Archive for an appreciation

Jack Bruce, 1943-2012

jack bruce 2

Jack Bruce

For a bassist best known for the three tumultuous years he scorched the rock and roll world with Cream, Jack Bruce sure got around.

He played jazz. He played blues. He was a master collaborator and a headstrong bandleader. He was also, if we bought into the hedonistic tales of his 2010 autobiography Composing Himself, a complete maniac prone to a level of self-abuse that should have claimed his life a generation or two ago.

The Scottish born Bruce was a composer, a potent singer and, above all, an absolutely soaring electric bassist. He was, in short, the consummate rock artist at a time in pop history when artistic discovery was everywhere.

He died Saturday at the age of 71 and left a library of music so stylistically far reaching that whittling it down to even a few highlights is impossible. But let’s try anyway.

From the Cream days, I’ll take 1968’s mighty Wheels of Fire over everything else the band did, even the psychedelic studio masterwork Disraeli Gears. A double album divided evenly between studio and concert recordings, this was the sound of Cream unleashed – a volcanic blues mutation that knew no boundaries.

But there was so much more. Bruce’s first three solo records were all classics. 1969’s Songs for a Tailor showed off his songcraft, 1970’s Things We Like echoed the thunderous jazz extremes Bruce briefly explored in Tony Williams’ Lifetime and 1971’s Harmony Row radically reinvented Cream’s power trio design.

There were scores of other delights, as well, including his recordings with guitarist Robin Trower, the 2012 self-titled album from fusion supergroup Spectrum Road and the fine 2014 solo work Silver Rails.

But the record I reached for last night though was a sleeper, a 1974 solo session called Out of the Storm. It was cut on American shores during the aftermath of the short-lived West, Bruce & Lang trio (which teamed the bassist with two thirds of Mountain). It was a true FM classic, a mix of prog and jazz drenched melodies iced by some of the most otherworldly singing Bruce ever committed to a recording.

I saw Bruce play only once. He played a December 1989 concert at Bogart’s in Cincinnati with Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Unwilling to play anything but old Cream material, Baker sat out the entire first half of the show. But Bruce, who was promoting another underappreciated gem of an album (A Question of Time) carried on with unflinching joy and confidence. In a way, his performance stance approximated that magnificent sound he summoned from the bass. Both were bold, distinct and fearless.

jay flippin, 1946-2014


jay flippin. photo by sally horowitz.

One the many tributes to Jay Flippin that flooded Facebook yesterday as word of his death from liver cancer at age 68 began to spread included a photo of the veteran Morehead pianist, composer, educator and bandleader wearing a tee shirt that bore this simple but remarkably telling credo: “Works well with others.”

Ask anybody who knew him, collaborated with him or simply watched him perform and you understood how those four words seemed to embody a boundless spirit. My recognition of that came through watching him perform, usually in small groups with local jazz pals. He had technical chops and stylistic dexterity like no one’s business. While those traits help explain his recorded legacy and the truckload of awards that went with it, the real spark of watching Flippin in performance was the obvious love he displayed for music and his ability to share that with others.

The smiles that broke out on his face as he played and the jovial camaraderie he showed his bandmates were always dealbreakers. It was simply impossible not to get caught up in the pure cheer of his performance demeanor. While I never got to see him play as a church organist or sit in as he instructed his students, I can only imagine the senses of joy, eagerness and invitation abounded there as well.

I met Flippin just once. Curiously, it wasn’t at a performance, but purely by chance following a medical procedure for his cancer treatment. We recognized one another at once and shared a laugh about such social coincidence.

That was perhaps Flippin’s greatest gift. In performance, he could swing and orchestrate like the master he was. But face to face, he was an instant friend whose love of music was exceeded only by his love of life.

johnny winter, 1944-2014


johnny winter.

At the height of his powers, which was on just about any record issued under his name between 1968 and 1986, Johnny Winter was one the most potent and unrelenting blues stylists to roar out of Texas.

