Wherever we’ve wandered the globe, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble calls us all home

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Sing Me Home — Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (Masterworks)

Hear how world music connects to basic human experience. Silk Road Ensemble’s best-yet cultural convergence is a companion album to Music of Strangers, a documentary of Ma’s pan-cultural troubadours by Oscar and Emmy-winning director Morgan Neville. This trip includes Bill Frisell, Rhiannon Giddens, Jeffrey Porter, Toumani Diabate, Sarah Jarosz, Abigail Washburn and a few Americana classics amid far-flung ethnomusicological riches.

Among the bejeweled highlights: “Ichicila,” with Diabate’s spangled kora and Balla Koutate’s warmer balafon; the vocals and sitar of Shujaat Khan improvising on the strangely blissful raga melody of “Madhoushi.” Giddens and Romani gypsy musicians re-casting the abject yet artful blues of “St. James Infirmary.” For all the globe-trotting, it’s all ultimately about the difference and commonality of home, as Washburn proves stunningly on Bohemian Antonin Dvorak’s beloved adaptation of the black spiritual “Goin’ Home,” intermingled with Chinese lyrics by Washburn’s vocal partner here, Keith Lipson, with Wu Tong.

Perhaps the most deeply celebratory piece is Kinan Azmeh’s “Wedding.” See SRE at the Global Musicians Workshop perform the tune live at The Tanglewood Festival. Take the ride on this video sequence of impassioned solos by trombone, shakuhachi flute, bagpipes, clarinet and sheng (wind) player Wu Tong’s vocals — unearthly yet yearning for the home a wedding strives to create. The playing is as hot and fiery as any jazz or improv piece I’ve heard in a long while. And the ensemble’s chemistry and dynamics fuel it.

The recorded version of ‘Wedding” is shorter and not as far-reaching. But the in-concert expansion of “Wedding” brings me to a key point about this group. When I saw them perform a while back, I discovered what I trust most do who see this group live – how vividly they embody the shared potential of the global human experience, which is intensifying with startling urgency, more and more every day throughout the world.

That’s also evident in Yo-Yo Ma’s curatorial role – his genius here is in his musical vision and remarkable humility given he’s among the world’s greatest cellists. On Call Me Home, one of the few times he allows his exquisite playing some space, is on “Cabalino,” a work song from Spain’s Galia region. With Taiko on drums, it’s a probing incantation that expresses the laborer’s dependency on a strong but vulnerable work horse.  Along with Davide Salvado’s mournful vocals, Ma’s cello beautifully conveys the symbiotic passion of the man and his creature.

“The Shingashi Song” is a fisherman chanty that describes the harsh life on the northern tip of Japan — “historically, a new frontier attracting pioneers in pursuit of their dreams,” writes Haruka Fujii, who arranged it.
He continues: “just as a rivers bend, in turn, ‘The Shingashi Song’ took on many forms before arriving at this arrangement for the ensemble.” They help the music “sail in the open ocean. Though the songs referenced are considered important cultural assets of Japan, many folk arts are struggling to survive as villages across the country face depopulation.”

Accordingly the music of cello and taiko drum contrasts the playfulness of a child’s game at home to the out-on-the-edge struggle of such fishermen.

You hear and envision how culture remains the lifeblood of indigenous peoples in their homes and work, even in the most inhospitable of places and circumstances. Our shared cultures can be powerful bridges as we all face as thousands of refugees continuing to flee what was once their homes in this tragic era of political strife and environmental catastrophe.

This album is as moving and comforting as it is soul-searching and transporting.

Geoff Keezer, a jazz messenger, defies the death of jazz like so many other flame-keepers

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Pianist Geoff Keezer and vocalist Gillian Margot at Blu nightclub in Milwaukee Saturday. Photo by Mark Davis

“Death don’t have no mercy in this land.” — Rev. Gary Davis

Saturday night I finally caught up with pianist Geoff Keezer again, and it’s sad that it took this long for me, due partly to over a decade of my very unsettled existence. But I think it’s also a comment on the state of jazz as a still-neglected if indomitable art form.

I had attended a convivial, if rain-swept, early-evening block party in my North River West Milwaukee neighborhood, so my girlfriend Ann and I had to change our cloths, and dry out. So we got to the Pfister Hotel’s 23rd-story nightclub Blu too late to get seats to appreciably hear and see Keezer.

But it was Saturday night at the high-altitude downtown hot spot and Keezer (and his talented current touring partner, vocalist Gillian Margot, who I can’t do justice to here) have enough of a rep to get an SRO crowd in their two-night stay.

We did have an expansive and romantic nocturnal view of Milwaukee’s Lake Michigan shoreline, with the music only fitfully filtering back, enough to hear Keezer’s ingenious adaptation of Peter Gabriel’s “Come Talk to Me.” The pianist’s irrepressibly affirmative performance of the song (here) beats back the night that The Grim Reaper always hopes to mercilessly claim again. Human connection perseveres.

Then a friendly but chatty conventioneer and outboard motor collector sat down in our far-flung corner and, for our ears, Keezer’s second set drowned in a flurry of motorboat memories, and the flotsam and jetsam left in its wake.

Water-logged once again (figuratively this time) and no closer to a better seat, we left before the end of the third set. But after the second set, I did get a chance to catch up with Keezer personally though we’d never actually met. I’d begun following his career since his earliest auspicious recordings on Columbia DIW. He played as the last pianist – with another Wisconsinite, trumpeter Brian Lynch – in the last edition of Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers, including the band’s final recording One for All, months before the firebrand drummer-bandleader’s death in 1990.

And that brings me to a theme of this column, the death of jazz musicians, including recently passed vibist Bobby Hutcherson. Though it’s hardly the death of the vernacular and art form, as musicians like Keezer, Lynch (no relation to the writer) and thousands of others prove daily.

Keezer, is from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which naturally piqued this Badger-state native’s interest when he first came to my attention in the early ’90s. There may be no better pianist to come out of Wisconsin. As David Velleman, a YouTube commentor, noted recently to Keezer: “A lot of piano players from WI Lynne Ariele, Ethan Iverson, Melvin Rhyne, (David) Hazeltine, Dan Nimmer, Jon Weber, etc. I think you and maybe Hiromi are the only pianists on earth who can play that Chromatic to Diminished to whole tone (all scales) (or that set of set of tones you heard.)…You the man!”

Last Saturday, when I bought a CD from Keezer and introduced myself to him, a few more things came to light.
I told him that I had last seen him as a member of the fairly audacious and visionary group The Contemporary Piano Ensemble, which toured across the country in the mid-1990s.
I told Keezer of the remarkable phenomenon of seeing these four great jazz pianists — Keezer, band founder James Williams, Mulgrew Miller and Harold Mabern — playing four grand pianos with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Tony Reedus. And that this had happened outdoors at the zoo, in Racine, of all places. I’d gone down to the Racine Zoo to hear the ensemble with a dear friend Jim Glynn, a popular disk-jockey on WMSE and amateur jazz-improv drummer and flutist who (thematic strains again) died before his time, in 2004.

Keezer recalled the concert but then admitted that he never realized he was playing at a zoo. The facility’s aesthetics and humane discretion had set aside a park-like setting with bandstand for its concert series. So it created a natural physical and acoustic cocoon from the zoo itself, probably so animals would not be unduly disturbed.

