Jeff Beck

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.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher — A Review

I had the opportunity to view another rock-documentary with the mysterious, yet evocative title, Elvis Presley: The Searcher. This film seems to have originated with the desire of Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla, to show Elvis as the artisté that he was and the process of this discovery is a long and detailed one, I must say. I wasn’t quite expecting the level of minutiae that came my way when I sat down to view the movie and had I known…well I might have penciled out another week or something. I have to ask: Does the world really need another Elvis movie? Hasn’t this story been told about a million times by now? Is this just another one of those cynical money-grabs by people in the industry who are really just making product for other people in the industry? Sure seems like it to me. Let’s check out some details.

Did you ever rent one of those Elvis biographies on VHS from Blockbuster? Or watch a 1 hour documentary on AMC at like 2 am? Yea! Totally! Me too! One summer afternoon a long time ago I watched 3 of these specials in a row because it was the anniversary of Presley’s death and the family and I were trapped in a hotel room on the Jersey Shore because of bad weather. So if you’ve SEEN those, you have more or less SEEN this movie as well. In addition to all of the recycled Elvis footage there was also stock footage from sources like this VHS tape that I used to have called Times Ain’t Like they Used to Be : Early Rural and Popular American Music, 1928-1935. I spent most of the first half of the movie with my own Mystery Science Theater 3000-type dialogue that consisted of: “Seen it. Yea, seen that. Heard that. Yea, totally used to have that. Wow, they’re using that too, eh? Man, I’m really tired. What time is it?” I didn’t even make it through the first half of the film, called it a night and went to bed. This movie is over three hours long, (which is first of all, completely unnecessary) and what happens is the visually-interesting quality of the film is missing for someone familiar with the subject so storytelling is supposed to compensate…I guess? The director, Thom Zimny has worked with Bruce Springsteen and is real big on NARRATIVE. Dude…seriously. Write a book. I don’t wanna watch NARRATIVE.

The focus on NARRATIVE means the film uses a type of Ken Burns approach to production: still photos, zooming, voice-over interviews, repeated somewhat corny motifs (a bicycle with a baseball card in the wheel). This approach kinda, sorta works if you are producing a documentary on the Civil War, but in the wrong hands, done the wrong way the voice-overs often sound like Mansplaining. I don’t need Springsteen dissecting the transcendence of Gospel Music. He, Robbie Robertson and Tom Petty did most of the musician voice-overs (except for some old stuff they dug out from Scotty Moore and Sam Phillips [seen it, heard it]). It’s better when “guests” are on camera, as in the Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll film. Hearing these guys expound heavily behind some of the visuals was really annoying and Tom Petty was the only interesting voice-over artist. Why do all of these movies end up with rock writers bloviating in the background? How about some singers or musicians like, Robert Plant? He’s a HUGE Elvis fan. Those tales of Led Zeppelin meeting Elvis in the 70s are amazing! Here’s Jimmy Page wearing an Elvis on Tour Ribbon so you know he’d be down for reminiscing. The Beatles had an impromptu jam with Elvis in 1965. Their memories of meeting Elvis were a lot more entertaining. Paul drives a boat while remembering in this footage. How cool is that? Add that stuff and for good measure get more Scotty Moore involvement. Then get Page, Jeff Beck, and Brian Setzer to give guitar demonstrations on “that sound”. Have Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding talk about those Sun Sessions and Treat Me Like a Fool and how great and influential and downright life-changing it all was! Yes! What we’re going for is footage and commentary that is the same quality as Little Richard talking about his big toe shooting up in his boot (because he loved Jimi Hendrix’s playing so much). Can you feel the magic here? I should be in pictures.

Finally, there is obviously an attempt to avoid any notion that the King of Rock and Roll also became the King Of Cheeseballs and the King of the Tabloids later in his career. The audience is supposed to accept the proposition that a guy who appeared onstage in caped rhinestone jumpsuits, zonked on any number of different medications, performing karate moves while singing Suspicious Minds to over-the-hill babes grabbing for his scarves…was a totally serious person. I’m sure there was a lot of high-fiving in the post-production room when the movie was done, but I was there in the early 70s and even then 13 year-olds like myself knew the only person less serious than Elvis was Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. The next person who wants to make an Elvis movie should be forced to use the following suggestions: 1) The musicians above appear in the movie; 2) Examine the appeal of The King to his fans; 3) Explore the still vibrant Rockabilly and Psychobilly communities; 4) Discuss the weirdness that always surrounded the King–The Memphis Mafia, Presley’s interest in the Occult, UFOs and Conspiracies, and finally 5) How real and imaginary elements of the Southern Gothic tradition and the rest of these items are indispensable to Presley’s story and as much a part of rock n’ roll as the “devil at the crossroads” is to blues legend. Otherwise you’re just left with a big WHY? I still don’t have an answer for that question, but I’ve spent enough time with this subject already, so we’ll just have to leave it to the cosmos to figure out.

