Shelby Lynne : A long and winding road leading to artistic fulfillment

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Shelby Lynne was destined to be a singer. Born a singer. She was raised in rural Alabama by musical parents who stressed individuality and the importance of standing apart from others.

Lynne was born Shelby Lynne Moorer in Quantico, Virginia, in 1968 and spent most of her childhood in Jackson, Alabama. Her father was a local bandleader and her mother a harmony-singing teacher; as children, she and her younger sister Allison — later a country recording artist in her own right — sometimes joined their parents on-stage to sing along.  A terrible student, but avid reader, Shelby loved the written lyric and a beautiful melody. Around the house she was surrounded by country music from the past, Hank Williams, Dottie West, Waylon Jennings, as well as old 45s that belonged to her parents stacked high: Everly Brothers, Beatles, Elvis.

The harmonies that came so naturally to her from such an early age stemmed from her mother, a naturally gifted singer, who guided the diamond in the rough talent on rides to school on freezing Alabama mornings with her younger sister Allison. They sang three part harmonies to pass the time, which brought the threesome so close in life, and in music.

However, that sunny picture does not tell the whole story.

Lynne’s father was a violent alcoholic who when Lynne was 17, shot his wife dead in the family’s driveway, then turned the gun on himself while his daughters looked on.  Lynne stops short of analyzing her father’s demons, of trying to explain what made him suddenly turn homicidal. More than 20 years later, she says she has wasted too much of her life on the whys and what-ifs, “and it ain’t worth a damn, because in the end things are the way they’re supposed to be.” She has come to forgive her father, and she and her sister, country singer Allison Moorer, wish that people would let the matter rest.

“People think we’re in tremendous pain,” Lynne said, “but we want everyone to know that we’re O.K.”

In the wake of the shootings, Lynne took charge of raising her sister and married her high school sweetheart (albeit briefly) prior to their move to Nashville.  There, Lynne recorded some demo songs, which landed her an appearance on TNN’s Nashville Now series. That, in turn, led to a duet with George Jones, for 1988’s Top 50 hit “If I Could Bottle This Up,” and a record deal with Epic, where Lynne teamed up with legendary producer Billy Sherrill.

By the time Shelby Lynne won her Best New Artist Grammy, she’d already completed six albums and had over a decade of recording experience under her belt. Yet in a way, the award was appropriate, since I Am Shelby Lynne was the album that finally found her taking control of her music, following years of casting about in search of an identity.


Over the last decade Lynne has broken new artistic ground with each recording she has released: her stripped down intimate collection of originals, (Suit Yourself, 2005); a tribute to Dusty Springfield (Just a Little Lovin’); followed by a jazzy group of originals (Tears, Lies and Alibis, 2010); a Christmas album (Merry Christmas, 2010); her first explicit exploration of her family’s violent past (Revelation Road, 2011); an expanded reissue of her break-out record, I Am Shelby Lynne; a gospel inflected EP (Thanks, 2013); and finally, Lynne’s 13th full-length album and her first for Rounder Records, a dazzling showcase of emotion-packed vocals and the richly textured storytelling rooted in the Southern tradition of her Alabama upbringing  (I Can’t Imagine, 2015).

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On Revelation Road Lynne wrote, produced, and performed every note, a first for her. While her songs have always been confessional, the 11 tracks featured here, composed in a variety of genres but all of them more or less within Americana’s broad landscape, are more intimate than anything she’s issued previously. This includes the harrowing “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road,” which directly addresses the killing of Lynne’s mother by her father before he committed suicide in front of her and her sister. In other words, this is the record she’s had to make her entire career.

Revelation Road is the quietest record of Lynne’s career, but it feels like her rawest, too, even as it offers, in small bits and pieces, the varying shades, complexities, and pleasures in her musical world.

 

Shelby Lynne is all about the vibe, so that’s why it made perfect sense to the singer-songwriter to take a record she started at home in California and finish recording it in the heart of Cajun country, at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana.

“Anytime you go to the South, it just naturally sings something — whether it’s mournful or joy.  There’s something about the South that naturally tells its own story. So when you involve your own stories with it, which is the goal, it’s a combination of something that’s already there and hopefully something to come.”

After getting fed up with the music business, Shelby Lynne, always true to herself, walked away and formed her own Everso label in 2010. Now, after releasing three excellent recordings on Everso, she chose this time around to look to Rounder Records for I Can’t Imagine.  Recorded at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana with a small band and a few select guests, the set’s ten tracks run a gamut of styles Lynne’s explored in the past.  Once again the Lynne self-produces with assistance from her music director Ben Peeler, and wrote or co-wrote everything here.

51MeIHoBIYL._SS280Two fine songs, “Love Is Strong” and “Be in the Now,” were co-written with Ron Sexsmith. The former is a ballad that weds Patsy Cline countrypolitan to post-psych pop. The latter features rootsy flatpicking and slide guitars offset by a drum break and a funky electric piano line worthy of Allen Toussaint.  The hardest rocking cut, “Down Here,” a militant anthem to tolerance, recalls Neil Young’s “Southern Man” in places. It would be right at home on contemporary country radio if the song’s pro-gay stance didn’t contradict the format’s radically conservative views.

I Can’t Imagine is confident, assured, and fiercely independent. What ties its various threads together is the songwriter’s unguarded heart, expressed by her near iconic vocal prowess, and we’ve come to expect nothing less from Lynne.

allisonjpg-658d9ec9557dab6eLynne and her sister Alison Moorer went back to Alabama together in 2002, during Lynne’s timeout, to take care of some property they owned. “It was time for me to build some fences,” she said. She wrote poetry and thought about quitting the music business altogether, but even when she started making records again, she took the best of Alabama with her back to California, where she lives just outside Palm Springs. She gardens, mows her own grass, fixes everything herself, a talent she says she got from her father. “I don’t exercise,” she said, “but I’ll do any kind of manual labor.”

When she’s not on the road, a typical Friday night for Lynne means having some friends over for a bottle of wine and playing records, just as the family used to do in Alabama. “I don’t have an iPod,” she said. “I have a computer that I turn on occasionally. I still have all my vinyl. Sissy” — her nickname for Moorer, who lives in New York with her husband, the alt-country singer Steve Earle — “says she has no room in her apartment for records, but I’d keep mine even if I had to sleep on them. You can’t roll a joint on an iPod.”

A complicated artist but one I think everyone should hear.

Remembering Steven Stucky : Gentle yet powerful influence

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“One kind of artist is always striving to annihilate the past,” composer Steven Stucky once wrote, “to make the world anew in each new work, and so to triumph over the dead weight of routine. I am the other kind . . . who only sees his way forward by standing on the shoulders of those who have already cleared the path ahead.”

Such was the case with his Second Concerto for Orchestra, the work that won him the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in music. The composition was deeply informed by tradition — he called it “an homage piece to the orchestra and to my heroes,” Ravel, Stravinsky, Sibelius and Bartok. But it also was squarely in keeping with his championing of contemporary classical music, neither parroting nor repudiating some of the experimental musical motifs of his time.

Dr. Stucky, an emeritus professor at Cornell University, died February 14 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 66.

Stucky was born in Hutchinson, Kansas. At age 9, he moved with his family to Abilene, Texas, where, as a teenager, he studied music in the public schools and, privately, viola with Herbert Preston, conducting with Leo Scheer, and composition with Macon Sumerlin. He attended Baylor University and Cornell. Stucky worked with Karel Husa and Daniel Sternberg.

