By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Tea Leaf Green is a band of San Francisco prog-rockers — wait, come back, it's not quite that bad — who've been steeping for more than a decade in a blend of jam-band ramble-craft and breezy pop melody. They've also consistently upped their game from album to album, shed show to shed show. As jam bands go, they're one of the ones you want to see.
In 2007, the band swapped bassists and picked a winner. Reed Mathis (far right in the photo above) had cut himself loose from the renowned Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey over some creative differences, and he wound up jamming with TLG at a Colorado festival. Some support gigs turned into a job, and by the last TLG album, "Radio Tragedy!," Mathis was well-integrated and contributing beautiful folk ballads like "My Oklahoma Home."
I welcome any opportunity to go on about Mathis, because I've never seen him play when he didn't completely jelly my brain. He's a bassist, but he's not a bass player. He doesn't merely keep the groove locked in. He's a wild, free-form, thick-stringed guitar player, equal parts Stravinsky and Hendrix. And a helluva nice guy, to boot.
Just a snatch from a recent conversation — Mathis on the phone this week as the band headed toward Chicago — about keeping his jazz roots, FOMO and the spiritual path of improvisation:
Q: Did you think about a post-Jacob Fred solo career?
Mathis: Not really, because for me the most important thing is to be part of a musical collective, like a gang. I don't want to be a sideman or an accompanist, which the bassist is usually expected to be. I want to be free to play my instrument exactly as I am in the moment at all times. Which is selfish, but that's OK. TLG is a safe place to improvise. They don't expect anything from the bass, nothing specific. They also don't expect me to play a song the same way twice. They love surprises, which is the cornerstone of my playing.
Q: Are you jam or jazz?
Mathis: A lot of the old Fred fans haven't checked out TLG. They think that's what's happened to me, that I'm in some mediocre jam band playing white boy funk in the back. People say, "Do you miss playing jazz?" The answer is I still am. Every note I play is jazz.
Q: Where does improv fit into our very neat and archived digital world?
Mathis: Improv is not that popular a concept, really — even in the "jam band" world. A lot of my friends adore Phish. They go see a Phish concert and they'll be like, "They played that song wrong" or "They messed up that song." I'm like, no, they didn't. They did something new with that song. Everyone claims to like improv, but it really bothers us. In actual practice, it's scary. People want to feel like they're in control or in the know — that's the huge thing for music fans. One writer called it the hipster echo-chamber, writing about Alabama Shakes, saying everyone's in this rush to be hip and into the new hip sh— and nobody wants to feel like they don't know what's happening. That has real power because that's the reality of our day-to-day life, moment to moment. We'll never have control over our lives, and that's why improv has power. It's surrendering to a lack of control. To me, it's a spiritual duty to face that on a nightly basis. Civilization itself has been a trend of getting further and further from this primal fear, and improv flips that over and gives it the finger. The only time people surrender to that lack of control is when they're in love. Improv is just falling in love over and over, night after night.
Tea Leaf Green has a new album, "In the Wake," due May 14.
TEA LEAF GREEN
with Tumbleweed Wanderers
• 9 p.m. Feb. 23
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $17 advance, $20 door; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Earl Klugh is a jazz guitarist — one of the greatest, no doubt, with a sweet, signature style on the nylon-stringed acoustic guitar — but don't think less of him just because his initial inspiration to the craft was a TV Western.
"The first exposure I had to the guitar really was on 'Bonanza,'" Klugh told the Sun-Times. "They always had a guitar by the fire, you know, and it was a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. I would look at it, and it wasn't like any of the guitars you'd see on, I don't know, 'American Bandstand' or something, or like Chuck Berry. That stuff was all great, but once I started playing a nylon-stringed guitar, there was no going back for me."
Well, he had some second thoughts.
"We had a stage band [in high school], and back then there wasn't any great pickup system. What I had was this little microphone you'd put on your guitar with a rubber band over it. You could turn the volume up, but the cavity of the guitar would feed back," he said. "It was primitive and, boy, I got teased a lot for that. ... But I look back now and, well, I showed 'em!"
More than 30 acclaimed albums (23 of them in the top 10 of Billboard's jazz chart, five at No. 1) and 12 Grammy nominations (the most recent for 2008's "The Spice of Life") — yes, he showed 'em.
Klugh took a break during a vacation stop on the South Carolina coast to talk to us about Crossroads, collaborations and, uh, "Hee Haw":
Q: The last time you were in Chicago was for Eric Clapton's 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, right?
Earl Klugh: Oh yeah. There was a show.
Q: I love that performance, because here's a blues and rock festival, you're surrounded by Eric and Buddy [Guy] and all these plugged in guys, and you come out with your acoustic guitar and play "Angelina" just as delicately as you please. Was that bill daunting in any way?
EK: I've had pretty good success with kind of integrating the acoustic stuff into places like that. I was certainly different than the other players there. I do what I do. It went over well. But when you're a guy like me backing up to ZZ Top, yes, it's kind of intimidating.
Q: You came up in the '60s. Why did the classical guitar speak to you instead of all those shiny new electrics?
EK: When I first started playing guitar was right at the folk music craze — Peter, Paul & Mary, that type of thing. So acoustics were common, though not as much in jazz. The nylon-string just stuck all the way for me. It just felt like my instrument. When I tried to play a steel-stringed or electric guitar, I was already so far into the other it never occurred to me to switch.
Q: Is it true you were on [country-themed variety TV show] "Hee Haw," and why isn't this on YouTube?
EK: [Laughs] Me and Chet Atkins together, yeah. We were in the cornfield and everything. ... Chet was my idol. I love Chet Atkins. That was our first television appearance together, actually. I love Chet from the perspective of playing finger-style, the way he was able to play the bass and the chords. Once I saw him, it changed my life completely. I knew I wanted to play guitar like Chet Atkins. Then I was fortunate to play with him many times.
Q: What was it about Chet Atkins that appealed to so many players beyond his basic country classification?
EK: He was really a pioneer with the instrument. He was very much a tinkerer. He had a workshop, had all types of electric stuff. He'd do stuff like, one time he had his regular Gretsch guitar and he put a low D string, lower than the [bottom] E, added to it so that when he'd play it sounded like he was carrying the bass tones the whole time. He did several records with that.
Q: Sounds like something Les Paul would toy with.
EK: Very much like Les Paul. He loved to create different sounds and was always trying to come up with something new and fresh that would tickle his ear.
Q: You first connected with another guitar great, George Benson. How'd you meet, and what cemented the bond between you?
EK: Growing up in Detroit, we had a jazz club, Baker's Keyboard Lounge. In its heyday, everybody who played jazz, literally everybody, played at that club. I really got the chance to meet a lot of the great musicians. George was just going into his career in a big way, and he played Baker's five, six, seven times before he really broke big. We got to talking, and he was fascinated by my acoustic guitar. He said, "You're trying to play jazz on that nylon-string guitar!" He said, "Boy, you gotta keep doing that. That's gonna set you apart from everybody else."
Q: I've always thought you two had a lot in common stylistically, as if sometimes the only difference between you is who's usually plugged in and who's not.
EK: I learned a lot from him, it's true. What I mostly learned from him is, you know, he's a workaholic. When I first went on the road with him, we did a two-month tour. We went to breakfast one night after the show, and we're headed back to the room and I was saying, "I gotta go get some rest." The next day, the bass player, Roland Wilson, is coming out of his room, and he says, "Man, Earl, you and me are gonna have to get on it." I said, "What do you mean?" He says, "You know what George did after going back to his room last night? He started practicing. He practiced from 2:30 in the morning till 5." And this is after playing a show, you know. Roland said, "We gotta do that, too!" That's a work ethic there.
Q: Which I'm guessing you still draw upon in your manic schedule as writer, performer, arranger, recording artist, bandleader, collaborator and event organizer [the semi-annual Weekend of Jazz concert festivals]?
EK: I work real hard and it's a lot, but it's really great fun. I enjoy doing solo shows, but I enjoy playing with the band, as well. I feel very lucky.
Q: You're 59, correct?
EK: Yes, and ooh that came too soon! [Laughs]
Q: If I may: Fingers and joints don't exactly get looser with age. How do you keep those hands nimble?
EK: By taking care of the rest of my body. I go to the gym, I stay physically active. If I don't I'll really end up in a knot. My hands are still flexible. My thumb cracks, though. I can hear it now on my records. Like, there'll be a solo part in a song, and my thumb will crack.
Q: It's just extra percussion.
EK: [Laughs] Yeah, but that's a new phenomenon I really hope goes away.
Q: "The Spice of Life" is four years on now. Any new recordings coming?
EK: I'm working on a new CD now. It's going to be kind of interesting — a lot fo solo playing, but a few duets with some of my favorite players. I'm trying to track George down. Vince Gill seems to be interested. After that, I'll have another band and orchestra record before the end of the coming year.
• 8 p.m. Oct. 6
• Old Town School of Folk Music, Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $30-$34; (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
That singer-guitarist George Benson is one of the most successful crossover artists of all time can be seen not only in the chart and sales data but in the caliber of fellow musicians who acclaim him. Fellow jazzbos like Herbie Hancock and Earl Klugh — you'd expect them to sing his praises, which both have done in interviews as recently as the last few months. But even rocker Lenny Kravitz gushed in a recent conversation: "Benson, please! He's unbelieeeeeeeevable! Have you heard 'The Other Side of Abbey Road'?"
Benson's come a long way since that 1970 album, a dreamy set of Beatles jazz translations — but not too far.
He began as a sought-after session guitarist in the early '60s, playing alongside rising luminaries like Hancock and Miles Davis, and by the late '70s he was singing, too, logging hits on the jazz charts, R&B charts and pop charts ("Breezin'," "Give Me the Night" and "On Broadway," respectively).
Today, he's still singing but back to spotlighting his first love, the subject of his latest album, "Guitar Man."
"'Guitar Man,' yeah, that's what I am," Benson chuckles during an interview from his home outside Phoenix. "This one's got a good selection of songs, not really connected to each other but just telling one story — about the guitar. It was the obvious title after hearing what we got. You know, I got a great band together, and we tried to pick songs we thought we could do well, things the public will believe. People have heard me do so many things, I've just got to find things that speak to my guitar."
Recorded with plenty of space for improvisation, "Guitar Man" features pop standards from various eras ("Paper Moon," "Since I Fell for You" and an intriguing "Danny Boy," as well as "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "My Cherie Amour" and the lightest "Tequila" you've ever heard). The focus is definitely on the fingers.
" 'Paper Moon' — I mean, c'mon, man!" Benson says. "I was supposed to sing it. I taught the guys, and I played it. We heard it back, and I thought, man, it doesn't need any vocals. It captures that '40s mood, the vibe I heard under Nat King Cole. That was a good era. Nat played it very simple, but he was quite sophisticated in his approach."
Even before he began recording as a player, a very young Benson began his showbiz career as a singer: Little Georgie Benson, age 9.
"I wasn't a guitar player till many years later," Benson recalls. "Guitar gigs were everywhere in the '50s, and I started diddling around so I could keep working. Playing honky-tonk, simple stuff. I took a few gigs with an organ band that put me out front. I was 19 and touring with Brother Jack McDuff. People would see me and shout, 'Sing something, Little Georgie!' Jack did not like singers, period. But by the time I left his band, I was a bona fide guitar player."
By 1970, Benson was the No. 1 jazz guitarist in America.
"But I wasn't making any money to prove I was No. 1 anything. I wasn't getting ahead. I was existing," Benson says. "So I started dabbling back into vocals. The club owners loved it. If I did one vocal in the first set, the house wouldn't change over; people would stay for the second set. So I started doing that, and one day [producer] Tommy LiPuma came to me and said, 'George, I heard you sing five years ago, and I've never understood why they don't use your voice.' I told my manager: 'That's my next producer.'"
After signing to Warner Bros. in 1976, the LiPuma-produced "Breezin'" album hit the Top 10 on the strength of Benson singing a ballad, Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." A surprise hit, Benson kept trotting out his silky smooth tenor, scoring more hits from the Quincy Jones-produced "Give Me the Night" two years later. The album sold 5 million copies.
In between, Benson sang a song for a 1977 film about boxer Muhammad Ali. "The Greatest Love of All" reached No. 2. Barely a decade later, a new singer named Whitney Houston would take the song to No. 1.
"I met her just before she recorded it," Benson says. "I met her on the street near the Empire State Bulding. She got her hair done at the same place I took my boys. She saw me on the sidewalk and fell backwards, saying, 'You're one of my favorite artists! I'm recording that song!' One day I heard it on the radio and said, 'I wonder if it's that kid.' Sure enough."
Benson's band in Chicago will include local native Oscar Seaton, an alumnus of Ramsey Lewis' pop-jazz trio in the '60s.
with Boney James
• 7:30 p.m. March 23
• Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
• Tickets, $39.50-$250; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When we catch up with jazz legend Herbie Hancock, he's in his Los Angeles studio doing what comes naturally. He's fiddling with computers.
"I'm working with some technology here, trying to improve on some of it, trying to adjust the software — adapting it for the tour," he says.
The tour he speaks of is one of three he has scheduled this fall. In the coming weeks, the revered and influential Chicagoan will be on the road with his current quartet, as well as playing more dates with orchestras (performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue").
This week, though, Hancock returns to the Chicago area on what's being billed as his "first-ever U.S. solo tour" — a surprising claim for the 71-year-old pianist whose career stretches back, past MTV hits and years with Miles Davis, to the 1950s.
"This is not a solo acoustic piano tour," he clarifies. "It's acoustic piano and synthesizer and my iMac. I'm integrating them all so there are more sounds I can produce in a solo context that go beyond the acoustic piano. I can build an accompaniment. I can alter, modify the sounds on the fly."
As a teen in Chicago, Hancock didn't necessarily think music was his destiny. A child prodigy in classical music, he played the first movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. But he never had a jazz teacher, and when he left Chicago it was to study electrical engineering at Iowa's Grinnell College.
