Archive for Brian Wilson

ShortRiffs — March 2017

Posted in Education, Music Business, Players, Playing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by theguitarcave

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Welcome to the March issue of ShortRiffs! Winter is almost over and Spring has sprung…sometimes. As always, there is some guitar-related stuff in the news, including some sad stories for us older folks. But it’s to be expected… I guess. Time keeps on slippin’ into the future and all that.

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CHUCK BERRY One of the founding fathers of rock and roll has died at the age of 90. What a life! What a legacy! There will never be another like him you can be sure of that. Anyone who has ever read his autobio or seen Hail Hail Rock and Roll knows what an iconoclastic character Chuck was; a driven, intelligent and very dangerous guy! It’s not hyperbole to say that pretty much every guitar player who came after owes some debt to Chuck’s jazzy, rocking guitar style. This was explored and best explained by none other than Eric Clapton in the Hail Hail movie. The patented Chuck Berry double-stops, slurs and bluesy bends formed the basis for many an early fledgling guitar player and on certain songs or in certain situations they actually sound better than other guitar options. While Chuck didn’t invent any of this technique, he certainly popularized and took it out to the mainstream and sold it well. Who else from the early days of rock and roll casts as long a shadow? Chuck’s style and music continue to be an influence on countless rock and rollers all over the globe. He’s the guy who launched 5 million bands, easily. Interestingly, he has said that “rock and roll paid the bills but his heart was in the big band era”. This is something I have alluded to in a number of posts on this blog: The big band era never gets the credit it deserves for its influence on the rock and rollers who came along in the 1950s, and then everything else that followed.

But Chuck Berry was much more than a singing guitar-slinger. He was a songwriter par excellence and his music was quintessentially 1950s post-war America; hot cars, juke joints, pretty girls, hamburgers, dancing, wide open highways, falling in love, and rock and roll. It was the music of a country that had plenty to offer and was a testament to the belief (especially at the time) that there was no greater place on earth. That’s what I see in all of Chuck’s performances and hear in his music, even the difficult personal relationship music. As long as life gives me the opportunity, I will make something of it! That can-do attitude, immense natural scope, and awesome lifestyle possibilities that made America the envy of the world really helped create the soundtrack we all know as rock and roll and nobody personified, enunciated and delivered it better than Mr. Berry. In time many other entertainers, including Brian Wilson, Jagger/Richards, Lennon/McCartney would expand on the very fertile ground that Chuck had tilled to create their own vision and version of the land of dreams and opportunity, but they all acknowledged the debt they owed to the original rock and roll Shakespeare! I am not unhappy that Chuck has left the building though the world is much poorer without him. Chuck always did what Chuck wanted to do when Chuck wanted to do it. If he is gone now, it’s because that is what he wanted and who am I to question what Chuck wanted? Long Live the King!

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Speaking of dreams and opportunities — Back in this post on Jimi Hendrix, I mentioned an old book in my possession, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky. This book, Rock Dreams, one of the campiest and most far-out books ever done on the subject of rock and roll, has been in my possession for just as long. I recently found it at the bottom of a closet full of stuff. The book was written by Nik Cohn and illustrated lovingly, controversially and very gay-ly (for the time) by Guy Peellaert, an artist and illustrator probably best known for the David Bowie Diamond Dogs and The Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock and Roll album covers. The book had been put together the year before (1973) and according to Wikipedia it reportedly sold a million copies after it was published the following year. The book consisted of Peelaert’s visual illustrations which celebrated and exaggerated the rebel heritage of pop music and, particularly, rock and roll, with commentary by Cohn. Many of the original artworks were bought by actor Jack Nicholson. While the exaggeration is full-blown in some slides (as only the 1970s could be) the compositions and settings of some of the artists are really good. They transmit all of the visceral power that rock and roll promised and sometimes, delivered on. There are pics all over the web of this book, and it’s still available if you want to get your inner Rebel Rebel on!

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If you missed it, here is my review of the Django a Go Go concert that was held at the beginning of March at Carnegie Hall. My girlfriend and I had a magnificent time and we saw Stochelo Rosenberg (and Al Di Meola, Stephane Wrembel and many other great musicians)! It was totally a blast and we got our money’s worth of almost 3 hours of great guitar entertainment. Originally it was going to be part of the March ShortRiffs, but I go into a lot of detail. Check it out!

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Brian Setzer won Vintage Guitar Magazine Featured Artist of the Year. John Jorgenson came in right behind him in the same category. Both players stay incredibly busy and are at the top of the guitar-playing game so it’s great to see they are recognized! Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot tour is happening in the USA in June of this year.

