Music Business

Oh! Sweet Nuthin’

back in October or July…I forget…I said I was going to go check out the Velvet Underground Experience. Then in the last post I said I totally didn’t do that…and I didn’t. I heard things locally and then…I read some reviews. The mainstream reviews were all predictably glowing, but I don’t trust that stuff because hahaha, so I proceeded to Google reviews. Angry, disgruntled people who want their money back is what I wanna read! Like:

“Don’t waste your money on this. We left disappointed- most of the exhibit was just pictures that I’ve seen before and plaques lacking enough information. An entire wall is dedicated to the 60’s in general (the exhibit isn’t big enough to justify this). I expected SOMETHING interesting- maybe memorabilia or immersive areas, but there’s very little…Wish we could get our money back :(“

I think most people would expect something interesting. Or why pay $25 to show up to an empty loft on Broadway? Of course there was also the matter of all the accompanying promotional material that promised “rare” stuff:

Velvet Underground Exhibition Coming To New York City
The exhibition debuted in Paris two years ago and features rare photographs, portraits, films, live concerts and musical workshops.

Perhaps there is some confusion over definitions. RARE: 1: seldom occurring or found: UNCOMMON 2a: marked by unusual quality, merit, or appeal : DISTINCTIVE b: superlative or extreme of its kind 3: marked by wide separation of component particles: THIN rare air. Yet:

“This lack of memorabilia is made painfully evident both by the large wall of “establishing” photos featuring 1960s New York and notable personalities of the time like James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Cassius Clay and Marlon Brando – none of whom have any direct link to the VU – and the near-equal billing given to people in the Velvets/Warhol orbit like Edie Sedgwick, LaMonte Young, and Candy Darling…there are a startling number of spelling and grammar errors in the accompanying texts…the gift shop is so bereft of items bearing the band’s iconic imagery (no album covers, not even a banana on those $29 iPhone cases) that one wonders how much cooperation the show got from the living band members and the estates of the deceased including Reed and Warhol.

Wow. A pattern emerges. These people sound disappointed for sure. Lest you think that I’m the type of person who would deprive himself of an experience based solely on anonymous internet “cranks” I suggest that you Peruse this Perfectly Passionate Post on Pitchfork from a very woke author: How Can You Have “The Velvet Underground Experience” Without the Music? She did the Experience so I didn’t have to! As she makes her way through the exhibition she encounters the following….let’s listen in:

“By the time I reach a display of Velvets posters mixed in with covers of LIFE and, no kidding, images of the moon landing and Woodstock, the bummer retail feeling gives rise to genuine blood boil. Can future makers of biopics and bio-exhibits please agree the world has collectively seen the same stock ’60s newsreel? (Moe Tucker in Please Kill Me, on the band’s reception in San Francisco: “I didn’t like that love-peace shit.”)

I get the anger. I’m not old enough to have participated in all of the fun and important moments of the swinging 60s, but am old enough to have had to endure 40 years of revisiting same. When will the Boomer hagiography end? Will it ever end? Has any decade or event been repackaged and re-praised, reappraised, remembered and recycled as many times as the 1960s? Probably not. However, the Velvet Underground are as Boomer as the rest of that newsreel and the fact that they hated the hippies really doesn’t matter. This was a concern of mine before the show opened because, as I’ve come to recognize in other documentaries or retrospectives of this era, quite often the music, musician, or artist must always be contextualized within the larger whole of very familiar cultural themes (Woodstock, Vietnam, Civil Rights). The music itself, outside of how it may serve these various narratives, is sometimes treated almost as an afterthought. This would be a shame if it wasn’t so infuriating:

What you cannot buy is the music. Apart from a mysterious handful of vintage albums (only a couple by the band) displayed on an upstairs mezzanine, there is no music for sale at “The Velvet Underground Experience.” No vinyl reissues of the albums that are displayed under glass and which in retrospect seem even more fossil-like. There are none of the books by or about the band members—how easy it would have been to unlock that universe, too. If you’re going to commodify a band or scene, at the very least, sell the music, sell the books, do full diligence in perpetuating the actual work that the exhibition celebrates. Instead, a familiar murmur bleeds over from the start of the exhibit nearby. As I let the reality of the existence of Kiss the Boot laptop cases sink in, the reading of Ginsberg’s America hangs in the air like a too-pointed metaphor: America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.”

