Blog

                       

In Memory of Charlie Haden (Aug 6, 1937 - July 11, 2014)

 

Ive been musing in mourning since learning earlier today that Charlie Haden died on Friday at 76 from the affects of post-polio syndrome. Haden's public stance and art of resistance work against war and social injustice have been a great inspiration to me since the early 70’s, along with his embracing and merging of his diverse musical influences, including the traditional folk music he grew up listening to and playing with his family in Iowa and Missouri and the Latin American music he came to love, which included the boleros of Cuba and Mexico. Because he believed that all music originates from the same place, he resisted the division of musical styles into categories and was reportedly open to collaborating with any artist who shared his views on music and life. So in addition to his famous work with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, and John Coltrane, he also made music with Nora Jones, Pat Metheny, Ginger Baker, Béla Fleck, Hank Jones, Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Bruce Hornsby, and Bill Frissel, to name only a few of his diverse collaborators.

 
To Charlie Haden, jazz was the “music of rebellion.” He said he felt it was his responsibility and mission to challenge the world through his music and artistic vision. Frequently political, his music gave voice to the oppressed and to a call for improving the political state of the world around him. In the liner notes for his post-9/11 album American Dreams (2002) Charlie wrote, “I always dreamed of a world without cruelty and greed, of a humanity with the same creative brilliance of our solar system, of an America worthy of the dreams of Martin Luther King and the majesty of the Statue of Liberty . . . This music is dedicated to those who still dream of a society with compassion, deep creative intelligence, and a respect for the preciousness of life -- for our children, and for our future.” 
I really am going to miss Charlie. 
 

Sweet New Sounds from Wisconsin: PHOX

 

Thank you NPR Music for another glorious First Listen - this time to PHOX - some of the most beautifully melodic and gorgeously arranged American music to make its way into my headphones in sometime! No longer streaming there, because the album was released today, but catch the first video track here for a good sampling of their sound that may well be still playing in your head later tonight: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcnQ9-qWSfc .

Having taken my old stomping grounds of Madison, Wisconsin by storm the last couple years, the star crossed combination of the vocal wonder of Monica Martin and the creative genius of songwriter/composer Zach Johnston, teaming up with four of their Baraboo, WI high school buds, have, within a matter of months, landed a set at the iTunes Festival, embarked on a national tour, and produced this pretty flawless collection of genre defying tunes that have stayed in my head all week between daily listens. Hook laden, yes - but this is much more than your average pop music. While humbly described by the band on its Facebook page as "a school of simple folk-pop songs swimming amidst a chaotic eddy of rock, psychedelia, and soul,” their their debut album draws as much from the proverbial Great American Songbook of Broadway as from its folk, jazz, and boomer era pop rock influences, blended in a way that leaves you wondering where nearly any of it came from or found its way together. 
Clever arrangements and production aside, their Youtube videos and live recordings circulating the web demonstrate that they actually do this shit live, too, incorporating clarinet, trumpet and banjo into the usual pop rock mix. And even without the brilliance of the songwriting, I might have just as quickly fallen in love with Monica Martin’s voice - like Nora Jones, to whom she is already drawing the inevitable comparisons, she is a perfect example of what miracles can happen when someone with the jazz prowess of Cassandra Wilson delivers in a pop context with the intimate restraint and heartfelt conviction of Shawn Colvin or Paula Cole. Be sure to check out those live in the studio vids, too. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUn3rZ2g5pA will get you started.) She’s a joy to behold in performance. 
 

