Month: April 2011

Django Reinhardt—Improvisation #1

“Django Meets Van Halen”

What can be said about this “song”, an off-the-cuff recording, done in one take in 1937? Nothing…you just have to listen to it, or watch Jimmy Rosenberg play it. While Jimmy is good, and by that I mean, REALLY GREAT, there is something even more amazing about Django’s recording of the song. It’s done with such wild abandon and confidence that the performance seems to fall out of him. It is the classic Django performance one could rightfully point to as example of how he was a one-of-a-kind guitar player and completely ahead of his time. Even today, I think it was performances like this one that cemented Django’s reputation as a player who could do things that defied comprehension.

Django’s recording still holds up — (HERE)— the richness of the chords and harmony playing and the complete virtuosity with all of the rapid-fire single string lines, plus the tone, the SOUND of that Selmer guitar which jumps out at you even though the recording is now almost 75 years old. What I love about this performance is that it shows that Django anticipated and laid the groundwork for another of my favorite players, Edward Van Halen, forty years before the latter came along. From a purely technical aspect, Improvisation #1 is Django’s Eruption; blazing diminished arpeggios, the unbelievably cool and lightning-fast descending chromatic runs, the hammer-tapped harmonics between the two fast sections, the statacco picking that almost sounds like the beginning of the second part of Eruption after the key/ tonal center change from Dm to Bm, and the complete command of drama in the performance, which results from the confidence and ability to time and pace everything correctly without rushing, stumbling, or overplaying. What makes this even more amazing was Django recorded this at the end of a recording session and had someone signalling to him when his 3 minutes was running out. Everyone else at the session was amazed at the result and would not let Django reconsider a do-over.

Much of the same can be said for Edward Van Halen’s Eruption which is dazzling in it’s pyrotechnic beauty and enhanced by the power of electricity, volume, distortion and effects (minimal compared to some players). Certainly both he and Django have similarities in their approach to playing guitar and were going for a similar type of (improvised) performance. Everyone knows that Eruption completely turned the guitar-playing world on its head in 1978. It was EVH who brought the sophistication of classical and jazz music and a completely new level of virtuosity to arena rock audiences. While there had been many talented rock players taking many extended solos and solo pieces — Page, Blackmore, Howe, Beck, May, Hendrix — and jazz, fusion and progressive rock certainly had many technical powerhouses — McLaughlin, DiMeola, Fripp, Metheny, Coryell — the technique, sound, and go-for-it! attitude contained in Eruption and on every Van Halen record through 1984 was so overwhelming that he was repeatedly voted the #1 Player and an entire industry was created around learning to play his style. Whether one likes or appreciates his talents is immaterial because what is most important is the effect and influence he had on so many other players and how that has shaped what guitar playing is all about.

In the wake of Eruption new guitar magazines appeared and so did other materials like the“Hot Licks” cassette tapes, and soon after, videos with in-depth explorations of the technique and the sound needed to pull of the Van Halen performance. While the concept of “tablature” as a form of notating music has been around since the 15th century, personally, I can’t remember seeing music written out that way, even in Guitar Player Magazine before EVH turned the guitar world upside down (At the time was the youngest player ever to appear on the cover of that magazine). I have a copy of GP from the summer of 1984 that has Van Halen on the cover with an accompanying article that gives an in-depth look at his style, while another article explains the whole concept of what “TAB” is and today, some 27 years later, “TAB” is THE most popular form of guitar notation. I’m not saying Van Halen was personally responsible, but he certainly re-ignited interest in the instrument and re-defined (again) what the instrument was capable of…even though, the truth is, musically, much of what is contained in Eruption, minus the legato tap-pull-off passages, and the sonic landscape powered by overdriven Marshalls, can be found in Django’s Improvisation #1. Bands like Van Halen, and other guitar-driven virtuoso bands that followed, sold huge amounts of records and played to very large audiences world-wide. Therefore the market for prospective players learning this style was also very big, which is why all of the learning tools developed as they did.