But his penchant for techie tinkering and the ease with which he goes gaga for gadgets both shaped his career as a pioneering figure in post-bop jazz. An early missionary for the clavinet and electric piano, in the late '60s Hancock was one of the first jazz musicians to perform and record with synthesizers. A decade later, he was the first person I witnessed jamming out with a keytar.
On stage in Philadelphia earlier this month, Hancock lamented the recent death of Apple founder Steve Jobs, listing the various archaic Mac computers still littering his home.
"Technology fascinates me," he tells the Chicago Sun-Times. "I started toying with things like that when I was a boy in Chicago. . . . I've always loved science. With this technology now, I can do both. For me, it's fun and challenging at same time. Really, I have to focus and balance the personal enthusiasm I may have for the science with the idea of communicating life through music with an audience.
"Music uses sound to tell its story. It doesn't say what that sound has to be, doesn't say it has to be acoustic or electronic. It just wants out. What I'm able to do with all of this extends the possibilities of how I can orchestrate that story."
Turning toward jazz — and the future
Hancock's futurism has shaped his sound so much that when he was given the music award at this year's BET Honors, he was introduced as a player who has "changed the way we listen to music" and is "undoubtedly the master of innovating new sound."
Last year, Hancock was feted several times on the occasion of turning 70, including a special tribute concert hosted by Bill Cosby at Carnegie Hall. A West Coast tribute focused on Hancock's post-Davis group, often called Mwandishi, an early-'70s sextet (eventually septet) that consciously mixed electronic and acoustic instruments.
Christian McBride, bassist and co-director of the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, said then, "I'm the biggest Weather Report fan, but I think Mwandishi was the most futuristic band of all time. With other bands, certain elements really give away their time in history. But Mwandishi was so far ahead of the pack . . . They were somehow able to balance the old traditions of jazz and the futuristic, electronic funk sound."
The aha moment that put Hancock on that forward-thinking jazz path, steering him away from engineering and classical music, occurred at Grinnell. He started learning to play jazz at 14 by listening to records, but at college he decided he wanted to perform.
"I wanted to put together a jazz concert and construct a big band," Hancock says. "There weren't a lot of jazz musicians at that small liberal arts school in Iowa, so I had to teach all the sections how to phrase so that it wouldn't be so wooden and mechanical. I tried to give them a sense, at least from my perspective in those early stages of my development as a jazz musician, you know, how they should approach it and play certain things. . . . I was 18, I was able to improvise by then." He pauses, chuckles. "I had more sense of what to do than any of them did."
Hancock spent a semester working with this group, and his schoolwork suffered. Had he not crammed at the last minute for his engineering finals, he says he would have flunked most of them. The struggle showed him the light.
"After the concert was over, I just remember going to my dorm room, looking in the mirror and saying to myself, 'Hey, Herbie, who are you trying to kid?' " he says. "The next day I changed my major. It wasn't an either-or situation, it was just a realization that music is what I must do and there was no plan B. I think I made the right decision. I hope people think so."
During summers home in Chicago, Hancock worked as a mail carrier during the day and jammed in local clubs at night. He reels off names of mentors and peers from that circa-1960 Chicago jazz scene — fellow pianists Willie Pickens and Chris Anderson ("I learned a lot from him") and Harold Mabern, sax player Eddie Harris, horn player Ira Sullivan — and venues, from the Gate of Horn to Robert's Lounge.
In addition to the general praise for Chicago's nurturing musical climate, Hancock when pressed gets down to what the city's scene specifically contributed to his arsenal.
"Especially for piano players, I'm certain, Chicago was an incredible place for the development of a keen sense of harmony, how harmony can work in music — between players and between your fingers," he says. "The way these guys were open to playing with each other, you just were able to pick up how it all could work much easier.
"We used to have jam sessions there with piano players, and we'd just take a ballad, for example, and each one would play one chorus and we'd harmonize the ballad. The next guy would keep playing it, and we'd harmonize a different way. We did it for fun and shared ideas. That was great. For harmonic development, Chicago was the place."
He took those skills to New York in 1961, where he joined Donald Byrd's group before becoming the pianist in trumpeter Davis' second acclaimed quintet. The jazz career that took off from there included a long string of solo albums spanning hits from the loping acoustic piano of "Cantaloupe Island" in 1964 to the MTV-embraced synth-funk of "Rockit" in 1983.
Even as Hancock passed the age of AARP eligibility, his music continued to impress. His 2007 album "River: The Joni Letters," a tribute to Joni Mitchell's folk-pop songs, surprised everyone at the 2008 Grammys by beating the odds and winning album of the year — only the second jazz album to do so (the first: "Getz/Gilberto" in 1965).
Turning back toward Chicago — and his classical past
Today, however, Hancock says he's spending a lot of time thinking about the classical music he played as a boy in Chicago.
A combination of events pointed him back toward the symphony hall. First, Hancock says he came across some tapes someone had made of orchestrations to solo performances Hancock had given as part of a 2000-'01 duet tour with former Davis bandmate Wayne Shorter. If someone else could envision simple, synthesized and sequence orchestrations around his solo piano, then surely he could come up with his own, he says. The tinkering began.
Also, in 2009, Hancock began a joint series of performances with classical piano star Lang Lang (which stopped at Ravinia with the CSO). The recent "Rhapsody in Blue" revival began there, and Hancock says a door was opened. Last year, he performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
At the time, Quincy Jones, who has known Hancock since both were grooming their talent on Chicago's South Side, said he was eager to see what more Hancock would bring to classical programming.
"He can do it all," Jones said.
Hancock returned to L.A.'s Disney Hall last month with the Philharmonic, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.
"I hadn't been playing classical since I was 7 years old in Chicago playing Mozart and Bach and Scarlatti. I did a Bartok piece once with Chick Corea years ago," he says. "But then I found there was actually interest from various orchestras in concerts. . . . I've got three more in December." He laughs. "So I've had to get my chops together!
"These things just happen. They present themselves. When I see a doorway opening or an opportunity or a direction that seems to be telling me, 'Examine this,' I follow it. It's the curious part of my nature. It's what's led me all the great places I've gotten to go."
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 29
Where: Wentz Concert Hall, North Central College Fine Arts Center, 171 E. Chicago, Naperville
Tickets: $85-$95, (630) 637-7469, northcentralcollege.edu/showtix
Clarence Clemons and the rock sax solo
By Thomas Conner
© Obit magazine
In a March episode of NBC’s hit comedy “30 Rock,” writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) panics because she has no “plan B” for her career and thus nothing to fall back on during an unforeseen professional hiatus. She stumbles through dark backstreets as she’s taunted by the voices of “people whose professions are no loner a thing” — such as travel agents, American autoworkers, the CEO of Friendster and a man who “played dynamite saxophone solos in rock and roll songs.”
This wasn’t the first winking obituary for the rock sax solo, but this week’s news might be the last. Sax player Clarence Clemons died Saturday from complications he suffered from a June 12 stroke. He was 69.
Clemons was a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — a pillar, given the way Springsteen leaned on him, both literally (the Boss supports himself on the Big Man in the iconic photograph on the “Born to Run” LP gatefold) and figuratively (utilizing Clemons’ impassioned sax solos to intensify his lyrical themes) — and, for at least one generation, Clemons was the epitome of the hooked horn’s particular power in a musical genre for which it was not designed.
A creation of the Romantic era (invented in 1846 by Belgian clarinetist Adolphe Sax), the saxophone evolved to become a signifier of romance. The bent woodwind never took hold in orchestral music but found solid purchase in military bands, where its portability and honking volume were valued. Marching bands, concert bands, big bands, jazz — its migration was natural and swift. By the 1950s, as rhythm-and-blues evolved into even more guttural rock ’n’ roll, musicians like Louis Jordan and King Curtis finessed this suitably throaty instrument into the robust soul that would define the rest of the century.
With its roots in rock’s genesis — Ike Turner’s 1951 hit “Rocket 88,” possibly the first rock single, was credited to Jackie Brenston, the band’s singer and one of the song’s two sax players — by the 1970s and ’80s the saxophone was often employed to evoke that era’s rose-tinted innocence and authenticity. When a third-generation rocker wanted to trace his New Wave stead to some age-old cred, he plugged in a sax solo — from David Bowie reinventing himself (again) by lamenting “all Papa’s heroes” in “Young Americans” and Billy Joel linking his contemporary tastes to the classics in “It’s Still Rock ’n Roll to Me” to INXS’s horn-y claims on American soul (“What You Need,” etc.) and the popcorn purity of the movie “Eddie and the Cruisers” (with John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band providing “On the Dark Side” and the rest of the Springsteen-parody soundtrack).
Within that cocoon of Eisenhower-level security, the more relaxed sax solo became an emblem of true heart and romance. (How do you imply that insipid bad-boy Rob Lowe has a heart of gold in the movie “St. Elmo’s Fire”? By making his rawest expression of his passion be through an extended sax solo with his bar band.) Among wind instruments, its reedy timbre sounds the most like a human voice, finishing lyrical thoughts by saying things a human just can’t say. But several Foreigners (“Urgent”), Quarterflashes (“Harden My Heart”) and Spandau Ballets (“True”) later, the cliché became a caricature, and Liz Lemon’s fears became inevitable.
But at the heart of that golden — or brassy — age was the hulking sideman who best encapsulated the instrument’s classicism, passion and romance, sometimes in a single sustained note. Clemons played tenor sax with studied passion much more than technical skill. This wasn’t jazz, this was rock. It was all about feeling — and reaction.
“There’s a lot of pride Bruce took in watching the response that Clarence would get from the audience with his solos,” Alto Reed, sax player for Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, told the Chicago Sun-Times this week. “The songs would come to life with the first note of a sax line. He was brilliant. His tone was not your typical, classic horn-section sound. It was growly, gassy. You could feel the energy coming out of his sax. Big Man, big sax, big sound.”
Clemons turned in many memorable sax solos for Springsteen songs — “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” I usually throw in his huffing on “I’m Goin’ Down” — but few argue over which was his greatest accomplishment: “Jungleland.”
The ultimate whisper to a scream, “Jungleland” is an epic from Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough album, “Born to Run.” Springsteen relates the tragic story of the Magic Rat and his star-crossed affair with the “barefoot girl” amid a scene of urban angst and frustration this side of the Jersey state line. It’s “a holy night” filled with people who are “hustling,” “hungry” and “hunted,” and just as the most “desperate” are ready to split (“Just one look / and a whisper / and they’re gone”) the song slams on the brakes, stops chugging forward and — announced by an arresting, almost dissonant long note, like a siren in the band’s rear view — becomes a detour down Clemons’ own backstreets of American imagery and sound.
It’s a song within a song, two-and-a-half minutes within the nearly 10-minute anthem and a necessary non-verbal underscore of the hopeless scene Springsteen has been setting up. Clemons’ sustained warning wails a while longer, defiant against the cascade of cymbals and piano chords behind him, before beginning its eulogy for the Eden that sometime, somehow turned into Jungleland. Twice, three times he returns to the major chord, the hopeful tone, voicing the Rat’s own hubris and bringing the song’s pent-up rage to a rolling boil. In the end, though, Clemons and his narrative collapse whimpering and spent as the piano takes over. Springsteen returns to wrap up the story, and it’s even worse than we expected for the Rat and his girl: “They wind up wounded / not even dead.” But we already knew that. Bruce’s jittery homily left the options open, but Clarence’s rock-steady solo confirmed the despair to come.
“That’s the flip side of rock and roll,” wrote Bob Lefsetz, music industry observer and publisher of the Lefsetz Letter, of the “Jungleland” solo this week. “The exuberance — and then the solitary feeling that you’re Wall-E, alone in a city without heart, without hope.”
Clemons often relayed the story of working on his “Jungleland” composition for 16 straight hours. Today, his results are not only loved, they are liked: There’s a dedicated Facebook page called “Clarence Clemons’ Sax Solo in Jungleland.”
In a surprise twist, Clemons re-emerged this spring and seemed ready to bestow validation on the rock and roll sax solo with the help of an unexpected admirer: None other than Lady Gaga tapped the E Streeter for saxophone parts on three tracks for her third outing, “Born This Way,” one of the most anticipated and talked-about albums of the year. In the video to Gaga’s latest single, “Edge of Glory,” Clemons sits on a building stoop while Gaga dances in the street and on the fire escape. He hardly moves, except to finger the valves of his horn. Gaga has said the song is rooted in her own experiences witnessing her grandfather’s final moments before death; the week the video debuted her young fans were making their own “get well soon” video for Clemons after the stroke.
What was he doing there, with Lady Gaga of all people? He was doing what he always did: Adding gravitas and a much-needed counterweight to an outsized personality and the frenetic music s/he produced. In the “Edge of Glory” video, Clemons is the only other person in the scene — the only figure with whom Lady Gaga deigned to share the spotlight, just like Springsteen. His music and instrument were as key to that role as his size and personality, and let’s hope rock never forgets his lesson.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In September 2008, a crew of 40 artists, poets, architects, actors and musicians boarded a science vessel and set sail for Greenland. Their destination — apropos for the musicians, which included Laurie Anderson, Robyn Hitchcock, Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright, beatboxer Shlomo and others — was Disko Bay.
The journey was part of the Cape Farewell project, an organization that puts artists and scientists together, hoping the latter will be inspired by the out-of-the-box thinking of the former. Really, though, the goal is to get the artists to "communicate on a human scale the urgency of the global climate challenge."
"What I saw was a gigantic world of ice and water," says Ryuichi Sakamoto, another participant in the Greenland voyage and a pianist who operates in both rock and classical worlds. "The landscape, the wild nature — it just blew my mind. Giant chunks of ice crashing into the sea. We saw much, we learned much.
