Archive for an appreciation

allen toussaint, 1938-2015

allen toussaint.

allen toussaint.

A few winters ago – late January of 2011, to be exact – I was burning the final hours of a short New York trip by having brunch at Joe’s Pub, a popular haunt affixed to The Public Theatre that operated primarily as a nightclub. This day, however, Allen Toussaint quietly took the stage as a winter sun lit up a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan.

Over the decades, Toussaint has been many things – a champion songwriter, a vanguard R&B stylist, a heralded producer/arranger and one of New Orleans’ foremost musical ambassadors. On this day, though, he was alone at the piano offering stories and songs from an extraordinary career. In such a setting, works like Freedom for the Stallion, A Certain Girl, Holy Cow and even a few non-original favorites like St. James Infirmary were performed with the kind of soul, ease and confidence only a scholarly elder like Toussaint could summon.

In true show business fashion, though, he saved his greatest party piece for the end of the show – a near 10 minute version of Southern Nights. Pop audiences probably recognize the tune through the hit version Glen Campbell delivered to radio in 1975. But in the hands of its composer, Southern Nights turned impressionistic. It was a love song, a lullaby and an elegy all rolled into one but played with an understated, contemplative joy. The performance will forever by my favorite remembrance of Toussaint and his astounding music.

Toussaint died yesterday at the age of 77 of a heart attack following a concert in Madrid. His departure completes a mammoth chapter of American musical history that runs from early pop hits like Fortune Teller to ‘70s-era Crescent City funk to a string of final recordings that included the Elvis Costello collaboration The River in Reverse (2006) , the predominantly instrumental Joe Henry-produced The Bright Mississippi (2009) and the career retrospective concert album Songbook (2013). The latter chronicled another Joe’s Pub show.

The venue served as a performance home for the pianist for several years. He had resettled in New York after floods in the wake of Hurricane Katrina engulfed his New Orleans studio and home. If anything, the disaster only heightened his pride and faith in the city.

“I’m proud to be one of the senders,” he told me in an interview promoting the benefit album I Believe to My Soul of the love generated for his ravaged homeland. “But I’m a receiver, as well.”

cory wells, 1941-2015

three dog night, circa 1969. from left: cory wells, danny hutton and chuck negron.

three dog night, circa 1969. from left: cory wells, danny hutton and chuck negron.

It’s understandable that discussions centering on any lasting cultural impact of late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll would bypass Three Dog Night. In its heyday, the band was always a greater commercial force than a critical darling – meaning a Three Dog Night record was never far away from the airwaves, and, as a result, decidedly unhip. I didn’t care. My most trusted companion at the time was a transistor radio – a device that dispensed Three Dog Night music frequently and plentifully.

The group’s novelty was that it delegated vocal duties between three male singers. They didn’t write much of their music. They didn’t need to. In a rare sense of artistic foresight within commercial pop circles, Three Dog Night and its overseers selected tunes from the generation’s most gifted songsmiths. So, without even knowing it, I was introduced to the songs of Randy Newman (Mama Told Me Not to Come), Laura Nyro (Eli’s Coming), Harry Nilssen (One), Hoyt Axton (Joy to the World), Argent (Liar) and even Elton John (Lady Samantha) through Three Dog Night.

The finest of the group’s vocalists, Cory Wells, died yesterday at age 74. Where Hutton and Negron were more overtly pop leaning in their delivery, Wells was the rock and soul-driven center of Three Dog Night. His sang lead on Mama Told Me Not Come and Eli’s Coming, arguably the band’s two finest singles.

Three Dog Night began to fracture in 1976 with the exit of Negron. Wells and Hutton maintained a touring version of the band until recently, but the magic really started to dissolve in 1972. Maybe I grew up and moved on. Maybe Three Dog Night simply had its creative day. But those early recordings served as a gateway, a primer for those of my generation to the kind of songcraft deemed unfit for pop radio – unfit, that is, until Wells and Three Dog Night took it to the masses.

chris squire, 1948-2015

chris squire of yes.

chris squire of yes.