A wiry figure from Beaumont born with albinism, Winter could not have looked less like a bluesman. But once unleashed in performance, his guitar work and singing became something of a perfect storm. Sure, there were instances where he bowed more directly to the blues (as in his 1968 debut album The Progressive Blues Experiment and 1977’s return-to-the-roots primer Nothin’ But the Blues). But Winter’s appeal was built around a sound that shunted blues tradition through the guitar-dominate sounds of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. His jams were tireless blasts of boogie-driven rock that favored drive and groove over subtlety. Winter’s singing was the same – a tough-knuckled howl that seemed to egg on the intensity of his playing.

But Winter, who died yesterday at the age of 70 while on tour in Switzerland, was also a product of his time. He found his place in an age of psychedelia, a situation cemented by a career defining performance at Woodstock. The freshness of the music he fashioned during that era was captured on the first two entries in a near flawless stream of recordings for Columbia – 1969’s Johnny Winter and 1970’s Second Winter.

There were extraordinary highs, like a late ‘70s alliance with Muddy Waters that resulted in three sublime Winter-produced recordings for the blues master, as well as near fatal lows that included an early ‘70s addiction to heroin. And as with any great artist whose career has prevailed through both extremes, there have bee numerous recording triumphs that have never received their just critical due, including 1974’s Saints and Sinners (his most stylistic diverse rock-dominate set with a deliciously nasty version of the Rolling Stones’ Stray Cat Blues), 1980’s Raising Cain (a primal blues adieu to Columbia), 1985’s Serious Business (arguably the finest of three albums Winter cut for the famed blues label Alligator) and 1991’s Let Me In (a looser, blues dominate session Pointblank/Charisma).

“I remember making records when I was a teenager – maybe 16 or 17 years old,” Winter told me in a January 1992 interview. “I thought at the time, ‘I wonder what these are going to sound like to me when I’m 50 or 60. I had an awareness even then that I was making a record for the future.”

thomas erdelyi (tommy ramone), 1952-2014

tommy ramone

thomas erdelyi, aka tommy ramone in 2007.

Now they’re all gone. With the passing yesterday of Thomas Erdelyi – better known to vets of the ‘70s punk revolution as Tommy Ramone – all four original members of The Ramones have left us. Erdelyi, who was 62, was the third to die from a cancer-related illness (the other, bassist Dee Dee Ramone, died of a drug overdose in 2002).

Erdelyi’s involvement with the famed New York rockers has largely been unheralded. As drummer, he was the least inconspicuous and the most businesslike. He was the first player to leave and the first to return.

ramones 1976

the ramones in 1976: johnny, tommy, joey and dee dee ramone.

Initially the band’s manager, Erdelyi took over the role of drummer because, in an oft-quoted remark attributed to Dee Dee, “no one else wanted to.” He also wrote one of the Ramones’ cornerstone hits, I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, and contributed greatly to the composition of several others. All were ultra-economical, ultra-basic garage rock gems with a deceptively high quotient of pop. He stayed with the band for its first four years and its first four albums – Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia and It’s Alive. He returned to produce the underrated 1984 album Too Tough to Die.

The Ramones have been rightly revered as a vanguard band of the punk movement. But of all the flagship acts of the era, it was hands down the most fun. The Ramones were seldom political, completely un-fashion conscious and, once you got past their street thug looks, refreshingly non-threatening. Their battle cry was never revolution, per se. It was a simple pronouncement of youthful vigor: “Hey, ho. Let’s go.”

One shouldn’t spend too much energy pinpointing Erdelyi’s role in the Ramones’ early music. This wasn’t a unit where fans devoted time to deciphering lyrics and dissecting riffs and solos One must approach any Ramones roster, especially its founding lineup, as a whole that shot out tunes with remarkable briskness, drive and authority. Their songs were always a treat while they lasted. They just never lasted long. That was the point.

In his final performance years, Erdelyi formed the string music duo Uncle Monk and re-embraced a love of folk and pre-bluegrass country that predated his work with the Ramones. But wherever he played, including an April 2007 WoodSongs date, the shadow of Tommy Ramone sat right beside him.

“There is a kind of cognitive dissonance that goes on with people like us,” Erdelyi told me in an interview prior to the WoodSongs appearance. “Ramones fans can’t imagine me doing acoustic music, not realizing that I’ve been listening to it all my life.”

charlie haden, 1937-2014


charlie haden.