"I'm still concerned — climate change is going to be even more harsh in the future — but on the other hand, I'm kind of calmed down. This nature, this planet — it will be OK whether we are concerned about it or not. The planet will be here. Maybe some ice will be melted, but it will be back in 200 years. You get to see the big picture of it. It's gigantic. The way we talk about it — the problem of global warming is not nature's problem, it's our problem as human beings. What I'm concerned about is not the planet or nature but the harsh environment for my children and grandchildren. Nature will be OK, just fine. We're hurting ourselves, not nature."
Sakamoto, 58, is the first artist from the trip to express his Greenland experience through his music. (KT Tunstall claims the voyage inspired the "nature techno" approach of her new album, "Tiger Suit," released a month ago.) If the others get around to doing the same, they'll likely make more of a racket than Sakamoto. His two new albums are ambient, delicate affairs.
"Playing the Piano" features solo piano re-readings of some of his own greatest hits: pieces of music from his days in the Yellow Magic Orchestra (once hailed as the Kraftwerk of his native Japan), his solo albums (particularly from the early '80s, when he was collaborating with pop figures from David Byrne to David Sylvian) and film music (the title theme from "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," in which he starred alongside David Bowie, and the Oscar-winning music for "The Last Emperor").
But it's the second of the two new discs that features sounds drawn, sometimes directly, from Disko Bay. The dozen compositions on "Out of Noise" blend soft melodies and manipulated noise to create some very discreet music. Sakamoto's career has drawn as much inspiration from Brian Eno and Alva Noto (with whom he's collaborated on three recent CDs) as from Steve Reich, John Cage, even Debussy or Satie. Here, Sakamoto turns a piano phrase into a chopped-up round ("Hibari"), weaves stringed instruments over an electronic piano background that sounds like Eno's Bloom iPhone app ("Still Life"), rings Asian bells alongside electronic transmission noises ("Tama"), even employs recordings he made of the environment itself in Greenland ("Ice," "Glacier"). It all sounds chilly and cold, icy and isolated.
"I was inspired by the sounds I captured there," Sakamoto says. "The sound of the water, of the glacier, of the ice — they are used on this CD. ... There were hours sitting in front of the computer, listening to the recordings of the ambient sound from the Arctic Sea. Hours and hours and hours, carefully listening. I found some good moments. Then I repeated them, looped and looped. Then I started trying to find the nice musical elements on top of it, going along with those ambient sounds. That's how I designed the tracks. Sometimes it was a guitar sound or a piano sound — whatever spoke from the water or the ice."
He had hoped to include native music from the arctic island, he says. To his dismay, he found none.
"I asked the local people, the Inuit, to give us a chance for us to hear their music," he says. "They arranged a party, and they started singing. I was blown away. I was sad. It's almost church music. I expected something maybe a little bit Asian. Those Inuit people came from Siberia; we Japanese and Inuit are brothers and sisters genetically. But the music they sang was almost pure church music. That was sad. Their culture — at least their musical custom — is totally Christianized and Westernized."
Sakamoto's first musical inspirations came from another island. Growing up in 1960s Japan, he was captivated by the wild, hyper-ethnic instrumental sounds of lounge musicians like Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny — the ones based on or frequenting Hawaii.
"Martin Denny was big in Japan," Sakamoto says, remembering that the first piece of music YMO tackled was Denny's broadly drawn "Firecracker." "He kind of imitated Japaneseness, and it was easy to imitate him." He laughs. "In a way, [the Yellow Magic Orchestra] kind of followed his method of imitating the image of Japaneseness. That might have been the wrong image. It's like you see in old Hollywood movies, that in-between Chinese-Japanese-Vietnamese, mixed image of the Asian person. We loved it at the time. Misunderstanding is always interesting. It's good, funny and fun. Creation is always misunderstanding, maybe."
He says he experienced similar feelings of misunderstanding when going back through his own catalog, selecting pieces for "Playing the Piano."
"Every time I listen to an old song, I'm surprised at how wild or powerful it is. I don't always understand it, or at least how to recreate it. Most of it I'll never be able to do again at this age. It's the youth. Youth has its own character, in a way. I'm getting older, so there's something I can do now which young Sakamoto couldn't."
He pauses for a moment, thinking.
"One clear example is, I play piano much more festively, more carefully, more deeply in a way. I was much more technical when I was young. And stronger, more powerful. My piano playing is much more delicate now and in a way more deep."
In concert on this tour of American theaters, Sakamoto is alone — but with two pianos. Often, he plays a segment on one of the pianos, which a computer records and plays back at intervals while Sakamoto continues on the other.
"It's a duet with myself," he says. "I wish I could add a 3-D image on the second piano, a hologram of myself. ... After the ice melts, maybe that will be all that's left of me, a hologram playing the piano."
• 8 p.m. Tuesday
• Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
• Tickets: $45, jamusa.com, (800) 514-ETIX
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The documentary begins with a lot of people calling him America's greatest composer. And these are frumpy, serious-looking people, with pianos and bookshelves behind them. Clearly, they should know. It's Gershwin, right? Copland?
No, it's — gulp — a jazz man: Billy Strayhorn. And it's OK if you've never heard of him.
Actually, it's not OK, but it is understandable. He never got much credit. Never sought it, really, at least not until it was too late. But as Duke Ellington's right-hand man for 29 years, Billy Strayhorn created some of the most beguiling and innovative music the world (certainly the jazz world) has ever heard, from songs such as "Lush Life" and "Take the 'A' Train" to innovative and challenging soundtracks.
"Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life," a film by Robert Levi premiering tonight as part of PBS' "Independent Lens" series, approaches the subject with the intent of proving that the real talent in this pair was Strayhorn's. Plenty of ex-Ellington band members are on camera vouching for Ellington's powerful persuasion, if not outright manipulation, and calling him "the king of all bullsh—-ers."
But Strayhorn produced many such revelatory moments at Ellington's side. They completed each other's thoughts, finished each other's musical sentences. As a result — and because Strayhorn never pursued, and Ellington rarely gave him, writing credit — it's impossible to tell where Strayhorn's contributions end and the Ellingtonia begins.
Which leads Levi to wonder: Did Ellington take advantage of Strayhorn? The film can't nail down an answer, but it offers plenty of circumstantial evidence. Strayhorn was openly gay in the homophobic '40s; add that to his shyness, and it surely would have been easy to keep him in the background.
Which is where he is throughout the film. In photos and grainy footage, Ellington is always downstage, in focus, talking or leading the band; Strayhorn is always upstage, in soft focus, over someone's shoulder, silent.
In the end, Strayhorn was more a victim of his own poor business dealings. He never worked with a contract, never took a salary (only occasional cash draws). It's not a story unique to Strayhorn; many talented writers and musicians were taken advantage of in the days before copyright law solidified.
What is unique by the end of the film is the depth and range of Strayhorn's talent — his obviously inherent genius. And any way that's brought to light is a good thing.
'BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE'
10 tonight on WTTW-Channel 11.
Soundtrack CD offers music uninterrupted
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
As with many music documentaries, "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life" spends more time filming people talking about music than people playing it. Just as a combo begins one of Strayhorn's allegedly genius works, authors and experts began yapping over it. We're asked to take people's word for the music's greatness instead of hearing and judging for ourselves.
Fortunately, there's a soundtrack. The combos merely glimpsed in the film are whole on the CD "Lush Life: The Untold Story of Billy Strayhorn" ★★, available via Blue Note Records.
Studs' Note Books
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
AND THEY ALL SANG: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey
By Studs Terkel
New Press, 336 pages, $16.95
GIANTS OF JAZZ
By Studs Terkel
New Press, 224 pages, $14.95
Let's — just this once — not refer to Studs Terkel as an oral historian. It's a title even he probably finds a bit dubious and, for the purposes of this article at least, it doesn't work. Oral historians sit and talk to one person for 12 hours, the reel-to-reel whirring all the while, and it all gets typed up for a dissertation shelved in a university library. Sure, Terkel wound up making a helluva career by popularizing something along these lines, but he started out as a disc jockey. He chatted with guests for hardly more than an hour. He probed their creative process and apparently applied some of it to his own published work. That is, he found the common threads — the melody — in American life, and like a true folk musician he used his talents to remind us that we're all part of something bigger than ourselves.
This seems to have been his goal, conscious or not, right out of the gate, as illustrated in two new paperbacks hearkening back to the chattier, tuneful dawn of Studs. And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey is last year's round-up of conversations Terkel conducted with musicians on his Chicago-based radio show, largely from the '50s and '60s; and Giants of Jazz is yet another reprint of Terkel's first book, comprised of 13 concise and compelling biographies of the pioneers of American jazz.
"Your jazz is something more than just something invented," he tells singer Betty Carter in a 1989 interview from And They All Sang. "It's part of a continuity." This is the overall Terkel Thesis, and it formed here among these early considerations of music. His life's work has been looking at individuals and how they relate to the whole messy mass of society, and American popular music is expertly adept at reflecting that very relationship. (These books focus on jazz and classical music, mostly, which were, believe it or not, once the popular music of the country.)
And They All Sang gets opera singers, composers and even a young, already-evasive Bob Dylan discussing who they are by means of who inspired them. Giants of Jazz, though, is expertly structured to illustrate this. For example, the chapter on Louis Armstrong is sandwiched between the one about King Oliver (who mentored young Louis) and Bessie Smith (who was affected by the sound of Louis' horn); Smith's bio mentions the moment Bix Beiderbecke heard her sing, a moment that left him in awe — and which figures into his own chapter, the next one. These links build a chain throughout the book — mashing up with full force when Count Basie and Charlie Parker hit Kansas City, and then when Dizzy Gillespie meets Bird — and they leave the impression that, yes, each individual was a formidable talent but, no, the opportunity for that talent to succeed did not present itself in a vacuum. These musicians were a part of something greater than themselves, and their own personalities amplified the human race as a whole. It's all part of a continuity.
That idea succeeds in these texts not only because of the way Terkel assembles and sequences the Jazz bios, but also by virtue of the space he allows his subjects — both in the spotlight he gives them in Jazz and in the airtime he allowed them on radio. Then again, throughout the interviews in And They All Sang, Terkel's subjects speak freely not only because they have some time to talk but because their interviewer clearly is a musical autodidact. He's not just well-informed but wide open to all forms of music, asking questions of Janis Joplin (they talk about primitive inspirations vs. new technologies) and Keith Jarrett (they discuss his piano technique) that are as thoughtful and insightful as those he lobs at Sol Jurok (the impresario discusses singer Feodor Chaliapin) and Leonard Bernstein (the two share a moment of discovery about Terkel's performance as Editor Daily in "The Cradle Will Rock").
In other words, Terkel's not just a fan with a chat show. He listens, in every sense of the word. And that's the rare talent that made his own career worthy of countless media interviews.
But again, this is not oral history. This, at least in the case of And They All Sang, is transcribed radio where conversations, driven by time constraints, often are incomplete. And sometimes they make a difficult read. Sitar player Ravi Shankar, for instance, discusses Indian music this way: "Based on this scale, this raga has its own ascending, descending movements. I'll just give you a little example. [He plays] This is equivalent to the major scale, for instance. [He plays] On each of these scales, we have got hundreds of ragas. [He plays] What I'm playing actually are the skeletons of the ragas, known as the ascending and descending movements." Bet those brackets sounded great on the air, but they're hardly enlightening on the page.
Jazz, however, is deceptively alluring, presenting itself as dry facts but carefully crafted so as to suck you into the intoxicating brew of history — and its meanings. Sitting down with this book and an iTunes account makes for an exciting survey course in jazz music, which continues to evolve. But Terkel, who wrote the book in 1957 and updated it in 1975, explains at the end, in the final chapter "Jazz Is the Music of Many," why he chose these 13 players and singers: "In a number of cases the lives and careers of these men [and women] intertwined. In all cases their music did. For the story of jazz cannot be confined to one era or to one style. It is a story of continuous growth. . . . Jazz is one long chain. The lives and the music of these 13 artists are among its major links."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Three years ago, a March evening in Oakland, Calif., and the Brad Mehldau Trio is playing a set as mercurial as the weather. The club is Yoshi's, a terribly trendy sushi bar and nightclub, and Mehldau is peaking as his generation's officially respectable ivory tickler ("the Bill Evans of his generation" we critics wrote, ad infinitum). The three staid but stupendous players dabble in original compositions and standards, or covers — whichever term you use for someone else's song. But when Mehldau bridged two songs by calling them "classics," the choice of word elevated many brows in the room. Cole Porter's "Anything Goes"? Sure, classic. But the next tune was Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place."
Mehldau's accomplishment — and the reason he continues to garner praise — is that both performances melded together seamlessly in that set. Even on his new CD, "Day Is Done" (Nonesuch), which features only one original composition, he's still doing it. He opens with another Radiohead song ("Knives Out"), follows it with Burt Bacharach ("Alfie"), Lennon and McCartney ("Martha My Dear," "She's Leaving Home"), Nick Drake (the title cut). But regardless of who penned them and how impossibly far apart they might be stylistically and historically — he owns the tunes. They're not played for yuks, or irony. It's not Paul Anka crooning a Nirvana hit with a wink; it's a consummate pro deconstructing a melody and making it transcend every classification in radio programming and record shop bins. And that's jazz.
But what of the term "jazz standard," which (to Mehldau's generation) has come to mean Gershwin show tunes, Sinatra chestnuts? And where does a young jazz hotshot draw the line between exploding the musical canon and simply being an erudite cover band?
"For me, as a performer, personally, the question of what constitutes a 'standard' or a 'cover' is irrelevant in terms of its viability as a vehicle for my interpretation and improvisation," Mehldau said in a recent interview. "I'm aware that if someone recognizes a song, it's an 'in' for them. It will make them perk up their ears and perhaps draw them into what I'm doing more quickly. But what will hold them is what I do with the song — the way I improvise on it, the way I shape the melody and, most importantly in a trio situation, the way the band communicates together, and the overall individual texture sonically of a given song. These factors are aesthetic more than anything else. Aesthetics for me rest more on musical attributes — melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre — and in this understanding, the choice of material is extra-musical."