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Unfortunately, according to his wife, Glen Campbell, who I wrote about here, has now lost the ability to play guitar because of his Alzheimer’s condition. While everyone knew this was coming, it is a bummer and as someone who saw a loved one die of a degenerative brain illness I can relate to the pain and frustration of the family and loved ones, and, of course, Mr. Campbell himself. I only hope that until the end he remains somewhat cognizant of how important he and his music were to so many people for so many years. As a guitar player, he was just fantastic and some of his songs are very memorable moments in the American pop song lexicon.

Barney Kessel

Posted in Education, Players, Playing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2016 by theguitarcave

Barney Kessel is a guy I’ve mentioned a few times lately — in this post on learning resources and again as a member of The Wrecking Crew in this post on Glen Campbell. I’ve also reviewed his album Yesterday, over in the right column. Above, he is playing an early 60s version of Gypsy in My Soul and of course he tears it up!. Barney was an early student of guitar and was already playing out by the time he was 14. Growing up in Oklahoma allowed him to meet another very famous Oklahoma native, Charlie Christian. While on break from touring with Benny Goodman, Christian went to see Barney play and the two subsequently ended up jamming for three days straight. This later led to Charlie recommending Barney to Benny Goodman and Barney getting the job after killing it on the jazz standard, Cherokee.

“One of the most extraordinarily consistent and emotionally huge improvisers of our era” – Nat Hentoff

“Barney Kessel is definitely the best guitar player in this world, or any other world.” – George Harrison

“Barney Kessel was ‘Mr. Guitar,’ the foremost jazz guitarist of his generation. He had an amazing imagination, his solos were incredible, he swung his tail off, he was a heck of an arranger and could out-read anybody.” – Larry Coryell

“Barney Kessel is incredible. He’s just amazing . . . . Nobody can play guitar like that.” – John Lennon

“I remember first seeing Barney Kessel, in the 1940s, standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, in his cowboy boots, sun glasses and hipster threads, holding his guitar case man, you just knew that cat could wail!” – Anita O’Day

“I’d listen to Barney Kessel records and my jaw would drop. I was awe-struck by the nature of his ad-libs. I followed Barney Kessel’s musical stories like a kid following a fairy tale.” – B.B. King

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What attracts me to the guitar guys who came up in the 30s and 40s — Reinhardt, Christian, George Barnes, Herb Ellis, Harry Volpe, Les Paul, Sal Salvador, Johnny Smith, and Barney Kessel — is there is always a whole lot of rock and roll in their playing. When I say rock and roll I say it as an expression (like when it’s time to get busy people say “let’s rock and roll”) and also as a euphemism for rhythm and blues. They were just completely going for it on many tracks because they all came up in The Swing Era when people wanted to dance all cray-cray like. You can hear that in Barney’s drive and some of the licks he plays in Gypsy in My Soul. But he also had a great sense of harmony and orchestration and those two sometimes very divergent qualities were combined in all of his performances. This is certainly one of the reasons The Beatles liked him. By the time Barney came along in the 1940s, Django Reinhardt, George Barnes and Charlie Christian were already on record playing all of the important guitar elements and ‘devices’: single lines, octaves, chords, partial chords, fast picking, sweep picking, bent notes, and tremolo picking that enabled the guitar to take on the role of a solo instrument in a band or orchestra setting. Reinhardt and Christian had already drastically expanded the language of the instrument with Christian veering from swing music into early bebop and Reinhardt adding classical and flamenco guitar elements to the jazz/popular canon.

Barney Kessel combined all of these guitar devices, expanded on them and added a few of his own. As far as I know he is the first guy to popularize (and maybe even develop) the backwards pick sweep that shows up in his playing a lot. This enables completely different lines and a different sound, even though it was often played so fast that it sounded sloppy at times. He also played original bebop lines, cool 50s “out” phrasing and a lot of licks that expanded on Charlie Christian’s blues licks (which were different from Reinhardt’s) and sound like what would later be very poplar rock music motifs. Because Barney was also always playing an amplified electric Gibson 350, he was able to dial in a wide array of sounds including fat bass spankin’, sustained horn-type lines, lush harp-like chords and sweet almost vocal single string licks. The Antônio Carlos Jobim composition Wave (above) is a good example of how effective a chordal/single note combination is for setting a mood. Great texture and dynamics and just oh so s m o o o t h. There is a lot to be learned from taking apart what he does in this clip and I’ve picked up a few things by transcribing bits of this performance. It’s also more than just licks; notice the pacing, the mood, textures and sustained drive of the whole song. That is very important! Below, Barney once again takes a number at a wicked tempo with the always-enjoyable Herb Ellis, on the flat-out amazing Tangerine. Talk about smoking! The extra special enjoyment of this for me is that I’ve played both Wave and Tangerine in gig settings. They are two of my favorite standards and fun tunes to learn how to play.

