Jazz

The Impressionists — Part 2

Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz

Part 1 introduced the Impressionists and delved into the history and musical ideas of Claude Debussy, not only as he employed them in some of his most celebrated pieces, but also how these same ideas were picked up and used by other composers, most notably Django Reinhardt and others from the Gypsy Jazz genre of guitar music. In Part 2, I would like to briefly explore the music of four other composers from this era and why their music appeals to me.

Erik Satie was a very eccentric character who was a very good friend and influence on Debussy. Even though in Part 1 one of the film clips features Leonard Bernstein giving credit to Debussy for “inventing” the Whole Tone Scale, it is also said that Satie “wrote music in the whole-tone scale before Debussy ever thought of doing so”. I was introduced to Satie a very long time ago courtesy of the very famous 2nd album, by Blood, Sweat & Tears, released in 1968. The album included Variations on a Theme By Erik Satie, which was based on Satie’s First and Second Gymnopédies; very melancholy piano pieces that used “mild dissonances against the harmonic”. However, the intro, with it’s very deliberate two major seventh chords was MADE for guitar arrangement and this is why it has always been a memorable piece for me. The melody is innocently lilting, but also seems very sad and resigned at the same time. It is very fun to do a full on guitar version of this and it is aptly demonstrated here and here. Another quality of this piece and Satie in general is there is a very soothing quality to his dreamy music. Satie was admired by guitarist/composer Frank Zappa and heavily influenced The New School of composers that included John Cage. Here’s a list of how different he was as a person…(he only ate white food). Interestingly enough, Satie himself was a humorist and didn’t take his music or music in general very seriously so it’s possible he heard all that he composed much differently than I do. There’s a chance he was being ironic! My god…could it be? The World’s First Hipster? Don’t laugh…I’m telling you, these men were influential.

Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz, two Spanish composers who were likewise contemporaries of Debussy, but also would probably not be considered Impressionists. Granados’ 12 Danzas (#11 is played by Evangelos and Liza above) were very popular in his time and he also wrote seven operas. Before he died in 1916 his most famous works, The Goyescas were influenced by works from Francisco de Goya. Albéniz was also a pianist and he composed the famous Iberia, a collection of virtuoso piano pieces. Both of these men were deemed Nationalist because their music was heavily influenced by, and meant to sound like Spain. This is why their music translates so well to guitar and sounds even more authentic on the guitar in some cases (at least to my ears) than it does on piano. Enrique Granados especially, produced very strident, masculine music, full passion, melody and virtuosity. I was exposed to both thanks to Julian Bream and John Williams adaptations on the Together and Together Again discs and they have covered these pieces on the YouTube. It’s possible that, at least according to Bream and Williams, Granados and Albéniz were Impressionists because Bream is quoted as saying:

“It is, however, his earlier pieces and in particular the Suite Española Opus 47 which initially brought Albéniz such fame and success in his lifetime. This Suite was published 1886. It consists of four highly impressionistic tone poems. The evocation of Granada -surely one of his most Idyllic pieces, the exhilarating portrait of Sevilla and the gay and bustling Saeta Cadiz.” (J. Bream 1982)

Sevilla is also the name of an absolutely bangin’ composition by The Rosenberg Trio and, of course, they are masters at playing exotic guitar-driven music. This performance is from the North Sea Jazz Festival and they are joined by outstanding percussionist Eddie Conard. Stochelo’s influences run far and wide, so I would not be surprised if he was/is influenced by Granados, Albéniz, Bream, Williams or any combination of the 4! Stochelo has also performed a few “tone-poems” of his own over the years and was probably inspired to do this through the music of Impressionist, classical, and flamenco guitar players as well as his main influence, Django Reinhardt. Here he is playing Just Relax; my first exposure to his composing genius and amazing guitar abilities. There are many Impressionist ideas used in this piece and the middle has a bit of Satie with the virtuoso underpinnings of Reinhardt.

The last composer of the group, Maurice Ravel, though younger than Debussy by 12 years, was often associated with him and Impressionism. Unfortunately, by the early 1900s factions would form around the two composers that would exacerbate the tension and sometime rivalry that existed between the two men, so their friendship, that had never been close to begin with, fractured. Ravel was not nearly the musical revolutionary that Debussy was, and was:

“…content to work within the established formal and harmonic conventions of his day, still firmly rooted in tonality—i.e., the organization of music around focal tones. Yet, so very personal and individual was his adaptation and manipulation of the traditional musical idiom that it would be true to say he forged for himself a language of his own that bears the stamp of his personality as unmistakably as any work of Bach or Chopin. While his melodies are almost always modal (i.e., based not on the conventional Western diatonic scale but on the old Greek Phrygian and Dorian modes), his harmonies derive their often somewhat acid flavour from his fondness for “added” notes and unresolved appoggiaturas, or notes extraneous to the chord that are allowed to remain harmonically unresolved. “

Ravel was a painstaking composer therefore his output was much less than many of his contemporaries and some works like Gaspard de la nuit, a suite of piano pieces, were very technically challenging pieces to play. Ravel was the only composer out of this group who lived late enough into the 20th century to experience, recognize and participate in recording music. I used to have this biography on the composer and two of the topics that are of special interest to modern guitar players is (as with Debussy) the use of the Pentatonic Scale and (for especially Ravel) the use of Modes (as related above). The book went into some detail and I actually applied it to my own playing when I started to use Modes. (Maybe this isn’t correct, but Satie always sounds very Lydian to me). Another view that pretty much restates what was originally outlined in my post on Debussy, courtesy of this website:

“After hearing the simple but powerful spells cast by the pentatonic scale (at theL’Esposition Universelle in Paris in 1889), Debussy and Ravel tried using them to “paint” gentle scenes of water, clouds, and fog, thus ridding themselves of the old fashioned rules and structures…

“The improvised quality of these Impressionist pieces must have seemed like a pretty radical idea back them because most European ears had been accustomed to hearing music as a series of predictable events, much like what you experience today in a movie or television show. By 1900, the French Impressionist composers had gotten rid of distinct musical narratives and were using the newly “discovered” pentatonic scales to portray hazy and ill-defined without much traditional melody or even a sense of beat. They were creating trance pieces that relied on the timbres (sound color) of various instruments to canvey mood rather than melodies. Typical titles were, Nuages (Clouds) by Debussy and Jeux d’Eau (The Play of Water) by Ravel.”

– From The Wisdom of the Hand: A Guide to the Jazz Pentatonic Scales by Marius Nordal, (Sher Music, 2015)”

Ravel’s most famous composition was Bolero, which was originally supposed to be an orchestration of Albeniz’s Iberia (mentioned above). Ravel instead decided to compose something completely original and hit upon the idea of having a single theme and a relentless rhythmic build-up for the entire 16-minute piece. Scandal and Success ensued! Success because it was his most popular and maybe influential work; scandal because it was his least favorite because he didn’t consider the work up to his usual standard.

Django Reinhardt was probably the first guitarist and certainly the most well-known musician of his time to begin applying the styles of modern classical music and Impressionism to his own very (non) classical music style. While Django was certainly a fan of many types of music and artists ranging from Bach to Louis Armstrong, he was quoted early in his career:

“Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have.”

In 1937 Django recorded his own Bolero based on Ravel’s Bolero from 1928. Django’s recording did not feature his usual “Hot Club” partners, including Stephane Grappelli. It was performed (and arranged) by Django with three trumpets, two trombones, a flute and three violins. His performance simultaneously calls to mind Ravel’s piece and anticipates a future Jeff Beck. The driving rhythmic build-up and the sad melody seem to echo Ravel but then there are sudden stops with bursts of Phrygian lines played by violins and then Django’s guitar. Django’s Bolero was received with great acclaim and it was here that he became much more than just a jazz player. This is the point those who want to argue Charlie Christian vs. Django Reinhardt always miss. Charlie for all his talent never reached this level of composition or recognition for his ability to do so. Not only was this the first step in Django’s emerging career as a serious composer, but it was also probably his first step forward influencing the future guitarists of the 60s and beyond.

The music of the 1960s was Rock coming into it’s own as an accepted artistic movement, sort of akin to what happened with jazz music in the 1930s and what happened as Modern/Impressionist composers were accepted in the late 19th/early 20th century. By 1965-66 The Beatles had allowed Baroque and Impressionist overtones to become a part of their music with songs like Michelle, Yesterday, Girl, and For No One. The influence of Eastern music, especially the Indian raga music of Ravi Shankar and others expanded the sounds of Psychedelia as did the advances in technology that allowed for distortion, wah-wah pedals and other tone benders to be employed to reshape the sound…And then there was the direct nod from guitarist Jeff Beck, who continued the tradition begun by Ravel and carried on by Reinhardt, by recording his own…Beck’s Bolero in 1966. But was it Beck? Was it Jimmy Page? Was it the first Led Zeppelin song? The controversy will continue forever:

“In a 1977 interview with Guitar Player magazine, Jimmy Page said: “On the ‘Beck’s Bolero’ thing I was working with that, the track was done, and then the producer just disappeared. He was never seen again; he simply didn’t come back. Napier-Bell, he just sort of left me and Jeff to it. Jeff was playing and I was in the box (recording booth). And even though he says he wrote it, I wrote it. I’m playing the electric 12-string on it. Beck’s doing the slide bits, and I’m basically playing around the chords. The idea was built around (classical composer) Maurice Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’ It’s got a lot of drama to it; it came off right. It was a good lineup too, with Keith Moon, and everything.”

Beck’s Bolero is a classic composition from the 60s and Beck still plays it all of the time. Jimmy Page performed his own ‘bolero’ on Led Zeppelin’s first album, with the pastiché song, How Many More Times. This song is also one of three tunes from the first album to feature Page’s violin-bowed guitar. Here is an exhaustive exploration on every possible bit and piece contained within the song (including the bolero) and there are many. How many people have rocked out to this tune over the years never knowing it can be traced back to a mild-manner French composer from the early 1900s? (The band launches into the ‘bolero’ at about the 7:00 minute mark in this performance at Royal Albert Hall in 1970)

So this snapshot of almost 100 years of music is pretty interesting and it illustrates how Impressionist composers and their peers from the late 1800s and early 1900s served two vital functions. First, they “bridged” the earlier (romantic) eras of Classical music with the what would become Modern Classical music. They lived and composed during a very transitional time, when the very atmosphere was pregnant with possibility. This is certainly audible in all of their musical creations, which feature unpredictable movement, spontaneous progressions, outrageous dissonance and, at times, uncertain harmony. Likewise, the jazz greats of the 30s and 40s forged a musical bond between the classical and the popular and brought their art from the salons to the nightclubs. This was also a time of great change and upheaval; musical, as well as social and political. The 1960s were also a time of great upheaval, but also an era of great expansion and advancement in music and art. The musicians and technicians of that decade forged new paths and developed new ways of creating and playing music that served as a model for decades. Even today, though hard to find sometimes, there are still musicians rewriting the rules of yesterday and breaking new barriers to create new sounds. More than 100 years later, Impressionism still serves as an example and an inspiration to change, dynamism and inventiveness.

