Tag Archives: guitar
May 30, 2012
A guitar’s frequent absence from a jazz arrangement is both a uniqueness of the idiom and distinguishes it from the string driven sound of rock and blues. As an early ‘70s kid I was wide eyed about rock and all about guitars. When I discovered jazz and found horns and keys where strings should be, it both opened me up and whet my appetite. While I knew Joe Pass was the greatest living player of the day and no one could touch Wes Montgomery, I was not drawn to those stylings as I am now. My attention span was short. I was the rock enthused, looking for the rock infused. Jazz crossover in both directions spoke to me. Sure, fusion filled the gap. Early Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchesta. Buried alive under all those notes never felt so good. Yet, it was not enough. I wanted touch, space, soul, too.
The mid-‘70s through the early ‘80s were fertile ground for a fresh approach. Pat Metheny teased new elements into a guitar led quartet with a traditional tone played in untraditional ways and settings. It didn’t attack. It slipped. It flowed. John Abercrombie, was literally, timeless. His 1974 debut album of the same name with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette, was a different kind of “fusion” altogether, using a muted tone and exploratory playing to expand boundaries not by pushing, but by painting. Ralph Towner’s 12-string Guild or nylon 6-string were as comfortable alongside Gary Burton, Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett, as they were creating evocative landscapes with his solo or ensemble work. All left lifelong imprints on my musical psyche.
As with these predecessors, Bill Frisell came on the scene with the ECM label. I collected ECM recordings in all their MOMA-esque presentation like baseball cards. A lot of it was simply too outside for me, but the rest opened my ears in new ways. I first came across Frisell in his early ECM days, through his work with Eberhard Weber, Jan Garbarek and others, but really didn’t take much note. When Frisell moved to the more world, folk and acoustic oriented Nonesuch in the late ‘80s, it was both the beginning of a long relationship with the label, and a foretelling of something special. It was not until the mid-late ‘90s that I caught up with his work in earnest, and a string of recordings that will make my desert island shelf. “Nashville”, “Gone, Just Like a Train” and “Good Dog (Happy Man)” (the latter, I would have bought on the title alone). These were jazz inflected takes on traditional Americana. His version of “Shenandoah” is simply stunning. A few years later, Frisell would turn out “Blues Dream”, a lopey, brooding piece of Main Street splashed with horns and pedal steel. Oh, then he recorded the title tune on a companion project the same year with jazz giants Elvin Jones and Dave Holland, a super trio if there ever was one. Main Street meet Coltrane’s drummer. Now that’s jazz.
Frisell stayed with Nonesuch until 2009, but before he left he managed to drop in a project, “Floratone” with drummer Matt Chamberlain, on the Blue Note label. Loaded with effects and rhythmic grooves, and trademark Frisell shimmer, Floratone birthed a sequel, “Floratone II” released in March of this year on Savoy Jazz. Chamberlain, an esteemed session player with over 200 recordings to his credit, has an envious rock and pop resume including stints with Pearl Jam, Tori Amos, the SNL band and his start with Edie Brickell as a New Bohemian. His playing alongside session legend Jim Keltner, on Brad Mehldau’s, 2001 release “Largo”, is one reason that project was one of the most compelling jazz efforts of the new century. Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” in a piano setting was boundary changing indeed.
Matt Chamberlain staked a May residency at the Mint, so it was fitting that he would wrap it with Bill Frisell. I have seen Frisell a number of times over the years in comfortable settings such as McCabe’s and the old Largo, and was genuinely excited to hear these two go at it The Mint, an equally intimate venue I know well. It was clear from the outset on Wednesday that this would be an unscripted evening of improv proportions. Chamberlain’s vintage wood wrapped kit sat stage left, a shallow wood hooped snare (or two), electronics behind. The unassuming Frisell took his seat, and Largo brain trust and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Jon Brion emerged from the shadows stage right, providing an unexpected stringed addition.
