NOAHJAZZ - NB PONTIFICATES

MY REFLECTIONS ON MUSIC, LIFE, FOOD AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE . . .

Top 10 (x2) Favorite Jazz Albums of 2015

It seems that with each year it gets harder to keep up with all the great music being released. I began with a Top 10 list, and in the end struggled to narrow it down to even 20. I also left off George Colligan’s Write Them Down and Sean Clapis’ The Unseen River, recusing myself since they came out on my label, RMI Records. Do consider checking them out, though, as well as these wonderful albums below.

Important Note: these are in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of preference.

1 ) George Cables – In Good Company

I’ve been a fan of Cables since I was a teenager and first heard him on Dexter Gordon records. This is a stellar trio record (with his working unit of bassist Essiet Okon Essiet and the great Victor Lewis), paying tribute to other greats, including Kenny Barron, Billy Strayhorn and the late John Hicks (whose “After the Morning,” my personal favorite Hicks tune, gets a gorgeous reading here).

2 ) Stanley Cowell – Juneteenth

This isn’t the brilliant pianist/composer’s first solo piano record, but it is my favorite to date, a powerhouse milestone in his late-career resurgence. The whole suite is brilliant, and the final 17-plus minute track “Juneteenth Reflections” is superlative.

3 ) Chris Dingman – The Subliminal and the Sublime

With all due respect to Kamasi Washington (who is also on this list), this is the most “epic” jazz record I have heard this year, thanks to Dingman’s cinematic full-album composition and the excellent work of his stellar band, with Fabian Almazan, Loren Stillman and Justin Brown (all vets of his wonderful debut record Waking Dreams) joined by Linda Oh and Ryan Ferreira.

4 ) Josh Evans – Hope and Despair

Young Mr. Evans has been making a substantial name for himself as a trumpet player for some time already, but this emotionally potent record puts him on the map as a composer/bandleader. The powerful spirit of his onetime mentor Jackie McLean is evident here on multiple levels, including the wailing alto of Bruce Williams and the presence of two other noteworthy J-Mac disciples, Abraham Burton and Eric McPherson.

5 ) Orrin Evans – Evolution of Oneself

At last count, pianist/composer Evans had recorded about 643 albums as a bandleader, something not surprising given the creativity and ambition I’ve seen since I first met him in 1993. This mature, soulful and eclectic trio record (featuring Karriem Riggins and Christian McBride) may be the finest yet.

6 ) Yoron Israel – This Moment (Live in Boston)

I’ve been a fan of Yoron’s drumming since I heard him in the 1990s with Jay Hoggard, James Williams and others, and he’s really come into his own as a bandleader. This live record shows his quartet High Standards in performance, living up to their, well, high standards.

7 ) Joshua Kwassman – Heartwork

When I met Josh, he was still a high school student and expressed artistic ambitions that I found disarming at the time. Fast forward nearly a decade, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t DOING it. The “it” in this case is keeping a super-tight band (Brother Spirit) together as a vehicle for his sweeping, ambitious soulful compositions that consistently illuminate the human condition.

8 ) Joe Locke – Love is a Pendulum

Joe Locke’s records are always a feast of melody, soul and virtuosity, and the feast is all the more bountiful when there is an overarching concept, as there is on this beautiful set centered on an utterly gorgeous set of compositions he based on a set of poems by Barbara Sfraga.

9 ) Lionel Loueke – Gaia

The innovative guitarist Loueke’s trio with Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth has been well-represented on records. I hesitate to simply say this one meets the group’s lofty standards, as that doesn’t do justice to the fire and continued evolution represented here.

10 ) Luis Perdomo – Twenty Two

Perdomo’s Controlling Ear Unit (featuring Mimi Jones on bass and Rudy Royston on drums) is a great vehicle for his stunning piano work and his distinctive compositions. It is worth noting that he is also a sideman on two other records on this list.

11 ) Perez Pattitucci Blade – Children of the Light

Danilo Perez, John Pattitucci and Brian Blade have had a multi-dimensional relationship in various different configurations . . . oh yeah, plus being the rhythm section for that Wayne Shorter guy. Hearing them groove and undulate through this program of trio music is such a treat, highlighted by their deconstruction of my personal favorite Perez composition (“African Wave,” originally from The Journey).

12 ) Roberta Piket – Emanation: Solo, Vol. 2

Piket is an absolute monster, and it is unsurprising that this solo piano record is as nuanced and authoritative as the first volume was. I find her solo piano take on Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” to be particularly miraculous.

13 ) Pete Rodriguez – El Conde Negro

Rodriguez, a fabulous Austin-based trumpet player and composer, has found a way to balance his position as the son of salsa royalty (the great singer/bandleader Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez) and a man with his own distinctive artistic voice. His band (featuring Luis Perdomo, Ricky Rodriguez, Rudy Royston and Robert Quintero) absolutely smokes, but Pete is in command throughout with his playing, singing, composing and clever arrangements of tunes associated with his father.

14 ) Sean Sonderegger – Eat the Air

Sean Sonderegger has been blurring the lines between straight-ahead and avant-garde for some time now, and this album is a mature, coherent statement that is simultaneously lyrical and restless.

15 ) EJ Strickland – The Undying Spirit

If you listen to straight-ahead jazz you’ve invariably heard EJ Strickland’s drumming in recent years, but hopefully this record will put his multifaceted talents (including composer/bandleader) in the public consciousness.

16 ) Ike Sturm – Shelter of Trees

Through both his own work as an artist and his vital role as Music Director for the Jazz Ministry at St. Peter’s Church (the renowned “jazz church”) in NYC, bassist/composer Sturm has found the sweet spot that encompasses authoritative jazz and spiritual devotion. The band here has a significant overlap with Chris Dingman’s group mentioned above (including pianist Almazan and saxophonist Stillman as well as Dingman himself) along with soulful work from guitarist Jesse Lewis and drummer Jared Schonig, as well as the disarmingly beautiful and fascinatingly complimentary vocals of Chanda Rule, Melissa Staylianou and Misty Ann Sturm (and two tracks featuring marimbist Zaneta Sykes). Taking center stage, though, are Sturm’s wonderful compositions, each of them reaching for the divine while also paying tribute to his late father, the important composer/educator Fred Sturm.

17 ) Gregory Tardy – With Songs of Joy

Another artist with a distinctive track record of straight ahead jazz with a spiritual focus, all Tardy seems to do is put out one record after another of soul-affirming, powerful music. The majority of these records are buoyed by his longtime rhythm team of Sean Conly and Jaimeo Brown, joined here by the powerful John Chin on piano and the stellar young trumpet player Philip Dizack.

18 ) Charenee Wade – Offering: the Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson

This material is ripe for the picking in a serious jazz context, and the excellent young singer Wade does exactly that, with a moody set that simultaneously recontextualizes and pays proper respect to the cutting-edge and, sadly, still-relevant 1970s work of the revolutionary Gil Scott-Heron and his keyboard-playing and composing cohort Brian Jackson.

19 ) Kamasi Washington – the Epic

The “epic” part could refer to length of this 3-CD set or to the large ensemble, augmented at times by strings and a choir. All of that is used to strong effect on this record, but I have a particular soft spot for anyone who can tear the roof down with spiritual wailing on the tenor saxophone, as Washington does so effectively here.

20 ) Steve Wilson and Wilsonian Grain – Live In New York – the Vanguard Sessions

It is a true delight to see and hear Steve Wilson reassert himself as a bandleader here. Backed by a great quartet including the aforementioned Orrin Evans, we get tune after tune of Wilson’s uniquely soulful alto and soprano and his distinctive improvisational vocabulary.

Whose Burden Should This Be?

If you saw somebody carrying a heavy load, would you take your knapsack and put it on his or her back? Of course not. Should a healthy person walking up hill ask for a ride from someone in a hand-cranked wheelchair? Of course not. In situations that concrete, it’s pretty easy to assess who can handle more burden and who could stand to be relieved of some. So why do we so often do this with our words and our actions? Why do we take people already burdened by trauma or oppression and unload our own comparatively manageable burdens upon them? The “Love Wins” mantra to which I and so many others have clung for the last three years is predicated on compassion, and we mustn’t lose sight of that amidst philosophical arguments that ring hollow without it.