Eastern-Flavored Music

butter

The Beatles, Stephane Wrembel and Ali Akbar Khan

During the past few weeks I have listened to three albums constantly: Revolver by The Beatles, Barbes by Stephane Wrembel, and Journey by Ali Akbar Khan. There is a common thread running through all three discs and that is Indian/Eastern music. I’m a fan of different types of music from the Middle and Far East though I really can’t say my knowledge of the subject is very extensive. There are many different instruments and types of music involved and I favor the more traditional/instrumental. I have heard a lot of Asian pop music and some of it is pretty good, but I find that the instrumentation and the arrangements better and more sophisticated in traditional/classical music.

revolverLike many people, I came to “know” (I use the term “know” very loosely and in it’s most superficial sense), Indian music through bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Beatle George Harrison studied sitar with the late Indian virtuoso Ravi Shankar and became one of Indian music’s most vocal proponents. Norwegian Wood, which was written by John Lennon, was the first Beatle song to use the sitar and was basically a western song that employed the sitar for musical effect (the same can be said for The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black). There is some great background at The Beatles Bible (A great site!) on the London scene at the time of recording Rubber Soul and Norwegian Wood. (As I have written on the blog before) Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds were also early pioneers of Eastern-inspired pop music. The original take of Heart Full of Soul actually had a sitar on it! The Davies brothers from The Kinks were also recording music with Eastern sensibilities (See My Friends) at the time. In the States, The Byrds 1965 hit Eight Miles High had a sitar-flavored Rickenbacker guitar sound playing John Coltrane-esque lines, which was pretty far out and groovy for pop music. As the 60s progressed “that Eastern sound” would become synonymous with being stoned and/or altered states of consciousness, much to the displeasure of Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar. Unfortunately, the sound and influence of the music became so popular that it would invade even the most trivial and superficial places by the end of the decade.

When the Beatles’ follow-up album to Rubber Soul, Revolver, was released, it contained the Harrison composition Love You To, which was the first attempt to go “further into the style”. This tune would be a template for later Harrison songs like Within You, Without You and The Inner Light: they are all attempts to play bona-fide Indian music, albeit in a western pop music format. Musically though, I think Love You To is one of George’s best songs ever. Great arrangement and performance and he stays within the confines of the pop style. Other songs from Revolver that are very Eastern, but don’t contain any Eastern instruments, are the fantastic John Lennon compositions Tomorrow Never Knows and She Said, She Said. The former, a drone chant from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on a cool, repetitive Ringo beat with loads of sounds and tape effects, broke a whole lot of rules for pop music and the guitar lines from the latter echo the Eastern-influenced mixolydian lines and quarter to half step bent-notes that one could also hear from Jeff Beck (Shapes of Things, Heart Full of Soul) and Jimi Hendrix (Love or Confusion, Purple Haze) during this time. As the 60s transitioned into the 70s, these Indo/Eastern influences became less of a thing in pop music, but started appearing in the jazz, fusion and progressive rock music of bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Shatki and many more.

In 2006, Stephane Wrembel, Manouche guitarist extraordinaire, who is also a huge fan of prog-rock and student of Indian music, released his disc, Barbes. Recorded when his group was a trio (with bandmates Jared Engle on bass and David Langlois on percussion) the disc is the perfect modern synthesis of three major styles of music: jazz, prog-rock and Indo/Eastern music. I have always dug this disc! Brilliant playing and my favorite of everything he has done. (To see his band live during this time was also a great experience as the clip above proves). Not only are the originals on Barbes fresh and inspiring, the band also covers Django Reinhardt‘s Fleche D’Or, Dizzy Gillespie‘s Night in Tunisia and John Coltrane‘s Afro Blue. The group takes some of these tunes at breakneck tempos and the performances are a dizzying array of chops and melodic invention. Also, the ambient “mood” tunes, including (Introductions, Detroductions) are music of sparse instrumentation and indeterminate origin; world music ragas perhaps?

