Archive for an appreciation

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.

Lou Reed, 1942-2013

lou reed

Lou Reed

Terry Gross had a great Lou Reed tale to tell when she visited Lexington in 2002. As part of a fundraising event, the host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air played what was, in essence, the aural equivalent of a blooper reel. Among the highlights was a recording of a perturbed Reed, who walked off the program, unwilling to reminisce about his days with the Velvet Underground.

That details the sort of respect Reed commanded – that one of the most respected on-air interviewers of our day would wear his rebuff like a badge of honor.

In his lifetime, Reed was a dark colossus. He addressed the more taboo sides of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll by simultaneously demonizing and romanticizing them. From the Velvet Underground staples Venus in Furs and Heroin in the ’60s to any number of stark, uncompromising albums in the’70s, including Transformer, Berlin, Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle, Reed rolled punk and glam, fashion and anarchy, into one renegade image.

I got to see Reed perform only once. That was when he played all of New York, the scorched 1988 album opus to his homeland, at Music Hall in Cincinnati shortly after the record’s release. In performance – as in any of the numerous concert recordings he issued – I got the sense of what a musical pioneer Reed also was. He created guitar sounds in bold, sculpted layers that often played a back-seat role on later albums to the increasing literary scope of his narratives.

Two of the best (and most overlooked) examples of the poetic cahoots that existed between Reed’s words and music were 1979’s The Bells (which enlisted jazz innovator Don Cherry) and 1982’s The Blue Mask (probably the best Reed record to feature the extraordinary guitarist Robert Quine).

Upon news Sunday night of Reed’s death earlier in the day at age 71 from liver disease, the album I reached for wasn’t Transformer or New York or any of his other classics, but a forgotten 2004 concert set called Animal Serenade. I wanted to hear something that placed the classics of Reed’s youth next to the dark meditations of his adulthood. Hearing Reed, who was 61 at the time, plow through a lifetime’s work with a wink and a snarl seemed like an affirmation. Now that he has taken a walk on what is truly the wild side, we are left with postscripts, all with an imprint that is unmistakably New York and all filled with dark, imposing beauty.

George Duke, 1946-2013

george duke 2

George Duke

The depth of George Duke’s influence on popular music largely depends on which generation you talk to.

To fans of contemporary funk and jazz-laced R&B, the keyboardist — who died Monday at age 67 from leukemia — is best remembered for a mountain of commercially rich recordings from the ’80s onward that drew on his expansive talents as a composer, singer, producer and especially an instrumentalist. The client list went from pop-soul titans Michael Jackson and Jill Scott to band projects with fusion forefathers Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham. And that doesn’t even count the decades upon decades of pop-soul albums that Duke put out under his own name.

But go back to the early ’70s, when a younger Duke was a mainstay of Frank Zappa’s band and you heard an artist very much in the thick of rock experimentation that was as progressive as it was playful.

Duke’s hit albums from the ’80s and ’90s, frankly, never spoke to me much. But I was happy nonetheless that a player who had so obviously paid his musical dues in the previous decades was getting some spotlight time. Without conditions, he deserved every iota of fame that came his way.

The Duke I knew and championed was the virtuostic, quick-thinking and remarkably animated player who was, in many ways, the co-pilot on six consecutive Zappa classics: Waka/Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo, Over Nite Sensation, Apostrophe, Roxy and Elsewhere (a 1974 live album that generously featured Duke’s playing), and perhaps my favorite Zappa disc of all, 1975’s brilliant prog-infested fusion romp One Size Fits All. A wonderful archival DVD of Duke with Zappa, A Token of his Extreme, was released earlier this year.

The ideal introduction to Duke’s solo music? That’s easy. Take a listen to 1975’s I Love the Blues, She Heard Me Cry, an electric party piece that balances the inviting warmth of Duke’s singing and arranging with the kind of nasty, simmering funk that rivaled Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking fusion records of the day.

The keyboardist wasn’t a star in those days. But get into the ultra-persuasive groove of those early records and you will discover that, even then, Duke was king.

J.J. Cale, 1938-2013

jj cale

J.J. Cale

Like so many, I heard J.J. Cale’s songs long before I ever heard his recordings. Eric Clapton saw to that. The star guitarist scored his first solo career hit with Cale’s After Midnight in the fall of 1970.