December 14 has become a day for me to reflect on the capacity of humans to ease or exacerbate burdens. It’s my birthday and was a day of celebration and gratitude until 3 years ago when in an instant the still-inconceivable murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School rendered it a day of intense mourning. As with all who lost loved ones there, my capacity to view human tragedy as an abstraction vanished, replaced by a new understanding of burdens, those foisted upon both Ana’s family and on ours.

We found ourselves seeing the hierarchies of burden from both directions. We dutifully promised to do what we could to help our bereaved friends and found ourselves greatly depending on others further removed from the tragedy to hold us up. All along the way I observed the ways in which good intentions needed to be backed up by good sense. While my desire to help never waned, that didn’t exempt me from messing up and pouring salt on a wound because I didn’t choose my words or actions with sufficient care or wisdom. I suppose I could have played the “hey, be happy I’m helping” card, but that would have been antithetical to my actual intentions, both towards them and as a morally evolving being. Through the experience I have seen things that have taught me both what to do and what not to do for “how can I help” to be a substantive question and not a hollow way to assuage one’s own guilt or helplessness.

The experience has also stoked my skepticism toward those who judge other people’s reactions to adversity they themselves have not experienced. Those of you outside of academia may have missed this, but the current wave of campus protests surrounding inequality (particularly racial inequality) has spurred a counter-movement of critics. In particular, many are portraying the climate on campuses as that of coddled and over-reactive young people. Under the guise of political correctness and accusations of “microaggressions,” so the criticism goes, they are demanding insulation from the realities of life and thereby setting themselves up for adulthoods as spineless blobs lacking any capacity to handle life’s subsequent challenges.

The severity of the issues being minimized by these critics (literally all of the authors of these pieces I have encountered are white males who didn’t talk to any actual college students) is a vitally important topic in itself, but that is a separate conversation (and one happening all over the country, whether or not folks choose to wake up to it). But what about the underlying notion that we are weakening society’s fabric by expecting sensitivity?

Even if we accept the twin goals of protecting free speech and fostering resiliency (and who wouldn’t?), there is a certain absurdity to an argument that fundamentally revolves around defending the right to offend people. If you’re an ACLU lawyer, relax, I’m not challenging that right. I am, however, saying that exercising that right indiscriminately likely makes someone an a**hole, flouting the nebulousness of the distinction between engaging in “tough love” in telling people truths they need to hear (which indeed may offend some) and simply being disrespectful. Is there really a rational argument to be made that the best way for people tasked with nurturing young people to prepare them for the world’s injustices is to directly perpetuate them? Or is that just a way to justify selfish or lazy resistance to change?

My own incredulity over this line of thought is compounded when the people having to “suck it up” are those already carrying extra burdens. If a student of color in a historically white institution is spoken to dismissively, then he should accept that because it will be even worse in the world outside? If (to cite a recent real-life example from a friend) a sexual trauma survivor doesn’t like rape jokes, then she should just avoid comedians and let the rest of us enjoy unfettered humor? Well, these cases could be made, but this viewpoint at minimum means forfeiting claims of inclusion. My own physical disability has put me in this position repeatedly, and for most of my life my go-to response until recently was to suck it up and take that extra load (on top of the existing loads of chronic pain, joint instability and so on) because having to fight to get my needs met was more burdensome than simply meeting them myself. Of course I also meticulously catalogued the people and institutions that were or weren’t capable of being allies. And don’t even get me started on being a foster/adoptive parent who yearns to protect his kids from further marginalization.

Indeed, when I became a parent, I became far more vividly aware of the subtleties of constructive nurturing and the struggle that people (even very intelligent people) have to make some important distinctions. Much is made today of the term “helicopter parenting” and it is indeed important not to hover over our kids and. However, there is a fundamental difference between stepping back to let our kids experience the natural consequences of their actions and failing to be attentive and sensitive. Because my kids were teens when they arrived in our family, I was aware that they carried burdens that I could not erase but had a sacred duty to help with. While my track record is far from perfect, I have always tried to be attentive to that. And I have been criticized for that, a criticism that largely centers on the inability to make the above-mentioned distinction. First of all, it is my duty to help ease their burdens (even if through something as imperceptible to the outside world as treading carefully around a sensitive subject) to free them to do the important work that only they can do. Second, they need to be loved powerfully and they need to be seen vividly. Expecting resilience and savvy from someone who is denied that core nourishment is like expecting someone who has been denied breakfast to run a half marathon – it’s abstractly possible, but with unnecessary strain. If the effort it takes to provide that leaves me depleted for some reason, it is my job to seek out others to nourish me, not to put that responsibility back on those who I am trying to liberate from suffering. You want to see my blood boil? Opine that my kids should be grateful for what they have and that I’m paying too much attention to the minutiae of their ups and downs. I think the body of empirical evidence that has been built over the last 11 years suggests otherwise.

Note that we’re not even talking about major sacrifices on the part of those having to make these shifts, unless being a little more disciplined and trying to evolve into a kind, helpful person is a major sacrifice. We are talking about attention to respect and kindness. We are talking about learning to engage in modes of communication that enfranchise those who are already burdened so they might succeed and contribute. We are talking about word choices and tone of voice and remembering certain details. This is neither rocket science nor heavy lifting. Recently, while exercising, I saw some mid-1980s clips of a very tame comedian of whom I was fond when I was a kid. I was really taken aback that over the course of an hour he made jokes about gay people, disabled people, acquaintance rape and a number of other things that would rankle even moderate sensibilities today. Folks, those ain’t the “good ol’ days.”

For candor’s sake, I’m going to close with an extremely embarrassing anecdote. In my mid-20s I still retained much of the scatological humor I had inherited from my now-deceased father. I knew better than to deploy butt and poop jokes, say, in a job interview or on the mic at a gig, but with friends it was fair game. On one occasion, while taking a walk with a friend, I made a reference (borrowed from Frank Zappa) to “ramming it up the poop chute,” to which the friend cringed and explained that, as a person in an ongoing process of healing from profound sexual abuse, this was not only unfunny but actually upsetting.

In a split second I had two thoughts, the first of which is not a source of pride but has been a source of insight ever since. I first thought “okay . . . but it WAS funny” and stewed on that for what seemed like an excessively long time (though in reality it was probably 5 seconds) before landing on “I care about this person and thus my perception of humor is utterly irrelevant here if I want my behavior to reflect that caring.” I apologized without qualification. I recognized that even if it had been the funniest joke in the world, this friend already had an unfairly heavy load to carry. I stopped using this sort of humor around this friend and pretty soon retired it altogether with no noticeable impact to my overall capacity for wit.

Was it difficult? Well, it was not zero-effort and it required the humility and, I like to think, integrity to recognize that my good intentions didn’t shield me from messing up. And I had to live with that and decide to change. But in the end I didn’t even do it for my friend – I did it for myself, because I don’t want to accept being that kind of person, even if the law may protect my right to do so. I tell this story to reinforce that few of us are immune to having thoughts we really shouldn’t express if we don’t want to hurt people – the crossroads comes in deciding what do we do in those moments. In the inevitable moments when you find yourself in that position and experiencing the natural resistance to change and accountability, I urge you to ask yourself the question “whose burden should this be?”

Is Music Enough?

In times of turbulence (or, I should say, times when for whatever reasons we are acutely aware of turbulence) I and many in my line of work contemplate the big question of whether music is a sufficiently “important” pursuit. My honest answer is “yes and no.” I’ll explain the ambivalence in a moment, but it is perhaps best illustrated by this conversation I overheard recently between St. Peter and a recently departed musician reconciling his contribution to humanity.

………..

St. Peter: Good day, sir.

Musician: Whassuuuuup! Dag, those gates are pearly!