If there is a unifying factor within the multi-directional music of Charlie Haden, it would be the bassist/bandleader’s inexhaustible love of collaboration. From his redefinition of jazz’s harmonic infrastructure on Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come to the release last month of his often wistful second album of duets with pianist Keith Jarrett, Last Dance, Haden’s playing has been steadfast in its solemn, articulate beauty but gloriously restless in its sense of stylistic exploration.

This was, after all, a jazz titan whose company of collaborators included – along with Coleman and Jarrett – Ginger Baker, Beck, Michael Brecker, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Robert Downey Jr., Bruce Hornsby, Rickie Lee Jones, Joe Lovano, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Paul Motian, Yoko Ono, David Sanborn and Ringo Starr.

Haden died yesterday at 76 after an extended illness. He contracted polio at age 15 and had battled post-polio syndrome in recent years.

Haden was a jazzman by reputation – a player with a vocabulary on the bass that ranged from revolutionary soloing and arranging (as evidenced by his late ‘60s work with the Liberation Music Orchestra) to a love of surprisingly traditional jazz composition and songcraft (as shown by his ‘80s and ‘90s albums with Quartet West). But Haden was also a lover of American roots music. Perhaps his most commercially visible album was 2008’s Rambling Boy, a folk and country session cut with family members, a legion of top Nashville artists and guests that included Metheny and Hornsby.

“I always operate on the platform that there is not much time left,” Haden told me in a March 1996 interview prior to a concert with Quartet West at the Singletary Center for the Arts. “And that’s the way I play music, too. I dedicate my life to the notes that I play. There aren’t enough seconds in the day to implement all of the things that I have in my head. I really want to do so much.”

Of those myriad projects, my preferences ran to drummer-less duo and trio groups – settings that cut Haden loose from any grounded rhythm, allowing his playing room to roam. The last times I saw him perform were on a pair of 2008 dead-of-winter nights at the Blue Note in New York where Haden offered successive evenings of duets with two landmarks guitarists – John Scofield and Jim Hall. These were situations where the bassist was in peak form, summoning a level of jazz conversation that was alternately playful, exact and wondrously intuitive.

Similarly, the record I reached for last night was the self-titled 1980 debut album on ECM by Magico, a trio rooted in jazz and ancient folk that featured Haden, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the underappreciated Brazilian guitarist Egberto Gismonti. It’s by no means a career-defining work for Handen, but one rich in a collaborate spirit that resulted in some the bassist’s most spacious but stylistically indefinable playing.

“All I want to do with these projects is to make beautiful music, honest music and music of purity,” Haden said in our 1996 interview. “And I want to use it to try and bring more and more people to the art form of jazz.

“Jazz is an alternative that can enhance their lives tremendously and touch something in their souls that has never been touched before.”

horace silver, 1928-2014


horace silver, as photograped by francis wolff during the blue note recording sessions for ‘song for my father.’

Once my ears accepted the music of the post-Ellington jazz giants – people like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and especially Miles Davis – a growing interest in bebop led me to the golden age of Blue Note Records. There, a series of ’50s and predominantly ‘60s albums by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon and a dozen or so others brought me to the kind of jazz that excited me most – a sound that was sleek but substantial and cool but continually risk-taking in terms of composition, groove and improvisatory prowess. Two of the first Blue Note albums that introduced me to those possibilities were Morgan’s Search for the New Land and Horace Silver’s Song for My Father.

To this day, Song for My Father remains, to my ears, one of the most listenable jazz recordings from any era. Released in 1965 from sessions held the two previous years with two different bands, the album boasted four extraordinary Silver originals, one by the great tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson (who greatly heightened his career visibility with this record) and an exquisite after-hours trio reading of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman that sounded for all the world like Bill Evans. (A wonderful 1999 CD reissue of the album doubles the playing time with four wonderful outtakes from both sessions and bands.)

But it was the title song that lit up everyone’s ears. It was a light, bossa nova melody with a slight autumnal undertone that I must have listened to a couple of thousand times since I was exposed to the album roughly a decade after its initial release. In fact, my introduction to Song for My Father coincided almost directly with the radio popularity of Steely Dan’s 1974 hit Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, which appropriated exactly the bouncing bass intro of Silver’s tune.

