Lucinda’s Louisiana Ghosts : Highway 20

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One year after the release of her double album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, Lucinda Williams has released another record. The Ghosts of Highway 20 (February 5th), which focuses on a region which I know well.  Having grown up in Shreveport, Louisiana, I-20 (which Lucinda calls a highway) runs right through my home town.  I spent many hours driving it, and the parallel Highway 80 and can testify to the accuracy of her language and ethos she creates with this collection of songs.

Throughout her nearly four-decade-long career, Williams’ unadorned musical narrative has never demanded abrupt or needless stylistic changes. Where the common themes of loss, heartbreak, and despair would spiral into redundancy for other artists, Williams’ distinction has come from her ability to revisit and not simply repeat the familiar. In that way, The Ghosts of Highway 20 provides a thematic continuance of the Louisiana native’s storytelling.[i]

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In many ways, The Ghosts of Highway 20 feels like a companion piece to Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone in its emotionally direct approach and willingness to let the songs play themselves out at their own pace. — they drift with the current, but they don’t meander, and they get where they’re going in their own sweet time. Most of the performances on Highway 20 are anchored by the guitar interplay of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz (the latter also co-produced the album with Williams and Tom Overby), and while their performances seem low on flash, especially given the estimable talents of these players, they have a faultless instinct for the moods and rhythms of these songs, and this is an album where nuance truly takes center stage.

However, while Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone was an album that covered a wide variety of themes, the 14 songs on The Ghosts of Highway 20 all seem to turn on some sort of struggle — against depression (“Dust”), against the limitations of our lives on Earth (“Doors of Heaven”), against the past (“Bitter Memory” and the title song), and against betrayal (“I Know All About It”). Even as Williams calls up nostalgic images of life in Louisiana (“Louisiana Story”), she’s still trying to free herself from memories of hurts inflicted by her loved ones, and her appeals to the Lord for guidance and peace (“If There’s a Heaven” and “Faith & Grace”) sound and feel sincere, as if the shackles of her physical being are just too much for her.

lucinda-williamsWilliams’ vocal performances here represent a remarkable high-wire act, as she brings her emotions to the surface without resorting to histrionics. Her musical adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s “House of Earth,” a curiously erotic dialogue between a whore and a customer, is all the more striking for its refusal to play broad. After releasing one of the best and boldest albums of her career with Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, Williams goes from strength to strength with The Ghosts of Highway 20, and it seems like a welcome surprise that she’s moving into one of the most fruitful periods of her recording career as she approaches her fourth decade as a musician.[ii]


[i] Jonathan K. Dick, “Folk rock legend captures a concrete portrayal of the most unsure moment of life: the end”, Consequence of Sound, Feb. 2, 2016.  Accessed 2/8/2016.
[ii] Mark Deming, “Allmusic album review: The Ghosts of Highway 20”, Allmusic.com.  accessed 2/8/2016.

American Original : Harry Partch (June 24, 1901 – September 3, 1974)

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“I am not an instrument-maker, but a philosophical music-man seduced into carpentry.”

American composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) had a musical vision for which 12-toned instruments were not enough. His objection to the standard western classical scale wasn’t so much along the philosophical lines of Schoenberg and other early 20th-century atonalists; he was mainly frustrated by the musical limitations of the equal-tempered octave, so devised a system that split the octave into 43 notes instead.

When he was 28, Partch burned all his compositions and began a hitchhiking trip to Chicago, which became a 10-year trek around the country as a hobo. He documented his journey, compiling his observations in Bitter Music, a published collection of his journals, essays, and other writings.

Partch’s music can sometimes sound almost embarrassingly gauche and simple. If your first encounter with Partch was with US Highball, which recounts his experiences as a hobo living in federal work camps during the Great Depression, you might think you’d stumbled across a folk singer with a strangely out-of-tune guitar.

Listen to Partch’s later works, though, such as Castor and Pollux, and that impression of out-of-tuneness dissolves into a feeling that you’ve entered a strange and somehow ancient-seeming musical world, with its own laws. Partch laboured to create new tuning systems based on the pure intervals of the ancient Greeks.[i]

Partch’s masterpiece is the bizarre 1960s music drama Delusion of the Fury. It is outlandish and magnificent and it spits you out wanting to dive back in and experience the whole strange thing again. And if it is hardly ever staged that’s because it can’t be: it requires its very own orchestra of hand-built instruments, each one specially invented by Partch to play his unique microtonal music.[ii]

10524Partch made public his theories in his book Genesis of a Music (1947). He opens the book with an overview of music history, and argues that Western music began to suffer from the time of Bach, after which twelve-tone equal temperament was adopted to the exclusion of other tuning systems, and abstract, instrumental music became the norm. Partch sought to bring vocal music back to prominence, and adopted tunings and scales he believed more suitable to singing.[iii]

Inspired by Sensations of Tone, Hermann von Helmholtz’s book on acoustics and the perception of sound, Partch based his music strictly on just intonation. He tuned his instruments using the overtone series, and extended it past the twelfth partial. This allowed for a larger number of smaller, unequal intervals than found in the Western classical music tradition’s twelve-tone equal temperament. Partch’s tuning is often classed as microtonality, as it allowed for intervals smaller than 100 cents, though Partch did not conceive his tuning in such a context.[iv] Instead, he saw it as a return to pre-Classical Western musical roots, in particular to the music of the ancient Greeks. By taking the principles he found in Helmholtz’s book, he expanded his tuning system until it allowed for a division of the octave into 43 tones based on ratios of small integers.[v]

“The age of specialization has given us an art of sound that denies sound, and a science of sound that denies art. The age of specialization has given us a music drama that denies drama, and a drama that—contrary to the practices of all other peoples of the world—denies music.” Partch, in Bitter Music (2000)[vi]

There are three main types of microtonal scales. One is equal temperament, where the octave is divided into equal steps of various numbers, with nineteen, twenty-two, thirty-one, and fifty-three divisions (notes) offering the best overall possibilities. A scale of twelve equal divisions is, of course, the common Western scale in use today by 99.9% of all musicians. A scale of twenty-four tones is the quartertone system which includes the ordinary twelve scale within it. This is used by some 20th century classical composers. Equal tempered is the scale most easily achieved by analog synthesizers and refretted instruments such as guitars. As was been shown by the late Ivor Darreg, the most ardent explorer and publicizer of this field, each non-12 scale has its own “mood,” and as such provides new avenues of expression for the creative composer.

Well temperament is basically a compromise between equal temperament and just intonation. Not every interval is represented exactly, but neither are the steps between notes equal in value as in equal temperament. Some keys might be perfectly in tune while others may be mistuned from the perfect ratios.

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Photo of Harry Partch…UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Harry Partch Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The other main type of scale is just intonation; this is the sort that Partch explored extensively and delineated in his music. Here exact harmonic ratios determine the unequally spaced note values. After unity (the same note in duet) the simplest harmonic ratio between two tones is the octave (2/1), followed by the fifth (3/2 – closely approximated on the twleve-tone system). However, many other important ratios are not analogous to notes found in twelve-tone or any equal temperament system. Whereas an equal tempered scale only approximates certain select harmonic ratios, in just intonation the ratios are exact and chords, for example, are sharp and clear as opposed to the “fuzziness” of equal temperament. The ratios can be taken as far as one wants, becoming more dissonant as they become more complex. With a few exceptions, Partch stopped at divisions of eleven. Partch used a total of fourty-three tones per octave, though with just intonation it was not necessary for every instrument to contain every note, but only those most suitable. Just intonation usually requires that new instruments be built for its exploration; such scales on fretted instruments are difficult, and analog synthesizers (which can achieve equal temperament with a simple control voltage processing device) need modifications to the actual keyboard circuitry.