The Impressionists — Part 1

Claude Debussy, Rockstar

Back in the early 1980s I remember reading a Van Halen interview and at one point he related how much he liked Claude Debussy. (If you follow the link you can read the whole interview [from 1980] for yourself. That wasn’t my first exposure to the name Claude Debussy as I had taken some music courses in college, but it was interesting that EVH was a fan and it’s probably the first time the name “Debussy” was mentioned in a rock guitar interview. It’s likely that Edward’s early piano studies were responsible for the exposure to classical music and it didn’t hurt that his father was a lifelong jazz musician who, because of his European (Dutch) background, probably knew all about Debussy and other Impressionist composers. Debussy casts a long shadow over 20th Century music and while it is beyond the scope of this blog and this blogger to explore all of the aspects of Debussy’s music and Impressionism, especially in the classical music realm, I am capable of drawing attention to some of the salient musical ideas he expressed and some of the musicians he and his contemporaries inspired.

You can get a full Debussy bio from several sources if you are interested: here, here, here, and here. What is striking about Debussy is that unlike many composers/French composers from this period, he is a man who came from nowhere; he was not from musical family and the source of his talent and influences has always been somewhat mysterious. He stated many times that his overriding guide for composing and playing was always, first and foremost, his own pleasure and enjoyment; musical rules, critics and audiences alike were of no consequence. Debussy was part of a group of somewhat controversial composers who came of age and success in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other notables in this group known as Impressionists included: Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and Isaac Albéniz. Departing from established norms in the classical musical field was, of course, not without problems. European audiences of the day were somewhat less than enamored with any departure from classical and romantic musical traditions. Debussy has often been called a musical revolutionary because of his desire to overthrow the established “rules” of composition (and perhaps it is this desire that Van Halen channeled the most?). Debussy (and Ravel to a certain extent) did not like the fact that [their] brand of composition brought comparison to the art movement of Impressionism: the harmonic nature of their compositions and the dreamy qualities of their music recalled the Impressionists’ art: “… scenes suffused with reflected light in which the emphasis is on the overall impression rather than outline or clarity of detail.” They considered themselves “modernists” and believed they were composing for a new generation and a new century. This is certainly voiced by Debussy in one of his most famous quotes: “The century of airplanes has a right to its own music.”

The video above features Leonard Bernstein’s analysis of one of Debussy’s most famous compositions, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), his first real musical “success”. Bernstein, one of history’s greatest musical minds, explores the background on the modern period I alluded to in the previous paragraph and then, during an analysis of the composition, explains Impressionism and how Debussy’s ideas helped shape music for the 20th century. He discusses the vagueness and dreamy qualities implied by uncertain tonal centers and Debussy’s use of the Augmented Fourth or the Tritone Interval (notes that span from G nat to C# and chords that move from Emaj to Bb7). As Bernstein explains, though it is unclear at the outset, Debussy’s Faun Poem is in the key of Emaj and throughout refers to, reverts to, or flirts with, either Emaj or one of it’s relative tonics and these tonal references serve as “landmarks” that illustrate a point of repose or a change in movement. As the 1st part of the video segues into part 2 (it should do so automatically) it is clear that Debussy also makes use of conventional I-V cadences (Emaj to Bmaj) which restore a sense of tradition and diatonic order, but no sooner than he does, he introduces a Whole Tone Scale! (more ambiguity). Bernstein gives Debussy credit for inventing the Whole Tone Scale, explains the relation of this scale to the Tritone, and notes that this is the first Atonal Scale to appear in music history (which should help illustrate why this was all very controversial to 19th century ears). Not included in the videos, but important nonetheless is that Debussy also employed: Bi-tonality, Pentatonic Scales, Random Modulations, free chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, and new ideas for instrument combinations. He also employed what was termed, at the time, A Strong Orientalism, which translates to “he was open to using sounds and ideas from Eastern music in his compositions.” [A familiar tale is how enchanted he was with the performance of a troupe of Gamelan performers from Java at the 1889 and 1900 Paris Expositions.]