This was a percussion driven affair that served up a very different context than any other Frisell show I’ve attended. As the first piece progressed, Frisell seem to be island, then Eastern influenced, then quickly deconstructing in tones that moved from fuzz to church bells. The players found a place to land before starting another exploration with Frisell and Brion playing the outer edges to the oak like heft of Chamberlain’s groove. Morphing from the fringes to a bluesy feel, then devolving again. Frisell found a “Lay Down Sally” informed country road riff that took the next piece to a fulfilling destination. Well worn, comforting. Chamberlain soon introduced loops and other electronic effects, coupling them with machine gun thrills and blocks of spaces. Reminiscent of Bill Bruford and other jazz-rock fusionists of the highest order. Frisell and Brion were something to behold. Brion squelching with feedback and odd tones from his hollow-body, Frisell shining chimey light and warmth, than turning that on a dime. Deeper in, Chamberlain brought the percussive equivalent to rummaging through an old drawer. If they weren’t old bells, keys or ashtrays, they were awfully close. As the first set eventually found a way home, there were glimpses of Police-reggae flourishes, a slow string driven gallop that grew wings in a hurry, and some stinging soloing delivered from Brion’s Gretsch. Chamberlain often dampening his strikes on a second snare with a bandana.
The second set started with Frisell harmonics circling above Chamberlain’s tom heavy attack, that grew to howling beauty. Soon, all three were stirring what I can only describe as a 1971 “Dark Star” informed jam previously thought extinct. Brion wading deep into Garcia space land. Until the whole thing shifted to a country skiffle. Later in the second set, Brion moved to his SG, banging, tapping on top of high fretwork, coaxing sounds like coiled springs. Frisell’s tranquil side shone with a softer ballad textured piece and his interplay with Brion, each interlocked in ascent with the other above just right-for-the-moment hi-hat sprinkles from Chamberlain. The quiet passed with a vengeance, lost in Brion’s SG swagger and Chamberlain’s cowbell.
This is music that takes shape, breaks apart, takes another shape, breaks apart. Constantly. The trio never stayed anywhere too long. Without fail, Chamberlain, Frisell and Brion opted for the unfamiliar, rather than nestle in for more than a pit stop. Bearing witness to such creation is a joy, unnerving, and completely rewarding at the same time. But only in the right hands. With musicians this inventive, curious and adventurous, it is snowflake singular. It is here and then it’s gone. Ephemeral, deep, well travelled, but never staying long. Like a blues dream.
February 10, 2012
You couldn’t miss it. She was vintage. All black and chrome. Gleaming under the streetlight. Probably mid-80s, but who knows. The guys had a bus. Rolling from gig to gig in comfort, if not style. Not flashy. The sight of that thing parked smack in front of the Mint on Pico (couldn’t fit it in around back) was pretty sweet. Not about ego, all about pride. For a band that has been a staple at Jazzfest for years and hitting their stride, it had to feel pretty good to be back in LA under their own power.
After making their Southland debut last June (see my post of that show deeper in this blog), HISB returned with a generous (2+ hour) Friday night set. The tunes are familiar, the vibe upbeat. Everyone seems to leave an HISB gig pretty damn happy.
The band is back in the studio aiming for a late spring release to add to their 3 album catalog (their eponymous 2007 EP, 2009’s Wishing Well and 2010’s Good To You), and the set had generous helpings from all their material. The raucous “Till the Money’s Gone”, the jammy “Wishing Well” and the front porch fun of “Natural Born Fool (all from Wishing Well) made for a satisfying night in themselves. And “Josephine” and “Country Girl” from Good to You took a little bit of the February chill off with a summer kegger for grown ups feel. Strains of Black Crowes, Steve Miller, Petty, even the Eagles, stirred in with the band’s bayou roots give HISB some real kick that’s original, not derivative.
No horns for this performance, so the sound was a little leaner than their last Mint show (which featured Karl Denson working on all cylinders). All the more room to showcase Chris Mule’s slippery slide work and the brotherly interplay between Mule and Aaron Wilkinson. Sam Price’s usual stage exuberance was matched by his pulsing lock step work with Garland Paul and the rest of the band, including Trevor Brooks on keys, who added a lot of flavor throughout the night.