But it's that "in" with audiences that keeps these guys coming back to including and sometimes spotlighting other artists' songs in their repertoires. Look at all the boomer rockers (Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, etc.) banking albums full of selections from the "great American songbook." In a roundabout way, these discs are helping young jazz players challenge the contents of that mythical book.
Take, for instance, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, a more manic trio bashing out some the wildest, most innovative young jazz on the current scene. The band's new disc, "The Sameness of Difference," is also top-heavy with covers. Its previous 12 CDs have been nearly all original creations, but new producer (and jazz business legend) Joel Dorn encouraged the guys to get outside themselves. After all, that's what hooked him.
"I caught 'em at Tonic downtown [in New York], and they played all their own material. It was cool. The musicianship with these guys is astounding," Dorn said last week from New York. "But I think they encored with 'Alone Together,' and it was a very unique version, and I thought, 'If they can do that unique a version of that song, I'll bet they can do things equally as exciting with other material.' It's not like this album is 'The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey Goes Hollywood' or 'Way Out West.' These guys just really did something that rang a bell in my head, and that's what made me want to work with them."
That decision had a little weight to it; Dorn has been in "retirement" for years, producing archive discs and box sets, and he rarely returns to the studio unless there's a "wow" factor. Dorn joined Atlantic Records in the late '60s and produced hit discs for a variety of jazz and jazz-leaning artists, including Les McCann, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eddie Harris and Roberta Flack ("Killing Me Softly," etc.).
"It was that song ['Alone Together'] that hooked him," JFJO pianist Brian Haas said of Dorn. "I think so many people have this experience with jazz, too — even a legendary pro like Joel. He came and heard us and perfectly respected us, but it was only when we played something he understood, a template he recognized and could frame us with, that he paid full attention. He came back a second time and liked everything. It was that one tune that opened him up to the possibility of the band and, really, the music. Look at [John] Coltrane's 'My Favorite Things.' That's what put him on the map. That's how people tune in."
• • •
The Jacob Fred guys (Haas, drummer Jason Smart, bassist Reed Mathis — Fred is a made-up moniker) tour constantly, relentlessly. When we caught up with them for an interview last week, they were in the van heading through New York to New Hampshire. In the background, on the van's stereo, Mehldau's new album was playing.
"Brad's got a new drummer, and he's really amazing," Mathis gushed about the Mehldau Trio's new Jeff Ballard. "He can swing and open up, but most of the time he's playing backbeats. They're stretching out and improvising like they always have, but it has this dance-oriented drive to it. It does some cool, weird things to these standards."
Standards, eh? So in the 21st century, when "oldies" radio has caught up to Hall & Oates and Earth, Wind & Fire, does that mean "standards" have moved forward on the timeline as well?
"It's a funny word," Mathis said. "It can mean a lot, just like 'jazz' can."
"Dorn told us, 'You guys are completely not jazz — and that's what makes you more jazz than anything else I've ever heard.' Then he paused and said, 'It's like the sameness of the difference," Haas said. Thus, the new album title.
"But, you know, Cole Porter was the equivalent to Radiohead in his day," Mathis said. "He was writing catchy hooks that you can't forget, but with weird chords that sounded wrong if anyone else tried them. Listen to Brad, he really pulls that stuff off. His playing is so beautiful. He could be playing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and you could listen to it for hours. He extracts the guitars and the lyrics and says, 'Hey, check out this composition.'"
Precisely, said Mehldau. "I do not get any more or less excited about playing a song because of what era it comes from," he said. "Each song — and that includes originals of my own, which make up a fair portion of my performances — exists in its own locus and is fairly malleable in terms of the possibilities of interpretation. This is where the jazz aspect comes in. There are more-inspired performances and less-inspired ones, and the level of inspiration is not tied to what song we're playing.
"What constitutes an inspired performance is to what extent the players surprise themselves and the audience. That element of surprise runs contrary to a notion of doing justice to a particular song. It has to do more, in fact, with forgetting about the song at a certain point and surrendering to the improvisation. The song becomes a pragmatic vehicle."
Even Mehldau comes back to the Coltrane example. "Coltrane's performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'My Favorite Things' or 'Chim-Chim-Cheree' from 'Mary Poppins' are a constant for me," he said in a statement upon release of "Day Is Done" in September. "The way Coltrane's band blows up those songs into something great and dangerous, on this huge scale, that's a real guiding light for me in terms of what I'm trying to achieve in a band performance. The original tune is referred to, but it's raised up and becomes transfigured, giving the listener a transcendent experience."
• • •
Indeed, what these players danced around was the simple fact that the choice of song is largely irrelevant. Just give the jazz cat a melody, any ol' melody, and let them knead it into their particular hot, nourishing stuff.
Richard Niles, the host of "New Jazz Standards" on BBC's Radio 2 in England, summed it up in a recent e-mail exchange: "[Standards] have always been drawn from 'pop.' In the hands of a great jazz musician, playing a song by Gershwin is no different from playing a song by Fleetwood Mac."
The Jacob Fred guys knew this, but they were resistant to it — at least, they were hesitant to record an album dominated by other people's songwriting credits. In fact, they weren't sure about most of Dorn's ideas at first.
Most of the trio's discs have been live recordings, but its last studio effort, "Walking With Giants" (2004) is indicative of how these three work. They spent months recording, re-recording, overdubbing, tweaking, tinkering and overthinking. The results were still invigorating, but they lacked the crackle of the band's live energy. When they headed to New York to work with Dorn, they assumed another lengthy road was ahead.
"We finished our first day and expected to keep recording, but Joel walks out and says, 'Nah, it's done, babies,'" Haas said, still clearly flabbergasted.
Nor did the band want to record so many covers. But Dorn insisted, and the band is now pleased with the results. "It did let us do our thing, and show that our thing is beyond our own writing," Haas said. "I mean, this is the way the universe and the world continue to shrink and shrink. Every new melody is in some way derivative of a hundred old melodies, and the way we use tunes is as bare skeletons for different types of explorations."
"It's kind of the 'in' thing for modern jazz groups to play pop music," added Mathis, who opens "The Sameness of Difference" with a fluid reading of Jimi Hendrix's "Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland?" "Mehldau and such are staking their reputations on it, which is fine. It sounds a little gimmicky sometimes at first, and we wanted to avoid that as much as we could. I wanted to play our selections as seriously as we would play Beethoven.
"So we had to pick songs we really connect with. The Hendrix song is so deep in our psyche, and the Bjork song ['Isobel'] takes me right back to high school, to some fundamental feelings. When the Flaming Lips album came out ['The Soft Bulletin,' from which they pulled 'The Spark That Bled'], we listened to that twice a day in the van. It was thrilling to see some of this come out of our own instruments, and these became more intense when we started playing them in performances. The audience picks up on it. You can feel them go 'a-ha!' and connect more deeply to what you're doing."
Haas agrees: "Mehldau, all this stuff — it's part of a canon to reinterpret melodies. It doesn't matter where they come from anymore. The wisdom is in taking one and putting it into a new context. That's what we do every night."
GREAT MOMENTS IN JAZZ COVERS OF POP SONGS
Louis Armstong, "Stardust"
Armstrong in 1929 was a pop star himself, but this chestnut was a winner just before his reading of "Ain't Misbehavin'" became a jukebox hit.
Benny Goodman, "Sometimes I'm Happy"
A pop song that, in 1935, Goodman made swing, swing, swing.
Charlie Parker, "Just Friends"
In the '50s, Parker sought to record his sax with a string section. Fans worried, but his reading of this tune on "Charlie Parker with Strings" is considered by fans — and Bird himself — as one of his best performances.
John Coltrane, "My Favorite Things"
Coltrane's 1960 reading of Maria's ditty from "The Sound of Music" sounds like a quaint idea — until you hear what he does with it.
Miles Davis, "My Funny Valentine" and "All of You"
Miles' live concert album in 1964 was stuffed with standards — and set a few.
Ramsey Lewis, "The 'In' Crowd" and "Hang on Sloopy"
Is it pop? Is it jazz? Chicago's Ramsey Lewis did a little of both in 1965, and audiences ate it up.
'Legends' needs less pomp, more pizzazz
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
"Legends of Jazz: the Jazz Masters"
9 tonight on WTTW-Channel 11
The producers of "Legends of Jazz: The Jazz Masters" claim that their hourlong special — airing tonight and heralding a new half-hour series, "Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis," starting in January — is the first jazz show on network television in 40 years.
The last one was the syndicated "Jazz Scene U.S.A.," hosted by Chicago's own soul-jazz master, the late Oscar Brown Jr. This new incarnation follows a similar interviews-and-performances format, and while it's wonderful and important to have a jazz showcase back on the public airwaves, this first "Legends of Jazz" outing looks as if its primary audience will be people old enough to remember "Jazz Scene U.S.A."
"Legends of Jazz: The Jazz Masters" airs on PBS — and it's very PBS. It's reserved, stately and moving at the pace of peanut butter. Chicago-based jazz figurehead Ramsey Lewis hosts (and also will host the 13-episode series), leading soft-toned conversations with the guests, and is so genteel and pleasant as to almost disappear.
The special spotlights five pillars in the jazz community, each of them a current or previous recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts' Jazz Masters award: vocalist Nancy Wilson, saxophone player James Moody, singer Jon Hendricks, Latin jazz player Paquito D'Rivera and Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein. Each is the primary focus of conversation breaks between stellar performances from Wilson (an amazing reading of "God Bless the Child"), Moody, Hendricks and Rivera, and each of those conversations, while containing the occasional amusing story or fascinating tidbit (Moody's recollections are pretty interesting), still feels like having dinner with grandparents.
And that particular generational perspective is a valid point here, chiefly because after nearly an hour of remembering the good old days, "Legends of Jazz" tries to end on a positive, life-affirming note for jazz music by trotting out — squeeze Grandma's hand here — an actual young person! Who sings a jazz standard! And likes it! Renee Olstead sings "Taking a Chance on Love," and yes, she's an amazing talent — a high school sophomore, star of the CBS sitcom "Still Standing," and a sinusy voice like Diane Schuur's.
But a young girl singing old songs is hardly the salvation of jazz. A prop for its nostalgia, maybe, but if, as Moody says, shows like this will help "keep jazz alive," "Legends" should try to include today's more energetic expressions of jazz (try the Necks, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, heck, even Jamie Cullum). Otherwise, the youth they say is so important to the music's future will forever view jazz as a musty old PBS relic.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
"Telluride Is Acoustic"
A four-track mini-album recorded live at the Telluride Jazz Festival this year, this limited-edition gem captures a beautiful, rare performance of the Jacob Fred freaks unplugged.
It's only the second time in seven years bassist Reed Mathis has played an upright, and the alien cats he strangles with it on "Son of Jah" make for one madcap psychedelic trip through the borderlands of jazz.
These recordings also feature some crazy stereo panning that makes the world bend a little when listening through headphones. Available through www.jfjo.com.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Brian Haas has been knocked out by his progressive jazz band's new acoustic music.
One performance that was slated for the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's latest CD, "Telluride Is Acoustic," had to be cut from the record because of an unwanted noise: Haas's head hitting the piano.
"We're doing all these acoustic performances now, right? Well, I'm not used to acoustic pianos. They have this lip that comes down over the keys, and — you know me — I was moving around pretty hard one night at this festival, and I whacked my head so hard on that part of the piano that I blacked out for a second or two," Haas said in a conversation this week. "The audience saw me go back, and I caught myself just before falling over. I actually don't remember much of the show, but there were oxygen tanks and people with ice packs waiting for me when I got off stage. My forehead looked like a Klingon's.
"And then we couldn't use that track on the record because in the middle of it there's this huge (ITAL)thonk!(END ITAL). It sounds like someone whacks the piano with a baseball bat."
The new disc is still hard-hitting. Recorded live at this summer's Telluride Jazz Festival, it spotlights the Tulsa-based, nationally acclaimed jazz group in a rare acoustic mode.
The Jacob Fred trio has gained widespread attention from coast to coast during the last few years for its electric — in every sense of the word — performances. Haas punishes his Fender Rhodes keyboard while Reed Mathis plays his electric bass like Hendrix on guitar. The only truly naturally acoustic performer in the band has been drummer Jason Smart.
But occasionally — such as this weekend's rare evening performance — the guys enjoy unplugging. The results usually highlight the band's traditional roots, roots which are often more difficult to discern amid the screaming electrons.
"It's changed a lot for us," Haas said. "We're now totally accepted in trad jazz circles."
The new acoustic yearnings grew out of the circumstances of the band's latest cross-country swing. Their 2002 Ancient Creatures Tour, the band's first solely headlining swing in several years, landed them in more upscale jazz venues, such as Yoshi's in Oakland. Most of these clubs have quality house pianos, and Haas couldn't resist.
"Whenever we'd pull up to a club and found out they had a nice acoustic grand, my Rhodes didn't even come out of the trailer," Haas said. "We'd sometimes have the clubs provide Reed with an upright bass, or we had friends that would lend them. I just have to do it when it's an option."
It's an option this weekend, for sure. Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame president Chuck Cissel encountered the Jacob Fred phenomenon in August when he met and saw the band at its first Fred Fest concert downtown. Haas continued the conversation at the Hall of Fame on Greenwood Avenue — and he saw the organization's piano.
"He came by to talk about the 2002 Autumn Jazz series, because I wanted them to be a part of it," Cissel said this week. "We have a beautiful 9-foot grand piano, and when Brian saw it and played around on it, he said, 'I've gotta do this.' They're the biggest thing in progressive jazz now, so we definitely wanted that kind of energy to come to the Hall of Fame."