All of this musical theory stuff is tame by today’s standards and is certainly familiar to anyone who is well-versed in various aspects of theory across different genres of music (classical, jazz, fusion, etc), but many of these ideas were really groundbreaking for Debussy’s day. People walked out of the performances because these composers were creating music that sounded atonal and dissonant to 19th century ears steeped in classical and romantic traditions. Modern composers and players of all stripes have made use of these techniques since the beginning of the last century (pretty much every blues/rock guitar player starts with the Pentatonic scale). While Debussy’s influence obviously transcends many musical boundaries, his music, played as is, holds up to this day. Piano was his instrument of choice for composing and/or performing, and further below we will make use of piano videos to explore a famous Debussy song. However, it is very easy to adapt his pieces for the guitar. Long ago I reviewed this wonderful CD of Classical Guitar Masters Julian Bream and John Williams collaborations from the 1970s titled Together and Together Again, that has been repackaged (as a 2-disc set) at various times since. The disc(s) contains three Debussy compositions: Reverie, Golliwog’s Cakewalk and the well-known Claire De Lune. It also contains a few fellow Impressionist Isaac Albéniz compositions as well as cuts from contemporaries Enrique Granados and Gabriel Fauré. Obviously, Bream and Williams were big fans of this period and saw a lot of value in adapting piano pieces to 2 guitars. (Some of these pieces even sound as if they were composed specifically for the guitar). Below they play Reverie; haunting and ethereal — one of Debussy’s early compositions and one that I think illustrates his dreamy musical qualities very well.

Guitar Master Tommy Emmanuel is also is a Debussy fan and as he relates, “he’ll do anything to entertain people!” So here is his version of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. If you think this doesn’t sound like classical musical, well imagine hearing it in 1911! This piece was part of the Children’s Corner Piano Suite which was written in honor of Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma (“Chou-Chou”). The rhythm and harmonic content are Debussy’s most obvious nod to American Ragtime. Debussy also injects “the love-death leitmotif of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde into the B part of the piece. Tommy does a very faithful rendition of this difficult piece of music (in Eb).

As the 20th century progressed the ideas and sounds of Debussy and his Modernity or Impressionism began to appear in popular and jazz music. Anyone who has any familiarity with jazz recognizes concepts like the tritone, chromatics, atonal scales and cadences that don’t involve familiar rules of harmony. Not only was this seen in compositions of the day, but it also appeared in the improvisations of notable jazz players, especially those with a classical background or an ear toward these composers. Someone I have written about extensively, Django Reinhardt, adopted many of Debussy’s (Impressionist) ideas for his own compositions and improvising. While Django was certainly a fan of many types of music and artists ranging from Bach to Louis Armstrong, he was quoted early in his career: “Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have.” The influence of the Impressionism would emerge as early as 1937 when he recorded Bolero, which was heavily inspired by Maurice Ravel’s composition of the same name (this will be explored in Part 2).

In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II that left violinist Stephane Grappelli stranded in England, Django enlisted Hubert Rostaing on clarinet and composed one of his most famous numbers, Nuages; a guitar nod to Impressionism and a gift to the French people who were suffering under Nazi occupation. Stuffed full of Debussy-style Chromaticism, Whole Tone and Diminished scale runs, the song is classic Reinhardt. Some have speculated that because the Nazi regime was hostile to anything that smacked of American music or certainly jazz, Django shifted his composition style to one that was much more classically-influenced and this may be true. Or the addition of reeds to his ensemble inspired him because in addition to Nuages, he would compose or arrange Impressionist-influenced music with this new cast of musicians throughout the 1940s: Manoir de mes Rêves, Melodie au Crepescule, Danse Norvegienne, Cavalerie, Oiseaux Des Iles, Lentement Mademoiselle, Fleur D’Ennui and Crepuscule . All of these pieces have the sound and vibe of Debussy and the other classical composers that Django admired and some, like Lentement Mademoiselle and Crepuscle have direct clarinet intro nods that recall Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (above). He also would record a Debussy piece, Reverie, during the Rome Sessions of 1949-59. While not as literal as Bream and Williams’ take above, Django obviously takes a Debussy inspiration and makes it his own. He also would record a song by the name of Clair de Lune in 1947, although this piece has nothing in common with the Debussy’s composition, except it’s name. The song was actually composed by Joseph Kosma, (writer of many a splendid thing, including Les feuilles mortes, more commonly known as the standard, Autumn Leaves, for an aborted movie that would’ve been named La Fleur de l’âge, had it been completed. Supposedly this is just one of the 4 songs Django and Company would’ve performed and it’s a shame it was not to be as Django plays some totally killin’ guitar on it. What is strange is that Django DID appear in a 1932 movie titled…you guess it Clair de Lune some two years before the original Hot Club of France was formed. This movie was shot (completely outdoors) in Cannes and features some very melodious guitar.

Clair de Lune was certainly one of Debussy’s most famous pieces, part of the Suite bergamasque and titled from an 1869 poem of the same name. (Interestingly enough, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, L’après-midi d’un faune). It is played very emotionally and dynamically above by the very talented Kathia Buniatishvili. It is also discussed and analyzed here and here if you are interested to learn more about this very famous composition. I’ve listened to many different versions of this piece, including a the one by Bream and Williams, which is a favorite and I have to say this piece is what I imagine 1895 sounded like…at least in certain circles.