If one considers the amount of music composed for the Western twelve-tone scale, and realizes that there are three or four other equal tempered scales that are just as valid harmonically, the potential for these scales becomes obvious. Consider also that “mediocrity” is a concept determined mostly by excessive repetition; that every “banal” melody you have ever heard was classified so by its unoriginality. With either type of microtonal scale, new melodies and harmonies are inevitable. Yet it remains that these scales have been completely ignored by the majority of “progressive” and “experimental” musicians of today. Whether this will continue to be so is unknown, but I believe that this resource can provide new opportunities for musicians who wish to retain tonal and harmonic elements in their music, yet who are dissatisfied with the possibilities of the twelve-note scale that engulfs us all. For as Partch wrote:

“Music, ‘good’ or not ‘good,’ has only two ingredients that might be called God-given: the capacity of a body to vibrate and produce sound and the mechanism of the human ear that registers it. These two ingredients can be studied and analyzed, but they cannot be changed; they are the comparative constants. All else in the art of music, which may also be studied and analyzed, was created by man or is implicit in human acts and is therefore subject to the fiercest scrutiny – and ultimately to approval, indifference, or contempt. In other words, all else is subject to change.”[vii]

Opportunities to hear him have been exceedingly rare. Partch is so far outside the boundaries of even the experimental and avant-garde movements, that seeing a performance can be its own reward, especially as the music is so unusual that it might easily be impossible to comprehend.

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Lincoln Center Festival presents a scene from “Delusion of the Fury: A Ritual of Dream and Delusion” by Composer Harry Partch Director Heiner Goebbels Performed by Music Theater with Ensemble Musikfabrik at City Center on July 21, 2015. Photo Credit: ©Stephanie Berger.

That is the context for Ensemble Musikfabrik’s production of Partch’s theater piece Delusion of the Fury, directed by Heiner Goebbels, which was performed at City Center in July, 2015, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The production is so engrossing, and expresses the music in such a natural way, that it can speak to anyone with an interest in music theater.

Delusion of the Fury is one of Partch’s most substantial works. In two acts separated by an interlude he titled Sanctus, the piece presents two allegories, one ancient and one modern. The first is a Noh-based story of a man seeking penance for murder, confronted by the ghost of his victim. The second is about a misunderstanding and dispute between two strangers, who are sent before a judge.[viii]

Partch met Danlee Mitchell while he was at the University of Illinois; Partch made Mitchell his heir,[ix] and Mitchell serves as the Executive Director of the Harry Partch Foundation.[x] Dean Drummond and his group Newband took charge of Partch’s instruments, and performed his repertoire.[xi] After Drummond’s death in 2013, Charles Corey assumed responsibility for the instruments.[xii]

The Sousa Archives and Center for American Music in Urbana, Illinois, holds the Harry Partch Estate Archive, 1918–1991,[xiii] which consists of Partch’s personal papers, musical scores, films, tapes and photographs documenting his career as a composer, 605606writer, and producer. It also holds the Music and performing Arts Library Harry Partch Collection, 1914–2007,[xiv] which consists of books, music, films, personal papers, artifacts and sound recordings collected by the staff of the Music and Performing Arts Library and the University of Illinois School of Music documenting the life and career of Harry Partch, and those associated with him, throughout his career as a composer and writer.

Partch’s notation is an obstacle, as it mixes a sort of tablature with indications of pitch ratios. This makes it difficult for those trained in traditional Western notation, and gives no visual indication as to what the music is intended to sound like.[xv]


[i] Ivan Hewett, “Harry Partch: the magic of a California hobo”, The Telegraph, August 28, 2014.  Accessed on 2/5/2016.
[ii] Kate Molleson, “Harry Partch – how Heiner Goebbels bought Delusion of the Fury to Edinburgh”, The Guardian, August 29, 2014.  Accessed on 2/5/2016.
[iii] Alex Ross, “Off the Rails: A rare performance of Harry Partch’s ‘Oedipus'”, The New Yorker, April 18, 2005.  Accessed on 2/5/2016.
[iv] Gilmore, Bob; Johnston, Ben (2002). “Harry Partch (1901–1974)”. In Sitsky, Larry. Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 365–372. ISBN 978-0-313-29689-5.
[v] Alex Ross, “Off the Rails: A rare performance of Harry Partch’s ‘Oedipus'”, The New Yorker, April 18, 2005.  Accessed on 2/5/2016.
[vi] Partch, Harry (2000). McGeary, Thomas, ed. Bitter Music: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, and Librettos. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-06913-0.
[vii] John Loffink, “The Quality of Vitality: Music by Harry Partch”, Surface Noise No. 5 & 6, Winter & Summer, 1982, revised April 1998.  Accessed on 2/5/2016.
[viii] George Grella, “Partch offers a fascinating alternative universe at Lincoln Center Festival”, New York Classical Review, July 25, 2015.  Accessed on 2/5/2016.
[ix] Johnston, Ben (2006). “Maximum Clarity” and Other Writings on Music. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-03098-7.
[x] Taylor, David A. (2010). Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-88589-5.
[xi] Gilmore & Johnston 2002, p. 370.
[xii] De Pue, Joanne (2014). “Harry Partch Instrumentarium Takes Up Residency at UW”. University of Washington School of Music. Retrieved 18 April 2015.
[xiii] Harry Partch Estate Archive, 1918–1991, Sousa Archives and Center for American Music.
[xiv] Music and Performing Arts Library Harry Partch Collection, 1914–2007, Sousa Archives and Center for American Music.
[xv] Gilmore & Johnston 2002, p. 368.

Muddy Water[s] : Down on Stovall’s Plantation

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“Name McKinley Morganfield, nickname Muddy Water, Stovall’s famous guitar picker,” Muddy clearly said in his first ever recording session, August 1941.  McKinley “Muddy Water” Morganfield, of course, the father of modern Chicago Blues, and the only household Blues name – along with B.B. King. Note that “Water” is singular, and the beauty here is that one can hear him say it for himself.[i]

Scan-Dec-18-2014-4.27-PM-page29In time, the two sessions were released as Down On Stovall’s Plantation, issued on the Testament record label. These recordings were later re-issued on CD; first as Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings. The historic 1941-42 Library of Congress field recordings by Chess Records in 1993, and later still after being re-mastered in 1997.[ii]

Waters was around 26 or 27 during the time of these seminal sessions. The collection contains early acoustic versions of songs Waters later recorded electrically for Chess Records such as “Walking Blues”, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “Feel Like Goin’ Home”. Lomax was searching for the great Robert Johnson — who had already died — when he discovered Muddy Waters.

cabinWaters plays guitar and sings on all of the 22 songs. The other musicians on these Library of Congress sessions include guitarist Charles Berry, guitarist Son Simms, vocalist Percy Thomas and vocalist Louis Ford. On certain numbers, a jug band vibe emerges. Vintage photographs of Muddy’s cabin in Clarksdale, Mississippi, exist in the liner notes. This rare disc features interviews with Waters where he answers questions concerning musical influences, tunings, song meanings and inspiration for specific tunes.[iii]

“Son House? Who’s that?,” Lomax asks.

We hear Lomax’s inquiries, getting to the bottom of the origins of American blues, we listen in as Waters tells him how he learned to play bottleneck slide (with an actual bottle) from Son House. It is very rare indeed to have contemporaneous first-hand testimony from a major artist of an original American art, when he was still living in the most important region and knew the most important musicians.  It doesn’t get better than this, and establishes these recordings as a major musicological treasure as well as a collection some of the best blues performances available.

MI0000049099-300x300Muddy Waters ‎– The Complete Plantation Recordings
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Personnel includes: Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals); Percy Thomas (guitar); Henry “Son” Simms (violin); Louis Ford (mandolin).

Reissue producer: Andy McKaie. Recorded on Stovall’s Plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi between 1941 and 1942. Includes liner notes by Mary Katherine Aldin. Digitally remastered by Erick Labson (MCA Music Media Studios).

So, how and when did the nickname “Muddy Water” become plural?

The surprising answer is found in a book titled, Lost Delta Found – Rediscovering the Fisk University – Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942 by John W. Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams, Jr. (Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov editors). The editors first point out further proof of the singular “Water” in a footnote on page 51. It’s in the form of handwriting by Work on a 1943 photograph of Muddy and his mentor Son Sims, “The photo of Muddy and Son Sims is labeled in John Work’s hand, ‘Muddy Water.’” The photograph is shown with labeling on page 119.

It seems a clerical error by Alan Lomax himself added the “s” to “Water.” Again quoting from the page 51 footnote: “Lomax refers to Morganfield as ‘Muddy Waters’ (and repeatedly misspells ‘Sims’ as ‘Simms’). The first published misidentification occurs in Lomax’s liner notes that accompany the 1942 Library of Congress album Afro-American Blues and Game Songs.”

