Archive for February, 2017

larry coryell, 1943-2017

larry coryell.

The sudden passing on Sunday of guitarist Larry Coryell at age 73 marked the passing of a generational pioneer in jazz music, even though his gifts as an instrumentalist far outweighed his reputation.

Coryell has rightly been viewed as one of the guiding forces in fusion, an electric offshoot of jazz that made the music instantly accessible to a rock generation already immersed in stylistic revolution during the late 1960s. Indeed, Coryell albums like “Space,” along with his earliest works fronting the funk/fusion troupe The Eleventh House, were as genre defining as any of the Miles Davis offshoot projects led by Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Curiously, his music always seemed more reactionary than the work of those contemporaries. But it wasn’t jazz Coryell was rebelling against. He met the boogie-centric jam groups earning airtime on FM radio on their own turf and wildly outdistanced their level of musicianship while still retaining a jazz sensibility. In many ways, Coryell’s electric music had more in common with the jazzier experimentation of Frank Zappa than anything the Davis camp was conjuring.

But for my money, the real magic came in the recordings and performances that went acoustic. Between 1977 and 1979, Coryell released six remarkable acoustic albums. Some were expert collaborations with other guitarists similarly pigeonholed by their electric work (Steve Khan, Philip Catherine and a young John Scofield). But the best were two solo sessions from 1978 – “Standing Ovation” and “European Impressions,” both of which scream for reissue treatment.

Fast forward two decades and you have what may be Coryell’s finest overall recording, 1999’s “Private Concert.” Despite the title, this was a studio date of solo and multi-tracked “duets” displaying Coryell’s acoustic brilliance on Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Brother K.”

It was with these acoustic records that Coryell’s stylistic mash-ups of jazz, blues, swing and Eastern music giddily collided in a sound both daring and delicate.

Coryell was wildly prolific through the rest of his career, even as far as completing a weekend engagement at New York’s Iridium club the night before his death. He was also an extrovert on and offstage, suggesting the animation he invested in his playing carried into his everyday life. Or vice versa.

“Everything here is true… I think,” Coryell inscribed to me in a copy of his autobiography “Improvising: My Life in Music” following a Louisville concert in 2007. Coryell may have been referencing the descriptions he penned about music in his book. But the music itself? Coryell didn’t need to doubt himself. Every note was true.

 

in performance: ben vereen

ben vereen.

In referencing a career retrospective video that prefaced his “Steppin’ Out” performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, Ben Vereen seemed almost apologetic. The opening turned back the years to when the singer/dancer/actor’s younger self was deftly moving and grooving in Broadway musicals, cabaret outings and even television programs.

“All that dancing and carrying on you saw there… there will be none of that tonight,” Vereen said later in the evening. Turned out that wasn’t much of an issue.

At age 70 and with back surgery just a few months behind him, Vereen had earned the right hold off on the hoofing. But that hardly meant the veteran performer settled for a subtle evening. Backed by a jazz trio, Vereen offered songs and stories as “gratitude” for audience support during his 50-plus year career in a performance that ran tirelessly for two hours without an intermission.

This newest version of “Steppin’ Out” is essentially a large scale cabaret show with equal measures of song and talk. But there were curious differences in the program and typical cabaret sets. Opening with “Magic to Do,” a signature tune from “Pippin,” which earned Vereen the second of his two Tony Awards, the set was surprisingly loose in design. But the rest of the show wasn’t entirely the kind of overview the opening video suggested. There were obvious nods to his Broadway tenure, from a medley of tunes featured in “Hair and “Jesus Christ Superstar” to an efficiently moving “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked,” which Vereen served in a decade ago. But some of the music and a lot of the talk strayed from his own career to broader streams of inspirations. Just one quick tale from his work with Bob Fosse? That seemed a bit of a crime, but Vereen seemed to connect with the crowd through stories of personal and professional survival. Guess we can add the title of motivational speaker to his extensive list of occupations.

