Archive for an appreciation

toots thielemans, 1922-2016

toots thielemans.

toots thielemans.

I heard the playing of Toots Thielemans, who died yesterday at age 94, before I ever knew who he was or understood the importance and extent of his musical history. I was about 11 and remember being transfixed whenever the theme to the then-popular film “Midnight Cowboy” came on the radio. It boasted a slow, elegant melody performed on, of all things, harmonica. It was one of the loneliest sounds I had ever experienced. But there was also a lightness and warmth to it that countered the desolate feel with comfort.

That was the sound of the Belgian musician born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans but who was forever known simply as Toots.

It took a few years to understand Thielemans’ astonishing career, playing alongside the likes of jazz titans such as Charlie Parker, George Shearing and especially Benny Goodman. But Thielemans never stood on accolades. His playing also graced comparatively contemporary recordings by pop stylists (Paul Simon, Billy Joel) as well a newer jazz voyagers (Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Lovano) that introduced him to successive generations of fans. But his playing was a constant. While he never again sounded as lonesome as he did on “Midnight Cowboy,” Thielemans’ musicianship always possessed a lyrical sweetness that was unwavering.

A versed guitarist and whistler (as witnessed by his signature song “Bluesette”), Thielemans also had a performance affinity for pianists. Two of his recordings that especially resonated with me paired him with two cross-generational piano voices – Bill Evans (on 1979’s “Affinity,” one of Evans’ final studio recordings before his death the following year) and Fred Hersch (on the underappreciated 1989 concert album “Do Not Leave Me”).

I got to see Thielemans play just once, at a University of Louisville concert in 2010 backed by another great pianist, Kenny Werner. Thielemans was a spry 88 at the time. The program ranged from Brazilian music (Luiz Eca’s “The Dolphin”) to a medley of Frank Sinatra hits. But the harmonica tone was as exotic as it was steadfast, transporting the instrument from more expected folk and blues domains to a very different musical paradise. In the hands of Thielemans, the harmonica was a voice of and for the world.

bobby hutcherson, 1941-2016

bobby hutcherson.

bobby hutcherson.

No instrument defines swing and bop’s sense of pervading cool better than the vibraphone. It is the ice cube in the proverbial jazz cocktail, a touch of chill that differs from all other percussive sounds. As a melodic device, it exudes clarity and elegance. To that end, no one played the vibes with more persuasive invention than Bobby Hutcherson. The great instrumentalist and composer died Monday at age 75.
There were giants before him, like Red Norvo, Kentucky’s own Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson. There others than came in his wake, like Gary Burton and a legion of new generation stylists that include Stefon Harris. But Hutcherson’s brilliance began in bop with a series of sterling Blue Note albums than spanned a remarkable 12 year period (1963-75), a stretch where artist and label both weathered shifts that steadily urbanized their music.
The early Blue Note records were things of beauty. A personal favorite from that era was 1965’s “Dialogue,” mostly because it showcased Hutcherson’s stylistic restlessness (it was rooted in bop-flavored cool, but would regularly jump off into waltz structures and free-style excursions). A hearty guest list (saxophonist/flutist Sam Rivers, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Andrew Hill) helped, but nothing matched Hutcherson’s gliding beauty when a vibes solo presented itself.
Later albums for the label were hit-and-miss, but early ‘70s collaborations with reed player and flutist Harold Land were standouts recorded just as Blue Note hit the crossroads of jazz and more R&B leaning appeal. The best of those works was 1970’s “San Francisco,” which wonderfully chronicled a stylistic changing of the guard. With a young Joe Sample on piano and electric keyboards, the record embraced groove but kept Hutcherson’s mix of boppish fancy and improvisational prowess in the driver’s seat.
As is often the case with musical artists whose career and performance stamina continue long enough to outlast trends and entire musical eras, Hutcherson settled on a largely traditional sound for his final records. 2007’s aptly titled “For Sentimental Reasons” boasted a repertoire dominated by standards set to the relaxed interplay of a quartet. But the exchanges between Hutcherson, sounding lighter and more fanciful than ever, and pianist Renee Rosnes sit at recording’s luscious core.
All three records should be considered essential listening for anyone intrigued by, but unfamiliar with, Hutcherson’s music.
“When you become involved with jazz, you’ve already received your reward,” Hutcherson told me in an interview prior to a Louisville concert with the SF Jazz Collective in 2005. “The thrill comes from being inside this world of music, of being tossed around inside the moment.”

