad and Paal Nilssen-Love.

As has been the case with many of the performances in the Outside the Spotlight Series, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last night at the Mecca studios on Manchester, the music began as a grouping of very separate voices. In this case, they belonged to the Frode Gjerstad Trio, a powerfully industrious improvisational music collective from Norway.

In the concert’s opening moments, the three instrumental voices were introduced fully blown but wholly segregated. It was as though they has been left to stew and brew on their own before realizing, at the instant the concert began, that they weren’t alone.

Such a discovery triggered a fascinating cacophony that grew all the more luminous as the musicians began to search out common ground.

Gjerstad began the evening with short, scruffy jabs on alto saxophone that were quickly elongated intro sharp squeals. Bassist Jon Rune Strom opened with runs that were fast, thick and fierce and a physical intensity he would continually refer to throughout the performance. Drummer Paal Nilssen-Love was – initially, at least – almost pokerfaced in his playing, offering percussion that discreetly moved about on its own before accelerating into brisker, more complete fills. The more Nilssen-Love found and worked off his trio mates the more expansive his playing became.

As with the rest of the untitled improvisations that filled two 45 minute sets, the music coalesced into a sound more singular. It wasn’t necessarily rhythmic, although Nilssen-Love offered some brief, boppish turns during an extended second set drum solo. Instead the music became something of a quilt, a fascinating musical texture that inevitably used Gjerstad’s leads on alto sax and clarinet as focal points.

The two extremes of the trio’s music were presented in astonishingly concise and dramatic form during the evening’s final two improvs. The first, which encompassed much of the set, would build itself to a boil and then subside in way that wasn’t so much groove-conscious as it was respiratory in design. The temperament of Gjerstad’s playing was especially fascinating here.

But the finale was the real beaut – a hushed, whispery meditation led by light but scorched lines on clarinet and a fascinating drum roll employing snare and brushes that sounded both hypnotic and fractured.

And in the end, we had the real treat. After Nilssen-Love slowly snuffed the music out, the audience was left with the most beautiful sound – a beat of exquisite silence.

Strong persuader, Hall of Famer

 

Robert Cray. Photo by Jeff Katz.

In conversation, Robert Cray is much like his music. He is focused, unassuming and impervious to overstatement.

So it was hardly surprising when the five-time Grammy winning guitarist described his 2011 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame (as part of a class that included such musical titans as John Hammond, J.B. Lenoir and Alberta Hunter) in highly modest terms.

“It was pretty cool.”

Pretty cool? That’s it? Well, one of Cray’s oldest pals isn’t afraid to speak up for the honor as well as for the sterling blues, soul and R&B the guitarist has fashioned since the late ‘70s.

“It was funny because a couple of nights ago we played a concert in Royal Oak, Michigan,” said Cray, 59. “The opener was Bobby Murray, who went to high school with both Richard Cousins (Cray’s longstanding bassist) and myself. We’ve been friends for over 40 years.

“At the end of the night, Bobby said, ‘You know, man, I always thought in the old days that you were a Hall of Famer. And now you really are a Hall of Famer. It just made me laugh.”

To his fans, Cray was Hall of Fame material long before the honor was bestowed on him last year. In fact, the guitarist was establishing his big league status over 25 years ago with a massively popular crossover album called Strong Persuader and concert performances that had him sharing stages with the likes of Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and Keith Richards.

While the blues may be what audiences most readily associate with Cray, it by no means dictates the stylistic path he has traveled. None of his recordings – from his 1980 debut Who’s Been Talkin’ through Strong Persuader in 1986 to the new Nothin’ But Love – have revolved around conventional 12 bar blues tunes. The latter recording, for example, weaves in elements of rhumba, swing, jazz, vintage soul and more.

“It’s the music we grew up listening to,” said Cray, who performs Tuesday at the Opera House. “It’s the music we still enjoy listening to now. That kind of sensibility tells why you don’t have to be in one particular niche all the time. In this band, you can do what feels natural.”

Of course, much of the expansive stylistic reach in Cray’s music is as much the result of his abilities as a vocalist as from his heralded guitarwork. His vocal tone is clean, exact and confidently emotive, echoing strong elements of soul and gospel.

