John Lennon

Christmas Time is Here — Part II

So in Part I of Christmas Time is Here I briefly described some of the history of Christmas carols and popular holiday songs with the idea in mind that as musicians we are sometimes called to play them and shouldn’t shy away from playing them or enjoying the rich history and tradition they symbolize. In this post I will cover actually moving on to making these songs a part of repertoire. The first step in that direction is, of course, deciding on, and building up an arrangement of a song that you like, that works with your abilities as a musician, and will fit the performance you are going to give. This can be an arrangement you learn or one you adapt from either a vocal or instrumental arrangement that is already out there. Every musical number I do, Christmas song or not, even if it is based on someone’s version of a song, I like to change it a little bit or add something to it. That is just a way of personalizing the music or performance and jazz musicians especially do this all of the time.

If you are inclined to a the classic era of Big Band and vocal performances, you can never go wrong with any of the masters from the Golden Age of jazz and pop: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Bing Crosby to name a few. Their interpretations of holiday music are still heard regularly today — I heard Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) in 3 different stores during the buildup to 12/25 this year. The arrangements are usually pretty involved but they are also accessible and can be very inspiring in what you add to the song or (if you also sing) how your vocal arrangement will sound.

Speaking of Chestnuts and roasting on an open fire… We’ve all heard Nat King Cole or someone else sing this song, but how many people have actually seen a chestnut? Have you ever wondered about that? There was a time when chestnut trees were almost 25% of all hardwood stock in some areas of North America and recipes for everything from roasted chestnuts to chestnuts and sausages were typical fare. But a blight, introduced by planting a strain of Asian chestnuts in Long Island, NY in 1904 wiped out literally billions of trees. That’s right, Billions! It’s estimated there are only a few dozen pre-blight trees still alive in North America today and, of course, hardly anyone eats chestnuts during the holidays and almost all of the chestnuts that are eaten have to be imported. By the time The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) was written in 1944, most of the nation’s chestnut tree stock had already been wiped out. What an ecological nightmare! The things I learn blogging sometimes.

Many great instrumentalists from the 40s, 50s and 60s made holiday albums: Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, George Shearing, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd all made Christmas albums. So did swinging 60s style artists like Herb Albert, and so have newer jazzy/poppy superstars like Wynton Marsalis, Diane Krall and Nancy Wilson. There are literally weeks worth of instrumental and mood-type Christmas music on YouTube and possibly something on one of these albums could inspire you.

Some people may be more inclined to the rock and roll side of things but keep in mind that the lines of where Golden Classics leave off and rock and roll begins is a fine one indeed. Elvis Presley recorded a whole bunch of Christmas music and his tastes range from gospel, to rock and roll to straight pop. His interpretations of the classics (I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Town of Bethlehem) are as good as anyone’s because his gospel background and religious convictions give such sacred songs a depth that many secular vocalists just don’t do as well. It’s very easy to reduce a whole lot of the religious holiday music to camp and sentimentality, but Elvis never does this. He also recorded the definitive version of Blue Christmas. On the original version his vocals are awesome and the arrangement, including the background vocals by The Jordanaires, was inspiring and musically groundbreaking for the time. Was this the first rock and roll Christmas Song? Hmm. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I will chime in. Of course there was a whole lot of rock and roll Christmas after 1957 including: Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Phil Spector’s Christmas (including The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, which is also a classic), The Beatles, who released lots of Christmas craziness through their fan club and then later, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s So This Is Christmas and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time, both of which still get HEAVY airplay during the season. They are modern standards for sure. The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, also has a modern standard with his version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which has also been covered by everyone from Mariah to Bieber. José Feliciano, who I wrote about here, has the awesome Felice Navidad song that still gets yearly airplay and the recently-departed George Michael had a big 80s classic hit with the holiday favorite Last Christmas. Back in 1992 I was lucky enough to catch the Johnny Cash Christmas show when it rolled through New York City. That was a lot of fun. Brian Setzer has had a Christmas show/revue for years and he has covered a whole ton of great songs. Like this one:

So, depending on your preferred style of music, you can adapt and arrange any song you see fit and spice up everything from musical performances to family gatherings. Christmas songs, carols and melodies lend themselves to a wide variety of possibilities; they can have a very bare bones arrangement that you may sing along with, or they also can be turned into an instrumental mind-blower like what the always amazing Ted Greene does below. When I was in a punk band we used to do a twisted, Black Sabbath kind of take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town. When I got old and settled down, Christmas Time is Here was the first Christmas song I learned to play as a solo improviser and I have played it every year since and performed it at numerous gigs. This past year I worked up an arrangement that was based on The Ventures version of Sleigh Ride and tweaked it to work with gypsy jazz, rehearsed a couple times with the fellows, and away we went at a gig 4 days before Christmas. It was one of the best songs of the gig(!) even though no one had either a vibrato bar or copious amounts of delay since we were playing amplified acoustic. As always: If you are playing the songs instrumentally MAKE SURE you can play the melody without screwing it up! That means going over it a bunch of times. You should be able to play it 3-5 times in a row without a mistake. If you can’t, you will probably fudge it at the gig or in front of people. So beware!

