Sept. 1 – Day 245 – “The Mobile Line (France Blues)”

Who doesn’t love a train song? I originally chose April 8 for this one, the day Papa Harvey Hull and Cleve Reed are said to have recorded it in 1927. But the many versions, very different in tone and lyric, suggest that it is traditional American, or at least that it’s some sort of folk concatenation, possibly from black singers. There are several modernized, popular examples, but I learned the song from a fellow called Mark Comstock. Mark is now a Californian, but in 1974 he hosted an open stage at the Pizza Patio on Bloor and Bedford in Toronto.

The Patio was just up the street from the St. George Graduate Residence, where I lived during my ambivalent studies at the University of Toronto. We had no “gap years” back then, and as I was bored stupid with Wordsworth and Georg Lukacs in stuffy classrooms, I spent almost every night at the Patio when I should have been in the library, or at least my professors would have said so. The Graduate English Department provided me a life-changing opportunity to study with Northrop Frye, and, coincidentally, to meet my future wife. Mark and the Patio matured me musically, but more than that, they provided me, on the brink of genuine adulthood, … well, they provided me comfort and joy – and the visceral realization that I’d had enough of the academy for the time being. I wanted to play more music, but also get a job and act like a grown-up.

Which is why I’ve assigned September 1 to “The Mobile Line.” Shortly after I arrived in Canada on that day in 1973, I noticed a sign on the Patio’s front window about their “back room open stage.” The host at the time was a bearded Englishman, stocky, beaming, and allegedly a sailor. On his somewhat desperate invitation, a band I’d formed with some friends at “the grad rez” – my roommate David Williams (now a professor of biochemistry, still a close friend) and Alice Home – played on the little stage there. When the sailor asked what we were called, I improvised, based on my W.B. Yeats infatuation of the day, and said, “Red Hanrahan.”

I think we probably performed “The Chastity Belt,” a bawdy song Alice had taught us, having learned it herself in Australia. Alice was markedly not bawdy otherwise, but perhaps that’s the way with singers of bawdy ballads. The song had various parts – a gentle maiden, her fiercely protective father, a thrusting knight, a page boy who had a “duplicate key” – so we vamped on those. David, particularly (“Dave” in the day; but fair dues, I was “Jeff”), is a bit of a showman, though he would deny it, I imagine. Probably we also sang Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon” and the Child ballad, “The Cruel Sister,” which I had got from The Pentangle. Alice and David were pretty steady; I likely was shaky on guitar, banjo, limberjack, and vocals.

On that occasion, and when we played the back room a couple of times with Mark as host, we might actually have ordered a pizza. Most nights I ordered nothing, or maybe a Diet Coke. I was an impecunious scholar there for the music. Je m’excuse, Sylvie – I think that was the name of the long-suffering waitress in the back there, a young woman who was also starving, judging not from her curvaceous form (visible enough in the unrelenting finster) but from the poor attendance at the open stages and the penury of us neighbourhood students. The back room did better on the weekends, and when Mark invited special guests, who dragooned their friends. But I learned a whole passel of tunes from Mark precisely because, most nights, I could sit hard by the stage to watch and hear what he did again and again, chat with him, and even get him to write up lyrics for me.

Which is to say that the beaming sailor didn’t last long. But that, of course, is how I met Mark.

The chart: Mark played this song in standard tuning and made no mention of the trip to France or the disposal of the narrator’s remains (pickled in booze) in my arrangement (see to the right). I was thrilled to track him down lately, and he tells me that his version combines those of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and a truly weird, free-association stoner thing (the only word for it) by the Holy Modal Rounders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V81o8ahl7dI). (Coincidentally, a strong characteristic of Mark’s stage presence in those days was snuffling. Whether this was due to allergies or some other stimulus, I couldn’t say.) I believe he used the “Hey lonny mama” refrain instead of the “Hey lordy…,” and I don’t recall an instrumental break. He sped the tune up and down to mimic the train journey and simulated air brakes with his mouth, but avoided the childish “choo-choo!” temptation. I don’t. My version of Mark’s version of the Kweskin/Rounders versions is fused with sundry other versions, original and rebuilt, in true folk tradition, and is in drop D tuning, which allows me some funky fills and slides. I’ve adapted Mark’s chugalug lick, a hammer-on from the major second to the major third of the chord: I hammer from the minor third to the major – Bb to B (for instance) on the tonic chord (G), and to emphasize the hypnotic movement I throw in the occasional suspended fourth. To hear a rough-and-tumble recording, and read the lyrics for my version of this song, please visit my website.

Today we would call Mark’s taste eclectic roots – from Willie McTell to John Sebastian to Lieber and Stoller to the Stones to Uncle Dave Macon and the Stanley Brothers to Leadbelly … . He had a real performer’s feel for grassroots soulful and funky – the tragicomedy and absurdity of everyday life. His influence will crop up again in this blog.

Advertisements

April 6 – Day 97 – “Centerfield” (a.k.a. “Put Me in, Coach”)

written and performed by John Fogerty, on the album of the same name, 1985, Warner Brothers.

What’s notable about this song is that it is not essentially about baseball: it’s about hope, angling from your soul for a chance to show what you can do. It’s about craving to desperation the acknowledgement we all need to sustain us.

The first verse puts it with surprising sophistication:

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone, the sun came out today.
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.
Roundin’ third and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man.
Anyone can understand the way I feel.