The encore set ended with shots for the band. Well earned. Their ride wasn’t going anywhere and their dorm room was steps away. Nothing like Sunday dawn on Pico Boulevard. Seriously good times. More to come.
December 31, 2011
Bill Graham spoiled me. The man knew how to throw a New Year’s party. 4-5 hours of cosmic Dead jams, epic substance abuse and 6,000 or so of my newest friends. The calendar would turn, Uncle Bobo would descend, Sugar Mag would kick in and all was right with the world. OK, so that was 30 years ago. Still, that ecstatic pull set a high bar few 12/31s have matched since. These days when milestones are counted in decades, New Year’s is often kept in quieter company and places, and indulgence swapped for reflection. But damn, the echo still haunts and the spirit craves a hit that only a hard wired all night jam or funk groove can provide. Add a few hundred people (or thousands or multiples thereof) primed to kick last year in the ass and anything’s possible. Call me a seeker.
Such was my latest NOLA pilgrimage that landed me at Tip’s in the waning hours of 2011 for Galactic’s annual year-end bash. With Eric Lindell’s Trio opening and billed guests including Anders Osborne, Corey Henry from Rebirth and Corey Glover of Living Colour (both Coreys vets of the last Galactic tour), prospects for New Year’s salvation seemed reasonable. Galactic’s newest release “Carnivale Electricos” is described by the band’s web site as a “carnival record that evokes the electric atmosphere of … whole cities – vibrating together all on the same day”. Sounds pretty 3 AMy to me. Throw Anders Osborne and Lindell into the mix and confidence was high going in.
Lindell’s trio delivered a healthy solid set to get the room closer to midnight. Spirits were high as the last hour of 2011 approached and the crowd was appropriately exuberant (deliberate choice of words). Galactic landed with “Boban” (from the 2011 release, The Other Side of Midnight:Live From New Orleans) and didn’t let up from there, in what turned out to be the first of (count ‘em) 3 sets. “Hey Na Na” from “Carnivale Electricos” cranked up the energy a little before midnight when we all reverted to the timelessness of Auld Lang Syne because we could and that’s what you do. 2012 was inaugurated with Lindell joining Galactic to romp through Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner”, a killer cover that gets better each time Lindell busts it out. Other first set highlights had Corey Glover working the crowd into a lather (and in an argyle sweater vest, no less) with “Heart of Steel” (from 2010’s “Ya-Ka-May) and Stanton Moore elevating for the first time in the show.
Announced guest Anders Osborne went straight for “Darkness at the Bottom” (from his 2010 American Patchwork release) to start Set 2, one of my favorite rip your soul open Osborne tunes. Jonny Sansone joined Anders with just plain nasty harmonica turns on his own “The Lord is Waiting and the Devil Is Too” (from the 2011 release of the same name). Anders and Sansone stuck around to cover “Who Took the Happiness” (featured on Moore’s 2008 release, Take It to the Street) to wrap up a killer set within a set. Much of the second set featured Corey Glover, but the band really had me with a loose and frenzied “Manic Depression”. Ben Ellman moving from baritone to ballsy harp wasn’t too shabby either.
With just enough in the tank to start the third set, I profess to not making it all the way to the end, but an appropriately funky cover of Lee Dorsey’s/Allen Touissant’s “Night People” and the Arabian-brass-prog-metal tinged flavor of “Garbage Truck”(from The Other Side of Midnight) were perfectly suited for the hour. Somewhere along the way Corey Henry stepped into the crowd and climbed atop the bar never missing a note. Exhausted, satiated, I left Tip’s past 3, ready to take on a new year. Spiritual awakening, nah. Uplift, hell yeah. That’s good enough for me. Think I’m ready to kick some 2012 ass now.