I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit I loved ‘70s prog rock. It was pretentious, excessive and, as the decade progressed, unfashionable. And women, for the most part, hated it. So it wasn’t anything a guy was going to scores points with the girls for liking. Even at the close of the decade, when punk held prog by the throat and used it as a punching bag for everything it rebelled against, I still privately championed the music and all of its instrumental extremes.

At the head of the prog pack for nearly that entire era was Yes, and at the core of the band’s fanciful orchestration, its synth and guitar adorned arrangements and the high, otherworldly tenor of Jon Anderson was the bass guitar work of Chris Squire. On such career-defining albums as 1971’s The Yes Album, 1972’s Fragile and what remain Yes’ shining hour, 1972’s Close to the Edge, Squire made the bass as prominent and purposeful and any other instrument in the band. His sound was huge and rubbery. It was sweet enough to color Yes’ more pastoral passages but rocked like a jackhammer when the band hit full throttle, as in the elemental cosmic groove that drove the title tune from its last truly classic album, 1977’s Going for the One.

Squire died yesterday, less than two months after revealing he had been diagnosed with leukemia. He was 67.

A co-founding member of Yes, he anchored every lineup that toured and recorded for over 45 years. Admittedly, some of the later, post-Anderson outings signaled the band had finally run its creative course (although 2011’s Far From Here album was surprisingly strong). But spend some time with any of Yes’ seminal ‘70s recordings and you will experience one of the key architects of prog having a field day. His playing was as joyous, in its own way, as it was wickedly intense.

“As an individualist in an age when it was possible to establish individuality, Chris fearlessly staked out a whole protectorate of bass playing in which he was lord and master,” wrote Bill Bruford, veteran percussionist and Yes drummer up through the release of Close to the Edge, in a Facebook post yesterday. “I suspect he knew not only that he gave millions of people pleasure with his music, but also that he was fortunate to be able to do so


ornette coleman, 1930-2015

ornette coleman.

ornette coleman.

As a precocious fan of fusion music, my gateway drug into the world of jazz, Ornette Coleman was a total mystery at first. Try as I might as a teenager, I just couldn’t connect the dots within the kind of abandon his music reached for. But then some things, especially fine art that steers clear of the obvious, takes times to understand and ultimately appreciate.

In a life that ended yesterday in Manhattan at age 85, Coleman shattered harmonic, compositional and especially improvisational expectations of jazz music.

The standard line from traditionalists was that Coleman’s music was, in essence, anti- jazz. Many dismissed it as noise and “jive.” But while he indulged in free forms of time and harmony, there were also strong undercurrents of bebop in the saxophonist’s playing. But when he met up with like-minded proteges like Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, the unorthodoxy of Coleman’s music simply exploded.

The quartet’s groundbreaking 1959 Atlantic album The Shape of Jazz to Come is considered a vanguard work for so-called “free jazz” expatriots. I have to admit later works for Blue Note (the live 1965 trio date At the Gold Circle), Columbia (1971’s Science Fiction) and a jumbled fusion/funk work for Horizon/A&M (1977’s Dancing in Your Head) pulled me in first, albeit reluctantly. But once those Atlantic records soaked in, the freshness and immediacy of Coleman’s sound didn’t seem so offsetting. It just seemed wonderfully of-the-moment, as all did great jazz.

Near as I can tell, Coleman never played anywhere close to Lexington. But the legacy his music bares is more than apparent in the Chicago, New York and European artists that have performed locally for the Outside the Spotlight Series. In their hands, as it was in Coleman’s decades earlier, the music didn’t wear its traditional reverence openly. But it was there, a stepping stone to a brave and unflinching musical territory where possibility was boundless.

Ornette Coleman opened the door to that world and dared naysayers to enter while simultaneously welcoming them.

jean ritchie, 1922-2015

jean ritchie.

jean ritchie.

It’s easy for anyone in Kentucky who grew up with the music of Jean Ritchie to claim her as their own. That’s a polite way of saying it was easy to take her for granted.