“I’ve enjoyed listening to all the great R&B singers – Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson. The gospel and R&B singer O.V. Wright was one, too. Listen to them the same way you listen to the guitar players and you become aware of their unique abilities. You may be doing your own thing, but some of that stuff still pops into your head.”

The balance of blues and soul also played a pivotal role in the crossover success of Strong Persuader. The album reached No.13 on the Billboard album charts – not the blues charts, but the all-genre Billboard 200. That meant Cray was getting as much attention through radio and MTV exposure as many of the day’s synth-saturated pop stars.

“We’ve always been described as a blues band. But when I go back and listen to Strong Persuader, I don’t consider it a blues album, per se. It had lots of R&B and leaned towards the rock end some. That’s why a song like Smoking Gun (Strong Persuader’s breakthrough single) was able to crossover.

“It was just one of those instances of us putting an album together that coincided with the times. Strong Persuader came together when radio was accepting that kind of music with our kind of leanings.”

Timing remains on Cray’s side with Nothin’ But Love. In fact, two of the album’s strongest songs – I’m Done Cryin’ and Great Big Old House – reference the grim, topical realities of an even grimmer economy by using the displacement caused by unemployment and home foreclosures as a central theme.

“You know, as we get older, we all understand a lot about what is surrounding us and how people are living. We know people who have gone through these situations. We see the foreclosure signs on our streets. I see them even on my street. You read about it in the newspaper and you see it on television. And it’s a topic of conversation as we’re traveling around. So it was just a natural progression to talk about it in the music.”

But Cray isn’t into this or any other aspect of the blues on his own. His concerts and recordings are still credited to The Robert Cray Band – which, aside from bassist Cousins, includes drummer Tony Braunagel and longtime keyboardist Jim Pugh.

“It’s great to have people you can always rely on, not only for their playing abilities, but for their whole sense of being part of the band. Then there’s the songwriting, the traveling together, being friends – all of those things are important. I think that sets the stage for making good music.

“I mean, when we get onstage, it’s all about having fun. It’s all about taking chances. And you can only do that when you have people that you can really work with and that you know. So we just have a ball.”

The Robert Cray Band perform as 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets are $44.50. Call (859) 233-3535 or 1-800-745-3000.

 

in performance: the brian setzer orchestra christmas extravaganza

The Brian Setzer Orchestra.

“When he starts to boogie, the whole town rocks.”

That’s part of the refrain Brian Setzer sang with no small degree of ceremony when describing jolly ol’ St. Nick as his justly billed Christmas Extravaganza got under way last night at the Singletary Center of the Arts. But the veteran guitarist and rockabilly stylist could have just as easily been singing about himself.

The line comes from Boogie Woogie Santa Claus, an oft-covered holiday novelty tune first popularized by Mabel Scott in 1948. But within this program’s grasp, the song unlocked the depth and vigor of the 18 member orchestra the guitarist had in tow. And this was no symphony. The lineup sported an acoustic bassist, drummer, two backup singers and Setzer. The remaining13 members were all horn players. Needless to say, when Setzer undercut the brass attack with meaty but powerfully exact guitar runs, the joint very much got rocking.

Sure, he was singing about a Santa Claus that likes his Christmas cheer placed in very visible motion. But last night, Setzer proved to be the true boogie man.

Performed on a stage illuminated by holiday trees, stockings and, of course, Santa hats for all the horn players, the concert could have easily tipped over into gaudy holiday excess. But despite wearing its seasonal sentiments very openly, the two hour set was an immensely entertaining blend of rockabilly, jazz, soul and more. And in a condensed encore version of The Nutcracker Suite, the music shifted more specifically from Count Basie-style swing to feverish polka.

Setzer’s guitar work understandably led the ensemble charge. Creating a marvelous sonic foil for the massive horn sound, Setzer continually referenced roots rock forefathers like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran in his playing, whether it was through the crisp,  nocturnally inclined tone of non-holiday originals like  ’49 Mercury Blues and Drive Light Lightning (Crash Like Thunder) or the sass evident in Louis Prima’s Jump, Jive ‘an Wail and the elemental Chuck Berry Yuleide staple Run Rudolph Run .The latter two were played as part of a stripped down trio set near the show’s conclusion.