While the music – bog-standard rockabilly – is unremarkable (I do love those low-high interval licks, descending sixths, a couple of times after “I’m ready to play [Dah-DEEEE] today [Dah-DEEEE],” reaching for the stars each Oliver Twistian chorus), the words are archetypally evocative. Sun, born again, new grass, heading for home, it’s the same conception as Easter and Passover, as e.e. cummings’s in Just-spring, when the world is “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”: hope, renewal, another chance. And as Fogerty says, anyone – everyone – understands this. And so his protagonist is an ordinary Joe, an Everyperson: a former bench-warmer on the Mudville Nine (he watched heart-sick as Casey struck out), his glove is “beat-up,” his bat “home-made,” but he gamely pleads his case for his “moment in the sun”:

 “Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play, today…”

And he’s not looking for a glamour spot or Alex Rodriguez’s salary. Centre field is where they put you if you’re not up to much except hitting the occasional long ball.

I was a ten-year-old New York Yankees fanatic, winding up and slinging tennis balls against the house for hours, when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record – sixty-one in ’61, with Yogi Berra still at catcher and Mickey Mantle just a few homers behind his record-breaker teammate. We all wanted to be Mantle and Whitey Ford concatenated, homerun king and ace pitcher all at once. In those days this was possible but as rare as hen’s teeth: there was no designated hitter; pitchers batted ninth, where supposedly they could do the least damage. Mantle was handsomer, and more of an all-around player than Maris – more persistently, genetically charismatic. Also, yes, he played center field, Maris right – less respectable than centre, because only lefty batters pulled that way.

Denver had only a minor league team at the time, the Bears, who played under the scruffy viaduct near my grandmother’s house on the West Side. This was before there were playoffs after playoffs, when TV broadcasters had no choice but to show rain delays, even if they pissed on for an hour: you waited them out, watching the ground-crew roll out the tarps, just as though you were in the stands. Meanwhile, in the broadcast booth, former pitching ace Dizzy Dean hauled out his flat-top guitar to sing “The Wabash Cannonball,” killing time for us viewers in Denver and Saginaw as his sidekick (and former Dodger shortstop) Pee Wee Reese caught a break from calling the play-by-play. There was no Credence Clearwater blasting from stadium speakers. In those days, baseball was all peace and playing hooky, barely commercialized, the quiet and slow pace a delicious refuge from the rat race. You decompressed while you worked on your tan. (Yes, this was before 50-proof sunscreen, too.)

Pudge-bucket that I was, I was enthusiastically okay as a street player with my own team in my southwest Denver neighbourhood (Car!). I was older, after all, and bigger than the other kids. But I was useless among my actual peers, in right field against the tough guys in the orphanage, after I signed up for the poor-schlep’s league at the community center (green caps, no uniform), out of Cheltenham Elementary in that West Side barrio. Mind you, there’s a moment that resonates five decades later: The wiriest orphan, at shortstop, kept mouthing off at me fortissimo about what a no-hoper I was. Sure enough, my father was umping and had called me out on strikes during my first at-bat, and had laughed with my coach when I objected (fortissimo), “Da-ad!” But my next batter-out had its compensations. In a blind fury, which is to say by absolute dumb luck, I lined a drive really hard straight at this punk’s pie hole. You could hear the seams on the ball sizzle toward his head. He grabbed the drive before it took out his front teeth – Good reflexes, I had to admit, impressed if simultaneously disappointed by how poetic justice had been rendered yet not quite – but there was nary a peep from the punk after that.

As I say, while I have chosen the 2015 opening day for Major League Baseball* as “Centerfield” day, this song is not about baseball. It’s about all of us boys and girls of summer, after a long winter. May the coach give us the chance we deserve.

* The day I started working on this essay.

September 30 – Day 274 – “Birdland”

by Joe Zawinul; recommended performance: Jazz Icons DVD, “Buddy Rich, Live in ’78” (in Holland, released 2006), featuring the “Killer Force” band, with Steve Marcus on soprano saxophone.

What a fun tune (one of those pieces that makes jazz so COOL), which of course Manhattan Transfer recognized when they recorded their hugely popular vocalese version. (A live performance is on Youtube, as is the Rich version I’m recommending, but the DVDs are worth owning: please support the music.) Its sections unfold into the main theme like a pretty little flower, and here the Killer Force embody the bop-rock-swing fusion that, in a better world, would have kept the big band sound popular – cooking proof that it had evolved well beyond cucumber-sandwich saxophone choruses in a strum-strumma-strum straw hat canoe.

Then again, never mind that drums are the original musical instrument, and that Beat is radical to human music, the idea of a drummer fronting a big band is a bit de trop, never mind whether it’s Rich or Gene Krupa or Ginger Baker, and never mind Don Ellis’s thrilling success with his multiple-drum-heavy arrangements during the late nineteen-sixties. Rich seems determined that the battery won’t overwhelm his ensembles, and although the drums are very much up front in his charts, they allowed the whole band to shine: this particular ensemble really is a killer force; what a loss to have Marcus die at 61, Rich at 70. Rich boasted both the celebrity and talent to bring in top players, along with the moxy and smarts to exploit them fully. (Notice that on fretless electric bass Tom Warrington out-Pastoriuses the Pastorius of the Weather Report original.)