Joe Henry's New Release - a Work of True Songwriting Genius

 

I'm not sure why it took so long for me to discover the songwriting genius of Joe Henry. He has been around for a long time. and his production work and collaborations have included people I greatly admire and follow. His new album Invisible Hours snared my attention from it's opening moments and kept me pretty much riveted throughout its 60 minutes. The depth of emotion of his lyrics and his keen sense of melody I find, quite honestly, astonishing. The third track, “Sign,” has had me on the edge of tears repeatedly, and “Water Between Us” just makes me want to hit replay again. After listening to little more than this album and an assortment of his earlier gems for the past week, I've come to the conclusion that, because of that consistency and the perfection of his crafting of every song,  Henry is, in my view, one of our truly great American singer songwriters - especially among the male ones in the folk/acoustic roots tradition - in league with Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, the also largely overlooked Peter Himmelmann, and few others. He, in fact, reminds me here greatly at times of Dylan in his New Morning period (which is when I think Bob wrote some of his very best melodies and reflections on everyday life and love,) but also of their shared roots in the much earlier ground laying work of Stephen Foster.

This irresistible if at all “invisible" hour of brilliance reflects largely on the songwriter’s 27 year marriage - quite a feat in itself for a performing artist of his stature - and comes closer to fitting the description of folk music than most of his earlier work. He's joined again by the fine young musician who is his son on clarinet (forming a connecting thread to some of the elder Henry’s earlier jazz/folk fusion offerings) and the great Gregg Leisz on pedal steel, while handling production himself in his own home studio, joined by just a handful of great musician friends. 
If you don't know Joe's work, you may, like me, find yourself perusing through the Grooveshark and YouTube collections of his diverse and eclectic releases of the last 20 years. It's all good - not a song in the bunch left me disappointed. But, I’m happy to say, I think that, like a number of the greatest novelists and poets of our culture, much of his best work is coming later in his life, beyond any allusions of pop stardom. Past associations with Madonna aside, (he is married to her sister) Joe Henry is no shooting star disappearing into obscurity after a few flashes of light. Instead his brilliance lives on and continues to expand in this beautiful piece of work that you can still catch streaming today on NPR First Listen page if you hurry http://www.npr.org/2014/05/25/314870639/first-listen-joe-henry-invisible-hour. Those preview streams usually get deleted once the album is released, but then, you'll probably want to buy it anyway so you can keep going back for more. But I’m really thankful to have caught this one, as I might have otherwise missed out on this artistic giant altogether.
 

Seum Kuti: Son of Fela and Nigeria's New Voice of African Liberation

 

Seum Kuti, Nigeria's 21st century Afripop poet's new disc is streaming now:http://www.npr.org/2014/05/18/312187878/first-listen-seun-kuti-egypt-80-a-long-way-to-the-beginning?sc=21&f=98679384
Once again, now nearly 35 years after Fela emerged as a revolutionary poet and leader, the voice of African liberation surfaces from Nigeria in the person of a man named Kuti - the 33-year-old son of the late great artist himself. Like his father, Seum Kuti is a gifted and very outspoken lyricist, sounds a lot like his dad as he opens his third album, A Long Way to the Beginning, with a defiant indictment of the "IMF - International Mother Fucker." And he's actually even a more accomplished sax player. Fela Kuti, who died in a Nigerian prison in 1997, was also an innovative and highly influential composer, arranger, and band leader, mixing African American jazz and funk with traditional African sounds and becoming a major inspiration for David Byrne and the Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Nile Rogers, Antibalas, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Meshell Ndegeolcello, and countless other artists. His legacy lives on around the world, most recently in the Tony Award winning off-Broadway musical that bears his name and revives his music. Backed by original members of his dad's Africa 80 band on a disc produced by contemporary jazz/funk fusion man of the hour Donald Glasper, I’m betting that Seum will be following that lead, as well to expand, in this age of instant access, the global reach of his father's anti-corporate/big bank imperialism message to a whole new generation of international listeners and activists. http://www.npr.org/2014/05/18/312187878/first-listen-seun-kuti-egypt-80-a-long-way-to-the-beginning?sc=21&f=98679384

 

 

 

Earth Day Music

 

Happy Earth Day!  This day always brings me at least a few moments of reflection on my decision many years ago to attempt to “live lightly” and more sustainably - to decrease my part in the burden that our impact as a society has had on our environment and the planet as a whole. For me, that is still an important commitment, though I continue to grapple with finding an appropriate balance between my regular hours in the techno world of contemporary music and cyber communication and those spent in the more natural one where we have chosen to dwell. 