The show highlight was entirely unexpected – a duet of “Misty” with drummer Marc DiCianni adding lone accompaniment mostly through hand percussion. In was a moment of reflective, reserved beauty in a show that displayed its emotions as openly and brightly as a Broadway marquee.

in performance: justin hayward

justin hayward.

Pockets of patrons within the audience at the Lexington Opera House last night let out a chorus of groans when Justin Hayward remarked how his favored decade within a 50 plus year tenure as a member of the Moody Blues was the 1980s. His reasoning? Simple. “That’s the period I can remember.”

Truth to tell, the storied repertoire of his fabled band – “The Moodys,” as he tagged his mates – made up only half of this engaging 90 minute performance. As this was a performance billed under his name, Hayward, 70, balanced ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s tunes from the past with comparatively newer material cut as a solo artist. In doing so, the performance featured not a band but a pair of accompanists – guitarist Michael Dawes (who also opened the evening with a set of layered, percussive instrumentals that recalled Michael Hedges) and keyboardist/harmony singer Julie Ragins.

Such a configuration understandably gave the program a lightness that both suited Hayward’s voice – still clear in tone but a touch thinner with age – and the material itself, which leaned heavily on ballads. Among the more arresting solo entries fitting this bill was 2013’s “The Western Sky,” a song that recalled the more modestly sentimental flair of the Moody Blues’ early ‘80s music. But the show stealer was 1978’s “Forever Autumn,” a tune paired down from its orchestral blueprint version on Jeff Wayne’s “War of the Worlds” adaptation into a bittersweet folk-pop reverie.

Initially, the Moody Blues songs sounded a touch safe. “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Lovely to See You,” both dispensed with early in the show, were presented in swift, truncated versions. But in the biggest back catalog surprise of the evening, “Watching and Waiting” (the finale tune to what arguably remains the band’s finest album, 1969’s “To Our Children’s Children’s Children”), the dark melancholy of the Moodys beautifully emerged.

Hayward’s signature tune, 1967’s “Nights in White Satin,” closed the set. If there was a career hit one might suspect would be given perfunctory treatment simply by the fact the song has been performed so often, this would be it. But Hayward fully invested himself in this lean trio arrangement. With Dawes recreating Ray Thomas’ familiar flute solo on steel string guitar, Hayward’s voice sounded strong and assured, making the work sound not just valid and emotive, but unexpectedly youthful.

 

a solo shade of moody blue

justin hayward.

Ever since the strains of “Nights in White Satin” defined the progressive sound of late night radio a half century ago, the pop world has known the name Justin Hayward. More generally, they knew he helped establish The Moody Blues. But it was Hayward’s voice, guitar and pen that summoned many of the group’s other established works, including, “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Lovely to See You,” “The Story in Your Eyes” and many others.

But here’s a fact even some of the Moodys’ most ardent fans don’t know. For 40 of Hayward’s 50 years with the group, he has also maintained a solo career, focusing on tunes that are lighter in tone and more personal in narrative.

“In the early days, I did hold some songs back that I didn’t think were kind of appropriate or a decent fit for the Moodys,” said Hayward, who makes his first Lexington appearance since 1994 on Tuesday at the Opera House. “It’s okay being personal, but sometimes it’s good to be… well, not deliberately obscure, but working in a place where you try and make a song more about a general emotion instead of a specific one. There are a couple of things on this tour that I probably held back from recording with the Moodys because they were a bit too me-me-me and not us-us-us.”

That’s not to say Hayward tucks the familiar Moody Blues tunes in a closet when he tours on his own. In fact, the repertoire this winter is being split between his vintage hits and solo career songs, many of which have been compiled on a new Hayward anthology recording called “All the Way.”