Though my Uncle Gene played briefly in one of Rich’s bands (see the postings on “Forest Flower” and “Two O’Clock Jump”), I saw the drummer live only once, in Toronto, at the Victory Burlesque Theatre in 1974, just after its tenure as a strip club. (The theatre’s history has a geological feel: located in the old Jewish district on Spadina at Dundas West, the building started out as a leftist Yiddish theatre in 1921, then became an art movie house, then the Victory, and today is a part of Chinatown’s seedy(ish) commercial district. For once, the city had the kishkas to stand up to the bully developers and realtors who have pretty well run Toronto during the last half century: the building has been designated an historical property.) I don’t recall a single tune, but the show – the playing, of course, but, typical of Rich, the show – kept me ecstatic for days. (For his role in “Whiplash,” surely J. K. Simmons studied the notoriously tetchy drummer.) I had been in Canada for only a few months, and seeing Rich made me feel less homesick, for the American wild west, and for hard-hitting jazz. And I got to experience the Victory just before it closed – something I’ve been able to dine out on since, with a perfect defence to the political correctness that has run rampant at the dinner table then and now: I was there for the music, an evidence-based explanation – given that the strippers had all disappeared – where “I read Playboy for the articles” is defrocked as a bare excuse.

The date: Rich was born on September 30 in 1917.

November 11 – Day 316 – “My Love Has Listed” (“The White [Blue, Black…] Cockade”)

Trad. (British), performed by the Kate Rusby Band; Rusby, guitar, vocal; Ian Carr, guitar; John McCusker, cittern and production; Ewen Vernal, acoustic bass; Andy Cutting, accordion. On the CD “Underneath the Stars,”Compass Records, 2003, and the related DVD “Kate Rusby: Live from Leeds.” A tune for Remembrance Day.

War, the omnipresence of tribalism enforced by violence or the threat of it, is very often the setting for the people’s music. In the British tradition, the military is regularly the third party in a love affair – Johnny’s off to war while Nancy’s left behind to prove her loyalty, or to kit herself up as a man and try to follow Johnny into the king’s service, or just to pine away. In this version (whose original dates, scholars say, from about 1750), “Nancy” is unusually bitter, or, on second thought, admirably spunky. She curses the recruiter, who has oiled his pitch with “a flowing bowl” and a shilling, playing to Johnny’s callow weaknesses. Otherwise, the lyrics are insipid, and where shifting narration can add sophistication to traditional songs, here it is disjointed. What makes this “White Cockade” remarkable is its arrangement and performance, by Rusby and a band captained by her first husband, John McCusker, a musician with a profound sense of le son juste. If Kate is The Barnsley Nightingale, John provided her the perfect ecology for her songs.

In English usage it can signify a hat or the decorations on it. So says the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives written examples from 1660. It derives the word from the French cocarde, itself derived from coq (“cock”), possibly from the rooster’s comb:

The first appearance of the word is in Rabelais, in the phrase bonnet à la coquarde, explained by Cotgrave (1611) as ‘a Spanish cap, or fashion of bonnet used by the most substantiall men of yore..also, any bonnet, or cap, worne proudly, or peartly on th’ one side’. Here coquarde appears to be the feminine of coquard, adjective, ‘foolishly proud, saucy, malapert’, as noun, ‘a malapert coxcomb’ (Cotgrave).

 In English (the OED continues), “cockade” signifies a “.ribbon, knot of ribbons, rosette, or the like, worn in the hat as a badge of office or party, or as part of a livery dress. The cockade worn in the hat by coachmen and livery servants of persons serving under the Crown, is a rosette of black leather, originally the distinctive badge of the House of Hanover, as the White Cockade was of the House of Stuart and its adherents.”

Sometimes “My Love Has Listed” features a blue or black or yellow or “blue and orange” cockade, which variations are thought to reflect the colours of the local regiment or politics. So do we hear in the Irish ballad “The Kerry Recruit,” in which the narrator loses his legs to the Crimean War: “Well the first thing they gave me, it was a red coat,/ With a lump of black leather to tie ’round me throat. / The next thing they gave me, I said, ‘What is that?’ / ‘Sure, man, a cockade, for to stick in your hat.’”

Then again, in response to a thread about the origins of “The Blue Cockade” on mudcat.org, the splendid (inevitably splenetic) traditional music website, a poster writes: “The origin of The Blue Cockade is that it used to be a white one, but the missus washed it along with my Chelsea football shirt!” We find there a “blue” version edited down and cleaned up, in the sense that it proceeds logically from recruitment to leave-taking: the recruit provides his love a say-good-morning-to-your-nightcap excuse: “My head was full of drink, love.” Oh, and she curses not the recruiter, but her, uh, ex?-boyfriend.

Like Archie Fisher and Stan Rogers, Rusby is one of those modern performers who really “gets” traditional music, who can “write” a traditional song as well as interpret one so that you feel it’s the One True Version. In her “Cockade,” the simplicity of the arrangement and how it builds tension give lifeblood to the grief of the young woman left behind. As beautiful as Rusby’s voice and phrasing are (as usual), what breaks the heart are McCusker’s single-note cittern phrases against the clutter-free foundational harmonies, spot on tempo (if deliberately lagging, reflecting grief), the sweet weeping of the double-course strings over McCall’s and Cutting’s spare bass and accordion lines. The overall effect is to remind us that the heart of traditional music is the purity of its expression – that it is, after all, the original soul music.