This year, the arrival of Earth Day also reminded me of a project I was involved in back in the early 2000’s. Seattle’s King County Arts Commission and Solid Waste Division jointly funded a grant for me to use songwriting to raise the awareness of public middle and high school students of the impact of their consumption and waste generating habits and the importance of waste reduction and recycling. It seems that studies conducted in recent years had shown that the teen and preteen population was overall the largest group of one of my funders called “offenders” in terms of consumption of disposable products (like fashion clothing that gets dumped the next year,) generation of plastic and aluminium junk food packaging, and failure to reuse or recycle recyclables. So they chose a small group of artists to take our media into the schools and do our best to influence some of those kids as part of what they called the ReCycle Artist Project. 
For my own project, I gave the kids an overview of how songwriting has been used over the course of popular music history to shed light on issues of concern and motivate people to make changes, inspiring participation in civil rights and peace movements and - of course - the environmental movement. Then the students had to choose from articles and book excerpts I provided or others they found outside of class to find a theme and write lyrics for an original song. Nearly all the students wrote or co-wrote a set of lyrics, then we put them to music and recorded them together in a makeshift studio I set up in each school - usually in the music department.  Sometimes they brought their aspiring musician friends along to sing or play on the recordings, while on other songs, I recorded all the backing tracks for the students’ vocals. Everybody got a CD of all the songs completed in their class to share with friends and family - a very popular bonus for many of them.
The students, teachers, and grant funders were happy enough with the results to keep me in work with this project up until the year I decided to take a break and focus on the politics and music work I was doing in Seattle at that point. A year or so later my wife and I decided to leave the U.S., moving to our current home on the jungle’s edge in Costa Rica. But even now, I still think about those kids sometimes and how much their enthusiasm and creativity inspired me.
This year, I have a little Earth Day gift for any interested takers. I spent a couple hours browsing through the collection of recordings I managed to hold onto from the project and have uploaded them to SoundCloud so you can hear them.
I can’t promise they're happy songs - after all, they were written and performed by adolescents! But I think you will hear, amidst the obvious imperfections of a group of young amateurs, at least an equal amount of heartfelt sincerity and concern. These kids were inspired to think about some very tough realities, look at themselves and their own participation in the problem, and then share their thoughts and feelings with their peers in these songs. 
I only wish I could access my old computer files to retrieve their names and give them credit for their work here. Who knows, maybe some of them are performing professionally these days. In any case, I feel proud of the work we accomplished together on this project and grateful to have had the chance to share that opportunity.  And if anyone out there recognises any of this stuff or these voices, please drop me an email!  
https://soundcloud.com/jim-vick/sets/hear-our-cries-songs-from-the
 

Amazing Ice Drummers

 

"The Coolest Music in the World" Siberian Ice Drummers play on frozen Lake Baikal as an incredible musical instrument http://www.snowaddiction.org/2013/11/the-coolest-music-in-the-world-listen-to-siberian-ice-drummers-use-frozen-lake-baikal-as-an-incredible-musical-instrument.html Courtesy of my jazzman bro @marcsmason #drums #worldpercussion #worldmusic #LakeBaikal #SiberianIceDrummers

When I was living in Madison, Wisconsin back in the 80's, my young daughter and I loved to frolick on the hard frozen surface of Lake Mendota on sunny day breaks from the often bitter cold winters of the northern midwest. Hearing the deep thunderous sounds of the water rocking beneath the surface of the thick ice inspired me to write in a song from that period: "We dance on frozen water to the rhythm of the lake thunder."