The Jacob Fred boys are taking an extended rest here at home throughout the holidays. They're gigging lightly around the metro area while they woodshed a few new tunes — and on a few new instruments — before tackling a studio recording after Christmas. All six Jacob Fred albums thus far have been live recordings.
The trio will be back in the Northeast this spring. They've got residencies at two clubs throughout the month of April: Tuesday nights at the Middle East in Boston and Wednesday nights at the Mercury Lounge in New York City.
"Telluride Is Acoustic" is a limited edition disc and should be available locally at Starship Records and the midtown Borders Books and Music.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Reed Mathis can't believe his luck, every single time.
When he was playing the cramped stage at Eclipse, back when the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was seven members, he thought he was on top of the world.
When the band got the chance to tour and open for musical soulmates Medeski, Martin and Wood, he thought it couldn't get any better than this.
When they recorded an album live at New York City's famed Knitting Factory nightclub earlier this year, again he couldn't believe his luck.
Now he's looking ahead to the band's first sponsored jazz festival and a headlining tour across America, and he's just as amazed and thrilled as he's always been.
"I keep feeling so excited, so amazed every time things get better," he said during an interview this week. "We're so blessed."
Things have only gotten better for the Odyssey, whose steady rise through the nation's new jazz ranks culminated this year in the Knitting Factory gigs, the resulting CD, "All Is One" (out just a month and already the third highest seller in the lengthy history of Knitting Factory Records) and a mention in U.S. News and World Report as being the most promising new voice in jazz today.
The Fred boys - bassist Mathis, keyboardist Brian Haas and drummer Jason Smart - played 221 shows in 2001, but they always come home. Tulsa, in fact, means so much to them that they're launching the first (and hopefully annual) Fred Fest this weekend in town.
"This is something we've thought about for a long time, and these musicians - our friends - were totally into doing it, and doing it here," Mathis said. "We're already talking to groups about what we'll do next year."
The band hooked up with jazz pioneer Charlie Hunter after Hunter saw the band play and were wowed.
"Our people got in touch with his people, and we did a tour together," Mathis said.
The relationship lasted through two joint tours and numerous other gigs together. The day George Harrison died, Hunter sought out Jacob Fred and joined them onstage for a meaningful rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
"Charlie is the real article," Mathis said. "As far as innovative, new jazz is concerned, he's the guy. He brings a different group with him for each tour. That's a thing from the old jazz era. He composes a whole body of music for this one select, hand-picked group of musicians, they have maybe one rehearsal, then they show up for the first gig and just ice it. Next time out, he's got a whole new band."
At this weekend's show, a special guest will be joining Hunter. Hint: old Jacob Fred and new Fuzz fans will dig it.
Shortly after Fred Fest, the Odyssey will depart for another long coast-to-coast tour - this time as the headliner at every show. The gigs are downright toney now, too: Yoshi's in Oakland, the Lizard Lounge in Boston, the Village Underground in New York City, the Blue Note in Las Vegas - the great jazz clubs in every city.
They'll be home at the end of October and plan to spend the holiday season woodshedding on some new instruments - Mathis is going to try and master cello and sitar - as well as composing and rehearsing new material. Then, get this: the Odyssey's going to record its first proper studio record.
Each of the band's half-dozen releases thus far have been live recordings. After Christmas, Jacob Fred has time booked on the TU campus to record a record without an audience.
They also plan to broaden their scope widely.
"We've been listening to the Flaming Lips like they're going out of style," Mathis said. "The new record is such ear candy. Both these last records have just been incredible. It's so lush, the tapestry they paint. I wanna try some of that with Jacob Fred."
In other fawning Jacob Fred news:
Two weeks ago the trio was back at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan, where they played a sold-out show. The performance was filmed by the BET network.
"I grew up watching those shows. That's how I first saw Miles Davis," Mathis said. "I didn't go out and see bands, I got it all through TV. Now some kid from Lincoln, Neb., is going to see me in the same context."
The show should air this fall.
A feature article about Mathis will appear in the September issue of Bass Player magazine.
"That's another dream come true," he said. "You know, I never took lessons. I learned a lot from reading those magazines, so it's cool to be in there now."
Jacob Fred Jazz Festival, featuring the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, the Charlie Hunter Quartet, DJ Jeremy Sole's Musaics, Rewake and And There Stand Empires
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Curly's at the East End, 216 N. Elgin Ave.
Admission: $20 in advance - available at Starship Records, Curly's (www.curlystulsa.com) and Seasick Records (www.seasickrecords.com) - or $23 on Saturday and at the door
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
"All Is One: Live in New York City "
(Knitting Factory Records)
Were this the forum for such academic criticism, I could dust off my Music Critic's Dictionary and really lay a few $20 words on you here. An examination of Tulsa's most unique band, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, needs words like "contrapuntal," "polytonal," "harmolodics" or a host of music theory paradigms. But this isn't the place, nor is that the point of the Odyssey — or any odyssey, for that matter. No, this journey is about the travel, the path, the winds that both propel us homeward and blow us off course. It's about three insanely talented players finding their way in the world and the insane music they make simply by making the journey.
The Fred boys — keyboardist Brian Haas, bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Jason Smart — have certainly traveled. The presentation on "All Is One" is light years ahead of the Odyssey's '96 debut, "Live at the Lincoln Continental" (recorded at the Eclipse with the then seven-member band). What years ago often sounded like a bunch of yahoos banging on pianos and wanking on horns has evolved into a mythic and oxymoronic sound — considered abandon, controlled explosion, ragged grace. Closely networked — like a flock of starlings, turning with each other through the nebulous charts with a mind-boggling synchronicity — the three of them act as some kind of psychic lightning rod, absorbing the hot, high voltage of improvisational plasma and grounding it for us, delivering it in tingles and good vibrations, saving us from the shock. They are mediators, priests, shamans and "All Is One" is their finest interpretation of the cosmos yet.
Recorded live at the prestigious Knitting Factory nightclub in New York City, "All Is One" doesn't give away its setting. Rarely do we hear audience applause, and no one says, "Thank you, New York City!" from the stage. The recording is intensely focused on the instruments, which — despite the sweaty, raucous madness of a typical Fred show — is a blessing.
It allows us to really hear Reed Mathis' bass, which is a treat because Mathis doesn't play his bass very much like a bass. Rather, he tends to play it like Hendrix played his guitar, and sometimes he runs it through the eeriest effects. On "There Is No Method" his instrument sounds like a cat trapped inside a Martin guitar in a culvert -- a mildly funky exploration of the upper register, full of depth and astonishing lyricism — while on "Vernal Equinox" it's a fretless dobro under your pillow. "Lovejoy" showcases Haas' agility in switching between melodica and his Fender Rhodes piano within the same measure, all the while keeping this chugging, churning percussion romp utterly light and frothy. (The tune is named for guest percussionist Chris Lovejoy, from Charlie Hunter's band. Groove Collective percussionist Chris Theberge also is on board here.) Throughout, Smart shows himself to be the best drummer the band has had since the late Sean Layton helped found the band.
When all is said and done, your mind might not be blown — and that's OK. So many past Fred albums have worn their freak too well; "All Is One" approaches you like a guru, calmly, patiently, unafraid of speaking the truth but not preaching to you the entire gospel in one overwhelming homily. This record smooths out those rough edges, offers a spoonful of sugar with the medicine and satisfies the soul.
Jacob Fred negotiating six-CD contract
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
It's a warm October night in Manhattan, and whenever the
doors open at the Irving Plaza a swirling racket spills
into the street, turning heads on 14th Street and in Union
Square. A light crowd is milling around inside the Cain's
Ballroom-sized music hall. They're New Yorkers, they're
cool, sophisticated, surprised by nothing and amused by
everything. But the poker faces are falling, and the kids
are — gasp! — dancing.
"Jesus!" exclaims one young man the second he lays his
eyes on Brian Haas, who's wincing as if he's just been
stabbed and pounding out his pain on his poor Fender Rhodes
piano. "What the (heck) is his problem?" he asks. Thing is,
the man's smiling as he asks this — wonderment rather than
annoyance — and for the next half hour he hardly moves a
muscle, riveted by the sonic freakout on stage.
His girlfriend catches up to him midway through the set,
her face contorting in horrible confusion. Her little
mental label-gun is misfiring, unable to classify the data
flooding her aural inputs. She stammers for a moment, then
says, to no one in particular, "That's . . . that's . . .
crazy. My God . . ."
"What did he say? What are they called?" the man asks,
with a hint of desperation, afraid to let the moment slip
away without obtaining some kind of quantifiable
"That," I interject, proudly, "is the Jacob Fred Jazz
• • •
Back in Tulsa, just two weeks ago. The
living room floor of Brian Haas's house is lined with six
slumping sacks full of provisions procured from Wild Oats
Market. The coffee table is stacked with nutritional
supplements, organic soaps and plastic bottles labeled
"herbal liquid." It's almost midnight, and the band needs to
blow Tulsa by 3 a.m. in order to make tomorrow's gig in
Indianapolis. They've been home a day and a half.
Haas sighs. "There's still cooking to do, too," he says.
He points to the herbal liquid bottles. "That's the fuel
of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey right there," he says, in
perfect earnest. "It's all about nutrition. We eat well, we
keep ourselves healthy while we're on the road — that's what
keeps us getting along, keeps us happy."
On the dashboard of the band van is a dog-eared copy of
The Tofu Tollbooth, a book detailing the location of every
health-food store in America. Turning debaucherous rock 'n'
roll road myths on their heads, when the Jacob Fred Jazz
Odyssey boys hit a new town they make a beeline for the bee
pollen, throwing back wheatgrass shots at the juice bar
instead of whiskey shots at the beer hall.
"We're wheatgrass connoisseurs now," chuckles bassist Reed
Mathis. "We can tell the difference between sun-bloomed and
They've even written two new songs about their daily
focus: "Daily Wheatgrass Shots Burned a Brand-New Pathway
Through My Brain" and "The FDA Has Made Our Food Worse Than
"They're instrumentals, of course, but they still get the
message out about healing yourself," Haas says. "Goes hand in
hand with music, right? Especially ours."
• • •
The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey certainly couldn't be
healthier. Two years ago the band trimmed down from a
seven-piece to a trio before signing a management contract
that's kept them jogging around the country constantly ever
since. The incessant touring has paid off in supple, sinewy
new tunes — and a new recording contract. The band is
currently in negotiation with the independent Shanachie
Entertainment label for a six-CD contract.
The trio these days comprises two founding members — Haas
and Mathis — and a new drummer, Richard Haas, younger
brother of Brian. Richard joined the group in April,
replacing original percussionist Matt Edwards, who's now
making films in the Tulsa area. (The band's name comes from
Brian's CB handle when he was a tot. Alas, there is no
The two brothers have played together off and on since
grade school — in fact, the first-ever incarnation of the
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was this trio jamming at the Haas
home after homework had been completed — and Brian credits
the "spiritual unity" of playing with his lil' bro with the
bigger and bigger crowds showing up to Jacob Fred shows
around the country.
"Richard is so simple, so primal. He comes out of that
African school of drumming where the role of the drum is to
get you dancing," Brian said in a recent interview. "It has
really freed Reed and I to get into this free-jazz
freakout, but at the same time, everybody's dancing. We've
finally mastered the best of both worlds."
The crowds are, indeed, growing. Some clubs, including
the Irving Plaza, ask all patrons who they've come to see
each night; that way they can determine whether or not the
opening act was a significant draw. At that October show,
there were 15 people who'd come especially to see the Jacob
Fred trio. When the boys returned to the same venue four
months later, the tally was 130.
"We've refused to dumb it down or do anything the music
industry has asked us to do, and yet people keep coming
out," Brian said, with no small amount of wonder at his
• • •
It's not all luck, though. The Jacob Fred formula — if
there could possibly be a construct to the band's free-form
musical journeys — takes the strength and will of Medeski,
Martin and Wood and spreads it like seedy, all-fruit jam
(organic, of course) across the improvisational landscape
terraced by jazz pioneers from Mingus to Monk. The word
"unique" is often applied lightly in music, but these
wide-eyed, intense young men fashion songs and shows that
attract all the benefits of that word and none of the
It's paying off, too — the record deal, the booking
contract with the London-based Agency Group, numerous
high-profile opening slots (most recently Tower of Power,
Mike Clark, Project Logic), an average of 200 mp3 downloads
daily from band's web site, and nominations for Artist of
the Year at the Spot Music Awards every year thus far. But
more than physical gains, these three musicians are high on
their own creative energies.
"Remember the song 'Good Energy Perpetuates Good Energy'
from the 'Live in Tokyo' CD?" Brian asked. "For the first
time, we're realizing that every single night. But then,
playing 25 shows a month from coast to coast kind of forces
your music to evolve. Really fast."
Funny thing about that old CD, too, the "Live in Tokyo"
set. It was recorded here in Tulsa — at the Eclipse, no less
— but the band soon might actually make it to Japan.
"I started noticing this Japanese couple at every one of
our shows," Mathis said. "In New York and in California, it
turns out they flew out to see us. They were flipping out,
they loved us. They said, `We've got to get you guys to
Japan.' We're supposed to have distribution (for the CD)
over there by next spring, and these are people who've
brought other bands over before. They were shocked to hear
we hadn't been before. They heard `Live in Tokyo' and
The band's current CD of new material is "Self Is Gone,"
its title swiped from a Tulsa World headline about the
disembarking of a University of Tulsa coach. Also available
is "Bloom," a compilation from the band's early albums
spanning '96 to '98, plus several previously unreleased
JACOB FRED JAZZ ODYSSEY
with And There Stand Empires, the Mad Laugh and Brad
James and the Organic Boogie Band
When 8 p.m. Friday
Where Curly's, 216 N. Elgin Ave.