November 14 – Day 319 – “A Woman Like You”

Written and performed by Bert Jansch, on “Sweet Child” (with The Pentangle; Reprise, 1968), his own “Birthday Blues” (Transatlantic, 1969), and (live, 40+ years later?) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYEX2XcFavw

(Appointed to the projected opening day of the ski season at Winter Park, Colorado.)

 This song made me broody in my teens and twenties, until the young women around me proclaimed removal of themselves from the pedestal of traditional romantic love, evoked in lyric and tone here. (I still seem to detect that Guinevere doesn’t want to slay dragons, after all; too many heart attacks, not enough spiritual reward questing for silver chalices and golden parachutes.) I’ve come back to “A Woman” recently, however, first by way of my own “Winter Park,” though the latter started life as an atmospheric instrumental about nothing in particular. Eventually it morphed not into a love song (listen to a “living room recording” of it, and read the lyrics here) but a narrative about alienation in childhood. Then there was the recent death of John Renbourn, which made me look back across his career, including his association with Jansch, who died in 2011. Though I prefer Renbourn as the more intellectually curious and fully-rounded musician, Jansch was a one-off, and an imaginative composer and guitarist in his own right.

The chart: “A Woman’s” moody-blueness derives from the DADGAD guitar tuning, with that haunting “D-suspended” drone. Apparently Jansch (along with Renbourn and the other folk guitarists of the 1960s folk music scenes in the British Isles) learned the tuning from Davy Graham, said to have “invented” it during musical tourism in Algeria. The song’s key seems to be D myxolidian (in the later live performance, capoed to A myx.), with the C “unsharpened” (as a minor seventh) yet more pointed thereby. Jansch individually frets and “vibratos” it, ingeniously making it the forceful, dominant tone while he sings the expected one, the “sub-dominant” G, to resolve the phrase in each verse’s first and third lines. This gives the hypnotic effect of a false exit, a wrong turning. Then, too, there’s the sustain in the single notes he plays, which runs them together with a chordal effect in a sort of contrapuntal or answering drone – all of this weaving that haunting, magic spell narrated in the song. (The tuning is very evocative that way: listen, also, to Renbourn’s use of it for the brilliant four bars he composed to introduce and link the verses of Dave Goulder’s “From Sandwood Down to Kyle.” You can actually hear the mist.)

I used to believe that my “Winter Park” had an early Joni Mitchell feel to it. I was infatuated with her during my mid-teens through my twenties, but when I lately tried to think which of her songs I would nominate to this blog, I discovered that I had outgrown her. (Also, Warner Brothers never bothered to send me even a photo, let alone a letter, when I wrote her a mash note, care of them, circa 1971.) Like “A Woman Like You,” “Winter Park” uses DADGAD tuning, which I don’t think much interests Mitchell(?), and today Jansch’s music seems more mature and true to me than hers does, less self-regarding if sometimes similarly dreamy. Also, I now hear the same ringing moodiness in my song as permeates the Jansch tune. (I’ve discovered as well that “A Woman’s” moodiness plays out well in the double-coursed unison tuning of an Irish bouzouki (a pared-down inversion of DADGAD)).

The “Woman”/“Winter” pairing makes for an odd threesome, however, when Glen Campbell’s version of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” enters the picture (or soundtrack). The stolidly American C&W song shares that lonely, romantic longing of “A Woman” and “Winter,” but beyond that, I could have sworn that when I rode the ski train to and from Winter Park, I would look out at the telephone poles in the snow and hear Campbell in my head. In particular I associate my lyric, “The trees in the snow look like home would if it only could…,” with the lonely lineman atop the frosty poles, hearing his love’s voice singing in the wires (the telephone lines between Denver and the ski resort being, blessedly, the only sign of human infliction on the winter countryside.) But, lately, The All-Knowing Google tells me that Campbell didn’t record the song until 1968, four or five years later than when I was in the Eskimo Ski Club…

Which was disastrous, by the way. At 13, a chubby, bookish, uncoordinated latecomer to skiing and a new school across town from my old working-class neighbourhood and familiars, I spent each Saturday struggling friendless on the slopes, with absolutely the worst rental skis available. Though my parents couldn’t afford any such luxury, I had guilted them into letting me join the club, and it remains one of the great embarrassments of my life that, over what seemed like hours, the ski-shop sales force showed us increasingly crap equipment, their exhausted amiability sagging into pity as, at last, they more or less dug my rental skis from a dumpster out back.

Hands up, brand-new, top-of-the-line gear would have made little difference. I could hardly ride the T-bar up the beginner’s hill without bringing down several other would-be hotdoggers with me, as I tried desperately to seem the consummate ski bum like my schoolmates – the nylon ski-cap with the two-foot tail and poofy tassel (a cross between a nightcap and jester’s headgear) I bought with my allowance mitigating the humiliation of those rotting planks of glorified cardboard. But then there was the last run of the day, with the sun dipping behind the upper slopes, when I caught an edge on the iced-up crust, and the rusted bindings on those clapboard skis didn’t release. The ensuing spiral fracture of my right ankle earned me a cozy ride down the slope on a toboggan, lower leg carefully splinted, courtesy of a stoically efficient member of the Winter Park Ski Patrol. And so was the awkward new kid (“Pudgy and pimply and prim, / You slip and you slide to fit in”) more spectacularly pathetic than ever, hobbling around the school on crutches for six weeks …

It was probably just as well (except the broken bone part), and not only for the family budget. I got to meet Drs. Roger and Yamamoto, who as my personal orthopedic surgeons in the ensuing school years would reconfigure shoulders I separated in similarly disastrous attempts at rock climbing. Then too, the highlight of my Winter Park skiing days was trudging through the snow back to the parked train at noon, alone and palely loitering, gorging myself on the cold roast beef sandwiches my mother had packed for me from Friday night dinner. (The warming huts were for the real skiers, with their spare cash for packaged sandwiches and hot chocolate.) Eventually I became the kind of kid who, for winter refuge and recreation, learned to play “A Woman Like You” in D myxolidian, on a bargain basement Yamaha classical guitar. More than fair compensation, I think.

