Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Night Out with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

By Jen Eide

Let's face it, I've been feeling kind of stale lately. In an effort to foster personal growth, I've decided to take more risks. I quit a job with health insurance to go study Chinese. I took skydiving lessons. I did, um, I did a lot of crazy stuff that we won't discuss here.

So when the invitation was extended to a group of local music bloggers to be a guest of the St. Louis Symphony I jumped at the chance. No, it wasn't as risky as skydiving--in fact, some would argue that it wasn't risky at all. Some may think it was, well, safe. But here's the thing. I own maybe five classical recordings by the following composers: John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Erik Satie. Cage, Reich and Glass are all modern composers, experimental, minimalist, conceptual, and the Satie was purchased for one beautifully impressionistic piece (Gymnopédie No. 1) that was all over movie soundtracks in the late 1980's. What would I possibly have to say about classical music? While I can write credibly on punk and indie rock, and I am something of an authority on jazz, this classical business is making me feel out of my element...a little off-kilter...a little nervous. My first thought was, ok, this is risky, this will be a stretch, this will be a great opportunity for growth. My second thought was what the hell am I going to wear?

Several wardrobe changes later and still not feeling dressed right, I'm at Powell Hall looking at the program and feeling a bit more comfortable. It turns out this evening's performance is part of the SLSO Guitar Fest and they will be premiering Mark-Anthony Turnage's A Prayer Out of Stillness featuring bassist John Patitucci. I remember Patitucci from the late 1980's as the wunderkind bassist with Chick Corea's Elektric Band. Those recordings didn't hold my interest at the time--they sounded kind of sterile to my ear, but that may have been due to the transition from analog recording to pure digital. I do remember thinking now here's a guy with a lot of technique but no heart...I wonder if he'll grow into something substantive or not. Well, it seems that he has grown. Patitucci still demonstrates prodigious chops, but there was something that has matured in his playing--and while I don't think I'll ever enjoy his work as much as I do some of his contemporaries, like say, Charnett Moffett--it does make me curious about his latest jazz recordings. A Prayer Out of Stillness didn't knock me out cold, but I enjoyed the part of the composition where Patitucci, on electric bass, was accompanied by an acoustic bassist while the orchestra sat out. I'm pretty sure Patitucci was given reign to improvise during this section--he sure was given some room to swing, which was something both delightful and unexpected.

The next piece was also a premiere, a composition by Steven Mackey entitled Beautiful Passing, featuring violinist Leila Josefowicz. Beautiful Passing appealed to me on a number of levels, as it has a number of things in common with what I listen for in jazz and punk music: dissonance, energy and freedom of expression. And unlike the stiff looking machinations of the accompanying orchestra, Josefowicz was so embodied--so dramatic in both her playing and her physical posturing. I felt like I was watching John Coltrane during a particularly intense solo--lifting his horn towards the heavens and bowing back down. It did feel downright unnatural for me to be witnessing this in a space where where I didn't feel comfortable expressing myself as I listened and watched. I was at the Symphony after all, not some club--this was no place to hoot, holler or bounce around in your seat. Still, after one long, dramatic solo passage I could not suppress a (somewhat quiet) vocalization of niiiiice.

The program closed with Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which is a piece I am familiar with--thank you Walt Disney--and was really looking forward to hearing again. I came away convinced that I really need to own a copy of this. Again, there was a lot for me to like about this work--lots of dissonance, energy and playing around with structure and form. I love the fact that people thought this was so radical in 1913 that they rioted in the concert hall. It's the same kind of challenge to your ears that Ornette Coleman provides in the jazz realm, and while Ornette's 1959 New York debut caused a ruckus among musicians and club-goers alike, it didn't quite cause a riot (though there is that legendary tale of Ornette being chased out of a bar in Texas, getting beat up and having his saxophone thrown off a bridge). Charlie Parker was quite familiar with Stravinsky's compositions (as you can read in this fascinating blog post here) and if there is a direct lineage from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman, there is certainly a line from Stravinsky to Parker to Coleman, which makes you wonder if Coleman's free jazz revolution would have been possible without certain innovations in classical music.