Admission $7 at the door
Sean Layton: Walking before daylight
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
He was the quiet one, but the silence he has left behind
has carved a cavern in the Tulsa music scene that will not
be easily filled.
Sean Layton, 29, an immensely talented Tulsa drummer,
died last weekend, ending a career that invigorated the
creative spirits of countless local musicians and music
A funeral took place Monday morning, but the real
tribute occurred that night at Living Arts of Tulsa when
dozens of Layton's friends and fellow musicians — one and
the same, in most cases — conducted a drumming circle in
Layton was the first drummer for the Jacob Fred Jazz
Odyssey. After leaving the band in '99, he joined Steve
Pryor's Neighbors, which also included Jacob Fred bassist
Reed Mathis (who is already planning a retrospective
tribute CD of Layton's songs). Until several months ago,
Layton was ubiquitous in the Tulsa music scene, providing
the pulse for projects from Mummy Weenie to Leslie Brown.
I have interviewed Layton maybe a half dozen times. He
rarely spoke up, but when he did, it always mattered. It
was usually the last word on a particular subject. I
remember a typically circuitous interview with all seven
members of Jacob Fred, a discussion of the band's reasons
for recording all of its records live. Layton seized a rare
pause in the harangue and said, "We're just a live band and
there's nothing we can do about it." End of discussion.
For Layton, that's how life and music was — a spiritual
compulsion. He spoke little about his art, choosing to
channel all those things he couldn't do anything about into
his drumming and singing. His work on kits for the
Neighbors was certainly enough, but in that band he began
to expand his talents into composing and singing. His voice
was unmistakable — a lot of Leon Redbone and a little
Charlie Brown. He sang beautiful lyrics capturing his awe
at everything from the majesty of a forest to the dancers
It's those positive messages his friends will remember
"I went and looked at my bookshelf after I heard that he
died," said Jacob Fred keyboardist Brian Haas this week.
"There are at least 30 titles in there that he gave to me.
He spread so much knowledge and goodness in his life. He
also introduced me to so many people I know in the Tulsa
music scene. He affected my life in ways that will always
be remembered and deeply, deeply appreciated."
As a mere listener, I am cautious about claiming that a
musician affected my life as deeply as he did a fellow
player. Then again, those of us in the crowd are who
they're making the music for, and it is their mission to
affect us. Layton never failed to lift my spirit, and I
rest easier believing at least that his is now lifted as
high as it can go.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Jacob Fred Jazz Trio
"Live at Your Mama's House"
The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey started out several years
ago with the jazzy name but an overly funky sound. The
improv thing was there in spots, but sometimes the boys
seemed more concerned with being MCs than emissaries. After
the first couple of years and the first thousand Medeski,
Martin and Wood bootlegs, Jacob Fred evolved into a true
jazz odyssey — and never have its members so deeply explored
the innocently psychedelic spirit of improvisation than in
this side project, a trio of keyboardist Brian Haas,
bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Matt Edwards.
The Jacob Fred Trio has been playing weekly at the Bowery for six
months, and this single disc captures a handful of the
band's best moments there, including Haas' invigorating
"Good Energy Perpetuates Good Energy," a meandering
Thelonious Monk medley that morphs into an original tribute
to former Tulsa bassist Al Ray ("The Man Who Adjusted
Tonalities") and a rhapsodic opener, "Pacific," by Odyssey
trombone player Matt Leland's father, Max. All of it moves
in the same impressionistic space, not leaving you with any
lasting tunes but leaving your ears a little looser.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Tulsa's own Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is about to launch
an exhaustive national tour, circling the continent in a
few months and headlining some of the country's premier
improvisational music venues.
"Two nights ago, Eric (Gerber, the band's new Los Angeles
manager) read me just the confirmed stuff. It's
unbelievable," said JFJO bassist Reed Mathis this week.
The band's summer tour — it's fifth national go-round --
will consist of 52 concerts, taking them to headlining gigs
in New York City and Boston, south to Memphis, through
Tulsa ("We might actually get one day off here at home,"
Mathis said) on their way to a week of shows in Colorado
and points west. They'll return in time to play the
Greenwood Jazz Festival in August.
The band is still riding the acclaim of its third album --
the first to reach a national audience — "Welcome Home" on
Massachusetts-based Accurate Records. The May issue of Jazz
Times hit the streets this week with a story about the
nation's improvisational music scene focuses on seven
bands, including Phish, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and
Medeski, Martin and Wood.
"Things have really started changing," Mathis said. "I did
a Web search of radio playlists the other day. We're
getting played alongside Zappa; Medeski, Martin and Wood;
and Mingus. These people haven't seen us live. They just
assume we're huge because they can get our record now. ...
Plus, people are recognizing the music now. At a recent
show in Chicago, Matt (Edwards, drummer) started the beat
to `Seven Inch Six' from `Welcome Home,' and people started
clapping and cheering."
Fans have begun to tape shows, too — just like
"And that's fine, 'cause we're an improvisational band.
If you have 'Welcome Home' and three bootlegs of our shows,
you've got four completely different records, really."
This weekend's all-ages show will feature some of the
band's newest material, which Mathis said is on a new level
from the band's work thus far.
"Like Mingus or Ellington, we've begun to write for the
band we're in, instead of just creating music and making
each guy fit it and not the other way around," he said.
"We're able now to conceptualize the parts for the people,
to give each player the chance to show his strengths."
Like most Odyssey members, Mathis has plenty of extra
work on the side. In addition to playing in the Jacob Fred
Trio (each Wednesday night at the Bowery), he plays in the
Neighbors with local blues legend and Spot Music Award
winner Steve Pryor. Expect to see a Neighbors CD released
within the next month, featuring Pryor chiefly on pedal
steel and some very un-blues music, including covers of
John Coltrane and Eddie Harris.
Catch Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey while they're home, playing
at 8 p.m. Saturday at The Delaware, 1511 S. Delaware Ave.
It's an all-ages show, and the Western Champs — an
eight-member band featuring some former Blue Collars — open
the show. Tickets are $5 at the door.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, 'Welcome Home'
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
I started my musical explorations thinking Al Jarreau
was a great jazz singer, and there was a time in my life, I
confess, when I assumed Thelonious Monk must have been a
religious philosopher. Two things turned me around to the
Way of Things: I heard my first Charles Mingus record, and
I saw the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey live at Eclipse. Then, I
Mingus is long gone, but the Jacob Fred boys are very
much alive. In fact, never have I seen a band that is more
alive — growing, breathing, reacting, adapting, affecting
the world around it. No longer establishing themselves as
well-trained hot-shots (the first album, "Live at the
Lincoln Continental") or attempting to obliterate the
restraints of that training (the second album, "Live in
Tokyo"), this third recording — the band's national debut --
finally lives up to the band's name. This is a musical
experience that's not just a little escapist vacation, it's
an odyssey — an intrepid voyage through unfamiliar
territory, a hike through strange and exciting sounds,
chords and free-thinking.
It's another live album, too, as all Jacob Fred CDs have
been. The band tried to record a studio record, but it
couldn't be done. Local knob-twiddler and punk veteran
Martin Halstead was certainly up to the task, but the mojo
wasn't working. The unpredictable nature of Jacob Fred's
collective improvisations is something that can't be easily
pinned down in a studio, and Halstead has called the studio
work, with no malice, the "sessions from hell." Two tracks on
"Welcome Home" survive from those hellish hours: "Stomp," a
quaint homage to the garbage can-weilding stage dancers,
sung by drummer Sean Layton in his best Leon Redbone drawl,
and "Road to Emmaus," a moving ballad written and led by
trumpeter Kyle Wright.
Closing this album with a reference
to Christ's rising from the dead and chatting with two guys
who didn't recognize his glory is somehow ironic coming
from a band of immensely talented musicians who've been
killing themselves for five years in Tulsa's tough local
scene in hopes of ascending to their rightful place in the
musical pantheon. (Wright has also written a 20-page piece
based on the Creation. Hadyn, shmadyn.) The seven
sermons leading up to the righteous postlude are soulful,
All but the two studio tracks were captured in two
performances at Tulsa's Club One, and they show a band that
has grown into its own not by emulating anyone but by
focusing intently on each player's gifts. The normal
pattern for a jazz song is to lay down the riff, then let
each player take turns soloing. In songs like "Seven Inch
Six" and "MMW," Jacob Fred lays down the riff with horns, but
instead of jumping right into the ego-feeding solos, they
slowly and carefully build a song, wrapping some of Brian
Haas' unusually tempered and dreamy keyboards and Reed
Mathis' loping bass around before opening the floor to
And guitarist Dove McHargue is definitely a
hot-shot, bending the strings during "MMW" with such strength
and control he almost makes the thing talk. For evidence of
the band's peaking compositional brilliance, look to both
"Mountain Scream," a carefully constructed atmospheric
joyride that winds up a breezy Latin dance, and the title
track, an on-the-spot completely improvised song that
sounds like a carefully written and labored-over gem.
Controlled chaos is this band's specialty, and that, I know
now, is jazz. Real jazz. Amen.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
A couple of weekends ago, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey played
a handful of Tulsa gigs in which they barely included any
of the songs on their new album, "Welcome Home," released
"We did three sets of all new material except two from
'Welcome Home,' " said keyboardist Brian Haas. "We've just
got that much new stuff. It just keeps coming."
That kind of spirit and production rate after five hard
years together as Tulsa's most unique jazz-funk fusion band
is what impressed Russ Gershon to sign the Jacob Fred Jazz
Odyssey to his independent record label.
"It boggles my mind that this group has held together,
playing mainly with each other and evolving as a group as
opposed to going off to the big city and playing with hot
shots," said Gershon, head of Massachusetts-based Accurate
Records. "These guys stuck together and pulled it up to a
really high level without losing a sense of fun."
The seven members of Jacob Fred started sending tapes of their
music to Accurate about four years ago. The first Medeski,
Martin and Wood album — a band to whom Jacob Fred is
frequently compared — was released on Accurate, so that
seemed like a logical place to start. Gershon has his own
innovative band called the Either Orchestra, and he picked
up on the band's outstanding sound.
"It was just odd enough," Gershon said of hearing Jacob
Fred's first self-produced CD, "Live at the Lincoln
Continental." "Of all the tapes that are sent to me, I
listened to this one. I liked it. It had great energy. I
called them back — or maybe Brian called me — and they sent
me another one. It was even better. We talked about what
was next for them, and I said I'd put the next one out."
As a musician himself, Gershon said he appreciates the
band's efforts to keep jazz interesting and dangerous.
"They have such a sense of abandon, which is very
important these days," Gershon said. "You hear a lot of
jazz-funk that's trying to sound tight and just sounds dry.
These guys are loose as free improvisors. They have fun
when they're playing. There's a lot of music where people
are too damn serious — not about their efforts but their
message. These guys' message is that you can be a serious
player and still have fun. In fact, it's better to have fun
because that's the only way a musician can survive. Having
fun doesn't mean you have to be sloppy musician. Jacob Fred
has a looseness I associate with my early Miles Davis
"Welcome Home" hit shelves across the country on Tuesday.
Accurate's other credits include the first Morphine
album, as well as six CDs for the Either Orchestra.
Jacob Fred plays a show Thursday at Club One to
celebrate the CD release. Earlier reports noted a cover
charge for the show, but admission will be free.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Where: Club One, 3200 Riverside Drive in the Place One
Tickets: No cover charge
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
There's an element of jazz — real jazz — that's rarely
discussed at charity benefit galas and music company board
meetings. You won't hear it in much of the music
masquerading as jazz — not lounge, not swing, certainly not
You might only have heard the term applied to rock 'n'
roll — the droning, sitar-drenched stuff from the late '60s.
But while psychedelic rock 'n' roll tried to blast open the
doors of perception, inventive and free jazz tries to
create its own keys. Creative bandleaders such as Charles
Mingus and Thelonious Monk, as well as sonic pioneers from
Ornette Coleman to Cecil Taylor, pushed the boundaries of
music back to expose new ways of producing and perceiving
the music, new vistas of expression, undiscovered
countries. More dopey-eyed people said, "Wow, man," at a
righteous Mingus performance than any Captain Beefheart
The music of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is an excellent
reminder of this. Built on firm foundations of traditional
jazz, funk and even rock, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey often
bounds off on enthralling collective improvisations, and
the result is often very "Wow, man."
"Jazz has always been psychedelic," said Brian Haas, the
band's own Master of Space of Time behind the Fender Rhodes
"Psychedelic — that is, activating the psyche, dealing
with the intangible instead of the tangible," added Reed
Mathis, Jacob Fred's bass player.
Besides being a seven-piece group of well-trained
musicians, mostly from the esteemed jazz program at the
University of Tulsa, Jacob Fred's music often receives more
comparisons to fringe rockers than the jazz artists in
which the band's innovative creations are so rooted.
"Even more than Medeski, Martin and Wood, the comparison
we hear most is Frank Zappa," said trombone player Matt
Leland, son of local keyboard wiz Mike Leland. "Mostly that
means they're saying, 'Whoa, that's really out there.'
Zappa's probably the only really crazy music they've ever
More exploratory listeners will have the chance this
week to hear Jacob Fred's brand of crazy music. The
Tulsa-based tribe releases its third CD, "Welcome Home," via
a Massachusetts-based independent record label, Accurate
Records. The label distributes its records nationally
through the Warner Bros. Records network, meaning "Welcome
Home" should be available at any record outlet
"Welcome Home" is the band's third full-length disc. The
first two, with the cheeky titles "Live at the Lincoln
Continental" and "Live in Tokyo," were recorded live at the
Eclipse and Club One in Tulsa. For the third outing, the
members of Jacob Fred set out to record their first-ever
That's not what they ended up with.
The reason is simply stated. "It sounded like poopy," said
guitarist Dove McHargue.
The band spent several months in a studio with local
producer and punk rocker Martin Halstead (N.O.T.A.),
slaving over a hot mixer and trying to pin down the
explosive — and often psychedelic — Jacob Fred chemistry.