A Raga is: in the classical music of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, a melodic framework for improvisation and composition. A raga is based on a scale with a given set of notes, a typical order in which they appear in melodies, and characteristic musical motifs.

Manouche music or Gypsy Jazz has strong Indian roots because it is generally agreed that the group of people known as “Gypsies” originated on the Indian subcontinent and first migrated into Europe in the 12th century. There are various sub-categories of these Romani people: Manouche in France, and the Sinti of Central Europe. Sinti/Manouche guitar playing sounds very similar to not only Indian classical music, but some of the progressive rock and jazz of the 1970s. One huge connection is that IMPROVISATION is everything in Indian music, likewise for Manouche music or a lot of 70s rock/jazz as well. A Manouche player must have a very disciplined mind and an aural technique that includes whole tone scales, diminished and augmented arpeggios, altered scales and arpeggios and an emphasis on the “Django-favored” sixths and ninths of the harmony chords. Modern players like Stephane Wrembel have added depth to the sonic palette of the music by combining it with other influences and adding their own touches of musical imagination. There are rhythmic devices and picking patterns found in Indian music that one does not normally hear in a lot of western jazz or classical music and Stephane explores the picking and rhythmic subdivision topics in his book, Getting Into Gypsy Jazz Guitar, which I review here. He advises picking quarter notes up through nontuplets (subdividing by 9 to the beat) with the metronome as warm-up exercises. He explains that, “musicians in India have their own efficient approach to time consisting of singing rhythms using certain syllables. A similar approach may be applied to right-hand technique which will allow for warm-up…” This is a very good way to improve your picking technique and I can say I did it religiously for about six months. In addition to giving my a bunch of listening pleasure, Getting Into… and Barbes are windows into another world and their influence definitely helped make me a better guitar player. Here are some further insights into the nature of Indian rhythm, courtesy of Ravi Shankar.

“…Indian music is also tyrannically precise, with extremely complex mathematical guidelines for how ragas are played. “There are thousands of ragas,” Shankar explains, “and they are all connected with different times of the day, like sunrise or night or sunset. It is all based on 72 of what we call mela or scales. And we have principally nine moods, ranging from peacefulness to praying, or the feeling of emptiness you get by sitting by the ocean.”

aakhan

Ali Akbar Khan “was a Hindustani classical musician of the Maihar gharana, known for his virtuosity in playing the sarod.” Born in modern-day Bangladesh, he was trained on a variety of instruments under the guidance of very strict family members who had him practicing up to 18 hours a day. His sister, Annapurna Devi, was also an accomplished musician and was, for a time, the wife of fellow student, Ravi Shankar. Over the years Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar would perform many times together, including at The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and were easily two of the most prominent Indian musicians in the western world. After moving to the USA in the late 50s Khan would found a couple of schools, one in California and one in Switzerland and would spend the next 40 years touring and performing until his health failed in the late 2000s.

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I’ve been listening to Journey for the past 10 years and find it very enjoyable. As I related earlier, I’ve always liked the sound of Indian music, especially if it’s instrumental. Eastern philosophy doesn’t necessarily compartmentalize like Western thinking and Eastern music doesn’t separate Eastern Mystical concepts (that were the lyrics of western songs like The Inner Light or Within You, Without You) from the music. Some of the best musical numbers on Journey include Morning Meditation, Temple Music and Lullaby. I don’t meditate (perhaps I should?), but the sounds of this music conjure up great feelings of emotion and ambiance that I hear in any other great, sophisticated music. The happy, get up and go riff of the title cut, Journey, is brilliant and fun as is the dark and somewhat stormy Carnival of Mother Kali. The romantic, almost child-like melody of Come Back My Love sounds like mid-60s George Harrison song and the other ballad-type tracks have the pacing and deliberate delivery that one can hear on some of the tracks of Barbes. There is a whole lot of crossover between these three discs is what I’m trying to say! Khan’s Sarod has a stoic depth and darkness even in happy moods, and his soulful playing is augmented by Guitars(!), Tabla, Shakers, Tanpura, Keyboards, Duggi and Dholak. All of the music was composed by Ali Akbar Khan and was recorded in 1990, giving the disc a classic, but very modern sound.