To us, she was a teacher and neighbor whose graceful but topical songs became a part of our very artistic upbringing. Decade and after decade, we would see her perform with a dulcimer on her lap, a voice sent truly sent from a higher place than the Southeastern Kentucky mountains she hailed from and songs that served a folk primer for successive generations.

To the rest of the world, she was rightly viewed as a folk matriarch, a regal but uncompromising representative of Appalachian culture and the inspirations and activism that fortified it. Here in Kentucky, she was more than that. She was practically family, an artist so much a part of our art that it seemed inconceivable to picture our state’s heritage without her.

I can’t even remember the first time I heard Ritchie, who died yesterday at age 92. For the longest time, I couldn’t separate the songs she wrote from the traditional tunes she made her own. Regardless of the demarcation, she was the one who introduced me to The Cuckoo, Shady Grove, Wayfaring Stranger and other folk essentials. I would hear countless versions of these songs through the years, many by artists from Europe and beyond. But Jean Ritchie forever fashioned the blueprint.

I was a sophomore in college when None But One was released. The first album cut for the Greenhays label she began with husband George Pickow, it was a renaissance work for Ritchie, exposing her to an emerging folk and bluegrass generation that favored tradition but also sought ways to connect it to the causes and influences of the day. To that end, Ritchie was no finer conduit. She was the voice of Appalachian tradition but never sounded remotely out of time with her songs.

I didn’t get to see Ritchie perform, however, until 1982 when she played with longtime friend and fellow folk giant Oscar Brand at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Her songs were forces of nature. You almost sensed the presence of Leadbelly or Pete Seeger, iconic artists Ritchie and Brand befriended in New York decades earlier. But Ritchie never made the songs sound weighty. The music of the mountains remained her native tongue. She upheld a culture and invited all to share in its beauty.

b.b. king, 1925-2015

b.b.  king performing in 1999. herald-leader staff photograph by mark cornelison.

b.b. king performing in 1999. herald-leader staff photograph by mark cornelison.

“Hard luck and trouble seem to be my middle name,” sang B.B. King nearly 45 years ago in a typically elegant slice of orchestrated blues called Chains and Things. The song was part of a brilliant stretch of recordings issued between 1965 and 1975 that defined a titan musical life that ended yesterday at age 89.

For the better part of his career, King was synonymous with the blues. It’s hard to imagine an artist so associated with a specific musical genre. Casual music fans that knew little or nothing of the blues still invariably knew of King. As a musical ambassador for the blues, his influence and inspiration remain limitless.

To musicians, especially guitarists, his early recordings were like college textbooks.

“I got to see him record when I was a youngster — maybe seven years old,” ZZ Top guitarist Bill Gibbons told me in a 2013 interview. “My dad had an ‘in’ at the studio in Houston where B.B. and company preferred to record. That experience made a tremendous impression on me and, obviously, it’s stayed on all these years. B.B. King is now in year 63 or 64 of his career, and I’ve only been at it for maybe 45 years, so there’s a whole lot of catching up to do.”

But King was also a profound rarity among roots music musicians in that he achieved far reaching commercial and crossover popularity. Much of that stemmed from The Thrill is Gone, another sleekly produced, string-enhanced serving of the blues. It became more than a signature tune for King. It served as an anthem for the times.

The despondency of the song was obvious. So the was the clean, lean tone of his guitar work. But the patiently paced, orchestrated arrangement suggested pure early ‘70s soul. Everyone picked up on it – pop audiences, R&B audiences, all audiences. All of a sudden, King and his music were everywhere, even on such mainstream television programs as The Tonight Show.

The song also set the mood for the rest of King’s career. There were a few underappreciated recording triumphs after that, including 1970’s brilliant Indianola Mississippi Seeds (which contained Chains and Things), 1973’s overlooked To Know You is To Love You and 1978’s Crusaders-collaboration Midnight Believer. Mostly though, King became the face of the blues, changing forever its legitimacy as a popular music form.