Another similarity between Eruption and Improvisation #1 is that they are improvised and there is, in my opinion, a slight misconception about what that term means. Even I was confused on this issue for a long time. Many people think improvisation means to make it up as you go along, however, that is and isn’t what is happening. Dissecting a piece like Improvisation #1 or Eruption, after playing either style of music for awhile shows that some very commonly used motifs, arpeggios, lines and technical “moves” that were/are mainstays of Django’s/EVH’s musical language are employed to create each performance. EVH has said that he used to do variations of Eruption at sound-checks before he and his band made the first Van Halen album and I believe Django played parts or variations of Improvisation #1 to and by himself before he ever recorded it. If you follow the link from the EVH pic at the top you will see a version of Eruption from 2007. Keep looking on You Tube and I’m sure you will find an endless number of versions, none of which are completely the same, but all of which have most of the same elements. EVH has said that he just “went for it” on most of the stuff the first line-up of Van Halen recorded and he was able to do that because a) the band had been playing quite a few of the songs live for years b) the band recorded their first 3 records pretty much sans guitar overdubs and c) EVH was always playing so he could just play and turn out something really good.

The same was true of Django — on the streets of Paris as a musician from the age of 11-12, and with the extra motivation that it was his only source of income save for gambling, he was playing ALL the time. Also, like EVH, who was a classically-trained pianist, classical music and his understanding and intense love of it played a huge role in his formation as a player and as a composer. Of course, the Gypsy community from whence Django came holds music as a very important, almost spiritual element and from a very early age he was astonishing the others in the community with his instrumental prowess. Not even the severe damage to the third and fourth fingers on his left hand hampered his abilities as a player, although the sheer effort necessary to come back from the injuries he sustained in the caravan fire of 1928 I believe says something of the drive and determination that was Django’s character. It is what one hears in many of his performances — this great force of nature that will not be denied!

Not only was Django a total headbanger, as the clip above illustrates, he was capable of hearing, and playing licks that none of his contemporaries could match because a) they didn’t have his unique blend of influences: jazz, gypsy and classical music, and b) his instinctive understanding of music in general. I find this also to be true of some American jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian and to a lesser extent, Wes Montgomery. While both may have surpassed Django as jazz players, neither of them ever composed or performed anything likeImprovisation #1. Many of Django’s best techniques: flamenco-style passages, diminished runs, mixing beautiful chord patterns with single string lines and very precise, powerful picking all come together to create a memorable performance. I think, that like any other guitar player, Django sat and around and played with ideas that he would then mix and match and change and do differently every time he picked up the guitar. He was just way better than most people at doing it on the spot without making a mistake. He totally nailed it the day it was recorded and considering that it was recorded at a time when you couldn’t go and “punch in” or fix a little mistake shows what a master he was at execution.

The point of all this is not to diminish Django’s or Edward’s greatness and their natural abilities to make music, but rather to humanize them. They both WORKED very hard to become incredible players, and while they both were born with immense natural abilities, there is no musician who is capable of producing that level of art without a lot of effort. Constantly being involved with the music — playing it all the time, is what helps to produce great improvisation. They both deserve the reputation they earned as people who could do things others could not, but it must never be forgotten that there was a whole lot of determination and dedication to the cause. It’s certainly true that a player could spend 10 hours a day for years practicing to play like Django and not reach a point where it would be exactly the same, or even, nearly as good. There are always particulars and intangibles that must be written off to the abilities and personality of the player. However, both Django and Edward made the best use of their natural abilities and spent many hours honing their skills and refining their talents and this is something players and non-players alike should always remember.

