Things I’ve Learned Returning to the Discipline of Music

For the last two years, I’ve been splitting my time between journalism endeavors and active music-making, returning to the saxophone after a long period of not playing. I’ve had the chance to explore music with strong individuals who know exactly what they want to communicate and exactly how to do it. They’ve been teaching me. Music itself has been teaching me. It’s been an amazing journey, humbling every day because music is endless. A month or so ago, I stumbled upon a notebook I kept while working on Into The Ojala, a recording of my originals. (Sample available here.) It struck me that some of the small observations had resonance beyond my own situation, and that it might be interesting to share them once in a while. So, here goes…
People can become unnerved by music played at a whisper. It’s rare to encounter soft, pianissimo-style dynamics in clubs or taverns — anywhere, really. Maybe quiet music asks too much, demands more attention than a casual listener can give? Maybe the less-is-more aesthetic is another casualty of this too-much-information age?


A modest plea for the return of Frank Gattis’ ride cymbal

This past weekend, the extraordinarily talented Philly drummer Frank Gattis had his drum gear jacked. It happened at 1:30 AM, after he finished a gig at Boilermaker’s pub on 11th street. Urbandwellers know that this kind of crime – described often as “petty” by police even if the impact is significantly more than that to the victim – happens every day. Musicians are vulnerable, particularly if their gear requires several trips to load in and out of a venue, and especially at the end of a long night. What hit me about this one wasn’t just the bitter taste one gets when hearing about someone losing the tools of his trade – it was the sense that the loss of one special cymbal has repercussions for many musicians.

So before we shrug, say “what a shame” and go on with life, I’d like to make a small appeal for the return of the ride cymbal. Frank says he had a bunch of cool equipment, but the only piece of gear that really matters to him is a flat (ie, no bell in the center) ride cymbal – a design made by K. Zildjian for only a few years in the late 1960s.

Those who’ve been lucky enough to play with Frank over the years know that cymbal – it has a crispness and a perfectly balanced ping to it. It’s magical in a swing setting: Somehow, it transports players back to the hard-bop ‘50s, when titans like Philly Joe Jones laid down the law with nothing more than a firm, nuanced pattern on the ride. The cymbal has been part of lots of really special music – Frank used it on countless gigs with Philadelphia jazz musicians including the tenorman Larry McKenna, guitarist Greg Kettinger and the late pianist Sid Simmons. The other day he shared his theory about why so many musicians appreciated it: “It had a presence – and yet any chord voice could be heard through it.”

I’ve heard that cymbal countless times over the years. Still, it startled me when a few years ago I nervously turned up at Milkboy in Ardmore to sit in at the Monday night jam. Frank was the house drummer. I forget the tune – it was something uptempo. When my turn to solo came, I realized that I had no business trying to improvise at such a blazing clip. I was just barely hanging on. That cymbal was the lifeline.

Last night Frank and I played at Milkboy. We had a blast as usual, and afterward we spent a minute mourning the cymbal. It was like missing an old friend. I have no idea who stole the kit, or why. If I ever encountered that person, I’d just say this: When you took what didn’t belong to you, you didn’t just hurt one musician. You swiped a little bit of joy and delight from an entire community of hardworking people. Please give it back.

Free Love for All Valentines!

So the folks at WXPN, 88.5 FM in Philadelphia and everywhere at, have put together a playlist of love songs by local artists to honor that designated day of love. They’re giving these songs away here! Astoundingly, Moon Hotel Lounge Project is in the playlist, alongside the tremendous Pete Donnelly and others…

Please spread the word about this cool outpouring of free love, and please enjoy “Powerful Tonic” from Into the Ojala. Because love, given freely, is the most powerful tonic of all….

Who Will Be The Next Clare Fischer?

When the pianist, composer and arranger Clare Fischer died last week at the age of 83, there were the usual laments from the usual places – liner-note-reading oldtimers and music-biz insiders and musicians who regard his “Pensativa” as a classic, alongside a few unlikely mourners (Questlove from the Roots tweeted a link to Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon, which Fischer scored).