It occurs to me that classical and jazz music share some of the same challenges as their audiences diminish in favor of contemporary forms like rock, soul and hip-hop. I alluded to this in last week's post on jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, a rare artist who is simultaneously celebrating the jazz tradition while creating stylistic innovations which push the genre into the future. It seems to me that violinist Leila Josefowicz may be a kindred spirit in the classical world, teasing unconventional sounds from her instrument and taking on challenging modern compositions. The task that faces symphonies all over the world which will determine if classical music will survive as a living, breathing medium is in the programing of each concert--striking a balance between the traditional and familiar and the new and exciting.

After the program, I retired to the William Shakespeare Gastropub to hang out with our gracious host Eddie Silva, his SLSO colleague Dale Fisher and a few fellow bloggers. Good times, good conversation. To read about the experiences that the other bloggers had that evening, check out Eddie's SLSO blog, Michael from Peripatetic Cirumambulant, Chris from Highway 61 and Patrick from Patrick's Music Reviews.

I like a challenge. This invitation definitely opened my ears to a type of music that I don't ordinarily seek out. I've already decided that I'm heading back down to Powell Hall in December to see the Symphony perform Harold Arlen's score during a screening of the recently restored version of the Wizard of Oz. What a movie night. You should go, really! And hopefully I'll be better dressed this time.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What Played: Steve Wynn, Miracle 3 Live in Euclid Records

by Steve Pick
Photos by Jim Varvaris

The First in the Euclid Sessions Series

Saturday afternoon was the kick-off to the new Euclid Records series of live performances to be turned into 7-inch singles for the benefit of the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund. A hearty crowd turned out to catch Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3 in what was a perfect display of rock & roll fun, energy, and pure pleasure.

Wynn got his start in the Dream Syndicate, one of the most critically acclaimed if publicly ignored rock bands of the 80s. After that band broke up, he's been churning out solo albums and assorted side projects (Gutterball, Danny & Dusty, the Baseball Project). A few years back, he put together the Miracle 3 as his perfect backing outfit. With wife Linda Pitmon on drums, Dave DeCastro on bass, and Jason Victor on lead guitar, Wynn's songs have never sounded more powerful. And that's saying something if you were ever lucky enough to see the Dream Syndicate in its later incarnation with Paul B. Cutler on guitar.

In town to play a private party the night before and a public gig at Off Broadway Saturday night, Wynn and his mates were completely in the groove Saturday afternoon. Sticking mostly to songs from their last band album, "Tick . . . Tick . . . Tick," Wynn and the Miracle 3 demonstrated their tight ensemble sound, with the ability to crank the songs up into exhilarating bursts of declarative guitar melodies. Victor is a much stronger guitarist than Wynn, but the two of them have worked up some nice interlocking, sometimes improvisatory parts. In fact, when they ended with a long take on the Dream Syndicate classic "John Coltrane Stereo Blues," they managed to evoke at times such San Francisco 60s luminaries as Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the 1970s brilliance of Television.

The show was recorded, and you can look for a 7-inch single to be available early in 2009. We'll have the details right here, so keep looking.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What's Playing | Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers - Buhaina's Delight

by Steve Pick

We got in fifty or sixty classic Blue Note used CDs, all priced to move at $8.99, all Japanese imports. Until they sell, I'm gonna be reveling in the incredible sound system we have here at Euclid Records, cranking these babys up loud.

And what sounds better loud and clear than any of the Art Blakey albums from the late 50s and early 60s? This one's been a fave of mine since I first bought it back in the early 80s, when I knew nothing about jazz but that the name "Art Blakey" was one constantly dropped by those in the know.

This is part of the Wayne Shorter era, when tenor saxophonist Shorter was churning out irresistible compositions every time he turned around. The rest of the band on this one includes trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Jymie Merritt, and the master drummer Blakey himself.

First things first, there is the sound of this record, as clear and vibrant as any of the Rudy Van Gelder recordings which typified Blue Note and Prestige of that time. I can only imagine the challenge recording Blakey must have presented, because this man played drums louder than most front-line musicians played their horns.