November 22, 2011
Some songs, some artists, never go away. That’s not always a good thing. Times change, everyone ages, life gets tougher or better, and we go on. Since I was probably all of 8 the first time I heard “For What It’s Worth”, I was too young to really understand it, but still old enough to feel something. I knew the world was pissed off and somehow I grasped that music was more than a soundtrack to the events around me.
At a recent stop on Stephen Stills’ Fall tour, the 60-something Hall of Famer (twice, on the same night) introduced “For What It’s Worth” as for the “99s”. It’s 2011, the world is still angry and artists from Tom Morello to Crosby and Nash have taken up musical arms with OWS. Some songs age well, even if the audience and performers don’t. Some find new life in new times.
I wore the grooves down on every CSN/Y platter in all their permutations. The harmonies were the hook, but Stills’ fret mastery reeled me in and I’ve been an admirer of his playing and songwriting ever since. His wah-wah laced exchanges with Clapton on “Go Back Home” and dark blues encrusted wailing on “Black Queen” (from his eponymous debut) are still chill inducing, and I’ve no argument with his ranking at 47 among Rolling Stone’s top 100 guitarists. Sure, CSN had me (and the rest of humanity) at “Suite Judy Blues Eyes”. Only it was Stills’ intense, flying, punctuated acoustic work, more than the soaring vocals of the three that gripped me. That just about every instrumental track off their debut album was handled by Stills is often overlooked.
The light/dark tableau of Crosby/Nash harmonies and Stills/Young fury, fueled jams and music tabloids for decades to come, and the CSN/Y dance often played out like overripe “Behind the Music”. CSN’s constant touring could be taken for a creaky nostalgia trip some years, but collectively and apart, they all kept coming back to that well, and still do (their aborted covers project will hopefully have a life after producer Rick Rubin’s departure). Earlier this year saw a brief tour under the Springfield banner with the Stills/Young chemistry fully intact. The sight of these two getting in each other’s faces while scorching through “Bluebird” was something to behold. The slimmed down Stills was on his game and ready for anything Shakey threw at him. Neither backed down and the interplay was still furiously epic.
Stills has been on the road the past month or so with East and West Coast dates and set lists sprinkling in a few unexpected covers (Dylan to Mudcrutch) with the usual Springfield, CSN, Manassas, Stills touchstones. With no LA dates scheduled, I headed to Anaheim for the show at the City National Grove. Backed by long-time CSN drummer (and Joe Walsh alum) Joe Vitale, Todd Caldwell on keys and Kenny Passarelli on bass (new rule – matador pants do not = rock fashion), Stills launched right into “Bluebird” to kick off the first of two sets to a packed house. Switching to his trademark Gretsch for “Helplessly Hoping”, he established a relaxed, warm tone that flowed throughout the first set. His vocals have been road worn and ragged in recent years but he was far from dialing it in. To the contrary, he reached and pushed through his more limited range with conviction and emotion. Pegi Young joined Stills for “Long May You Run”. He seemed delighted to share the stage for the signature tune from the only collaboration under the Stills-Young name. Stills shared stories throughout the night, including his purchase of a rather large home replete with gardener ala Peter Sellers (in fact, it’s former owner was indeed, Peter Sellers) – cute trivia to tee up “Jonny’s Garden” from the first Manassas album. Stills then went unplugged for “So Begins the Task” and a beautiful take on Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” that has been a staple of this brief tour. The latter with simple single note soloing that suitably echoed the longing of the bard’s lyrics. “Blind Fiddler” followed, a forlorn traditional tune well suited for Stills’ repertoire. That the set would close with the inevitable “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” was established earlier when Stills alluded to Judy Collins recent book portraying him as “nicer than he really was”. That it would be bookended with Stills’ solo reading of the Beatles “Within You, Without You” was unexpected, and I found, a little gutsy. By the time familiar passages of SJBE rolled over the crowd, the balding 50-something dude in the front and the barely 20-ish dude with the lid a few rows back were singing in sync. Stills respectfully reached for the higher notes and nailed a few, at which he paused with a rehearsed admonition of, “I’m just as astonished as you are”.