khan2I also own this disc, Traditional Music of India, which is four really long ragas. Very cool, long jams that have none of the more modern arrangements or instrumentation found on Journey, but still a very enjoyable listen. This is the kind of traditional music that one must be a master to play and would probably be impossible for most western musicians or anyone else not raised in the school. It’s amazing that no matter the musical style, or background of the artist, the performance of classic music such as this is basically approached the same way and requires the same skills. The pace and flow of these very traditional ragas remind me of some of the guitar pieces on the Bream and Williams disc I review in the right column, or a Django Reinhardt solo improvisation or Jimmy Page playing White Summer. (Incidentally…sometimes it helps to approximate an “Indian” sound/tuning by using alternate tunings, which I explore here.) Music from the Asian continent has given western listeners and players a very expanded sense of what music (and life) is and I believe any musician can only gain from listening to and experiencing music such as this. There is a nice quote on the cover of Journey that I relate to and maybe other musicians will find it interesting as well:

Music is something I learned all my life and am still learning. Earlier in my boyhood days, I learned naturally—as children learn a language, without deeper understanding of what it can really offer. I kept on learning and playing with rapt attention — with a sense of dedication — but not the deep inner feeling which finally came at the ripe age of fifty! Now when I play, my heart is filled with blissful joy that I can hardly express! I feel a sense of ultimate fulfillment that nothing else in the world can offer me anymore. Indeed, music is a very spiritual experience for me — only through music, I feel I can reach closer to God…”

— Ali Akbar Khan

Cream

CREAM was an awesome band — The first SUPERGROUP and a total powerhouse of over-the-top PSYCHEDELIC-BLUZE-ROCK excitement. I really dug all of their stuff in my younger days and really don’t think Eric Clapton ever did any better except for maybe some of what happened in Blind Faith and, of course, Derek and The Dominos. Very bold statement I know, but I don’t think I’m the only one who holds that opinion. Cream became one of the highest-power draws in the psychedelic era, a period of music I enjoy quite a bit and one that was extremely influential in a way that still resonates even now. Most of the people I’ve known in NYC were not fans, but the whole 60s era and everything was so controversial and so much of its time, I don’t blame those who don’t get it or don’t like it for feeling that way.

I don’t think it’s necessary to regurgitate the band’s biography, but a couple of items are very important to know. The three members of Cream were all major musical stars in England before the band was formed. Clapton’s reputation, developed with stints in The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers led to graffiti on London streets proclaiming him “GOD”. He certainly was one of the most tasteful and fiery practitioners of blues guitar and he had a tone and a touch that was simply too good to believe. Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were also ninjas on their respective instruments and Bruce had a pretty amazing range as a vocalist, a fact that would serve Cream well, especially in live performances. One of the big problems, once they were signed however, was the music business. In 1966 record companies and managers were still looking for “hits” and tried to groom and encourage every band to be the next Beatles. You can see this in the early Cream (mimed) television appearances. I Feel Free is not a bad song, especially the instrumentation. But the insistence on the band to be pop stars would rankle especially Clapton who, at the time, considered himself a “blues purist.”

A major game-changer would arrive in England in 1966 in the form of an outstanding American guitarist who was a big fan of Eric Clapton. His name was Jimi Hendrix. His first album, Are You Experienced? would push people like Cream to new heights and the psychedelic era would take off in full flight. One of the first things Hendrix did when arriving in England was try to sit in with Cream. Even though this episode was devastating for Clapton at the time, he and the rest of London (and soon the world) came to realize that Jimi was what he was. None of the British guitarists, save for Pete Townshend (who was also a Jimi fan), was as upfront and “wild” as Jimi was perceived to be. Clapton saw himself as a disciple of the blues masters and he was playing THEIR music. So it was natural that he would be a little restrained about how he played and performed. He was/is a more reserved person in general. Jimi, on the other hand was playing HIS music, was not British and not a white guy. He had the blues and chitlin’ circuit cred that Clapton could only aspire to and he heard manifestations of the blues that no one else at the time could’ve put across (Third Stone From the Sun, Are You Experienced). However, to the very end Jimi was one of Cream’s biggest fans, launching into an impromptu and basically unwanted (at least as far as BBC executives were concerned) version of Sunshine of Your Love on The Lulu Show after Cream played broke up.