It’s also important for players to understand that there is no magic key for having the ability to navigate around the complex changes of a song or reach a point in one’s development when it’s conceivable that music could just fall out of whatever mood you happen to be in at the moment. Anyone who has been playing for even a short time is capable of this to a certain extent. Building on what is known little by little and incorporating as many different influences and musical possibilities during practice can lead to great performance later. And don’t forget FUN. There must be plenty of that. Both Django and EVH obviously loved/love playing guitar and that in itself can take you a long way. When I began playing Gypsy Jazz four and a half years ago my improvisation skills were pretty hopeless because most of the music I had played over the years was either prepared or based on much easier chord progressions. Though I’m still not the improviser I want to be, I can do stuff now that would have been impossible in the past. It’s much like learning a 2nd or 3rd language — you can’t just know the words, you have to be using the whole scope of the language, words, punctuation, sentence structure etc., on a regular basis.

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Rats of Unusual Size

Before you read this or watch the video, have a drink!!

Rats of Unusual Size were a punk band that originated in the bowels of the East Village in the wild and wooly late 80s NYC. There was a very vibrant underground punk and rock scene (pretend the late Peter Graves is reading this to you) sometimes called Scum Rock by people who were insiders. After recording a few albums, some singles, playing a multitude of gigs all over the country, leader Jim relocated to Flint MI and formed a second incarnation of the Rats of Unusual Size. After more shows, records and further touring he relocated to San Francisco where he is a theater impresario and co-owner of The Dark Room Theater.

The other Rats, like Daniel Simpson Day — whereabouts unknown.

The Jazz Messengers

Amazing performances of hard bop drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, including trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxman John Gilmore, bassist Victor Sproles, and pianist John Hicks, from a televised special in England in the mid-60s. I love these two videos I’m putting up — Buhaina’s Delight and I Can’t Get Started. All of these guys are monster soloists and very inspirational players to soak up ideas from. I also like the “heads” or “themes” on both tunes. Very cool. I’ve never played Bu’s Delight at a gig, but have played the other a few times. Classic standard from the old days.

Check out Blakey’s drum solo on Bu’s Delight…a jazz drummer with the thunder of someone like John Bonham — I know it pisses some people off to compare rock and jazz players doesn’t it? Blakey is really incomparable, I know. He was a total monster and played like he was on fire for 40 odd years and his Jazz Messengers served up some of the hardest and most soulful jazz ever made. He and his band also served as a training ground for young players and launched the careers of people like Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Kevin Eubanks (guitarist from the Tonight Show), Keith Jarret, Bobby Timmons and Wynton Marsailas. I have the Bu’s Delight album and it’s great! Also hear other stuff all the time on the jazz radio thing. Very hard and dark music with a lot of muscle and a lot of swing.

Both Lee Morgan and John Gilmore were great players too. Morgan played with many jazz greats and released quite a few of his own records before he was killed tragically in the early 70s and Gilmore played with the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra until his death in the mid-90s. He has been considered by some to have been an influence on Coltrane!! Both of these guys should be near the top on any list of players of their respective instruments.

Booker (Bukka) White and The Blues — Part 1

I‘ve always been a fan of the blues and I mean the real razor in the shoe-down home neon blues, not most of the stuff that passes for blues these days. My all-time favorite acoustic blues player is  Booker “Bukka” White. He was a giant of a man; son of a railroad worker, boxer, baseball player, prisoner, blues genius. He was a giant and I mean a real giant not only as a musician, but also as man, a sonic philosopher and bona-fide American Shaman of the twentieth century. And…he was BB King’s cousin and helped teach the young BB how to play!! He emerged from a society that was marginalized not only by the majority white segment of the population, but also from some within his own community. Many proper church-going folks did not listen to the blues, especially the gritty, greasy, down-home flavored blues thrown down by Booker. He sang and played profane songs full of temptation and need, murder and greed, prison and trains, desperation, isolation, loneliness, and the danger and excitement of being full of White Lightning and in the wrong house at the wrong time. He was a man on the outside and a man on the move from an early age, living the life that became his music.

