Archive for an appreciation

allan holdsworth, 1946-2017

allan holdsworth,

What defines greatness in a rock guitarist? Is it speed? Intensity? Histronics? Is it an elemental understanding and construction of a groove? Is it a combination fashioned to cultivate an image or simply convey an emotion?

For Allan Holdsworth, who died on Saturday at the age of 70, none of that was entirely the case. For this veteran British prog and fusion stylist, his decades-long career was about developing a voice of his own for an instrument that superseded all the clichéd rock star profiles many guitarists subscribed to. Holdsworth could play with the speed and potency that everyday guitar heroes viewed as virtues. But by the time he was gigging with the pioneering prog band Soft Machine as far back 1974, Holdsworth had developed a voice that was uncompromisingly distinct– one that continually stretched tone and technique through winding lyrical phrases that always packed a strong emotive jolt without ever sounding forced.

For the remainder of the ‘70s, Holdsworth cultivated that voice as a hired gun guitarist for, in quick succession, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Jean-Luc Ponty, UK and Bruford. Though he continued with a prolific career of his own during the ‘80s that highlighted the MIDI-controlled synthaxe, it was Holdsworth’s collaborative sets with the latter two artists that, for me, defined the beauty of his playing.

On UK’s 1978 self-titled album, his solos were astounding not because of flash or indulgence, but for the opposite. They were vignettes of concise, complete construction that yielded a sense of exquisitely contained drama. His solo during “In the Dead of Night” stands as an ideal example. With Bruford 1979’s album “One of a Kind,” one of the era’s most tastefully crafted prog albums, his work served as a consistently complimentary color to the playing of drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Dave Stewart and bassist Jeff Berlin.

The last decade produced little by way of new music, although the 2002 concert album “All Night Wrong” stands as a wonderful trio band primer on the tone, power and expression that provided Holdsworth’s guitar voice such a rich musical vocabulary.

“Allan Holdsworth’s unique contribution to the electric guitar is unquantifiable,” said fellow guitar pioneer Steve Vai in a Facebook post yesterday, “I remember him saying to me once that his goal was to create a catalog of music that was undiluted. Well, that he did.”

j. geils, 1946-2017

J. Geils in 2011. Photo by Scott Legato / Getty Images.

The first time I heard the J. Geils Band was during those early ‘70s late night performance programs on TV – “Midnight Special,” “In Concert” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” to be exact. While it wasn’t the first champion roadhouse rock band to roll across the screen, it was one of the first – for me, at least – to have so many components of rock ‘n’ roll, in its most live and celebratory form, make sense when slammed together.

There was the outrageous frontman in Peter Wolf (a hotwired Boston hybrid of Mick Jagger and James Brown), a band with a tireless rhythm section bolstered by two monster soloists and a musical palette that took blues, R&B and juke joint influences from decades past and fashioned them into a roaring sound of its own. The results countered music cooked up by all the faux boogie-men of the era with a sense of combustible soul that quickly ignited in a performance setting.

Geils, who died yesterday at the age of 71, wasn’t even the focal point of the band that bore his name. That was undeniably Wolf. Geils wasn’t a showoff as a guitarist, either. As a rhythm player, he propelled a roots-savvy sound and the undeniable party atmosphere it triggered. As a soloist, he was always commanding in his playing. On several seminal ‘70s albums, especially 1973’s “Bloodshot” and “Ladies Invited” and 1974’s “Nightmares… and Other Tales from the Vinyl Jungle,” his playing was often the second half of a one-two punch initiated by the band’s other principal instrumentalist, harmonica ace Magic Dick. The last songs on each of those albums, “Give It To Me” (a 1973 hit built around an unlikely reggae groove), “Chimes” (a blast of funereal cool) and “Gettin’ Out” (one of the meanest sounding and most overlooked tunes the J. Geils Band ever cut), respectively, were diverse examples of how resourceful the group was. In short, the Geils crew could do battle with the most outrageous rockers of the era, but it also boasted the charisma, depth and drive to be something far greater.