By the time Muddy was in Chicago, it seems he went with the flow and accepted his third nickname to be the euphonious appellation by which he is known to recorded history, “Muddy Waters.”[iv]


[i] James “Skyy Dobro” Walker, “Did A Clerical Error Change Muddy Waters History? – Evolution Of A Nickname”, Blues Blast Magazine, February 25, 2015.  Accessed on 2/4/2016.
[ii] Barry Kerzner, “Muddy Waters’ “The Complete Plantation Recordings” is the Holy Grail”, ChicagoBlues.com, November 20, 2014.  Accessed on 2/4/2016.
[iii] James Calemine, “Muddy Waters’ “The Complete Plantation Recordings”, Swampland.com.  Accessed on 2/4/2016.
[iv] James “Skyy Dobro” Walker, “Did A Clerical Error Change Muddy Waters History? – Evolution Of A Nickname”, Blues Blast Magazine, February 25, 2015.  Accessed on 2/4/2016.

Luigi Dallapiccola (February 3, 1904 – February 19, 1975) : Italian composer known for his lyrical twelve-tone compositions

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Perhaps the greatest Modern Italian composer after Puccini, Luigi Dallapiccola was born in Pisino, in the disputed territory of Istria, then under Austrian rule (it is now part of Croatia and Slovenia). His father, a teacher suspected of Italian nationalism, lost his job during World War I, and the Austrian government interned the entire family in Graz. Dallapiccola’s intense concern over political imprisonment throughout his work probably originates here.

Luigi Dallapiccola took his piano degree at the Florence Conservatory in the 1920s and became professor there in 1931; until his 1967 retirement he spent his career there teaching lessons in piano as a secondary instrument, replacing his teacher Ernesto Consolo as the older man’s illness prevented him from continuing. He also studied composition with Vito Frazzi at the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini.

Dallapiccola’s students include Abraham Zalman Walker, Luciano Berio, Bernard Rands, Donald Martino, Halim El-Dabh, Ernesto Rubin de Cervin, Arlene Zallman, Roland Trogan, Noel Da Costa, and Raymond Wilding-White.[i]

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In 1924 he had a crucial experience (not destined to bear fruit in his own works till many years later) when a performance of Pierrot lunaire, at a concert organized by Casella’s Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche, first brought him into contact with the music of the Second Viennese School.  In 1930 he visited Vienna and Berlin; in the former city Mahler’s First Symphony came as another major revelation to him.

34The Thirties and Forties proved difficult. Although it’s hard to believe, Dallapiccola began as a supporter of the Fascist regime, but the Abyssinian campaign and the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes, as did Mussolini’s adoption of Hitler’s race laws (Dallapiccola had married a Jew). Out of this experience came his first mature masterpiece, Canti di prigionia (songs of imprisonment, 1938-41). There was, of course, no question of a public career as a composer at this point. Indeed, he was lucky to have been left pretty much alone, although he did go into hiding for about seven months in 1944. He mainly gave piano recitals, although, out of principle, not in countries the Nazis occupied. In fact, he was able, while passing through Austria on his way to a recital in 1942, to meet Anton Webern.

After the war, he became a postwar musical voice, very active in the ISCM. He taught, lectured, wrote, and composed on an international stage, until 1972, which severe heart trouble made him an invalid. He completed no new work, although several sketches survive.

It was Richard Wagner’s music that inspired Dallapiccola to start composing in earnest, and Claude Debussy’s that caused him to stop: hearing Der fliegende Holländer while exiled to Austria convinced the young man that composition was his calling, but after first hearing Debussy in 1921, at age 17, he stopped composing for three years in order to give this important influence time to sink in. The neoclassical works of Ferruccio Busoni would figure prominently in his later work, but his biggest influence would be the ideas of the Second Viennese School, which he encountered in the 1930s, particularly Alban Berg and Anton Webern.  Dallapiccola’s works of the 1920s (the period of his adherence to fascism) have been withdrawn, with the instruction that they never be performed, though they still exist under controlled access for study.

His works widely use the serialism developed and embraced by his idols; he was, in fact, the first Italian to write in the method, and the primary proponent of it in Italy, and he developed serialist techniques to allow for a more lyrical, tonal style. Throughout the 1930s his style developed from a diatonic style with bursts of chromaticism to a consciously serialist outlook. He went from using twelve-tone rows for melodic material to structuring his works entirely serially. With the adoption of serialism he never lost the feel for melodic line that many of the detractors of the Second Viennese School claimed to be absent in modern dodecaphonic music. His disillusionment with Mussolini’s regime effected a change in his style: after the Abyssinian campaign he claimed that his writing would no longer ever be light and carefree as it once was. While there are later exceptions, particularly the Piccolo concerto per Muriel Couvreux, this is largely the case.

The new and the “difficult” attracted Dallapiccola’s inquiring mind, and not just in music. A man of immense culture, fluent in at least four languages, he kept up correspondence with many major artistic figures, including American composer Roger Sessions, one of his closest friends. His own music shows an interest in highly-organized counterpoint and heavy chromaticism, both leavened by a love of lyrical melody. One also notes a concern for formal perfection. Dallapiccola wrote relatively little, but with an eye on posterity. His music in the early to mid-Thirties, as shown by the first of his Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti il giovane (1933-36), is marked by modality and a self-conscious archaism. However, the last choruses show an anguished chromaticism. He grows increasingly interested in serial procedures but uses them in his own way. In the Canti di prigionia, for example, the rows function as melodies rather than as architectural determinants. [ii]

After 1945 Dallapiccola’s life was relatively free from external disturbances. A few obstructive antagonisms survived from the war years, but on the whole he had little difficulty in resuming all his old activities and in adding a few new ones: for example, for two and a half years from 1945 he regularly wrote for the Florentine periodical Il mondo (soon renamed Il mondo europeo). In 1946 he played a major part in getting Italian composers readmitted to the ISCM, at whose first postwar festival the Canti di prigionia at last came before a large public, revealing Dallapiccola’s major stature to the world at large.

During the 1950s his travels abroad became even more wide-ranging: in 1951 Koussevitzky invited him to give a summer course at Tanglewood, and thereafter he visited the USA regularly, sometimes for quite long periods. He continued to travel in western Europe too, and his easy command of German, French and English, combined with his wide culture and his warm humanity, won him international success as a lecturer and so assisted the spread of his music. By the time of the première of his opera Ulisse (1968), the eyes of the whole musical world were upon him; and if the critics may not on that occasion have been unanimous in their praise, that première may nevertheless be regarded as the climax of Dallapiccola’s postwar career.

After Ulisse he composed only intermittently: for several months after completing the work he concentrated instead on assembling and adapting his most important lectures and writings for the volume Appunti, incontri, meditazioni.

In 1972 a brief crisis in his health persuaded him to curtail his travels and public activities and lead a more sedentary life. Thereafter he completed no more compositions, though a few fragments have survived, among them a sketch for the opening of a vocal work, left on his piano a few hours before his death.[iii]


[i] Steven A. Kennedy, “On looking up by chance at the constellations: Luigi Dallapiccola’s ‘Sicut umbra’,” MA thesis, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1990.
[ii] Steven Schwartz, “Luigi Dallapiccola”, Classical.Net, accessed 2/3/2016.
[iii] John C.G. Waterhouse and Virgilio Bernardoni. “Dallapiccola, Luigi.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed 2/3/2016.