“It was a bit daunting, to be quite honest,” Hayward said of his solo career’s launch with the 1977 album “Songwriter.” “The people I met during that time were very precious to me. The musicians I worked with are still my friends today. It was kind of scary, but there was so much good will that I found. I didn’t find the world saying, ‘When are the Moodys going to get back together?’ I found a world that was welcoming to me and people that said, ‘I’ve just always liked your songs.’ It was as simple as that.”

The mix of Moody Blues and solo material at Tuesday’s show will play out not in a band setting, but in a trio configuration that will team Hayward with British guitarist Mike Dawes (who will also open the concert) and keyboardist/vocalist Julie Ragins.

“With this band, you can hear every nuance of the sound. I get a chance to bring my acoustic guitars, the ones that were used the records. It’s a little bit more like the original recordings, in some ways – particularly the early recordings where (producer) Tony Clarke and (engineer) Derek Varnals would put the acoustic guitar much further forward and the drums further back in the mix. The acoustic guitar and the mellotron often led the Moodys’ early recordings. It’s a little bit more like that.

“I mean, I’m very lucky to still have the Moodys. I love every moment of it. But this tour, without that volume, is like being in my music room, like being with friends. That’s how these songs were written, including the parts that I put on all my original demos. It’s how they originally sounded. It’s how the songs were born.”

So what drives Hayward in 2017? He turned 70 in October and still maintains a hearty touring schedule of solo dates and Moody Blues shows. What keeps his performance attitude so full of vigor?

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? There are some things I don’t have to deal with that others might. I don’t have to deal with celebrity. I don’t have to deal with paparazzi or that kind of stuff. I’m spared that. I can be just the guy walking down the street. But these songs, a lot of them mean something in peoples’ lives just as songs of other artists do in mine. And, really, what else would I do?

“My daughter tells me, ‘Look, you have a lovely house. You love reading books, why don’t we go there and just read books for the rest of our lives?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s a nice idea. And? What about this other thing I have to do?”

Justin Hayward withMike Dawes perform at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $55.50, $65.50. Call 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go ticketmaster.com.

grammy post mortem 2017

Sturgill Simpson performing at last night’s Grammy Awards ceremony. Getty Images/Kevin Winter.

Mash ups, train wrecks, tributes and triumphs – all of these and more make up The Musical Box’s annual Grammy post-mortem. We focused exclusively on the performers this year, as they, for better or worse, were infinitely more interesting than the winners.

+ Adele: A solemn, straightforward reading of “Hello.” Nicely compensates for the down-in-flames delivery of “All I Ask” from last year’s Grammys.

+ James Corden: “I’m in over my head.” His own introductory words as host. Agreed.

+ The Weeknd and Daft Punk: Introduced by Paris Jackson as “cosmic.” “Robotic” was more like it, although The Weeknd has the vocal pipes to wail above such formulaic pop.

+ Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood: Synth pop version of “The Fighter” that masqueraded as country music. A duet marriage made in a corporate board room.

+ Ed Sheeran: “Shape of You” offered an intriguing mix of loops and live performance, but the song itself was anemic.

+ Kelsea Ballerini and Lukas Graham: Squeaky clean pop duet mash-up of “7 Years” and “Peter Pan.” Oddly and innocently appealing.

+ Beyonce: Trippy, indulgent but quite empowering medley of “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles.” A head scratching pop aria of sorts, introduced, no less, by her mom.

+ Bruno Mars: Ultra confident, exuberant, focused old school pop soul delivery of “That’s What I Like.”

+ Katy Perry: Debut of a new song, “Chained to the Rhythm.” So this is what’s it like to be inside your house when a tornado hits. Zero relevance to the ceremony at hand.

+ William Bell and Gary Clark, Jr.: A no-frills version of Bell’s blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign.” A master class on soul essentials. Coolest two minutes of the night.

+ Meran Morris and Alicia Keys: Two perfectly capable but mismatched singers trying way too hard to shove soul solace into “Once.” Their wardrobe, by the way, was hideous.

+ Adele again: Even with the false start, an undeniably honest and moving tribute to George Michael through a turbulent, orchestral version of “Fast Love.”