His concerts were like old school revues, bolstered by horns, the odd novelty tune (How Blues Can You Get) and a stage presence as bright as the blues were solemn. Lexington was fortunate to have gotten several performance glimpses of King in action through ‘80s sets at the long defunct Breeding’s downtown to yearly festivals at the Kentucky Horse Park during the mid ‘90s.

King turned 70 during one of the latter dates, but the charm of his performance persona was still luminous. For King, the blues was an invitation to life, a look at its most sobering realities but, ultimately, a celebration of its most lasting joys.

john renbourn, 1944-2015

john renbourn.

john renbourn.

John Renbourn was a guitarist of many worlds. Though rightly championed as a vanguard member of the British folk movement during the 1960s, he was a quietly restless journeyman that expanded the roles of jazz, blues, Eastern music and even shades of Baroque within a decidedly folk context.

As a result, his recordings were always rich and stylistically varied while his concerts, especially acoustic sessions done solo or as collaborations with pals from the seminal folk troupe Pentangle, were deceptively unassuming affairs.

During the ‘90s and ‘00s, when he performed as close as Newport and Covington with Pentangle mates Bert Jansch and Jacqui McShee, he presented no airs. He possessed enough technique and stylistic dexterity to teach a master class on guitar history. But his delivery was always relaxed and conversational, a blend of folk traditions laced with the casual improvisational command of a jazz scholar.

Renbourn died on March 26 at the age of 70 in Scotland from a heart attack. He was scheduled to perform in concert that evening.

He leaves behind an extraordinary catalogue of music, from mid ‘60s duet albums with Jansch (who died in 2011) to groundbreaking blends of folk, blues and jazz cut with Pentangle during a wildly prolific run between 1968 and 1973 to a host of exemplary projects under his own name that shifted from the Renaissance flavor of 1970’s Lady and the Unicorn to the world music slant of 1981’s Grammy nominated Live in America.

Especially recommended are the extraordinary 1966 folk/blues set Jack Orion (with Jansch), Pentangle’s breathtaking half live/half studio 1968 opus Sweet Child and 1971’s folk-refined Faro Annie. The latter remains, arguably, Renbourn’s finest solo record.

A burly man with an impish smile and an audience-friendly demeanor, Renbourn was never so outward with his talent that he could be considered a celebrity, especially since his career largely bypassed rock ‘n’ roll. But make no mistake. Last week, a guitar giant left us.

the matriarch of the festival

jean cornett outside her midway home in 2002. herald-leader staff photo by frank anderson.

jean cornett outside her midway home in 2002. herald-leader staff photo by frank anderson.

Jean Cornett was one of those life forces you never thought would leave us. Though she had bowed out a few years ago from official duties with the Festival of the Bluegrass, the landmark Lexington music festival she co-founded with husband Bob over four decades ago, her presence was never absent after retirement. She greeted patrons and performers last summer like family, which given the frequency of repeat appearances evident on both sides of the festival stage, seemed perfectly natural. It was truly like she had never left.

But retire? Jean? Maybe in some remote way that could be possible. But separating her spirit from the festival by such a simple and inevitable act was impossible. No single individual, musician or otherwise, did more to foster and further the visibility of bluegrass music in Central Kentucky than Jean Cornett. To take that a step further, no one has presented it (or represented it, for that matter) with more homespun dignity, either.

I had annual conversations with Jean around Festival time for probably 25 years. Sometimes they were quick and to the point phone calls. Sometimes they were afternoon-long talks at her Midway home. There was at least one instance where we stood in the pouring rain a few days before the Festival opened, undeterred by the conditions at hand. She and her family weathered storms, oppressive heat, blackouts, brownouts and pretty much every obstacle nature and man could devise to present a music festival built upon string music tradition and innovation. Mostly, though, it was an event completely familial in design – whether it was with the children and grandchildren that followed her lead in the producing the event, the acts (specifically, the Seldom Scene) that would return year after year or the clans and fans that viewed the Festival as a rite of summer every year.

This is the magnificent gift Jean has given Lexington.