The public at large likely never heard of him.

Fischer was another example of a vanishing breed in music – a “significant unknown” whose coloristic brass, flourishes of wild strings and unusual harmonies made countless records better. (For proof, listen to the scenic psychedlia of “I Wonder U” from Prince’s Parade.) Fischer was also a pianist with an original “sound” and approach – his lines were delicate and graceful, his chordal accompaniments richly shaded and delivered in terse bursts. As a pianist, Fischer was another branch on the tree of Bill Evans; the great Herbie Hancock describes Fischer as a “major influence on my harmonic concept.”

Crucially, Fischer was also an omnivore: In the course of his long career, he delved deeply into jazz, Brazilian music, Latin jazz and other styles, while also writing his own classical works and arranging sweeping orchestral accompaniments for countless pop recordings (everyone from Paul McCartney to Celine Dion hired him). He’d studied classical composition and wasn’t afraid to draw on that vocabulary at any time, in any setting. A quote on his website articulates his philosophy: “I relate to everything. I’m not just jazz, Latin, or classical. I really am a fusion of all of those, not today’s fusion, but my fusion.”

That quote got me thinking. In this age of hyper-specialization, when aspiring musicians are trained to gain proficiency at one bankable skillset, who will become the next Clare Fischer? Is it possible to be curious and conversant the way he was? To enter a room and engage with whatever music is happening and lift it up, just on ears and wits and broad experience? Is there even a place for that kind of renaissance man anywhere in current musicmaking?

A Few Highlights from Fischer

Cal Tjader Plays The Contemporary Music Of Mexico and Brazil (1962), piano and arrangements.

Dizzy Gillespie: A Portrait of Duke Ellington (recorded 1960). piano, arrangements.

Joao Gilberto: Joao (1991), arrangements.

Prince: Parade (1986), arrangements.

Clare Fischer: Salsa Picante (1978), piano, arrangements.


The Shelf is trying to tell you something…..

I didn’t expect my nonfiction bookshelf to seem so dated.

On the hunt for a factoid in Ruy Castro’s excellent history Bossa Nova (published 2000) yesterday, I traveled past some beloved titles:

Agee on Film Vol. 1, a collection of the wonderfully rangey criticism of James Agee, first published in 1958.

Signposts in a Strange Land, the essays of novelist Walker Percy, published in 1991.

How to Read a Book, an updated version of the classic guide to intelligent reading by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, published in 1972.

American Singers, a collection of portraits by New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, published in 1988.

How Fiction Works, James Woods’ enormously entertaining examination of the elements and strategies used by novelists, published in 2008.


Looking at the covers, I began to wonder: Would this book get signed up right now? Does it have a prayer in the Kindle store? It’s not difficult to imagine the conference room discussions at the top publishing houses were these under consideration today: “Face it, nobody reads essays anymore.” “Brazilian music, that’s something your parents liked.” “The writing’s great, but does anyone really care about those movies today?” “What need does this book answer?” And on and on.

Which is why even a relatively current work – Woods’ 2008 volume – can seem to hail from a whole ‘nuther era, a higher-faluting time when an editor somewhere thought it prudent to share one sharp reader’s observations. Of course there’s a ton of spirited and highly inventive narrative non-fiction on the shelves, but the abovementioned titles are concerned with something other than “story” – they’re essays and meditations and histories that offer a different kind of reading experience. Which means these ambitious and praiseworthy undertakings are bound for the dusty back room at the library. They just don’t sync up with our Snooki moment.

I’m wondering if they’re relics. And if so, is this troubling? Should it be? What implication does this have for writers, creators, thinkers? One disheartening answer can be found in another now-classic on the shelf: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published in 1985.


Moment of Silence X2

And now some quiet.

First for Johnny Otis, the great bandleader and composer of “Willie and the Hand Jive,” who died on Tuesday at age 90. (Obit here.)

And then for Ms. Etta James, one of Johnny Otis’ signature discoveries, who died today. (Obit here.)