A few stray hits from Setzer’s days with the rockabilly trio Stray Cats (highlighted by the giddy Fishnet Stockings) colored the set. But the big fun clearly belonged to a spirit of the season brought to life last night in full and unapologetically rocking splendor.

live from new york, it’s zach brock

A favorite guilty (and strategically pointless) pleasure of mine is to occasionally glance through the New York Times’ jazz listings and pretend that even a fraction of the city’s weekend performance choices are available in Lexington.

This morning, the reverse, in effect, was true. Sandwiched in with notices of impending Manhattan shows by Roy Haynes, Kenny Garret,t and Medeski Martin & Wood is a paragraph devoted to a Tuesday concert by Lexington’s own Zach Brock.

Admittedly, the show at the Jazz Standard isn’t a big geographical jump for the violinist (he lives in Brooklyn). But getting a full graph penned by Times’ jazz critic Nate Chinen, complete with favorable nods to his new album, Almost Never Was, with pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland (a team that will also accompany him for the Jazz Standard gig) and to Brock’s home town, is a wonderful leap. Way to go, Zach.

ed cassidy, 1923-2012

Ed Cassidy of Spirit.

Like father, like stepson. That hardly seems like the expected personnel fabric for an innovative rock ’n’ roll band. Yet that was what drove one of the most underappreciated West Coast acts to emerge out of the psychedelic ’60s. The band was Spirit, responsible for such exquisite radio hits as I’ve Got a Line on You, Nature’s Way and one of the decade’s most artfully funky singles, Mr. Skin.

Spirit roared out of California with four consecutive albums between 1967 and 1970, each more adventuresome than its predecessor. By the time the last one, The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, hit the charts, Spirit was borrowing from jazz, psychedelia, funk and crystalline guitar grooves for its exuberant pop sound.

On each recording, guitarist/vocalist Randy California and his drummer/stepfather Ed Cassidy remained at the helm. Perhaps that explains the title of Spirit’s second album, 1968’s The Family That Plays Together.

Spirit’s other key members – most notably co-vocalist Jay Ferguson – bolted from the band after Sardonicus. But for much of the next three decades, California and Cassidy kept Spirit’s music alive on the road, playing mostly as a trio, with a revolving lineup of bass players.

The Spirit saga came to a very sad end in 1997, when California drowned off the coast of Hawaii while, ironically, rescuing his son from drowning.

Yesterday, Cassidy left us. He was 89. Tall. Shaved head. Clad from head to toe in black. That was Cassidy. Reared in jazz (his pre-Spirit days were spent performing with such titans as Gerry Mulligan), the drummer was said to have been a strong influence of many of the day’s most esteemed rock percussionists – in particular, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.

For me, Ed Cassidy’s Spirit music comes down to two songs. The first is a gorgeously orchestrated and sublimely cool instrumental called Ice (from the band’s overlooked third album, Clear). The other is the tune that took Cassidy’s nickname for its title – Mr. Skin.

Need an introduction or a quick refresher in the music of Spirit? Then track down Mr. Skin and turn the volume way, way up. The song’s drive, groove and joy will light up any day. And for that, we can thank rock music’s mightiest but least-heralded father-stepson team and the unending spirit they found in playing together.

dave brubeck, 1920-2012

Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck was one of those artists you simply assumed would be around forever.

He was already in the history books for redefining the presence, popularity and very structure of jazz as far back as the ’50s. But he didn’t leave us after that. When his landmark quartet with Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello dissolved in 1967 after a storied 17-year run and a string of 19 studio albums with Columbia Records, he formed a new artistic partnership with sax giant Gerry Mulligan. After that came a generation-bending group with his sons, orchestral collaborations and compositional projects that ran from concertos and cantatas to oratorios and ballets. Then came new quartets, new solo piano settings and touring groups that teamed the pianist with friends new and old. The next thing you knew, Brubeck was 90 and going strong.

The pianist finally took leave of us yesterday, one day shy of his 92nd birthday. But his legacy and inspiration remain with us as a veritable monument of jazz integrity.