bernie worrell, 1944-2016

bernie worrell.

bernie worrell.

Listening to Bernie Worrell play keyboards was like taking a trip into outer space. Sure, he spent the better of a career perfecting, dissecting and retooling all manners of groove. But at his best, Worrell took flight. The sounds he created left earthbound rhythm behind and went bouncing around the cosmos, unfurling in waves and textures that were distinctly his own.

Take the way his synthesizer work on the Talking Heads classic Burning Down the House blasted through the melody like a theremin at the song’s conclusion or examine his early ‘70s work with Funkadelic, George Clinton’s evil twin counterpart band to Parliament that threw funk into a psychedelic blender. Better still, give a listen to the scores of other projects he has been a part of, from world beat sessions with Fela Kuti to collaborations with former Lexington groove troupe Catawampus Universe. Worrell was always the player that knocked a groove or a melody on its ear with a progressive charge that was orchestral in its expansiveness, elemental in its sense of soul and unendingly playful in its sentiment.

Best of all, Worrell’s appeal was remarkably diverse. As one of the chief musical architects in Clinton’s Parliament ranks, he helped refine funk music for R&B crowds. Witness the still exquisite party anthem Flash Light for proof. But for artsy, post new wave audiences, there was his work with Talking Heads – specifically, the headier groove experiments on 1983’s Speaking in Tongues and the landmark concert film Stop Making Sense made from the record’s subsequent tour. Worrell played Lexington with both bands in 1977 and 1983, respectively.

But his best local viewing came through a series of club shows in the late ‘90s at the long-defunct Lynagh’s Music Club with his Woo Warriors band. Worrell may not have been in prizefighting form at those performances as he so clearly was in Stop Making Sense. But the club appearances, executed as career overviews of sorts, were ripe with animation and invention that presented Worrell without the Clinton sideshow of his Parliament-Funkadelic years.

Lexington also provided a famed non-appearance for the keyboardist. Having been recruited by Chrissie Hynde for the Pretenders’ underrated 1986 comeback album Get Close, Worrell and bassist T.M. Stevens were sacked from the band just prior to its January 1987 performance at Memorial Coliseum with Iggy Pop. Hynde even held court for two days of rehearsals at the venue to work in replacements.

All of these adventures added up to an unrelenting original voice – so much so that when news broke of Worrell’s death yesterday at age 72, the tune I reached for first was the live version of Crosseyed and Painless that served as the finale to Stop Making Sense. It began with sunshine and psychedelia then jumped lines into the most feverish funk Talking Heads ever recorded. Worrell isn’t even that present as a soloist on the performance. But listen to the groove and all the profound color surrounding it. That’s where you heard him – in the engine room making the music soar like a rocketship.

ralph stanley, 1927-2016

ralph stanley, may 2004. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

ralph stanley, may 2004. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

My fondest memory of Ralph Stanley goes back to May 2004 when the bluegrass music chieftain was on tour as part of the Great High Mountain Tour. The multi-act, Americana-heavy production had been booked into Rupp Arena that month, but in preparing an advance story on the show, Herald-Leader photographer Mark Cornelison and I were granted atypically broad backstage access for an earlier tour stop in Cincinnati. There, we were allowed to interview and take photos of the dozen or so acts on the bill.