St. Peter: (blushing) Yes, I know. We get them polished every Tuesday. Anyway . . .

Musician: So can I just go in or do I need to get my hand stamped or something?

St. Peter: Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Musician: What do you mean? I was an agent of good? If it wasn’t for that tainted batch of acid, I would still be down there making a joyful noise unto the Lord.

St. Peter: Hmm, I’m not sure I’m buying it.

Musician: Are you kidding me Pete? I mean, music is the universal language of love. Doesn’t that speak for itself?

St. Peter: Maybe sometimes. Are you saying that you healed the sick and uplifted the downhearted?

Musician: Broseph, you clearly never heard my solo on “Wild Thing” (begins air guitaring)

St. Peter: Perhaps not, but really, I have to say, I question whether your work quite lives up to that standard.

Musician: (feigning a dagger to the chest) Et tu, bro-te? Are you saying I needed to practice more?

St. Peter: Well, that’s probably true, but it’s kind of not my point. Was your music created with the intention of moving people’s hearts? And if so, did your comportment offstage support that goal?

Musician: Rock and Rooooollllll!

St. Peter: (raised eyebrow)

Musician: (incredulously) Broski, get a sense of HUMOR. Of course! I always tried to make the people happy not only during the show but AFTER!

St. Peter: (eyebrow raised further) Sex with groupies doesn’t count.

Musician: Well, er, uh . . .

St. Peter: Okay, this is not going to work . . .

Musician: Wait, wait, there was that time that I . . .

St. Peter: Save your breath, “bro.” Don’t worry, you’re not going all the way down there. There are a lot of great musicians in purgatory and you’ll have a perfectly decent time there while we wait for the policy on this subject to be clarified administratively. Your case will be reviewed in the order received once we get there . . . between you and me, that’ll be a while. Step aside, please, the shuttle leaves soon.

………….

As you can see, there are no easy answers to this question. Okay, so I can’t say for sure that this conversation actually happened (I concede that I mis-hear things sometimes) but it is instructive nonetheless.

To me, the St. Peter imagery (while admittedly cheeky) underscores what makes it actually a fairly straightforward question. In essence, what makes one’s time on earth a net positive? Or, to put it a different way whenever/however a day of reckoning might come, what will make your case look good, so to speak? Or when the end of the year or the next birthday comes, do you look at that year and think “I made use of this time to make the world better” or not?

Now, of course, how you make this calculation is a very individualized thing depending on your beliefs of life, spirit, deities and what comes next, among other things. If you don’t feel that you have any responsibility to do good, then it’s pretty easy (though in that case I haven’t the vaguest idea why you’ve read this far). For the rest of us, there are infinite ways to evaluate that responsibility and measure what actions sync up with it.

Speaking for myself, music both does and doesn’t fit into the equation. It does in the sense that the potential to catalyze true beauty and move the hearts and souls and minds of other people is a profound and utterly necessary thing. Whether Thelonious Monk or Nina Simone or Muddy Waters or Peter Gabriel , there is so much music that has lifted me when I was down, challenged me to be a better person or otherwise galvanized my soul – and doing so in a manner completely unrelated to the artists’ lives away from the stage or recording studio. This demonstrates conclusively to me that the substance in music (at least some music) is utterly necessary to humankind and I’ve seen so much evidence of this.

But is it ENOUGH? That’s a matter of reckoning for each individual, really. It’s no secret that Miles Davis had some, er, personal idiosyncrasies that would make one question whether he was a “good person.” It’s also no secret that he produced music of profound beauty, music with a depth and sensitivity that has moved millions of people. So did that cancel out the other stuff? I don’t know and you don’t know either unless you were there for his meeting with St. Peter. And if you were, why haven’t you posted the video on YouTube?

Miles is, in fact, often cited when I or others ask this kind of question, and frankly I find that it is most often to obfuscate the question. That is, “Miles was a jerk and we’re glad he existed, and therefore the mere fact that I make music absolves me of the responsibility to contemplate this issue.” And maybe that’s valid, what do I know? But for my value system it’s irresponsible to dismiss it that simply.

It’s important to note that if we’re just talking about careers in broad terms, then that’s only part of the equation. To me music is a “service” career, but there are all sorts of others (politics, education, social work, etc.) whose practitioners struggle with the same questions. And in the end there are great public servants and corrupt or apathetic ones . . . and there are people in all sorts of other fields that are not inherently based on doing good who are making a difference in people’s lives.

In the end, is your life centered around goodness? Are you using your work as a vehicle for that? Are you using your time “off the job” for that? Are your seemingly mundane moments and interactions governed by that? THESE are the questions I ask myself all the time, and I’m always trying to make the answer “yes.” On the days when I am devoted to making music, that is where that energy is funneled. On the days when I am devoted to teaching, parenting or running errands, that is where that energy is funneled.

Do I think I’m capable of making music that can profoundly impact people? With all due humility, yes – if that weren’t so I certainly would no longer be putting my body through the grind. And I will keep trying until I no longer can (or probably longer – who are we trying to kid?). Do I think that music could be potent enough to outweigh apathy or avoidance in the face of my responsibility to live a life of kindness, courage and awareness? Regardless of whatever St. Peter might have to say, I don’t intend to find out.

Top 10 Favorite Allen Toussaint tracks

Allen Toussaint, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who passed away this morning, is best known for his monumental work as a songwriter and producer, so it’s easy for folks to lose sight of what a powerhouse he was as a performer. I enjoy his subtle vocal style and his bandleading but it’s his piano that knocks me out, incorporating the sounds of New Orleans giants Professor Longhair and James Booker along with elements of jazz and pop, with the result being a totally distinct style.

Because I wanted to emphasize the performance aspect, I didn’t make room for things he produced but that don’t feature him prominently (hence the omission, for example, of Toussaint-produced-and-penned tracks by Lee Dorsey, some of my favorite music ever recorded). Likewise, I omitted songs both by New Orleans artists like Irma Thomas and the Wild Tchoupitoulas and non-Louisiana artists like Paul McCartney (with Wings), Robert Palmer, Solomon Burke and LaBelle. RIP, Tousan, and thank you.

1 ) “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (from Louisiana Piano Rhythms compilation)

I first heard this compilation in the 1990s and honestly don’t know the recording date or other information. What I DO know is that this solo piano version (along with a version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) shows off his great stride piano skills and the amazing intersection of New Orleans piano and jazz chops (including some downright modern moments) that underpins his point of reference at the keys.

2 ) “Bright Mississippi” from Bright Mississippi

My LORD is this fonky. This 2008 session got some attention for the prominent young jazz musicians and the recordings of jazz jazz tunes both traditional and more modern. On this Thelonious Monk tune his rhythm section of Marc Ribot, David Piltch and Jay Bellerose lays it down with an infectious street beat and guests Nicholas Payton and Don Byron wail, but the centerpiece is the great piano work by the maestro himself.

3 ) “A Blue Mood” (single) by Al Tousan

“Al Tousan” is of course Mr. Toussaint’s early pseudonym. This instrumental single from the early 1960s is a slow, bluesy number revolving around his piano soloing, with a rich horn section providing some extra depth.

4 ) “Southern Nights” from Songbook

From his last album (a solo retrospective of some of his classic compositions) his one is fascinating, a 13-minute solo version of his tune from the mid-70s that would go on to be a #1 smash for Glen Campbell. The music is wonderful, but possibly even better is the lengthy segment of spoken reflections on his youth in New Orleans.

5 ) “Skydiving” from Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed by Conjure

This 1980s Kip Hanrahan production is an interesting mix of funky and modern with an eclectic band playing (and composing) music to the wonderful writings of Ishmael Reed. Toussaint’s piano is featured throughout, though this track is his sole compositional contribution, and it’s a doozy, with soulful vocals from Taj Mahal atop a rock solid foundation laid down by Billy Hart and Steve Swallow.