Since the music (and not even all of the music) is the only interesting aspect of the Velvet Underground to me, the fact that the Experience couldn’t be bothered to take it seriously (while charging $25/$50) sealed the deal on my attendance (or lack thereof). I didn’t need a background to take a selfie at anyhow! The truth is, out of all the potential interesting media I’ve seen over the past few years, only two: Long Strange Trip and Astral Weeks: The Secret History of 1968 were really good. So much worthless retrospective crap is produced and I’m not sure what that says about our society or how one could explain without sounding like a complete dystopian crank. At this point in my life, considerations and discussions of this nature must be avoided at all costs.

RUMBLE — The Indians Who Rocked the World

this documentary has been kicking around for a few years now and I watched it last night. If you haven’t seen it, I think you can view here on NYC’s PBS link free for the next 11 days. Many of the reviews have been positive like this one, and this one, a more cautionary one here, and finally, another one here. While most reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are positive, some do acknowledge problems with the movie and there certainly are problems. I’ve given the movie 3 stars; one star for movie, one for the live music played by indigenous musicians, and one for the fact that Jimi Hendrix appears and that always gets a star from me no matter what. Read on if you want to hear about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Skip if you haven’t seen it yet and plan to.

In two interviews I’ve seen online with director/producer Catherine Bainbridge, the stated goal or what drew her to doing “this story” was, and I quote, “Some of the greatest rock stars in the world know about the influence of these incredible Indigenous musicians but the rest of us do not.” LOL…okay. That isn’t too arrogant I guess; assuming what millions of people know. I’ve known for the better part of 40 years that Jimi Hendrix and Robbie Robertson (two of the features in the film) had/have Native heritage and I am not the only person who can say this. As a matter of fact, Hendrix recorded an amazing song on his first album in 1967 titled I Don’t Live Today, dedicated to the modern Native American experience. It’s a shame that this documentary opted to be the 1,333,667,888th media presentation to use the iconic Jimi at Woodstock motif instead of pointing out the fact that Jimi recorded probably the first and definitely one of the best ever paeans to the struggle of indigenous people, but that’s what it did. The kids can’t learn if the teachers suck, knowhatimsayin?

A big part of why I don’t think this film deserves a better rating is because I don’t like the “oral tradition” formula for making movies (or documentaries) and I’ve said so before, most specifically in my review of Elvis: The Searcher from last year. I find all of the jump cuts to people I completely don’t care about distracting to a coherent narrative. The idea behind the movie (which is common with these documentaries) was to get as many famous musicians in the movie to underscore the value of the subject profiled (because that reinforces the already-stated central theme). In the segment devoted to Link Wray and his classic instrumental Rumble, Iggy Pop lets the world know that this is the song that made him decide to be a musician….Who gives a shit? Is this segment (movie) about him or is it about Link Wray? If Rumble was such an amazing musical moment, why does it need to be validated by Iggy Pop? Robbie Robertson is also onboard breathlessly relating that, “a song came on the radio, an instrumental, and it changed everything!” Yea…it didn’t, but Robbie breathlessly related similar sentiments in the Elvis documentary so I guess back in the day EVERYTHING WAS CHANGING every two minutes. It must have been hard to know how to dress.

The comment by Robertson points to another problem and that is the overselling and exaggeration of people’s accomplishments and abilities. It’s one thing to be passionate and/or in love with something personally, it’s quite another to be willfully inaccurate to the point of stupidity. While Rumble was certainly an influential moment, it didn’t change everything. These hyperbolic moments are what change documentaries into slick, late night infomercials. In a later segment on guitarist Jessie Ed Davis, ex-Rolling Stone writer David Fricke intones, “…he played great, tight, dynamic blues and the British Rock aristocracy love this. This is something they can’t get naturally. They have to import it…” Given that Davis migrated to England at the height of the British blues boom in the late 1960s, it’s stupid to suggest that Beck, Clapton, Page, Green, Taylor, Richards, Blackmore, Kossoff, et. al. couldn’t play the blues well enough….to sell millions of records. Maybe it’s a shame we live in that world where the blues on Led Zeppelin 1 has sold more than everything Jessie Ed Davis ever released because he was a very tasty guitar player, no doubt, but we do live in that world and no amount of pretending in a documentary is going to change that.