Miles Davis : Bitches Brew (1970)

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Shortly before his death in 1991, Miles Davis remarked “You don’t change music, music changes you.” While that statement is unassailable regarding the vast majority of artists, no matter how influential, Miles Davis was definitely an exception. Indeed, the Man with the Horn was being uncharacteristically modest, and he knew it. He did, after all, actually change music several times, and he was normally the first person to remind doubters and neophytes of this fact. His ultimate achievement—beyond the staggering scope of his recorded works—may have been providing a forum where the best players could congregate. In this creative cauldron that he tended to over the better part of four decades, Miles served as inventor, instigator and mentor. The list of legends that cut their teeth in his employ remains astounding: John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin, just to name a handful.[i]

The freedom which Miles makes available to his musicians is also there for the listener. If you haven’t discovered it yet, all I can say is that Bitches’ Brew is a marvelous place to start. This music is so rich in its form and substance that it permits and even encourages soaring flights of imagination by anyone who listens. If you want, you can experience it directly as a vast tapestry of sounds which envelop your whole being. You’ll discover why fully one third of the audience at Miles’ recent Fillmore West appearances left the hall in stunned silence, too deeply moved to want to stay for the other groups on the bill. As a personal matter, I also enjoy Miles’ music as a soft background context for when I want to read or think deeply. In its current form, Miles’ music bubbles and boils like some gigantic cauldron. As the musical ideas rise to the surface, the listener also finds his thoughts rising from the depths with a new clarity and precision. Miles is an invaluable companion for those long journeys you take into your imagination.[ii]

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Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way are both dominated by circular grooves, John McLaughlin’s angular guitar playing and the sound of the Fender Rhodes electric piano. However, Miles related in his autobiography how he wanted to expand the canvas on Bitches Brew in terms of the length of the pieces and the number of musicians. While In a Silent Way featured eight musicians and was recorded in one single session, Bitches Brew included 13 musicians and was the result of three days of recording. On the third day the rhythm section consisted of as many as 11 players: three keyboardists, electric guitar, two basses, four drummers/percussionists and a bass clarinet. Miles had pulled out the stops in his search for a heavier bottom end.

4-520x300Uncharacteristically, Miles’ live quintet also influenced Bitches Brew. Miles’ live and studio directions were strongly diverging around this time, with the studio experiments pioneering new material—incorporated elements of rock, soul and folk that only gradually filtered through to the live stage. But in July of 1969 Miles’ live quintet began performing “Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Sanctuary,” all of which would appear on Bitches Brew. (“Sanctuary” had, of course, already been recorded by the second great quintet on February 15, 1968.)

Having broken in this new material, Miles felt confident enough to book three successive days of studio time. He began by calling in the same crew that had recorded In a Silent Way: Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin and Dave Holland; only Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock were missing. Miles gave preference to live-band drummer Jack DeJohnette because of his “deep groove,” invited Lifetime organist Larry Young instead of Hancock, and also added session bassist and Columbia producer Harvey Brooks. Together with Zawinul and McLaughlin, Young and Brooks had played on a session Miles organized for his wife, Betty Mabry, a few weeks earlier to record her first and ultimately unsuccessful solo album, They Say I’m Different. Miles also summoned 19-year-old drummer Lenny White who, like Tony Williams, is reported to have been brought to his attention by saxophonist Jackie McLean. Drummer/percussionist Don Alias landscape_bennie_maupin-benpenhad been introduced to Miles by Tony Williams, and brought along percussionist Jim Riley, also known as “Jumma Santos.” Tenor saxophonist and bass clarinettist Bennie Maupin was recommended by Jack DeJohnette. A finishing touch, and a stroke of genius, was Miles’ instruction to Maupin to play only the bass clarinet, adding a very distinctive and enigmatic sound to the brew.[iii]

The first thing that Bitches Brew made clear is that Miles was keenly interested in expanding the idea of what his music could be, and was starting to stretch it way out. The title track runs 26 minutes, which then and now is at the extreme end of what a side of vinyl on an LP can hold; the opening “Pharaoh’s Dance” also breaks 20 minutes. And these pieces weren’t lengthy compositions or single jams, but were assembled by Miles and producer Teo Macero through editing– unrelated tracks could become one piece through the miracle of the razor blade and magnetic tape. For an improvisatory art form that was founded on the idea collective expression in the present moment, the idea of stitching together pieces into a new whole was radical enough on its own. But Miles was changing his approach in several ways simultaneously as the 1960s came to a close. He was processing his trumpet with echo, working with electric keyboards and electric guitar, adding new percussion colors, experimenting with rock rhythms, doing away with chord changes, and building long tracks from riffs and vamps. And, he was being introduced to new music through a group of new young friends, and along the way he had become a fan of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and James Brown.

All of these elements swirled together into a record of brilliant and fascinating contradictions. The psychedelic cover art and long electric jams on the one hand anchor the music in Age of Aquarius, but the connections to earlier jazz tradition and unmoored, floating quality of music also lend it a timeless feel. It sounds very much like a bunch of dudes jamming in the room, but some of the abrupt edits serve as a reminder that it owes a lot to technology. It finds Miles distancing himself from his musical past, but it sounds equally far from the dense abstraction his music would take on a couple of years later, especially in a live setting. It was long and hard to get a handle on, but it was also a huge commercial success. Ultimately, Bitches Brew seems mostly like a single beautiful frame from a jarring film filled with jump-cuts. The amount that Miles Davis’ music changed from the early 60s to the early 70s is astonishing. His sound was constantly on the move, and this is what it sounded like on those August days in the studio.[iv]

Miles_Davis-Filles_de_Kilimanjaro_(album_cover)Bitches Brew was a turning point in modern jazz. Davis had already spearheaded two major jazz movements – cool jazz and modal jazz – and was about to initiate another major change (like Davis’ album Filles de Kilimanjaro, the album’s cover also sports the phrase “Directions In Music By Miles Davis” above the title). Some critics at the time characterized this music as simply obscure and “outside”, which recalls Duke Ellington’s description of Davis as “the Picasso of jazz.” Some jazz enthusiasts and musicians felt the album was crossing the limits, or was not jazz at all. One critic writes that “Davis drew a line in the sand that some jazz fans have never crossed, or even forgiven Davis for drawing.”[v]  Bob Rusch recalls, “this to me was not great Black music, but I cynically saw it as part and parcel of the commercial crap that was beginning to choke and bastardize the catalogs of such dependable companies as Blue Note and Prestige…. I hear it ‘better’ today because there is now so much music that is worse.”[vi]  Donald Fagen, co-founder of Steely Dan, called the album “essentially just a big trash-out for Miles” in 2007: “To me it was just silly, and out of tune, and bad. I couldn’t listen to it. It sounded like [Davis] was trying for a funk record, and just picked the wrong guys. They didn’t understand how to play funk. They weren’t steady enough.”[vii]

On the other hand, many fans, critics, and musicians view the records as an important and vital release. In a 1997 interview, drummer Bobby Previte sums up his feelings about Bitches Brew: “Well, it was groundbreaking, for one. How much groundbreaking music do you hear now? It was music that you had that feeling you never heard quite before. It came from another place. How much music do you hear now like that?”[viii]

The Penguin Guide to Jazz gave Bitches Brew a four-star rating (out of four stars), describing the recording as “one of the most remarkable creative statements of the last half-century, in any artistic form. It is also profoundly flawed, a gigantic torso of burstingly noisy music that absolutely refuses to resolve itself under any recognized guise.”[ix]  In 2003, the album was ranked number 94 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time (however, it went down one spot 9 years later).[x]  Along with this accolade, the album has been ranked at or near the top of several other magazines’ “best albums” lists in disparate genres.[xi]

Thom Yorke, lead singer of English band Radiohead, noted the album as an influence on their 1997 album OK Computer: “It was building something up and watching it fall apart, that’s the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do with OK Computer.”[xii]

MilesDavis_BitchesBrewLiveRegardless of how the quality of the music on Bitches Brew is judged, it is important to recognize the astonishing concoction of influences that had gone into Miles’ cauldron. Miles had combined improvisational working methods that he developed in the late ’50s with musical influences such as rock, folk, soul and African music. Moreover, the ensemble’s collective improvisation, based on the working methods developed by the second great quintet, and the call-and-response structure between Miles and the ensemble, both find their roots in early jazz. In his autobiography Miles likened Bitches Brew’s collective improvisations to the jam sessions he attended at Minton’s in Harlem in the late ’40s. Like many writers, Miles also made comparisons between the recording’s kaleidoscopic sound world and the noises of New York City. Then, in the words of Lenny White, he mixed in a “dash” of this musician and that composer, not only skillfully blending their qualities, but also enlarging jazz and rock’s sonic palette with bass clarinet and extensive percussion. Both were novel sounds in jazz and rock music around 1969.[xiii]

The influence of Jimi Hendrix is all over Brew. Like Electric Ladyland, it’s primarily a studio creation, complete with splices and special effects, while “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” echoes Jimi’s “Voodoo Chile”. In 1970, the two men even appeared on the same bill at the Isle of Wight festival before an audience of 600,000. Miles arrived on stage in a red leather jacket and blue rhinestone trousers.