After a brief break approaching many of the elder demo’s bedtime, Stills and band returned for a more up tempo set that kicked off with a spunky version of “Woodstock”, his playing generating some real sparks while working his way up the neck of the vintage Strat. A languid “Southern Cross” included a few obvious flubs in his soloing that didn’t seem to bother anyone, though Stills appropriately stepped back from the edge of the stage at just the right moment. Having arrived at that point in the show where he would really cut loose was signified by Stills taking off and pocketing his specs before the predictable blues roll of “Wounded World” (from his last solo album, 2005’s “Stills Alive”) into “Rocky Mountain Way”, with Stills and the crowd clearly having a good time with this. “Want to Make Love To You” (also from the Stills-Young “Long May You Run”) began with jazz inflected picking, trademark muted soloing and understated whammy flourishes. Like many of the best, he knows when touch trumps burn. By this time, Stills returned to prowling the front of the stage and playing to the crowd to close with “Love the One You’re With” (group hug, anyone?). Much lore surrounds Buffalo Springfield and “For What It’s Worth” (those words never appear in the lyrics) and there is no other encore for a Stills show. There shouldn’t be – the power of the lyrics fermenting with contemporary context. Stills grabbed all of it, driving the song with a slow cook and heavy reverb that lingered well after the lights went up.
Pegi Young and the Survivors opened the show with a set featuring songs from her just released third album “Bracing for Impact”, with fine backing by Muscle Shoals and session vet Spooner Oldham on keys, Kevin Holly on guitar, Phil Jones on drums and LA fixture Rick “the Bass Player” Rosas (late of the very brief Springfield reunion and husband Neil Young’s recent tours). Holly shredded up “Bracing’s” “Lie” early on and the set featured a touching cover of the late Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It”.
Those of us in this middle mojo of life have kept the concert industry going by supporting the same acts for the past 30 years. Some of us fare better than others as the orbits pile up. It ain’t about staying young. Stephen Stills brought all that he had to an appreciative audience basking in tunes they know by heart and can’t get enough of. Not exactly a tearing the roof off night, but kicking a little age appropriate ass felt alright for all. I probably was not the only one thinking, long may we run, as I made my way to the door.
September 20, 2011
There are only so many seminal musical moments in one’s life, and the first time I saw Return to Forever live was one of them. I felt as if my head cracked open and exploded from the inside. But I digress.
As a teen of the 70s, I was drawn (without explanation) to artists signed to Manfred Eicher’s ECM (e.g., Edition of Contemporary Music) label. It wasn’t just the stunning zen like imagery on the cover of every pressing. And I was probably still too young to fully appreciate the unprecedented freedom Eicher the producer afforded his international roster of artists any time they entered the studio. Still, something about the utter musical liberation completely unmoored from tradition and the mainstream got its hooks into me. Even if some of the music was so arcane and outside to my ears, I took pride in my ability, if not patience, to expose myself to such intellectual pursuits that aimed straight for the head. I didn’t read Kerouac or Ginsberg (at least until later), I listened to Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal. This from a kid who had been spinning Zeppelin, the Allmans, the Who, the Stones and anything else guitar driven and blues influenced since I was a wee lad. It was truly a new universe of possibilities. I had heard Miles, maybe a little Coltrane, and some of the more mainstream CTI catalog like Freddy Hubbard, George Benson (before he tunefully opened his mouth) and Hubert Laws, but my jazz vocabulary was limited to about, well, what you would expect for a musically curious 14-year old in the earlyish-70s. ECM blew that door wide open and I was introduced to the likes of Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Keith Jarrett, and yes, Chick Corea, for the first time.