 “The Festival is a great source of pleasure for us,” she told me in 2009. “Every year – many times every year – we have old friends come over and introduce a new member of their family. And that new member often is a grandchild that is beginning to learn bluegrass much as the grandparent learned bluegrass at the Festival thirty-odd years ago. This makes us proud.”

edgar froese, 1944-2015

edgar froese.

edgar froese.

If you appreciate electronic music in any of its permutations, then you owe a debt of thanks to Edgar Froese.

The pioneering keyboardist, guitarist and composer, who died last week at age 70 from a pulmonary embolism in Vienna, spent the last 48 years at the helm of Tangerine Dream. The German ensemble helped redefine the use of synthesizers in contemporary music by initially crafting an orchestrated keyboard sound of its own and then adhering it to the times.

Members came and went – roughly 20 players in all, including the keyboardist’s son Jerome Froese – with the elder Froese remaining the band’s only mainstay member.

Initially, though, Tangerine Dream was viewed as a by-product of the German-born, industrial-tinged progressive music known as krautrock. But it was in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that Froese’s finest works were created – 1974’s majestically serene Phaedra, 1975’s wildly tense soundtrack to Sorcerer, 1981’s sleek but darkly percolating Exit and 1985’s globally inspired Le Parc.

A personal favorite remains 1988’s Livemiles, a pairing of two 20 minute concert suites that stand as some of the most exact, emotive and exquisitely textured music the band ever created. It also marked the end of an era. From that point on, Tangerine Dream became a streamlined enterprise that catered more to the beats, grooves and rhythmic designs that would be fleshed out further by a new generation of artists that ushered in ambient, trance and a wholly redefined electronic soundscape. That music, however, aimed less for the mind and imagination and more for the dance floor.

So would there be a Daft Punk today without the music Froese devoted nearly five decades to? Possibly. But its sense of modern pop pageantry would be far less captivating without the synthesized roads first paved by one of electronic music’s foremost dreamers.

joe cocker, 1944-2014


joe cocker.

For the longest time, I thought Cry Me a River was a Joe Cocker song. More than that, I was convinced the tune my dad cherished as an Ella Fitzgerald classic was written to be played as a boozy, barrelhouse rocker with a soul-scabbed voice like Cocker’s out front. Cocker just had that way with songs.

After all, this was the Englishman that turned the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends into a psychedelic soul free-for-all at Woodstock by eschewing pop references in favor of scorched R&B. He also turned the Box Tops hit The Letter into earth rumbling soul carnival at the dawn of the ‘70s. And when Cocker turned sweet, as he did in his most prized radio hit, 1974’s You Are So Beautiful, he sounded like was on the losing end of a prizefight – bloodied, beaten up yet so soulful you could just sob.

Of course, Cocker underscored the coarse texture of his singing with a lifestyle that was equally ragged. By the mid ‘70s, you couldn’t tell if he was entranced onstage by the music he was making or simply inebriated. Unfortunately, rock bottom was played out in public when John Belushi popularized a drunken, buffoonish impersonation of him during the second season of Saturday Night Live. The comic even performed it in front of Cocker when the singer was a guest on the program in 1976. It was beyond painful to watch.

“I got on a downward spiral after You Are So Beautiful,” Cocker told me in an interview ahead of his 2000 Rupp Arena performance with Tina Turner. “I was still making music, but I just had a bad attitude about life. I used to wake up and start drinking beer at 10 in the morning. I lived in a cloud. 

“Kids in Germany and a few other places would still come to see me even when I was stoned out of my mind and forgetting the words to songs. Then it dawned on me. The realization hit that I should give these kids something back. I knew I had to give a good performance. So slowly and surely, I got better.”

That translated into an ‘80s renaissance that included Cocker’s biggest hit (1982’s Up Where We Belong), one of his best albums (1982’s Sheffield Steel) and a renewed reputation internationally as a concert performer that lasted right up until his death yesterday at age 70 from lung cancer. That also meant getting the last laugh as Cocker outlived Belushi by some 33 years.

“It fascinates people just what happened in the ’70s,” Cocker said in our interview. “To be honest, that whole period bemuses myself.”

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