The performances and interviews with people like Buffy Saint Marie, The Neville Brothers, Rhiannon Giddens, Pura Fé, and Taj Mahal were great; the main reason to watch the movie. There should have been much more of this; more Jimi, Nokie Edwards and The Ventures, Rick Medlocke and Blackfoot and down home ordinary people doing their thing with voice and instrument. The explorations of Native music intertwining with Blues rhythms is a topic that deserves its own (well-done) documentary. Likewise for all of the socio-political points the film tries to explore. By the end of the Jessie Ed Davis segment the piling on of artists in an attempt to rack up a body count to further validate indigenous contributions begins to wear thin. I wish this film style would die, seriously. Just show the musician or performer performing, talk to principals, do a few more location shots, and ditch the supposed “experts”. The endless bloviating and hagiography by talking heads is annoying and exhausting and I find it always detracts from whatever positive experience a film like this is trying to bring.

Happy New Year 2019!

wishing any and all The Guitar Cave readers a Happy New Year! I hope it goes well for you! May there be many prestigious and emotionally charged artistic moments added to the Scala gallery that is your life! I hope for some of the same for myself, of course, but at this point, I’m also at that “eh…whatever happens” point in my life. That’s okay though. Personally, I’m amazed that it’s 2019 because I never expected to be living through this time, not because I expected to die early, but rather, I just never gave any thought to the distant future or my later years. While I’m aware that there is a plethora of industries devoted to helping people prepare for certain eventualities, I’m not so sure a) that many people can and/or do think that far ahead, or b) the unforseen circumstances of life can render any planning moot and pointless anyway. So when I was 24 I didn’t sit around and wonder what it would be like living in 2019. Even though there aren’t any flying cars (and considering how people drive terra-cars maybe that’s a good thing) me and the rest of my generation has lived through a completely unbelievable set of changes, advances, and age of progress. In the coming months I will talk more about that.

Now that 2018 is in the books, I took stock of last year and was pretty happy with how things went on the blogging front. I hadn’t published anything between October of 2017 and May of 2018 and then I just banged it out; almost thirty-five posts and an unbelievable amount of jazz, alt, and rock guitar disc reviews. It doesn’t even matter that most of this stuff will never get read, it was, from a personal standpoint, a momentous achievement! Hopefully, this year, my 9th year of blogging will be even more entertaining. I have some serious plans for at least the first part of the year and if I can get all of what I have planned done, I might have to take some more time off. I hope I have the energy and health to see it through, but that’s what we need to hope for most, doncha think?

I’ve already mentioned that I’ll be posting/linking a bunch of video content soon; old days NYC rock and roll shot, edited, mixed and produced ninja-style. It should be pretty awesome! I’ve also mentioned a few other things, like review The Aristocrats album. Yes! That will be the next post, because I’ve listened to the disc a whole bunch of times. Like probably several hundred…or, at least more times than The White Album. [As an aside, I’m going to be launching a campaign soon: The White Album SUCKS and SO DOES SANDINISTA!] I don’t know how successful that endeavor will be, but I think, if nothing else, it’s a great post title!

I’ve been thinking I need to be more biting and controversial but that’s a very tight line to walk when you’re an old guy because that’s what everyone expects from an old guy. From the beginning I set out to avoid the “snark” that drives so much online content, because…it is everywhere…and after a while it’s really tiring. The problem with me is that I like many “voices”, and there are many literary styles and approaches that I find entertaining and pleasing to read. Just the other day I read this interview with famed author Vladimir Nabokov (of Lolita fame) with Alvin Toffler from 1964, in Playboy magazine no less. It’s pretty amazing to read the level of ideas, vocabulary and discourse in this interview and try to find anything remotely similar in today’s media. Would that “voice” work for a blog of this nature? Probably not and I wouldn’t be capable of pulling it off anyway, but since I believe music and the guitar to be worthy of all of the respect, intelligence and seriousness given to other topics and forms in the world, I would certainly hope to have all of the abilities necessary to impart what I think to readers. Sometimes passion, especially passion just for passion’s sake, is not enough. Incidentally, Nabokov had no ear for music. None. Imagine what that’s like:

“…I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly. When I attend a concert—which happens about once in five years—I endeavor gamely to follow the sequence and relationship of sounds but cannot keep it up for more than a few minutes. Visual impressions, reflections of hands in lacquered wood, a diligent bald spot over a fiddle, take over, and soon I am bored beyond measure by the motions of the musicians. My knowledge of music is very slight; and I have a special reason for finding my ignorance and inability so sad, so unjust: There is a wonderful singer in my family—my own son. His great gifts, the rare beauty of his bass, and the promise of a splendid career—all this affects me deeply, and I feel a fool during a technical conversation among musicians. I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to cooperate? But I have found a queer substitute for music in chess—more exactly, in the composing of chess problems.”