+ Metallica and Lady Gaga: Well, at least “Moth Into Flame” lit a fire under an otherwise orderly evening and watching Gaga crowd surf was a hoot. Mostly, though, the Grammys just look silly the more they try to act dangerous.

+ Sturgill Simpson: Here’s your Grammy moment. Introduced by fellow Kentuckian Dwight Yoakam and bolstered by a choir and the Dap Kings horn section (making this a tribute to the late Sharon Jones, as well), Bluegrass born Simpson turned “All Around You” into a world class soul confessional.

+ A Tribe Called Quest: The message of cultural exclusion was loud and clear. Similarly, it was heartening to witness Quest’s resilient sense of purpose. Still, there was no denying how ragged and tentative the group sounded.

+ Morris Day and the Time: Yeah, Bruno Mars and the rest killed it. But the ballyhooed Prince tribute was ruled by the ageless move and groove “Purple Rain” contemporaries Day and Jerome pumped into Time hits “Jungle Love” and “The Bird.”

+ Chance the Rapper: Hip hop went to Church with help from Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin as Chance heartily sermonized through “How Great” and “All We Got.”

+ John Legend and Cynthia Erivo: An appropriately sparse duet reading of “God Only Knows,” which bookended the memoriam tribute.

critic’s pick: ralph towner, ‘my foolish heart’

There is a certain selflessness to the fact that Ralph Towner titled his first solo acoustic guitar album in 11 years “My Foolish Heart.” Of the recording’s 13 compositions, it is the only one he didn’t pen. But the tune’s history is rich, pervading every crevice of the stately beauty that defines this astonishing project as well as reinforcing an essential blueprint Towner has followed during his 44 year tenure with the European ECM label.

Composed by Victor Young and Ned Washington, “My Foolish Heart” is a proven jazz standard. Among the many pioneers to reshape it as a work of their own is piano great Bill Evans, whose vanguard trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian supplanted the work with a contemplative grace in 1961. Towner, who has regularly doubled as a pianist through the decades, has long admired Evans’ cunning and grace, enforcing a lyricism that has been a constant within his solo and ensemble projects, as well as his ongoing work with the long running band Oregon, without sounding imitative.

Towner’s take on “My Foolish Heart” is, frankly, just as evocative as Evans’ immortal rendering. Set to solo guitar, the precision and patience that sweep through the playing are more classically rooted. Yet the melodic warmth is always embraced. That same approach runs throughout the rest of the album, striking a balance of classical and jazz (evident especially during the 12 string guitar patterns of “Clarion Guitar,” which harken back to earlier ECM days) but still possessing the same myriad emotive casts – from playful to bittersweet to slightly ominous – that have long distinguished Towner’s playing.

On “Dolomiti Dance,” an Italian accented dance melody (Towner is a Washington native but has long resided in Rome) is repeated with modest variation to affirm a melody in sunny motion. “Blue as in Bley,” a requiem for pianist Paul Bley who died a month before the album’s recording session last winter in Switzerland, flips the premise for a darker and slightly more dissonant presentation that still adheres to the album’s light, exact and emotive cast.

The album ends by revisiting a 2003 Towner tune that led off Oregon’s “Beyond Words” album. Aptly titled “Rewind,” the original version was propelled largely by bass and reeds with guitar as a primarily rhythmic device until it was allowed to set sail at the halfway point. The version that closes “My Foolish Heart” is taken at a slightly slower pace. But without the additional instrumentation, the newer version sounds, if anything, more complete. It indulges in patient, unforced lyricism, allowing the performance, as is the case with all the music on “My Foolish Heart,” to beautifully reflect the tone and technique of a true guitar sage at the height of his understated power.

webb wilder rocks on

webb wilder.

Leave it to Webb Wilder to perfect the art of singing in the shower – or, at least, realizing when such an activity can be best optimized on a record.