6 ) “Brickyard Blues” from Bluesiana Hot Sauce

The “Bluesiana Triangle” series began a few years before this 1993 session, with Art Blakey and David Fathead Newman teaming up with Dr. John. Fast forward a few years and we get to hear Toussaint singing and playing soulfully with a similarly eclectic group, on this track alongside bassist Eddie Gomez, drummer Will Calhoun and guitarist Phil Hamilton, whose funky licks are featured prominently.

7 ) “I Like It Like That” (single) by Chris Kenner

This massive hit song from 1961 (#2 on the pop charts) was co-written by Toussaint. It is a classic of New Orleans R&B and the fun vocals by Kenner could almost make you miss the Fess-evoking piano that rollicks throughout. Unless, like me, you live for that stuff.

8 ) “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” from The River In Reverse by Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint

This Toussaint tune is the one lead vocal feature from his emotionally affecting post-Katrina collaboration with Elvis Costello. Extra props for New Orleans stalwart Big Sam who kills it on trombone on this track.

9 ) “A Certain Girl” (single) by Ernie K-Doe

I first heard this super-catchy tune in the early 1980s in a live version by Warren Zevon that was in rotation in the early days of MTV. I eventually traced it back to the Yardbirds’ version and THEN to the 1964 original, composed by Toussaint and featuring his infectious piano.

10 ) “Night People” (from Motion)

Maybe this sly funk tune from 1978 is too slick for some (Larry Carlton, Jeff Porcaro, Richard Tee sharing keyboard duties, etc.), but I grin every time I hear it.

Farewell to Tennis and Lessons Learned

It’s now been a year and 17 days since my last ever time hitting a tennis ball. Not that I’m keeping track. I miss it tremendously, but I was also determined when I began my “comeback” in earnest to have a different experience when I eventually hung up the racquet than I did the first time that happened. And indeed, the overarching sense is one of gratitude. Gratitude not only for the great experiences, but for what being on the tennis court has taught me about life outside the lines.

Given the improvisational spirit of tennis, it’s not surprising that I was drawn to it just as I was drawn to jazz music. In both cases there was some divine intervention as well. In the case of jazz it was in large part meeting the right peers and mentors at the right time and being exposed to inspiring music at formative junctures in my development. In the case of tennis, my struggles with the connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) led to the somewhat naïve sense that athletics would be fine for me as long as I avoided contact sports. I had zero interest in golf, bowling or competitive swimming but fell in love with tennis rather quickly.

My love affair with tennis never waned, but my life as a player was gradually back-burnered starting at age 17 when my pursuit of a career as a musician began to dominate my schedule. At one point I had enough money to either sign up for the next round of tennis lessons or replace an important piece of keyboard gear and that sealed the deal in a sense. I kept playing, but that petered out in my twenties in the face of EDS and the awareness that it was going to be hard enough to keep my body functional enough to keep playing music without giving it a further pounding on the tennis court. I gave my racquets to an elementary school PE program and even wrote a song called “Bye Bye Backhand” for the 2002 sessions for my Patch Kit album.

And then, some years later, I picked it back up again. The “comeback” is documented here and here

I knew when I picked it up again that a) I was playing with house money and really needed to savor every moment and b) when, inevitably, it was time to pack it in, it was important that I be able to translate it. The most important part of that was the joy. It pains me to confess this, but for reasons I still don’t entirely understand, playing tennis gave me a joy that is difficult to access even with music. Partly the endorphins, I suppose, partly the thrill of competition, partly the different expectations (there’s no career pressure, for example) and partly who knows what else. But what I hoped more than anything was to learn how to access that joy at other times.

And I did, which is in and of itself all I need to feel grateful about. But I got a lot more, and that’s part of why I was able to walk away. When I walked (limped, really) off the court on 10/12/14 I didn’t know yet that would be it, but when I saw the writing on the wall (or, I suppose, the MRI of my back) it was from a place of surprising peace that I decided that was it. I got so much out of it that in my “first life” as a tennis player I didn’t yet have the maturity to absorb.

In recent weeks I have been contemplating some of the primary lessons I learned, which I’ll share here.

Dig deep.

Such a tired sports cliché, but so important to me. Perseverance through challenges is one of tahe traits I value the most, but usually that’s a pretty unglamourous and subtle thing. But at 3-3 in a sweaty, exhausted third set, the notion of digging deep takes on a visceral form of immediacy. Especially given my physical challenges it was huge for me to have that experience of pushing. It is ultimately the biggest reason I walked away (that drive to push is at odds with my need to meticulously control what I do with my body), but I can feel how all of my times pushing myself through a wall on court reminded me potently what that means in the bigger picture.

Reset and recalibrate.

I was what one would call a “streaky” player, sometimes walking on air and sometimes plodding along with leaden shoes and a string-less racquet. Because of this, and because tennis depends so much on composure, it was vital for me to learn how to take a deep breath (or three) and play the next point with a clean slate. Many of my most satisfying moments on court came when, regardless of outcome, I was able to reboot and abort a slide.

Plan ahead and be patient.

Constructing a point on the tennis court was a really counter-intuitive thing for me. My friend and coach Shona Kerr would talk about improving my position through depth and angle, one stroke at a time. Serve out wide, drill to the backhand, do it again, do it again, do it again, do it again, do it again and follow it into the net, hit a good volley, hit another good volley, put it away. And oh my lord did that sound boring and soulless. Over time I got over that resistance and learned to have the vision to work incrementally towards the goal . . . and then get ready to do it again on the next point. This is, of course, an allegory for most means of systematically pursuing success as an adult.

Invest deeply in the preparation, disinvest from the outcome.

This is a core philosophy of mine, and tennis helped to strengthen it. All we can control is our side of the court and not what happens outside (whether the other people involved or other circumstances beyond our control). Because my objective was personal growth and not trophy-accumulation it was important for me not to get caught up in the results. While obviously I tried to win each time on court, I learned to appreciate the well-fought loss more than the sloppy or lazy victory. In the end, I learned to win or lose and move on

Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.

Tennis is, of course, an “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” game. You could be down 6-0, 5-0 and still have an abstract chance of winning. I never had a problem fighting until the last point, but the other side was a chronic weakness. That is, if I was winning comfortably, I would take my foot off the throttle and often before I knew it I had a fight (and sometimes, ultimately, a loss) on my hands. Staying ruthless until the end, while not natural for my personality (I’m not a particularly ruthless guy), was an important skill to acquire.

Goals are helpful, but are not necessarily to be taken literally

When I resumed playing, my goal was to not get hurt. When I didn’t get hurt, my goal was to regain my strokes. When I regained my strokes my goal was to regain my fitness. When I regained my fitness my goal was to eventually play a tournament. When, several years later, I played (and won) a tournament, my goal was to win more and play better. When I won more (still at the 3.0 level) and played better my goal was to play credibly at a 3.5 level tournament. When I played credibly at several 3.5 level tournaments, my goal was to win one. And that totally didn’t happen, and soon my body began going backwards. But that didn’t make that goal any less valid than the others – indeed that goal, just like the others, existed to get me to find something within myself.

This was a good chance to test out my Sisyphus-inspired core philosophy of ambition and persistence, as I discuss here.

Integrity trumps victory

The tennis code of ethics dictates good sportsmanship, including the edict that if you aren’t SURE about a call, you shouldn’t make said call in your own favor. Toward the end of my time on court, I had a moment in a tournament that forced me to put that to the test. It was a pivotal moment in a long, exhausting match and I’m pretty sure my opponent hit the ball out . . . but in the moment I wasn’t sure enough (I was watching my feet more than the ball as I scrambled in vain to get to it), so I called it in, lost the point (and the game, and the match). It wasn’t without some ambivalence, but in the end the only meaningful thing I would have to show for the match, win or lose, was a sense of pride. Having a victory built on shaky ground wouldn’t serve that, so there was no practical reason to go that way, never mind the ethics. This is a principle that applies to so much of life.

Most of us don’t get the storybook ending, and that’s okay.