When I think of all of the musically oriented pleasurable moments in my life I can’t imagine that “chess problems” or the composing thereof, would serve as a substitute. Perhaps I could never be a writer of Nabokov’s level because I can enjoy Debussy, Django, and Led Zeppelin. Hmm. Anyhow, (wow what a detour) another album I said I was going to get to check out was Muriel Anderson’s Nightlight Daylight double album. Soon, and more reviews in the already thriving rock guitar category. Another thing I have planned is to resurrect the GuitarSong series because, though it took awhile, those articles get a lot of page views now. Well, three out of the four; nobody seems interested in the Eddie Van Halen I’m the One article, which I thought would be the most popular. Just goes to show there’s no telling the interests of audience. Those posts are pretty labor-intensive, but I’ll probably do 4 more and the sketches of those articles are starting to take shape. Finally, the only thing I definitely did NOT do was venture across town to see the Velvet Underground Exhibition. There were a couple of reasons for this I’m going to tie into a post on rock writers and the Culture of Suck that I’ve wanted to do for a while now. Maybe it will be a series. Who knows? There’s something to be said for staying busy, even if it’s pointless. Right after Christmas NY Magazine ran an article titled, How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually. It’s a pretty amusing/terrifying article because it details how the clicks, metrics, people, businesses, politics and consumers are ultimately fake. It’s like The Matrix or that Hologram world I keep writing about. An example:

“…How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

So I’m not laboring under any Rupert Pupkin type delusions here that someday my blog will be Time Magazine, because I’ve never had those delusions and ultimately that isn’t the point anyway. It’s fun to have ideas and see them through to completion and ultimately it helps to keep the body and spirit young and healthy (as possible). There is certainly a bad type of “busy”, or an unhealthy compulsion on the part of some to overwork themselves for whatever reason, but that isn’t the same thing. Whatever you do though, I hope your year is fun and prosperous and a big Thank You! for reading the blog!

Sweetwater Sound

a few weeks ago I purchased a Ditto Looper from Sweetwater Sound, and because of that decision I became a member of an elite sect…a secret society…a special organization even. I’m now a valued customer who deserves…a Catalog! or Catalogue! Yes! I didn’t think anyone did the direct mail thing anymore. This is the musical instrument equivalent of the Sears Wish Book from days of old; jam-packed and chock-full of goodies!

My first reaction was to be completely and totally shocked that I would receive a 600+ page catalog from anyone, much less a music equipment company! I was in the graphic design business for many years and over the course of my career I was involved in producing at least 125 major catalogs, so I know a little bit about what goes into their creation, production, and distribution, including the cost. Publishing, printing, and shipping a catalog this size is not cheap and pretty much everyone says, “why bother?” in the current marketplace when everything lives online. Just the other day there was this latest figure that showed online Black Friday sales surged…they SURGED by over 20% from last year, including more than $2 billion dollars just from smartphones!

Also, I think I’ve done a very thorough job covering the new realities of the musical instrument landscape over the past 7 years The Guitar Cave has been in existence. As you may recall I wrote a few posts on the media bullshit associated with transformation of the instrument market or “malaise” the major media was referring to as the Death of the Electric Guitar without exploring all of the bad business decisions, corruption, overconfident future forecasts, incompetence, and a very tapped out American consumer, while focusing strictly on a changing musical landscape. While I acknowledged that, sure, the business and musical landscapes had changed (as they are wont to do), there was very little press on how corporate America seemed to be giving itself a pass on the problems associated with the collapse of the industry by blaming people for not buying guitars like they used to. As it turns out, I was right to have this attitude because as I wrote in my last post, Update: The Guitar is Totally Not Dying! the numbers show that consumers have been stepping up and buying musical equipment and a lot of this talk about “no new Eric Claptons” was Boomer Babbling misdirection away from the real problems. I also reported that after years of running his company into the drink, Gibson former honcho, Henry Juszkiewicz was kicked to the curb to save Gibson guitar from bankruptcy only to be replaced by former Levi Strauss CEO James Curleigh. Only time will tell if a guy who ran a pants company can get Gibson back on track! And now, right on cue we can add another layer of evidence onto my investigative theorizing. We have a company that, in this terrible, terrible market, where no one is buying instruments, can “afford” to send a huge catalog to someone who bought a pedal and an adapter. LOL. So who are these guys?