Light as a Feather (released on Polydor), didn’t blow my mind, it blew me away. This was world influenced jazz not bound by tradition, but grounded in the rich humus of an ancient rainforest and stirred to flight to move body and spirit. Flora’s ethereal refrains, the killer sound of Chick’s Fender Rhodes running fleetly in step with Airto’s can’t keep it in frenetic pace. The quieter moments when the ensemble steps back and Stanley Clarke’s tone is as fat and satisfying as a deep blue lake, then moves and hustles like a greyhound while never losing that same tone. Joe Farrell’s tenor and flute a perfect foil to all, with solos that breathed and inspired. This was jazz as I’d always wanted to hear it.
Flash forward a year or two, and the influence of guitar heavy rock was absorbed by jazz players everywhere, for which many a critic hold Miles’ ”Bitches Brew” accountable and certainly the alums of that project, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin among them, embraced with great enthusiasm. This was hyper-attenuated, black hole dense stuff not for the faint of heart. Of course, I took to it like a narcotic, the denser, the more complex and precise the playing, the better. I ate it up. Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire or Inner Mounting Flame, or RTF’s Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy were not exactly meditative and introspective. My unhealthy attachment to jazz fusion was an acting out, not a cry for help, but a need to be different. It was my ‘90s grunge phase, just 20 years earlier, it didn’t get me a lot of dates, but I made some good male friends with similar musical tastes.
Which brings me back to the first time I saw RTF live. Somehow, my 15-year old self and a buddy found our way into the legendary Troubadour for their first tour with Al DiMeola. We were seated at the foot of the stage and to open the show, Scatman Crothers, who must have been in his mid-60s at that point, came out armed with nothing more than a ukulele and a lot of courage. He entertained the room for a half-hour or so. Herbal substances may have been involved and the incongruity of the billing had my not so nimble mind confused, and the anticipation for the headliner on high boil. This was the “Where Have I Known You Before” tour and from the moment these four guys hit the stage, it was lights out. I had never experienced music so physically imposing live. The room could not contain the intensity. The barely out of his teens DiMeola had recently replaced Bill Connors and Chick was a long way from the gentle Fender Rhodes sound of Light as a Feather. This was knife edge stuff. Lenny White must have had four hands and Stanley Clarke was simply a force of nature. The world looked different, brilliant, potentialized after this show.
Not until recent years have I dared to revisit much of this music, fearful that time would not treat it kindly in the 2000s. To the contrary, our downloadable era of forgettable singles, classic rock pimped to the extremes, faux playback that fills arenas and Garage Band, reflects rather well on the jazz fusion pioneers of the ‘70s. In fact, the in your face compositional and technical brilliance expressed by RTF and others stands out as strikingly immediate, pungent and real. So, it was with great anticipation I headed to the Greek to hear the fourth gen of the band (billed as RTF IV).
After a 30-year break, this tour is the second RTF reunion in 3 years and has a slightly different look. The core of Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White remains intact and is interestingly augmented by ‘70s fusion pioneer in his own right, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, with Frank Gambale stepping in for DiMeola. The buzz for the tour has been very strong, the band reaching back to cover signature compositions including Corea’s “Spain”, Ponty’s epic “Renaissance” and Clarke’s “School Days”. Sets for earlier dates had been consistently 8-9 tunes in length ensuring ample exploration from all.
The Greek was filled. A great sign to begin with that this music still has a strong audience. And it was an appreciative one at that. The performance was introduced by none other than RTF aficionado Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Kareem, not known for his public verbosity was warm and chatty, and that’s saying a lot right there.