I played three tournaments last year. In the first, I lost my first match 6-0, 6-1 to a high school kid and then waited around for 5 hours for a consolation-round match that never happened. The next one I fought hard for the better part of 3 hours against an intimidating opponent and lost 7-5 in the third set. Finally I played a match in which my body felt terrible, but without the usual fleeting moments of adrenaline-fueled light-footedness. I was down a break in the third set and I DUG DEEP and FOUGHT and brought it to 4-4 and then had two break points. On one I constructed the point perfectly and then dumped an easy forehand volley into the net and on the next I hit a perfect point-ending shot and got a bad call. I don’t think five minutes passed from then until the deflated handshake and my retreat to the showers. I played twice more after that, on the last occasion pushing (probably foolishly) through sciatica that ultimately hobbled me for months thereafter.

I’m not going to lie, I STILL can taste that forehand volley. But I’m not aware of any athlete (or, really, human) whose last moment is the picture perfect one. And if it is, there are probably still pangs, they’re just pangs of wondering whether there could have been more. This is part of the human condition and life gets a whole lot easier when we recognize that.

Thanks tennis – I’ll keep admiring you as a spectator and will always cherish what you gave me as a participant.

Top 10 Favorite Phil Woods Tracks

Phil Woods has been an inexorable part of my consciousness since early in my jazz training. When I was 16 or 17 my friend Noah Bloom, a Tom Harrell devotee, turned me on to the classic Woods Quintet with Tom, pianist Hal Galper and the rhythm tandem of Bill Goodwin and Steve Gilmore, who stayed with Woods from 1974 on. I soon discovered both his earlier work and his voluminous contributions as a sideman.

Phil Woods is one of those figures who seemed utterly timeless, yet everybody moves on to the next dimension. He himself didn’t feel he was an innovator, and that in and of itself is constructive. He was a beloved figure not because he blazed new trails but because he put his own stamp on the existing materials and mastered those materials on a level that few others have. As of yesterday, I need to get used to putting him in the past tense as a human being, but as an artistic contributor his music will always exist in the present.

1 ) “Together We Wail” by George Wallington (from Jazz for the Carriage Trade)

Phil had many wonderful and significant front-line relationships with trumpet players, and this 1956 session by pianist Wallington is the first of his numerous recorded collaborations with the great Donald Byrd (check out their album The Young Bloods too). This is an early Woods composition, and it burns.

2 ) “Quintessence” by Quincy Jones (from The Quintessence)

As much as he could burn, Phil could play with tremendous romantic lyricism as well. Nowhere is that more evident than on the title track of this Quincy Jones session from 1961. It is a gorgeous ballad and serves as a feature for Phil’s singing tone and melodic mastery.

3 ) “Chromatic Banana” (from Phil Woods and his European Rhythm Machine)

This 1970 track from Paris documents the period Phil spent as an ex-pat in Europe as well as showing his ability to branch into realms of electric/rock music and avant-garde harmony/free improvisation, all while maintaining his signature tone and phrasing. His collaborations with European musicians continued through the end of his life even after he moved back to the U.S.

4 ) “Samba du Bois” (from Musique du Bois)

This song, exploring Phil’s family heritage, is from a burning 1974 session with the cutting-edge rhythm section of Jaki Byard, Richard Davis and Alan Dawson, all of whom are well-featured on this energetic track.

5 ) “Doctor Wu” by Steely Dan (from Katy Lied)

Heck, even Phil’s son thought this was the coolest thing he ever did, so I’m not going to feel embarrassed for putting it on the list. Phil’s solo on this tune is possibly the superlative example of Steely Dan’s use of guest jazz soloists, and to my ear it is (no offense, Billy Joel) Phil’s shining moment as a pop soloist.

6 ) “Julian” (from I Remember)

This 1978 session in London is comprised of tributes composed by Phil in dedication to deceased friends and colleagues. The record opens up with this soulful and irresistibly catchy tribute to Cannonball Adderley.

7 ) “Infant Eyes” (from Integrity)

By the time of this 1984 session, Phil had settled on the above-mentioned personnel for his Quinet (after some years logged by other great musicians including pianist Mike Melito and guitarist Harry Leahy). The ballad features were an important part of their shows, and I remember being really struck the first time I heard this, partly because it was so gorgeous and partly because it affirmed Phil’s versatility, given the modern, non-bop-based harmonies of the Wayne Shorter composition.

8 ) “My Azure” (from Gratitude)

The quintet is featured here again, but with Phil showing his oft-neglected but brilliant skills on the clarinet, while Harrell switches to flugelhorn. The composition is by colleague Bill Mays, who would ultimately succeed Bill Charlap as the last pianist (wow it feels weird to write that) of the great quintet.

9 ) “Loose Change” by persoin (from The Rev and I)

From his days playing alto duels with Gene Quill in the 1950s to his multiple albums with Lee Konitz to his late-career collaborations with European alto player George Robert, Phil was always up for the stimulation of a multi-saxophone blow-out. This 1998 session co-features the great tenor player Johnny Griffin along with a rhythm section of Cedar Walton, Peter Washington and Ben Riley. This high-energy number was composed by longtime Woods collaborator Hal Galper.

10 ) “Jessica’s Day” (from This Is How I Feel About Quincy)

The latter-day incarnation of Woods’ quintet (with Brian Lynch on trumpet and Bill Charlap on piano) is augmented into a larger group here on this album of dedications to Quincy Jones. This gorgeous track is a re-working of a tune of Quincy’s on which Phil was a featured soloist nearly 50 years earlier in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band.

40 for 40: Highlights of my work with Henry Lugo

From a human resources standpoint, jazz gigs can be fairly “transactional,” in the sense that you hire the person to do the gig with a particular set of repertoire in a particular time and place for a particular fee. When things go well, it goes beyond that and there’s a real musical connection and a real commitment to the music beyond just “doing the job.” In a few of those cases, the further result is deep, enduring friendship.

On the 40th anniversary of his birth, it seems right to express gratitude for having found this in Henry Lugo, my brother, bassist and left-hand-man for nearly 13 years. Since I’m a list-maker anyway, I thought I would come up with a list of 40 highlights of gigs and recording sessions we’ve done together. As I did so, three things stood out. One, I had to pare the list down significantly, as there are a lot of highlights from among the hundreds of things we’ve done together. Two, there’s an inadvertent tracing of my/our progress as his consistent devotion to delivering the goods on all levels has enabled me to forge new ground professionally. Three, it’s conspicuous to me how many moments really stand out in my mind that are left of center of this list . . . the long talks on carpooled journeys to gigs, the commiseration and sharing about so many musical things and especially the proactive yet under-the-radar moments of thoughtful kindness at times of struggle.

Oh yeah, and he’s one of the BADDEST bassists around, and that my music has provided a vehicle for his own self-expression is a profound confluence of compatibility and all-around good fortune. So without any further ado:

  1. October, 2002 – the first gig (Café Atlantique, Miford, CT with George Mastrogiannis)
  2. November, 2002 – It’s Only Natural Restaurant, Middletown, CT (1st gig together in 3 year “residency” there)
  3. November, 2003 – celebration for WWUH (my first, and sadly not last, gig playing entirely left-handed)
  4. December, 2003 – 30th birthday party/live recording session for What It Is album
  5. March, 2004 – North Star Café, New Brunswick, NJ (1st gig with the “new” NB Trio with Vinnie Sperrazza)
  6. March, 2004 – Bennington Museum (VT) with Andrea Wolper
  7. May, 2004 – NB Trio, John Kerry fundraiser (showing me that private functions can be REALLY fun)
  8. August, 2004 – Café Atlantique (my first gig as a parent)
  9. October/November, 2004 – Large Group and Trio sessions for Soul Force, Peter Karl Studio
  10. July, 2005 – Castle Street Café, drum-less quartet with Amanda Monaco and Chris Dingman
  11. September, 2005 – wedding gig, Middletown, CT (my first time playing with Henry on electric bass, aka “lobby” [ask me sometime])
  12. December, 2005 – recording session for Letter Back Home by Jason Berg, Bennett Studios, Englewood, NJ
  13. May, 2006 – opening for Heart Gallery (awareness raiser for kids seeking adoptive homes), Cameron Gallery, Middletown, CT, quartet with Wayne Escoffery
  14. June, 2006 – Playdate’s first official gig, Cornelia Street Café, NYC
  15. September, 2006 – Mike Baggetta Quartet, Artspace, Greenfield, MA (my first gig after becoming a parent for the second time)
  16. April, 2007 – NB Trio at Hartford Public Library (music of Duke Ellington)
  17. August, 2007 – Recording session with NB Trio for Bliss, Bennett Studios
  18. September, 2007 – Recording session for Playdate, Bennett Studios
  19. November, 2007 – NB Quartet with Jimmy Greene at Buttonwood Tree, Music of the 1960s (in conjunction with Wesleyan class)
  20. March, 2008 – Amanda Monaco’s City College Master’s recital with Playdate, NYC
  21. June, 2008 – Recording session for my book The Versatile Keyboardist
  22. October, 2008 – NB Trio at Pittsfield CItyJazz Festival
  23. September, 2009 – Siggy Davis with NB Trio, Roxbury Arts Center (Catskills, NY)
  24. November, 2009 – Know Thyself extravaganza: Wesleyan University’s Crowell Concert Hall, Jazz Gallery NYC, recording session at Bennett Studios
  25. April, 2010 – Playdate’s CT debut, Firehouse 12, New Haven
  26. July, 2010 – NB Trio at An die Musik, Baltimore, MD
  27. July, 2010 – NB Quartet with Jimmy Greene, with guest Joel Frahm, Szechwan Tokyo, Hartford, CT
  28. August, 2010 – Know Thyself at New Haven Jazz Festival
  29. September, 2010 – CT Folk Festival, New Haven, with Lara Herscovitch
  30. March, 2011 – NB Quartet with Erica von Kleist, Makeda, New Brunsick, NJ
  31. October, 2011 – NB Trio at Russell House, Wesleyan University (music of Kenny Barron)
  32. May, 2012 – NB Quintet with Kris Allen, Jimmy Greene and Yoron Israel, Buttonwood Tree
  33. September, 2012 – Chamber ensemble at Choate Rosemary Hall faculty concert, Wallingford, CT (the beginning of Henry’s tenure teaching there, the premiere of “The Outer Circle” and the opening of Kate’s solo show of drawings)
  34. March, 2013 – Recording session for Ripples, Systems Two, Brooklyn, NY
  35. August, 2013 – “We Shall Overcome” performance/discussion at EDNF Learning Conference, Providence, RI
  36. November, 2013 – surprise party/gig for my 40th birthday, Scatz, Middletown, CT (my most recent left-hand-only performance)
  37. April/May, 2014 – CD release tour for Ripples (including the Side Door, Old Lyme, CT, The Jazz Gallery, NYC, Germano’s, Baltimore, MD, First Congregational Church, Bristol, RI, Columbia Heights Concerts, Washington, DC and Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT), featuring NB Trio and Jazz Samaritan Alliance
  38. March, 2015 – launch of Resonant Motion’s Jazz Up Close series with Freddie Bryant Quartet, Russell Library, Middletown, CT
  39. April, 2015 – premiere (and to-be-released recording) of The Rock and the Redemption with NB Resonance Ensemble, Wesleyan University
  40. June, 2016 – Recording session for my daughter Rebecca’s most recent demo

October, 2002 – the first gig (Café Atlantique, Miford, CT with George Mastrogiannis)

November, 2002 – It’s Only Natural Restaurant, Middletown, CT (1st gig together in 3 year “residency” there)

November, 2003 – celebration for WWUH (my first, and sadly not last, gig playing entirely left-handed)

December, 2003 – 30th birthday party/live recording session for What It Is album

March, 2004 – North Star Café, New Brunswick, NJ (1st gig with the “new” NB Trio with Vinnie Sperrazza)

March, 2004 – Bennington Museum (VT) with Andrea Wolper

May, 2004 – NB Trio, John Kerry fundraiser (showing me that private functions can be REALLY fun)

August, 2004 – Café Atlantique (my first gig as a parent)

October/November, 2004 – Large Group and Trio sessions for Soul Force, Peter Karl Studio

July, 2005 – Castle Street Café, drum-less quartet with Amanda Monaco and Chris Dingman

September, 2005 – wedding gig, Middletown, CT (my first time playing with Henry on electric bass, aka “lobby” [ask me sometime])

December, 2005 – recording session for Letter Back Home by Jason Berg, Bennett Studios, Englewood, NJ

May, 2006 – opening for Heart Gallery (awareness raiser for kids seeking adoptive homes), Cameron Gallery, Middletown, CT, quartet with Wayne Escoffery

June, 2006 – Playdate’s first official gig, Cornelia Street Café, NYC

September, 2006 – Mike Baggetta Quartet, Artspace, Greenfield, MA (my first gig after becoming a parent for the second time)

April, 2007 – NB Trio at Hartford Public Library (music of Duke Ellington)

August, 2007 – Recording session with NB Trio for Bliss, Bennett Studios

September, 2007 – Recording session for Playdate, Bennett Studios

November, 2007 – NB Quartet with Jimmy Greene at Buttonwood Tree, Music of the 1960s (in conjunction with Wesleyan class)

March, 2008 – Amanda Monaco’s City College Master’s recital with Playdate, NYC

June, 2008 – Recording session for my book The Versatile Keyboardist

October, 2008 – NB Trio at Pittsfield CItyJazz Festival

September, 2009 – Siggy Davis with NB Trio, Roxbury Arts Center (Catskills, NY)

November, 2009 – Know Thyself extravaganza: Wesleyan University’s Crowell Concert Hall, Jazz Gallery NYC, recording session at Bennett Studios

April, 2010 – Playdate’s CT debut, Firehouse 12, New Haven

July, 2010 – NB Trio at An die Musik, Baltimore, MD

July, 2010 – NB Quartet with Jimmy Greene, with guest Joel Frahm, Szechwan Tokyo, Hartford, CT

August, 2010 – Know Thyself at New Haven Jazz Festival

September, 2010 – CT Folk Festival, New Haven, with Lara Herscovitch

March, 2011 – NB Quartet with Erica von Kleist, Makeda, New Brunsick, NJ

October, 2011 – NB Trio at Russell House, Wesleyan University (music of Kenny Barron)

May, 2012 – NB Quintet with Kris Allen, Jimmy Greene and Yoron Israel, Buttonwood Tree

September, 2012 – Chamber ensemble at Choate Rosemary Hall faculty concert, Wallingford, CT (the beginning of Henry’s tenure teaching there, the premiere of “The Outer Circle” and the opening of Kate’s solo show of drawings)

March, 2013 – Recording session for Ripples, Systems Two, Brooklyn, NY

August, 2013 – “We Shall Overcome” performance/discussion at EDNF Learning Conference, Providence, RI

November, 2013 – surprise party/gig for my 40th birthday, Scatz, Middletown, CT (my most recent left-hand-only performance)

April/May, 2014 – CD release tour for Ripples (including the Side Door, Old Lyme, CT, The Jazz Gallery, NYC, Germano’s, Baltimore, MD, First Congregational Church, Bristol, RI, Columbia Heights Concerts, Washington, DC and Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT), featuring NB Trio and Jazz Samaritan Alliance

March, 2015 – launch of Resonant Motion’s Jazz Up Close series with Freddie Bryant Quartet, Russell Library, Middletown, CT

April, 2015 – premiere (and to-be-released recording) of The Rock and the Redemption with NB Resonance Ensemble, Wesleyan University

June, 2016 – Recording session for my daughter Rebecca’s most recent demo

DEAD50: Top 50 (10×5) Favorite Grateful Dead Tracks

DEAD50: Top 50 Favorite Grateful Dead Tracks

I was a teenage Deadhead. Well, sort of. I never followed them around in a VW bus or got deep into trading tapes and assessing which versions of “Terrapin Station” were the best. But I studied their repertoire (listening voraciously to some of it) and went to see them over a dozen times, plus another roughly half-dozen shows by spin-off projects (particularly the Jerry Garcia Band).