Booker White-Shake 'em on DownThere is very little showbiz in this kind of blues; it is art from the mud, saloons, juke joints, street people, hustlers and fast women. Though he recorded some early “spiritual” sides with Memphis Minnie on background vocals Booker was more about living and singing in the “right now,” leaving the glory of the hereafter to the others. Many of his best songs have a very conversational feel about them. They describe ordinary situations and feelings that carry powerful statements; When Can I Change My Clothes seems like a very mundane topic unless you realize he is in jail, on Parchman Farm in Mississippi; one of the toughest prisons in 1930s America. His plaintive holler and wail, the timbre of his voice, and cross-tuned E minor National guitar cast a very harrowing portrait on most everything he did, especially his 1937 and 1940 recordings that bracketed his arrest and prison sentence for shooting a man. He was able to embody that “devil at the crossroads in the middle of the night” terror better than anyone except for maybe Robert Johnson and Skip James, and like Robert Johnson, an aura of mystery surrounds him, especially the real story behind Booker’s arrest, conviction and release only two years later. He was initially sentenced to life for shooting an assailant in the thigh (just where he wanted to shoot him!) in a bar brawl, but research has turned up differing theories and no documents that explain why he was released after serving only two years or who the victim was or where the crime took place. It’s almost like the Kennedy Assassination! What this does illustrate though is that playing the blues in the old days was a very dangerous business and to survive one had to be as quick with his or her fists, wits, or weapons as one was with the instrument.

Booker, who didn’t like being called “Bukka” —  the name originated from a white record producer who had never heard of Booker T. Washington — was a heckuva guitar player. Here he is doing the Eddie Van Halen slap-mute move that would turn up on the song Mean Street many years later. Okay, not really. I don’t want to stretch my whole connections theory too far, but if you expand this technique a little bit, and put it through 3 amp heads and 6 cabinets, it’s basically what Van Halen is doing too. Aberdeen Mississippi Blues is one of my favorite Booker songs. The recording, from early 1940 is pretty soft and tender, as he is singing about two pretty little ladies from New Orleans, but he rocks it out here. Listen to the sound of that National guitar! Loud!

What always struck me about Booker’s records was the SOUND.  I wonder if his original records were done like Robert Johnson’s? Here is an interesting article on how Robert Johnson was recorded. Many acoustic, solo, and blues guitar players have heard about corner-loading I’m sure. But for those unfamiliar with it — the idea is to face the player/singer into the corner to roll off the highs and lows and pump up the middle frequencies. Heavily picked acoustic instruments, slide guitar (and possibly the vocals) sound more powerful and resonant when recorded this way, at least in theory. The diagram on the above linked site illustrates how the player set-up is something anyone can try in their own studio or apartment to see if it makes any difference. While Robert Johnson certainly laid down some brilliant playing and influenced pretty much every guitar player after him, I find his recordings tinny when compared with Booker White. Part of it, I’m sure is that Booker’s voice had a deeper timber (even in the high wail) and more resonance to it. The fact that he was a big and obviously strong player might have increased the powerful sound and resonance on his guitar work too, but it would be interesting to know how his records were done. All recordings in those days were pretty much “what you hear is what you get,” but producers, engineers, and even players themselves found little tricks to enhance the sound they were going for. Here is another song from the same film session as above. Booker lays the guitar across his lap and is using a thin piece of iron or metal, going for more of a lap steel sound. Booker is looking pretty advanced in years in these clips and he was man of modest means. No money for the rack-mount delay and crossover switches but it’s all very real and musical. I think this song has gone by different names over the years depending on the release or repackage, but here the title is Poor Boy Long Way From Home.

Some of my other favorite Booker songs are Special Streamline, Fixin’ To Die Blues, District Attorney, Sic em Dogs on Me, Parchman Farm, Strange Place Blues, Black Train Blues, When Can I Change My Clothes and, Pinebluff, Arkansas. The lyrics from all of these songs are as brilliant as his guitar playing and vocal delivery. He elevates simple thoughts and obvious personal situations to complex high art.