Blakey was the first jazz drummer I learned to instantly identify. You can't miss that hi-hat, constantly pulling just ahead of the beat, and darn near there on every single beat of every single measure. But, if you do, rest assured one of his exhilarating drum rolls or explosive tom tom thrusts will come along soon enough to knock you silly. And, all of this is done with the most inerrant and dynamic senses of swing in all music.

As with most Blue Notes, the fact that the band had a day to rehearse before recording is quite obvious. Even better, of course, is that the Jazz Messengers were a real band, one which played together for months in between recordings. As a result, the arrangements are even more complex, with solos of varying lengths and responses from the rhythm section (and occasionally the other horns) to individual musical ideas.

I wish I could be more coherent here, but let me just point out that if you haven't had the chance to be thrilled by this record, it's sitting here waiting for you to order it or pick it up.

Here's this version of the band, with Reggie Workman replacing Jymie Merritt on bass:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hey, Wanta See "The Wrecking Crew" Film?

They played on all the classic records recorded in Los Angeles back in the 60s. All the classic TV soundtracks, too. And, even all the stuff that doesn't deserve in anyway to be considered classic, but was at the very least touched by the brilliance of these musicians.

They were collectively known as the Wrecking Crew. Some of them went on to greater fame - Glen Campbell, Leon Russell. Some of them were names on the backs of record jackets - Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Carol Kaye. All of them were enormously talented. Denny Tedesco has assembled a documentary on these unsung musical heroes, and we have a pair of tickets for you to see the St. Louis premiere Tuesday, Nov. 18, at 9:30 pm at the Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar.

All you have to do is answer a simple question. Name five songs that members of the Wrecking Crew played. Everyone who e-mails us at store@euclidrecords.com with a right answer will be placed in a drawing to be held Monday for two tickets to see the film Tuesday night. You'll have to pick them up at our store before we close at 8 pm on Tuesday, so be available for that. We'll have two sets of winners getting two tickets each.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Terry Adams In-store November 30th! Limited Edition Single to Follow!

Terry Adams, the legendary pianist and clavinet player who was such an integral part of the classic NRBQ line-up for 35 years, will perform with his new band, the Rock & Roll Quartet, augmented by the Whole Wheat Horns, at Euclid Records at 3 pm, Sunday, Nov. 30. Adams personally assembled his band to help him continue his charismatic, highly intense musical assault on stages and CD players around the country. Scott Ligon plays guitar, Pete Donnelly (from the Figgs and Graham Parker) plays bass, and Austin, Tx. mainstay Conrad Choucroun plays drums. The Whole Wheat Horns include Terry’s older brother Donn Adams on trombone.

Those who saw Terry Adams and the Rock & Roll Quartet when they played St. Louis last year have been speaking in tongues about the experience ever since. As he did when he was in NRBQ, Adams lets the spirit move him, and just about any song he and his band have ever heard is fair game for appearing in their performance. Later on Sunday night, Adams and the Rock & Roll Quartet will play at Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp, as well.

This will be the third in a series of live in-store performances to be followed up by the release of limited-edition 45 rpm singles recorded in the store. Each release will be strictly limited to 300 copies, and $1 for each one pressed will be donated to the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund (NOMRF) to benefit musicians displaced or suffering loss of equipment in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The performance will be recorded live, and Terry Adams will choose one or two songs to be released on the 7” single.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What's Playing | Cassandra Wilson - Loverly

by Jen Eide

Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson is such a powerful talent that each new release always seems like an event. She has earned an important place in the history of jazz and will leave a threefold legacy: she has redefined the American songbook; introduced a new tonal palette by choosing non-traditional instrumentation; and integrated new musical influences, so much so, that jazz--for this generation, at least--has remained a living, breathing medium.