Only rarely did the results live up to the band's standards
and expectations, so the bulk of the recordings were
scrapped. "Welcome Home" features two studio tracks, a
righteous ballad called "Road to Emmaus" and a talkie
courtesy of drummer Sean Layton's affected drawl, "Stomp";
the other six instrumentals were captured once again at
Tulsa's Club One.
"It was necessary that we do this," Mathis said of the
studio experience. "We learned many of our strengths and
weaknesses. The things we are familiar with as mainly a
live band simply weren't there in the studio ... It was
getting ridiculous doing 11 takes of one tune. We set up
for two nights in the club and had a finished album."
"It's much easier to present this music when you're
thinking about the audience and not about your own critical
ears," said trumpeter Kyle Wright.
"It's just not time for us in the studio yet," Mathis
When will it be time for a Jacob Fred studio record?
"When we can find a studio that can hold 500 patient
people," McHargue said.
So, for now, the third Jacob Fred CD is another snapshot
of the band's carefully reckless evolution.
JFJO, Not MMW, OK?
After this week's two Tulsa CD release parties, Jacob
Fred again will take to the road for a tour stretching from
Boston to Los Angeles. The word is out ahead of them, too.
This month's Down Beat magazine — the cornerstone news
source for jazz — sports a feature article on the band.
That article's chief comparison of the band is not, of
course, Zappa. It's Medeski, Martin and Wood, a more
revisionist acid-jazz organ trio that also debuted itself
to the nation via Accurate Records. Jacob Fred members
maintain that the only thing they have in common with MMW
is a spirit of innovation.
"It's the things MMW and us avoid that groups us
together," Mathis said. "It's not what we have in common,
really. The thing we really have in common is that we're
both unclassifiable bands."
"MMW," a song on "Welcome Home," makes light of the
perceived link. In this case, the MMW marks the order of
solos in the song: McHargue, Mathis and Wright.
On tour, the band proudly carries the banner for Tulsa
music. Or is that Texas? There's a goofy story behind the
new album's name. Mathis explained: "We went to Chicago, and
the paper mentioned us, saying, 'avant-garde sounds from
Texas.' The next week in Austin, they'd somehow picked up
on that, and a flier for our show said they were welcoming
Haas continued, "So in the show we said, 'It's great to
back. This next song is called "Welcome Home."' And Kyle went
into an improv thing."
"So now anytime we make up a song on stage — total
improvisation — we call it 'Welcome Home,'" Mathis said.
Celebrating its new and nationally released CD, "Welcome
Home" on Accurate Records, Tulsa's own Jacob Fred Jazz
Odyssey has scheduled two shows this week for its hometown
friends. Fans of all ages can catch the band's unique
funk-jazz at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Living Arts of Tulsa, 19 E.
Brady. Admission is $5 ($3 for Living Arts members) at the
door. The second show — 21 and over — kicks off at 9 p.m.
Thursday where most of the new CD was recorded: Club One,
3200 Riverside Drive It's $5 at the door, too.
Mummy Weenie, 'Mummy Weenie'
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Last time I saw him, Brian Haas didn't really have any
hair. So when I say that Mummy Weenie provides the Jacob
Fred Jazz Odyssey keyboard player a chance to let his hair
down, you'll have to understand that we're dealing strictly
in metaphor here. In fact, the now dormant Mummy Weenie is
all about right-brain, amorphous, free-form thinking. Haas
and drummer Sean Layton take a break from the frenetic pace
of Jacob Fred shows for this humble side project, a trio
rounded out by nimble Tribe of Souls bassist Al Ray. This
live concert, recorded at Tulsa's Club One, is a dreamy,
improvisational affair, a lulling and sometimes
patience-trying set of roomy instrumentals that sound like
Bob James confused and struggling through a show after
someone spiked his drink with a Quaalude and a twist of
Ecstasy. Haas occasionally meanders through his melodic
spelunking via melodica, though most of these untitled
tracks are worthy, rare moments of his caressing the Fender
Rhodes electric piano. Layton's drums and percussion inject
heart as well as beat, and Ray's emotional bass playing
throws in some refreshing curveballs, particularly in the
beginning of the contemplative fourth track. Watch out for
the psychedelic studio trickery late in the set, but by
then you'll be loose enough you might not even notice the
weirdness. Mission accomplished.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
A well-traveled pair of children's high-top sneakers
sits atop the Hammond B-3 organ. The organ itself is at the
bottom of the back stairs, in the utility room next to a
rope rack where dresses are drying. The main studio is
upstairs, in a converted maid's quarters — one room filled
to the brim with keyboards, bass guitars and high-dollar
recording equipment. A hall closet has become a vocal
booth, just a few doors down from the kids' bedrooms,
emanates TV sounds and the faint odor of socks.
This is the environment in which a jolly giant, Wayman
Tisdale, recorded his latest major-label jazz record. The
disc, "Decisions," is the first record of his music career
that isn't titled with a basketball pun — the previous two
were "Power Forward" and "In the Zone" — and the first made in
the wake of his professional basketball career. "This
album is my coming out party," Tisdale says, breaking into
his court-wide grin.
The decisions that brought Tisdale to his current
situation were weighty but welcome. He launched his
basketball career at the University of Oklahoma, where he
was a two-time All-American. He was chosen as the second
overall pick in the 1985 NBA draft and set off on a 12-year
run through the NBA, playing four years each with Indiana,
Sacramento and Phoenix.
Through with hoops
A dozen seasons were plenty, though, and Tisdale bowed
out of the sport earlier this year. In our interview at
Wayman's south Tulsa home last week, Tisdale said his
hoopster career almost went on too long.
"I knew coming into the league I wanted to play about
eight years. I never thought I would make 12," Tisdale said.
"When I didn't enjoy coming to the gym each day and staying
late, I knew it was time to let it go."
Tisdale's exit from basketball was hardly retirement. In
fact, he immediately turned back to the work he always
loved, the work that sustained the low points of his
sporting career, the work that would not leave him alone:
writing, playing and recording modern jazz.
Long before Tisdale learned layups, he learned licks.
His father, the Rev. Louis Tisdale, bought his sons Mickey
Mouse guitars when Wayman was young, but Wayman was the
only sibling who didn't "start using them as a hockey stick
or a baseball bat." He took to the instrument and worked at
it until he'd broken four of the six strings. With two
left, the only parts of a song Wayman could play were the
bass lines. So Wayman became a bass player.
Then one summer, Tisdale grew two feet. Suddenly, his
"I wasn't comfortable, you know, standing a foot taller
than everyone in the (church) choir, even the director," he
said, "so I thought, 'I've got to find something I can put
my energy into that will suit me.' "
Jazz on the sidelines
Onto the court he went. But music was never put away,
only put aside. As coaches told Wayman repeatedly that he
would be in the NBA one day, Tisdale lumbered home from
practice and followed along with a guitar to Stanley Clarke
records ("That's where I got my style," he says). He kept his
hand in something musical throughout his college and
professional basketball career. By the time he began
playing with the Phoenix Suns, he also had landed a record
contract with MoJazz, a Motown subsidiary.
"That's when the ribbing got pretty tough," Tisdale said.
"These guys see this multimillion-dollar basketball player
getting on the bus with this big bass, and they say, 'Oh,
man, here comes Michael Jackson.' I laughed it off and just
said, 'Someday you'll see. You'll see.' When my first
record came out, a lot of those guys came up to me all
wide-eyed, saying, 'Man, I can't believe you did it. And
it's cool.' "
Getting that deal was a tough sell, at first. Record
company scouts tended to groan when a pro athlete wandered
into their offices. "Being in the NBA was my worst
nightmare as far as being taken seriously in music," Tisdale
said. "You walk in and say, 'Hi, I'm Wayman, and I'm in the
NBA,' and they think, 'Oh no, another vanity project,' or
they hear the tape and think, 'Is it Milli Vanilli?' This
was right after Deion Sanders had done his thing and a
bunch of other players and done rap records that were
"I was going to put it out myself, but a friend took my
demo down to Motown. They loved it, and the last thing he
told them was who I was. They were sold."
The two MoJazz albums met with rave reviews. When MoJazz
dissolved, Atlantic's godfather of jazz, Ahmet Ertegun (who
signed the quintessential jazz bassist, Charles Mingus),
flew Wayman to New York, once again defying his own
promises to retire just to sign Tisdale to Atlantic. "I
couldn't believe I just stepped up from one big label to
another," Tisdale said. "He kept telling me I had the
capability to cross-over." What Ertegun heard in
Tisdale's "Decisions" demos was not just the overriding
smooth jazz, but gospel, adult contemporary and R&B. The
songs are easygoing gems that are somehow more than jazz.
Wayman even sings on a handful of radio-ready tracks.
"If I can't sing the song when I'm done with it, I won't
do it," Tisdale said. "I'm melody and hook oriented. That's
why I differ from most smooth-jazz players, I think. It's
feel-good music. It's got gospel, Latin, R&B — that was my
goal. The one common denominator in the whole thing is the
Tisdale is confident he's made the right "Decisions," and
he plans to be as much of a musical star as he was a sports
"A person who's been on top knows how to get on top
again," he said. "The Grammies — that's my goal. Basketball
taught me what it takes to get on top every day, and music
won't be any different."
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Tulsa World
Go SOUTH-West Young Man
By Thomas Conner 03/23/1997
AUSTIN, Texas — Shortly after I checked into the Lazy Oak Inn
in Austin, I met Flash Gordon. This should have clued me into just
how far out this weekend would be.
Flash sings and plays flute in a basic Florida bar band called
the Pundits. They didn't make the cut for one of the nearly 750
showcases at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but
Flash and his wife, Jo, came anyway. When your band gets rejected
from SXSW, the conference offers you registration at half price,
which we determined was reason enough to apply each year.
We sat on the porch, soaking in a warm Austin evening and
watching Molly, the inn's resident pooch, chase imaginary squirrels
around the inn's massive namesake tree. Everyone had their SXSW
booklets out and was making notes, circling band names,
highlighting times in the schedule. You have to plan your attack
carefully. At the top of each hour, about 40 musicians and spoken
word artists will begin a new set in clubs all over town. Just as
any sage would advise, you first must accept that you will not be
able to see it all. Then you plan your route, lace up a comfortable
pair of walking shoes, and hit the bricks.
It's all highly subjective.
Wednesday, 7:55 p.m.
The music part of the conference (film and multimedia kick off
the week) always begins with the Austin Music Awards on Wednesday
night. Storyville, the rootsy band that's been through Tulsa (and
will be back April 4), dominates the awards, winning Band of the
Year, Song of the Year (“Good Day for the Blues''), Best Rock
Band, and so on. Ian Moore lands Musician of the Year. Junior
Brown, of course, wins Best Country Artist. And everyone is
obsessing about the January death of local hero Townes Van Zandt,
who is inducted into the Austin hall of fame.
Wednesday, 10:15 p.m.
Always on the cutting edge of
cowpunk/twang-core/alt-country/whatever it's called now, Jason
Ringenberg of Jason and the Scorchers tears up Liberty Lunch in a
flurry of fringe and wins the Michael Stipe lookalike contest with
a freshly shaven head. Warner Hodges remains one of rock's most
overlooked and electrifying guitar masters.
Wednesday, 11:45 p.m.
Decked out in shiny silver space suits and flailing around far
more than keyboard players should indeed flail, Roger Manning and
one of his partners from the Moog Cookbook dazzle a slovenly
audience of media registrants at the Iron Cactus restaurant. It's
the first performance of the all-Moog “band'' outside of L.A. or
Thursday, 12:10 a.m.
As Tito and Tarantula start their set at Steamboat, film
directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarrantino are refused
admittance to see the bunch that played the vampire bar band their
film, “From Dusk Till Dawn.'' The fire marshals had been
ticketing club owners for overcrowding their establishments, and
the film moguls had to get over it like everyone else.
Thursday, 10:30 a.m.
Carl Perkins delivers the conference keynote address in the
Austin Convention Center. Certainly one of the most surreal
experiences of the week, Perkins noodled on the guitar while
speaking, mostly about Jesus but he did demonstrate the difference
between Bill Monroe's version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky'' and that
of Elvis Presley.
Thursday, 3:15 p.m.
Tanned, rested and ready, Tony Bennett sits down for a Q&A and
talks about his “comeback'' and his irrepressible love of singing.
When talking about getting booted from Columbia in the '70s, he
told the story of Duke Ellington's similar fate years earlier:
“They called him into the office at Columbia and said, "We're
going to drop you from the label.' Duke said, "Why? What's wrong?'
and they said, "You're not selling records.' Duke said, "Oh, I
thought I was supposed to make the records and you were supposed to
Thursday, 5 p.m.
Tulsa modern rock band Epperley takes the stage at the Voodoo
Lounge for a “pirate'' show — one not officially part of the SXSW
showcase. Perhaps that officialdom has its advanatages because the
quartet plays its heart out for an audience of about 12 listless
club rats. In whatever setting, though, Matt Nader is a thoroughly
entertaining live guitarist.
Thursday, 9 p.m.
Fulflej plays a subdued but affecting set at Liberty Lunch,
including a cover of Sinead O'Connor's “Nothing Compares 2 U.''
Guitarist and singer MC No Joke G uses the lingo (he actually said
“homies'') like he's the hippest dude around, but the music is
more deeply rooted in arena rock and power pop to allow his thick,
dark curls to become dreads anytime soon.
Thursday, 10:30 p.m.
Now that his original power pop band 20/20 has resurfaced, Tulsa
native Ron Flynt tried out his solo chops in the tiny space of Bob
Popular's Headliner's Room Upstairs. With fellow 20/20 member and
Tulsa native Steve Allen adding lead guitar flourishes to Flynt's
acoustic strum, the two rolled easily through a warm set of 20/20
classics and new Flynt originals. Flynt's soft, childlike voice is
better suited to this folkie setting, but Flynt is still concerned
with his primary (and unabashedly pop) lyrical topic: the love and
loss of chicks.