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Barney had a very long career, playing with such greats as Chico Marx, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Sonny Rollins and Julie London on the 1955 album Julie Is Her Name, which contains the million-selling song, Cry Me a River. As I related in my post on Glen Campbell, Kessel was a member of “The Clique” or The Wrecking Crew as they came to be known and was a “first call” guitarist for Columbia Pictures during the 1960s. FUN FACT: He played the bass for Spock’s Theme in the Amok Time episode of Star Trek. In the 1970s he performed with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd as The Great Guitars. Through it all Barney was most often spotted with just one guitar, a Gibson 350 with a Charlie Christian pickup. Although both Kay and Gibson tried to work the endorsement angle (and there are different versions of a Gibson Barney Kessel, a whole lot of his best work was done with that one guitar and he explains why in the following clip.

However, thanks to this very informative page, consider the following interview with the very awesome and talented YES guitarist Steve Howe:

I conducted an interview with Steve Howe, the guitarist in Yes, in October 2003 when I informed him that Kessel was critically ill. Howe has always cited Barney Kessel as a primary influence on his own guitar style: “Barney Kessel was the first American jazz guitarist I ever related to. I started playing when I was 12 in 1959 and I reckon about two years after that I was aware of Barney Kessel. I guess the Kessel album that was most important to me and still is, is ‘The Poll Winners’ with Shelly Manne and Ray Brown. ‘Volume 1’, a blue cover, on the Contemporary label. I bought it and most of Barney’s albums in London at Dobell’s, the famous jazz shop. It was archetypal, real jazz. I bought all the LP’s he made when he was the leader. I also liked him in support roles. I have the whole collection of ‘The Poll Winners’. One of the things I liked about Barney was his sound. Compared to other players, he had a very earthy, organic quality to his sound. And his playing was a remarkable mixture of ‘single line’ and ‘chords’, ya know, which inspired me to believe that any guitarist who doesn’t understand chords won’t be able to play much in the single line because they relate so much. Barney had his own great, highly individual approach to jazz guitar. The way he combined the chords and that single line. It was a perfect balance, really.

“And there was something mysterious about his equipment. In England, we could recognize L5s or 400s but we weren’t sure if he was playing an L7C, or what. Nobody really knew what that guitar was for a while. We knew it was some sort of Gibson. They weren’t heavily clarified in catalogues nor readily available in England in the ’60s. That’s when the L7 was less than popular, ya know? But he had that characteristic big guitar. I mean, I obviously went on to play a rock ‘n’ roll 175. I got it in 1964 and bought a new one in 1975. That was styled after Kessel, who I had seen a few times on television, and Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery and other guitarists who also used a 175, the most gorgeous guitar. As I went around, people said, ‘Wow, you play that guitar?’ Because it wasn’t considered a rock guitar in any shape or form. So it was kind of a breakthrough and it did help me because the sound of a full body is so different from the solids, the slim lines that people were playing. And everybody asked me, ‘Why didn’t it feed back?’ Because I used a volume pedal and I stood a certain distance from my amp and didn’t use too much bass from my amp, I guess. I got ’round that problem but I certainly wasn’t directly emulating Barney Kessel but I was thinking I would not remove myself from that line of fire, because I wanted to be influenced by jazz.

“I read Barney’s column, a few times, in ‘Guitar Player Magazine’. There obviously was a whole line of fine guitarists he inspired, or that had been touched by him. That stuff Barney did with Julie London like ‘Cry Me A River’ which starts with his guitar, is amazing. One important thing to me is that Barney Kessel is the first guitarist I ever saw who said ‘You need eight guitars to be a session guitarist’. I only had about four at the time. And when I saw his ‘eight guitars’ quote I kinda read what he meant. Like having a 12-string. Barney put something very influential in my head about the multi-guitar idea when he mentioned eight guitars including 12-string and mandolin. That well-rounded idea that obviously affected me when I went into doing ‘Monster Guitars’ goes back to Barney Kessel.

“And Barney played that tune, ‘A Tribute To Charlie Christian’, on his ‘Easy, Like’ album. That was one of his things I learned. The fact is I’ve always mentioned Barney Kessel as the first player I ever got into, Barney and Django Reinhardt. And then of course my mind became more distracted from Barney but he never really went away. He was still there. A straight ahead guy with an organic edge to his sound.”