The CPE recorded only two albums, Four Pianos for Phineas, a tribute to pianist Phineas Newborn on Evidence, and The Key Players on Columbia DIW in 1993 (ex-Jazz Messenger pianist Donald Brown would sub on a few tunes, and on tour.)

contemporary pianoCover of “The Key Players” on Columbia DIW. Courtesy allmusic.com (top to bottom, Harold Mabern, Geoff Keezer, Mulgrew Miller, James Williams.)

But the Contemporary Piano Ensemble managed to be both straight-ahead and cutting-edge at the same time. Their repertoire of both standards and originals proved compelling and, in their eight piano hands, captivating and sometimes head-spinning. They rarely sounded gimmicky and, like the sort of “witch-doctor” Art Blakey could invoke, these musicians could shake, entrance and transform you. But they never felt like the musician-doctors who dole out medicine for the confused and weary patient, as some self-justifying improv music does.

Most amazingly, they rarely got in the way of each other, a sign of deep mutual respect of each other and their material. Here’s an example of that from The Key Players, as they play Miller’s “One’s Own Room.”
Carrying four grand pianos on tour must’ve been a bit like Hannibal leading his elephant-driven army over the mountains, so the group was perhaps as short-lived as it was memorable.

And the things Keezer carries today in his memory remain heavy. James Williams and Mulgrew Miller, friends since their days together at Memphis State University, both died young. Williams passed barely 51 in 2004 and Miller, the ensemble’s best-known pianist, died at 57 of a stroke in 2013.

“I think about them every day,” Keezer told me. “They were mentors, they were my guys,” and a clear melancholy fell momentarily over what appears to be the man’s naturally upbeat demeanor.

The ensemble’s senior member Harold Mabern survives, yet he knows of the death of jazz mates perhaps more than Keezer.  In 1965, Mabern began playing with Lee Morgan, among the most celebrated of Jazz Messengers. Mabern’s association with Morgan continued on and off until the night in February 1972 that Morgan was shot dead at Slug’s Saloon in lower Manhattan. Mabern was present at the killing, one of the most shocking in jazz history. Morgan was among the most fiery and soulful — and in his last years among the most politically engaged — musicians in jazz. That’s one of the most tragic jazz stories ever, as W.K. Aker’s article details here:

Death of a Sidewinder

Morgan was killed by the woman who had saved and loved him, and it’s a long story of drugs, co-dependency and what can happen when a person decides to start carrying a gun.

But for the piano ensemble, it’s notable that Mabern, Miller and Williams – all from Memphis (including Donald Brown) and all African-American – embraced the young white man from Eau Claire. It’s the jazz tradition of democracy and meritocracy – if you can play you can stay, and say your piece. In French, Eau Claire means “clear water” and if the deep, muddy Mississippi on the city’s shore ever provides clarity, it is when it offers up submerged American musical voices in the river for renewed scrutiny and historical appreciation.

Geoff Keezer, now based in San Diego, emerged from the Jazz Messenger hard-bop tradition, and helps advance the music’s ever-extending global currents, including world music and alt-rock. That’s clear on several of his more recent albums, including .
Aurea, Mill Creek Road (with San Diego guitarist Peter Sprague) and The Near Forever. But you can also pay it forward all alone, as in his most recent offering, a solo album, The Heart of the Piano. There you feel a certain loneliness, but also a deep connection to those who’ve come and gone, and left still-untold riches.

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Kevin Lynch (Kevernacular) is the author of the forthcoming book, Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.

 

For Milwaukee and America: Johnny Cash “tells it like it is” about guns

 

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Take your guitar to town, son, but not your guns. Courtesy moesrealm.com

Like many, I’ve been contemplating the tragic chaos of my hometown of Milwaukee (I drive through Sherman Park at least twice week) and the gun violence that triggered it, and all the other often-senseless gun killings we have endured, like a living hell, across America.

It’s also the most glaring spotlight this city has endured in a long time — for example, the long, page-one feature in Sunday’s New York Times. 

Then I was listening to some Johnny Cash videos and this one arose, like the Man in Black rising from his grave, to remind us of this great cautionary tale, which we seem to have forgotten. Guns seem to bolster all-too-many males’ sense of manhood and “rugged individualism” (misplaced in a loaded barrel, like a constipated-but-dangerous macho id, I think).

In the same sense, gun “power” too often seems to bring out our worst angels, those little demons who goad our basest, ugliest, racist instincts, as with this Neanderthal.

By contrast, we have Cash, one of the manliest of voices and men — who lived a pretty crazy, drug-marred life at times — speaking profound sense and sanity, in a nation addled with a tragic addiction to guns. Most readers know perhaps his best-known song “Folsom Prison Blues.” The prisoner-narrator recalls his mother warning him never to play with guns. “But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die/ When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry.”

This song, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” which he began singing in the late 1950s, has a disarming charm in its ambling melody and storytelling, but it’s message is deadly serious.

Listen to Johnny Cash, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers:

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of first-hand remembrances of vibraphonist-marmibist Bobby Hutcherson

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Bobby Hutcherson. Courtesy www.nga.ch

My recent blog appreciation of the great jazz vibraphonist and marimbist Bobby Hutcherson, who died August 15, prompted two first-hand remembrances of him, which I would like to share with readers.They provide insight into the personality and values of the man.

The first comment came from John Koenig, who produced the superb 1982 Hutcherson album Solo/Quartet (Contemporary/OJC), which combines several multi-tracked solo performances by Hutcherson, as well as several tunes performed with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Herbie Lewis and drummer Billy Higgins. I discussed the album in detail in that posting, here:

Bobby Hutcherson brought spiritual questing and down-home allure to the vibes

Producer John Koenig commented in a Facebook message:

“I enjoyed your piece very much. Of course, I’m thinking a lot about Bobby, one of my favorite people with whom I’ve worked, in the wake of his passing. For all of the appreciations I’ve seen in recent days from musicians and commentators alike, it’s a pity he wasn’t more recognized in his lifetime. But as he told me once when he turned down a proposed recording project that would have paid him a lot of money for an album of Stevie Wonder covers, ‘I’m not trying to get a new car; I’m trying to get to heaven.’ And, of course, I appreciate being remembered and recognized myself. So thanks for that.”

Bobby’s comment about the Wonder proposal was perhaps a measure of his integrity and values as a jazz musician. I imagine he appreciated Stevie Wonder, but likely felt that an album of his songs would come too close to commercial pandering. He had made a modest amount of very accessible R&B influenced “soul-jazz,” including some tracks on his very last album with saxophonist David Sanborn, Joey DeFrancesco and Billy Hart, titled Enjoy the View.

But he was a true artist of the hammered jazz instruments that encompass melody and harmony, a man shaped in the 1960s when jazz was expanding its parameters, staking new and sometimes challenging ground. Of course, Bobby’s aesthetic embraced sonic and melodic beauty as well.

.  So it’s somewhat ironic that a group that he co-founded, the SFJAZZ Collective, ended up recording two albums of Stevie Wonder songs. Their instrumental arrangements are rich in jazz harmony and rhythm, and I suspect that Hutcherson liked the recordings and perhaps wished he had been on them. The first recording, Wonder: The Songs of Stevie Wonder won a NAACP Spirit award for a jazz recording, which I think is well-deserved for an album that reaches out beyond the “pure jazz” audience. The second recording Music of Stevie Wonder and New Compositions: Live in New York 2011 Season maintained the collective’s balance of repertory and original compositions.