Few, outside of perhaps Clapton himself, knew much about the Okie born song stylist at the time. Cale had yet to release any of his own albums. But the runaway success of After Midnight changed everything. Roughly 18 months later, Naturally, Cale’s debut recording was issued. Almost immediately, he became songwriting royalty.

Naturally contained Cale’s own version of After Midnight, the homespun ballad Magnolia (a radio hit for the then-popular country-rock troupe Poco) and the ramblers anthem Call Me the Breeze (arguably the third most popular tune cut by Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd). The album even scored a modest hit for Cale himself, Crazy Mama.

While the early ‘70s pop mainstream may have flocked to Cale’s songs, what clearly established his legacy was the sound he draped them in. Cale’s tunes were often set to dark blues shuffles. Some were lean and homey (like Crazy Mama). Others worked off of efficient power chords (as in Cocaine, which became another huge hit for Clapton in 1977). And there was the vocal sound – a sleepy, whispery mumble that completed the mystery that defined Cale’s music. Collectively, those sounds became the calling card of the anti-star role Cale relished throughout his career.

Despite shunning his own celebrity status, Cale was a prolific recording artist who toured regularly. Even as the mainstream shifted its attention elsewhere beginning in the ’80s, Cale’s ghostly but soulful music stood resolute. While fans still celebrate early albums like Naturally and 1976’s Troubadour, Cale’s latter career years yielded all kinds of great underdog records. The best of them include 1980’s Shades (which allowed Cale his own turn as a cover artist with a regal but reserved take on Mama Don’t) and 1994’s Closer To You (which led off with one of Cale’s mightiest shuffles, Long Way Home).

Cale performed in Lexington several times at the long defunct Breeding’s and, most recently at the Kentucky Theatre. But my favorite was a stop at the University of Kentucky Student Center Ballroom when I was a college freshman.

Cale looked like something out of Deliverance at the show, dressed in what looked like long johns and overalls with a 5 o’clock shadow so pronounced that it could have been tattooed on his face. The entire back of his guitar had been ripped away, exposing a network of circuitry one feared might electrocute the guy at any moment. But the sound that came forth was the same distinctive Okie blues cool that distinguished his records.

Cale died last Friday at age 74 from a heart attack.  He’s a settled blues soul, now.  But slip on any of his sublime recordings and you will find yourself deep within a subtle groove. That still happens when you call him the breeze.

t-model ford, 1923(?) – 2013

t-model ford

t-model ford.

He called himself The Chicken Head Man. He even sold t-shirts at his gigs that proudly proclaimed the fact. Such were the rustic eccentricities of the bluesman known as T-Model Ford, who died earlier today. In true blues fashion, his exact age can’t be verified. Most bios claim his birth year to be either 1923 or 1924. None of them are specific enough to whittle that down to a date or even month. Suffice to say, the artist born James Lewis Carter Ford lived to be somewhere around 90.

Ford did not have the kind of career that approximated anything resembling a conventional blues star trajectory. Nonetheless, his life was the blues – not necessarily the music, mind you, but serious real life blues.

His bio claims he killed a man in self defense, spending as much as 10 years in prison – some of it on a chain gang – as a result. He was supposedly married six times. It was his fifth wife, we are told, that gave him a guitar as she exited his life. That paved the way for a blues career that began, in earnest, around age 58.

The blues, as played by Ford, was a fat, greasy meditation. He had little interest in 12 bar compositional forms and opted instead for long, boogie-style grooves that owed equally to the formative music of John Lee Hooker and to the rhythmic traditions of his Mississippi upbringing.

It’s a good bet that Ford would have remained an unknown were it not for the ‘90s renaissance of fellow Mississippi blues elder R.L. Burnside. When Burnside began amassing a cult-like following among college audiences, he took pals like Ford on the road with him.

Eventually, Ford built a modest-size following of his own and began cutting records full of unrelenting, elemental groove. The best were a quintet of albums for Fat Possum – the label that gave rise to, among other stylists, The Black Keys. Of the lot, 2000’s She Ain’t None of Your’n was probably the best. That was also the record that brought Ford to Lexington a few times to perform at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club.

Many could never get past the fascination that surrounded Ford as a character. But give Ford’s music an attentive listen and you will experience the lean, unspoiled blues grooves that have long rolled out of rural Mississippi. Such sounds always possessed a special deep fried flavor when they were served up live and hot by The Chicken Head Man.