It’s striking and maybe even a little eerie that we’ve lost these two legends — who first met in the early ’50s, when James was still a minor and singing on streetcorners in San Francisco — within the same week. At least both left troves of great music — to quickly appreciate James, skip over “At Last,” which will be played endlessly this week, and seek out “I’d Rather Go Blind” from Tell Mama. It’s one unassailable triumph of soul singing.


Shadow Classic: Black Talk! by Charles Earland


(Prestige, Recorded 1969)

When organist Charles Earland snagged a day in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with his sextet in December 1969, he was already participating in a rapidly evolving jazz debate – about whether, and how, to embrace the songs and rhythmic styles of rock and R&B. He ’d been a regular in the band of alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson for more than a year, contributing a crisp, rhythmically percussive approach that made Donaldson’s bands stand out among the many groups slinging instrumental blues and sassy-backbeat soul jazz.  The purists called what they did selling out. The younger musicians regarded it more as an inevitable step, an engagement with the modern world. (Versions of this debate persist….).

Like Donaldson, Earland recognized the ear-candy value of material that was familiar to ordinary listeners, not just jazzheads. The covers on this record – “More Today Than Yesterday,” “Aquarius,” and “Eleanor Rigby” (which is significantly and satisfyingly overhauled as “Black Talk!”) – fit that mold, and advance the debate ever so slightly. The spry arrangements provide excellent platforms for soloing: Check trumpeter Virgil Jones peering through the mists on “Aquarius,” and Earland swinging fiercely on “More Today.”

The track that destroyed me on this wasn’t a cover, however. It’s the effortlessly flowing tavern blues called “The Mighty Burner,” after Earland’s nickname. Here is a means of teleportation back to the no-artifice jazz playing that happened in small lounges throughout urban America in the 1960s: Once the comfortable medium tempo is established, Earland just snaps off chorus after chorus of vital and wonderfully melodic improvisation. He’s not trying to change the world – he’s just rolling through some blues, having fun, playing the kinds of lines he knew could connect with people who don’t have advanced music-calculus degrees.

20 (or so) Peak Moments on Records Released in 2011

I’ll dispense with the usual preamble about how it was a great or horrendous year for music – it was both at the same time, of course. (These days there’s so much output coming from so many microslivered scenes, it’s ridiculous to make broad proclamations anyway….). They’re in no particular order – as Bob Dylan likes to say, it’s all good. Enjoy!


Tom Waits: Bad As Me . These songs start from a place where everything is broken, honor is long gone and everybody’s locked in the grand drain-circling swirl of destiny. Then the band kicks into its higher gear, stomping out lusty if slightly preposterous marches, rambles and elegies. Waits’ characters fall right in, and though they’re well acquainted with futility, they press on, endearingly, lost in the search for love, hope, and redemption. Which they do not typically find. Doesn’t matter.

Miles Davis: Live in Europe 1967.   The Paris version of “Masqualero,” on disc three of this collection of mostly unreleased live performances, lasts ten minutes. That’s all it takes to develop renewed awe for the astoundingly interactive on-the-fly genius of this ensemble. Davis’ stark melodies are set against lovely watercolor chords and endlessly elastic metric machinations – check out how often these five supremely alert musicians completely transform a mood in the space between downbeats. 2011 was a solid year of creativity in jazz – or, in the parlance of the latest Facebook “movement,” Black American Music (please, let us know when the fences and tollbooths are in place!) – but somehow everything current sounds anemic next to this.

Bon Iver: Bon Iver. Fragile songs riddled with questioning and doubt, rendered in spectacularly harmonized falsetto floral arrays. (The solo vocal tunes, deep into the record, are pretty great too….).

Wilco: The Whole Love. Here’s the balance between daydreamy folk-rock confessional and adventurous avant-downtown dissonance Wilco has been aiming for on the last few records. It seems clinical when described this way in words; in music, it sounds like pure giddy genius.

Black Keys: El Camino.  Bachman-Turner Overdrive roaring out of the classic-rock deep freeze on a nasty tequila bender.