The second Hutcherson remembrance came from Chuck LaPaglia, the founder and owner of the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, which had a memorable run as a national and regional jazz showcase in the late 1970s and 1980s. Paglia went on to do musician booking for Yoshi’s, the San Francisco jazz club and restaurant. This charming remembrance is part of an introduction LaPaglia is writing for the online version of Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, an anthology of the extensive journalistic coverage his club commanded during those years (disclosure: The anthology includes a number of articles and reviews by this writer).

LaPaglia recalls the first time Hutcherson came to Milwaukee with his quartet in 1979, shortly after his primary influence Milt Jackson had played at the club:

“The next full band to play the club was the Bobby Hutcherson Quartet on October 29, 1979. For me, it was a particularly happy occasion to be able to hear Bobby one month after hearing Milt Jackson. I was especially sensitive to the vibes, having grown up with another great vibes player, Carl Leukaufe. The band drove from Chicago and arrived the afternoon before the gig. I was in the bar room when they showed up.

“When they came into the club they seemed to have some sort of attitude. I wasn’t sure what their problem was, but they seemed stiff and formal. The first night they got such a warm reception and such close attention from the audience that it completely turned them around. They suddenly were the nicest jazz musicians you’d ever want to meet.

“They left on Halloween. As they were outside the club packing up the car, a Halloween parade of little kids from the local grammar school came marching down the street. Bobby ran half a block to meet them, and then proceeded to lead the parade, twirling an imaginary baton. When he got back to the corner, he got down on his knees and blew kisses to all the kids as they passed by.”

Hutcherson was a human who suffered, and ultimately died, from complications of Emphysema. My thanks to John and Chuck for adding a bit more dimension to our understanding of this human, and perhaps the greatest artistic proponent of the vibraphone in the second half of the 20th century.

 

 

 

 

 

Bobby Hutcherson brought spiritual questing and down-home allure to the vibes

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The late vibes and marimba player Bobby Hutcherson. Courtesy www.nga.ch

On another sultry but beautiful day yesterday, I had to get away from the computer and outside in the afternoon. So I went out to nearby Kern Park and shot some baskets and, because I was the only one with a ball, I attracted a few other guys and we ended up getting into a game of hustle that included one 6 foot 2 dude who could dunk the ball, another built like a linebacker, and an 11-year-old who consistently sunk high school three-pointers from beyond the top of the key! It was great fun and then I did some grocery shopping in my sweaty shirt, and when I came home I did not want to go back to the computer or Facebook.

So I didn’t learn about vibes and marimba player Bobby Hutcherson’s death until I peeked at Facebook at about 10 PM and noticed Howard Mandel’s recommendations for listening to Hutcherson albums. My heart sank because I figured he’d been prompted by Hutcherson dying. I scroll down and found a few more posted tributes and then Nate Chinen’s New York Times obit. The great musician had died Monday at age 75, at his home in California, after years of struggling with emphysema.

Although I studied piano, Hutcherson was the guy who, more than anyone, had me fantasizing about playing the vibes, from time to time.

Last night I immediately thought back to one of the very first phone interviews I ever did when I began covering jazz for The Milwaukee Journal in the fall of 1979. It was with Bobby Hutcherson, who was to be performing at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, and I still have the cassette recording of the interview because he so impressed me when a hung up the phone. I thought to myself, this was one of the most musically dedicated and spiritual persons I have ever spoken to.

Part of that openness to the spiritual or psychic or the subconscious arose in an anecdote he related to me about the great wind multi-instrumentalist, Eric Dolphy, with whom he had spent time playing and recording with in the 1960s for Dolphy’s premature death.

Hutcherson recalled: “Eric used to call me up, maybe 4 o’clock in the morning, tell me his dreams. He’d say,’ Bobby, write this down.’ Things like, ‘one, six, eight, 17.’ You know, numbers and letters. He dreamt these things as if they might mean something, like intervals or scales or chords.

“The next morning he met me at my house and we would try to figure out what it meant, and try to play something from that dream.”

Earlier in the interview, Hutcherson also said: “I want to play some tunes that people can hum, you know, just as long as I can still make a living being true to myself and giving something to people. They can respect you for digging into the music. Like there’s still some hope in this or it lasts, because it’s for real. It helps to destroy some of the plasticity of this world.”

You sensed in the man and his playing the desire to create beauty but also to press ahead with an insistent sense of what was musically possible and that might change things for the better, at least a bit.

I was also fortunate to have just heard, in person at the Jazz Gallery, Hutcherson’s greatest inspiration vibist Milt Jackson, a few weeks before I interviewed Hutcherson. And there was no doubt that the great Jackson showed that he was the master of both the blues as expressed in through this ostensibly non-blues-friendly instrument, and the king of vibes swinging, against and around the rhythm.

Then Hutcherson played Milwaukee in late October, 1979, and looking back at my review (in the anthology of Milwaukee Jazz Gallery press coverage published by the Riverwest Artists Association) I noted an affinity with another great jazz musician that he would collaborate with quite often, pianist McCoy Tyner. The review headline is “Jazz Storm has Serene Center.” I wrote: “The effect is precisely that rare sense of drama that can be found these days in the group of McCoy Tyner, but with no saxophone for easy ascent. Hutcherson struggles and thrashes, reaching, reaching. But he never quite gets to the note, even if you heard it.” That was the sense of purpose and ever-driving momentum and ultimately questing that gave a backbone to Bobby Hutcherson’s stylistic beauty and spiritual balance.

Just a few days before his death, I had been thinking about Hutcherson and had pulled out a few of his CDs to listen to, including one of his later and lesser-known Blue Note albums called Patterns (1968), which is marvelous and a bit challenging with James Spaulding’s bracing alto. But there’s also plenty of color, texture and pattern with Spaulding’s flute and, of course, Hutcherson’s vibes and Joe Chambers’s artful percussion play.

Here is Hutcherson’s stately but swinging title tune Patterns.

There are a number of other excellent Hutcherson albums including his heady Blue Note debut Dialogue with pianist Andrew Hill and the great Madison, Wisconsin bassist Richard Davis, recorded shortly after Hutcherson and Davis had collaborated with Eric Dolphy on his masterwork album Out to Lunch. There is also the meaty Stick Up! with Tyner and saxophonist Joe Henderson, and the ambitious nine-musician album Spiral.

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Hutcherson’s ambitious debut on Blue Note, “Dialogue.” diskunion.net

By contrast, also recall Hutcherson playing on guitarist Grant Green’s languid soul-jazz classic Idle Moments.

Then there are two albums that feature Hutcherson’s warmly alluring marimba as well: Components from 1965 with “Little B’s Poem” — “the lilting modern waltz written for his son Barry,” as Chinen notes, and Hutcherson’s best-known tune.

Another notable marimba-colored album is Blue Note’s 1966 Happenings, a quartet date with Herbie Hancock that includes Hutcherson’s gorgeous meditation “Bouquet” and a superb reading of Hancock’s modern standard “Maiden Voyage” and the weirdly witty free-jazz piece “The Omen.”

Also consider the album Oblique, another quartet with Hancock, which includes the pianist’s theme from the classic French new wave film Blow Up. The theme’s intoxicatingly catchy chordal vamp can get you dancing but also carry you someplace.