This video analysis above of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, explained through the lens of jazz harmony is a must-watch, especially if you have any music geek in you at all. It is also an interesting primer for jazz/classical harmony. Anyone who has attempted to play Jazz or Gypsy Jazz will find many of these musical ideas familiar because they have become important staples of the style(s). In this lesson on YouTube (unfortunately it does not have subs) Romane (who I wrote about here) demonstrates the Whole Tone scale beginning at about the 9 minute mark. Diminshed/Octatonic scales and arpeggios are also often used in improvisations. Diminished chords are also used very frequently in the harmony of Gyspy Jazz tunes and songs from the Swing Era and these “movement” / “transition” chords and the ability to play over them is very important aspect of what gives the style it’s verve and exotic sound. See also discussions about this topic here and here and know that Debussy’s influence was definitely a factor, even if the chords or how they are thought of is not exactly the same as is true in classical music.

Stephane Wrembel is may be the most Impressionist-influenced composer/player happening today. He certainly has embraced all of what can be gleaned from Debussy, Django, Jimmy Page, and others to compose and perform music that sounds unlike any other. I’ve written about him before, here and here and his abilities as a composer and channel of these musical ideas first expressed back in the 19th century only continue to grow. In the above video he demonstrates his Impressionist ideas and how this shapes his music. Anyone who is a fan of Gypsy Jazz will find these concepts very familiar, but Stephane is definitely one of the riskiest composers in the genre. His music synthesizes all of the freedom found not only in Impressionism, but also the best music of the 20th century and the ideas that Debussy espoused about how emotion and freedom were more important to music that convention.

As I have done in the past, like this exploration on the song Waiting for the Sunrise, I find that the history, progression and connections of musical styles, ideas, players and composers fascinating. Debussy’s music stands on it’s own and it brings me great pleasure to listen to it and all that it inspired. What he created became so much more than just music; it became a way of making music, that inspired later musicians to create their own unique statements. The idea of freedom he aspired to and tried to bring to his compositions is a quality that every writer, player and improviser seeks to achieve because that is the highest plateau one can reach as an artist. I’m not sure what influence Debussy had on Edward Van Halen. The very different rock of Fair Warning? (that I reviewed here). The keyboard stuff that started appearing at that time? Sunday Afternoon in the Park? 1984? Girl Gone Bad? Someone should ask him, it would be interesting to find out!

In Part 2 I’ll look at some of the other Impressionist composers and how their ideas and their music helped shape the sounds of the 20th century and beyond!

Online Guitar Teachers

During the big revamp of The Guitar Cave, the long list of links I had amassed was lost. I’m not really sure how I managed to do that but it’s a bummer because there were many great playing, lesson and instruction sites, and I don’t remember them all. No matter though — It will live again! Starting with this post and the beginnings of a list again in the right column.

Two online instructors who I think totally rock are Morten Faerestrand and Jens Larsen. They both have the key requirements for what I think qualifies as great YouTube instructor cred: 1) Killer guitar skills; 2) Wide variety of topics, including theory and gear; 3) Great technical presentation quality; 4) Great ideas for lessons and licks and, finally; 5) a teaching method that is clear and focused. While they are both primarily jazz players, many of their ideas for licks and tricks and explanation of theory is stuff that can be used by any player…of any style.

I feel that I’m at a point in my life where I understand and can execute many things that I want to do with the guitar, but still, it’s always nice to hear fresh perspectives. Also, I do like watching both of these guys play guitar and they always have quick ideas for licks or ways of thinking that is interesting and inspiring. Morten’s channel is here; Jens’ is here.

I’ve seen a lot of different people doing guitar instruction on Da ‘Tube and some of it is really annoying. Sorry, there is no other word for it. Not only are there a lot of people who aren’t teaching right, but they also don’t put any thought into what they are doing. Who has the patience to wade through a 25-minute video that needs bread crumbs to find it’s way home? Not me that’s for sure! This is what I like about Morten and Jens: They talk, they demonstrate, and they’re done! There are other people who I think are likewise, very good, and I will get to them soon.

Walter Becker

…passed away. I wasn’t Steely Dan’s biggest fan, but Becker and his long-time partner, Donald Fagen, were very popular and influential innovators who definitely expanded the boundaries of rock and FM radio. AJA was a hit and hip album with “the kids” when I was in high school, believe it or not. Over the years they had a bunch of stuff that featured Becker on bass or guitar. Here is one of his best known guitar jams.

Ed Cherry Trio Live in NYC

This was a fun night out with friends from another part of the world! We went and saw the Ed Cherry Trio working it out at The Fat Cat in NYC. I mentioned here how much I like Grant Green’s Matador album. These guys played Green Jeans, among many other splendid jams that included Miles Davis’ Blue in Green and Horace Silver’s Nica’s Dream. The trio has that guitar-organ-drum trio sound that I really like a bunch! Fantastic! Ed’s got a very bluesy jazz guitar sound that is really cool and his comping is out of this world. I learned a few things! A very enjoyable set that also featured Kyle Kohler and Aron Seeber. Will see again!

If you ever find yourself in NYC, check out the Fat Cat! It’s a great performance space and a huge game room. They have everything from air hockey and ping pong down to chess and backgammon. And they’re open like 32 hours a day. And you can see great bands!