They are the largest online retailer of music gear in the United States. You can tell from their website or the catalog pages I’m attaching here that they carry a little bit of everything! (As an aside…the sheer size of the stompbox market, the number of companies, the number of pedals, the number of functions or combination of functions the pedals do today is flat-out outstanding! Wow! Does this look like a dying market? I think not.) The company was founded in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is where they are still headquartered. They have 1 brick and mortar store on their “campus” there in Indiana, so the ever-expanding real location stuff is an overhead the company doesn’t have to worry about. The prices are competitive, they offer FREE, reliable shipping, generous financing options, and what’s fast becoming the standard “No Hassle” type return policy that I’ve mentioned here, with regards to other online companies. Oh NO! I sound like an advertisement!

Sweetwater’s founder, Chuck Surack, seems like an interesting guy. He was a sax player in bands and then for a while had a recording studio in a VW bus that he would use to do location recordings…kind of like he was the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit. Neato. Here’s a video interview with Chuck. (Here’s a tour of the RS mobile unit). Sweetwater the gear company evolved from Sweetwater the recording studio; the gear they test and use in the studios became (becomes) the gear that they carry, so the whole process has been incredibly organic. Also, the company is privately owned; no shareholders, no banks and free from a lot of the pressures that drive business decisions and strategies at companies like Gibson and Guitar Center. Chuck’s business priorities of treating customers well first and worrying about the profits second is something out of the old days, but this is company philosophy. You’ll never be a billionaire with that attitude, Chuck!

But maybe he doesn’t care. That would be a refreshing change. Of course, it’s not all good, or is it? Obviously small dealers will have trouble competing with an entity like Sweetwater. There is a whiff of Amazonism at play here because Amazon got to be the world’s biggest bookstore by not having any actual bookstores. Rent actually does eat up a whole lot of money…ask any of the very famous shops that used to line the iconic 48th street in New York City. So anyone coming up who also wants to run and musical instrument company will have to adopt this business model or fail. But does it matter anymore? Probably not. Where I live people always talk about “mom and pops” like it’s still the 1970s and they want to buy a garden hose at Blogsteins after lunch at the Woolworth’s counter. The reality is that shopping experience is a quaint anachronism in 2018…or more Boomer Babbling.

I know, I know…“small businesses are the backbone of a healthy economy”; “competition is crucial for capitalism to function properly”; “too big to fail and anything that smacks of monopolies is bad, bad, bad,” and, in theory, I agree. I’m sure everyone out there has read the economic treatises that predict a very dire future when 20 companies will own everything. As I’ve written in the past, my local musical retail landscape is gone anyway except for boutiques that were stupidly expensive even before Guitar Center existed, so my choice to get this pedal was basically go to Guitar Center or order from Sweetwater. I ordered from Sweetwater and my experience was 100% positive. They really do go the extra mile on customer satisfaction and service and that’s more than I can say for some brick and mortar / mom and pop retailers I’ve dealt with over the years. Long term, big picture, what’s the answer? I don’t know. What is definitely needed though is a honest discussion about what the landscape realities are and as I’ve pointed out above (and on a few occasions now) I don’t think there is a lot of that in the mainstream media. This is a topic that’s interesting to me and I’ll have some more thoughts soon. BTW, if you would like a Sweetwater catalog of your own, you can order it right HERE. No purchase necessary!

…And We’re Back!

The Disc Reviews Section has been completely reorganized and there is a whole lot of new content! I’ve bought, heard, sampled and reviewed more discs this year than at any time since the beginning of the blog almost 8 years ago. Exciting! I thought I could finish everything I was planning by the this point, but I haven’t and I don’t want to deprive the millions of 15 people who come here regularly access to the site any longer! ‘Cause I’m all about the readers! The updating will continue until the audience begs for mercy…or I just get sick of it and call it a day.