Gonna get up in the morning, baby with the rising sun…Gonna get up in the morning, baby with the rising sun…If the train don’t run, gonna be some walking done

Then, of course, there is Shake ’em on Down. A brilliant song made even more brilliant by Robert Plant who used in repeatedly throughout Led Zeppelin’s career.

Here is a recording a Booker doing Shake ’em on Down and here is a recording of Led Zeppelin’s Hats Off to Roy Harper. Robert Plant got a lot of mileage out this song he liked and a man he must have admired quite a bit. I think there are at least 4-5 LZ songs with some fragment of “shake ’em on down” contained within. Some people regard this as theft and some regard it as parody, but I believe Plant (and Page) genuinely love this stuff and used this as a template for where they would take their music. Certainly on “Hats Off…” Page and Plant are using a combination of technology and no-technology to accentuate and exaggerate the effects of the sounds coming off Shake ’em on Down. This is certainly how all the blues players like Booker learned to play, perform and record. Shake em on Down was a hit for Booker, selling 16,000 copies, but Big Bill Broonzy recorded a New Shake em On Down soon after and had a hit of his own while Booker was at Parchman farm. This is also certainly what the Rolling Stones, the Heartbreakers and a million punk bands have done with Chuck Berry. Is that theft? Parody? I don’t know. Nobody cares until it sells.

Booker "Bukka" WhiteWhile the blues players of yesteryear certainly regarded themselves as guitar heroes, they were more concerned with entertaining the Saturday Night Juke Joint crowd because that’s where the money was. Guitar Player magazine didn’t exist then and like guitar players today, some were very protective of their technique and the various tricks they employed (Robert Johnson) and others were very open and even generous about sharing what they knew. Because many acoustic players performed solo or with a washboard player or another guitar, this resulted in a more focused and stripped-down playing approach, as opposed to the vehicle for soloing the blues became later. The SONG was the thing, because there were limitations on what they could pull off without compromising the rhythm and beat of the music, which was and is always more important than the guitar lead. A man by the name of Washboard Sam was present at Booker’s 1940 sessions and you can hear another guitar on some of his other tunes. Things changed for the blues as time went on, but there were those who kept it and keep it with the original vibe early players like Booker White had back in the day. Look for Part 2 soon!

The World is Waiting for the Sunrise

The fiery Joscho Stephan and Friends, including Evan Price on the violin, Martin Sjöstedt on bass, and Denis Chang on rhythm guitar. Joscho Stephan is still in his early 20s and is definitely already well on his way to being a really great player. He has the confidence, speed, power, sophistication, and relaxed joy of someone much more seasoned. I really like how he gets his whole body behind his playing and is jumping out of his chair. I think that stuff is great and he really gets the audience behind him because of that and the fact that he takes a lot of chances. He’s not afraid of making a mistake or not quite pulling off the very fast stuff he’s trying to do. Sometimes it’s good to have that kind of brash, go-for-it attitude. Joscho, like many of the younger GJ players, doesn’t use the traditional Gypsy picking style, though he is still using a whole lot o’ down-strokes. The more I find out about this music the more I realize everybody has their own peculiarities when it comes to how they pick. Joscho’s technique is definitely working for him!

Denis Chang Fleche D'orDenis Chang has done a whole heck of a lot to bring Gypsy Jazz to the masses and has released a couple of really great discs on his own. I have the his Nature Boy disc and it’s one of my favorites. There are plenty of songs chock full of  chops and musicality, not only from Denis himself, but also from fellow Gypsy virtuoso, Ritary Gaguenetti, and special guest Frank Gambale! There are a couple of very nice and atmospheric vocal songs: Stardust, the title track Nature Boy, and Seul Ce Soir and an all around banging track selection and roster of great musicians making the whole thing really shine. I played this on a road trip early last fall and it was beautiful to listen to it driving down highway with all of autumn’s colors in full display. I have to get around to picking up some more of Denis’s stuff because he knows how to make a disc!.