Silver died Wednesday in New Rochelle, New York at the age of 85. While there are numerous other classics in the pianist’s catalogue, the record I listened to again last night as the welcome rains hit was Song for My Father. And the front of the album cover I held in my hands didn’t boast a picture of this Blue Note pioneer. It instead sported a regal but relaxed portrait of his Cape Verde-born father, John Tavares Silva. I smiled, thought of my own dad and savored every blue note that came from Silver’s fingertips.

roy campbell jr., 1952-2014

roy campbell jr

roy campbell jr.

Among the many triumphs of the 11 year old Outside the Spotlight Series of improvisational and free jazz performances came when OTS was a mere three months old.

At the crest of a winter that makes this season’s run of grey and cold seem like a cool breeze, trumpeter Roy Campbell, Jr. headlined the series’ only performance at what remains its most unexpected performance setting – the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Ballroom.

The time was February 2003, a period when half the city had been sitting in darkness and bitter cold for a week following an ice storm. Maybe that explained why the ballroom was so packed for an evening of abstract music. It was one of the few public locales with electricity.

Aided by two extraordinary co-horts that made up his Pyramid Trio – drummer Hamid Drake, an OTS regular, and the brilliant New York bassist/composer/improviser William Parker, Campbell triggered collective chases of fearsome immediacy with a series of improvisations – some of which ran for over an hour – for a crowd thrilled to be out of the cold and into the fire of jazz creativity. Even then-mayor Teresa Isaac sat in attendance for much of the concert.

It was a defining moment for OTS, one that introduced Lexington to the kind of music that can usually only found in large metropolitan cities with a schooled and adventurous arts scene. But the performance also came to the rescue of a frozen city with a considerable need of a jolt of living, breathing artistic expression.

Campbell died on Jan. 9 at the age of 61. The fact that his death didn’t reach the pages of the NewYork Times, which served the city he called home since the age of 2, until yesterday speaks to just how far removed from any kind of artistic mainstream his life and work extended.

There are scores of reasons why Campbell’s career deserves to be celebrated. They start with his bop roots and the various studies and apprenticeships he engaged in with such jazz pioneers as Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham and Yusef Lateef and run through his co-founding in 2003 with Dave Douglas of the Festival of New Trumpet Music in New York.

But from a purely selfish standpoint, all that pales next to the gift of musical warmth Campbell gave Lexington over a decade ago.

phil everly, 1939-2014

the everly brothers

the everly brothers: phil and don, circa 1960.

Remove the Everly Brothers from the lasting spectrum of contemporary pop, folk, country and especially rock ‘n’ roll and you would be left with music that would have never reached the artistic peaks it hit over the past four decades. The sounds would have still bloomed and perhaps even thrived, but they would have been considerably less enriched.

In fact, considering music without the Everlys would be like viewing it without Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley or any of the other forefathers whose contributions energized the emergence of a new pop generation.

Not surprisingly, the brothers were recognized by nearly every groundbreaking rock and pop troupe that emerged in the ‘60s – from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to a folk legion led by Simon and Garfunkel. That’s how enormous they were.

Yesterday, Phil Everly, the younger of the siblings, died at age 74 from complications of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

In Kentucky, of course, the Everlys maintained strong ties long after their commercial visibility subsided. Older brother Don was born while the Everly family was part of a coal mining community in Muhlenberg County. Phil was born two years later after the family relocated to Chicago. Several additional moves followed before the Everly Brothers settled in Nashville to start their careers in 1955.

Their first hit came in 1957 with Bye Bye Love. For the next five years, they amassed a catalog of songs that sported harmonies of country-like symmetry with Phil Everly handling the bottom end. They continued to make strong (though far less popular) recordings through the ‘60s and early ‘70s and again when the duo enjoyed a brief renaissance during the late ‘80s. The latter period, which yielded a quartet of fine albums, culminated in two 1986 triumphs – the efficiently emotive title tune to the Everlys’ Born Yesterday album and the harmonies the brothers supplied to the title song from Paul Simon’s epic Graceland.