Not only did I hear a lot of music this year, but I acquired the music in different and various ways. The changes are interesting, but not always fun. It’s not like the old days when you could go to the Virgin Megastore and buy practically anything. The internet promised and continuously promises that EVERYTHING is available, all of the time, but that isn’t always true. What is true is that I bought some really cool imports and hard to find stuff at brick and mortar stores over the years and I’m not sure it’s available now. Plus, as I’ve already mentioned in another post there is something fun about finding stuff out in the real world, but that experience is almost impossible anymore. Sad.

The ch-ch-changes also affect how one views or attends music. I’ve faithfully documented the hologram phenomenon and what a phenomenon it is! I know that is something that everyone out there wants me to stay on top of! But another new musical performance avenue is on the horizon thanks to Bruce Springsteen. His Broadway “stand” has been very successful; it’s been extended three times and has grossed $2.5 million per week. Added benefit: he can drive home every night after the performance, which is way easier than a tour, especially for a guy his age. “Build it and they will come,” says Bruce! A few of my relatives have been to these intimate performances and would go again in a heartbeat. Netflix will get in on the action at the end of the year and record a show or two. This is like the NEW Vegas, but different because it doesn’t have the Cheeseball Factor and Reputation of Las Vegas, and that kind of money will certainly attract others to do same:

A group of powerful entertainment companies — Live Nation, Creative Artists Associates and Entertainment Benefits Group — is about to snap up a Broadway theater where A-list rock, pop and country performers will be “in residency” for three-week stints…Deals have not been finalized, but CAA — home to Springsteen’s agent — represents a boatload of superstars, including Ariana Grande, Kelly Clarkson, Bette Milder, Aerosmith, Carrie Underwood, Lionel Richie, James Taylor, Demi Lovato, Diana Ross, Faith Hill, the Eagles, Michael Bublé and Adam Lambert.

You can totally see Aerosmith and the Eagles jumping at this opportunity although neither of those bands have the down-home folksy charm and appeal that Bruce does. I could imagine everyone getting tired of listening to Steven Tyler after about 3 minutes. A mega-star like The Boss in that kind of intimate setting telling stories is a surefire winner, aesthetically and financially. It’s hard to get the “real” tickets for these shows (so I’ve heard) and people rely on “scalpers” who charge $3,000 and up for the tickets.  Is there anything hypocritical about this kind of folksy populism bringing in ten million a month? Hmm…

NEAT LINKS — Last week I found a couple of pretty cool things, especially for those people into jazz. All of the issues of The Jazz Review, a short-lived magazine from 1958 through 1961, are online in PDF format here. The mag was founded by Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, and Hsio Wen Shih in New York City and counted many musicians and jazz afficiandos as contributors. I haven’t found a lot of “guitar” stuff” so far, but the magazine has some great interviews and musical insights of the time, the writers were passionate fans of jazz music, and the historical angle alone (if you are into that sort of thing) is worth the price of admission. (Especially seeing how that price is FREE!).

Also, I’ve mentioned Kodoku No Gurume, a Japanese foodie show before, but today I will expand. While, on one level it is a food show and the food takes center stage, the main character, Goro, an independent designer, decorator, professional goods importer, is also a ruminating philosopher by way of his relationship to food and eating. Although it is fun to see all of the different businesses Goro visits to eat and all of the different meals, it is the calm visuals of the show and main actor Yutaka Matsushige‘s soothing voice that make for really great television. So much Japanese television is really noisy and busy and most American television is incredibly stupid and manipulative. But I do like cooking shows. I was also a fan of Lidia Bastianich and her Lidia’s Italy cooking show. She always made some really attractive meals and wove her personal stories and very interesting Italia facts into every episode. What these two shows have in common is plenty of GYPSY JAZZ background music. Here is Lidia’s old theme…I don’t think she uses it anymore. It was “written” and performed by composer Martha Bourne, but the “composed” angle is a bit of a stretch seeing as how it is obviously directly lifted from Django Reinhardt’s very famous Minor Swing. Kodoku No Gurume has a musical group called The Screen Tones that has created a wide range of different musical styles for the various footage of seven seasons worth of episodes with some of it having a very definite Gypsy Jazz flavor.