In the style of Stochelo Rosenberg DVDBesides that he has also been a major educator, which has been a big help to people like me. When I first started trying to play GJ and had no idea what I was doing I was helped out most by Denis’ charts and tabs and the Djangobooks.com website, where he was and is a frequent commentator. He has also made a quite a few DVDs and has done some instructional stuff with guitar powerhouses Wawau Adler and Stochelo Rosenberg. I have the two Stochelo discs and they are well-produced and just full of information and a whole lot of playing by Denis and Stochelo that you can just watch and enjoy. There is a In the Style of Stochelo disc and another disc devoted entirely to waltzes. They’re both great! I’ve wanted to get the Wawau discs too, but you know the economy (!). I’m sure they are just as good because Wawau is a heavy player too.

Django Reinhardt in Rome box setAnyhoo, So…The World is Waiting for the Sunrise. Django Reinhardt did this song with Stephane Grappelli and a pick-up band in Italy after WW II. It is available on the Django in Rome box set, which I have and enjoy very much. You can listen to it here. I could’ve easily included this on my FAVORITE MOMENTS list in the Django post, but then I could say that about at least a hundred other songs he did. Notice how hard Django picks without ever losing his articulation and speed. He totally dominates on this track and his rhythm comping at the end is indicative of how rhythmically sound he was. There are some real gems in the Django catalog that showcase his rhythm work and this is one of my favorites. His duos with Stephane, Out of Nowhere being a prime example, are really amazing and great for analyzing how to back someone up effectively and give the music a very infectious and sophisticated pulse.

The World is Waiting for the Sunrise is a very old song (1919) and was covered by many people during the swing era, including Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. In 1951 Les Paul and Mary Ford recorded a version with all of Les’s guitar and recording effects, which were new at the time. It was a big hit and sold over a million copies.Everybody knows I’m sure how important Les Paul’s contributions were to not only the further development of music, but also the technology behind making the music. He invented the Les Paul! He was also a total pioneer in the art of recording and using effects to improve and expand the sound of the recordings. As I show in my big sticky on Django Reinhardt, he and Les Paul were friends. Can you imagine hanging out with those two guys for a couple of hours?!!

quote from Les Paul

Les Paul influenced many people, two of whom you might recognize in the next video. Carl Perkins shows how rockabilly cats “faked” the Les Paul echo to get the same effect on the same song. George Harrison is no stranger to this song either as The Beatles recorded a home-made version sometime in late 50s.

So this is an interesting study of a song that is now almost 100 years old — starting with a recent performance and going back to the middle of the last century’s jazz players and rock n’ roll players and how all of the interpretations differed, but are also very similar in many ways. We can also see how technological advances have allowed guitar players to push the boundaries of the art as far as possible. Standards such as The World is Waiting… have a very user-friendly structure to them—you can make them as simple or complex as you wish, whether harmonically, rhythmically, or sonically— or some kind of combination of all three. Making these connections across styles is not only interesting in and of itself, but it also helps make the song more universal and accessible to anyone not familiar with a particular style. Oh…and Willie Nelson likes it too! Gypsy Jazz and Western Swing are real close cousins.

When I started trying to play jazz, which can be a very overwhelming thing to do it helped to hear artists I had heard many times (The Beatles) do a song like “Sunrise” or The Sheik of Araby. Players who are adept at jazz are, of course all over it and playing stuff that hits a novice like “huh what?” The Beatles did “Sheik” and Carl Perkins played “Sunrise” like they played everything else and since that format and approach was more familiar to me, it was a big help to listen to their versions to get the structure and approach in my brain and under my fingers. Once I was playing and listening to more jazz and Gypsy Jazz music, all of those structures became familiar to me and I could hear them as easily and they were as recognizable and the rock motifs, moves, chord patterns and tricks I grew up on. Popular groups from the rock era have also turned many a person, musician and non-musician alike, onto the people who influenced them and that is a great way to find your way back to the source of what made the music and music technology happen and how that continues to influence and color the music that we hear today.