At the close of his “Missississpi Moderne” album, Wilder’s newest sampler of typically varied roots rock delicacies, the veteran Nashville-by-way-of-Hattiesburg songster includes a version of the blues chestnut “Stones in My Passway” that was recorded in purposely primitive conditions – specifically, on a hand held recorder in the shower. Wilder never intended it for professional or public release, but the ultra lo-fi result proved a fitting way to open and close the album.

“It was pretty silly,” Wilder said of his “Stones” realization. “I will go to my grave reserving the right to be silly.

“Look, I am from Mississippi and if I grow up in an Afro-Celtic culture, I like to think I can do that sort of thing with as much soul as the next guy. But that was never meant to be released. It was kind of a ‘Ha ha, listen to this’ deal. I made that thing up in the shower in the mid 90s. I call it ‘hand held’ because I recorded it on a hand held cassette recorder. We wound up putting it on the multi-track. Tom Comet, our bass player, had the idea of putting just a little snippet of it at the beginning, so the album is bookended by it.”

Mixing rootsy drive and authority with a discreet level of giddiness has pretty much been the modus operandi for Wilder over the last three decades. Wilder the musician actually grew out of Wilder the hip ‘50s private eye character created for an indie short film. But ever since the release of his debut album, 1986’s “It Came From Nashville,” Wilder’s askew but devout roots music – which regularly incorporates rock, rockabilly, country, surf, swing, blues, soul and more – has remained vibrant.

“For a lot of us, music is our core,” Wilder said. “It’s our spirituality. To be a musician is a lifelong pursuit. Ahead of everything else in life, it’s a pretty nutty thing to do. So the only people who really do it are people who are unable to not do it. It’s like a calling. So I was born into music apparently.

“I was in the fourth grade when the Beatles spearheaded the British invasion. I think for a lot of us, it just meant the world. It meant, ‘This is the new world. This is how it is.’ The Beatles were in a category by themselves. On one album, they would have a Broadway show tune, a Chuck Berry song and something they wrote.

“By the time I started making records, that’s not what record companies wanted you to do. They wanted you to have a sound and that was what you were. Well, I’m sorry. I like rhythm and blues. I like country. I like blues. I like rock ‘n’ roll. I like British rock ‘n’ roll. I like American rock ‘n’ roll. I like rockabilly. I like cowboy songs. But I also can’t be a play-it-just-like-the-record duplicator of any of it, so all of it does come though my filter. Hopefully the ‘me’ element does unify it. The challenge comes from focusing the eclecticism.

Outside of a few brushes with major label exposure (as on the 1989 Island Records release “Hybrid Vigor,” whose title still nicely sums up the cross-genre joy of his music), Wilder has essentially been an indie artist, touring clubs and theatres with workmanlike regularity while maintaining a celebratory mood that has not dissipated through the years.

“I don’t know what it is that fuels my particular approach to performing, but I think my default setting is that of a performer as much as a writer or recording artist. Live is sort of my element so I like a level of spontaneity to be there.

“I get stage nerves and I have nervous energy, so, yeah, there’s some kind of it’s-really-who-you-are thing going on there. You really mean it and you’re pretty serious about it even if you’re being humorous or whatever. When it clicks, you’re lost in it and it’s more a feeling than thinking thing and you’re surfing six inches off the ground. Hopefully when you’re not, you’re up for the task enough to where no one notices.”

Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks perform at 9 p.m. Feb. 10 at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Dr. Admission: $10. Call 859-281-1116 or go to willieslocallyknown.com.

critic’s pick – brian eno, ‘reflection’

In a recent posting on his website, Brian Eno confesses he doesn’t understand the contemporary definition of the term “ambient music,” the tag penned to a series of atmospheric instrumental albums he has created over the past three decades exuding sounds that moves in glacial tonal increments rather than through rhythm. It’s no wonder, too, given the music’s appropriation by scores of pop, techno and even dub artists during the generation that followed such early Eno moodpiece experiments as “Discreet Music” (1975) and “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978).