Stucky wrote commissioned works for many of the major American orchestras, including Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and St. Paul.

Stucky was an expert on the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski and authored the 1981 study Lutoslawski and His Music. He also was curator of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s 2013 centenary celebration of that composer, Woven Words: Music Begins Where Words End. Stucky was the Given Foundation Professor of Composition at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  There he founded Ensemble X and led it for nine seasons, from 1997 until 2006, while at the same time he also was the guiding force behind the celebrated Green Umbrella series in Los Angeles.

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Mr. Stucky was also an exceptional orchestrator and colorist. Silent Spring, written in 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s book, a cautionary ecological study, employed a “vast timbral palette,” the critic Allan Kozinn wrote in a New York Times review of a performance by the conductor Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center.  With its “pillars of commanding, rich-hued chords” and “chaotic, swirling woodwind lines,” Mr. Kozinn suggested that if this “shape-shifting” tone poem had a visual analogue, it might be a Jackson Pollock painting.

In 2012, Mr. Stucky provided some revealing insight into his own music with an offhand comment before the New York premiere of his Symphony. “Graspable” is the way he described the 20-minute, single-movement piece in conversation with Alan Gilbert, conductor of the New York Philharmonic before the performance. For all the modernist complexities of Mr. Stucky’s scores, his music was sanguine, lucid and structurally clear — graspable in the best sense.

He had an extraordinarily long and fruitful relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 1988, the ensemble’s then-music director, André Previn, named him the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. Stucky went on to work with the orchestra for more than two decades, including as their consulting composer for new music during the tenure of music director and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, with whom he worked closely in commissioning new music, programming contemporary music, and in such outreach efforts as founding the LA Philharmonic’s fellowship program for composers still in high school.

Stucky delighted in making engaging, smart music. His first opera, The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts), was a collaboration with pianist and writer Jeremy Denk that premiered at California’s Ojai Music Festival in 2014. As theater and opera director Simon Williams wrote in an Opera News magazine review, “The Classical Style is a free-ranging, often bizarre fantasy in which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, ensconced in boredom in Heaven, become panicked by reports of a decline of interest in classical music on Earth and a perception that human audiences find their music stale … The opera is hugely entertaining, not least because Steven Stucky is a parodist of genius whose knowledge of the language of classical music over the past 250 years is astoundingly detailed and seemingly infinite.”

In 2014 he retired from Cornell and was named an emeritus professor, and joined the Juilliard School to teach composition. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in November.

“He went out of his way to come to the Ensemble X concert last Sunday, and he was warm and generous with his students, who saw him for the first time after his surgery in early December,” Bjerken said. “He was such a gentle yet powerful influence on so many of us.”

Said Steven Pond, chair and associate professor of music: “Despite the challenges of treating his illness, Steve was an active presence in our musical community until just a few days ago. In his decades-long career in our department, Steve’s kind heart and cool head made him invaluable. His impression is left on the many graduate and undergraduate students he taught and advised.”

“In his career as a composer and intellectual, Steve rose to the top ranks in his field,” Pond said.

Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet

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A major figure in 20th-century music, Morton Feldman was a pioneer of indeterminate music, a development associated with the experimental New York School of composers also including John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown. Feldman’s works are characterized by notational innovations that he developed to create his characteristic sound: rhythms that seem to be free and floating; pitch shadings that seem softly unfocused; a generally quiet and slowly evolving music; recurring asymmetric patterns. His later works, after 1977, also begin to explore extremes of duration.

If any single piece epitomizes the beauty and the hypnotic power of Morton Feldman’s final works, it is Piano and String Quartet, composed in 1985, just two years before his death. Performances generally last between 80 and 90 minutes, relatively modest by the standards of late Feldman, but the self-contained world this music creates is utterly distinctive, and the way of listening to it unique –

“Up to an hour you think about form”, Feldman once wrote, “but after an hour and a half it’s scale”.

The tempo never changes, the dynamic range is limited and the musical material scanty: rocking chords that never quite repeat exactly, long held single notes and an upward arpeggio that acts like a point of reference throughout. The composer David Lang points up the relationship between Feldman’s music and that of Webern: in Piano and String Quartet, Lang says, “you can hear Webern in the distance – in the way each gesture, each note, each phrase matters. It’s just that in Feldman’s music there are so many, many more of them.”

There have been three recordings of the work released roughly ten years apart:

  • Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet (1993)
  • Ives Ensemble (2001)
  • Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet (2011)

They are all worthwhile and bring out different aspects of the work.

Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet (2011)

MI0003285896This performance by pianist Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet is timed at just over 79 minutes and is controlled and meticulous, so every pitch is heard clearly and in the same narrow, quiet dynamic range throughout without much variance. The point of the music is to concentrate the listener’s mind in the moment, so the piano’s widely spaced arpeggios and the string quartet’s sustained tones eventually make one forget what came before and effectively deny anticipation of what is coming, producing an effect of stasis. The piano is a little louder than the strings, and their flat, vibrato-less tones usually follow the piano almost as an echo or extension of the pitches, though they also have their turn at playing slowly broken chords. The hypnotic quality of this austerely beautiful piece inspires a transcendent stillness, so many will find it to be enjoyable as ambient music, but will find it is deeper and more complex on repeated listening. Bridge’s sound is focused and has very little background noise

“I don’t write a piece, unless it’s a large orchestra piece—I just did a piece for the New York Philharmonic and I just forgot about myself and said, “It’s a great orchestra,” and I wrote a piece for them.13 I didn’t even think about myself. But, in a sense, I don’t think about myself when I write for Paul Zukofsky, or Aki, or the Kronos either. So what I do now more than I ever did as a young composer—I mean we all write these pieces, you know. We don’t realize that all these other people had the Esterhazy Orchestra. They all heard everything they did, you know, always on Sunday as I use to say. I used to just write one piece after another, just like everybody else. But I wasn’t thinking of any groups, they were just pieces. Now I can’t write a piece unless I’m thinking of Aki, or Roger Woodward. Aki plays my music like Satie; Roger plays it like Beethoven. I’m trying to find one that goes right down the middle. And then there’s [Herbert] Henck who’s fabulous, but he plays my music too slow, and too soft. But the fact that I’m writing casted pieces now is very, very important. I write for Aki’s unbelievable devotion. She plays my music as if she’s praying, and I love and thank her for it. And then Paul, he’s craggy, cretchy, and it went into the violin concerto. The orchestra is anonymous; it’s just an orchestra. But Paul, I felt, he was doing things that only he could do.”

Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet (1993)

MI0000428026Shifting, unsettling, and yet every bit hypnotic, pianist Aki Takahashi and the world-renowned Kronos Quartet conjure up the ghost of Feldman to wander the streets of New York as if they were abandoned. This single piece, over 79 minutes in length, is like an icy flower that blooms almost undetected. Takahashi is so delicate on the piano as to whisper quiet clusters of notes, reverberated by the Kronos Quartet for further contemplation. Feldman often preferred his performances and recordings to be very quiet, almost inaudible at times. Truly, it would make no sense to play a Feldman piece at volume ten on the stereo — it would be like shining huge spotlights on a Rothko painting. The beauty is in the shadows, and the chill of “Piano and String Quartet” opens it’s vast arms and pulls the listener in alongside the darkness. Breathtaking.