Mulgrew Miller, 1955-2013

mulgrew miller

Mulgrew Miller

On a late January evening in 2006, I found myself transfixed by the huge backdrop windows at Jazz at Lincoln Center that revealed the whiteout conditions blanketing Columbus Circle. It was a spectacular sight, even though my foremost concern was how on earth I was going to get back to my hotel, much less to LaGuardia the next morning for a flight that was mostly certainly to be cancelled. By midnight, some 17 inches of snow fell – hardly a record New York drop, but enough to close all of the Starbucks in Times Square. That seemed to constitute an emergency.

Inside, jazz proceeded as usual. Still, Mulgrew Miller seemed stunned by the setting. The blizzard played out in real time through the huge windows behind him while a near packed house at the JALC club Dizzy’s awaited his performance in front of the stage. “Man,” Miller said with a sigh and shake of his head. “Only in New York.”

That wonderful remembrance came to life again yesterday after reading about Miller’s death at age 57 following a stroke.

Miller was built like a linebacker, standing well over six feet tall and possessing a muscular, modal sound that, at times, could rival the great McCoy Tyner. But Miller seemed an altogether gentle soul, an attribute that played out within the trio settings he favored on a series of fine MaxJazz albums over the past decade (the second volume of Live at the Kennedy Center, released in 2007, remains my favorite). His playing was remarkably fluid and soulful. But Miller also took risks – often, in ways that seldom called attention to his playing. In some instances, he reflected the lyrical and compositional command of a legend like Bill Evans, although the similarity fell more within the temperament and expression he discovered on the piano – the playfulness, especially – rather than the actual tone. The same held true when he approximated Tyner. He could summon a beefiness in his playing, but it was never threatening, nor was it intended to challenge Tyner’s prizefighting solos. But he sure showed strength and dexterity when he chose to.

Miller wasn’t a star. In fact, he spent much of the last decade as an educator – specifically, as director of jazz studies at William Patterson University in New Jersey. But he occasionally made it to Kentucky. One of his final visits was on Mother’s Day at the now defunct Jazz Factory in 2007.

His swansong recording surfaced this spring with Ron Carter’s drummerless Golden Striker Trio. When bassist Carter mingles with Miller’s more contemplative playing, the sense of warmth is immediate. It worked like a fireplace seven winters ago in New York. But the seasons never mattered. Whenever Mulgrew Miller played the piano, it was summertime.

Ray Manzarek, 1939-2013

ray manzarek

Ray Manzarek

During the lifespan of The Doors, Ray Manzarek managed the impossible. He fashioned an instrumental voice that stood out in a band fronted by one of the most outrageous singers of his day. Such was the duality that made Doors music so compelling.

Jim Morrison may have been the rock star, the one who fascinated and confounded as the band’s focial point. But Manzarek was its musical conscience. Designing keyboard melodies that owed as much to classical and jazz as they did to pop, he often anchored Doors songs with a groove that would hold fast as Morrison raged.

On any number of Doors hits, it was Manzarek you heard first. Soul Kitchen, When the Music’s Over, Strange Days, Touch Me, Light My Fire and, most profoundly, Riders on the Storm, all began with a keyboard prologue that pinpointed a mood and motive before Morrison sang a note. And on two of the band’s wildest works – Crystal Ship and Unknown Soldier – Manzarek and Morrison began in unison, engaging in a quiet but pronounced musical communion.

Many forget that The Doors went on to cut two albums after Morrison’s death – 1971’s Other Voices and 1972’s Full Circle. While paling understandably in contrast to the Doors’ heyday records, both are still worth seeking in second hand stores out for keyboard colors that remain distinctive even without Morrison’s dark poetics.  

A few post-Doors delights peppered Manzarek’s later career. As a producer, he was at the helm for Los Angeles, the 1980 debut album by the vanguard punk band X. And during the mid ‘80s, the keyboardist struck up a curious alliance with Brit pop stylists Echo and the Bunnymen. Together they cut a highly faithful cover of the Doors’ People are Strange, which was buried on the soundtrack to The Lost Boys, and a fun, Doors-like original, Bedbugs and Ballyhoo.

Is there one essential Doors album to commemorate Manzarek with? Let’s sign off with two. Try any of the band’s many anthology sets, but augment your pick with 1971’s L.A. Woman, Morrison’s swansong album. It remains an alternately sleek, serene and deliriously earthy monument to a rock troupe riding out the final tide of a majestic storm.

« Previous entries

Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | About Our Ads | Copyright