Of course, stardom took hold of the band during the early ‘80s with the albums “Love Stinks” and “Freeze Frame.” Fun as both were, neither possessed the roots abandon of records Geils and company cut a decade earlier. Curiously, the next most appealing era of the guitarist’s career came in the ‘90s when he and Magic Dick toured in a jazz, blues and swing unit called Bluestime that purposely downplayed his rock roots but not the roots itself.

“We had a lot of fun and a fair amount of success in the old days, but I had gotten a little tired of it,” Geils told me in an interview prior to a Bluestime show at the Kentucky Horse Park in 1995. “I just want to make it clear that we’re not some rockers trying to capitalize on the blues boom. Any serious jazz or blues guy will tell you the same thing, that music like this is a lifelong journey. The more you learn, the more you learn how much you don’t know yet.”

paul o’neill, 1956-2017

Paul O’Neill of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. (Jim Cooper, File AP Photo)

With the Trans-Siberian Orchestra becoming a near annual performance staple at Rupp Arena, so came frequent opportunities to interview Paul O’Neill. He wasn’t one of the ensemble’s principal performers. As far as I knew, he was never even at any of TSO’s Rupp appearances. O’Neill was instead the CEO of TSO, the sole brain trust of what had become a consistently strong selling touring act that merged metal, ‘70s-era prog and pure arena rock pageantry.

These were educational experiences, to say the least. An interview with O’Neill was largely a one-sided affair. A journalist’s question was essentially a point of ignition. Once asked, O’Neill would speak effortlessly, endlessly and informatively for the rest of the allotted time – and often beyond. He wasn’t being rude or inattentive to his interviewer. O’Neill simply knew the story he wanted to tell, whether it dealt with specifics about a particular TSO album or, with greater relish, his whole concept for TSO – a band he thought of in terms that were always large – large in personnel, large in audience attendance and especially large in terms of presentation.

“I wanted a band that could do anything, a band that could take the best of all the great acts that I worshipped – bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Queen – and have a marriage of classical and rock,” he told me in a 2009 interview. “I wanted to give a third dimension to the music.”

I’ll put my cards on the table here. I always thought of TSO as a glorified Spinal Tap. Their shows were exercises in quite purposeful excess that no review (or reviewer) could adequately describe. But as with bands like Kiss, whose shows TSO seemed to most closely emulate, fans were beyond devout. For them, what mattered was spectacle – something O’Neill’s TSO army always delivered, along with a serving of holiday sentiment that was as huge as the band’s overall presence.

It was hard not to enjoy the ride as O’Neill held court during interviews, offering outrageous stories like this 2009 yarn detailing how a TSO concert literally sucked the electric life out of The Meadowlands in New Jersey.

“About 15 minutes into the show, the stage goes dark. The production manager comes running over and goes, ‘Paul, we just blew the circuit breaker for the Meadowlands. I thought, ‘Really? Cool.’ It was one of the high points of my life.”

Or this tale, from a 2014 interview, when O’Neill recounted what triggered the inspiration for TSO’s double-platinum album “The Christmas Attic.”

“Well, the statute of limitations ran out on this a long time ago, so it’s okay to talk about. I think the technical term for it is breaking and entering.”

O’Neill died unexpectedly today at the age of 61. But there is no question that his vision for the TSO will remain larger than rock ‘n’ life for years to come.

“Ultimately, TSO is like any other living thing,” O’Neill told me in 2012. “It’s just that it’s musically driven as opposed to celebrity driven.”

chuck berry, 1926-2017

chuck berry, circa 1957.

Now who will tell Tchaikovsky the news?

For over 60 years, the job belonged to Chuck Berry via one of his most familiar and prized hits, “Roll Over Beethoven.” With Berry’s passing yesterday at age 90, rock ‘n’ roll lost not only one of its preeminent stylists and composers, but one of its most integral architects. Jazz without Jelly Roll Morton? Bluegrass without Bill Monroe? Country music without the Carter Family? That’s what Berry was to rock ‘n’ roll. Since rock has been more pervasive that any other contemporary music style, the weight of his influence and inspiration can in no way be understated.