Opening with “Medieval Overture” (from 1976’s Romantic Warrior), RTF IV launched headfirst into what would be an off the charts night. With Ponty effortlessly blending into the band, and interestingly enough, lending the same instrumentation that defined Mahavishnu (with whom he played in the band’s later years), the virtuosity of the RTF unit was on full display and would remain so throughout the 100+ minute performance. The control and finesse to take the composition through its entire dynamic range, each player matching the other note for rapid fire note was pretty staggering, as it was for “Captain Senor Mouse” (from 1973’s Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy) which followed. “Captain Senor Mouse” had Chick standing and ready to jump with the composition’s Spanish influenced flourishes and synth runs, accompanied by Frank Gambale’s uncanny ability to turn on every twist and accent. Dipping again into Romantic Warrior (three of the nine tunes from the performance were off this album) for Lenny White’s “Sorceress” and then segueing into “Shadow of Lo” (from 1974’s “Where Have I known You Before”), the piece began with a lengthy intro featuring fine work by Ponty that morphed into a funk groove. As the cool night air met the intensity of the stage, steam was emanating from all the players, and Lenny White in particular appeared to be the answer to the country’s energy issues. With the segue into “Shadow of Lo”, Chick seamlessly moved between has Yamaha grand and synth/electric keys. The bridging/blending of acoustic and electric throughout the evening was a pleasant surprise and a trick to pull off, given the character and intensity of the band’s overall sound and compositional approach. On these (and other) tunes, each player found new ways to converse with one another with great moments of interplay between Corea and Ponty, and especially Corea and Clarke. RTF IV are giants of musicians and the touch and finesse they bring to material that could so easily become heavy handed is beyond impressive, it’s a feat that defies science. Yes, I’m speaking superlatives, but it was that good.
A moment about Stanley Clarke. Few living musicians have transformed the bass into a lead instrument the way Stanley Clarke has. Period. And the man is in fighting shape. Heck, until he stood next to Kareem, I’d almost take Clarke to get the better of a one-on-one between the two. For Ponty’s”Renaissance” (from his 1976 Aurora), Clarke pulled out his upright and Ponty put down his trademark blue electric as the whole band went acoustic. Clarke played below the bridge, top of the neck, slapping, thumbing, fingers moving faster than the flying horsehair of Ponty’s bow. His solo was a highlight in a performance full of highlights. As the audience found out later in the evening (with all but Gambale taking turns as emcee chatting warmly with crowd), Clarke had many friends and family at the show and no doubt even more inspired to be at the top of his game. On his “After the Cosmic Rain” (also from Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy), Clarke’s fingers were dancing faster than a flamenco master while RTF moved from galloping Spanish dance to total swing and back again.
The title cut from Romantic Warrior displayed glimpses of Chick’s classical side with Clarke later pushing him to swing again, harder (perhaps Ponty’s influence brought these occasional swing elements into the mix). Corea’s “Spain” (from 1972’s Light as a Feather) is easily considered a contemporary jazz classic, with many varied interpretations through the years (including his own). Beginning with an almost somber intro by Ponty, the entire RTF unit simply flew from start to finish with Lenny White engaging Corea in a brief duel of sorts to punctuate and play with the song’s familiar time. Perhaps most impressive, however, was the ability of Corea to engage 5,000 people in a jazz sing along. Not a few la-la-las, but up and down and around the composition’s complex melodies, echoing Chick’s keyboard runs. Corea was introduced earlier in the set as simply “The Maestro”. After pulling that off, I couldn’t put it any better.
Clarke’s “School Days” (from Clarke’s 1976 album of the same name) provided a raucous “encore” to the evening with opener Dweezil Zappa duking it out with Gambale, and Clarke practically shredding his 4-string to pieces. The interplay with Ponty, Clarke and Corea was dazzling and there were enough 256th notes (or so it seemed) to go around for everybody. As the set finished and the house lights went up, RTF remained on stage greeting friends, shaking hands with fans and hanging out.
Zappa Playing Zappa was an appropriate first act, especially with Jean Luc Ponty’s connection to Frank (Exhibit A, 1970’s King-Kong: Jean Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa). Chick Corea joined the band mid-set for “King Kong” to Moog it up, and trade licks, wails and squelches with Dweezil. The elder Zappa’s SG playing is legendary and under-acknowledged and Dweezil eerily matches that guitar voice and fury. In fact, he custom built his SG to replicate his father’s and the replica is so accurate, it is often mistaken for Frank’s original guitar by fans (so says Wikipedia). Many Zappa “hits” ensued including “Don’t’ Eat the Yellow Snow” (replete with full circular motion), “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast (from 1974’s Apostrophe) – where I stole the margarine, “Dancin’ Fool” (from 1979’s Sheik Your Booti) and “Pojama People” which opened the set (from 1975’s One Size Fits All). Ben Thomas’ vocals were uncanny in capturing Frank’s inflection and humor. This is a musical legacy that truly lives on, however acquired a taste.