Ives Ensemble  (2001)

MI0001059990Morton Feldman once called the string quartet ‘the pinnacle of Western music’, and his long-term interest in the genre certainly flourished in his later years. His 1979 String Quartet was followed first by his epic, five-hour String Quartet II (1983) and then by a series of works for solo instrument and string quartet, including ones with clarinet (1983), violin (1985) and piano (1985). Often, Feldman’s choice of these relatively conventional instrumentations contrasts markedly with the very unconventional ways in which he uses them. In Piano and String Quartet, the piano part, written in the treble clef only, is based on a rising six-note phrase, an arpeggiated chord, played pianissimo and with the sustain pedal depressed throughout. The strings, also pianissimo, play mostly sustained chords, with none of the busy internal dialogues that characterise Classical quartet-writing. Feldman composed Piano and String Quartet for Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet, who recorded it for Elektra in 1993. Their definitive performance wonderfully captures the music’s mysterious, mesmerising beauty. By comparison, this new version by the Ives Ensemble, though estimable, seems a little too earnest and clean-cut, while Hat Hut’s drier acoustic gives the sound a harder edge.

Andrew Hill : uniquely gifted composer, pianist and educator

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Whenever the thumbnail sketch of the 1960s American jazz avant-garde is drawn, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor or Sun Ra appear in the foreground – and even a half-dozen other faces might materialize before that of Andrew Hill, who died at age 75 of lung cancer on this date in 2007. A uniquely gifted composer, pianist and educator, his status remained largely inside knowledge in the jazz world for most of his career.

Andrew Hill was born in Chicago, Illinois (not Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as was reported by many earlier jazz reference books), to William and Hattie Hille. He had a brother, Robert, who was a singer and classical violin player. Hill took up the piano at the age of thirteen, and was encouraged by Earl Hines. As a child, he attended the University of Chicago Experimental School.

Andrew Hill was a prolific and enigmatic pianist and composer whose music has proved to be unfailingly unique, sensual, magical, and ever changing. His influence on succeeding generations of jazz musicians and composers is strongly felt – even at his most elliptical and puzzling, he was a communicator of the highest order. Andrew’s methods of playing and composing were concentrated on being in the present; he didn’t care for living in the past, or “retrospectively”, as he would say.

Upon moving to New York in 1961, Hill performed with Rahsaan Roland Kirk before being contracted as a leader by Alfred Lyons, the founder of Blue Note Records who proclaimed Hill his “last great protegeˆ” at the 1986 Mount Fuji Festival celebrating Blue Note’s legacy. Hill’s Blue Note sessions from November, 1963 through March ’66 were released as the albums Black Fire, Smokestack, Judgement, Point of Departure, Andrew!, Compulsion, One For One and Involution and are compiled in the seven-CD boxed set The Complete Blue Note Andrew Hill Sessions (1963-66) on Mosaic Records. Hill returned to Blue Note in 1989 and ’90 to record Eternal Spirit and But Not Farewell, both of which featured saxophonist Greg Osby, and again late in ’99 as a guest on Osby’s album The Invisible Hand. He also released albums on the Arista-Freedom and Black Saint/Soul Note labels during the ’70s and ’80s, but spent most of those years (until the death of his wife Laverne in 1989) on the West Coast, offering solo concerts, classes and workshops in prisons, social service and academic settings, also playing occasionally at international fests.

MI0001473809Hill’s complex compositions straddled many lines in the early to mid-1960s and crossed over many.  Point of Departure, with its all-star lineup (even then), took jazz and wrote a new book on it, excluding nothing. With Eric Dolphy and Joe Henderson on saxophones (Dolphy also played clarinet, bass clarinet, and flute), Richard Davis on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Kenny Dorham on trumpet, this was a cast created for a jazz fire dance. From the opening moments of “Refuge,” with its complex minor mode intro that moves headlong via Hill’s large, open chords that flat sevenths, ninths, and even 11ths in their striding to move through the mode, into a wellspring of angular hard bop and minor-key blues. Hill’s solo is first and it cooks along in the upper middle register, almost all right hand ministrations, creating with his left a virtual counterpoint for Davis and a skittering wash of notes for Williams. The horn solos in are all from the hard bop book, but Dolphy cuts his close to the bone with an edgy tone.

This disc is full of moments like this. In Hill‘s compositional world, everything is up for grabs. It just has to be taken a piece at a time, and not by leaving your fingerprints all over everything. In “Dedication,” where he takes the piano solo further out melodically than on the rest of the album combined, he does so gradually. You cannot remember his starting point, only that there has been a transformation. This is a stellar date, essential for any representative jazz collection, and a record that, in the 21st century, still points the way to the future for jazz.

Merle Haggard dies today at age 79

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I wrote the following article earlier today before it was announced that Merle Haggard had died.  Very, very sad loss.  He was one of a kind and a songwriter and musician of unparalleled excellence.  

“Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2009. “Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre. If Merle had been around Sun Studio in Memphis in the Fifties, Sam Phillips would have turned him into a rock & roll star, one of the best.”

His obituary in Rolling Stone Magazine.

Waylon’s gone. Cash has been laid to rest. But Merle Haggard stands as country’s remaining black-hat rebel, the last man singing for the underdog.  Today is his birthday, and while he is still recording and performing, his health at age 79 has been a subject of some concern for his family and doctors.

Following his doctor’s advice Merle Haggard canceled his April concerts. This country music legend has been suffering from a recurring bout of double pneumonia.  This news follows the cancelations of several shows in March, as well, due to illness. Haggard admits his family wants him to stop touring, so that he can stay rested and healthy. But the road is an addiction he is just not willing to quit.

“I can’t.  I feel it’s a double-edged sword. It’s what keeps me alive and it’s what fucks up my life. It’s hard to have a family, so I try and split it up. I try to build a life here of a reasonable sort, and then go and jump on the bus. . . It’s like the old saying: ‘You want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.'”

Merle Ronald Haggard (born April 6, 1937) is an American country and Western songwriter, singer, guitarist, fiddler, and instrumentalist. Along with Buck Owens, Haggard and his band The Strangers helped create the Bakersfield sound, which is characterized by the unique twang of Fender Telecaster and the unique mix with the traditional country steel guitar sound, new vocal harmony styles in which the words are minimal, and a rough edge not heard on the more polished Nashville sound recordings of the same era.

By the 1970s, Haggard was aligned with the growing outlaw country movement, and has continued to release successful albums through the 1990s and into the 2000s. In 1994, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1997, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.

Not all of his greatest songs dealt with troubles—he has written with majesty about love and dignity and gratitude and pride and standing up for what you believe in—but trouble and heartache certainly felt like his most natural neighborhoods: how life is hard, how hearts break easier than they mend, and how it sometimes seems as though everything but loneliness will abandon you, of anger looking for its rightful home, of wanting to stay but knowing there’s something just as deep within a certain kind of man that forever tugs at him to leave.

When Haggard first became famous, in the ’60s, he was best known as the man who sang songs about wanderers, fugitives, and the terminally luckless.

“I hate to be that easy to figure out, but it’s probably true…. I sometimes feel like I’m standing up for the people that don’t have the nerve to stand up for themselves. I just enjoyed winning for the loser. I’d never been around anything except losers my whole life.”

Haggard has continued writing songs and releasing albums of new material.  As is also the case for Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, two other master songwriters in their 70s and in the case of Nelson his 80s, this period is evidence of a rebirth of creativity as their star begins to wane.