Everything from song structure and thematic source material to guitar riffs and the music’s very joy and rhythm shook every succeeding generation. More than any other artist, more than even the Beatles or the Rolling Stones (who proudly admitted to being disciples), Berry shaped the very landscape of rock ‘n’ roll. His songs were covered countless times and imitated (often blatantly so) to unending degrees. Among them: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Maybellene,” “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Too Much Monkey Business” (a personal favorite). Collectively, these songs served as the DNA for an art form that, during the remarkably contained period in which they were recorded and released (between 1955 and 1959), had barely learned to walk.

After the 1964 singles like “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land,” Berry’s hold on the rock charts slipped, although the 1972 novelty tune “My Ding-a-Ling” became one of his best selling hits. By then, his music had already become part of the pop vernacular. There was perhaps no more satisfying tribute paid to his influence than Taylor Hackford’s 1986 documentary “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the filmed account of two 1986 concerts that had all-star protégés Keith Richards, Roy Orbison, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, Robert Cray and more playing Berry’s hits alongside the master. Today, it serves as a moving timepiece that chronicles the lasting presence, vigor and resilience of Berry’s music.

Like rock ‘n’ roll? Any kind of rock ‘n’ roll? Then pass along some thanks today to Chuck Berry. The party, quite simply, would not have been anywhere near as fun had he not crashed it.

 

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.

 

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.

butch trucks, 1947-2017

butch trucks.

Take all the stereotypical images of the rock ‘n’ roll drummer instilled through the decades – especially the ones that stressed bravado and Spinal Tap-level theatrics over taste, timing and talent – and then flip them. Among the artists you are likely to find on the other side is Butch Trucks.
For 45 years, Trucks occupied one of the two drum chairs in the Allman Brothers Band. From its inception in 1969 to its final dispersal in 2014, he was a deceptively quiet partner in a tight knit pack of mavericks that meshed Southern blues, rock, swing, country and jazz into a sound that spawned successive generations of imitators. The headlines always went to the figurehead players – namely, singer Gregg Allman or the succession of remarkable guitarists passing through the ranks that included founder Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes and the drummer’s heralded nephew, Derek Trucks. Aside from brother Gregg, the elder Trucks was the only player to serve in every incarnation of the band.
But listen to the Allmans’ studio or numerous live recordings and what you heard was a remarkable contrast to the machismo beats and grooves that dominated mainstream rock then and now. Trucks’ playing, like that of longtime Allmans co-hort Jaimoe, fell into an easier stride. It seemed more jazz-rooted than anything, pinpointing a shuffle or bit of swing and then leading it more by instinct than technique.
Wonderful cases in point: the light but relentless percussive groove that glides along with “Dreams” on the Allmans’ self-titled 1969 debut album, the subtle acceleration that pumps into action during 1972’s “Les Brer in A Minor” and the seemingly docile rhythm that whips itself into a slide-savvy frenzy during the crescendo of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (especially the 1973 live version, a decidedly jazzy revision with Chuck Leavell on keyboards).
Sure, Trucks got plenty of room to solo during the increasingly long jams that became prevalent throughout the band’s later years. But like all truly great drummers, regardless of genre or generation, he was at his best when others were at the helm. A star he wasn’t. Trucks was instead the engine driver, an unassuming but assertive percussive force within a legendary band and sound.

greg lake, 1947-2016

keith emerson (left) and greg lake, circa 1977. photo by neal preston.

keith emerson (left) and greg lake, circa 1977. photo by neal preston.

In the very early ‘70s, my key to the musical world around me was a pint sized transistor radio. From a technical standpoint, the sound it produced was, not surprisingly, tiny and tinny. But the sounds it brought to me, from the pop mainstream to the rock underground, were beyond nourishing. The discoveries I made, from local rogue stations playing album tracks in lieu of hit singles to late night reception of out of town stations like WCFL in Chicago, were many.

I remember one occasion well that involved the latter. It was early 1971 and WCFL was flowing in and out through waves of static during a thunderstorm. But it settled long enough for me to lock onto a voice singing a forlorn chorus followed by the low moan of an electric instrument I had never heard. The combination was dark but immediately arresting.