Many of Miles’s accomplices would go on to write their own careers in “fusion”, among them Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Larry Young. For drummer Jack De Johnette, the process that created Bitches Brew, while thrilling, had human as much as artistic origins: “It was a midlife crisis played out through experimental jazz.”[xiv]


[i]  Sean Murphy, “The Shock Heard ‘Round the World: Bitches Brew Turns 40”, September 2, 2010, Pop Matters.  Accessed 2/1/2016.
[ii]  Langdon Winner, “Bitches Brew” (review), Rolling Stone, May 28, 1970.  Accessed 2/1/2016.
[iii]  Paul Tingen, “Miles Davis and the Making of Bitches Brew: Sorcerer’s Brew”, JazzTimes, May 2001.  Accessed 2/1/2016.
[iv]  Mark Richardson, “Bitches Brew [Legacy Edition]” (review), Pitchfork, September 10, 2010.  Accessed 2/1/2016.
[v]  Meyer, Bill. “Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (August 1969 – February 1970)”. Ink Blot Magazine. Archived from the original on 2007-06-30. Retrieved 2007-08-04.
[vi]  Rusch, Bob (1994). Ron Wynn, ed. All Music Guide to Jazz. AllMusic. M. Erlewine, V. Bogdanov (1st ed.). San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books. p. 197.
[vii]  Breithaupt, Don (2007). Steely Dan’s Aja. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 25–26.
[viii]  Snyder, Matt (December 1997). “An Interview with Bobby Previte”. 5/4 Magazine. Archived from the original on 2006-01-12. Retrieved 2007-08-04.
[ix]  Cook, Richard; Brian Morton (2006) [1992]. “Miles Davis”. The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. The Penguin Guide to Jazz (8th ed.). New York: Penguin. p. 327.
[x]  Staff (November 2003). RS500: 94) Bitches Brew. Rolling Stone. Retrieved on 2010-10-08.
[xi]  “Bitches Brew”. AcclaimedMusic.net. Retrieved 2008-08-30.
[xii]  Sutcliffe, Phil (October 1999), “Radiohead: An Interview With Thom Yorke”, Q
[xiii]  Paul Tingen, “Miles Davis and the Making of Bitches Brew: Sorcerer’s Brew”, JazzTimes, May 2001.  Accessed 2/1/2016.
[xiv]  Neil Spencer, “Miles Davis: The muse who changed him, and the heady Brew that rewrote jazz”, The Guardian, September 4, 2010.  Accessedd on 2/1/2016.

Charles Mingus : The Jazz Workshop Concerts: 1964-1965

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When Sy Johnson, a jazz pianist and arranger, used to visit Charles Mingus at his apartment in the East Village in the 1960s, there was always a pot of soup on the stove, and Mingus—a gourmand who once interrupted a concert to eat a steak dinner on the bandstand—was constantly tasting it. “He would say—‘Needs another carrot.’” He would chop another carrot and taste it again, only to decide it needed an onion. The pot might simmer for a month before Mingus was satisfied with the seasoning. As Johnson tells John Goodman in Mingus Speaks, a book of interviews with Mingus and friends conducted in the early 1970s, Mingus’s music was a lot like his soup: a “huge cauldron of sounds” that was “always in a state of becoming something.”[i]

Charles_Mingus_Presents_Charles_MingusCharles Mingus’s audiences never knew quite what they were going to get, and this kept them coming. Mingus, the bassist, composer, and bandleader who reached the height of his fame in the mid-1960s, was notoriously mercurial. He was known to fire and rehire band members over the course of a set, and was once fired himself for chasing a trombonist across the stage with an axe. His reactions to noisy crowds ranged from announcing, “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit,” to ordering his band to read books onstage. His music, which drew omnivorously on the blues, gospel, Dixieland, Duke Ellington, bebop, and classical music, among much else, was similarly unpredictable. It blurred the boundaries between improvisation and composition, often ignoring standard form, and was famous for its rapid shifts in mood and tempo.[ii]

Mingus composed—as he did most things—his own way. He was well versed in theory and composition, yet he used notation sparingly, working out ideas at the piano and playing or singing them to his musicians, who would learn their parts by ear, a few bars at a time. He sketched out just enough to give each band member a sense of what he was meant to do, often providing pedal points or snatches of scales, or even simply suggesting moods. The reed player Yusef Lateef recalled his own experience learning Mingus music: “On one composition I had a solo and, as opposed to having chord symbols for me to improvise against, he had drawn a picture of a coffin. And that was the substance upon which I was to improvise.”

5100UZklgAL._SX355_In a recent interview, Charles McPherson, who played alto with Mingus for twelve years, said that Mingus was “painfully honest…he didn’t edit anything. Whatever he thought, he said.” Much the same could be said for his music, which can, at times, seem meandering, long-winded, and eccentric. When he is at his best—as he is in some of the Mosaic recordings—he lays his influences out for all to see, drawing elements from disparate and seemingly contradictory traditions, and from them makes music that manages to be both novel and idiosyncratic without being self-indulgent, deeply aware of what came before it without being derivative.

In 1959, the year Coleman announced The Shape of Jazz to Come, Mingus called one of his records Blues & Roots: black music, as he saw it, was a continuum, a bottomless source of renewal; you couldn’t move into the future without a thorough knowledge of the past. “Those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland,” he told Goodman, “are the same and as important as classical music styles are.” Gospel and blues, the New Orleans polyphony of Jelly Roll Morton and the urbane sophistication of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the stride piano of James P. Johnson and the dazzling harmonizations of Art Tatum: all went into the Mingus cauldron.[iii]

By 1956, with the release of Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic), Mingus had clearly found himself as a composer and leader, creating pulsating, ever-shifting compendiums of jazz’s past and present, feeling his way into the free jazz of the future. For the next decade, he would pour forth an extraordinary body of work for several labels, including key albums like The Clown, New Tijuana Moods, Mingus Ah Um, Blues and Roots and Oh Yeah; standards like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Better Git It in Your Soul,” “Haitian Fight Song” and “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” and extended works like “Meditations on Integration and Epitaph”. Through ensembles ranging in size from a quartet to an 11-piece big band, a procession of noted sidemen like Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, J.R. Monterose, Jimmy Knepper, Roland Kirk, Booker Ervin, and John Handy would pass, with Mingus’ commanding bass and volatile personality pushing his musicians further than some of them might have liked to go. The groups with the great Dolphy (heard live on Mingus at Antibes) in the early ’60s might have been his most dynamic, and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963), an extended ballet for big band that captures the anguished/joyful split Mingus personality in full, passionately wild cry — may be his masterpiece.[iv]

MI0003407162Mingus (1922-1979) would have turned ninety in 2012, and in celebration, Mosaic released The Jazz Workshop Concerts: 1964-1965, a box set with rare and previously unreleased performances by some of Mingus’s greatest ensembles. These concerts, recorded near the apex of Mingus’s career, are visceral and often unvarnished. At times, the music here can be forbidding—several tracks run beyond thirty minutes—and though it may not be as uniformly polished as some of his studio albums, at its best this set captures an element of shock and surprise that Mingus’s studio recordings sometimes don’t.

“Mingus music,” as he called it, was so complex and so much an extension of his own personality that it was largely played only by his own group, the Jazz Workshop. Turnover in the Workshop was high, partly because he couldn’t afford to pay his musicians very well, partly because the experience was so grueling (members called it the Jazz Sweatshop), and partly because so many of them, after sharpening their skills with Mingus, went on to lead their own bands (Gary Giddins once called it the Harvard University of Jazz).[v]

With this Mosaic seven-disc set, we get a virtual passel of unreleased live music. The famed Town Hall concert from ’64, which previously existed in truncated, 47-minute form, has now been fleshed out to two full discs. Beyond the souped-up fidelity (this is jazz that profits by volume), there’s the seemingly telepathic interplay of one of the medium’s top small groups as they wax what could well be their most diverse, passionate and polished set. For all of the lineup’s myriad strengths—from Eric Dolphy’s multidimensionality to Johnny Coles’ tart trumpet breaks to Jaki Byard’s pianistic finesse—this classic sextet could get a bit rangy, as a host of bootleg recordings attest, but here they’re both rapacious and in complete control. Byard may well be the concert’s hero, in his unassuming way. The opening “A.T.F.W.”—an acronym for Art Tatum and Fats Waller—moves from ragtime territory to various stride maneuvers, with virtuosic flourishes worthy of the two titular pianists and a few classically leaning touches of suggestive of Alexander Scriabin tossed in as well.[vi]

This set is not Mingus 101. If you don’t own staples such as Mingus Ah Um, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, The Jazz Workshop Concerts will likely be too specific for your needs. But for listeners interested in taking a long, hard look at a prolific and tumultuous period in this great composer’s life, it’s well worth the plunge.