There are about 7-8 songs that I can play pretty well solo and I start getting them together in the fall and play them through the season. Christmas songs are great vehicles for learning to play in an unaccompanied style (especially if you are new to unaccompanied playing), because the melodies are so well-known and the arrangement you can begin with can be very simple, but still very effective. As always take it slow and work your way through it a couple bars at a time. Since most songs do not have many different parts or modulations (unless you add them, which you can certainly do!) you will find that they will come together pretty quickly. Learning to play and perform these tunes is also a great test of what you can add to the performance every time you play it once you become comfortable improvising with yourself. I blew off a version of White Christmas while a few of us were sitting around one day in December and it sounded pretty flippin’ good! If you’re comfortable with the arrangement and comfortable improvising (throwing in some wacky chords and riff choices) you can turn the song into a really special and personal thing…and it can be a little bit different every time! So maybe give that a go later on in the year. Here is a list of jazzy, snazzy solo guitar instruction to get you started. If you’re not up to that yet, try these. You will become part of a long and very storied and important tradition that has involved the guitar and other string instruments for the better part of a millennium. Even if you play in a punk or metal band — everyone likes Christmas songs if you play them well and it’s November or December. Whatever you do, don’t even try this in July man!

Here is Part 1 of this series.

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Barney Kessel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

barney_quote

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

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

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

LED ZEPPELIN — News and Blooze

LEDZEP1

Lately I’ve been listening to and playing a WHOLE LOTTA Led Zeppelin. Killin’!! Was there ever a more awesome band? I think not. They’ve been in the news lately for a multitude of reasons, not that this is the reason for my listening party. I’ve never really stopped ever since that first blast a million years ago when I was a wee lad with long hair and an attitude. So much has been written and said about them you’re probably thinking, what could I possibly learn from reading another line? Well, hehehe, actually, I dunno. At the very least there will be some cool links to the far corners of the online Zeppelin universe, some personal anecdotes, and maybe some of my usual stupid humor. Hey you got a couple minutes! That’s why you’re here. Unlike other stuff where I’ve written one LONG post, I’m gonna break this up into dispatches, almost like I’m Carl Kolchak or something. Be honest, when’s the last time you thought about that guy…The NIGHT STALKER? The 70s were pretty flippin’ rad if you were there, weren’t they?

Of course the undisputed kings of 70s rock music were Led Zeppelin. 40 years later and they still have the power to excite, as they did in 2007 at their first BIG reunion concert ever (except for Live Aid in 1985, but Phil Collins played drums at that show so it can’t possibly count). Many people were under the impression that a tour and possible new music was going to emerge from the joint efforts of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham, the son of the late, very great John Bonham. However, 7+ years later, the world and 3/4 of “Led Zeppelin” are dismayed that Robert Plant isn’t interested. This has annoyed Jimmy Page to no end, but Jimmy has been annoyed since Live Aid as we will see in a later installment. I respect Robert Plant for his decision. Outside of Pete Townshend, (maybe) I can’t think of anyone from those years who has actually managed to have as interesting, successful and varied career (Roger Waters? Don Henley?). The easiest thing for him to do would be to say “sod it, I’m onboard”, but he won’t, or hasn’t thus far. Some have estimated that a Zeppelin world tour would be the first BILLION DOLLAR (yes that’s with a “B”) tour ever. That’s pretty amazing for a band that hasn’t existed since 1980, isn’t it? The might Zep has been getting a lot of long overdue accolades and they even appear on television shows and stuff now. (Dave Letterman must think there are people in his audience who doesn’t know the Zep story or who “Sonny Boy Williams” and other blues musicians are).