My most specific appreciation, however, will be reconsidering one of Hutcherson’s most personal recordings (on Contemporary/OJC) which I just listened to again. It’s called Solo/Quartet recorded in 1982 with McCoy Tyner, Herbie Lewis and Billy Higgins.

Solo/Quartet

“Solo/Quartet” is one of Hutcherson’s most personal projects. allmusic.com

It opens with three pieces that Hutcherson recorded solo, with multi-track overlays. The first is “Gotcha,” wherein the marimba takes the improvised solo, conveying the intense repetitive patterns of Hutcherson’s kind of the blues feel, but also a sense of spiritual wonder. He’s “gotcha” — caught you in the resounding percussive melodic web layered here by multi-tracking. It’s simple but complex in its charms.

Then comes “For You, Mom and Dad,” a humble but radiant lyrical theme with the sort of resonating and questing peak notes that were part of Hutcherson’s characteristic open-mindedness, his sense of possibility. Again his marimba takes the improv lead and its warm, woody wit is elevated into stunning arpeggios circling to a climactic high note, and then he sustains intensity while revisiting the theme with tubular bells backing it. Hutcherson had managed with nothing but the striking of metal and wood instruments to create a spiritual vibe that is nevertheless, down-to-earth enough to be understood as a song tribute to his parents. As if to say, look, mom and dad. This is what I’ve been able to create partly because you were there, and supported me all the way. Even though his dad wanted him to be a bricklayer.

I love Chinen’s story about Hutcherson driving a cab during hard times in New York with his vibraphone in the taxi trunk.

What the wouldn’t-be bricklayer built was a new way for the vibraphone, in a mode different from what his great contemporary Gary Burton did with his four-hammer virtuosity.

The following solo tune on Solo/Quartet “The Ice Cream Man,” is another example of this musician’s balance between playful earthiness and psychic wonder. He’s clearly mimicking some of the sounds recalled from the bell-ringing, neighborhood-trolling ice cream trucks of his youth, but the sound of the note decay of the vibraphone is perhaps the key to the piece. This sostenuto effect opens the mind up, even as the melodic and rhythmic patterns beneath it engage you. The repeated playing of the theme is not tiresome; rather something you tend to savor, like every lick of an ice cream bar on a hot summer day. It keeps you rolling with the truck’s chiming melody, and in Hutcherson’s aura. The total effect is enchanting and transporting and yet he’s taking us back to familiar experience, like the best memoirists.

Hutcherson does this all by himself because his own personal life and experience is being relived and transmuted into a vivid almost cinematic environment. I know of no vibist who has accomplished so much all by himself on a recording.

The album’s last three tunes re-unite the Stick-Up! rhythm section, the great McCoy Tyner on piano, Hutcherson’s long-time friend, bassist Herbie Lewis, and the wondrously dancing drummer Billy Higgins.

“La Alhambra” is a Hutcherson piece of brief ascending and descending rhythmic phrases with very shapely chord changes implying a classic Latin rhythm, with bass and drums percolating beneath. Tyner’s astonishing, muscular, supercharged energy comes cascading out of the chute, but he fully honors spirit of his friend’s composition with its Latin rhythmic allusions.

Solo/Quartet is also remarkable because, as producer John Koenig explains in his liner notes, “during the album’s planning stages Bobby had an almost tragic mishap with a power lawn mower in which he sustained an injury to the index finger of his right hand which nearly ended his career.”

During this convalescence, Hutcherson had time to reflect on what he really wanted to say in such a personal project, and thus the true quality and depth of Solo/Quartet was born.

The next two tunes are two of the finest old standards in the repertoire book, both soulful vehicles that singers usually make the best of. But Hutcherson feels rightly that his vibes can do songful justice to both “Old Devil Moon” and “My Foolish Heart.” And he’s absolutely right.

Again, it is his combination of swirling pattern-making and eloquent melodic phrasing that lifts the songs as high as an old devil moon and as deep as a heart, foolish though it may be.

The album closes with Hutcherson’s “Messina,” a characteristic melding of subtlety and whirling, surfing rhythmic momentum, the sort of tune he might’ve dreamed up watching the powerful ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean near the home he built in the coastal town of Montara, California, which is his native state.

Solo/Quartet is such a marvelous record also because Tyner is a very kindred musician and this quartet swings deeply in a very modern ways, shifting and sifting through phrasing implied by the melodic changes. Clearly Hutcherson learned a lot from Milt Jackson about swinging, then found his own way to do it.

In 1986, Hutcherson also has an interesting brief apprearance in a wonderful feature film Round Midnight by Bertrand Tavernier which stars saxophonist Dexter Gordon as a dying jazz great in Paris. Hutcherson plays a sort of expatriate but down-home cooking connoisseur in an amusing role. Yet it fits in with the man’s aesthetic for finding the good, beautiful and soulful — even in the most unlikely or displaced of places.

bobby media.npr.org

Bobby Hutcherson. Courtesy media.npr.org

Now, since the passing of other great California modern jazz giants like saxophonists Art Pepper and Joe Henderson, big-band leader and composer Gerald Wilson, and now Hutcherson, the historic role of the West Coast, in post-bop and modern jazz is beginning to become clearer, set against the somewhat East Coast-centric focus of modern jazz. West Coast cool jazz was a contrast to East Coast energy, but as a summation of the region the label always fell short. All these deceased musicians, and others like Horace Tapscott, Arthur Blythe, and The Bobby Bradford-John Carter Quartet embodied West Coast creative fire, as finely calibrated as theirs could be.

The brilliant SFJAZZ Collective, with Hutcherson-influenced vibist Warren Wolf, exemplifies that West Coast modernism today, as both a repertory band and a vehicle for its members’ original compositions. Hutcherson co-founded the collective. Don’t be surprised if they honor him with a recording of his compositions.

Let us always think in such larger terms when we consider the qualities of such a wide and deep art form as jazz, and the great musicians who brought contrasting and complementary sensibilities to advancing it.

Hutcherson’s long, gleaming vibes tones will always radiate, like a Pacific lighthouse beacon in the darkness, through the music’s history.

Stoughton Opera House harvests another bountiful season of Americana music

Stoughton profile pondThe renovated and revitalized Stoughton Opera House, built at the dawn of the 20th century, now is a Midwest mecca for American roots music.

 

Single-ticket sales to The Stoughton Opera House 2016-2017 season begin today, Monday, August 15. Subscriptions are still available (See website link at bottom of story).

Here’s the roots of this story. First opened February 22, 1901, The Stoughton Opera House closed down in 1953 and fell into disrepair after years of success as a venue for a wide variety of entertainment.

But thankfully, in the 1980s, enough people in the Wisconsin city of 13,000 realized the building’s value as an acoustically resonant gem, along with its distinctive architectural felicities. They also understood its potential as an economic boost to the community and to its vital respectability. The venue is situated on the second and third floors of the building that houses the local government of Stoughton, which straddles the Yahara River and is located about 20 miles southeast of Madison, WI. (The city is also known for its Norwegian heritage, and Stoughton hosts a citywide celebration of Syttende Mai, the Norwegian constitution day.)

So “The Friends of the Opera House” were formed and they went to work. They managed to raise funds to renovate and re-open the facility on February 22, 2001 — 100 years to the day after it first opened.
That’s one thing Arthur C. Clarke could not have anticipated in his visionary 1968 book 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was made into a classic film by Stanley Kubrick.