Hearing the ’64 sextet material found here, it’s hard not to focus on the tragedy of Dolphy’s impending demise. The multi-instrumental marvel was on an incredible roll that year, having found time to record his own magnum opus, Out to Lunch!, and appear on Point of Departure, a masterpiece by the enigmatic pianist Andrew Hill, amid his commitments to Mingus. But The Jazz Workshop Concerts affords the chance to reassess this lopsided view of the band. It was an incredibly deep group, with each of the other musicians providing a unique texture: the hard-bop brawn of tenor saxist Clifford Jordan, the gentle lyricism of trumpeter Johnny Coles, the prismatic, good-humored splendor of pianist Jaki Byard, the devilishly mutable pulse of drummer Dannie Richmond, and Mingus’s own nimble majesty on bass.[vii]


[i] Adam Shatz, “An Argument With Instruments: On Charles Mingus”, The Nation, September 23, 2013, accessed 1/29/2016.
[ii] Christopher Carroll, “Mingus: The Chaos and the Magic”, The New York Review of Books, February 12, 2013, accessed 1/29/2016.
[iii] Adam Shatz, “An Argument With Instruments: On Charles Mingus”, The Nation, September 23, 2013, accessed 1/29/2016.
[iv] Richard S. Ginell, “Charles Mingus Bigraphy”, All Music Guide, accessed 1/29/2016, accessed 1/29/2016.
[v] Christopher Carroll, “Mingus: The Chaos and the Magic”, The New York Review of Books, February 12, 2013, accessed 1/29/2016.
[vi] Colin Fleming, “Charles Mingus: The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-1965”, JazzTimes, February 13, 2013, accessed 1/29/2016.
[vii] Hank Shteamer, “Charles Mingus: The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-1965”, Pitchfork, December 10, 2012, accessed 1/29/2016.

American Original : John Fahey (1939-2001)

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“I consider myself a classical guitar player, but I’m categorized as a folk musician,” John Fahey says ruefully in the new documentary In Search of Blind Joe Death—The Saga of John Fahey.

MV5BMTUzNDY2MTc2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzk5MjE4MjE@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_In true Fahey fashion, he speaks humbly while taking Occam’s Razor to his own complicated place in music history. One thing that Fahey hits on the nose, though, is how his instrumental playing and composing over the decades never settled into a single genre. Instead it’s an interstitial sound, instantly recognizable yet spanning everything from folk, blues, and Dixieland jazz to gamelan, avant-garde classical, and ambient noise. What never wavers is Fahey’s core: a languid-yet-intricate fingerpicking style that drones, descends, dances, and does all in its considerable power to synthesize a new archetype of American music, one that consciously embraces the culture’s polyglot essence. More immediately, it’s gorgeous. Lonesome and ghostly, Fahey’s playing evokes absence, strangeness, and space with a hymnal intimacy. (Jason Heller, Pitchfork)

JohnFaheyJohn Aloysius Fahey (February 28, 1939 – February 22, 2001) was an American fingerstyle guitarist and composer who played the steel-string acoustic guitar as a solo instrument. His style has been greatly influential and has been described as the foundation of American Primitive Guitar, a term borrowed from painting and referring mainly to the self-taught nature of the music and its minimalist style. Fahey borrowed from the folk and blues traditions in American roots music, having compiled many forgotten early recordings in these genres. He would later incorporate classical, Portuguese, Brazilian, and Indian music into his œuvre. He spent many of his later years in poverty and poor health, but enjoyed a minor career resurgence with a turn towards the more explicitly avant-garde, and created a series of abstract paintings during the last years of his life. He died in 2001 from complications from heart surgery. In 2003, he was ranked 35th in the Rolling Stone “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list. (Wikipedia)

Somehow I discovered John Fahey when I must have been no older than 16 or 17, which would have been around 1967 or 1968.  By this time the acoustic folk-blues trend had peaked and morphed into psychedelic electric blues best exemplified by Jimi Hendrix or bands like The Cream.

AnthAmerFolkMusicHarry Smith’s monumental 3-LP The Anthology of American Folk Music had come out in 1952 and almost single handedly launched the folk movement.  The music on the compilation provided direct inspiration to much of the emergent folk music revival movement. The Anthology made widely available music which previously had been largely the preserve of marginal social economic groups. Many people who first heard this music through the Anthology came from very different cultural and economic backgrounds from its original creators and listeners. Many previously obscure songs became standards at hootenannies and folk clubs due to their inclusion on the Anthology. Some of the musicians represented on the Anthology saw their musical careers revived, and made additional recordings and live appearances.

Artists such as Pete Seeger, The Weavers and others took their inspiration from the music on the Anthology, which collected in one place a rich compendium of rural, mostly Southern folk, blues and country music recordings that were originally issued from 1927 to 1932.  Bob Dylan would also be greatly influenced by these recordings.

I immediately recognized John Fahey as another example emerging from this rich source material, but also evident was a stream-of-consciousness, an almost Dada-esque, quality to what he was doing.  His music very intriguing to me and I bought every recording of his I could find.

511G01V3EVLOne of acoustic music’s true innovators and eccentrics, John Fahey was a crucial figure in expanding the boundaries of the acoustic guitar. His music was so eclectic that it’s arguable whether he should be defined as a “folk” artist. In a career that saw him issue several dozen albums, he drew from blues, Native American music, Indian ragas, experimental dissonance, and pop. His good friend Dr. Demento has noted that Fahey “was the first to demonstrate that the finger-picking techniques of traditional country and blues steel-string guitar could be used to express a world of non-traditional musical ideas — harmonies and melodies you’d associate with Bartok, Charles Ives, or maybe the music of India.” The more meditative aspects of his work foreshadowed new age music, yet Fahey played with a fierce imagination and versatility that outshone any of the guitarists in that category. His idiosyncrasy may have limited him to a cult following, but it also ensured that his work continues to sound fresh.

Fahey was a colorful figure from the time he became an accomplished guitarist in his teens. Already a collector of rare early blues and country music, he made his first album in 1959, ascribing part of it to the pseudonymous “Blind Joe Death.” Only 95 copies of the LP were pressed, making it a coveted collector’s item today. (In the 1960s, Fahey would re-record the material for wider circulation.) In college, he wrote a thesis on Charley Patton (an exotic subject at the time). Yet Fahey did not perform publicly for money until the mid-’60s, after his third album. (Allmusic Biography by Richie Unterberger)

After eschewing the rustic trappings of his earliest music for a series of highly experimental recordings — including the musique concrete eye-opener Requia and Other Compositions for Guitar Solo — Fahey began trying on and discarding various musical garments. He honed his steel-string playing, working with Dixieland musicians and venturing deeper into minimalism, the latter of which showed up in the music he recorded for the art-house staple Zabriskie Point.

None of this, suffice to say, made John Fahey a household name. Forced to sell Takoma’s assets to Chrysalis Records in the mid-Seventies, he retreated from the music business and fell into deep emotional and financial distress. Subsisting on sales of musical rarities — including his own — he was missing in action for more than a decade until an early-Nineties boom of interest from fans such as Glenn Jones of the Boston band Cul de Sac, who toured and recorded with Fahey in recent years.

“His music was and is as important to me as any I’ve ever heard,” says Jones, who admits that recording The Epiphany of Glenn Jones with Fahey was not the simplest task. “Like a lot of people, I made the mistake of heroicizing John, confusing the man with the music. But, thanks to John, I got past that, and I came to love the man too.” (Rolling Stone)

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Mr. Fahey studied philosophy at American University in Washington and then at the University of California in Berkeley, where he played at folk clubs in his first paid engagements. In 1963, he recorded his second album, ”Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes.” He and his partner in Takoma Records, ED Denson, tracked down two Mississippi bluesmen, Bukka White and Skip James, and recorded them for Takoma, bringing them to new audiences on the folk-revival circuit.