Thursday, 11 p.m.
Dwight Twilley takes the first step in his, what, fourth
comeback? Safely rooted in Tulsa once again, Twilley and his new
band lean into the set of power pop gems they'd been trying out on
small crowds at Caz's last fall. The large patio of Austin's
Waterloo Brewing Company is nearly SRO for this gig, and Twilley
looks as young and sounds as fresh as he did in 1975. He plays a
classic like “I'm on Fire'' right next to something brand new, and
no one knows the difference. He isn't slumming for the nostalgia
addicts; he's just doing what Twilley does — rocking with more
melody than the radio has played in 10 years. Susan Cowsill, a
former Twilley sweetheart, backs him up at the mike for three
songs. The set is flawless and exciting.
Friday, 12 a.m.
20/20 follows up Twilley at the Waterloo with more stripped-down
and direct rock 'n' roll. Fresh from his solo gig, Ron Flynt now
wears shades and Allen's finesse on the electric guitar proves
that's his real forte. Opening with the classic “Remember the
Lightning,'' they charge into last year's “Song of the Universe,''
a driving melody that gets better every time I hear it. The crowd
cheers every solo from drummer Bill Belknap. Flynt introduces “The
Night I Heard Her Scream'' as “a song from our second album, or is
it third? We've got four or five. I don't know.'' Someone from the
audience shouts, “I bought one!'' Flynt looks relieved and says,
Friday, 1 a.m.
Justly introduced as “one of the great songwriters of the
universe,'' Okie-born songwriter Jimmy Webb slides behind a grand
piano in the Driskill Hotel Ballroom and pounds out several of his
touching, smartly arranged songs. He sings with much more power
than he gives himself credit for (“These songs were made famous by
others who can actually sing''). Sure, Barbara Streisand wrapped
her silky voice around Webb's “Didn't We,'' but when Webb sings
it, the nuances of each original emotion are wrenchingly vivid. He
pounds the piano with a confidence that's built up for 30 years,
but his voice still caresses the yearning for that 21-year-old
woman on a Galveston beach. There is indeed magic in the Webb of it.
Friday, 2 a.m.
La Zona Rosa is offering “breakfast shows,'' featuring non-SXSW
acts whooping it up next to a spicy buffet line. Tonight it's
Oklahoma City's Red Dirt Rangers. Someone always dances at a Red
Dirt Rangers show, and one woman was so eager to get to the
dancefloor that she beaned me in the head with the Miller longneck
in her grip as she ran by. No problem, though, the slow laments
like “Blue Diamond'' and the male bonding of “Dog on a Chain''
had already knocked me out. Multi-instrumentalist Benny Gene Craig
absolutely wails on the steel guitar.
Friday, 4:10 p.m.
Thomas Anderson, a spaced-out folkie (a native of Miami, Okla.,
now based in Austin), finally goes on at ABCD's and once again
proves the strength of his songwriting skills. Anderson, exactly
like Elliott Murphy, writes intricate and intriguing character
sketches — songs that are too big for his timid, thin vocal chops.
In trademark shades, doo-rag and blazer, he sings of Bill Haley's
tragic death in Mexico and a freaked-out killer named Nash the
Slash. Even with subjects that could easily have been far too
precious — the admiration of Deadheads in “Jerry's Kids'' and the
touching “White Sands'' — Anderson boasts a tenderness that's
usually hard to find in songs of this intellectual caliber.
Friday, 5 p.m.
This time, Epperley drums up a teeming crowd at a skate shop
called Blondie's. They sound better, too, playing mostly new songs
— “She's Like a Marine,'' “Jenks, America'' and “You're So
1988.'' The crowd whoops it up and cheers without the prodding of
the band's rep from Triple X Records.
Friday, 6:20 p.m.
Just as every public establishment in New Orleans has a cocktail
lounge, every place in Austin books live music, especially this
weekend. As we savor the Mexican food at El Sol y La Luna, one of
those South American bands with the drums and pan flutes fills the
place with tropical ambiance. Greg Brown, the guitarist for Cake,
is at the bar. “I see guys like this everywhere I go now,'' he
says with a hint of boredom. “Better not go to Tulsa's Mayfest,''
Friday, 9:10 p.m.
On that note, there's even a band scheduled to play at the inn
where I'm staying. Scheduled at 8 p.m., Seattle's urban-folk
progenitor Caz Murphy arrives late. His excuse? He was taken to the
hospital after being bitten by a bat on the Town Lake bridge. I
love this town.
Friday, 10:05 p.m.
I could bypass the lengthy line and get into Stubb's with my
snooty press badge, but I opt to watch from outside the fence with
the cheapskates; the sardined crowd on the Stubb's lawn is
wallowing in mud from the previous week's rains. Supergrass plays a
solid set of very British Invasion rock 'n' roll, looking a great
deal more mature than the superb but spastic debut album that
spawned what fans feared would be the band's wondrous one hit,
“Alright.'' New songs from the album due this May included “Cheap
Skate,'' “Richard III'' and the Who-ish “Silence the Sun.''
Friday, 11:20 p.m.
It's Japanese Night at the Tropical Isle, and I wander into the
adorable screech of Lolita No. 18. Fliers on the tables declare
that the band “captive (sic) the heart of both punk rock fan and
cartoon fan immediately.'' True enough — the all-girl thrashers
are, to our Western sensibilities, cute as cartoons, and any punk
fan would enjoy their racket. Singer G. Ena squawks with a smile
over the band's quirky time signature shifts. Suddenly I recognize
one of the choruses — my God, it's “Hang on Sloopy.''
Saturday, 12:30 a.m.
After an interminable delay, Spring Heel Jack finally begins
their set, only you can't really tell. They remain in the dark on
Bob Popular's inadequate stage, and the ambient techno the London
duo begins punching out of a huge bank of machines is not
discernable in quality or style from the tape that was filling time
between showcases. Techno of any kind is simply unsuitable for
environments outside a dancefloor.
Saturday, 1:05 a.m.
The Mysterious John pleads for quiet through a bullhorn at the
start of the Asylum Street Spankers' show, declaring that “we make
music the way God intended — without the use of de-e-e-mon
electricity!'' When some patrons continue talking, the elder
ukulele player jumps out of his chair and shouts, “Don't make me
cut a switch!'' The bawdy songs — played with clarinet, ukuleles,
guitars, banjos, kazoos, washboards and a little soft shoe --
highlight the roaring part of the '20s (“Roll Me One of Those
Funny Cigarettes''). As homespun and rollicking as bathtub gin.
Saturday, 1 p.m.
Art Alexakis, leader of Everclear, is the first hungover
musician to take the Daytime Stage for a string of sets benefitting
Artists for a Hate-Free America, which Alexakis helped to found.
With just an acoustic guitar (he obviously writes with an electric
— listen to those strings buzz!), the songs about trying to kick
yourself out of the gutter are somehow more ostensible. I must have
been hungover, too, because I swear he introduces one song as being
“about my dog.'' The lyrics make sense: “You know I'm never home
/ I call but you don't talk on the phone.'' Later I'm told he said
Saturday, 2 p.m.
Back to the Daytime Stage for my hero, Mark Eitzel, former
frontman for American Music Club and a patron saint to all who
drink for reasons other than escape. He knocks out five of his
gems, getting lost in every song, flailing his body awkwardly and
with abandon (so much so that during “Firefly'' he hits the mike
with his head). He finishes a new song, with a chorus of “Why
can't you leave my sister alone,'' this way: “That song's about my
sister. She's a pro-rights kind of person. Her brother-in-law
banned her from seeing the kids because he said she was from Satan.
My sister is not from Satan.'' Despite that conviction, Eitzel
momentarily retreats into an unusually potent moment of pessimism:
“They told me to say lots of nice things about a hate-free
America. Is there such a thing? No. This country is finished.''
Someone in the crowd asks, “Then where are we going?'' “We're
going to hell, man,'' Eitzel replies.
Saturday, 4 p.m.
About 2,000 people cram into the second level of a downtown
parking garage to hear the Car Radio Orchestra, an experiment led
by Wayne Coyne of Oklahoma City's Flaming Lips. Lips manager Scott
Booker says they had expected about a fifth of this crowd. “I'm
just trying to keep people from destroying my car,'' he said. “I
wish I'd used a rental.'' (Though, in a Dallas Morning News note
about the event, Coyne had advised that most rental cars “won't
have adequate sound systems for the experiment.'') After an hour of
positioning 28 vehicles and running two tests, the real music
begins. Coyne gives each driver a pre-mixed cassette and instructs
them to press play and blare it on cue. Soon, soothing synthesizer
parts are swelling from various auto systems, and then the sound of
a gasping, moaning woman begins building from Coyne's car in the
center of the fray. The sounds build to a, well, climax, whereupon
the ecsatic female cries are sped up, manipulated and squelched and
begin rapid-firing from every car. The piece is called
“Altruism,'' subtitled “That's the Crotch Calling the Devil
Black.'' The second piece uses more looping drum sounds, but the
ending fizzles because the principle sound was on tape no. 16 --
and that car had blown a fuse.
Saturday, 10 p.m.
My one and only personal indulgence — Paul K. and the
Weathermen play at the Atomic Cafe. Even though he wears a
turtleneck tonight, the darkness of his tales of a criminal past
are not blunted. The fiddle player is superfluous, and the rhythm
section only adds spine to the brooding, mythical post-punk-blues
Paul pulls from his surprisingly powerful acoustic guitar. “30
Coins of Gold'' tells the spooky story of a beggar who posed as
Judas for da Vinci's rendering of “The Last Supper.''
Saturday, 10:45 p.m.
A Ryder truck is parked on the edge of Red River Avenue, and
there's a big film screen in the back door showing a director's
reel of film and video clips produced by L.A.'s Underground Media,
which has provided videos for everyone from Marilyn Manson to David
Bowie. This reel is dominated by videos for Cottonmouth, Texas — a
group from Dallas featuring musicians from the New Bohemians
providing a backdrop for the clever spoken musings of an ex-junkie.
The work is more accessible than that sounds. Watch for the Virgin
Records debut this summer.
Saturday, 11:20 p.m.
Who knew Fred Sanford had given up the salvage business and
launched a hip-hop career? Endlessly toying with his voice effects,
Mike Ladd slops through some captivating rants. The crowd was
paltry but enthused, and Ladd will probably get used to that
because his raps are about topics that matter, not sex and guns.
When he gets furious, as he does in his lambaste of Richard
Herrnstein's race-and-education theories in “The Bell Curve,'' he
sounds like he's about to clutch his chest and have “the big one.''
Sunday, 12:05 a.m.
Deborah Harry may not be aging gracefully, but her vocal chops
are juicy in her latest project, the Jazz Passengers, a sharp jazz
outfit that sidesteps the latest retro-lounge fad in favor of
stream-of-consciousness, almost avant garde compositions led by sax
and trombone. Harry's role as singer is well-suited to her dynamic
voice, purring one moment and roaring like a tiger the next.
Sunday, 1 a.m.
Figures. The best punk show I've seen in years is by the three
nellie queens in San Francisco's gay punk pioneers, Pansy Division.
Venting about kinky boyfriends (“James Bondage''), the men north
of the border (“Manada'') and right time alternatives to night
time (“Horny in the Morning''), this trio puts out the most
entertaining and energetic set of the week. Bassist Chris Freeman
is in a skirt and flaming out all over the stage while guitarist
Jon Ginoli (wearing a T-shirt that reads, “I Dream of Weenie'')
this time plays it a bit more, uh, straight, offering an unexpected
moment of seriousness in his solo tale of “Denny.''
What Is South by Southwest?
By Thomas Conner 03/23/1997
The South by Southwest Music and Media Conference takes place
each March in the remarkably hospitable city of Austin, Texas. It
could take place in no other city, really — Austin is, per capita,
the live music capital of the world.
Conference organizers book about 750 acts (solo musicians,
singers and bands) to perform one-hour showcases during five nights
in 36 clubs around the city, mostly concentrated on Sixth Street
downtown. (Every other club in town, though, books “pirate''
shows.) The purpose is to provide one-stop shopping for music
industry talent scouts and journalists (and, oh yeah, fans) looking
for the Next Big Thing. Among the scores of up-and-coming bands are
scheduled shows by well-established artists — it helps draw the
The event calls itself a “conference'' because it also includes
panel discussions of music industry issues and a trade show, all of
which helps to justify a week of listening to rock 'n' roll in bars.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, 'Live in Tokyo'
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
"Live in Tokyo"
Norman Vincent Peale would be proud of these guys. They think so
positively. They envision their future. At least, we can only hope
this is their future. "Live in Tokyo'' — a title slightly more
ambitious as this funk-jazz band's debut, "Live at the Lincoln
Continental'' — starts with the roar of a Tokyo stadium crowd and
an announcer that introduces the band in Japanese. They may not
have come close to playing Tokyo yet, but if their ambitions play
out and this great groove holds up, these guys will be on a world
tour any day.
The world wishes, anyway. At heart, the MC5 was nothin' but a
party, and Jacob Fred lives that ideal better than any fusion
knock-off that's come along since today's thrift store clothes were
new on the racks. These guys meld jazz, funk and rap with the
fluidity of shamans so that you're making weird snake movements
with your limbs long before your ego chimes in with how silly you
"Live in Tokyo'' is a quantum leap forward form the debut disc.
The sound is better, the songs are better and the whole band is
more assured. The atmospherics on such dreamy swirls as "Hymn
1008'' are the epitome of control, and the rap — a highlighted
element — is heavy. "Captain Funk'' is literally a scream; never
has praise of local eateries sounded so unbelievably righteous. Say
amen, buy the thing.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.