March 15 – Day 75 – Two-O’Clock Jump

Performed by the Harry James Orchestra, with Buddy Rich on drums, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIzFriJhA9s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQuo1_pVD2A

In 1967, when I was sixteen, I saw Harry James perform this tune ten times, on five consecutive nights, with the house band at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. It was perhaps the highlight of my (generally eye-opening) summer package tour chez Smookler in Sin City. Which is to say that my Uncle Gene Smookler played baritone sax in the Frontier Hotel’s house band (see “Forest Flower,” July 2), and with characteristic generosity of spirit, he brought me backstage each evening during my summer visit with him in Vegas. Between shows, we would rocket back to his desert home in his new Porsche, where he would party with friends. Talk about Birth of the Cool, or born again in The Cool. Who was the pudge-bucket nerd now – yeah, okay, as though my high school classmates knew or cared?

Sixty-year-old James was headlining with Nancy Sinatra and a pianist called Kelly Green (surely a stage name?). To my uncle’s amused sympathy, I contracted acute lovesickness from the rather more experienced Green (in an age when human cougars had yet to be bio-engineered), and though I knew James’s music only vaguely, his performance of this “Jump” made me pretty woozy about him, too. Every night, at each of the two shows (dinner and late, on the main stage), I would thrum in anticipation of his appearance, and particularly of those orgasmic trumpet arpeggios – descending fast triplets, the bit that runs from 3:05 to 3:36 on the Youtube video listed first above, emptying out into the “groove” brass chorus starting at 3:37. I’d never heard “Two O’Clock Jump” until then, but that section has reverberated in my head, tumbling like successive water falls in a rapids, all down the 48 intervening years. Who needs drugs?

As for what the drum solo adds, well, if Buddy Rich is in your band, you’re going to feature him. (Regarding Rich’s own band, I have posted simultaneously an essay on his interpretation of “Birdland.”)

As for the date, the ides of March is James’s birthday (1916), and a good time to be dancing on your winter holiday in the desert, with family, far from classmates who could stab you in the back at any minute.

May 20 – Day 142 – “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking”

by Rickie Lee Jones and David Kalish, as performed by them et. al. on Jones’s “Pirates” (1981, Warner Brothers) with Kalish (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Steve Gadd (“boxes and thighs),” David Sanborn and Tom Scott (saxophones), Randy Brecker (trumpet and flugelhorn)

Funky, but what is it, exactly? It’s not rock, and it’s not the rhythm-and-blues the lyrics celebrate. It’s beat poetry set to a spare, virulently infectious funk groove, with the hottest (white) session musicians of the day on cruise control. (Some, of course, are still very much in demand; Gadd, for one, plays regularly with James Taylor and Sanborn.) It’s jazz, but the improvisation – or something like it – is completely in the atmospherics, particularly in the lyrics and catcalling, as though it all broke out spontaneously on a brownstone stoop at dusk. The night is young, dig.

The chart: Chuck Rainey’s funkadelic bass keeps it poppin’ over Kalish’s theme lick, in E major, which is as insidiously cool as a guitar lick gets, an earworm that heads straight for your medulla oblongata. Despite the ants-in-your-pants complexity of the sound, the song hangs on just two chords, E (or E6) and A (or A7). Guitarists’ workshop: Ingeniously, Kalish seems to play the whole lick out of the E6, voiced in the seventh and ninth positions, just shifting how he fingers it – by, that is, starting in 7p (while starting the lick on the first two strings at fret nine) then moving his first finger to the ninth fret to hammer from third and fourth strings/position nine to position eleven on strings two and one, then playing D string/ position nine. Next he plays the A chord out of the same barre but fingering string two at fret ten with his middle finger. Then he just lifts that middle finger (or I do, anyway, still with the half barre at fret nine) to end the lick back on the E, finishing off with that hammer-on business. You can mimic the walking bass by starting on the open sixth string (E G# B C# D C# B G#/E G# B-C# D – basically an arpeggiated E13 chord, up and down (nicely following the song structure insofar as the E and C# are also two-thirds of the A chord triad). Then you mimic that in chords by moving back to the high E6 and A voicings as at the lick’s beginning.

You’ve gotta love Jones’s voice and scat-singing, while conceding that the street accent is schtick (heck, nobody calls out the hip-hoppers or Michael Jackson on that), and even though the lyrics are not self-explanatory let alone altogether decipherable. The intricate arhythmical clapping, the finger-snapping(?), and the dialogue “calls,” though, are funkadelic perfect.