MI0002914166Perhaps there’s a measure of defiance in the title of Merle Haggard’s 2010 album I Am What I Am, but it’s also a statement of plain fact: almost 50 years into a recording career, there’s no changing the fact that Hag is who is he is, and he’s comfortable in his own skin, broken-in but not worn-out, never pushing too hard but never coasting, either. Sometimes Haggard’s easy touch is too light, slipping into sleepiness, but the striking thing about I Am What I Am is its casual mastery, the subtle shading in his vocal phrasing can make his songwriting appear effortless. And to an extent, it is: Hag’s tending the same fields he has for years, sliding into swaying ballads, stepping it up for a bit of Western swing, tipping his hat toward Mexico, swinging through some Dixieland jazz, a love of railroads and family, spiking his sentimental, nostalgic streak with clear-eyed realism, always blurring the line between a late night in a beer joint and a Sunday afternoon picking on the porch. But like with any of Haggard’s great albums, much of the pleasure lies in the details, whether it’s the sly lyrical turns of phrase in his writing or in the suppleness of his performance, things I Am What I Am has in spades. It’s familiar enough to feel comforting on the first listen, resonant enough to sound better with each subsequent spin; it’s so true to Haggard’s essence that it could stand handsomely as his final album, an understated summation of where he’s been, but it’s made better by having no trace of self-conscious finality — this wasn’t constructed as a last word, but it’s just a reflection.

MI0003247424Working in Tennessee, Merle Haggard’s second album for Vanguard, plays a little slower and softer than 2010’s I Am What I Am, a record where Hag gently dwelled on his mortality. There are times where his age crosses his mind — particularly on “Sometimes I Dream,” where he casually lists off things that aren’t likely to pass his way again — but generally, he’s ready to “Laugh It Off” as he gripes about what’s playing on the radio, smokes a little dope, and enjoys playing a little bit of blues as he looks back to the past, even cutting a couple of old favorites (“Cocaine Blues,” “Jackson”) and a new version of “Working Man Blues.” Hag never rushes things, never turns up the volume, his western swing now bearing a closer resemblance to the gentlemanly amiability of Hank Thompson instead of the wild, woolly Bob Wills. He’s proceeding at the pace of a 74-year-old legend with nothing to prove, yet he’s not resting on his laurels, he’s just doing what he’s always done: singing songs so expertly his virtuosity almost goes unnoticed.

MI0003855768Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard first teamed up on record for Pancho & Lefty in 1983, a record released some 20 years after both singers began their careers. Back then, they were both hovering around 50, already considered old guys, but Django and Jimmie arrives 32 years after that record, when there’s no question that the pair are old-timers. Appropriately enough, mortality is on their minds throughout Django and Jimmie, a record whose very title is taken from Willie and Merle’s childhood idols. It’s a song that seems like a confession, as does the casual admission that they didn’t think they’d “Live This Long,” but neither Nelson nor Haggard wrote this, nor the title track or the album’s first single, the near-novelty “It’s All Going to Pot.” These are made-to-order originals by some of the best in the business — Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson, and Ward Davis wrote “It’s All Going to Pot,” Jimmy Melton and Jeff Prince the title track — and it shows how producer Cannon has a sharp ear for material, along with a way with a relaxed groove. That comfortable, familial atmosphere is one of the best things about Django and Jimmie and extends far beyond the marquee names; the studio pros, friends, family, and fellow travelers who support Willie and Merle help give this a warm, worn-in feel that’s appealing on its own terms. As comforting as the vibe is, it’s the singers and their songs that linger. Neither Nelson nor Haggard make any attempt to hide their age — Willie is a bit thinner than he used to be, Merle a bit growlier — and their age is affecting when they revisit songs from the past, whether they wrote them or not (Hag’s “Swinging Doors” is revived, as is the country standard “Family Bible” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”). This nod to the passage of time isn’t as explicit as “Live This Long” or “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” where they bring in fellow survivor Bobby Bare to reminisce about their old pal. Often, country memories can get maudlin, but Willie and Merle are filled with good humor here and the pair often strike a delicate balance of fun and sweet melancholy which gives Django and Jimmie a soulful lift. Both singers are aware they’re approaching the twilight, but they’re not cursing the dark, they’re enjoying the sunset.

Ray Price succumbed to pancreatic cancer on December 16, 2013.  The following is the review of his 2007 recording with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.  Price’s last recording was the one he left his widow: a wonderful recording of her favorite songs, Beauty Is… The Final Sessions.

MI0000646155The title Last of the Breed speaks with a defiance that, for the most part, the music on this album does not, and that’s just as it should be — while Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price are indeed among the last functioning practitioners of pure, unadulterated Western swing, honky tonk, or countrypolitan blues in the classic manner, on this album they seem less concerned with fighting the changing face of country music than with playing this music with the easy confidence and quiet conviction that’s been the hallmark of their respective careers. For the most part, Last of the Breed finds these three friends and occasional collaborators working through a set of old-school country classics (Haggard is the only member of the trio to bring any original material to the sessions, and delivers one of the album’s best performances on his new song “If I Ever Get Lucky”), and they treat chestnuts like “Heartaches by the Number,” “I Love You Because,” “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” and “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down” with both strength and familiarity — these guys could probably sing these numbers in their sleep after all these years, but they also approach them like pros, realizing these old standards gained their status as classics because they endure and people love them, and they give them the respect and care that they deserve. Haggard is in fine voice on this set, and Nelson sounds good though his phrasing occasionally lags behind the melodies a shade more than is comfortable. As for Price, time has added a slight wobble to his instrument, once one of the most impressive in country music, but he still projects a dignity and commendable emotional warmth, and when he joins voices with his pals Willie and Merle, it’s a stirring reminder of just how much these artists still have to offer. Legendary producer Fred Foster supervised these sessions, with a band of seasoned Nashville veterans backing the singers (and the Jordanaires adding harmonies on several numbers), and at its best Last of the Breed really sounds the way these things did in the old days, and Nelson, Haggard, and Price achieve something more than nostalgia — they offer a stirring reminder of the strength of this music when country music spoke to something deeper than just a marketing demographic.

Bob Dylan’s Amazing Multimedia Late Career Work

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Until recently it could have been argued that Bob Dylan peaked in the Sixties.  The series of albums he released from 1962-1966 stands as one of the greatest achievements in American music.  Then he confused his fans and critics with his next few recordings, the frustration climaxing with the release of Self-Portrait in 1970.  It was not until 1975 that Dylan regained some the relevance he seemingly inexplicably squandered since 1967’s John Wesley Harding.  However, Dylan has said that Nashville Skyline and Self Protrait were purposely designed to put some distance between himself and the myth that had grown up around him and had become constricting.  With the release of Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes Bob Dylan was important again.   His records from the late ‘70s and 80s went through his Christian period and stagnated completely with several mediocre releases.  People had begun to write Dylan off as just another 60s phenomenon gone to seed.

Aside from some isolated gems, Infidels, Oh Mercy, it was not until the 90s that Dylan resurfaced with renewed vigor.  Since 1992 he entered a sustained prolific period of high quality work.  Besides the nine new studio recordings this period has also seen Dylan curate several more of the Bootleg volumes.  He has also branched out into a variety of media: art, the first of a projected three volume memoir, a movie and an excellent and quirky three year series of weekly radio programs.

Here’s an overview of Dylan’s amazing late career blossoming.