The competition that did exist was good for all involved because as many people know — if you want to be a great musician, hang with other great musicians. There was the other benefit of all kinds of new sounds and technology being made available to guitar players like…the wah-wah pedal! How many great songs have a wah-wah as part of the sound? As people who knew Cream have pointed out, Jack Bruce wrote the riff to Sunshine as a homage to Jimi one night after attending a Hendrix gig. Eric Clapton quotes the song “Blue Moon” in the first few bars of the solo and recorded it on his far-out and trippy-decorated 1964 Gisbon SG. The drum part originated with Ginger Baker who came up with the idea of playing African rhythms on the “1” and the “3”. He and Mitch Mitchell, drummer for the JHE, would “make” many songs for their respective bands and propel Jimi and Eric to new heights because of what they brought to recordings and performances.

While the pressures from the label and management would never dim, onstage Cream became a force for improvised blues-based rock with elements of psychedelia. While Jimi Hendrix would blow up the USA at the Monterey Pop Festival, which Cream’s manager passed on so they would have “bigger impact,” Cream finally did arrive as headliners in the fall of 1967 and quickly established themselves as a very impressive musical force. They gained a very sympathetic following among The Love Generation and were encouraged to embark on long improvised jams that would sometimes pass the 20-minute mark. At the ceremony to induct the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the mid-90s, ZZ Top drummer Dusty Hill related that back in the late 60s EVERY drummer in Texas had their kit set up like Ginger Baker and tried to cop some of what he was doing for their own sound. The same, of course, was true of Eric Clapton and his blazing Gibson through a Marshall stack sound. In some ways, at least at the time, what Hendrix was doing was so far beyond many people (even what he was hearing, nevermind playing) Eric’s approach was much more attainable: Learn how to play tasteful blues licks, plug in, crank to 11. There are many accounts of their tours of the US that detail not only how LOUD the band played, but how GREAT the guitar sound was. Even before Cream, Eric Clapton knew how to get the great guitar tone that was the envy of many players. His sound had a lot to do with his touch, his vibrato, his rolling the tone pots on the guitar back and forth to achieve different levels of brightness and contrast in the tone of his licks. Outside of the wah-wah he eschewed other effects that would compromise the quality of the sound between guitar and amp. While he would switch to Fender Stratocasters by the time he got the Derek and the Dominoes project going, he used Gibson guitars, mostly the SG, a Les Paul, and the ’63-65 Firebird and the ’64 335 that are played at the 1968 Farewell Concert. All of these guitars gave him that big fat tone that became a staple in rock music and it would not be too much of a stretch to say that all started with EC. Here’s a nice collection of pics with the Firebird. Here’s a great site with a really heavy analysis of Clapton’s guitars! Here’s one of my favorite Cream songs…Tales of Brave Ulysses. While there was always a lot of tension in Cream (especially between Bruce and Baker) they all look like they’re having a good time on this one. Also…sometimes the Youtube comments are genius… like the first one on this video:


“Okay gentlemen, here’s the plan … we bring in the three pre-eminent musicians of our time, we put them on an empty stage and let them play their hearts out with no limits, have them really going for it, exceeding even their own preconceived limits, and we film it (with excellent audio) for posterity … what’s that? Cameras? No, we only need one camera, that should be fine.”

Prior to their post-break-up Goodbye album, Cream released three highly-acclaimed discs: Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, and Wheels of Fire, which incidentally was the first ever platinum-selling double album. Both Wheels of Fire and Goodbye combined sides of studio recordings and various live tracks the band recorded in the US. This created an interesting mix between the shorter, almost pop-oriented format of the studio releases and the furiously improvised live numbers that stretched out to epic lengths (for the time). Notable covers of blues material included Sittin’ On Top of the World, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, I’m So Glad, Spoonful, Born Under a Bad Sign, and Cat’s Squirrel, which although it never received the live workouts the others did, is a great song complete with great harmonica lines courtesy of Bruce and a brilliant guitar breakdown. Personally I always liked the vibe of the studio versions of Sittin’ (the tone of the guitar is awesome) and I’m So Glad where Clapton plays the entire solo on the “G” string. Of course the live versions were simply balls-out and furious, demonstrating the best of Cream’s unbridled energy and instrumental prowess.