The date: I first heard “Woody and Dutch” on “Saturday Night Live,” so I’ve associated it with the day in 1989 that Gilda Radner, a brilliant light on that TV variety show, died of cancer, just short of her forty-third birthday. Talk about the world being a poorer place, now that pre-teen Judy Miller (bouncing on her mattress and singing about “The Judy Miller” show), teen nerd Lisa Lupener (with her crushes on Marvin Hamlisch and uber-nerd Todd [Bill Murray]), and Roseanne Roseannadanna have passed with her. We hear regularly about the “tragic” deaths of self-abusive rock stars. What about the premature passing, from disease or injury, of those gentle geniuses who make us laugh – Radner, John Candy, John Hughes, Phil Hartman, Harold Ramis, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams…? Gilda, your light still shines.

July 2 – Day 184 – Forest Flower, The Charles Lloyd Quartet

on “Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey,” 1966, Atlantic Records, vinyl, available on CD from PSP Co Ltd. (Chosen for this date as seasonally appropriate, but leaving July 1 free for Canada Day, July 4 free for American Independence Day)

When I was a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old high school student in Denver, Colorado, my friend Paul Stein* introduced me to Charles Lloyd and his extraordinary sidemen Keith Jarrett (piano, mostly; sometimes soprano sax and percussion), Cecil McBee (bass; sometimes the bassist was Ron McClure), and Jack DeJohnette (percussion). When Paul and I went to see the quartet live, at McNichols Auditorium downtown, we were probably the only high school students in attendance. We thought we were pretty cool, I expect. Paul was particularly impressed when Lloyd turned his back on the audience mid-tune. These were the days of Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers, and Lloyd not only looked like Cleaver, he seemed at least as pissed off – all attitude. Typically, I was intimidated and put off.

Still, I conveyed my enthusiasm (musically) for Lloyd to my Uncle Gene Smookler, a professional reed-man who has played with Buddy Rich and Woody Herman’s travelling band, but he didn’t share it at the time. Today, in his late seventies and only just retired from playing reeds and flute (baritone sax, mostly, lately as co-leader of the Denver big band, What’s Cookin’), he tells me he at last hears what I heard in this tune and today is impressed by it. Perhaps with the pedantry of later adulthood, I’ve replied that I’ve come to think that Lloyd sometimes plays sax like John Coltrane on a bad day, which isn’t exactly a bad thing, but it seems to me he genuinely has a good day here. Come to that, I actually like some of his flute playing (“El Encanto” and “Sombrero Sam” will probably make it into the 366 Tunes list), which leaves me pretty much on my own in the flute community, where I am not much of a player myself, and probably lonely as an avid jazz listener, too.

In any event, “Forest Flower” remains one of those tunes that I’d probably load onto the MP3 player I was permitted to take to a desert island. To my ears the entire quartet plays with great feeling on this live version, possibly at the top of their game. What particularly thrills me still, after hundreds of listenings over nearly fifty years (it really holds up, this performance!), is Keith Jarrett’s work, both on accompaniment and in the solos. What’s left of my hair stands up even now when he emerges from the controlled chaos of that second solo, in the “Sunset” portion, repeating diminuendo his Latin solo-lick as Lloyd comes back in on sax. I’ve often thought that, while Jarrett is never considered a sideman, his most brilliant work is consistently performed in that role, and as composer more than as solo, improvisational pianist. But again, this is probably idiosyncracy – mine, if not his.

Then there is that hypnotic bass line in the “Sunset” section. I imagine some jazz enthusiasts would scoff at its simplicity, but to me McBee and DeJohnette are generously unpretentious, giving exactly what fits the mood. The humid Latin-dance feel is a bit of brilliance. Throughout (and, yes, especially in the first section), they play with moving taste and intelligence. (There’s a story that Paul Desmond would ostentatiously read a book during drum solos when he was with Dave Brubeck’s quartet; I don’t imagine he would have done that here.)

Also notable about “Forest Flower” is how it demonstrates that jazz can be progressive but at the same time beautifully lyrical or “expressionist,” as well as capable of fusion with conventional styles, here with “Latin.”

This live setting of the tune seems especially apt as soundtrack to the beginning of the dog days of summer. As part of a poem series (The IPod Poems), I have composed “lyrics” for it reflecting that idea. In the “Sunrise” section, I have tried to follow the horn line. Read it here (on my website), under “IPod Poems”: http://jeffreymiller.ca/words-music/ Reader discretion recommended: sexuality, strong language, and all that jazz.

March 26 – Day 86 – Beethoven Violin Concerto

in D major, Op. 61, performed by Jascha Heifetz and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Munch, on “Favorite Beethoven Concertos,” RCA (vinyl), 1971 (by Ludwig Van Beethoven – born, winter of 1770; died Mar. 26, 1827)

While I am no scholar of classical music, I have listened to enough of it to choose Beethoven as my composer of choice, with Handel second by a margin of brooding angst. This is certainly the concerto I listen to most often, and I prefer the Heifetz over a couple of other versions I own, and a couple more I’ve heard performed live, because, to quote a record store clerk I met while trying to find a CD version, “It’s sweet.”

Generally you wouldn’t take the “romantic style” of fiddling seriously. Who likes schmaltz except maybe on Friday, in Ma’s mashed lima beans – cheap fat to lend the insipid a bit of flavour (tam, as Ma would say). But Heifetz caresses every note, conveying real love for each phrase, his cadenza sprouting organically from them. Then, too, “classical” musicians have become so clinical and commercial, the effusiveness here induces profound nostalgia. Maybe that’s partly because the orchestra sounds so muddy in spots; but nostalgia muddy or misty, this is certainly where Miss Westfall* comes in.