Jonathan Wilson: Gentle Spirit.  Speaking of the ‘70s, here’s a slice of idyllic, gorgeously poised (and wondrously nostalgia-free) Laurel Canyon rock. Framed by intertwined guitar leads and lit from within by trance-state melodies, Wilson’s songs occupy a zone of warm, open-hearted reflection.

James Farm: James Farm. There was lots of new orchestrational thinking in improvised music this year, and among the most pleasant examples is this debut from a quartet that sounds like a real band. Imagine that.

Adele: 21. File this one under “admiration, not love.” When I first heard it, I felt that the plush production rounded off some of Adele’s crucial sharp edges. After endless repeat exposure to the songs, my quibbles with the production remain. But I have to give it up: There is just no denying that voice.

Radiohead: The King of Limbs. As with pretty much everything the band has done, this record opens genuinely new doors, suggests new combinations of texture and emotion, offers new takes on the peculiar alchemy of a rock song.

Drake: Take Care. Lots of prominent rappers kvetch about the trials of fame – Eminem dines quite well on that theme, and Kanye West blew it to  smithereens on the ultra-dense My Beautiful Twisted Fantasy. Drake goes in a brutally honest introspective direction here, singing and rapping as though he’s just emerged from a meditation retreat where he discovered all kinds of loathesome things about himself. Along with Undun, below, this feels like a necessary (and overdue) course correction for commercial hiphop.

The Roots: Undun. This is the record to play for your friend who complains about the rampant ego glorification that dominates so much hiphop discourse. A musically exuberant, lyrically sobering tour through the mind of an average tortured urbandweller, Undun represents a storytelling peak for the Roots, but that’s not all: Its sung refrains (“Tip The Scales”) give voice to the sad disillusionment that settled in after those Obama-led “Yes We Can” chants died down.

The Decemberists: The King Is Dead. After unleashing a sprawling prog-rock opus, what else is there to do but create a series of diabolically focused little songs that strive for the sorrow-filled, world-weary tones of the great Hank Williams?

tUnE yArDs: Who Kill. Technology has come a long way since Solex’ monstrously inventive Low Kick and Hard Bop from 2001, and this album, which is the spiritual heir to that one, harnesses it brilliantly, dropping listeners into the middle of an African ritual one minute and a beautifully layered Joni Mitchell confession the next.

My Morning Jacket: Circuital.  Epic journeys and existential mindgames coalesce into the most consistent set of songs from the band that is arguably the most consistently rousing live act on the road.

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What. Worth hearing just for the title track, which captures the thoughts of a numb Everyman as he struggles to comprehend the unhinged opinions and unwelcome advertisments, the trash and transcendence and “look at me” ravings that constitute the modern media assault.

Bill Frisell 858 Quartet: Sign of Life . These pensive etudes glide right across the territorial lines that divide jazz, bluegrass and chamber music, describing an elusive and endlessly fragile shadow world.

J.D. Allen Trio: Victory!  This year some tenor player put out a record proclaiming The Triumph of the Heavy. It wasn’t. This is.

Various Artists: El Barrio: The Ultimate Collection of Latin Boogaloo, Disco, Funk and Soul. Fania Records was never just the incubator of New York salsa – the label was also responsible for some monstrously energetic backbeat music. Surveying commercial hits and influential album tracks, this four-disc compilation shows how the flirtatious Latin-soul boogaloo pulse of the ‘60s evolved into muscular, utterly unique strains of funk.

Gretchen Parlato: The Lost and Found. Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding snagged all of this year’s jazz love in the media. But several people in her circle – most notably the singer Gretchen Parlato – made far more interesting records than her cluttered Chamber Music Society. Parlato has a great sense of space and impressive  command of a carefully controlled stage whisper; on the best moments here (“Still,” a delightfully loose version of Wayne Shorter’s “Juju”), she kills softly.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Amos Lee: Mission Bell; M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming; Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean; Lisa Hannigan: Passenger; The Weekend: House of Balloons; The Beach Boys: Smile!; The Rolling Stones: Some Girls.