Archive for an appreciation

leon russell, 1942-2016

leon russell.

leon russell.

We’ve lost another one. In a year that has seen the exit of far too many artistic elders (and a few younger ones, too), we now must add the name of Leon Russell, the piano-pounding Okie who was a living rock ‘n’ roll contradiction.
In performance, especially during his early ‘70s heyday, Russell was a Midwestern variation of Jerry Lee Lewis, blending blues and barrelhouse piano with a distinctive vocal howl that was as primal as it was celebratory. But the songs he will forever be best known for – “A Song for You” and “This Masquerade” – were ballads covered by scores of stylistic disparate artists. Likewise, the fearless, festive abandon of his early performance years was balanced by a scholarly music reputation, one forged by extensive studio session work behind artists as far ranging as The Monkees and Frank Sinatra.
I first became enamored of Russell’s music not through his own recordings or even his own songs. One of my first album purchases as pre-teen was Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishman,” a chronicle of a traveling rock and soul circus that, even with top-billing going to Cocker, was built around Russell’s direction and, more overtly, the joyous drive of his piano work. Listening to it again this morning, it was remarkable how fresh and vital the recording still sounds.
Russell’s first six studio albums, released yearly between 1970 and 1975 are classics. The first three, “Leon Russell” (1970), “Leon Russell and the Shelter People” (1971) and “Carny” (1972) should be considered essential listening. But the country covers collection “Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. 1” (1973), the Mose Allison-inclined swing set “Stop All That Jazz” (1974) and the gloriously produced and engineered “Will o’ the Wisp” (1975) were royal sleepers that challenged audience perceptions of Russell by stretching his stylistic reach. He paid a price for the latter three records, though. By altering his musical course, Russell interrupted the commercial momentum of a career that never fully recovered.
Russell slipped into touring purgatory not long after that. It seemed like he was forever on the road, a fact reflected in his often perfunctory concerts. Every so often you would catch him on a good night, though. A 2012 concert here at Buster’s, done in the midst of a career renaissance triggered by the hit 2010 collaborative album “The Union” with Elton John was one of his stronger local outings.
But to experience Russell in his primal prime, search out his near show-stealing performance in George Harrison’s “The Concert for Bangla Desh.” Better yet, give a spin to the Okie soul that runs rampant through Russell’s early records – specifically songs like “Prince of Peace,” “Delta Lady” or “Crystal Closet Queen.” They contain a rock ‘n’ roll presence as jubilant as it was distinctive. No one, not even Russell himself in his later years, has been able to summon such a spirit since.

leonard cohen, 1934-2016

leonard cohen.

leonard cohen.

My favorite parting shot of Leonard Cohen comes from, as far as I can tell, his only Kentucky concert – a 3 ½ hour poetic manifesto of sublime elegance performed at the Louisville Palace on the eve of Easter in 2013.

Instead of casually walking offstage before intermission or encores, he skipped. At 78, he skipped like a kid at a carnival, seemingly enraptured by the sounds and sights around him.

That image sticks with me this morning, the day after his passing at age 82. As a poet and pop stylist, his loss is incalculable. It is hard to imagine folk and pop music, especially work attributed to singer-songwriters of multiple generations, having its sense of narrative insight without artists like Cohen. Sure, he can be more properly viewed as a poet with his songs serving essentially as half-spoken recitations of spiritual reflection, unwavering romance and thinly veiled social discontent. While his stories usually didn’t end well, they seldom succumbed to despair. Even his darkest meditations like “The Future” (“I’ve seen the future, brother… it is murder”) were fueled by a proud, subdued defiance. But when his heart openly yearned, as it did on such early classics as “Bird on a Wire,” Cohen and his songs took flight. Maybe that’s why he skipped offstage with childlike animation in Louisville. Maybe he was trying to see if he had wings – or, at least, if they still worked.

I bought my first Cohen album in 1974. It was called “New Skin for the Old Ceremony.” Critics, for the most part, hated the record because it departed from the coarser folk sway of the initial Columbia releases that had already defined his career. I was especially taken with a song called “Field Commander Cohen,” a darkly orchestrated work filled with great love/war metaphors and a protagonist described as “some grateful, faithful woman’s favorite singing millionaire; the patron saint of envy and the grocer of despair.” Short of Bob Dylan, who could come up with a character profile like that?

Any summation of Cohen’s career, however, has to pay heavy respect to the last decade of his life. After returning to the stage following a 15 year absence that included time spent living in a California monastery as a Buddhist monk, Cohen dived into a period of extensive recording and touring that yielded three wonderful studio albums (the most recent of which, “You Want It Darker,” was released as recently as last month) and four live recordings. They presented Cohen as a fedora wearing sage, an artist that recited his songs in a deep, inviting whisper alongside contained orchestration that was almost noir-like in its mix of cool and contemplation.

There is a bit of the gentlemen monk within these remarkable victory lap recordings. The same held true for the Louisville concert, when Cohen sheepishly apologized for the fact his band didn’t include the then-hospitalized bassist/bandleader Roscoe Beck that evening.

“I hope you won’t feel any disgrace to the enterprise,” he remarked.

Quite the contrary. Thank you for your years of service, Field Commander Cohen. We salute you.

stanley dural jr. (buckwheat zydeco), 1947-2016

stanley dural jr., a.k.a. buckwheat zydeco

stanley dural jr., a.k.a. buckwheat zydeco

Stanley Dural Jr. was a joyous giant of a musician. More than any artist of his generation, he introduced and furthered the Cajun/R&B music known as zydeco. It became so synonymous with him that audiences came to know Dural mostly by his professional non-de-plume – Buckwheat Zydeco.

Of course, serious Cajun music followers will forever credit the great Clifton Chenier as the forefather of zydeco, and they would be correct. But it was Dural, a longtime Chenier protégé and bandmate, that essentially inherited the elder’s accordion-led legacy and pushed zydeco into the mainstream. With Chenier, zydeco was more roots-directed, meshing Creole sounds with the blues. Dural had a bigger party in mind. From the dawn of the 1980s onward, he invited rock and soul into the songs he fashioned and put it all on display with an immensely infectious and endearing performance style.

Critics sometimes scoffed at how crossover his music became, especially on his late ‘80s crossover albums for the Island label. But Dural never let his Lafayette, Louisiana roots leave him even as his fascination for more broad based music grew. The title tune to his finest and most recommended Island album, 1987’s “On a Night Like This,” may have sounded like a Creole jamboree, but it was really a zydeco recasting of an underappreciated Bob Dylan tune from the early ‘70s.

Reflecting just how vast his musical reach had become was a growing list rock ‘n’ roll notables that lined up to work him. Dural’s A list collaborators included U2, Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Robert Plant and Paul Simon.

Luckily, Lexington got in on the fun, too. Though absent from local venues for much of the past decade, Dural and his Ils Sont Partis Band played long-since-demised downtown clubs like the Bottom Line and Breeding’s throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, flashing a smile as big and bright as the cosmos and making the rooms bounce with that white accordion adorned with the word most post-Chenier audiences would most come to associate with zydeco music: Buckwheat.

toots thielemans, 1922-2016

toots thielemans.

toots thielemans.

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

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

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

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

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

bobby hutcherson, 1941-2016

bobby hutcherson.

bobby hutcherson.

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

bernie worrell, 1944-2016

bernie worrell.

bernie worrell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

ralph stanley, 1927-2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

dave swarbrick, 1941-2016

dave swarbrick.

dave swarbrick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

guy clark, 1941-2016

guy clark.

guy clark.

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

“It’s a love song.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

isao tomita, 1932-2106

isao tomita.

isao tomita.

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

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

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

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