Back On

It’s the same blog, but with a new attitude! I’ve learned a whole lot since I began back in 2011, and some of the old was just not working anymore. This new look is cleaner, clearer and the blog is much easier to navigate. The search field in the header works really well and the display by category function in the right sidebar or the tag cloud also bring up a comprehensive list of related subjects. All of the disc reviews and series articles I did throughout the year are up in the header menu. The blog is also responsive now, which means it looks the same from desktop to tablet to phone. I’ve gone over everything I’ve posted here since the beginning and have tried to organize, delete, and retrofit. I took a few things down because they may be part of an upcoming print project. If not, I’ll put them back up later. I’ll still be tweaking off and on, but the site will be able to stay up all of the time. All the heavy, hard work has been done.

Thanks to all of you who come to the site! Especially those of you who have been around for awhile or those of you who have subscribed. Really! I do appreciate it and I look forward to another year of blogging.

Christmas Time is Here — Part I

Wait, what? Christmas is over, right? Well, yes, the holidays have come and gone again. January is always a little bit of a downer, isn’t it? Especially if it was an enjoyable season. The holidays can certainly be a difficult time too, but this year was great for me and I was inspired to write this post and put it up now before I forget or the year gets away from me. You can come back after Thanksgiving and it will be here if you are Holiday-ed out.

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As I said in another post, right before Christmas I played a gig, my first in over a year. It was a GypsyJazz/Jazz type holiday gig and it went very well. Playing the gig got me thinking — musicians are expected to play Christmas songs and holiday music during the holidays, and many do. For some, it’s a chore and a real groan-fest, but personally, I’ve always enjoyed it. This year we played 5 songs in our 3 sets: My Favorite Things, Django Reinhardt’s version of Danse Norvegienne, our own arrangement of Let it Snow, a rowdy version of The Ventures Sleigh Ride (a real crowd pleaser) and a loose arrangement of Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas Time is Here that I have been playing for years. Since we had a clarinet player sitting in with us there was a very classy and Christmas-y vibe to all of these songs, even the ones that aren’t specifically holiday songs. I also heard a whole lot of Christmas music during the season and I’m sure everyone else did as well. So where did these songs come from? What makes a great Christmas carol? As a musician, should you and how can you work some holiday cheer into your repertoire?

Well, some history. The holiday that is Christmas evolved out of pagan, solstice, end of calendar (or seasonal) year celebrations a long, long time ago. The earliest Carols were sung in Europe thousands of years ago and were probably sung in celebration of all four seasons, but it is really the end of year, (Christmas) songs and styles that have survived. As early as 129 AD, Christians began appropriating these songs of praise and celebration and that year a Roman Bishop decreed that a song called the Angel’s Hymn should be sung at Christmas service in Rome. However, Christmas carols didn’t really take off with ordinary people until the Middle Ages when St. Francis of Assisi started staging Nativity Plays in Italy. Music was part of these plays and an important factor that changed the acceptance of the songs was that instead of the music being performed in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church, the songs were sung in various native tongues, so the idea spread all over Europe as people were now able to more fully participate in the music and celebrations. This was controversial because in effect it adds an element of showbiz to religious rites, but this made the rites a more integral part of people’s lives, whether in church or not and thus began the Christmas Carol tradition. Or probably begat, if we use the language of the time.

The earliest English Carol was written in 1410 and reads and sounds more like a poem or lullaby than what we would commonly think of as a Christmas carol. There were many other similar type verses written during this time. In 1454, with the invention of the Gutenburg printing press, carols could be printed and distributed but, believe or not, severe factions within churches did not encourage such vocal celebrations. Oliver Cromwell actually banned Christmas Carols in England during the mid-1600s. And you thought The Grinch was bad! The first American Christmas Carol was written sometime in the 1640s by a man named John de Brebeurf and was called Jesus is Born (The Huron Carol). Though many churches in Europe would refuse to make carols a part of their celebration well into the 19th century, this was not true of ALL churches and the songs were composed and performed by theater companies, musicians, troubadours, and, of course, by great composers like George Frideric Handel and his very grand and famous Messiah, which was first performed in 1742. Or, from much simpler beginnings came arguably, the most famous Christmas carol of all, Silent Night. In 1818 an Austrian assistant priest named Joseph Mohr composed this three stanza ditty to be sung chorally at Christmas mass because the church organ was broken and could not be repaired in time for the holiday celebration. The first time the song was played the congregation heard the priest and choir director Franz Xaver Gruber sing accompanied by Fr. Mohr’s guitar. As it turns out, the guitar was Fr. Mohr’s favorite instrument! Silent Night would, spread across the world as a great song and would be the central carol to the 1914 spontaneous Christmas Truce between warring factions on the Western Front during World War 1. And it all started basically as a religious singer-songwriter guitar tune. Pretty cool, eh?

Over the course of the last 150 years Christmas carols became an integral part of the Christmas and holiday celebrations and they became ever more popular (and big business too!). Bing Crosby‘s version of White Christmas is the best-selling single of all time according to various sources, with sales in excess of 100 million. Wow! Amazing what grows from such humble beginnings? Can you imagine the holiday season without the music we all know so well? In many ways, on a very emotional level, the music defines what we know and feel about the holiday season; the services, the memories, the presents, the dinners, the parties, the decorations, the celebrations, the stories, in sacred and secular manner. In the realm of modern discourse and pop culture it is no longer necessary or possible to separate the story of Jesus’ birth from the Christmas tree or Santa Claus. Over the years music has helped meld all of these elements together into this one big event that everyone recognizes. This is probably what terrified those early church leaders and why they tried so hard to prevent the secular carols from becoming a part of religious celebrations.