And yet, before the “friends” went to work on restoration, the old building with its stately clock tower even had a hole in the roof, through which anyone could gaze to the heavens and imagine a trip to Venus to encounter the 2001 “star child.” Nothing else was happening inside.

Of course, Clarke and Kubrick were heaven gazers themselves, rather than looking down into the roots of American culture, where all kinds of indigenous vernacular music were simmering about that time, in traditional, alt- and utterly new forms. The “friends” had a strong sense of that, and especially Bill Brehm and Christina Dollhausen who were hired to run the place.

Sure enough, since 2001 the 475-seat Stoughton Opera House has become one of the Midwest’s most resplendent homes for American roots music, and other live entertainment. The SOH 2016-2017 season continues the venue’s success story with a classy and diverse line-up of the top names in Americana music as well as worthy regional artists.
A measure of strong audience response is that one of the year’s most-anticipated acts, Texas singer-songwriters, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, were sold out for their two nights on Oct. 21-22 – from advance subscription sales only.

A third night with Lovett and Keen (Thursday, Oct 20) has been added, right as single ticket sales begin Monday, August 15.

Lovett and Keen are highly distinctive singers and performers, and also exemplify an extraordinarily large generation of baby-boomer songwriter-performers born in Texas. This group developed into a major part of the backbone of outstanding singer-songwriters in roots music today, led by the example of such elder Texans as Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clark, who died recently but not before playing at the Stoughton Opera House in a memorable concert, Brehm says.

AUSTIN, TX - MAY 22: Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett, photographed at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas on May 22, 2013. Photograph © 2013 Darren Carroll

AUSTIN, TX – MAY 22: Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett, photographed at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas on May 22, 2013. Photograph © 2013 Darren Carroll

 

Another trio of gifted performers from that Texas era is The Flatlanders (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock), a super-group of sorts, but genial and unassuming performers nevertheless. Scheduling complications have forced the date of their appearance in Stoughton into the TBA category.

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The Flatlanders, Courtesy songkick.com

Before we move beyond the Lone Star State factor, another member of that remarkable Texas singer-songwriter generation, Ray Wylie Hubbard, will perform May 5, 2017. He’s a bit of a cult figure who has an eccentric style with “a twinkle in his eye,” says SOH director Bill Brehm. Hubbard’s offbeat musicality and poetics often betray surprising, sage-like wisdom.

Ray Wylie

Ray Wylie Hubbard

One more singer-songwriter booked is of comparable high quality, but lesser profile, though he’s respected among peers and in the music industry. Kentucky-born Darrell Scott (Nov. 11)  has won an Americana Music Association award for best song in 2007 for “Hank Williams’ Ghost,” from his album, The Invisible Man. Scott also has won an ASCAP Songwriter Of the year award and, in 2010, toured as a member of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. Believe me, Scott proved how dynamic a live performer he is when I saw him a few years back at the Blue Plum Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee.

Among the other season highlights are perhaps the kings of contemporary traditional bluegrass, The Del McCoury Band, which has made the Stoughton venue a sort of second home, playing there almost annually. The McCourys play April 8, 2017.

Also, traditional country music giant and popular TV show host Marty Stuart will play twice with his Fabulous Superlatives, for matinee and an evening shows, on March 18, 2017.

Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives.

Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives.

Another even more legendary name is Noel Paul Stookey – of Peter, Paul and Mary fame –- who will play on March 17, 2017.

And bluegrass fiddle whiz Rhonda Vincent and her band The Rage will tear it up at the opera house on March 31, 2017.Rhonda Vincent

Rhonda Vincent

The opera house staff is very cognizant of younger talent with the chops to grow and make an artistic impact. Stoughton often tests the local waters for such performers by booking them at the venue’s annual outdoor Independence Day-weekend Catfish River Festival. One such young group, which has now graduated to the indoor season, is The Cactus Blossoms, a brotherly duo playing Nov. 3, whom director Brehm and others compare to the Everly Brothers.

Finally, I can think of few performers who seem to have their feet growing right out of the deepest, funkiest, sinewy roots of American vernacular music than traditional rural-blues singer-songwriter-string player Charlie Parr. He’ll perform with kindred musician Willy Tea Taylor on March 24, 2017.

charlie parr

Charlie Parr

But there’s plenty more performers and events where all that came from. For information on The Stoughton Opera House and its 2016-2017 season, visit their website.

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Photos courtesy The Stoughton Opera House, except as noted.

 

 

The Navajo people of Dinetah, their sacred land and the poison onslaught of coal mining

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The sacred and stunning beauty of the Dinetah land is under siege from long, destructive coal mining. tumblr.com

It’s a story as old as the massacre of Wounded Knee, if not as overtly dramatic. But see and judge for yourself the human and environmental impact of coal mining in this Native American land.

The short but unforgettable documetary video Mining and Resistance in Dinetah, depicts the Navajo Nation of Dinetah and the ongoing onslaught of coal mining and fracking. The Dinetah includes portions of New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Southern Colorado.

The indigenous people consider their long-time native land as “a sacred landscape, because it is alive.” Yet it is caught in a steady, deadly spiral, due to the pursuit of profits and energy. The land and its native people have struggled since the Reagan administration deemed this a “national sacrifice land.”

Each year, the mines emit “700 thousand to a million tons of coal particles,” one native Dinetah says in the story.

They consider the mining “continuous genocide, still happening today,” says one young Dinetah resistor.

See how they suffer, endure and resist. And art plays a big role with these people in their struggle to survive.

dinetah woman kcet.org.

In the Laura Flanders Show documentary, “Mining and Resistance in Dinetah,” a Navajo woman endures and resists the devestation of her homeland from coal-mining. kcet.com

My gifted young friend Jonathan Klett from Milwaukee, oldest son of my dear friends John and Mary Klett, was primary cameraman and editor for this film for The Laura Flanders Show, where he is a senior producer and co-creative director.

For me, this is the finest documentary Jon’s been involved with to date, because of its power and human truth, ugly and immoral as it too often seems. But especially because the story of these Native Americans – the most under-discussed minority in current politics – shows us the stunning beauty of their home environment, the quiet drama of a land at a crossroads in its ravaged heart.

The region is harsh and austerely beautiful and the intrepid progressive British journalist Laura Flanders, the documentary crew and the Dinetah themselves do so much to show the relationships between those magnificent and nuanced aspects of nature and the courageous people who call it home.

The Laura Flanders Show airs weekly in English & Spanish on TeleSUR and also on KCET/LINKtv and other venues. Get more information at lauraflanders.com

The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Wheels of Soul 2016 tour keeps on truckin,’ with Los Lobos…

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Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, here performing in White River State Park in Indianapolis, may be pop music’s most talented and hardest-working couple.

A Southerly Cultural Travel Journal

Indianapolis — A wall of dark, broad-shouldered clouds hovered above the massive J. W. Marriott Hotel, surely one of the largest facades this side of the United Nations building, with mirror windows that reflect myriad aspects of the sky’s caprice. The building looms over the Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn, nestled along the refurbished White River Canal, which includes ancient canal lock foundations sitting in the middle of the water like giant grizzled, brick turtles. Those clouds felt ominous for the big outdoor concert headlined by The Tedeschi Trucks Band, which my girlfriend and I were walking towards.