Wilson's career has had an interesting trajectory. After turns with Henry Threadgill's free jazz group New Air and Steve Coleman's funky M-BASE collective, she embarked on a solo career. The work that first made everyone sit up and take notice was 1988's Blue Skies, a gorgeous album of standards in which Wilson was backed by a rather traditional sounding piano trio and found her vocally working through the legacy of Betty Carter. And if Carter was an iconoclast in the sense of exalting individuality above all, Wilson finally found her own style with 1993's pioneering album Blue Light 'Til Dawn, in which she jettisoned much of what a certain segment of the jazz listening audience would consider the things most essential to the medium--the instrumentation and the songbook.

In ensuing years, Wilson reimagined and reinvented the American songbook by drawing from different genres--blues, country, soul and rock music--to include a place for "non-jazz" artists such as Robert Johnson, Hank Williams Sr., Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Wilson's ambitions have been unprecedented in their success. We've all had the misfortune of hearing an atrocious interpretation of a pop song by a jazz giant before--you can almost hear the producer suggesting a current hit in an effort to crossover to a mainstream audience--there's simply no depth to it. But Wilson brings the depth, perhaps because pop songs are ingrained in her consciousness having grown up with them. (For the opposite effect, reference Steve's post on Scarlett Johansson's attempt at singing a jazz standard).

As a bandleader and an arranger, Wilson has also made some interesting choices by replacing the piano trio with dual guitars, a bass player, and dual percussionists. Now, guitarists accompanying jazz singers is not unprecedented--indeed, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass--but slide guitarists and pedal steel players are a recent innovation. Wilson will also occasionally add a single violin, a clarinet, a piano or an accordion player here and there for additional color, or she may strip away layers of texture by singing accompanied only by a single slide guitarist, for example, like on the swampy and desolate sounding version of Ann Peebles soul classic "I Can't Stand The Rain" (the final track on Blue Light 'Til Dawn). The style is now earthy, organic and occasionally delicate--still rooted in jazz harmonies and swing, but also no longer your traditional hardbop romp.

Yet variety is Wilson's strong suit, and this year's release Loverly finds her re-exploring the traditional jazz songbook while integrating it with her unique style and sound. By straddling both the past and future of jazz, she has created an album that will simultaneously please both of her fanbases and raise the bar for jazz vocalists in general.

As usual, Wilson has assembled a stellar band. Listening to the interplay between guitarist Marvin Sewell and pianist Jason Moran is indeed a delight, especially on the opening track "Lover Come Back to Me" where they dart around bounce ideas off each other like mad, all the while providing a solid accompiament to Wilson's vocals. Their wild flights are grounded by stalwart bassist Lonnie Plaxico.

"Gone With The Wind" has a sultry vocal that floats over currents of air churned up by the stellar percussion team of Herlin Riley and Lekan Babalola. With this recording, Wilson has (in my book) surpassed Ella Fitzgerald in what I had previously thought of as the definitive version, but now seems to me to be an overly sincere reading.

Wilson strips away the band for a duet with guitarist Marvin Sewell on "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most." This often overlooked tune has a languid delivery would leave me downright depressed if the tune weren't so damn beautiful.

"Caravan" begins with a funky but somehow subdued single note piano riff--that always makes me think of guitar lines in James Brown songs--before it takes off into the complexities of latin styled flurries of arpeggios. Again, the interplay between Sewell and Moran here is an amazing feat, and Moran plays some really outside lines that keep this often played Ellington tune sounding as vital as ever.

Loverly is such a solid album that it's hard to pick just one standout track, but that honor has got to go to Wilson's interpretation of "St. James Infirmary." This version is so remote from Cab Calloway's famed original--with its unrelentlessly funky guitar part and breezy vocal delivery--that it will have you dancing about, well, wherever you may find yourself when you hear the tune, quickly forgetting that this was once a sad tale of someone dying of tuberculosis.

What an outstanding effort. One can only wonder what Wilson will have in store for us next time.

Friday, November 7, 2008

What's Playing | R.E.M.'s Green, 20 Years Later

by Cat Pick

Twenty years ago this week R.E.M. released Green, their first record on the Warner Brothers label. A follow up to the very successful Document (1987), Green failed to match Document’s sales, but still managed to go double platinum, bolstered by the giant singles “Pop Song ’89,” “Stand,” and “Orange Crush.”