In a sense, I was an odd fit for a Dead fan. To me they were supreme songwriters.  Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter are on par with most elite teams in rock history, and we should all be lucky to come up with half as many great songs as second banana Bob Weir has. And as a rock band, when they were on they were so authoritative, between their vocal harmonies and the rich instrumental layers. Two guitars, keyboard, bass and two drummers can sound pretty bloated in some folks’ hands, but they really knew how to pull it all together.

The improvisation? That was important to me, but not for the obvious reasons. Even before I got into jazz, I found their longer jams to be a bit “noodly” for my tastes (if I was at a Dead show and they started playing “Dark Star” I would just sit down and wait it out) and have only more recently come to appreciate them. And yet the broader sense of risk-taking and elasticity was central to my burgeoning consciousness. I leaned early on to resist predictable and repetitive setlists or interpretations of songs. Knowing that I could push in a different direction (even if doing “the usual” was the statistically likely outcome) liberated and relaxed me, while I learned to crave the possibility of transcendence over the guarantee of pretty good.

And indeed, the Dead shows I saw ranged from transcendent to downright crap-fests that left me thinking “I spent THIRTY DOLLARS on a ticket to this?” And yet it never kept me from going back. Indeed, when I was 17 I remember going to see the Dead the night after I’d been to another big concert by Tom Petty. It was my third Tom Petty show and I got pretty much exactly what I’d gotten the other two times, a really solid show. The Dead show the next night was pretty ho-hum by comparison, but I realized that I was still excited and eager for the next one because I knew that it COULD have been amazing.

So in honor of their 50th anniversary (and those who’ve asked me repeatedly why I’ve never done a Dead Top 10 list) and their latest swan song, here are 50 tracks divided into 5 top 10 lists. Due to the sheer amount, there won’t be any real commentary, and I made sure not to include the same exact track twice even when it fit multiple categories. Most/all of these tracks should be easily available (one reason I chose some of them). This eliminates some of my own most mind-blowing moments from live shows (Brent’s solo on the encore version of “Johnny B Goode” in Hartford or the full-band throw-down on “Bertha” in Philly, both when I was 13 in 1987, had a profound effect on me musically) as that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms and I chose not to get into anything surrounding bootlegs or anything else beyond what a dabbler would be able to access. Enjoy!

Top 10 Favorite Grateful Dead Studio Tracks

1 ) “Scarlet Begonias” from From the Mars Hotel
2 ) “Uncle John’s Band” from Workingman’s Dead
3 ) “Throwing Stones” from In the Dark
4 ) “Box of Rain” from American Beauty
5 ) “St. Stephen” from Aoxomoxoa
6 ) “Estimated Prophet” from Terrapin Station
7 ) “Cumberland Blues” from Workingman’s Dead
8 ) “Alabama Getaway” from Go to Heaven
9 ) “Weather Report Suite” from Wake of the Flood
10 ) “That’s It for the Other One” from Anthem of the Sun

Top 10 Favorite Grateful Dead Live Tracks from Commercially Released Albums

1 )“Bertha” from Grateful Dead (aka Skull & Roses)
2 ) “To Lay Me Down” from Reckoning
3 ) “Eyes of the World” (featuring Branford Marsalis) from Without A Net
4 ) “Sugar Magnolia” from Europe ‘72
5 ) “Dark Star” from Live Dead
6 ) “Franklin’s Tower” from Dead Set
7 ) “Tennessee Jed” from Europe ‘72
8 ) “Black Peter” from Bear’s Choice
9 ) “Sugaree” from Steal Your Face
10 ) “All Along the Watchtower” from Dylan and the Dead

Top 10 Favorite Grateful Dead Guitar Performances:

(note: this category revolves around but is not limited to Jerry’s guitar solos)

1 ) “China Cat Sunflower” from Europe ‘72
2 ) “Eyes of the World” from Wake of the Flood
3 ) “Viola Lee Blues” from The Grateful Dead
4 ) “Touch of Grey” from In the Dark
5 ) “Fire on the Mountain” from Shakedown Street
6 ) “Dire Wolf” from Workingman’s Dead (Jerry on pedal steel guitar)
7 ) “Slipknot” from Blues for Allah
8 ) “Till the Morning Comes” from American Beauty
9 ) “Mama Tried” from Grateful Dead (aka Skull & Roses)
10 ) “Victim or the Crime” from Built to Last

Top 10 Favorite Grateful Dead Cover Songs/Adaptations

(note: this category doesn’t address specific recorded versions, but all are available as such)

1 ) Iko Iko
2 ) I Know You Rider
3 ) Turn On Your Lovelight
4 ) Dear Mr. Fantasy
5 ) Good Lovin’
6 ) Cold Rain and Snow
7 ) Sampson & Delilah
8 ) Death Don’t Have No Mercy
9 ) Wake Up Little Susie
10 ) Morning Dew

Top 10 Favorite Grateful Dead-related Miscellaneous Tracks

1 ) “Midnight Moonlight” from Old and In the Way by Old and In the Way
(bluegrass band with Jerry on banjo and harmony vocals)
2 ) “Black Muddy River” by the Persuasions
(my all-time favorite cover of a Dead song)
3 ) “Greatest Story Ever Told” by Bob Weir (from Ace)
4 ) “The Harder They Come” by Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders (from At the Keystone, Vol. 1)
5 ) “Where Love Goes (Sito)” by Mickey Hart (from Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box)
(featuring Airto, Giovanni Hidalgo, Zakir Hussain and the Mint Juleps)
6 ) “Ripple” by Jane’s Addiction
7 ) “Silvio” by Bob Dylan (from Down in the Groove)
(co-written by Robert Hunter and featuring Jerry, Bobby and Brent on harmony vocals)
8 ) “The Wheel” by Jerry Garcia (from Garcia)
9 ) “Jack Straw” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range
10 ) “Liberty” from So Many Roads
(technically this is the Grateful Dead, but this track was only released posthumously)

Blueberry Corn Muffins Deluxe

I love a good muffin, and have spent the last 22 years (essentially my entire adult life) tinkering with recipes. The ideal homemade muffin for me is a treat (as opposed to a hockey puck), but not the glorified large-cupcake-without-frosting “muffin” found in most bakery contexts (those are tasty, for sure, but if I want to eat a delicious muffin from Fusion Bakery here in Middletown, I can’t fool myself that it’s something other than dessert). Through this tinkering I think I’ve found the “sweet spot” (or, I suppose, the “just sweet enough spot”) between healthy and decadent. It certainly helps when you put good stuff in ‘em, as with the blueberries and walnuts here.


My favorite muffin recipes have been those of Ginny Callan, who was the founder (and until 1990 the chef) of the influential early vegetarian restaurant Horn of the Moon in Montpelier, VT. This is not one of hers, but if you find you like the overall balance of texture here, then you’ll likely enjoy her other muffin recipes. There are various options below to push it a little further in the healthy vs. decadent directions as suits your intentions.

Makes 12 muffins

- 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or some or all white if you’re whole wheat averse)

- 1 cup cornmeal (fine or medium grind; coarse is fine if you don’t mind the grit)

- 1 Tbsp baking powder

- ½ tsp salt

- 1 tsp cinnamon

- 2 large eggs

- 1 cup milk (or non-dairy milk)

- 1 stick melted butter or ½ cup neutrally-flavored oil (canola, safflower, grapeseed, etc.)

- ½ cup honey (2/3 cup if you like your muffins particularly sweet)

- 1 tsp vanilla extract

- 1 ½ cups blueberries (fresh or frozen)

- 1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grease a muffin tin.

2) Mix together the dry ingredients (flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, cinnamon) in a large bowl.