Jim Croce and Maury Muehleisen

The mellow, acoustic singer-songwriter genre was very big in the 1970s. A list of people/groups from that period would include James Taylor, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Loggins and Messina, Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelberg, Townes van Zandt, Nick Drake, Seals and Crofts, Harry Chapin, and many more. Many of these people, especially the duos seemed to descend directly from Simon and Garfunkel, who certainly had a ton of success in the 1960s. I’m sure Simon and Garfunkel would say they were channeling the Everly Brothers, but that’s another story. This is a sometimes very-reviled genre, especially among people who LIKE TO ROCK OUT! mainly because none of this stuff rocks very much. However, the heavy dudes who were Led Zeppelin were completely captivated by Joni Mitchel, Townes Van Zandt and Nick Drake were extremely influential songwriters, and some of the instrumentation on records from this genre was incredibly complex.

Jim Croce DVD coverWhen I was a kid I was a fan of Jim Croce and maybe it’s a regional thing because he was born and grew up in Philadelphia and I grew up not far from there. Jim wasn’t your typical sensitive singer with a guitar dude, even for the 70s. His persona screamed 70s blue-collar with a great sense of humor. More often than not he was always wearing that faded denim jacket with the “CAT” bulldozer patch on it and he had tattoos when they were a completely un-hip thing to have. Can you picture Seals and Crofts or James Taylor with a tattoo? Then there was the sausage and peppers-mustache and 50¢ cigar in his hand on a regular basis. The guy exuded character even before he started singing and to this day there haven’t really been many like him; only Leon Redbone gets close I guess. A pretty boy he was not, but he was a guy who wrote and sang very beautiful ballads and storyteller songs.

Jim tried and failed at showbiz until he met and teamed up with one Maury Muehleisen, a guy many people, even fans of Jim Croce, know little about. Maury has been called by people who were associated with him as a “certified genius” and he was a classically trained musical powerhouse who gave Jim what a lot of those other singer-songwriters didn’t have — guitar and vocal chops galore, a classical-sense of composition, and beautiful live accompaniment. The three albums they released as a duo were very successful, and it looked as if they were both headed for bona-fide superstardom when they died tragically in a plane crash, immediately after a gig in 1973. I still remember when that happened, believe it or not (same with Lynyrd Skynryd’s crash in 1977). Considering how so many of the songs these guys did together can still move people, it was pretty tragic they met their end this way and at such a young age, Maury especially, since he was only 24.

The guitar interplay on songs like Operator, Time in a Bottle or I’ll Have to Say I Love You… sounds very orchestral, not just quick picking and fun strumming — there was some very smart arranging and genius playing at work. Not that the picking is anything to sneeze at. Both Jim and Maury had their finger-picking down cold to the point they could play complex counterpoint lines to each other while harmonizing vocals simultaneously. On other songs like Working at Car Wash Blues and One Less Set of Footsteps Maury has a very Nashville-inspired sound and approach. Producer Tommy West, who can be seen singing along and playing piano on some YouTube videos that show them in their prime, said this about Maury;

When I went to Nashville in 1977, the musicians all wanted to know who that “picker” was. Maury composed and played some of the most recognizable signature “licks” in pop music.

Then there were the funky street sounds of You Don’t Mess Around with Jim and Bad Bad Leroy Brown, which got very close to rock and roll. They covered a fair amount of ground with their little 2- or sometimes 3-man band and even just a casual glance at their most popular songs illustrates that they were comfortable doing a wide range of material. Jim and Maury favored Martin guitars during their brief career;  the D-18 and D-35 especially, and they were one of the first teams to use ubiquitous 1970s staple, the Ovation. In 2010 Martin Guitars released the D-35 Maury Muehleisen Commemorative Custom Edition. Now that’s staying power!