Nothing illustrates the Christmas package better than The Charlie Brown Christmas Special with the accompanying soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. This classic from 1965 has entertained millions of children and adults for more than 50 years. Elements of the show include Charlie Brown bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, Snoopy winning a best decoration competition, Linus reciting the appropriate Biblical canon concerning the birth of Jesus Christ and a very unimpressive tree turned into the season’s most important symbol. It has been televised every year since it debuted and even today ABC currently holds the rights and broadcasts the Special twice in the weeks before Christmas. Guaraldi’s soundtrack has also sold well; over 4 million copies! While most of the people involved thought the show would be a disaster due to it’s slow pacing, simple animation, and weird mix of jazz and sacred (choir) music, it was a hit from the first broadcast. The show and the soundtrack are among the most loved holiday entertainment in the United States and you can check out the rankings HERE if you are interested. As with the Peanuts crew or St. Francis of Assisi’s church, the first few years I was in school we had an annual Christmas pageant. Two of the years I even had speaking roles and this was my first taste of performing. I’m sure this is true for many of you out there and this is what tradition is all about!

The 1950s and 1960s was a very classic time for a certain type of holiday music and nothing better represents this time than this album by Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians — The Sounds of Christmas. Known during his lifetime as America’s Singing Master or The Man Who Taught America to Sing, Fred began with a self-created banjo orchestra that, over time, blossomed into one of mid-20th century America’s great Arts institutions. He also…wait for it, invented the Waring Blender. Because he came from the jazz background of the great bandleaders, there was always a whole lot of SWING and a fair amount of BLUES in the choral presentations, so in addition to perfect vocalizations there is also a whole lot of HIP Daddy-o! While he released many albums and was on television frequently during the late 40s and 50s, that was all way before my time. However, my parents had this record and hearing it instantly takes me back to holidays of yore. Fred Waring was described as a perfectionist and a taskmaster and the performances on this album are flawless. There are many examples of different groups trying to do the same arrangements on YouTube and I haven’t found one yet that is quite as sharp.

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The album covers a wide range of styles: Swing (Ring Those Christmas Bells, Santa Claus is Coming To Town); nostalgia (Opening, Carol Brothers Carol [written by W.A. Muhlenberg, who founded St. Lukes Hospital in New York City and was very influential in the development of early American Education]); Porgy and Bess style blues (Rise Up Shepherd an’ Foller, Go Where I Send Thee); the classics (Silent Night, O Holy Night) and six songs that were written by another jazz musician, unknown at the time, by the name of Alfred Burt. His carols began as a family tradition to accompany the yearly Christmas card to friends and relatives and were first heard outside the family circle in the early 1950s. He composed all of the music for these carols and family friend Wilha Hutson wrote the lyrics and they were a hit with choir groups that heard them. Hollywood recordings quickly commenced, but unfortunately, Burt did not live to see his creations sung and popularized by the likes of Nat King Cole, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Fred Waring. They were very popular at the time and since then the carols have entered the popular Christmas music lexicon and there they have remained. This album contains: Caroling, Caroling, O Hearken Ye, Jesu Parvule, The Star Carol, Come Dear Children, and This Is Christmas.

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While many of these carols, like all carols, are very simple in structure, Waring’s arrangements take them to interesting places and the talent assembled to perform them was obviously top-notch. They do not make albums like this anymore! The Sounds of Christmas is available again so either relive the magic (if you grew up with it like I did) or check it out for yourself! It gets a 5-star rating on Amazon so I obviously know what I’m talking about *wink*!

Okay! Look for the conclusion to follow next week. Like a ride through the woods to Grandma’s house the posts will lead back to the guitar and how you can make Christmas songs your own!

Here is Part 2 of this series.

Cool CDs — COWS, 5678s, High on Fire

Every once in awhile I listen to a bunch of loud music from the old days…the fabulous 1990s. Above is COWS bringing it from 1996 in Minneapolis. Saw them that year! In addition to regular club dates they were on the Indie stage at Lollapalooza and toured with TOOL. They completely plow through these songs with their trademark razor wire guitar + throbbing rhythm section + demented front man with total abandon! There are quite a few live COWS shows from those days up on YouTube now and that is a great thing! Brings it all back for us who were there and helps those who weren’t and wished they could’ve been glean a little of what it was like. Bands like COWS should be preserved for posterity. That was some a-ok fun and reckless stuff happening right there ladies and gentlemen.