The Albums

Good As I Been To You (1992)

MI0000693010It is composed entirely of traditional folk songs and covers, and is Dylan’s first entirely solo, acoustic album since Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964. It is also his first collection not to feature any original compositions since Dylan in 1973.  In its stripped-down intensity, Good As I Been to You recalls the midshow acoustic segments that in recent years have been a consistent highlight of Dylan’s Neverending Tour. Even more than that, the album’s intimate, almost offhand approach suggests what it would be like to sit backstage with his Bobness while he runs through a set of some of his favorite old songs. This is a passionate, at times almost ragged piece of work that seems to have been recorded rather than produced in any conventional sense.  (Rolling Stone)

World Gone Wrong (1993)

MI0001576414It was Dylan’s second consecutive collection of only traditional folk songs, performed acoustically with guitar and harmonica. The songs tend to deal with darker and more tragic themes than the previous outing, Good as I Been to You.  If Good as I Been to You was a strong traditionalist folk record, World Gone Wrong was an exceptional one, boasting an exceptional set of songs given performances so fully realized that they seemed like modern protest songs. Much of this record is fairly obscure to anyone outside of dedicated folk fans; “Delia” (covered by Johnny Cash the following year) and “Stack-A-Lee” are the most familiar items, yet they’re given traditional readings, meaning that the latter doesn’t quite seem like “Stagger Lee.” But even if these are traditionalist, they’re spirited and lively renditions, and Dylan seems more connected to the music than he has in years. That sense of connection, plus the terrific choice of songs, makes this one of his best, strongest albums of the second half of his career.  (Allmusic.com)

Time Out Of Mind (1997)

MI0000138934For some fans and critics, the album marked Dylan’s artistic comeback after he appeared to struggle with his musical identity throughout the 1980s; he had not released any original material for seven years, since Under the Red Sky in 1990. Time Out of Mind is hailed as one of Dylan’s best albums, and it went on to win three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year in 1998. It was also ranked number 408 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003.   Time Out of Mind is thick with faraway ghosts. Although the deluge of breakup songs on the album might suggest that it is a long-lost sequel to Dylan’s famed “divorce album” of 1975, Blood on the Tracks, the singer’s world-weary delivery hints at a broader intent. When he recorded Blood on the Tracks, Dylan was just entering middle age and was still a major figure in pop culture as he made a conscious return to the spare, folk-oriented intensity of his early albums. Twenty-two years down the road, Time Out of Mind finds Dylan on the culture’s fringe, confronting his advancing years and irrelevance.

He sings about love gone awry, but until the surreal conversation that occurs in “Highlands,” that loss never acquires a human face. It’s a memory, a dream, a specter, as if Dylan were singing not about a companion but about something far less tangible. He projects the unease of someone adrift in a world that he ceases to understand and that has ceased to understand him.

In this sense, Time Out of Mind is a more fully realized version of Oh Mercy, the 1989 album that Dylan recorded with producer Daniel Lanois. The new album not only reunites Dylan with Lanois, it also expands on the tone set by such Oh Mercy songs as “Everything Is Broken” and “Man in the Long Black Coat,” in which Dylan sings, “People don’t live or die; people just float.”  (Rolling Stone)

“Love And Theft” (2001)

715SZpLEhaL._SY355_The album continued Dylan’s artistic comeback following 1997’s Time Out of Mind and was given an even more enthusiastic reception. The title of the album was apparently inspired by historian Eric Lott’s book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, which was published in 1993. “Love and Theft becomes his Fables of the Reconstruction, to borrow an R.E.M. album title”, writes Greg Kot in The Chicago Tribune (published September 11, 2001), “the myths, mysteries and folklore of the South as a backdrop for one of the finest roots rock albums ever made.”

The music evokes an America of masquerade and striptease, a world of seedy old-time gin palaces, fast cash, poison whiskey, guilty strangers trying not to make eye contact, pickpockets slapping out-of-towners on the back. Love and Theft comes on as a musical autobiography that also sounds like a casual, almost accidental history of the country. Relaxed, magisterial, utterly confident in every musical idiom he touches, Dylan sings all twelve songs in a voice that sounds older than he is, a grizzled con man croaking biblical blues and Tin Pan Alley valentines out of the side of his mouth while keeping one eye on the exit. Just as 1997’s Time Out of Mind drew on the doomy menace of Highway 61 Revisited, and “Things Have Changed” turned “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” upside down, Love and Theft goes back to the quizzical American passions of classic Dylan albums like John Wesley Harding, The Basement Tapes and Blood on the Tracks. He’s rummaging around the past, but all he finds there are deeper riddles, more unsettling mysteries.  (Rolling Stone)

Modern Times (2006)

MI0000727438The album was Dylan’s third straight (following Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft) to be met with nearly universal praise from fans and critics. It continued its predecessors’ tendencies toward blues, rockabilly and pre-rock balladry, and was self-produced by Dylan under the pseudonym “Jack Frost”. Despite the acclaim, the album sparked some debate over its uncredited use of choruses and arrangements from older songs, as well as many lyrical lines taken from the work of 19th-century poet Henry Timrod.

There is no precedent in rock & roll for the territory Dylan is now opening with albums that stand alongside the accomplishments of his wild youth. Love and Theft, recorded when he’d turned sixty, was his toughest guitar rock since Blonde on Blonde in 1966, a combination of the mojo Muddy Waters had working at age sixty-two on Hard Again and the sweeping dystopic perspective Philip Roth brought to American Pastoral at sixty-three.   Modern Times is something different. It’s less terrifying, less funny on first listen. But it has more command, more clarity. There is none of the digital murk of Time Out of Mind, and the snakebite live sound of Love and Theft has softened. This music is relaxed; it has nothing to prove. It is music of accumulated knowledge, it knows every move, anticipates every step before you take it. Producing himself for the second time running, Dylan has captured the sound of tradition as an ever-present, a sound he’s been working on since his first album, in 1962. (One reason Modern Times is so good is that Dylan has been making it so long.) These songs stand alongside their sources and are meant to, which is why their sources are so obvious, so direct: “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” gives a cowboy gallop and new lyrics to Muddy Waters’ 1950 hit of the same name (with its own history dating back to at least 1929); “Someday Baby” mellow-downs Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”; “The Levee’s Gonna Break” jumps off from Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks”; “Nettie Moore” lifts a line from a nineteenth-century ballad recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers; and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” motivates “Thunder on the Mountain.”  (Rolling Stone)

Together Through Life (2009)

Bob_Dylan_-_Together_Through_LifeDylan wrote all but one of the album’s songs with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, with whom he had previously co-written two songs on his 1988 album Down in the Groove. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan commented on the collaboration: “Hunter is an old buddy, we could probably write a hundred songs together if we thought it was important or the right reasons were there… He’s got a way with words and I do too. We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.”

The shock of his voice comes right away. Dylan starts the record as if he’s at a loss for words. “I love you, pretty baby/You’re the only love I’ve ever known/Just as long as you stay with me/The whole world is my throne,” he sings in the muddy samba “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” It is a plain, unpromising opening, except for the delivery: a deep, exhausted rasp that sounds like the singer has been beaten to a pulp, then left for dead at the side of the road.  Ultimately, Together Through Life is a mixed bag of this decade’s Dylan — impulsive, caustic, sentimental, long done with the contrived details of contemporary record-making. The album may lack the instant-classic aura of Love and Theft or Modern Times, but it is rich in striking moments, set in a willful rawness, and comes with a wicked finish.  (Rolling Stone)

Tempest (2012)

COLUMBIA RECORDS BOB DYLAN ALBUM

Released on September 10, 2012 by Columbia Records, Tempest was recorded at Jackson Browne’s Groove Masters Studios in Santa Monica, California. Dylan wrote all of the songs himself with the exception of the track “Duquesne Whistle”, which he co-wrote with Robert Hunter.  Tempest isn’t as revelatory as “Love and Theft,” from 2001, or “Modern Times,” from 2006, the benchmarks of Dylan’s late period. But it’s as spirited and vigorous an album as he’s made. It’s his longest one, clocking in at sixty-eight-minutes-plus; the title track, the song about the Titanic, is a Celtic-tinged waltz that runs nearly fourteen minutes and has forty-five verses.