I’ve been saying for years what an influence Django Reinhardt was on the English rock musicians of the 60s. Interesting to learn about Barney’s influence as well. Note Howe’s opinion that Barney’s chord work and single line playing always seemed to be perfectly balanced. YES! Definitely check out the whole article HERE at Spectropop for lots more on Barney’s life and career. He was at the crossroads of music through the 50s, 60s and 70s and performed with many of music’s biggest luminaries. The author interviews Barney’s sons and was able to speak with some of the music world’s biggest stars while Barney was in his final days. Brian Wilson: “Barney Kessel was a wonderful guitar player. He did a wonderful job on ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. He’s in my prayers.” Barney is listed as playing mandolin on ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ with other Wrecking Crew standouts Carol Kaye (bass), Hal Blaine (drums) and Larry Knechtel (organ). You can hear the backing track here. Here’s another interview with Barney from 1968 that is especially notable for what he says about Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.

Do you think the people who have played guitar in more outlandish ways have aided the instrument?

Not at all. No, they haven’t really done anything for the guitar or music. Like, someone once asked me: “What did you think of Jimi Hendrix?” First of all, I don’t discuss guitar players. I don’t think it’s ethical; it’s like asking a jazz critic about another jazz critic. I’d rather not. But it didn’t even have to be Jimi Hendrix it could be anyone. The fact that any man would go out on the stage and set fire to his guitar, or urinate on his guitar there’s nothing in there that makes me admire it; there’s nothing admirable about that. So I can’t get past that to examine the ‘genius’; if that’s my own hang—up, then it is if I’m limited in my outlook. I can’t get past the disrespect shown the instrument, and I can’t imagine someone having enough genius to justify that…

There are now twelve year olds who think of Elvis Presley and the Beatles as old men, mythical characters things from the past. They just don’t relate to it. It’s a curious thing, but each generation wants its own heroes; it doesn’t matter how good someone else is they want their heroes, from their own age bracket…

It’s like when Bob Dylan came out . . . I knew John Hammond, and that he had discovered Mary Lou Williams and, of course, he’d done a lot for Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday he’s really made the people aware of a lot of fine talent. He also brought Bob Dylan into public awareness and I tried to find out what was the redeeming factor there. He can’t sing, he can’t play guitar, he can’t play the harmonica; his melodies are very, very primitive, bordering on the Neanderthal. Well, trying to look at it objectively the redeeming elements, and the only ones, are the words to his songs, that had a message for the people of his age and his time. But since I’m not his age, his words have no meaning for me. They did not affect me in any way. Therefore, as far as I’m concerned, there were no redeeming qualities but I can see why he was accepted by a lot of people.

It seems Barney was able to appreciate some of the styles from the 60s (even Jimi Hendrix) a little more later in life (thanks to his children), but it’s interesting what he says about each generation wanting it’s own heroes regardless of talent or abilities. How true that is! It is probably also true that most people, especially musicians who spend a lifetime fine-tuning their hearing and their brains to appreciate and play sophisticated music, will get turned off by music that doesn’t match that standard. He certainly liked bands like Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys and The Beatles…he covered Yesterday and that tune certainly has a great melody!

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Here is a link to another interview with Barney from the late 60s that has more to do with playing guitar. It contains plenty of quotable nuggets like the above that give insight into what made Barney tick as an artist. He was a great listener, a great reader and had an intense musical imagination and this is how he developed the musical abilities that served him well for almost 50 years. He also stressed (and this is so important and something I wish someone would’ve told me when I was 20) that:

You must be clear on what you want to do with music . . . not just clear—specific. It’s not good enough to say: “I want to be in music.” You have to be as positive as booking a certain seat on a certain plane for a certain destination. The minute you become clear on what you want, it becomes also very apparent what you don’t want. You begin to see the interesting studies, the things that could be intriguing to do, but which are not pertinent to your goal. Today, with all the perplexities, it is not what to practice, but what to avoid practising. What do you want to do? It is time—wasting to taste a little of all these things and not to be master of any—unless you are doing it strictly for amusement. But to accomplish anything, you have to know what you want.