Even Eno himself has sought to find new placement and purpose for his soundscapes. On “The Ship,” an Eno album released as recently as last spring, he used his ambient prototypes as a backdrop for vocal meditations, a few dissonant eruptions and even a slice of majestically reinvented pop (via his version of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free”).

On “Reflection,” the focus falls back on the ambient sound that started it all. The record is a single, 51 minute composition, an instrumental tone poem of sorts that glides with patience and grace. Through the music’s slo-mo unveiling, a few variances appear and contract like a fragment of melody that washes in at low tide only to be eventually pulled back out to sea. Sometimes, a suggestion of a pulse is detected, but the echo is distant – a call from an outside land the music seems to have purposely drifted away from. In other instances, the sense of contemplation is underscored by a few modest accents – a chant-like like accent that briefly mimics birdsong here, the chill of what sounds like vibraphone there. But given the album’s processed sound and its lack of detailed liner notes, you can seldom tell what the specific instrumental voice is.

There is also something of a paradox within the music. It begins fully realized as a gentle swirl of mock-percussive effects connect like wind chimes before the music quickly evolves into an unhurried sonic wash of humming keyboard orchestration that revels in its state of subtlety. Not so with the ending. While “Reflection” wastes no time in lifting off, it takes a beauteous eternity to bid adieu. It’s slow (as in, very slow) fade seems to suggest that it has every intention on lingering on even as it eventually disappears from our rear view mirror.

This is not music for everyone. Many dismissed the minimalist dissension of Eno’s ambient work back in the ‘70s as a crashing bore, a music that sounds more like muzak, only more static. But for those ears favoring a sense of impressionistic introspection – or for anyone simply seeking 51 minutes of glorious peace and quiet – “Reflection” is a fascinating one way trip to the heart of Eno’s ambient cosmos.

john wetton, 1949-2017

john wetton.

Forgive the nostalgia showing, but hearing any recording featuring John Wetton shoots me back to the ‘70s. He wasn’t any kind of generational pop star back then. That honor would hit him in the next decade. But for the better part of the ‘70s, Wetton was prog rock’s prime utility man. He was a mercenary bass guitarist who purposely shunned the spotlight during brief touring tenures with Roxy Music and Uriah Heep but found a comfortable role as front man with the all-star quartet (and, later, trio) U.K. And for those who grew up in the golden age on MTV, he was the vocalist for the more overtly radio friendly ‘80s music generated by a pack of more commercial conscious prog vets known as Asia.

By my preference remains the mountain of wondrous music Wetton cut in a scant two years as a member of King Crimson. As a vocalist, he was as recognizable as he was distinctive. His warm but modestly coarse wail was complimentary to any mood piece the 1972-74 era Crimson would serve up, from demonstrative rock adventures like “Easy Money” and “The Great Deceiver” to epic funereal mood pieces like “Starless.” That voice was what would later launch Asia to such brief charttopping heights, but it was only part of what made Wetton such a versed artist.

The rest dealt with his musicianship, which went largely unheralded through the years. Sample the bounty of concert material Crimson has issued from those years – 1975’s “USA” and 1997’s “The Night Watch” being the most readily obtainable (although the band’s website has a ton of wickedly inventive 1973 and 1974-era live recordings for purchase) – and you will hear a monster improviser at work. Guitarist Robert Fripp, drummer Bill Bruford and violinist David Cross were featured more prominently, but the way Wetton detonated huge, fuzzy bass patterns around their playing was the crowning touch in what remains Crimson’s most daring and rewarding improvisational lineup.

By all written accounts one of rock music’s genuine nice guys, Wetton died yesterday at age 67 following a battle with colon cancer. Want a crash course in the beauty of his vocal chops and instrumental smarts? Then take a listen to Wetton’s final studio album with King Crimson, 1974’s “Red.” The trip gets a little dark at times, but the sights and sounds are sublime.


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