The original Dylanological sin is to focus too much on the words, and too little on the sound: to treat Dylan like he’s a poet, a writer of verse, when of course he’s a musician—a songwriter and, supremely, a singer. “Tempest” reminds us what a thrilling and eccentric vocalist he is. He sings with a jazzman’s feel for rhythmic play, laying back behind the beat, rushing ahead of it, bending, distending, and cutting short his raggedy notes. He has dramatic flair that places him in the company of Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and George Jones: an actor’s way with line readings, a knack for making the musical conversational and vice versa. You can hear it in “Soon After Midnight,” a doo-wop-flavored love ballad, where he drops into dulcet coo to threaten a rival lover: “Two-Timing Slim / Who’s ever heard of him? / I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.” Then there’s “Long and Wasted Years,” which finds Dylan talk-singing, in a drawling, taunting tone, over a cascading guitar line: “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes / There’s secrets in them that I can’t disguise / Come back, baby / Have I hurt your feelings? / I apologize.” Dylan may mean every word of that lyric; every word might be jive. Either way, unreliable narration has rarely sounded so good.  (The New Yorker)

Shadows in the Night (2015)

61IbLJhfkyL._SL1500_The album consists of covers of traditional pop standards made famous by Frank Sinatra, chosen by Dylan. On January 23, 2015, it was announced that 50,000 free copies would be given away to randomly selected AARP The Magazine readers. Dylan made “Full Moon and Empty Arms” available for free streaming online on May 13, 2014. The album has received positive reviews from critics for its unexpected and strong song selection as well as the strength of Dylan’s performance.

While it may prompt some exasperated debates, Dylan has in fact been teasing this project for years, if not decades. A few of the songs on Shadows in the Night have appeared sporadically in his setlists since the 1990s, and in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan even professed his fandom for the Chairman of the Board, even if he subtly admitted that the crooner wasn’t exactly a popular figure among the folkies in the Village: “When Frank sang [“Ebb Tide”], I could hear everything in his voice—death, God and the universe, everything. I had other things to do, though, and I couldn’t be listening to that stuff much.”  (Pitchfork)

Chronicles: Volume One (2014)

51EVDQF8MDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“I’d come from a long ways off and had started a long ways down. But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else.”

So writes Bob Dylan in Chronicles: Volume One, his remarkable book exploring critical junctures in his life and career. Through Dylan’s eyes and open mind, we see Greenwich Village, circa 1961, when he first arrives in Manhattan. Dylan’s New York is a magical city of possibilities — smoky, nightlong parties; literary awakenings; transient loves and unbreakable friendships. Elegiac observations are punctuated by jabs of memories, penetrating and tough. With the book’s side trips to New Orleans, Woodstock, Minnesota and points west, Chronicles: Volume One is an intimate and intensely personal recollection of extraordinary times.

By turns revealing, poetical, passionate and witty, Chronicles: Volume One is a mesmerizing window on Bob Dylan’s thoughts and influences. Dylan’s voice is distinctively American: generous of spirit, engaged, fanciful and rhythmic. Utilizing his unparalleled gifts of storytelling and the exquisite expressiveness that are the hallmarks of his music, Bob Dylan turns Chronicles: Volume One into a poignant reflection on life, and the people and places that helped shape the man and the art.

The Art

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Whilst travelling on tour between 1989 and 1992, Bob Dylan created a collection of drawings that were published in a book entitled ‘Drawn Blank’ in 1994. These expressive works capture Dylan’s chance encounters and observations. The creation of these portraits, interiors, landscapes, still lifes, nudes and street scenes were done to “relax and refocus a restless mind”.

In the autumn of 2008, the National Gallery of Denmark contacted Bob Dylan through his manager and agreed to stage his first major exhibition in Copenhagen. Dylan regarded The Drawn Blank Series as a finished project and embarked on an entirely new series of paintings. It sparked a period of intensive work and creativity as Dylan produced a series of more than forty paintings in less than a year.

The Brazil Series is an interesting departure from The Drawn Blank Series, and is a product of Dylan’s bravery as an artist. Encouraged by the critical acclaim he had received, notably from such luminaries as John Elderfield (Chief Curator of Paintings & Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Larry Gagosian, he was emboldened to experiment and expand his oeuvre. Despite being universally acknowledged as one of the most culturally relevant individuals of today, Dylan is at his core an artist, imbued with self-doubt and insecurity – his own biggest critic.

Masked and Anonymous

61gBJ5GSDNLMasked and Anonymous is a 2003 comedy-drama film directed by Larry Charles. The film was written by Larry Charles and Bob Dylan, the latter under the pseudonym “Sergei Petrov”. It stars Dylan alongside a star-heavy cast, including John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Penélope Cruz, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Cheech Marin, Ed Harris, Chris Penn, Steven Bauer, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Paul Chan, Christian Slater and Fred Ward.

An iconic rock legend, Jack Fate (Bob Dylan), is bailed out of prison to perform a one-man benefit concert for a decaying future North American society. The film touches on many subjects from the futility of politics, the confusion of loosely strung government conspiracies, and the chaos created by both anarchy and Nineteen Eighty-Four-styled totalitarianism. It further reflects on life, dreams, and God’s place in a seemingly increasingly chaotic world.

In some ways, the film is political: it describes how Fate sees the political landscape (people fighting for no reason, a nation without hope, governments that cannot be trusted) but at the same time Fate makes it clear that he “was always a singer and maybe no more than that”. He produces no solutions to any of the problems the film presents. Rather, he makes it clear that he “stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”

Theme Time Radio Hour

51RUJ6+hbHL._SX355_Theme Time Radio Hour (TTRH) was a weekly, one-hour satellite radio show hosted by Bob Dylan originally airing from May 2006 to April 2009. Each episode was an eclectic, freeform mix of blues, folk, rockabilly, R&B, soul, bebop, rock-and-roll, country and pop music, centered on a theme such as “Weather,” “Money,” and “Flowers” with songs from artists as diverse as Patti Page and LL Cool J. Much of the material for the show’s 100 episodes was culled from producer Eddie Gorodetsky’s music collection, which reportedly includes more than 10,000 records and more than 140,000 digital files.  [Dougherty, Steve (December 17, 2010). “The Santa Claus of Christmas Songs”. The Wall Street Journal.]

Interspersed between the music segments were email readings, listener phone calls, vintage radio air checks, old radio promos and jingles, even older jokes from Dylan (“My grandmother is so tidy she puts newspaper under the cuckoo clock”), poetry recitations; taped messages from a variety of celebrities, musicians and comedians; and commentary from Dylan on the music and musicians as well as miscellanea related to the themes. The show was not live (Dylan taped his portions at various locations and while touring), and the studio location at the so-called “Abernathy Building” was fictitious. Most of the “listener phone calls” and emails were also fictitious, although at least one email read on the show came from an actual listener.  [“Dreamtime – Commentary Inspired By Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour: Prom Night at Brookland-Cayce High School with The Swinging Medallions”. Dreamtimepodcast.com. 2009-05-27. Retrieved 2012-08-20.]