Another interesting item is that the estate of former and late Spirit guitarist Randy California and ex-Spirit bassist Mark Andes are suing Jimmy Page and the band for ripping off the Spirit song Taurus to create the initial theme of Stairway to Heaven. Randy had a pretty cool career in his own right; playing for Jimmy James (later Jimi Hendrix who gave him the name “California”) in New York before Jimi made the trip to England and rock and roll stardom. While still a teenager Randy co-founded Spirit, who headlined on various dates in 1968 and 1969 with the up and coming Led Zeppelin. Randy died tragically in the Pacific Ocean in 1997 while rescuing his son. The actual court filing is kind of a trip and can be viewed here. One thing that strikes me is that a lot of the allegations on how Stairway came about have been pulled from 3rd party books on the band or music magazine interviews. I guess maybe info of that nature is pertinent and would be admissible in court. (I found this on ACHILLES LAST STAND, one of the longest-running and best Zep websites on the net) So is there a case? It’s a good thing Zep’s former manager Peter Grant is no longer in the land of the living because I’m sure there would be hell to pay!

You can listen to the two intros side by side below. The operative word in that sentence is, of course, intro. Stairway, as everyone knows, goes through multiple movements and is a completely different song from Taurus. The other thing to remember is you can’t copyright a chord progression — the descending minor figure played in both songs is not exactly the same. The bass notes are identical from the “A” to the “F#” but in Stairway there are counterpoint notes on the high E string that don’t exist in Taurus. After the “F#/D” chord the progressions and songs are completely different. So basically we’re talking about an A minor chord with a descending bass note run. Personally I’m not sure that California deserves a writing credit on Stairway to Heaven for that. So much of music is recycled and there were probably at least 15 contemporaries of Fernando Sor who played similar lines back in the 1800s. It’s interesting to note that the lawyer bringing the case, one Francis Malofiy, was “admonished by the judge” in another case involving a copyright lawsuit against Usher and 19 other people. Judge Paul Diamond suggested Malofiy should be “considered for disbarment” and the case was thrown out of court. Ruh Roh!! I’m not a legal pro but this lawsuit would have been way more topical and appropriate in, I dunno, 1975 maybe?

Finally, Led Zeppelin I, II, and III were re-released last year as deluxe editions, with new outtakes, and songs/performances never heard, except on bootlegs. Jimmy’s money quote to Rolling Stone was:

“Everything is being transferred from analog to a higher-resolution digital format,”…”That’s one of the problems with the Zeppelin stuff. It sounds ridiculous on MP3. You can’t hear what’s there properly.”

Umm…Jimmy, babe, dude, whatever…perfectionism is great and all, but my mp3s of the mighty Zep sound just fine. But I guess if you got the jack to spend on the umpteenth reissue of any of these albums, go for it! Me I’ll watch this instead:

Book Review #2

Two more books from the library! I have some rilly cool things to share: The BB King Treasures and Stochelo Rosenberg (part 1). Both of these coffee-table-esque printed productions are very stylin’ and function as the kind of material I lay out when important and sophisticated people visit. It’s my way of saying, “Hey, I’m New York SASSY and I moved on from Hammer of the Gods a long time ago. But aside from that, both these books are complete and total eye-candy and serve as scrapbooks that detail the lives of two very accomplished musicians. Reading over them puts one smack in the middle of music history and culture and contained within are all kinds of special features that add to the experience. Both were obviously put together with a WHOLE LOTTA LOVE and it shows.

BB King

Riley B. King is a musical institution and The USA is lucky to have him. Over a career spanning 60+ years BB has become a world ambassador and “global musician” of the guitar, influencing some pretty high-powered people along the way and entertaining literally millions of people. The BB King Treasures, which was released to coincide with his 80th birthday, traces his story from very humble beginnings in a Mississippi sharecroppers cabin, through his early love of music and apprenticeship with cousin Bukka White, to his early successes in Memphis radio. It then moves on to the many years of relentless touring and recording. While James Brown might’ve called himself the hardest working man in showbiz, BB just went out and did it, year after year. By the 1960s when British guitar heroes like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page brought the blues back to the United States, BB saw his popularity skyrocket because he WAS the blues and could kill them at The Fillmore playing to a bunch of hippies who were there to see Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. BB and Albert King (no relation but another very influential player) were both revered by white audiences and players alike and enjoyed tremendous success during the late 60s and early 70s.