I grew up to a soundtrack of popular music and jazz, the radio running whenever the TV (Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Durante, Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Dick Clark, Harry Belafonte, Allan Sherman, …) and phonograph weren’t. The latter Grandpa bought for us when I was about ten, from “Monkey Wards,” and we could afford few records. (The first I bought out of my savings was a “45” of “Stay,” by the Four Seasons, a.k.a. Jersey Boys.) Our grammar school bussed us to a children’s matinee at the Denver Symphony Orchestra, which performed Bernstein’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” the overture to “William Tell” (the “Lone Ranger,” whose title music featured this piece, was a favourite kids’ TV show), and selections from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” This did not teach me to love “serious” music. It taught me that you don’t teach a love for any sort of music with pandering or condescension. (Mind you, even a child knows intuitively that “Baa-Baa Black Sheep” is calisthenics, not song.) To boot, it engendered an abiding distaste for so-called “program music,” as with pieces about art exhibitions and fairy tales. Pandering.

But then there was Miss Westfall. I took a class from her in high school that combined music appreciation, history, and theory. Although I now imagine she might have been in her early to mid fifties, she seemed ancient to us teenagers, and she seemed to feel “past it,” alone in a cow-town with her visceral love of burnished expression, of real art. Apparently she was what we called a spinster back then; and, yes, she might have been gay in a time when that was anything but liberating or happy.

It was a small class, and she loved the bones of every bored, snotty adolescent of us. But this was more than gratitude. She loved the music beyond anything. On a beat-up old A-V Department record player, she introduced us to all sorts of serious music (including Mussorgsky), and spoke rapturously of concerts and musical friendships, forgetting where she was, really, time-travelling back to her own more serious-minded youth – of Antonia Brico, Nadia Boulanger, women conductors and composers who had to set up their own orchestras to do their thing. (Not much has changed in this sense?) She also made us (gently) “take dictation” as she played piano, laboriously set down chord progressions in every key, and write a tune that I just now managed to find in my basement (along with that copy of “Stay”): “Love and Other Illusions.” “Pretty cynical for a sixteen-year-old,” my wife Phyllis notes. But Miss Westfall did not so much as snigger.

I was hopeless at the dictation and my tune (written on guitar, but for some reason including a bass clef) is, uh, a little simple-minded (see right). Yet when Miss Westfall played it on the piano for the class, she smiled and went after it like it was young Mozart. I’m pretty sure I got an A for the term.

I (obviously) never forgot this rare, marvellous woman. In all probability she has passed, but a few years ago, for a short story, I imagined visiting her in her retirement, and I ended up with a song inspired by her glory as a teacher, and also by something indelible she taught us: there are no new tunes, just new ways of playing and understanding them. And so does Miss Westfall live on in her students.

No New Tunes**
(click here (http://jeffreymiller.ca/words-music/) and scroll down to “No New Tunes,” to hear a living room (unmixed) performance of the song)

I was once your student, you don’t remember me?
Basic Music Theory, nineteen seventy-three.
I heard you had some health scare, retired to take it slow,
Thought I’d pay a visit, stop by and say hello.

Never got that trick of writing what you played,
The notes on your piano rarely made it to my page.
But smiling you kept playing, and lately I can see,
The music that I saw in you is what you glimpsed in me.

Chorus

/“No new tunes,” that’s what you used to say,
“It’s not the notes upon the page but how and why you play.
“Life’s just the same, it’s in your DNA,
“And then there’s what you do with it,
“Year by year, day to day,
“When there are no new tunes.”/

Was the heyday of the Beatles, the Kinks, and Rolling Stones,
Seemed to all us high school kids you just dug up old bones.
Beethoven, Bach, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and Ives,
You played them on that phonograph,
As you swayed and closed your eyes.

Brico was your mentor, and Nadia Boulanger,
Conducting philharmonics, that never came your way.
Instead you called for quiet from kids just marking time
While yours all seemed to slip right by, in tempo without rhyme.

[Chorus]

You thought you were forgotten, retired and sick, alone
You never led an orchestra, wrote no music of your own,
Your schooldays finally ended, and your life seemed over, too,
But I’m not the only ageing boy remembering it was you
Who taught us …

[Chorus]

* I am ashamed to say that, after more than four decades, I had no independent recollection of Maxine Westfall’s name. After I ransacked my house in vain for my high school yearbook, the current principal of George Washington High, José Martinez, kindly helped me put a name to facing musical nostalgia.

 **Copyright 2016, Burden of Proof Research Inc.

May 6 – Day 127 – “Final Analysis” – The Don Ellis Orchestra

on “Don Ellis at Fillmore,” 1970, Columbia Records (vinyl); available on CD (Wounded Bird Records, 2005); selected for the day Sigmund Freud was born in 1856.*

I sit in the tiny orchestra pit in the cocktail lounge of the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.  It’s curtain time for a topless review.  As the lights dim and the bandstand rises toward the stage, the conductor glowers at his small ensemble.  “Play like hell or I’ll kill ya.”

The bandstand shudders to a hydraulic halt halfway between the pit and the dancers’ feet.  From then on, all I can see above us is the occasional female forearm, breast, or nipple (animated, self-possessed, each would have been described as “perky” at the time) peek over the lip of the stage.  Every time I look up, the man standing crushed against me, a Cuban bass player who speaks no English, plays his note and winks conspiratorially at me in the gloaming.