Ornette Coleman : Artist of the Century

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When Ornette Coleman passed away last year at the age of 85 there was much written about his life, career and impact.  Today is his birthday, and I wish to mark the day by repeating some of those remembrances and listening his music, which is his true legacy.

Joe Lovano
Saxophonist
From an early age I was in Ornette’s audience. His tunes and titles gave me direction: The Shape of Jazz to Come, Tomorrow Is the Question!, Beauty Is a Rare Thing, Love Call, Broadway Blues, The Art of the Improvisers and New York Is Now are just a few. All of a sudden I was in New York, on the scene playing with Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Dewey Redman, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and others folks from within his inner circle. Thank’s Ornette for opening the door and letting me in!

Greg Osby
Saxophonist
But not for Mr. Coleman’s tenacity, curiosity and fearlessness, modern music would not exist as we know it. As a generation, we all owe him a tremendous debt of our collective gratitude. 

Sonny Rollins
Saxophonist
We’ve all gained from Ornette’s life and explorations, so we are not sad today. We’re appreciative and thankful.

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As John Coltrane was dying of liver cancer, he made it known that he wanted a relatively spare funeral. The service was held on July 21, 1967, at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, on Lexington Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street, and was presided over by the “minister for the jazz community,” John Garcia Gensel. The funerals of African-American notables have a tendency to stretch out—the astonishing service, in Charleston, for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney went more than four hours; the service for Rosa Parks, in 2005, went nearly seven—but not this one. At Coltrane’s request, Ornette Coleman—backed by two bassists, Charlie Haden and David Izenzon, and the drummer Charles Moffett—closed the ceremony by playing one number, a raging version of “Holiday for a Graveyard.” Later that evening, at the Village Vanguard, Coleman played one of Coltrane’s most haunting ballads, “Naima.”

On Saturday morning, nearly a half-century later, at Riverside Church, John Coltrane’s son, Ravi, played a haunting improvisation on soprano saxophone, accompanied by Geri Allen on piano, over the casket of Ornette Coleman. The song was Ornette’s composition called “Peace,” from his audacious 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come.

John-ColtraneUnlike Coltrane, who was forty when he died, Ornette Coleman lived a long life. He died on June 11th [2015]; he was eighty-five. Denardo Coleman, his son and longtime drummer, made sure that his father’s farewell would be rich not only with speeches but with music. For some three hours, many of the graying lions of the jazz world—Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Henry Threadgill, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, and David Murray among them—took to the cathedral’s improvised bandstand to make a righteous noise before the remains of their inspiration and friend.  (David Remnick, “Ornette Coleman and a Joyful Funeral”, The New Yorker, June 27, 2015.)

Ornette was born in Fort Worth, Texas, to Randolph, a construction worker and cook, who died when Ornette was seven, and Rosa, a clerk for a funeral director. The variety of his music obscured the fact that, at root, he was one of the greatest geniuses of a simple song, the song of the blues. Coleman stripped down and simplified the conventional harmonic framework of jazz, remoulding the raw materials of improvisation and casting off the formal and technical bonds of the bebop style dominating jazz during his childhood. But his saxophone sound was steeped in the slurred notes and rough-hewn intonation of 19th-century singers and saloon-front guitarists at work before jazz was even born. His affecting tone swelled with the eloquence of the human voice.  (John Fordham, “Ornette Coleman obituary”, The Guardian, June 11, 2015.)

1379951753870.cachedUnfortunately, Coleman’s early development was not documented. Originally inspired by Charlie Parker, he started playing alto at 14 and tenor two years later. His early experiences were in R&B bands in Texas, including those of Red Connors and Pee Wee Crayton, but his attempts to play in an original style were consistently met with hostility both by audiences and fellow musicians. Coleman moved to Los Angeles in the early ’50s, where he worked as an elevator operator while studying music books. He met kindred spirits along the way in Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell, Bobby Bradford, Charles Moffett, and Billy Higgins, but it was not until 1958 (after many unsuccessful attempts to sit in with top L.A. musicians) that Coleman had a nucleus of musicians who could play his music. He appeared as part of Paul Bley’s quintet for a short time at the Hillcrest Club (which is documented on live records), and recorded two very interesting albums for Contemporary. With the assistance of John Lewis, Coleman and Cherry attended the Lenox School of Jazz in 1959, and had an extended stay at the Five Spot in New York. This engagement alerted the jazz world toward the radical new music, and each night the audience was filled with curious musicians who alternately labeled Coleman a genius or a fraud.

During 1959-1961, beginning with The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman recorded a series of classic and startling quartet albums for Atlantic. With Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Scott LaFaro, or Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums, Coleman created music that would greatly affect most of the other advanced improvisers of the 1960s, including John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and the free jazz players of the mid-’60s. One set, a nearly 40-minute jam called Free Jazz (which other than a few brief themes was basically a pulse-driven group free improvisation) had Coleman, Cherry, Haden, LaFaro, Higgins, Blackwell, Dolphy, and Freddie Hubbard forming a double quartet.  (Scott Yanow, “Artist Biography”, Allmusic.com.)

In essence, Mr. Coleman believed that all people had their own tonal centers. He often used the word “unison” — though not always in its more common musical-theory sense — to describe a group of people playing together harmoniously, even if in different keys.

“I’ve learned that everyone has their own moveable C,” he said to the writer Michael Jarrett in an interview published in 1995; he identified this as “Do,” the nontempered start of anyone singing or playing a “do-re-mi” major-scale sequence. During the same conversation, he said he had always wanted musicians to play with him “on a multiple level.”(Ben Ratliff, “Ornette Coleman, Saxophonist Who Rewrote the Language of Jazz, Dies at 85”, The New York Times, June 11, 2015.)

“I don’t want them to follow me,” I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me.”

513VIWT0W0LBeauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings
Rhino Records R2 71410
6 CDs; 1993

While it’s true this set has been given the highest rating AMG awards, it comes with a qualifier: the rating is for the music and the package, not necessarily the presentation. Presentation is a compiler’s nightmare in the case of artists like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, who recorded often and at different times and had most of their recordings issued from the wealth of material available at the time a record was needed rather than culling an album from a particular session. Why is this a problem? It’s twofold: First is that listeners got acquainted with recordings such as The Shape of Jazz to Come, This Is Our Music, Change of the Century, Twins, or any of the other four records Ornette Coleman released on Atlantic during that period. The other is one of economics; for those collectors who believe in the integrity of the original albums, they need to own both those recordings and this set, since the box features one album that was only issued in Japan as well as six unreleased tunes and the three Coleman compositions that appeared on Gunther Schuller’s Jazz Abstractions record.

Politically what’s interesting about this box is that though the folks at Rhino and Atlantic essentially created a completely different document here, putting Coleman’s music in a very different context than the way in which it was originally presented, his royalty rate was unchanged — he refused to do any publicity for this set when it was issued as a result. As for the plus side of such a collection, there is a certain satisfaction at hearing complete sessions in context. That cannot be argued — what is at stake is at what price to the original recorded presentations. Enough complaining. As for the music, as mentioned, the original eight albums Coleman recorded for Atlantic are here, in one form or another, in their entirety: Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, The Art of the Improvisers, Twins, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz, Ornette, and Ornette on Tenor, plus To Whom Keeps a Record, comprised of recordings dating from 1959 to 1960. In fact all of the material here was recorded between 1959 and 1961. Given that there is a total of six completely unreleased compositions as well as alternate takes and masters, this is a formidable mountain of material recorded with not only the classic quartet of Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins, but also the large double quartet who produced the two-sided improvisation that is Free Jazz with personalities as diverse as Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, and Scott LaFaro, as well as Coleman, Cherry, Haden, and Ed Blackwell, who had replaced Higgins on the music for To Whom Keeps a Record and This Is Our Music — though Higgins does play on Free Jazz.  (AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek)

Born today, Don Carlo Gesualdo is a much maligned polyphonic genius

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Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (8 March 1566 – 8 September 1613) was Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. As a musician he is best known for writing intensely expressive madrigals and pieces of sacred music that use a chromatic language not heard again until the late 19th century. He is also known for his cruelty and lewdness: the best known fact of his life is his gruesome killing of his first wife and her lover.