Upon arriving that afternoon, I was led to a table where Jerry Douglas, Buck White and Stanley sat in casual conversation. I turned a tape recorder on and the four of us simply talked – sometimes about music, but largely about topics far removed from the business at hand. When Mark had his gear set up, road manager Bob Neuwirth, who was already busy with myriad other duties, began sifting through schedules to determine which artists were available for impromptu photo sessions and, more importantly, where they could be shot. That’s when Stanley spoke up. “You could take some pictures of me playing banjo in my dressing room if you like.”

The room went silent. Dead silent. Getting to photograph Stanley – the artist who almost single handedly defined the role of the clawhammer banjo in string music, the bluegrass traditionalist who turned a spiritual like O Death into a pop hit of sorts in the wake of its ghostly inclusion in the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou? – in such an intimate setting was kind of the bluegrass equivalent of getting to sit in on a sketch session with Picasso. Stanley wasn’t the only major bluegrass elder of the day. But since the death of Bill Monroe in 1996, Stanley was viewed as the music’s most patriarchal figure, an artist nearly as old and practiced as the music itself. So yes, Stanley’s generous offer was accepted and Mark’s resulting photos are represented by the fabulous shot above.

Stanley died yesterday at age 89 and remained an active touring performer until relatively recently. We’ll leave his litany of artistic accomplishments for others to dwell on. Suffice to say, Stanley was a quietly authoritative figure, whether he was leading an ensemble through the gospel affirmation of Angel Band, sounding beyond ghostly within the quietly rapturous singing of O Death or letting the strings fly through Clinch Mountain Backstep. He was a pioneer during the early days of bluegrass, a stately ambassador for its preservation later in life and an innovator and gentleman at all points in between.

dave swarbrick, 1941-2016

dave swarbrick.

dave swarbrick.

The ’60 and ‘70s were peppered with innovators whose contributions to contemporary music purposely strayed from commercial visibility. To those that championed the popular sounds of the day, such quiet giants went largely unnoticed. But to more ardent fans that followed the stylistic path such work forged, their status quickly turned heroic.

One such pioneer was Dave Swarbrick, who passed away with little more than a nod from mainstream media on June 3 at age 75.

From the ‘60s onward, Swarbrick helped redefine British folk music, especially through electric innovations that triggered a genre unto itself, British folk-rock. He was a world class fiddler, one as comfortable with a somber ballad as he was with a dance tune. But it was his spirit that spoke volumes – a hearty, jovial attitude with gypsy-esque fervor that beamed through his playing and especially his singing.

Though introduced to British audiences at the dawn of the ‘6os with the Ian Campbell Folk Group, it was the music he created through two lasting alliances that established the breadth of Swarbrick’s remarkable musicality. The first was the duo he co-led with guitarist/singer Martin Carthy, one Britain’s most learned folk torchbearers. The second was the vanguard folk-rock band Fairport Convention which he helped pilot during the ‘70s through myriad personnel changes and a steadfast devotion to a sound that equally embraced folk tradition and electric mischief.

I was lucky enough to see Swarbrick in both settings. With Carthy, he was all wily grace, a strictly instrumental adornment to his partner’s folk troubadour profile. Given how the two stressed guitar/fiddle arrangements, Swarbrick’s playing was ripe with subtle colors that were often antique but never austere. Their performances possessed an air of timelessness, even when their repertoire would spill over into contemporary tunes.

With Fairport, Swarbrick was a lit fuse – a player that reveled in the electric possibilities that rock arrangements offered him, including the opportunity to open up as vocalist. Singing was never what Swarbrick was known for, but it was one of the true delights of his music. His final recordings with Fairport, the underrated and hard-to-find trio of The Bonny Bunch of Roses (1977), Tippler’s Tales (1978) and the sleeper concert album Farewell Farewell (1979) were equal parts history lesson and pub crawl revelry led by distinctive, intuitive and immensely animated vocals.