Here in Kentucky, the Everlys paid tribute to their Kentucky roots by staging an annual benefit in Central City (often with fellow Muhlenberg County alum John Prine) that ran from 1988 to 2002. But it was at the 1988 Kentucky State Fair that I saw my one and only Everlys concert, a performance spearheaded by the great guitarist Albert Lee, the artist largely responsible for bringing the brothers back together after a decade long split in 1983.

Anyone doubting the lasting influence of the Everlys need look no further than today’s pop charts. There sits a record called Foreverly, a recasting of the Everlys’1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us by the unlikely duo of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Grammy winning jazz-pop celeb Norah Jones. It’s a loving and understated nod to music that was so beautifully born yesterday.

yusef lateef, 1920-2013

yusef lateef

yusef lateef.

One of the first jazz artists I experienced in performance, much less reviewed, was Yusef Lateef. I was a freshman at the University of Kentucky at the time and vividly green when it came to writing about music. But a love of jazz was already there and Lateef was a name I knew from the history books – a Detroit native, student of Stockhausen and bandmate of Mingus. He was also a journeyman who continually incorporated world music inspirations into his saxophone and flute playing to the point where he came to distance himself completely from jazz categorization. Lateef’s preferred term for what he engaged in was “autophysiopsychic music.” Not surprisingly, his only Grammy Award came in the New Age category (for 1987’s one man band album, Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony).

But what struck me even before I saw him perform was the string of remarkable recordings Lateef cut for the Atlantic label during the ‘60s and ‘70s. But unlike labelmates Herbie Mann and David Newman, Lateef seldom strayed into overtly commercial fusion territory. His was a more organic fusion sound, typlified by the blend of strings, piano, tenor sax and blues phrasing on Like It Is, the standout track from my favorite Lateef album, 1968’s The Blue Yusef Lateef, and the mix of ethnic reeds and rhythms that dominated the 1977 performance I saw, as well as the 1975 album the show drew from, The Doctor Is In.. and Out.

Lateef continued to follow his own muse as a jazz independent and global musical citizen throughout the decades to come, culminating with what is widely considered to be the nation’s highest jazz honor, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellowship Award in 2010.

Lateef died yesterday at 93. It wasn’t the kind of passing that earned headlines. But as a formative inspiration during my earliest years of writing, Lateef opened the doors to the rich contemplative beauty of jazz and the myriad inspirations that go into it. To me, he was a giant.  

jim hall, 1930-2013

jim hall

jim hall.

Throughout his astounding career, Jim Hall was a quiet giant – an instrumentalist famous for spotless tone and lyrical accessibility, traits that never wavered during 56 years worth of recordings. Yet his inspiration upon successive generations was unparalleled. Two of today’s most established jazz guitar pioneers, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, have cited Hall’s phrasing and deceptively deep improvisational prowess as major inspirations just as Hall has regularly acknowledged his debt to guitar forefathers like Charlie Christian.

Not surprisingly, both Metheny and Frisell have cut duet albums with Hall.

Because Hall’s light, sunny electric guitar sound was so unassuming and so resilient to change, some critics dismissed his music as too safe and predictable. But one of Hall’s many artistic gifts was his ability to compliment and often challenge whatever artist he was teamed with without losing his own musical identity. A great example was his playing on Sonny Rollins’ landmark 1962 album The Bridge, although Hall was a brilliant but unobtrusive presence on recordings by such jazz innovators as Ella Fitzgerald, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre, Gary Burton and Bill Evans.

It was with Evans that Hall found a true kindred spirit – a musician equally light of touch and tone and equally enamored of the possibilities of improvising within the most familiar of standards and the most deceptively simple of original tunes. The 2002 remastered Blue Note edition of the 1963 duo album Undercurrents is a gorgeous document of their simpatico. Though the timbre of the piano and guitar are obviously different, it is often difficult to tell which player begins and end the album’s many bits of fascinating dialogue.

Hall died yesterday, just over one week after his 83rd birthday. He was performing as recently as last month.

I got to see him play one time on a mercilessly cold January evening at the Blue Note in New York. He was performing duets with bassist Charlie Haden. That night, Haden made all kinds of remarks about the savage chill outside. Hall paid it no mind. When he put his fingers to the guitar for a quietly regal version of How Deep is the Ocean, it was impossible not to feel warm and at home.

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