Year after year BB kept taking his message of music to the people and eventually became a full-blow icon — I mean he’s had an audience with the Pope fer crying out loud. (Supposedly John Paul II played a little guitar himself and wanted BB to show him how to play The Thrill is Gone — but that might’ve been just a rumor). Aside from great writing, this book contains so many cool reproductions of mementos that trace BB’s career — posters, business cards, booking schedules, stickers…neato! There is also a CD that has BB talking about a whole lot of guitar stuff. He relates how he admired Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and other players that he heard when he was growing up and how he tried to mimic the guitar bends, slides and chord patterns. He also recalls sitting next to cousin Bukka as he did his thing, but ultimately BB could never reproduce any of it like he heard it. (He illustrates what he’s talking about by singing and picking an acoustic guitar) Listening to the CD it’s obvious ALL of that blues is in BB, but he went and did his own thing with it, took it somewhere else. His vibrato is legendary and his great FEEL gives all of his guitar playing a very human voice — a powerful enough influence that Duane Allman learned all of BB’s licks note for note and John Lennon once said, “I wish I could play guitar like BB King”. John even name-drops BB King in his Dig It jam that showed up on Let It Be. Even after all of the success and world-wide acclaim BB is very humble and cognizant of how he is a part of this long thread of guitar and music and this book serves as a real celebration of all he has accomplished. The combination of the writing, BB’s input, the relaxed feel of the audio interviews and all of the cool little add-ons, give this package a very personal feel and because there is so much here, you can revisit repeatedly without exhausting your interest level.

Stochelo Rosenberg

While Stochelo doesn’t have BB King’s 60 years of history or name recognition, he has established himself as the premier emissary of gypsy jazz throughout the world. Coming from a Manouche gypsy background he is steeped in traditions that date back literally hundreds, if not thousands of years. Stochelo’s book is a great family album, put together with help from Harry Klunder and guitar maker extraordinaire Leo Eimers.

Of course the shadow and presence of the awesome Django Reinhardt is always with Stochelo and all of those who play gypsy jazz. Django was the first world-wide hero of the Manouche community and founded a school and style of music that enjoys great popularity today. The success of Stochelo, his incredible guitar abilities and the wonderful music he and the trio have created has been a very important part of WHY there are so many people listening to and playing the music today. But they always acknowledge and give homage to the master and there is a section in the book devoted to Django. In addition to being a great musician, Django dabbled in painting and favored the female form as subject matter. (Who can blame him!) There are some samples in the book and this is the first time I’ve seen nice reproductions of his work. For over 20 years The Rosenberg Trio has been releasing beautiful discs and completely flooring everyone with their live performances. In addition to Stochelo, the trio features Nou’she, his cousin, one of THE preeminent gypsy rhythm guitarists in the world today and his other cousin, Nonnie an awesome bass player. Because they are all related and have been playing together for so long, TIGHT doesn’t even begin to describe how well they work together. Metal shredders, tube screamers, fingerpickers and technique geeks take notice. The Rosenberg Trio are amazing!

This book is hard to find and maybe impossible to buy now…I don’t know. There were a limited number of copies made. I have # 57. [edit message from co-author Harry Klunder: Hello, for Your information, the book is still on stock, however not so many. Let me know if you are interested, there are about 750 ex. left and they will be presented on the market again next year.Harry Klunder] It comes with one of Stochelo’s guitar picks embedded in the inside front cover, tabs of original music he wrote just for the book, a really insightful interview on his playing technique and equipment preferences and HISTORY. It’s a great presentation of Stochelo’s family and Manouche culture. The Rosenberg Trio was shaped and is sustained by their roots and there are lots of great stories and fantastic pics of family, friends and associates. While Django looms large as Stochelo’s main influence, there were others, much closer to home like his legendary uncle Wasso Grunholz and the well-known and terrifically awesome Fapy Lafertin. There is also a section on Leo Eimers, the guy who makes some of the best Selmer style guitars in the world. It’s obvious Stochelo had a lot to do with the creation of this book because all of the highlights of his life — playing with Stephane Grappelli, success with the Rosenberg Trio and carrying on the proud tradition of Django Reinhardt are contained within. He is also a devoted father and husband and, like BB, just comes across as a real humble, down-to-earth guy, GUITAR GOD, though he may be.

What’s really great about all four of the books I’ve profiled so far is that authors and producers really did a swell job. There isn’t any expense spared to get the story right and make even the tiniest details available to the audience (which I gotta figure includes many guitar players). Anyone in the publishing world will tell you that CONTENT IS KING and what makes these books enjoyable is that at the most basic level, they are great stories told by great communicators about great communicators. All of the extras serve to augment what is already an enjoyable experience for the reader. While I am a great fan and daily participant in the digital publishing landscape, there is always room for printed material, especially 5-star efforts that create an experience that is unique and informative. Both of these books certainly do that and a whole lot more!