Up to this point, I had loved every R.E.M. release, right from Chronic Town. But there was something different about Green. It had a dark and melancholy feel; even the seemingly upbeat songs were tinged with a kind of sadness, a world weariness maybe. As much as I had loved Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) and Document, this album spoke to me more than any other R.E.M. record had before. Much had always been made about the inscrutability of R.E.M.’s lyrics; not only were the meanings obtuse, the vocals themselves were often rather obscured and indistinct. But Green’s songs immediately seemed more concrete, more personal to Michael Stipe, and just more clear. Thus they became more personal to me.

Green starts with the upbeat “Pop Song ‘89” but I’ve always interpreted the song as a realization that perhaps you don’t know your intimates as well as you thought; that what you assumed was intimacy wasn’t and that in a flash everything had changed. In “Get Up,” I was immediately amused by Stipe’s repeated over-enunciation: “You’ve got all your lif-fa” , Peter Buck’s richocheting guitar and the big presence of Mike Mills' background vocals (which abound on the whole record). But before you can lose yourself in the song, Stipe drops the sobering line, “dreams, they complicate my lif-fa.” The line is tempered somewhat by that over-enunciation, but still the simple truth of those words always stops me short.

“You Are the Everything” has always been particularly evocative:
“You're in the back seat laying down
The windows wrap around
The sound of the travel and the engine
All you hear is time stands still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn't end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The stars are the greatest thing you've ever seen
And they're there for you
For you alone, you are the everything”

For most of my childhood we lived just a block and a half from a highway, I could see it from our front porch, and on late summer nights I would lie awake listening to the sounds of the cars and the trucks rushing by on the way to somewhere else. And just like Stipe, I would think of car travel with my parents; of being stretched out in the back seat, in the dark, the radio playing softly, my head against the cool vinyl upholstery while I gazed out the windows at the dark sky. Every time I hear the song, even now, even today, I’m transported to that backseat and I can feel the rumble of the car’s engine and the whoosh of the 18-wheelers passing us. And for a moment I can leave my adult life with its responsibilities and schedules and just be that little kid staring at the stars.

“Stand” is a bit of joyful noise, to me the most overtly optimistic of tunes on the record. It’s hard to remember now its initial impact, since the song became such a gigantic hit. The video was a mainstay on MTV (back when MTV actually showed things that didn’t “star” Lauren Conrad) with its goofy line dancing and folksy, rural imagery. The simplicity and naturalness makes me yearn for the days before every moderately successful musician employed a personal stylist.

Green continues to tool along on a lugubrious note until finally ending with an unlisted, untitled piece of hopeful melancholia so powerful I have come close to weeping every time I hear it. I’ve always thought the song was a paean to Stipe’s parents; a plea to for them to stay healthy and safe as he traveled around the world, miles and miles from home.

“I've seen the world and so-awake
And stay up late to hear me sing (keep her strong)
Just hold her
I've seen the world and so-awake
And stay up late to hear me sing (keep him strong)
Just hold him
Hold her and keep her strong (I've seen the world and so-awake)
While I'm away from here (So stay up late to hear me sing)
Hold him and keep him strong (I've seen the world and so-awake)
While I'm away from here (So stay up late to hear me sing)”

It’s a sweet and simple little song, starting with clicking percussion, with Mills' plaintive backing vocals adding just the right poignancy to an already emotionally-charged song. Call me sentimental, but when I hear this song I’ve always had a mental picture of an older couple, in robes and slippers, sitting on a couch, the blue glow of the television reflected in their glasses as they watch their rock star son with pride.

It’s hard to believe these songs have been with me for 20 years. Green, like all the best music, my favorite music, has the curious capacity to at once seem fresh and brand new while remaining comforting and familiar. It turned out that Green was the last R.E.M. album that I cared about; there were songs here and there that I loved, but never again (so far at least) did they put together such a beautifully cohesive set of songs such as this. I suppose it’s appropriate that this rather doleful record ended up an epitaph of sorts of my love affair with this band.