I hear, well saw actually, that there was a reunion show in Minneapolis last year that was very well-attended and enjoyable for all who were there. I think there have been a few of those over the past couple of years, but guitarist Thor Eisentrager bowed out in 1998 and has never returned. I think that is why today if something happens they are referred to as COWZ. There have been releases (?) of old material and some different things?. Of course, Amphetamine Reptile Records is the label that released all of the COWS material and a whole lot of other great aggro-noise besides. They are still in existence, in a limited way. I got the hankering to DO SOME MOO (listen to COWS) and looked through my stacks. I knew I still had some COWS cds and I do and I threw them on and started looking about the internet to see what’s what. I found out that Old Gold, which is a compilation of their first 3 albums: Daddy Has a Tail, Effete and Impudent Snobs, and Peaceticka, is completely out of print. Hmm. I would imagine the albums it represents are also long gone, but, through the magic of YouTube, they LIVE, NOW ON your computer. Pretty cool.

cows3The music on Old Gold is pretty crazy, especially the early stuff. COWS hadn’t quite worked out their sound and presentation yet, but tracks like Camouflage Monkey, Shakin’ and Memorial (always in rotation in many COWS sets) prove that even back in the late 80s, they had all of raw energy and power necessary to become a great punk and noise band. Some of the other “songs” like Dirty Leg, Whitey in the Woodpile and Bum in the Alley are just plain weird. By the time you reach Peacetika (peace sign and swastika get it?) the band is really coming together. Hitting the Wall (one of the band’s defining tunes) is some of the most unhinged, volatile, molotov-cocktail music produced by anyone ever. The title track is also a great tune — an “instrumental” sound collage that drives in a Sonny Sharrock meets Joy Division direction that I wish the band would’ve explored further. Cant’ Die and 3 Way Lisa are also le terrifique! There are a few folks out there who think Peacetika is the best COWS release and it is definitely #2 for me! (I review 1992s Cunning Stunts, in the right column and believe that to be #1, though not by much.)

cows2The COWS songs had both feet in the disaffected rage of the Beavis and Butthead trailer-park generation; that slimy underbelly of the rust belt towns that were once built around a church and a somewhat stable economy. Kind of like the movie Fargo if everyone acting in the movie did so on 3 hits of really hot blotter and a tub of Big Mickeys. They represented and embodied the post-industrial, post-modern, post-Grand Funk/Stooges generations even if some of they did was pure drug-induced psychosis or prairie schtick. Musically there was a mess of blues, jazz, and the sounds Midwestern rock icons like The Stooges and Alice Cooper scattered throughout. Sometimes what sounds like a guitar is actually a bass line all distorted, effected and played with a slide! I can’t say for sure he invented it, but I’ve never seen anyone but Kevin Rutmanis play bottleneck bass. On cuts like Shitbeard, off of the Sexy Pee Story disc, both Rutmanis and guitarist Eisentrager play slide on their respective instruments! Talking about rippin’ up the rule book! Any pretense of typical technique is not really evident, but repeated listening will prove that these guys worked hard on putting together a group sound that was much more than any one individual’s musical abilities. Supposedly guitarist Thor would come to sessions with pages of his parts notated out. There is a lot to enjoy and learn here and I hope there are younger musicians out there who pick up on it. This is one of the things people did before there was an internet and American Idol and running through the East Village because of a rumored Kanye West secret show on a post office loading dock. Ok…so maybe it would’ve been at Webster Hall. Still. srsly?

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Anyhow, in the course of going through my stuff I came across discogs.com, which is a pretty hip, user-generated-type site that has all kind of really important information pertaining to the recorded media one may have. This is where I found out that Old Gold is something people want. What’s even more bloody brilliant is that I have a promo copy of Old Gold too. I have no idea where I got this, but it’s in great shape, except it looks like it’s 20 years old. Oh wait…it is.

cows1The track listing isn’t any different, but I saw that someone is asking almost $100 for it on Ebay. Wow! Of course, vinyl is the way to go! Some of that stuff is really worth a lot, but I don’t have any. I’m glad people are seeking out these COWS releases…Way cool! I’m sure it’s tough to drum up the support necessary for a full re-release so hopefully everyone who wants a copy will somehow manage to get one. I may even part with mine eventually, who knows? The thing about CDs is the discs are usually in pretty good shape long after the listener has major problems (haha). You really have to take care of vinyl to have it still sound good 20 years later.

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Another CD that I have is this one by The 5678s — a band favored Quentin Tarentino (the band made an appearance in the movie Kill Bill) and assorted guys with backpacks everywhere. New CDs are selling on Amazon for $150. Holy Smoke. These gals were/are sassy and sultry and they got the Americana retro thing down like a shimmyshack. I saw them a long time ago in a small club in NYC, but they were pretty ordinary as far as really being able to bring it live unfortunately. Maybe they had jet lag. Japan is pretty far away, you know? I gotta say though…they gave it their all and looked fantastic!

56781I’m pretty sure I bought this from my friends at Vital Music Records a long time ago. I like this CD and love the Americana music even more than I used to, but I do, in my old age, prefer the polish of someone say, like Friends of Dean Martinez over the kitschy power of The 5678s. But, as with COWS, it’s great younger people seek this stuff out. Back in the day RAWK like this was flying off the shelves everywhere. Things have changed, I know, but Rock and Toll is a force you need in your life!

The last thing I found diggin’ through the stacks was this copy of High On Fire’s first release. This looks to be an in-demand item on discogs.com too — 91 people want it and only 17 people have it, although no price is mentioned. This release was put out by 12th Records, which I think, didn’t do anything else after. The three songs that appear on this CD would also appear on the Man’s Ruin release The Art of Self-Defense in 2000, but I’m pretty sure they are different versions. Master of Fists is slower and sludgier, but all three are performed very well. It’s easy to see that guitarist/leader and ex-member of the legendary Sleep, Matt Pike, already had his sound, style and riff factory up and running it was only a matter of time before the metal world caught on.

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