“Ooh, what a lucky man he was,” the song went. That was the chorus fading in from “Lucky Man” and my introduction to the singing of Greg Lake. The instrumental coda came from what I later found out was a Moog synthesizer, an altogether unknown beast at the time. That was my introduction to the music of Keith Emerson.

The first five albums Emerson and Lake recorded as trio with drummer Carl Palmer were a collective soundtrack for my adolescence. Their sound was unapologetically huge – arty and classical at times, but mostly just massive in way that was purely rock ‘n’ roll, only with keyboards subbing for guitars and the robustly clear singing of Lake, who died yesterday at the age of 69, as its prime point of commercial appeal.

ELP was a band that was either revered or reviled. There was no middle ground. Those that championed it were fiercely loyal to its representation of a prog sound that had somehow managed to gain commercial acceptance. Those that hated it seriously hated it – so much so that bands like ELP sat at the center everything the punk revolution sought to destroy when prog’s moment in the sun faded in the late ‘70s.

I didn’t discover Lake’s epic pre-ELP prog work – specifically, the 1969 debut album by King Crimson (“In the Court of the Crimson King”) until a few years after that faint reception of “Lucky Man” popped through on WCFL. In retrospect, the Crimson record is easily a stronger and more enduring work. But those early ELP albums were essentially companions of my youth, especially 1971’s “Emerson, Lake & Palmer,” 1972’s “Trilogy” and 1973’s “Brain Salad Surgery.” So, yes, nostalgia rules.

Laugh all you want, but the ELP records turned me on to Aaron Copland, to the structure of the bolero and to early advancements in electronic keyboards and percussion. Unfashionable? Of course. But part of one’s admiration of any art comes from knowing when something speaks to you even when critical evidence and popular acclaim suggest you’re in the wrong gallery.

Emerson died in March. Now Lake is gone, too. It’s a sad time of year to lose anything, especially a sound that befriended you in your teens and stay true during the stumbles of the “awkward years.” But to have had Lake and ELP in my corner then – and now, for that matter – creates a comfort that far outweighs loss.

To that end, I’m appreciative of what a lucky man I was.

sharon jones, 1956-2016

sharon jones.

sharon jones.

By contemporary music standards – meaning criteria that stressed image and appearance over artistic instinct and integrity – Sharon Jones was a success story that should have never happened. She possessed not the camera ready looks that sold most careers, nor did she cater to the commercial whims of artists that turned the soul music traditions she took to so naturally into shameless, retro-directed stabs at stardom. As the breakout artist of the heralded indie soul-roots label Daptone, Jones was never a revivalist, either. She simply embraced the emotive core of predominantly new songs and let her potent yet very elemental voice roar. Sure, her brass-savvy band, The Dap Kings, dressed her vocals with the kind of organic orchestration that helped define soul and R&B music during the ‘50s and ‘60s. But this particular pairing of singer and band never remotely sounded like a purposely retro driven enterprise. In terms of spirit and stamina, Jones and the Dap Kings created a soul sound that was never less than immediate and vital.

Jones died yesterday at age 60 after an extended battle with pancreatic cancer.

Jones’ Daptone records – especially, 2007’s “100 Days, 100 Nights,” 2010’s “I Learned the Hard Way” and 2011’s far more aggressive and funky “Soul Time!” were splendid documents of a vintage-flavored soul sound retooled with vitality for the present day. But it was onstage, where the full powers of Jones and the Dap Kings came into play.

I was lucky enough to see them in performance twice. The first, a 2008 concert in Louisville was surprisingly tentative. Jones sang great, but the show’s numerous quirks, including a faulty monitor mix, seemed to get the better of her to the point where she briefly left the stage. All in all, an accomplished evening that fell short of expectations.

The second was at the now defunct Buster’s in 2010 and the difference was astounding. The voice, the band, the audience and, most of all, the spirits, were all in peak form. The latter attribute sold the show. Having been introduced onstage as “the most brilliant star in the Daptone soul universe,” Jones gave a quick demonstration of the dance moves she grew up with – the Pony, the Funky Chicken, the Mashed Potato and the Swim – with the Dap Tones’ three man horn team at her side. Later, she triggered the volcanic vocal intensity of “When I Come Home” but chilled the festivities for the regal soul cool that sat at the heart of the title tune from “I Learned the Hard Way.” At every step, the singer looked to be having the time of her life. The singing was astounding, the music was arresting, but it was attitude that ignited this joyous, cross-generational soul celebration.