The rhythm guitarist is Masayuki Kusumi, who also serves as a writer of the original Kodoku manga, actor, and part creator to the show. The lead guitarist is a bona-fide Manouche player by the name of Fumihiko Kono and he can really work it out, not only on television and with The Screen Tones, but also onstage with powerhouse European Gypsy Jazz guys (see below). Way cool!

Since I love Gypsy Jazz anyhow, obviously it makes me enjoy television that uses the music in creative ways, especially when it’s well-written and well-played. The attraction of the music going back to its creation at the hands of Django and Stephane Grappelli is that it perfectly embodies the pure joy and good times of life; la dolce vita or however you want to think of it. Of course food, wine, dining, parties, get-togethers, family and friends are a big part of the STUFF of life and the music only makes all of that much more enjoyable!

BTW, if you are interested in watching these shows they are online. Lidia has a lot of stuff at her Youtube channel and Kodoku No Gurume can be found by entering the name of the show into any Kissasian site which I’m sure you can find on your own if you choose.

All That Jazz

I got a message this week that said, “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, but that back-order of discs you’re expecting? Ain’t gonna happen. Remember… to order from us again…then you’ll begin to make it…better…” The discs in question were from the order that included the Howlin’ Wolf and Davey Graham CDs I’ve already reviewed…and yes being the guy I am, I did make it better, but not at the same online retailer. We haven’t finished with the replacement for the broken Wolf discs yet…so it’s best to proceed cautiously. But there was a bunch of music listening done this week so here are a few down-and-dirty reviews.

Moonlight in Vermont ***** This album was probably the high point of Johnny Smith’s career and is viewed as one of the most influential guitar classics of the period by many, including prominent guitarists such as Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, and Jimmy Bruno. Charlie Parker was also rumored to be a huge fan. The album is still a great disc to listen to because of its high level of musicality and the emotional romance that music of this period contained. The material on the album was actually a compilation drawn from 2 10-inch discs that Johnny had recorded while at NBC during the early 1950s (It was the song, Moonlight in Vermont, not the album, that was jazz magazine’s Downbeat #2 song of the year (in 1952). The album Moonlight… was released in 1956 and Smith picked his band from a group of fellers he met while was on staff at NBC. This group included the incomparable saxophone superstar Stan Getz, who is the perfect foil for Smith on this album as the two of them drive each other to thrilling and precipitous heights on several cuts. It’s easy to imagine that in lesser hands what is attempted would fall apart spectacularly, but they both had a level of mastery that enabled them to play cleanly, clearly, and brilliantly no matter the tempo or difficulty of the musical passages; a reason many of the performances on the disc are flat-out breathtaking, even by today’s standards.

Many reviews of Moonlight in Vermont allude to Smith’s chord melody style having the quality of a piano and his single line playing recalling the great saxophone lines of someone like Lester Young, and this is true. He also had a pure, very crystalline tone delivered either on an Epiphone or Guild archtop and there is at times a very distinct Western Swing vibe and a nod or three to the great Chet Atkins. Throughout the album there is a very Lush Musicality, that is well supported by the great rhythm section and piano players that appear on the disc. Moonlight in Vermont includes the original composition Jaguar with Smith and Getz playing the dual lead head and middle passages at breakneck tempo. Then there is the Caravan-esque Tabu with its bebop harmonies and dark guitar tone…also a dual lead by Smith and Getz. Smith’s picking is clean and forceful and he has said he imagined that he would have to execute lines in the same smooth fashion as a violin player (going from a bottom note all the way to the top in one crescendo movement). The breakdown middle during the solo choruses of Tabu illustrates this very well with both players blowing out a flurry of notes. The best ballads: Tenderly, Stars Fell on Alabama, I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance, and the title cut all feature Johnny’s beautiful chord melody (tight-closed voice) playing that he pulls off with the harmonic and melodic sense of a classical/jazz pianist. At other times, the sound of Johnny’s guitar almost approaches that of a pedal steel and that tone adds an extra level of sweetness, ambiance, and emotionalism to the tunes and juxtaposes very nicely with Getz’s very throaty, resonant sax solos. Sometimes it also sounds like Hawaiian slack key slide guitar as on the bouncy Vilia and I’ll Be Around. Then there are the tunes that are completely early 50s bop: Cherokee, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and Cavu. All in all it’s a perfectly balanced listening experience and though it serves as such, it is much more than just a very inspired guitar study. Trust me when I say that if you throw it on the next time you want to set a romantic mood, you won’t be sorry!