Mr. Fahey entered a graduate program in folklore at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1964, and wrote his master’s thesis about the Delta bluesman Charley Patton. After he received his degree, Mr. Fahey turned to music full time.

His compositions expanded, embracing the modalities of raga along with dissonances not found in country or blues; he used unconventional tunings and turned some traditional picking patterns backward. He also experimented with tape collages, often to the annoyance of folk fans. Though hippie listeners may have heard his music as psychedelic, he was a bourbon drinker.

MI0000160395Along with his Takoma releases, Mr. Fahey also made albums for Vanguard and Reprise Records. His pristine 1968 solo album of Christmas songs for Takoma, ”The New Possibility,” sold 100,000 copies initially and has been perennially reissued. Mr. Fahey spent time at a Hindu monastery in India; a 1973 album of extended solo pieces, ”Fare Forward Voyager” (Takoma) is dedicated to a guru. Takoma was sold to Chrysalis Records in the mid-1970’s, and in the 1980’s Mr. Fahey made albums for the Shanachie and Varrick labels. New age performers like the pianist and guitarist George Winston, who made his first album for Takoma, prospered with a more ingratiating solo-guitar style. (Jon Pareles, John Fahey, 61, Guitarist And an Iconoclast, Is Dead”, The New York Times, February 26, 2001)

His old fans barely recognized the odd creature on stage at the Empty Bottle.  At 57, Mr. Fahey is puffy, and his white beard and sunglasses hide his face.  He finished a blues dirge by simply coming to a stop and shrugging.  His new fans are used to being puzzled; this was a young, intellectual audience who knew that Soundgarden was playing in an arena across town but were too hip for that.  It is Mr. Fahey’s moment as he rides back into view as an avant-garde father figure, whom the guitarist Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth has acknowledged as a “secret influence.”  John Fahey’s music is conceptually slippery, belonging to no genre.

MI0000120048Musicians within folk, neo-acoustic blues, New Age and now, strangely enough, post-everything avant-garde rock have claimed him as an inspiration. A couple of articles by the rock critic Byron Coley — a 1994 Spin magazine profile and an entry on Mr. Fahey’s work in the recent Spin Alternative Record Guide — sparked new interest.  Mr. Fahey began getting calls from record companies and musicians, and now he finds himself, to his amusement, the object of much attention.

His new album, “City of Refuge,” (Tim/Kerr/ Mercury), opens with recordings of trains and works through fuzz-charged blues figures and quiet melodies that slowly expand as they repeat.   Over the years, he has cut away some of his old sentimentality, and this record is as stubbornly idiosyncratic a statement in music as can be heard; he may be best understood in the same category of self-inventing American composers as Charles Ives and Brian Wilson. (Ben Ratliff, “A 60’s Original With a New Life on the Fringe”, The New York Times, January 19, 1997 (reprinted in Acoustic Fingerstyle))

61XDjc6PCNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Relatively late in life, Fahey extended his so-called American Primitive approach beyond music, and into the creation of a substantial body of paintings created in makeshift studios in and around Salem, Oregon. Painting on found poster board and discarded spiral notebook paper, working with tempera, acrylic, spray paint, and magic marker, Fahey’s intuitive approach echoes the action painters and abstract expressionists. The same alluring and tranquilizing aesthetics that defines much of Fahey’s musical output are equally present in his paintings.

The first publication focusing on his visual output, John Fahey: Paintings, edited in collaboration with Audio Visual Arts (AVA), is illustrated with 92 plates and is accompanied by essays from Keith Connolly, founding member of No-Neck Blues Band, and the critic Bob Nickas.

51tDBFVkQ3L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_John Fahey remained an explorer and an iconoclast to the end, even publishing a few volumes of semi-autobiographical writings, including the wonderfully titled How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life. His final album, Red Cross, was posthumously released in 2003 following his death during heart bypass surgery two years earlier, aged 61. It’s a mixed bag but there are some drifting, ghostly electric pieces that are haunting, even elegiac. Since then, the Dust to Digital label have released Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: the Fonotone Years 1958-1965, an illuminating, brilliantly annotated five-CD box set of his early work and another testament to his singular talent.

John Fahey incorporated influences ranging from folk, blues, and bluegrass to classical music, musique concrete, and noise in his primarily acoustic guitar-based compositions. Considered a legend by many, Fahey released upward of three dozen LPs in his lifetime.

Abbey Lincoln : A Turtle’s Dream

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Singer Abbey Lincoln has been persuasive in her recordings over the past few years, but in her latest release, “A Turtle’s Dream,” she attains a new expressive depth and ardor. Probably the best recording of her career, “A Turtle’s Dream”  documents an artist who has pared down her means and her message to their essence. Not a note is wasted, not a phrase is unnecessary in this dark, brooding and elegiac album. The plaintive lines and deep-amber colorings she brings to the title track, the profound lyric-reading and searing climax she achieves in “Down Here Below,” the mood of reverie and awe she expresses in “Nature Boy” epitomize this album’s haunting appeal. Not since Billie Holiday’s sublime final recordings has a female jazz vocalist expressed pain and yearning so eloquently.

41DYJEAWDJLBorn in Chicago but raised in Michigan, Lincoln was one of many singers influenced byBillie Holiday. She often visited the Blue Note jazz club in New York City. Her debut album, Abbey Lincoln’s Affair – A Story of a Girl in Love, was followed by a series of albums for Riverside Records. In 1960 she sang on Max Roach’s landmark civil rights-themed recording, We Insist! Lincoln’s lyrics were often connected to the civil rights movement in America.

During the 1980s, Lincoln’s creative output was smaller and she released only a few albums during that decade. Her song “For All We Know” is featured in the 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy. During the 1990s and until her death, however, she fulfilled a 10-album contract with Verve Records.

61QTOTIuO7L._SL1061_The release of A Turtle’s Dream continued Abbey Lincoln’s ’90s resurgence. As with her preceding Verve releases, A Turtle’s Dream features notable guest musicians (including Pat Metheny, Kenny Baron, and Lucky Peterson), all of whom add grace to the proceedings. Her core backing trio comprises Rodney Kendrick on piano, Charlie Haden on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums. The set features primarily her originals, along with a pair of covers, including Eben Ahbez’s “Nature Boy.” The opening song, “Throw It Away,” has a melancholy resonance that is utterly inviting as Lincoln pours herself into the lyrics with deep passion and subtle dramatics. The addition of a string section on a couple of numbers–especially “Down Here Below”–makes for some elegant blues.

Three Birthdays Today : Mississippi Fred McDowell; Jay McShann; Morton Feldman

When Mississippi Fred McDowell proclaimed on one of his last albums, “I do not play no rock & roll,” it was less a boast by an aging musician swept aside by the big beat than a mere statement of fact. As a stylist and purveyor of the original Delta blues, he was superb, equal parts Charley Patton and Son House coming to the fore through his roughed-up vocals and slashing bottleneck style of guitar playing. McDowell knew he was the real deal, and while others were diluting and updating their sound to keep pace with the changing times and audiences, Mississippi Fred stood out from the rest of the pack simply by not changing his style one iota. Though he scorned the amplified rock sound with a passion matched by few country bluesmen, he certainly had no qualms about passing any of his musical secrets along to his young, white acolytes, prompting several of them — including a young Bonnie Raitt — to develop slide guitar techniques of their own. Although generally lumped in with other blues “rediscoveries” from the ’60s, the most amazing thing about him was that this rich repository of Delta blues had never recorded in the ’20s or early ’30s, didn’t get “discovered” until 1959, and didn’t become a full-time professional musician until the mid-’60s.