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Just east of the park at Lucas Oil Stadium, The Indianapolis Colts prepared for a new season. But the sky eventually mimicked the clouds, merely growing darker as the sun set.

We arrived too late to see the opening set of the North Mississippi All-Stars, but the band’s star guitarist, Luther Dickinson, came on to jam on a couple of songs when Los Lobos hit the stage. This sort of band commingling is part of the “Wheels of Soul 2016” tour concept, in which members of the three bands sit in with each other. Soon, Susan Tedeschi walked on unannounced in a pastel green print summer dress and sang an impassioned version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” with “the wolves” providing sparkling vocal support in high harmony. Gaye’s imploring lyrics resonated with our times, with such lines as “Picket lines and picket signs/ Don’t punish me with brutality./ Talk to me, so you can see.” Tedeschi especially drove home hard the line “For only love can conquer hate.”

Los Lobos

Los Lobos, going strong for more than 40 years, preceeded the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

Next thing you knew, guitarist Derek Trucks and his band’s three horn players stepped out and the impromptu ensemble cranked up a monster guitar ensemble riff (with four guitars now onstage), jousting with the horns, with heavy musical armor clanking.

Los Lobos, the remarkable Latino group from East Los Angeles, remains a force with the same personnel over 40 years, and a joy to behold. Their last album, Gates of Gold shows absolutely no loss of creative and performing powers. Yet, although the band soon fell into a deliciously rocking groove, they offered very little material from that album, aside from “That Train Don’t Leave Here Anymore.” But singer-guitarist Cesar Rosas remains a growling and prowling rock ‘n’ roll voice, and the train rumbled down its track with abandon.

The band members offer a study in onstage contrasts: Rosas is the voluble hipster in goatee and shades. Bassist Conrad Lozado bounces along merrily in shorts and a perpetual grin. Bespectacled and largely mum Louie Perez, the band’s resident poet/songwriter, resembles a college professor who just discovered the joys of the electric guitar, but his serious, pursed lips won’t let on. Behind him, the band’s only comparative youngster, drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzales, stokes the beat with zealous relish.

And beside short, slight Perez stands his hulking counterpart and old high school compadre, singer-guitarist-multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, who always seems slightly afflicted by soulful pain. To his left, keyboardist-saxophonist Steve Berlin lurks in shades and long, gray goatee, like a mysterious monk summoning the music of the spheres.

Their set was too short but rich, especially with the personnel mixing.

After a break on this sultry night, The Tedeschi Trucks Band ensued. Their latest album, Let Me Get By, bears a liberated Mongolian eagle as its iconic cover symbol, and the great raptor hovered majestically in a large background projection (below).

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There are many aspects to singer Susan Tedeschi’s vibrantly expressive vocal style, including a tendency to sing out of the side of her mouth, as above.

And the group consistently liberates itself in pushing the boundaries of an array of genres – the blues, R&B, rock, gospel, jazz, and even country – by strapping them together in various stripes in their distinctive originals. So we heard such TTB standouts as “Bound for Glory,”  “The Storm,” “Let Me Get By,” the Sly Stone-esque “Don’t Know What It Means,” “Right On Time,” the pulsing rainbow of a song redolent of an old Beatles brass-band rave-up, and the raga-soul “Midnight in Harlem,” where tenor saxophonist Kebbi Williams took a superb solo in place of Trucks’ usual guitar spotlight. The sax conveyed a sudden revelation amid the song’s bittersweet story of loss and urban desperation, and felt like a tender smile and a sigh bleeding together.

Trucks seemed to share the spotlight more than usual this night, and yet he delivered an understated but stunning “raga” passage, which introduces “Midnight.”

This seemingly improvised raga works with the song’s tonalities more than its chords or melody, per se (until he states the melody at the end of the improv). It’s his time to explore the guitar especially with Eastern classical microtonalities, tunings and fingerings, as well as the spirit of East-meets-West. For this band, I think, Harlem might signify the essence of The West. The East, accordingly serves to illuminate things about the West.

So in this intro solo, Trucks uncovered some bizarrely enchanting sitar-related voicings that I don’t think I’ve heard on a guitar before. People like Mike Bloomfield and George Harrison opened the door for this, via the great sitar master Ravi Shankar, of course (with jazz guitarists like Gabor Szabo pioneering a jazz-middle eastern connection about the same time, the mid-60s). But Trucks is very quietly (considering his fame) expanding the vocabulary and expressive palette of the contemporary electric guitar through this realm, and his astonishingly developed slide-guitar technique facilitates that search, with its emphasis on striking and strange harmonics more than precise, Western-style chords. This all seems important to him. The sum of his effort works beautifully as an intro to the depths as “Midnight” plumbs — as if he’s setting a cinematic mood and scenario and a consciousness-expanding spirit for this vivid and powerful song.

Tedeschi Trucks Band

Tedeschi Trucks Band

Derek Trucks plays at the Wheels of Soul 2016 tour in Indianapolis on July 27. His highly developed bottleneck slide technique facilitates his exploration of Eastern tonalities in his “raga” modes. Photo by Chris Shaw of Indianapolis.

It’s a prime example of how these road-tested stagecoach riders know where they’re going with their reins on all those vernacular styles because they know where they came from. Tedeschi swerved into honky tonk on “The Color of the Blues,” where the blues married a barroom cowgirl in this chestnut by George Jones, the magnificent country vocal stylist who died in 2013. Accompanied only by her own guitar and background vocals from Mike Mattison and trombonist Elizabeth Lea, the lead singer mined the dolorous lyricism implicit in the blues.

She also tore into the old Bobby Blue Bland hit “I Pity the Fool” and ratcheted it up higher than when I saw her perform it in Madison on the band’s previous tour. Towards the end of the song, she unleashed a sassy rap like a righteous black woman putting her wayward man in his place. I mean, for a white woman from Boston with a little-girl talking voice, Ms. Tedeschi was dealin’!

Also convincingly covered were ZZ Top’s “Going Down to Mexico.” The Box Tops’ “The Letter,” and Sly and the Family Stone’s boisterous “Are You Ready?” which improbably tested the audience’s readiness for their almost comically drastic gear shift into an extraordinary rendition of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” Here, a relatively new band weapon emerged when background singer Mark Rivers took the vocal lead. The song’s bittersweet reflection swelled into nearly operatic heights but never felt overblown, partly due to its doo-wop colorations.

If any band can redefine and re-invigorate American music by embracing the best its many vernaculars have to offer, it is Tedeschi Trucks. At times theirs feels like a journey into valleys as shadowy as the mythical American  “Mystery Train,” but they invariably chug up to the crest where it all makes sense in the sunlight, like a train bound for nowhere else but glory.

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All photos by Kevin Lynch, except as indicated.

 

 

 

 

Larry Young’s oceanic organ resurfaces after 38 years

larry young jetsetrecords

jetsetrecords.com

Larry Young — In Paris: The ORTF Recordings (Resonance)

This two-CD set represents the first recordings in nearly 38 years by the late, pioneering organist who played on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Carlos Santana’s Love, Devotion and Surrender, and John McLaughlin’s Devotion and in the ground-breaking jazz-fusion group The Tony Williams Lifetime. These recordings feature the innovative trumpeter Woody Shaw who would soon record with Young on perhaps his best-known album under his own name Unity, recorded in Nov. 1965 for Blue Note.