Soft Guitars***1/2 The Al Caiola (w/Don Arnone) Soft Guitars disc is another lush and very swanky jazz disc, released in 1961. Both Caiola and Arnone were well-regarded studio musicians in New York in the 1950s, so obviously this is top-level, well-arranged music for the swank set of that time. This is very typical of the Cool Jazz/Space Age pop/Bachelor-Pad style of music of the time; lots of playful sounds, swinging guitars, bongos, vibes, bells, whistles, sound effects, and lots of album covers with hot babes. This album was originally part of a two-LP set called Great Pickin’ and Soft Guitars and then was a 2 LP on 1 CD set and somewhere along the line the set was split. It is a marvelous snapshot or earshot, if you will, of a time in music that is long gone, yet recalls the exuberance, optimism, and class of the pre-rock era. People like me, who came of age during the 60s and 70s still heard this type of music and this type of musician all of the time on television and in movies. It didn’t really go away permanently until the 80s.

There is a well-arranged duet style that permeates the record and given that both of these guys were first call session guitarists, I’m sure they came to this kind of arranging naturally. There isn’t a whole lot of wild improvisation or flashy stuff; they keep it to some great instrumental jazz/popular music of the time, played exceptionally well. They cover Stella by Starlight, Try a Little Tenderness, The Sound of Music and More Than You Know. Leading off the album is their take on They Can’t Take That Away From Me, a song that was later associated with jazz guitar titans Ted Greene and Martin Taylor. Since this album was recorded way back in 1961, I would say Al and Don got there first! In addition to other jumpin’, jivin’ tunes like S’ Wonderful and S’Nice they do a great take on Imagination, the old jazz warhorse I Can’t Get Started, and Clair de Lune as Debussy might’ve imagined it. I wrote about Debussy and the complicated history of Clair de Lune here and was very surprised to find it on an album like this. Because both guitarists are obviously playing electric (archtop) guitars their version has a much different, trebly, ringing quality that one doesn’t hear when the piece is performed classically as it usually is. But I enjoy the very ethereal and dreamy feel that is augmented with beautiful harp accompaniment from Gloria Agostini. Though this isn’t the genre-defining album that Moonlight in Vermont was and is, it is still a great listening experience.

There were two other discs that I previewed, but ultimately passed on…and they were both Django Reinhardt CDs if you can believe that! The first disc was Django and His American Friends, a 3 disc set that is mostly Django backing up the likes of early jazz superstars like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter as well as lesser-knowns like Rex Stewart and Dickie Wells. There are some Freddie Taylor vocal cuts (After You’ve Gone, Georgia, Ilse Muggin’) too, but they (as well as some of the Hawkins material) can be found elsewhere and I already have. While the disc gets great reviews, most of this stuff is the big-band era kind of jazz that doesn’t really feature guitars or Django. Of course he was a GREAT rhythm player and there is something to be said for the historical value, but I do have some of this stuff on other comps and truth be told, it’s not really my go-to Django stuff. I prefer him playing his compositions.

Another Django disc I previewed and passed on was Django in Brussels, which is not the same as this disc that I have and have already reviewed and is very good. Culled from 1942 sessions, this new disc (new to me not NEW) sounds like it was recorded off of someone’s copy of a scratchy record in the back of a caravan somewhere. The sessions themselves are the stuff of legend: recorded beneath Stalag 13 while Colonel Klink and the rest of the oblivious Nazis slept, Django and his band recorded a bunch of rare and unheard tunes…at least for those who are familiar with his catalog. Of course, this is the major selling point of what I found to be a ho-hum collection. Also…I can’t get past the fidelity. That’s probably all that survives of this session at this point, but I didn’t think the songs themselves were so great that I could ignore the sound quality. Others make think differently about that equation and that is the beauty of musical opinions just BEWARE! If you are thinking about buying a Django in Brussels CD and it doesn’t look like this, better preview some of the audio first is all I’m saying!