“Irrefutably badass” is not the obvious phrase to reach for when discussing a late-Renaissance lutenist and composer whose output was chiefly a capella madrigals and settings of sacred texts. But it is how Alex Ross, the esteemed critic of The New Yorker describes Don Carlo Gesualdo, who was born 450 years ago today – and badass Gesualdo indisputably was, both as a musician and as a man.

A figure of fascination over the years for artists as diverse as Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley, Bernardo Bertolucci and Werner Herzog, the continuing fixation on Gesualdo four centuries after his death is not surprising when you consider the grisly and gruesome details of his biography.

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One fateful night in October 1590, Gesualdo discovered her in flagrante with the Duke of Andria, Don Fabrizio Carafa (he was wearing Maria’s silk nightgown at the time). Gesualdo immediately set about slaughtering the pair, slashing their limbs with his sword, mutilating their sexual organs, and puncturing their skulls with the bullets of his gun. He then allegedly murdered the baby boy who may or may not have been his or Don Fabrizio’s child by swinging him to death in his castle courtyard. (Clemency Burton-Hill, BBC Culture Magazine, October 21, 2014.)

51DPMpGT92L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_That’s the myth, at least, but a brilliant new book by Glenn Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex, reveals there’s much more to the story. New lurid details add to our conception of the composer as a murderous aristocratic crank. Having dispatched his first wife on grounds of adultery, Gesualdo himself had affairs throughout his second marriage. Eventually, however, Eleonora had enough, and ordered that his concubines be tried. For witchcraft. Here’s some of the testimony from the inquisition of Aurelia and Polisandra, the accused pair. A word of warning: don’t read this over your sandwich:

That the aforementioned Aurelia made the prince drink her menstrual blood as a purgative is established by four witnesses to extrajudicial confessions by the defendant … Aurelia declared that the aforementioned Polisandra had told her that if she would take a slice of bread and place it inside her “nature” and after it was saturated with her own seed, she would give it to the prince to eat with sauce … It is established through the doctor’s deposition that the seed is harmful.

Despite the dazzling harmonic shifts in Gesualdo’s fifth and sixth books of madrigals, his music was so extreme that some 20th-century critics and composers believed him to be a proto-serialist, going further than any composer before Schoenberg in mining the expressive potential of saturated dissonance. Watkins goes on, fascinatingly, to chart how the story of Gesualdo and his music has enthralled and inspired 20th- and 21st-century creatives, from Stravinsky to Boulez, Andriessen to Brett Dean, Werner Herzog to Ian Rankin.  (Tom Service, The Guardian, March 18, 2010.)

There is one easily available complete recording of the madgrigals by Naxos Records and it is very good as well as budget priced.

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Catalogue No: 8.507013

…the performance quality…is first-rate. The singers of Delitiæ Musicæ, individually and collectively, are fascinating…The clarity of Delitiæ Musicæ’s diction is also enhanced by the recorded sound, which has just enough space around the voices to give them a nice ambience while still keeping them close enough to the microphone to let you hear every single word. I was also enormously impressed with their individual and collective vocal “attack”: The notes do not simply “appear out of the air,” but each has a distinctive and clear consonant beginning that, miraculously, does not disrupt the musical flow.

The real aesthetic question is, unless you are a Gesualdo scholar, do you really need to have this complete set? Based on both the high quality of the music as well as the performances, I would say yes… © 2014 Fanfare Read complete review

Townes Van Zandt one of America’s greatest songwriters was born today.

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Townes Van Zandt one of America’s greatest songwriters was born today.  He would have been 72, but left this world in 1997, far too early.

If to live is to fly, as Townes Van Zandt would warble, then he himself, to quote from his devout admirer Willie Nelson, was an angel flying too close to the ground. His quavering voice flattened with alcoholic pickling, the burdensome weight of bodily pain palpable in his throat, Van Zandt’s powerful songs resonated through artists such as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, the Cowboy Junkies, and Tindersticks over the decades with a decidedly dark edge to the proceedings. While often compared to Bob Dylan in terms of songwriting prowess, Van Zandt’s words relied less on stream-of-conscious glossolalia than on the barren wastelands inside his own head. The result is more Samuel Beckett than Lightnin’ Hopkins, and lines like, “I got a friend at last…/ His name’s Codeine/ He’s the nicest thing I’ve ever seen/ Together we’re gonna wait around and die,” convey a trailer-park existentialism that can make for a rough listen– one preferably with the windows shut and the whiskey opened, the gas on and the lights off.  (Andy Beta, “Townes Van Zandt: Absolutely Nothing”, Pitchfork, February 5, 2003)

Townes Van Zandt (March 7, 1944 – January 1, 1997), was an American singer-songwriter. Many of his songs, including “If I Needed You” and “To Live Is to Fly”, are considered standards of their genre. He had a small and devoted fanbase, but never had a successful album or single and even had difficulty keeping his recordings in print. In 1983, six years after Emmylou Harris had first popularized it, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered his song “Pancho and Lefty”, scoring a number one hit on the Billboard country music charts.

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Townes was a holy mess, his life a mix of the sublime and the horrific. By the time he died of a heart attack at 52 on New Year’s Day, 1997, the Fort Worth native had written a large batch of enduring songs and become the subject of colorful tales—many of them even true. They will be retold on March 28 when Austin City Limits airs “A Celebration of Townes Van Zandt,” during which Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and others reminisce about their friend and play his songs. At the taping of the show on December 7, Nelson and Harris did “Pancho and Lefty,” which he and Merle Haggard took to number one on the country charts in 1983. Harris and Earle sang “If I Needed You,” which she and Don Williams took to number three in 1981. Griffith sang “Tecumseh Valley” and Lovett “Flyin’ Shoes,” as each had been doing in concert for years. Griffith called Townes “one of our greatest native folk songwriters.”

Before the show, Susanna Clark, who was one of Townes’s best friends, recalled how her husband, Guy, and Rodney Crowell reacted to seeing a TV interview with Griffith after he died. Griffith had said, “If there weren’t a Townes Van Zandt, there would be no Nanci Griffith.” Hearing that, Crowell said, “There’d be no Rodney Crowell.” Guy said, “There’d be no Guy Clark.” You could add Lovett, Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Joe Ely to that list, as well as hundreds of wannabes with acoustic guitars and whiskey visions learning to play “Pancho and Lefty,” analyzing every twist and shade in its melody and lyrics and dreaming of the open road. For better and worse, Townes was the most influential Texas songwriter of his time.  (Michael Hall, “The Great, Late Townes Van Zandt”, Texas Monthly, March 1998.  Accessed 3/7/2016.)

When asked about his inspiration for arguably his biggest hit, “Paucho & Lefty”, Van Zandt answered with typical humility.

“I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it’s a real nice song and, I think, I’ve finally found out what it’s about.”

Today let us remember Townes Van Zandt for his songs and his humanity.