But all three members of the band were capable of writing original songs and write they did! Besides Sunshine of Your Love, I Feel Free and Tales of Brave Ulysses, there are other really cool things in the catalog. SWLBAR, Badge, Deserted Cities of the Heart, Strange Brew, Politician, What a Bringdown, Toad, N.S.U., Sleepy Time Time, and of course, the completely EPIC White Room. I always associate the sound of these songs with SUMMERTIME for some reason. While the music is not the happy pop sounds of Strawberry Alarm Clock, there is none of the cold distance that one hears in The Doors or even some of The Beatles material from that period.

Back in the early 80s, Cream’s Farewell Concert was a staple at midnight movie showings (along with Gimme Shelter, Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock and The Rocky Horror Picture Show). I remember going to see this with a bunch of friends in Pittsburgh and it was party city — a real good time. One of the dudes was a total Clapton fanatic and I’d always say, “yea…but Jimi was better!” When the following portion of the movie came on I still remember him turning around and saying, “See?” If you’re looking to cop some of Clapton’s vibe in your playing there is no better instruction than this right here.

Alas, like many other things during the intense decade of the 1960s, Cream did not survive. The relationship among the band began to sour and the intense pressure and constant touring also began to take a toll. Eric Clapton was gravitating away from the “jam” idea to a more song-based approach and as he has said many times over the course of his career, hearing The Band’s Music From Big Pink completely changed his life and his idea of what he would do with music. In other interviews he also expressed that he was never totally comfortable in Cream, not only because of the strain brought by constant very loud improvisation, but also the pressure brought by the mantle of being a guitar hero in a Supergroup. As the 60s merged into the 70s all three members of Cream would go in separate directions, deal with crippling substance-abuse problems and never be a part of something as amazing again. While the Layla sessions and album were/are amazing, this was definitely due to the involvement of Duane Allman who was extended the invitation to join the group but declined. Neither the album or the single, Layla was an instant hit and gained it’s well-deserved accolades long after Clapton had broken up the group and moved on. His understated guitar hero status has been maintained and he has managed to adapt his sound and style to all of the trends that have come and gone since the 1960s. The Blues is universal and works with anything and he became quite an effective songwriter. While some who loved what he did in Cream probably had issues with EC in the 80s and 90s, he acquired a whole new audience of fans and has managed to keep a career and reputation as a guitar icon for almost 50 years, which is no small feat in a very tough business.

While there were always suggestions for Cream to reunite, this didn’t happen until 2005 and just as it was in the 1960s, their time together was very brief. The shows happened and went off well, but some of the acrimony was still present and it’s not like any of them, Eric Clapton included, needed or wanted to be on tour for months on end. I missed going to the shows but bought the DVD and think they did a pretty good job of it. There was a conscious effort to NOT make it like it was in the old days and many people took them to task for this. People do the same thing to all of these old bands though — there are people who think Van Halen should still be jumping around and writing songs like they did in 1981. Not gonna happen folks. Some of the lyrics to Deserted Cities of the Heart, one of my favorite tunes, maybe sum it up best:

I felt the wind shout like a drum.
You said, “My friend, love’s end has come.”
It couldn’t last, had to stop.
You drained it all to the last drop.
It was on the way,
On the road to dreams, yeah.
Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah.
Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah.

Fingerpicking Good!

Here is a collection of great guitar players doing their thing without the standard flat-pick that many people use. Most of these players should be familiar to any guitarist and all of these players have had an impact on guitar playing. Personally, I love playing without a pick sometimes and one the best things a player can develop is the ability to play either with or without. There are many reasons for playing this way including:

• The ability to play complicated patterns and contrapunctal lines
• Greater control for attack
• A wide variety of tones from using different parts of the hand
• Greater control for damping (especially slide players)

Of course some players reach a level of mastery or that makes the pick completely unnecessary. Other players would have a really hard time even approaching what they do if they had to worry about holding on to anything. What’s great about the following videos is many of them have close-up views so you can really get a good look at what’s going on. YouTube really is a GREAT learning device. Plus all this music is pretty brill don’t you think?

Chet Atkins*

Michael Hedges

Bonnie Raitt*

Wes Montgomery

Jeff Beck

Kaki King

The Allman Brothers (Derek Trucks / Warren Hayes*)

* Chet Atkins and Bonnie Raitt are both using thumbpicks, but they are also using their fingers and Warren Hayes is switching back and forth between using a standard pick and just using his fingers.

The crab picture I shot myself in Mexico a few years ago. I’m not sure what kind it is and it looked pretty ferocious in person but was really shy. It came out from under the porch of the bungalow one night while I was playing guitar.