“Soul music ain’t something you can count off every few measures as you go,” Jones told me in an interview prior to the performance. “Oh no. You’ve got to feel it. It all comes from the heart. And that’s what you hear when we’re onstage – that presence, that happiness, that spirit. You’re feeling what we’re feeling.”

 

mose allison, 1927-2016

mose allison.

mose allison.

A third giant has left us in just under a week. First, Leonard Cohen departed. Then went Leon Russell. This afternoon came word that Mose Allison has died, four days after his 89th birthday.

Allison’s visibility to the pop mainstream was modest compared to the legacies of Cohen and Russell. That’s largely because he wasn’t a pop artist, but rather a jazz and blues pianist who sang like an unassuming hipster elder, squeezing wry social commentary and pure acerbic whimsy into songs far too clever to be considered sarcastic but too worldly to be brushed off some kind of pseudo-pop novelty.

But make no mistake. Rock ‘n’ roll was plenty hip to what Allison was up to over the years. Among his most vocal champions was Van Morrison, who spearheaded an Allison tribute album, “Tell Me Something,” in 1996. Then there was The Who, who turned Allison’s shuck-and-jive meditation “Young Man Blues” into an atomic anthem on its landmark 1970 concert album “Live at Leeds.” A newer generation chimed in when Americana journeyman and noted song stylist Joe Henry served as producer for Allison’s final studio album, 2010’s “The Way of the World.”

But the beauty of Allison’s music sat in its simplicity. He was as basic, at least on the surface, as someone like John Prine was (and still is) to singer-songwriter based folk music. Like Prine, there was a tremendous narrative depth to Allison’s songs. But since the latter’s whispery, conversational singing was so summery, the potency of his music could often be disarming. There was an unforgiving nature to his lyrics, though, with song titles regularly serving as set ups for savage punch lines.

A few examples:

+ “Everybody’s Crying Mercy” (… “when they don’t know the meaning of the word.”)

+ “Your Mind is on Vacation” (… “and your mouth is working overtime.”)

+ “Ever Since the World Ended” (… “I don’t get out much anymore.”)

Allison would regularly mix jazz and blues standards in with his own songs during concerts – gems both familiar (the Willie Dixon staples “Seventh Son” and “I Live the Life I Love”) and comparatively obscure (the 1947 Nat King Cole hit “Meet Me at No Special Place”). It all became part of the Mose lexicon – a light, bluesy and imminently soulful sound that was immovably cool.

Allison played Lexington regularly during the ‘80s – at the now-demolished Breeding’s on Main and at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall. Though nearing 60 at the time, his style was essentially unchanged since his first albums on the Prestige label were issued in the late ‘50s. When in town, Allison usually played with pickup bands of local musicians that quickly fell in sync with the swift, blues-savvy swing of his songs.

On record, there was a tendency, at times, for producers to gussy Allison’s music up with additional instrumentation, especially on his late ’60s and early ‘70s albums for Atlantic. His most recommended and enduring work was displayed on records built around unobtrusive piano trios. As such, the two volumes of “The Mose Chronicles: Live in London” (released in 2001 and 2002) are ideal for novice fans. But are trio sets and serve essentially as primers on Allison’s sardonic and soulful songs, all of which are sung with a casual performance ease that nonetheless packed a substantial emotive wallop.

In the end, Allison was perhaps the best judge of his own artistic dichotomy. In one of his most clever late career compositions, 1987’s “What’s Your Movie,” he seeks a means of defining a hapless profile. Maybe his motives were likely rooted elsewhere, but I’m guessing this enduring musical original was singing, with cool and elegance to spare, about himself.

“What’s your movie? Are you the artist who’s misunderstood? The bad guy trying to do good? The nicest damn fella in the neighborhood?”

 

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