I was sixteen then, special guest of my mother’s brother, my Uncle Gene Smookler, who played saxophone in the house bands at the Frontier and Caesar’s Palace, where as a young teenager I previously had been mortified to find myself face to bosom – dozens of bosoms, on women wearing feathered tiaras and more make-up than a parish of Avon ladies – in the dressing room for a headliner topless dinner show (yes, recalling that old headline: Headless Man Found in Topless Bar).  Talk about casual nudity!  Then again, I was self-conscious enough for the room – for The Strip, drowning in sweaty mortification instead of,  uh, going with the flow in those heydays of the sexual revolution, Playboy, and the nascent women’s liberation movement.  My beloved uncle didn’t bother to hide his amused sympathy, leavening the boredom of what for him was just another day at the office.

He was twelve when I was born and my best buddy during my early childhood, when my parents rented the apartment next door to my grandparents’, which Grampa happened to own.  When just a young adult himself, Uncle Gene played sax, clarinet, and flute with the band at the University of Denver hockey and basketball games, which eventually led him to travel the planet with the NORAD stage band, Buddy Rich, and Woody Herman’s road outfit (sans its deceased namesake).  He would sneak me into the D.U. games via a shortcut through the back of Canino’s Pizza Parlor.  Post-game at Canino’s I was introduced to pepperoni, Coors beer, and my first Canadian: a student down from Windsor, Ontario, attending D.U. on a hockey scholarship.

And during a trip to Vegas, before university, my uncle introduced me to “Don Ellis at Fillmore.”  I think we were at the apartment of Chuck and Vicki Dennis, Uncle Gene’s friends from university and among the loveliest human beings I’ve ever met. Chuck, a public school music teacher, was a trumpet player and to my mind the coolest, most together guy on the planet – slim, handsome, partnered with a gorgeous and vibrant woman, smoked a pipe like Hefner, drove a forest green Austin-Healey 3000 with leather seats…  He now tells me that, to the best of his memory, my uncle had schmoozed with Don Switzer, the bass trombone player in Ellis’s band on the Fillmore album.  Apparently Switzer told my uncle, “Everybody was so stoned, it’s amazing [the album] turned out so well.”  So Chuck went out and bought it.

After probably several hundred listenings over four decades, what’s left of my hair still stands ovationally when Bill Graham announces, at the beginning of the first cut, “A warm welcome, please, for the Don Ellis Orchestra,” and the band roars into “Final Analysis” like a night train on the prairies.  It’s very likely the  most exciting piece of music I know, with Ellis’s “The Great Divide” (on disk two of the set) a close second.

The chart: The part counterpoint and brass choruses are conventional big band, but then again they’re like nothing you’ve heard before or since.  The transitions can bring you to tears: the arrangement just drives and drives and drives, an unstoppable force.  Ellis’s trumpet solo through a ring modulator verges on sci-fi horror movie soundtrack at first (you can hear him use the device more inventively on the DVD, “Don Ellis: Electric Heart”), but then it cruises and lands brilliantly, and somehow the drums, holding firm to Ellis’s trademark shifting arrhythmia and time signatures, make the whole thing coherent.  Then there’s John Graydon playing his guitar through a Talk Box before Peter Frampton had heard of the thing.  Note that Ellis saw the potential of a solid-body electric in jazz; as Ed Bickert proved even more convincingly, there’s no reason the music has to confine itself to the soft-edge tone of hollow-body archtops.  Go Fender!  Glenn Ferris’s solo proves that winners actually sometimes play ’bone, though it might well be easier to improvise on a chainsaw.  Ellis’s novice part on the drum exchanges is perhaps weaker than the others, but more nuanced than what many drummers achieve in a whole career.  (The story goes that he took up the drum kit largely so that he could demonstrate his complex rhythmical schemes to his bands.)  And where extended drum solos can kill a tune, these work coherently with, and build, the musical locomotion.  Then there’s that hilarious baritone chorus of the penultimate chord, in “the reductio ad absurdum” ending, “stolen,” Ellis says in his liner notes, “from classical composers (who should have known better).”

Ironically, unconventional rhythm killed this extraordinary man: Ellis died of heart arrhythmia in 1978, when he was 44.  Restless and driven, he long since had made a name for himself as a musician, band-leader, arranger, and composer; he had written the scores for the “French Connection” movies and, even as jazz grew less popular, some said he looked to be the next Stan Kenton – except more dynamic: a true pioneer, bold, committed to music as a life force, and more likely to be appreciated in the future.  Because of their easy-listening mass appeal, Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears sold more albums, but Ellis was the avant-garde genius – a multi-culturalist decades before the rest of the world caught up.  He understood that jazz, too, is classical.

This straight-ahead tune is far from his most sophisticated composition or arrangement, just an appetizer to his pioneering work with rhythms, voices, electronics, fusions (jazz, rock, blues, r&b, Indian, Balkan, classical: he was doing world music before it was “a thing” and long since had played with Mingus, Dolphy, Maynard Ferguson, and the New York Philharmonic)…  But note for note, it flies you, too, to a better world.  And here’s a tonic for the next time you have to hear that Neil Young or Kanye West is a genius: at this writing there are nineteen reviews of this album on Amazon.com.  Every one rates it a five out of five.

* Bits and bobs of the first paragraphs here appeared, in a different form and different life, in my column in The Lawyers Weekly. The “Play like hell” line shows up early on in my novel, Murder’s Out of Tune.