As much as I love living in a much warmer place now, those days remain a fond memory for me. Yet I never dreamt of the possibility of frozen lake music quite like you'll hear in this video of the Siberian ice percussionists drumming on frozen Lake Baikal. Of course, the temperature is even lower there - minus 20C - which may create particularly unique conditions for the tone and playability of the ice. Whatever the case, I don't think we'll have heard the last of this phenomenon now that it's been discovered. Northern drummers, take note! 

 

Happy 70th Birthday to Randy Newman!

 

Happy 70th Birthday to Randy Newman! Being that it's also Thanksgiving, he might like best to be remembered today for this song, http://youtu.be/chaP4MCXp4w. Or, given the international political climate these days, maybe this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGO42gvCSPI  

Though known best since the 1980s as a film composer (Ragtime, Awakenings, The Natural, Meet the Parents, Seabiscuit, and seven Disney-Pixar films, including the Monsters movies, among others,) his brilliant songwriting, which was often satirical and funny but, as often, very touching, had a prominent role in the pop music world of the previous decade. Some of his best known songs were recorded by and became associated more famous artists, like "Mama Told Me Not to Come" (Three Dog Night,) "You Can Leave Your Hat On"(Joe Cocker,) "Living Without You" (Nilsson, who recorded a whole wonderful album of Randy's songs, http://grooveshark.com/#!/album/Nilsson+Sings+Newman/276967/wiki/Nilsson_Sings_Newman, and "I Think it's Going to Rain Today," from his 1968 debut album, http://tinyurl.com/lz2b4sw, which was covered by many, including Judy Collins, Eric Burdon and The Animals, Bobby Darin, Joe Cocker, Nina Simone, Ricky Nelson, Dusty Springfield, Jack Jones, and Peggy Lee.

Thanks for the brilliant tunes, the laughs and the tears, and may you rave on, Brother Randy!

 

Jeff Gets the Last Word

 

To wrap up this all day tangentially spun mixtape, Jeff Beck and Stevie Wonder playing together on Stevie's funkafied tribute, "Thelonious." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7G9_BmaC9A

 

"Thelonious, my old friend"

 

If you dig great jazz, dig this: Thelonious Monk (the subject of that opening line from an early Steely Dan tune) live at the Salle Pleyel concert hall in Paris in 1969, only now about to be released and streaming at http://www.npr.org/2013/11/17/244839454/first-listen-thelonious-monk-paris-1969.  The daring, percussive pianist and equally adventurous composer was a prominent influence on young musicians of that era ranging from Stevie Wonder to Jeff Beck (there he is again - and the guitar master covered Wonder's own "Thelonious" on his great "Blow by Blow" album.) Pop and jazzrock  luminaries Donald Fagen, Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson and Was Not Was all paid tribute to the master on the 1984 A&M compilation album "That's The Way I Feel Now," with additional Monk covers by Peter Frampton, Carla Bley, Steve Lacy, John Zorn, NRBQ,  Gil Evans, and others. If you're wondering why he attracted so much attention from such a diverse assortment of the music artists of his day, this recording is a good introduction.

 

Jeff Beck at his Best: Emotion and Commotion

 

For those following the tweets: this rabbit hole opened with a look for #JeffBeck's latest work. Found! Full Grammy Award winning album streaming: http://tinyurl.com/k53x8hv  #MusicMonday  (As you may have noticed, the great guitarist was really the common thread that linked up my tangential web surfing and tweet streaming today.) What a gorgeous piece of work!  Emotion & Commotion, his first studio album in seven years, finds him backed by a 64-piece orchestra on some of the tracks, including arrangements of Gustav Mahler's "Symphony No. 5"  and an emotive piece from the film score of Atonement.  Be sure to check out his exquisite note bending renditions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and Jeff Buckley's "Corpus Christi Carol."  Some of his very best work, and there's no sign of any loss of energy or technique in his playing. In my mind, he is still one of the greatest living electric guitarists around - and light years ahead of most of us.