Swarbrick battled emphysema for many years (perhaps not surprisingly, as most performance photos from the ‘70s revealed a cigarette dangling from his lips). While it never deteriorated to the degree the Daily Telegraph in London stated in 1999 by prematurely publishing his obituary, Swarbrick underwent a double lung transplant in 2004 but was still touring a decade later.

Recommended listening, outside of numerous Fairport and Swarbrick/Carthy albums, includes the 1981 solo album Smiddyburn, an instrumental session that reunited the full 1970 Fairport lineup (including Richard Thompson) and encapsulated British folk in all its traditionally rooted finery and electric finesse. Like Swarbrick himself, the music sailed through the decades with a love of heart, home and history.

guy clark, 1941-2016

guy clark.

guy clark.

A few years back, I discussed an ode to vegetable lore called Homegrown Tomatoes with its composer, Guy Clark. To ears perhaps unfamiliar with the works of such a masterful Texas songwriter, the yarn would seem a novelty. But Clark was in earnest when he outlined his intent with the tune.

“It’s a love song.”

It was, too – an unassuming and poetically plain-speaking love token. It’s just that the object of the author’s affection came from the garden and was edible. The design, though, was typical of Clark’s sense of songwriting. It was worldly in a way that songsmiths like John Prine have long been. But it was also conversational on an everyman level. He could be singing of the rigors in cosmopolitan stress (L.A. Freeway), cross generational relations (Desperados Waiting for the Train) or simple homesickness and regret (Dublin Blues). Clark’s music wonderfully examined the many faces of the human condition but ways that were wholly accessible.

Such songwriting intent would seem to fall under the definition of country music, which would make perfect sense as Clark resided in Nashville for over 40 years. But Clark was also a Texas native. It was that heritage, not the one offered by the headquarters of corporate country, that guided his writing. So did the company Clark kept, especially the renegade songsmith Townes Van Zandt. Clark’s songs were never as dark or desperate as those of longtime pal Van Zandt, but both shared a sense of sagely narrative told with simple, unspoiled candor. In terms of imagery and emotive detail, their songs helped define a generation of Lone Star troubadours and, in turn, a successive legion of writers from around the country.

News of Clark’s death at age 74 spread quickly today, so much so that when I commenced a phone interview with Gillian Welch this afternoon, the impact of his passing was very fresh.

“I’m just thinking about Guy so much,” she said. “So I’m probably going to be a tiny bit distracted.”

The song that came to mind first after hearing of Clark’s death was Boats to Build. Aside from being the title tune to a 1992 album that largely reintroduced Clark to a booming Americana audience, the song nicely summed up the kind of earnest but unfrilly affirmations that often populated Clark’s later music.

“Sails are just like wings,” it went. “The wind can make ’em sing. Songs of life, songs of hope, songs to keep your dreams afloat.”

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and sometimes you think you’ve had all the good ideas you’re going to have,” Clark told me prior to an appearance at the 2011 Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. But I know there is always something new out there. That’s what keeps me doing this. Songwriting is something you never get through. You never get to be the best there is. You never get finished. There is always one more song.”

isao tomita, 1932-2106

isao tomita.

isao tomita.

I’ve always been of the belief that full acceptance and appreciation of any form of music isn’t achieved until it is communicated by an artist of the listener’s own generation. You can study the past masters and try your best to understand their histories and instincts. But it’s not until someone has absorbed a style of music, reshaped it with their own interpretive spin and offered it to the ears of their audience as something new that musical traditions truly connect, live and flourish.

That has been the case numerous times with me, especially with jazz. But one very specific instance was the work of Japanese electronic music pioneer Isao Tomita, who died last week at the age of 84. It wasn’t so much Tomita’s immensely animated creations on synthesizers that struck me at first, but rather his interpretive skill. While he would go on to create masterful compositions of his own, his 1974 debut album, Snowflakes Are Dancing, opened the doors for me to the music of Claude Debussy. Within Tomita’s world of keyboards, Claire de Lune sang like a comic lullaby, Reverie became a quiet but enormously emotive meditation and the gorgeous Engulfed Cathedral came alive the way some fantasy creation of Hollywood would, defying time and invention in every note. Generations have been enchanted by Debussy for ages, but Tomita made such music resonate with me by sending French impressionism straight into outer space.