These never-before-released recordings, made in France, date from 1964 and represent important milestones in the development of the greatest innovator in jazz organ since Jimmy Smith. If Smith was the Oscar Peterson of the organ, Young was the McCoy Tyner — or the John Coltrane — of organ, as some claimed.

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Organist Larry Young. Courtesy allaboutjazz.com

Among jazz’s freshest voices, Young’s organ swam like a shadowy dolphin, unfurling Tyner-esque fourths for a more expansive, mysterious sound. As Young often evoked oceanic depths, Woody Shaw’s trumpet caught the sun like a sea bird’s flashing wings. Shaw’s innovations included systematic “symmetrical cycles of intervals” and a “staggering fluency in pentatonic and modal scales,” says trumpeter Brian Lynch.1

Shaw’s percolating, fiery ideas hang together brilliantly atop Young’s streaming whirlpools. This two-CD set includes two excellent Shaw tunes, “Zoltan” and “Beyond All Limits” from their soon-recorded Unity album, and Wayne Shorter’s classic, “Black Nile.”

In Paris finds Young feeding on the blues and hard-bop traditions but you also hear steps towards the unknown, strivings for revelation. The discs also include a rare recording of Young on piano on “Larry’s Blues,” which closes the set.

In later years, Young grew more spiritual, free and modal on his recordings, embracing Islam and changing his name to Khalid Yasin. Of Love and Peace, with saxophonist-flutist James Spaulding and trumpeter Eddie Gale, and long renditions of Morton Gould’s “Pavanne” and “Seven Steps to Heaven,” allows his misterioso organ plenty room to soar and marvel the listener. He recorded memorably with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (listed as a “mystery guest”) and guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer on Lawrence of Newark in 1973, a performance at once earthy and transporting.

Young died in 1978, at 37 with pneumonia symptoms, though the exact cause of death remains unclear.

The Paris recordings also represents one of the many highlights of the extraordinary Resonance Records, which specializes in searching out historic unreleased jazz recordings. In 2014, they released a late John Coltrane recording, Offering: Live at Temple University, which was among the most celebrated historical recordings of the year.

Producer Zev Feldman, who’s been called “The Indiana Jones of Jazz,” travels around the world to unearth quality previously-unreleased recordings. Resonance’s most recent releases include an brilliant and historic album by The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra; two by Stan Getz from 1967, including a reunion with Joao Gilberto, the bossa-nova master who helped Getz become a jazz superstar; live recordings by the supreme jazz vocal diva Sarah Vaughan; and other live recordings by the great pianist Bill Evans, Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest, the only studio recordings by the trio including bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

BillEvans2Courtesy resonancerecords.org

Producer Feldman draws from a long Milwaukee family history in jazz. He developed much of his love for jazz while spending extensive time in Milwaukee in the 1980s, where his grandmother lived right next door to Peaches Records on Silver Spring Dr., where he built his jazz collection.

Feldman’s great uncle was the revered Milwaukee jazz clarinet player Joe Aaron, who served the Milwaukee community where he taught music for over 50 years. Milwaukee pianist Frank Stemper calls Aaron “the best clarinetist I ever heard.” But Joe’s older brother, Zev’s great uncle Abe Aaron, was the real family star. He toured the world playing jazz (all reeds) with Les Brown (on all of those famous USO tours with Bob Hope and in the studio), Jack Teagarden, and others in Hollywood studios. Zev’s cousin is flutist Rick Aaron, who still performs in the Milwaukee area.

Feldman’s vision and enterprise recently earned him Down Beat magazine’s “rising star producer” award in its 2016 jazz critics poll.

The Resonance recordings website is here.

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  1. Brian Lynch, Brass School: “A Latin Jazz Perspective on Woody Shaw,” Down Beat Magazine, April, 2016, 76-81
  2. This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express

 

 

 

“My Thanks, My Tears” – In Honor and Memory of Bill Schaefgen

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The late trombonist and composer Bill Schaefgen, attending a book reading of mine at Habeas Lounge Riverwest at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts / Riverwest Artists Association in August 2014. Photo by Linda Pollack

 The duende “pierced her with a dart … for having stolen his deepest secret, the subtle bridge that unites the five senses with the raw wound, that living cloud, a stormy ocean of Love freed from Time.” — Federico Garcia Lorca from “Play and the Theory of Duende.” (for Lee Brady)

This is my own personal eulogy for my longtime friend, the esteemed and remarkable musician and composer Bill Schaefgen, co-founder and principal composer of the remarkably courageous and forward-thinking Milwaukee jazz group What On Earth?

Bill died on Sunday, June 26, at 76, of cancer. The group thrived, at least artistically, from 1974 to the early 1980s, but they never released a recording. However, a reunion of the group — sadly without Bill, who could no longer play the trombone — has made a recording of his music. Schaefgen had been stricken a couple decades ago by a rare neuropathic disease, which cruelly disabled his arms and prevented him from holding up and playing a trombone. Longtime WOE? guitarist Jack Grassel hopes that reunion recording will be released soon. Check with this blog for information on that.

I meant to present this eulogy at Bill’s lovely memorial a few weeks ago at Hoyt Park’s Great Hall but, because of a hectic day, I witlessly left a copy of it at home. Sorely missing from the event was a segment devoted to listening to Bill’s music. A small boombox played What On Earth? in the far corner of the large hall was largely obliterated by all the socializing. (I neglected to mention when I first posted this, Jack Grassel provided complimentary CDs from a What On Earth? live concert from January 22, 1978 at the Water Street Arts Center. The CD, not commercially available, was a valuable memento for mourners. And most of the remembrances of Bill were warm, thoughtful and often humorous) So I offer some music here, for anyone who knew Bill and his music, and anyone who may be curious about it.

The eulogy starts out as a comment on Bill’s composition called “Cleansing” from a private WOE recording from 1974 that I helped Bill get transferred from tape to CD, with the assistance of the great Madison recording and production studio Audio for the Arts. Then my comment transitions into a more personal eulogy.

Fate often toys cruelly with art, as with life. Bandleader, principal composer and trombonist Bill Schaefgen’s ability to perform music was killed off some years ago by a terrible neuropathy, which has slayed the arms and hands that hoisted the eloquent trombone.

So What on Earth? has laid dormant for decades but now it’s music finally rises Phoenix-like from dust into a living cloud. This recording opens with Bill Schaefgen’s tune “Cleansing,” Here’s a sample of it:

 

 

“Cleansing” is one of the most moving and profound trombone performances I’ve ever heard. I hope the whole piece becomes available because, as fine a trombonist as he was in his prime, Schaefgen was a greater composer. And this piece is beautifully conceived as a ten-and-a-half-minute tone poem This music can provide a deep inlet to whatever one brings to this title’s meaning. Schaefgen’s life seems abjectly bared, his secrets and his soul. The performance unfold like a holy ritual. The melody, radiating unadorned beauty, is a fraught offering, rising deliberately to a quiet crest of open spirit, then it modulates to a higher plaintive register of sorrow.  Grassel underpins Schaefgen’s wounded horn with a high guitar drone. Schaefgen’s brief unaccompanied solo chills me, a man exposed with his deepest thoughts and feelings. Grassel joins in tender dialogue, and then Leigh Cowen showers his limpid, pearlescent Fender Rhodes piano over it. Mitar Mitch Covic’s bowed bass appears as a spectral, groaning ghost. The tonality and mood carry a deep Spanish tinge. Miles Davis’ magnificent “Saeta” from the classic album Sketches of Spain comes to mind.