RTF still plays as if possessed by a single Vulcan mind meld and the performance at the Greek was nothing less than astonishing (another superlative). I latched on to the cerebral appeal of the music when I was younger and am now celebrating its maturity, cohesion and warmth. Yes, warmth that comes from generations of playing together, that pushes and challenges each individual, and the exuberance from everyone on stage at the Greek. Cohesion that comes from balancing quieter moments of introspection and thunderous power to a satisfying resolution. Maturity that comes from almost unexplainable intuition and nuance. For me, it really was a return. A reminder of the sheer power of contemporary music and its timelessness. Return. To Forever.
Postscript: A special shout out also goes to Yamaha, to which Chick Corea has been a loyal customer for many years, and whose sponsorship helped make this tour (and blog post) possible.
June 3, 2011
When you know of a band, but haven’t really seen them live yet, it can go either way. The freshness of the moment can pick you up with unexpected potency, or leave you uninvolved with the lack of familiarity. New Monsoon has been part of the jam scene for over 10 years and my first show Friday at The Mint had me from the beginning. Playing to the expected jam-rock devoted and male dominated audience in the intimate confines on Pico Boulevard, New Monsoon brought creative, driven arrangements that never wandered without destination. I am admittedly new to the NM set list, but recognized originals such as Friendly Ghost and gems of covers like the Talking Heads Slippery People.
This is a team effort, the whole much bigger than the parts. The acoustic guitar/banjo, SG/Strat frontline of Bo Carper and Jeff Miller, the constant interweave of Phil Ferlino’s solos and texture, and the rhythm section of Marshall Harrell and Sean Hutchinson, kept moving and pushing, not straying. Towards the end of the first set, Bo Carper’s banjo led New Monsoon into raga-jam territory, transforming that most traditional of sounds into a burning bluegrass sitar that elevated the whole band. Neat trick.
New Monsoon topped a bill that included a strong opening set by Pasadena’s Old California, followed by Spider Gawd covering the likes of The Band and folk-blues standards older than all of us, such as Sitting on Top of the World, in a keyboard/bass/drums trio. Three bands of original voice and excellent musicianship, 4 hours of music, for a cover that won’t get you a craft cocktail at most places. Neil Young was right, “live music IS better, bumper stickers should be issued. For my first New Monsoon show, it couldn’t be fresher or more satisfying. For sure, it won’t be my last.
Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars
The Mint, February 10, 2011
It is always something special when the likes of Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, Johnny Sansone, Cyril Neville, and Johnny Vidacovich (and for this tour, Wayne Thibodeaux) get together to spread the word about wetlands devastation, and to just flat out play. Tab Benoit said early on that if you’re going to rehearse, and get that thing really rolling, shouldn’t waste it on an empty room. Those few hundred comfortably packed into The Mint for this VOTWAS show got the better end of that deal. The stage was shared by all, whether Johnny Sansone was bringing it with the fiery Poor Man’s Paradise, Tab Benoit killin’ it all night long, Anders Osborne wringing all the light and the dark out of Louisiana Rain and Darkness at the Bottom, Wayne Thibodeaux “rowing that pirouge” or Cyril Neville getting everyone to feel the Blues for New Orleans. The players brought the best out of each other, with plenty of smiles and solos to go around – truly a collaboration of chops and spirit. Of course, anticipation built for Big Chief Monk Boudreaux to make his entrance towards the end of the set, and a rousing Little Liza Jane kept it all flowing well past midnight. The good people at The Mint continue to bring the best of New Orleans music to Los Angeles and this special performance will no doubt be a highlight for 2011.
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