Finally, this version of The Shadow of Your Smile encapsulates everything that made Barney the musician he was: beautiful solo playing that never loses it’s drive, harmonic invention or melodic direction. There isn’t one wasted note, no wanking, nor one lick that is played simply to impress. It’s just a perfect musical performance. I love watching Barney clips on YouTube because they are always simultaneously entertaining AND a learning experience. In our imaginations and on our best days don’t we all aspire to to play like this? While Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass rightfully get a whole lot of praise for what they brought to the jazz guitar world, I feel not enough is said about Barney Kessel. He is beyond jazz — truly one of the titans of sophisticated guitar and a total music legend. Also, unlike Montgomery or Pass or many other players from that era, he was able to fit into a wide spectrum of musical situations and always bring his A- GAME. In addition to being an instrumentalist, producer and guy-on-the-scene, he became an educator later in his career. I’ve already linked to one of his instruction videos. Here’s another. Also, there are pages here and here that have some Barney-esque licks transcribed for your viewing, listening, and learning pleasure.

Happy 65 Freddie Mercury!

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2011 by theguitarcave

Freddie Mercury would’ve been 65 yesterday. Dude was AMAZING and so was his band, Queen. They were one of a kind and one of the heaviest of 70s rock. Many of their songs were staples of FM radio and definitely part of my high school/college years. And hey…Brian May is a heckuva guitarist isn’t he? I remember being like 12 and seeing the video (the first music video ever) of Bohemian Rhapsody on The Midnight Special in the 1970s. That was friggin’ unbelievable at the time…supposedly when he heard it Brian Wilson was so scared he cried for 10 minutes. {If you watch the video again starting at about 5:15 Brian May is doing obvious tapped-hammer-ons. Interesting because he never made a big deal out of it. Brian and Eddie Van Halen did play together in the early 80s in the Starfleet Project} Freddie was an extraordinary writer and showman and had one of the best if not THE BEST voices ever heard in rock. Queen at Live Aid is easily some of the greatest 18 minutes in popular music history and even back then it was obvious they stole the show. Here is the first section…view the whole thing by following the You Tube chapters. Freddie leading the crowd in the call and response at the beginning of chapter 2 embodies what Tony Soprano called “BALLS”. Freddie is as comfortable and confident in front of literally (with the TV audience) millions of people as he would be in his living room.

I’ve always really liked early, prog-rock Queen and long-hair, black fingernails Freddie. This song is a real great showcase for the rest of the band too. I’m pretty sure Keep Yourself Alive was written by Brian and it’s a total show-off song, but also way cool!

Queen never sounded like anyone else and it was obvious from the beginning that all of the members had extraordinary talents. Freddie’s operatic rock god vocals, Brian with his homemade guitar, wall of Vox amps, and mega-chops, the brilliant drumming and high harmony vocals provided by Roger Taylor and quiet John Deacon holding it all together on bass, these guys could ROCK! Stone Cold Crazy was so heavy that Metallica covered it.

I also like some of Queen’s offbeat material. Many people in the USA, including some critics, didn’t get the humor that was involved in the writing and performances. I’m not sure why it was so hard to understand — Queen named two of their albums after Marx Brothers movies didn’t they? That probably should have been a clue that they didn’t take themselves very seriously. Jazz was a really funny record and for a time, back in the late 80s at the VITAL VAN loft, that record got frequent airplay, especially Bicycle Race with lots of air guitars and shouting along. The first hint of this smart, clever writing and tight musical arrangements appeared on Queen’s first real hit, Killer Queen. I still love this song too, especially all of the phasing and the triangle hit before the 2nd verse. Of course the guitar parts are great and was there ever as glamorous a rock singer as Freddie Mercury? I think not.

While all of this stuff is from a long time ago, that’s okay. Because if you were there while it was happening you know how super-duper cool and important it was and if you weren’t, that’s okay, because you probably wish you could’ve been. I never got into Queen’s dance music very much — Another Bites the Dust was so EVERYWHERE in 1980 that it was almost a pop-novelty song. Thanks to Weird Al Yankovic it did become a novelty hit when he turned it into Another One Rides the Bus. (I saw this performance on Tom Snyder’s show when it was first broadcast) It was funny at the time because a lot of people, especially in the USA, thought this was something Queen was doing as a one-off. They were a different kind of band in the 80s but that was alright because they were still able to bring the rock and a really great show. Some of their ballads were similar to Elton John…he wasn’t the most rockin’ guy, but he sure had a lot of great songs on the charts in the 1970s-1980s and, like Queen, was really stellar in concert. One of the benefits to being old now is that I (we) were able to live through some very special times. There will never be another Freddie Mercury and I can say that with 100% confidence. Some people are just one of a kind and to have seen them, rocked to them and enjoyed their artistic endeavors is part of what has made my life a blast.
Happy Belated Birthday Freddie!