And here is where I hear the Spanish poet Lorca’s sense of duende, “that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain,” as the poet wrote. Lorca explains duende as profoundly melancholy awareness of the struggle between good and evil within each person, and how that plays out invariably as some sort of bloodletting, at least in the Spanish tradition. Thus, at some point, the need or desire for cleansing, literally or spiritually.

The whole recording carries comparable power and eloquence, even as a very early document of the band. It includes a disarming reading of Ornette Coleman’s classic “Peace” which, like many of the originals here, shows how beautifully a so-called avant-garde band could play. The group (which then also included drummer Andy LoDuca) recalls at times the pioneering fusion band The Fourth Way. The music is as good as anything you’ll hear, ever. God, I miss this band.

The tremendous poignancy of “Cleansing” is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The group produced nearly 60 original tunes. Schaefgen also produced a major work for quintet and the orchestra, called “Three Seemingly Inscrutable Pieces for Wacko Band and Orchestra,” premiered in 1979 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Here you also sense the humor that frequently pervaded group’s music and irreverent attitude. But Schaefgen’s inability to play the trombone today is no laughing matter.

At a personal level, Bill sometimes postured as a cynic, especially back in the days when he had a few too many beers in him. But this reflected also the plaintive doubting of the modern artist. Yet, beneath the gruff and sometimes-profane German beer-hall carouser was an absolute sweetheart of a man, a big teddy bear with glasses and a dank mop of dark hair, who happened to be a quiet genius.

I think some of that comes out in the long profile I did on Bill in 1979, shortly before the big symphony gig, and I made some copies of it for you to take and read, if you care to.

And I know Bill appreciated the article. The next year, I foolishly attempted to interview all six of the group’s unpredictable and sometimes zany members at once, for a feature for The Milwaukee Journal. The interview grew multi-voiced and slightly chaotic, like a Robert Altman movie scene and, at one point, trumpeter Kaye Berigan dubiously asked how I was ever going make coherent sense out of this, a fair question. Bill Schaefgen, bless his heart, leapt to my defense: “Don’t worry about Kevin, he can write his ass off.” To this day, I cherish Bill’s spontaneous declaration as one of the finest compliments I’ve ever received.

Bill knew what he and the other excellent musicians of What On Earth? did was substantial, if sometimes challenging, art. And yet, like many genuine artists, I think he had a deep reservoir of insecurity, and the loss he suffered from illness in the late years didn’t help. But there is also redemption of sorts.

I hadn’t really thought this through, until now, his death. Lord, I wish I could say some of this to him now. Bill, could you come back, for five minutes? Damn. This is as close as I’ll get.

You see, to me it seems that he is one of the “voices in the river” that I write about in my forthcoming book, Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.  It is about jazz as a template for the democracy process and about how this is manifested in the music, and through many creative writers who understand this relationship. It’s also a partial memoir of my experience in Milwaukee in the 1980s, when I covered jazz for The Milwaukee Journal.

I don’t mean this to be a book pitch but I often think metaphorically. It’s rather a way to contextualize for myself, and to express how valuable, beautiful and important Bill’s music was. 1

As with the other musical artists I talk about in the book, he is a voice in the river because his music is submerged to some degree, his voice is not heard as it should be, under the mad rush of the humdrum everyday bustle-and-hustle, the struggle for power and mere survival and yes, the noise of hatred, truth be told. That all prevents most of us from taking the time to hear voices beneath the surface. The metaphor comes to mind to me, too, when I hear “Cleansing,” and feeling the man’s reservoir of insecurity.

Bill and I spent a lot of time in his basement, listening to old What On Earth? cassette and reel-to-reel tape recordings in an effort to assemble them into the eventual private CD recordings. I would frequently feel the need to comment and boost up his judgment, especially of his own playing. But only when I did this he would usually agree and acknowledge the quality of the music.

I also wanted very much to release at least one of the recordings to the public, but Bill consistently shied away from that, for reasons he never made clear. But it may have to do with his insecurity, or a sense that the music’s time had passed. I’m here to tell you the music is as vital, inventive and transporting as ever today.

I also recall a number of conversations when Bill would call on the phone because he wanted to talk, ostensibly about the music, but also about life. Last year he called several times and meekly left voice messages to apologize for missing my sister Maureen’s funeral. I thought Bill, thanks, but it’s OK. I think in the big picture, he wanted me, and anyone who cared to hear him, to know he was trying to make a human connection with the music — that it stood up on its own terms like a great, strange, beautiful, life-giving sculpture, even though the music’s presence exists only in the elusive realm of passing time, but as an extraordinary vibrational presence that you can feel in your body and soul.

So, despite the suffering and profound loss of his later years, I believe Bill found succor in his music in all the personal CDs. I believe the music helped “cleanse” his own failings, and the spiritual grime of the burdens, suffering and loss, and the duende he endured so long, But through it all and in much of his music, Bill always saw the humor and the absurdities of life, and his great ability to laugh also cleansed him. What else to make of tunes titled “Eat My Shorts” and “Funky Disco Honky Suckin’ Funk”?

And his own compositions allowed him to process his appreciation for musicians that provided musical gifts for him, such as “Song for Berk,” a lovely ballad written for the great Milwaukee saxophonist Berkeley Fudge, and “My Thanks, My Tears,” written to honor Milwaukee jazz musicians Sig Millonzi and George Pritchett.

So now I like to think of “Cleansing” as Bill’s deliverance, into the sunlight that comes down and reflects off the river’s dancing, refracted mirror. So, if you can envision that…the watery mirror, you see the river takes him back into its depths, even as he rises to the blue yonder and white light.

We’re with you, Bill, we’re with you. And for me, it feels like a blessing. The man wandered the earth like a slightly-crazed prophet prompting people to sometimes utter, “what on earth?” His essence produced great artistry, but his physical being also included something that grew into a horrible albatross. Ah, but now he has gone home.

Which brings to mind the closing verse of the old Negro spiritual, “Goin’ Home,” which I’d like to close by quoting:

Nothing’s lost, all is gain, no longing for the day
No more stumbling on the way
No more fret nor pain
Goin’ home, goin’ home, I’m a goin’ home
Quiet like, still some day, I’m a goin’ home

Here’s a performance of “Goin’ Home” in honor of Bill Schaefgen, a gorgeously rough-hewn performance by saxophonist Archie Shepp and pianist Horace Parlan. It seems a long lost brother to “Cleansing.”

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  1. Their influence of What On Earth? may be somewhat limited, because they predated easy self-recording and the Internet. Still, they showed the way for many Milwaukee musicians and groups in terms of how they could free their music from the constraints of conventional genres, while combining styles and retaining aspects that marked their identity as an individual group, and one coming from Milwaukee’s distinct musical and ethnic culture. One very well-known group that was influenced by What On Earth? is the internationally renowned Milwaukee folk-rock-jazz trio The Violent Femmes. The band’s bassist Brian Tairaku Ritchie and original drummer Victor DeLorenzo are big WOE? fans, and Bill Schaefgen played trombone on their album Blind Leading the Naked, produced by Jerry Harrison of The Talking Heads.
  2. Special thanks to Lee Brady, Kaye Berigan, Mitar Covic, Jack Grassel, Chuck LaPaglia, Frank Stemper and Ed Valent.