I first saw Brubeck in 1978. He and his sons performed at Memorial Hall for the debut concert in the University of Kentucky’s Spotlight Jazz Series, which would run strong for the 25 years until a lack of student interest killed it off. How disheartening, considering one of the key demographics Brubeck won over at the dawn of the ’50s was collegiate audiences.

The biographers will always cite Brubeck’s polytonality and the adventurous time signatures his works embraced as the leading components of his legacy. I didn’t care (or, more properly, had no appreciation) for any of that initially. When I first heard Unsquare Dance as a kid, I clapped along with the quirky rhythm, sensing none of the music’s daring spirit but all of its outward joy.

That, to me, was the key to Brubeck’s artistic charm. For all of the craftiness within his compositions, for all of the mathematical intricacy of their construction, the music was never less that completely accessible.

The last time I saw Brubeck was in January 1996 for a dead-of-winter performance at the Opera House that reteamed the pianist with his Mulligan-era bassist, Jack Six. The concert, held only two days after Mulligan’s death, shifted from light, Debussy-like fancy to rhythmic blues to rustic swing. Through it all, the smiles the pianist exchanged with his bandmates were positively childlike.

So what Brubeck album do we recommend as a parting shot? Well, the landmark 1959 recording Time Out is the most obvious choice, and any number of his quartet works for Columbia (1961’s Time Further Out, 1962’s Countdown: Time in Outer Space and 1964’s Jazz Impressions of New York) make for fine also-rans.

But allow me to recommend my favorite Brubeck record, the 1995 CD edition of Live at the Berlin Philharmonie, which more than doubles the playing time of the recording’s original 1972 vinyl pressing. It not only captures the Brubeck/Mulligan alliance at its zenith, it offers perhaps the finest recorded variety of the pianist’s library of performance moods. The music it contains is intricate yet inviting, pensive yet playful and as soulful and loose as it is studied.

Put this one on, and you can’t help but smile. And you can count that as one of the finer entries in Brubeck’s massive book of career accomplishments.

critic’s pick 257

Longtime Americana pals Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale contradict themselves within the very first line from their splendid new collaborative country album, Buddy and Jim.

The line comes from I Lost My Job Loving You, a wily confessional with a slightly swampy undertow: “It’s not always fun and games.”

Wanna bet?

Buddy and Jim is pretty much all fun and games, a mix of country traditionalism filtered through two of Nashville’s keenest roots-music intellects. Together, they inject a set of original works and scholarly chosen covers with a sense of soul and sass that is split between playfully dark instrumental mischief and the kinds of harmonies that come only from complete artistic simpatico. No, they’re not brothers, but Miller and Lauderdale operate very much as kindred spirits here.

Take, for instance, The Train That Carried My Gal From Town, a playful hoedown built around a feisty Stuart Duncan fiddle lick that sounds about 100 years old. Fittingly, the tune dates back to about 1926 and matches a sense of traditional country heartbreak with a playful recklessness that is mirrored in both the lyrics (“I wish to the lord that the train would wreck, kill the engineer, break the fireman’s neck”) and harmonies that bounce about with a tone that is more than a little devilish.

Equally bleak and feisty is Lauderdale’s Vampire Girl, which Miller illuminates with the rhythm of a rolling boxcar and a Western desert serenade of pedal-steel guitar. It all flies in the face of Lauderdale’s saga of a temptress who leaves behind more stolen souls than broken hearts.

For pure rootsy appeal, nothing beats the loose-limbed cover of The Mississippi Sheiks’ Lonely One in This Town, which Miller and Lauderdale transform into a back-porch hootenanny full of vigorous but unvarnished harmonies and a delightfully spare arrangement highlighted by the spirited trash can-like clatter of drummer Marco Giovino (Miller’s mate in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy).

There isn’t a single song on Buddy and Jim that doesn’t delight, from Julie Miller’s graceful It Hurts Me (the album’s most straight-faced and elegantly stoic moment) to the big-beat Cajun recasting of Down South in New Orleans to the mash-up of vintage country and R&B on Joe Tex’s I Want to Do Everything For You.

But the true kicker is a blast of swing-savvy roots glee by way of the 1959 Jimmy McCrackin hit The Wobble, in which vocal trade-offs sideswipe fuzzy guitar fills and delightfully cheesy organ riffs. Sounds like fun and games aplenty to me.

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