Tomita would devote subsequent albums to the works of Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Holst, Ravel and, in a wonderful but overlooked 1982 recording of The Grand Canyon Suite – Grofe. But it was the reinvention of Debussy over 40 years ago on Snowflakes Are Dancing that proved a gateway to a glorious, but previously unexplored musical world. For that alone, Tomita will always be a hero.

lonnie mack, 1941-2016

lonnie mack.

lonnie mack.

There is no disrespecting Prince in noting he wasn’t the only music colossus that died yesterday. Buried under waves of purple posts today and yesterday was news of the passing of Lonnie Mack, one of the true guitar innovators of the ‘60s.

Mack could best be described as an early prototype of the guitar hero. Through a series of classic instrumental singles from the early 1960s– specifically, Wham and a hotwired revision of Chuck Berry’s Memphis – his innovations were less defined by his technical prowess, although he had that in abundance. With Mack, it was more about the sound he got out of the guitar – a charge that was exact, expressive and potent. There were elements of surf and twang, of blues and boogie and of pure effervescent rock ‘n’ roll.

There was just enough dirt in his playing to toy with the inherent country accents of his tunes. But Mack was also a piledriver of a player whose more muscular tunes possessed a roots-friendly sound that bordered on swing, although the rock and pop undercurrents kept things very melodic.

You could detect Mack’s inspiration in the playing of numerous disciples, from the more briskly packed works John Fogerty ignited with Creedence Clearwater Revival (check out Ramble Tamble from Cosmo’s Factory) to the music of his most outspoken protégé, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Thanks in no small part to Vaughan’s very vocal accolades, Mack’s career enjoyed an unexpected renaissance in the ‘80s, releasing four albums in five years for the Chicago based Alligator label – the most essential being the 1989 live album, Attack of the Killer V (a reference to the famed Flying V, his guitar model of choice). With the Alligator albums came frequent performance stops in Lexington, most notably at the long-since-demolished Breeding’s across from Rupp Arena.

Essential Mack listening: 1964’s The Wham of that Memphis Man (the definitive representation of his initial ‘60s sound), 1971’s The Hills of Indiana (a vastly more reserved and organic country-leaning exercise) and 1985’s Strike Like Lightning (the first Alligator record, a blues-rock joyride with Vaughan as co-producer and guest guitar star).

But to hear the lyricism and power of Mack at his best, just click on a youtube video for Wham and experience two minutes of pure musical joy that cemented his place alongside Dick Dale and Link Wray as one of the cornerstone guitarslingers of his, or any, generation.

prince, 1958-2016

prince.

prince.

Oh, there were stories surrounding the December 1984 Rupp Arena debut of Prince. He wanted his dressing room painted purple. He wanted his hotel room painted purple. He wanted a bath tub painted purple It didn’t matter if the tales were true or not, although the latter request was granted and became one of the Rupp show’s more outrageous stage props. They all fit the persona so completely of a star that had reached a level of commercial popularity the previous summer with Purple Rain that equaled his far more established critical and artistic reputation.

To many, Prince was the epitome of celebrity. He was a funk-soul renegade, a monster guitarist and a restlessly creative and prolific recording artist. But it was his sheer stage presence, along with an innate ability to embrace and shatter social extremes within pop tradition, that will forever define a career unexpectedly halted yesterday at the age of 57.

To that end, Prince joined a very short list of artists whose cultural impact was profound enough to completely shift the way an audience perceived pop, soul, funk and rock music. There was Little Richard. There was Chuck Berry. There was Miles Davis. There was Sly Stone. And there was Prince.