He was born in 1904 in Rossville, TN, and was playing the guitar by the age of 14 with a slide hollowed out of a steer bone. His parents died when Fred was a youngster and the wandering life of a traveling musician soon took hold. The 1920s saw him playing for tips on the street around Memphis, TN, the hoboing life eventually setting him down in Como, MS, where he lived the rest of his life. There McDowell split his time between farming and keeping up with his music by playing weekends for various fish fries, picnics, and house parties in the immediate area. This pattern stayed largely unchanged for the next 30 years until he was discovered in 1959 by folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax was the first to record this semi-professional bluesman, the results of which were released as part of an American folk music series on the Atlantic label. McDowell, for his part, was happy to have some sounds on records, but continued on with his farming and playing for tips outside of Stuckey’s candy store in Como for spare change. It wasn’t until Chris Strachwitz — folk-blues enthusiast and owner of the fledgling Arhoolie label — came searching for McDowell to record him that the bluesman’s fortunes began to change dramatically.

Mississippi Fred McDowell
Fred McDowell

Two albums, Fred McDowell, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, were released on Arhoolie in the mid-’60s, and the shock waves were felt throughout the folk-blues community. Here was a bluesman with a repertoire of uncommon depth, putting it over with great emotional force, and to top it all off, he had seemingly slipped through the cracks of late-’20s/early-’30s field recordings. No scratchy, highly prized 78s on Paramount or Vocalion to use as a yardstick to measure his current worth, no romantic stories about him disappearing into the Delta for decades at a time to become a professional gambler or a preacher. No, Mississippi Fred McDowell had been in his adopted home state, farming and playing all along, and the world coming to his doorstep seemed to ruffle him no more than the little boy down the street delivering the local newspaper.

m2FHtq3n0R5QZ27kFEg0bOgThe success of the Arhoolie recordings suddenly found McDowell very much in demand on the folk and festival circuit, where his quiet, good-natured performances left many a fan utterly spellbound. Working everything from the Newport Folk Festival to coffeehouse dates to becoming a member of the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe, McDowell suddenly had more listings in his résumé in a couple of years than he had in the previous three decades combined. He was also well documented on film, with appearances in The Blues Maker (1968), his own documentary Fred McDowell (1969), and Roots of American Music: Country and Urban Music (1970) among them. By the end of the decade, he was signed to do a one-off album for Capitol Records (the aforementioned I Do Not Play No Rock ‘N’ Roll) and his tunes were being mainstreamed into the blues-rock firmament by artists like Bonnie Raitt (who recorded several of his tunes, including notable versions of “Write Me a Few Lines” and “Kokomo”) and the Rolling Stones, who included a very authentic version of his classic “You Got to Move” on their Sticky Fingers album. Unfortunately, this career largess didn’t last much longer, as McDowell was diagnosed with cancer while performing dates into 1971. His playing days suddenly behind him, he lingered for a few months into July 1972, finally succumbing to the disease at age 68. And right to the end, the man remained true to his word; he didn’t play any rock & roll, just the straight, natural blues.  (Allmusic Artist Biography by Cub Koda)

The great veteran pianist Jay McShann (also known as Hootie) enjoyed a long career and it is unfair to primarily think of him as merely the leader of an orchestra that featured a young Charlie Parker. He was mostly self-taught as a pianist, worked with Don Byas as early as 1931 and played throughout the Midwest before settling in Kansas City in 1936. McShann formed his own sextet the following year and by 1939 had his own big band. In 1940 at a radio station in Wichita, KS, McShann and an octet out of his orchestra recorded eight songs that were not released commercially until the 1970s; those rank among the earliest of all Charlie Parker records (he is brilliant on “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Lady Be Jay McShannGood”) and also feature the strong rhythm section team McShann had with bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Gus Johnson. The full orchestra recorded for Decca on two occasions during 1941-1942 but they were typecast as a blues band and did not get to record many of their more challenging charts (although very rare broadcasts have since surfaced and been released on CD by Vintage Jazz Classics). In addition to Bird (who had a few short solos), the main stars were trumpeter Bernard Anderson, the rhythm section, and singer Walter Brown. McShann and his band arrived in New York in February 1942 and made a strong impression, but World War II made it difficult for any new orchestras to catch on. There was a final session in December 1943 without Parker, but McShann was soon drafted and the band broke up. After being discharged later in 1944, McShann briefly re-formed his group but soon moved to Los Angeles, where he led combos for the next few years; his main attraction was the young singer Jimmy Witherspoon.

McShann was in obscurity for the next two decades, making few records and mostly playing in Kansas City. In 1969 he was rediscovered and McShann (who had first sung on records in 1966) was soon a popular pianist/vocalist. Sometimes featuring violinist Claude Williams, he toured constantly, recorded frequently, and appeared at many jazz festivals, being active into the mid-’90s. Jay McShann, who recorded through the years for Onyx (the 1940 radio transcriptions), Decca, Capitol, Aladdin, Mercury, Black Lion, EmArcy, Vee Jay, Black & Blue, Master Jazz, Sackville, Sonet, Storyville, Atlantic, Swingtime, and Music Masters among others, was a vital pianist and an effective blues vocalist who keept a classic style alive. A live album, Hootie Blues, recorded in 2001 in Toronto and released in 2006 by Stony Plain, showed that McShann could still bring it at the age of 85. He died at the age of 90 on December 7, 2006. (Allmusic Artist Biography by Scott Yanow)

Recorded: KFBI Radio Studio, Wichita, Kansas November 30, 1940.
Personnel:
Charlie Parker – Alto Sax
Bernard “Buddy” Anderson – Trumpet
Orville “Piggy” Minor – Trumpet
Bob Gould – Trombone, Violin
William J. Scott – Tenor Sax
Bob Mabane – Tenor Sax
Jay McShann – Piano
Gene Ramey – Bass
Gus Johnson – Drums

Morton Feldman was born in New York on January 12th 1926. At the age of twelve he studied piano with Madame Maurina-Press, who had been a pupil of Busoni, and it was she who instilled in Feldman a vibrant musicality. At the time he was composing short Scriabinesque pieces, until in 1941 he began to study composition with Wallingford Riegger. Three years later Stefan Wolpe became his teacher, though they spent much of their time together simply arguing about music.

johncageThen in 1949 the most significant meeting up to that time took place – Feldman met John Cage, commencing an artistic association of crucial importance to music in America in the 1950s. Cage was instrumental in encouraging Feldman to have confidence in his instincts, which resulted in totally intuitive compositions. He never worked with any systems that anyone has been able to identify, working from moment to moment, from one sound to the next. His friends during the 1950s in New York included the composers, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, the painters, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg and the pianist, David Tudor. The painters in particular influenced Feldman to search for his own sound world, one that was more immediate and more physical than had existed before. This resulted in his experimentation with graphic notation, Projection 2 being one of his earliest scores in this idiom. In these scores the players select their notes from within a given register and time structure.FeldmanGraphicScoreBecause these works relied so heavily on improvisation Feldman was not happy with the freedom permitted to the performer, and so abandoned graphic notation between 1953 and 1958. However, the precise notation he used instead during this period he found too one dimensional and so returned to the graph with two orchestral works: Atlantis (1958) and Out of Last Pieces (1960). Soon after these a series of instrumental works appeared called Durations in which the notes to be played are precisely written but the performers, beginning simultaneously, are free to choose their own durations within a given general tempo.

1967 saw the start of Feldman’s association with Universal Edition with the publication of his last graphically notated score, In Search of an Orchestration. Then followed On Time and the Instrumental Factor (1969) in which he once more returned to precise notation. From then on, with the exception of two works in the early 1970s, he maintained control over pitch, rhythm, dynamics and duration.

In 1973 the University of New York at Buffalo asked Feldman to become the Edgard Varèse Professor, a post which he was to hold for the rest of his life.

From the late 1970s his compositions expanded in length to such a degree that the Second String Quartet can last for up to five and a half hours. The scale of these works in particular has often been the cause for the controversy surrounding his works, but he would always be happy to attempt to explain his reasoning behind them:

My whole generation was hung up on the 20-25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about the form, but after an hour and a half its scale. Form is easy – just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece – it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they’re like evolving things.

Nine one-movement compositions by Feldman last for over one and a half hours each.

BunitaMorty_300x208One of his last works, Palais de Mari from 1986, is unusual for a late composition in that it is only twenty minutes long. This came about from a request from Bunita Marcus, for whom it was written, for Feldman to sum up everything he was doing in the very long pieces and to condense that into a smaller piece. Knowing his sense of time, she asked for a ten minute work, knowing that it would probably be twice that length.

On September 3rd 1987 Morton Feldman died at his home in Buffalo aged 61.  (Universal Music Biographical Note)