The instrumentation was there to compliment the vocals, which were very also very well-arranged and performed when they were in front of an audience. Those closest to the duo believe that Maury brought out the real songwriter in Jim and his lyrics and persona blossomed into the person and legend that he became. They complimented each other in many ways and this type of chemistry is SO IMPORTANT in any musical venture. Jim had given up on the music business before he met Maury and might have never been a household name had the two of them not started working together. Even though, in some ways they and the rest of the people in this genre were very much of their time (the groovy 70s), their music, the playing and singing and sentiments expressed in the lyrics continue to move people and serves as a reminder that there was a time, not so long ago, when a couple of unassuming, modest people performing without image, pomp and spectacle were capable of thoroughly entertaining an audience. A song like I Got a Name could have only come from the 1970s and anyone who was there then, knows what I’m talking about, but there was something special about these guys, those times and those sounds. People, even some young people today love and appreciate the music as music as people did in the early 70s because quality never goes out of style.

Bireli Lagrene is Really Great!

This video was my introduction to the guitar monster known as Bireli Lagrene and from here I picked up his 2004 Jazz at Vienne Concert where he does a whole mess of great playing and has help from some of the best talent around today. This concert is really amazing and I know that word is thrown around a lot, but if you haven’t been exposed to this style or the people who play it, you will find this to be a real eye-opener. It’s almost too much to watch all at once as it goes for almost 3 hours and then there’s bonus footage. It is a testament, not only to how great the European gypsy jazz players are, but how super-duper comfortable Bireli is in any playing situation.

Not only are these guys so good musically, but they are also really fun to watch (like all of the faces Bireli is making in the video above). I went to Jazz at Lincoln Center a few years ago with a couple of friends to catch Tchavalo, Dorado, and Samson Schmitt along with amazing violinist Florin Niculescu. Their complete disregard for the Broadway showbiz rules was refreshing. Jazz at Lincoln Center can be a little, er, stuffy. But we had seats front row center and caught all of the mirth the guys were having onstage. Dorado and Florin spent the whole second half of the program sharing some joke that brought laughter from the first few rows, us included. To have a sense of humor and also have chops that put most people to shame are two of the best human qualities as far as I’m concerned.

Here is a video from the Jazz at Vienne concert with Tchavalo, Dorado and Stochelo Rosenberg doing the Django classic J’attendrai. Tchavalo played this at Lincoln Center and as soon as he started it — I got a similar feeling when I saw Buddy Guy, Johnny Cash, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray or Jimmie Vaughan — you KNOW you are watching the real deal. He was wearing a white suit and played like a man possessed. Dorado Schmitt is also remarkable and he played guitar, violin and even crooned a sweet ballad for us. To watch Tchavalo, Dorado and Florin  trade chorus after chorus with each other was just fantastic. A woman sitting in the next seat said “I can’t believe how good they are!” and I had to agree with her even though I knew we were going to see good show.

I encourage anyone the least bit interested to get the Jazz at Vienne DVD, you won’t be disappointed. Any guitar players interested in this style should watch the top video repeatedly and pay attention to Bireli’s right hand. THAT is what people call Gypsy Picking and nobody does it better than he. He also uses standard alternate picking when the mood strikes him, but plays the Gypsy Picking most of the time when he is doing this kind of material. The DVD has him onstage for a many segments — with his Gipsy Project, in duos, trios or group jams like the following. Bireli is a guy who can pretty much do anything.

Here is another video from the Vienne concert with Bireli, Stochelo Rosenberg, Tchavalo and Dorado doing the jazz and GJ standard Them There Eyes. This is these guys doing what they have been doing since they were kids — having a gypsy jazz  jam — only here they are in front of thousands of people.