Listen to his early albums – especially Controversy and 1999 – and you heard the sound of youth gone wild. But the means of expression wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll, it was soul music retold with unharnessed drive, curiosity and sensuality. Critics immediately championed him as much for his instrumental smarts as his remarkable sense of songcraft.

With Purple Rain, Prince’s commercial profile exploded. But by 1986, when he played a surprise show at Louisville’s Freedom Hall, Purple Rain was already in the rearview mirror. Audiences expecting Let’s Go Crazy and Purple Rain’s epic title tune got monstrous jams that were, in essence, psychedelic stepchildren of the innovations the artist had cultivated only two years earlier.

Everything was reshuffled again a year later with Sign O’ The Times (which, along with 1999, stand as Prince’s finest work) for music that blended the spiritual, the social and the sexual in to a parade of multi-generational groove. There was also 1991’s pop-soul scrapbook Diamonds and Pearls, 1999’s triple disc Emancipation that broadened its soul scope into retro and futuristic terrain, 2004’s unexpectedly streamlined Musicology and 2014’s unapologetically forward thinking groovefest Art Official Age.

There were nearly 40 studio albums in all. Some were brilliant, others were comparative throwaways. But they all paled next to what Prince summoned onstage. In the four times I witnessed him in concert, the moments that were truly magical weren’t forged out of the hits but rather instances when the artist celebrated life with music that both defined and defied the times.

There was the Santana-like guitar charge of Computer Blue (from his 1984 Rupp show), the brassy soul intrigue of A Love Bizarre (from the 1986 Louisville concert), a cover of Joan Osborne’s One of Us that became a treatise of faith (from a 1997 Rupp return) and a cover of the Sam and Dave staple Soul Man with sax giant Maceo Parker (at his 2004 performance at Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena).

But as fans were absorbing their power and beauty, Prince was already at the next mile marker working on a new groove. The older songs may have indeed been signs of the times. But for Prince, time never stood still.

merle haggard, 1937-2016

merle haggard.

merle haggard.

Here’s my favorite Merle Haggard memory. On a sweaty August evening at the 2003 Kentucky State Fair in Louisville, the veteran country music renegade polled a Cardinal Stadium crowd with this query: “How many ex-convicts do we have with us tonight?”
What was surprising wasn’t just the number of hands that shot up in the crowd, but how enthusiastic – proud, even – the respondents seemed. The Hag, without question, was in his element.

As someone who did his own share of time in the ol’ gray bar hotel, Haggard reveled in his unassuming but rebellious spirit throughout his career. Picking up on Buck Owens’ brand of California country, he all but reinvented country music convention with stories of hard won truths and music that both embraced and subverted honky tonk tradition. It was nothing to hear him sing songs of drinking and loss, yet equally uncommon to hear horns in his band for music that sometimes sounded as much like jazz as it did country.

Haggard was a frequent visitor to Rupp Arena during the ‘80s, usually in the company of fellow traditionalists George Jones and/or Conway Twitty. While he had a library of genre-defining tunes to draw from – Swinging Doors, Workin’ Man Blues and Mama Tried were always personal favorites – the one that always got me in the throat was Kern River. It was a song of death, of a raging current that swept away a loved one with unforgiving swiftness. “It’s a mean piece of water, my friend,” Haggard sang with sadness as stark and stoic as the river in question was wild. Just try finding something like that on country radio today.
Generations of country artists have claimed Haggard as an influence. Yet in an industry he saw as unduly commercialized decades ago – hence the very reactionary slant of his music – few seemed to absorb his narrative or stylistic tenacity. The only one to even approximate his sense of invention was Dwight Yoakam.

It didn’t matter if Haggard sang a forgotten celebratory hit like Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man) or if disciples like Emmylou Harris or Dave Alvin echoed his darker visions in covers of Kern River. Haggard, who died earlier today – his 79th birthday – was an original in a genre starved for true distinction. He spoke to the country poet, the working man (and woman) and, yes, even the ex-con, in us all.

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