3) In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the milk, butter/oil, honey and vanilla until well-enough blended that the honey isn’t clumping on the bottom.

4) Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix just well enough to combine.

5) Fold in the berries and, if using, nuts.

6) Spoon evenly into muffin tin (if you like them bigger, you can make 9 or so and put ½ inch of water in the unoccupied muffin places to prevent burning).

7) Bake about 20 minutes (depending on size, could be anywhere from 18-25). Begin checking at 18 minutes; they’re done when starting to brown around the edges and a knife inserted into the muffin comes out clean (or at least clean of batter – you might pierce a blueberry!). Remove carefully (I wait a couple minutes and then use a paring knife to “score” the outer edges before gently working each muffin out of the tin) and cool on a rack.

I love a good muffin, and have spent the last 22 years (essentially my entire adult life) tinkering with recipes. The ideal homemade muffin for me is a treat, but not the glorified large-cupcake-without-frosting “muffin” found in most bakery contexts (those are tasty, for sure, but if I want to eat a delicious muffin from Fusion Bakery here in Middletown, I can’t fool myself that it’s something other than dessert). Through this tinkering I think I’ve found the “sweet spot” (or, I suppose, the “just sweet enough spot”) between healthy and decadent. It certainly helps when you put good stuff in ‘em, as with the blueberries and walnuts here.

My favorite muffin recipes have been those of Ginny Callan, who was the founder (and until 1990 the chef) of the influential early vegetarian restaurant Horn of the Moon in Montpelier, VT. This is not one of hers, but if you find you like the overall balance of texture here, then you’ll likely enjoy her other muffin recipes. There are various options below to push it a little further in the healthy vs. decadent directions as suits your intentions.

Makes 12 muffins

- 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or some or all white if you’re whole wheat averse)

- 1 cup cornmeal (fine or medium grind; coarse is fine if you don’t mind the grit)

- 1 Tbsp baking powder

- ½ tsp salt

- 1 tsp cinnamon

- 2 large eggs

- 1 cup milk (or non-dairy milk)

- 1 stick melted butter or ½ cup neutrally-flavored oil (canola, safflower, grapeseed, etc.)

- ½ cup honey (2/3 cup if you like your muffins particularly sweet)

- 1 tsp vanilla extract

- 1 ½ cups blueberries (fresh or frozen)

- 1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

-

- 1 Tbsp salt

- 1 package (10-16 ounces) frozen chopped spinach or 10-16 ounces fresh spinach, coarsely chopped

- ¼ cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (parsley, basil, etc.)

1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grease a muffin tin.

2) Mix together the dry ingredients (flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, cinnamon) in a large bowl.

3) In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the milk, butter/oil, honey and vanilla until well-enough blended that the honey isn’t clumping on the bottom.

4) Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix just well enough to combine.

5) Fold in the berries and, if using, nuts.

EDS Awareness Month 2015: Professional Coping Skills

I really appreciate the sentiment when people praise me for overcoming Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. But let’s be clear, I haven’t “overcome” anything. Every day and every time I so much as consider a venture to the piano (or other such instrument), EDS and the corresponding obstacles are central to my consciousness. What is true, however, is that I’ve been able to maintain a career and actually make more satisfying music in my early 40s than when I was in my 20s and clinging to what I thought were the last vestiges of my capacity to perform. While I’d like to put forth that this was somehow a product of my superhuman strength and courage, the reality (and what makes this relevant as something to share with the wider world) is that instead it’s been a largely pragmatic response to the circumstances before me.

Indeed, this is neither mumbo-jumbo nor rocket science. We all have physical limits. We all must pay our physical “debts” (that is, if we want to stay up too late or eat something unhealthy or exert ourselves too hard, we’re humans and have the agency to choose that . . . and then eventually must face the corresponding reality). We all face bodies that become more challenging to manage as we age. We can address all these things proactively or we can get our butts whooped and be angry – in a way, having EDS has been a boon in that all these issues are magnified, so I’ve been forced to find rationality and dignity through it all and just try and make smart choices.

So in honor of EDS Awareness Month, I will use this, my 6th (!) annual EDS Awareness blog post, to discuss some of these coping strategies that have kept me going. EDS aside, this should be of some use to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to navigate these waters, or (with a little adaptation of the specifics) who has some sort of personal challenge in adapting any activity or career to any physical adversity. This began as advice to a younger fellow jazz musician with EDS, but I felt it was worth sharing.

In no particular order, here are some of my own most valuable coping mechanisms:

………………….

* Adapt

This is pretty broad, but everything is fair game. What gigs you do, how you sit at the instrument, how and when you use your body for other activities, what you eat – virtually everything should be open to scrutiny and, as needed, change. I have changed everything from my posture to the maximum length of a gig to how I get out of my car and on and on. Some things, like the tai chi warm-ups I do before playing or the silver ring splints that I wear on my fingers (but resisted for years) have had a profound impact. Other things have had a smaller impact, but every little bit helps.

* Remember that everything is connected.

Everything that impacts your health will carry over to how much your body has in the way of resources to negotiate EDS. The conventional wisdom about EDS management has historically been specific to connective tissue issues, and by all means things like ergonomics and avoidance of high-impact activities are important. But so are other things. Everything from diet to sleep patterns to emotional well-being to keeping warm when it’s cold out is going to make a difference, for better or worse. The less you compartmentalize that which impacts your body, the better prepared you will be. Which leads to . . .

* Be realistic and listen to your body.

Sometimes this means stopping when you’re tired, sometimes it means exercising when you don’t feel like it, sometimes it means changing the way you sit. Any way you look at it, your body will tell you important things and it’s your job (ideally) to listen and obey. This even extends to pain – I don’t begrudge anybody the use of pain meds if they need them, but I find it important not to numb pain to the point where you lose that valuable feedback into what’s not working right. And being realistic is so important. You may have an important gig to play or want to practice another hour or drink a couple Guinneses when you’re feeling run-down, but your body doesn’t care about the context of what you’re doing. If it’s tired or sore, it doesn’t matter to your body – it is going to give you the truth about its needs. And maybe you choose to defy your body because you just want what you want so badly – if you’re making an educated choice and are willing to pay the price later (the “debt” I mentioned above), that’s valid too. I’ve certainly had instances in which I was exhausted and in pain “the day after,” but thought “that was worth it.”

* Build strong community and educate those around you.

Aside from helping to lessen feelings of isolation, the more those you work with know about your circumstances, the more they’ll be able to accommodate your needs and the less you’ll have to deal with potentially awkward in-the-moment negotiations. And having people who’ve got your back is invaluable for anybody, especially someone who is physically impaired; I couldn’t ask for a much better illustration than last night’s gig, where the folks in the band and at the venue insisted on carrying most of my gear from my car to the room and back. This need for partnership also includes doctors who, regardless of their specialty, are committed to understanding your issues and earning your trust.

* Build strength

Part of this is mental – that is, developing your resiliency well enough that when you’re having a bad day/week/month you do not fall apart emotionally. However, it is also vitally important to build physical strength in whatever ways are possible and safe. The more muscle tone (not muscle mass) you have, the better you can defend yourself from injury. A variation on this is making sure your technique at the instrument is as good as it can be, so you’re not wasting energy and strength by playing improperly.

* Think, plan and ask ahead.

Sometimes we get hit with unexpected circumstances and are stuck having to navigate situations in which we either put our bodies or our standing on that gig at risk. We can’t avoid this completely, but we can catalogue these things and know to plan ahead next time. If you need to eat on a schedule, bring a snack even if you’re being fed on the gig. If the gig pushes your outer limits in terms of length, state up-front that even if extra money is thrown at the band, you will be done at the end of the last contracted set, and if the bandleader or venue isn’t okay with that, maybe you shouldn’t take the gig. People unaccustomed to this can be disarmed by these kinds of questions and boundaries, but the more accustomed WE get to stating them, the mellower those transactions are.

* Adapt your musical actions when necessary.

This can take many forms depending on your musical personality and circumstances, but certainly a great thing about jazz is that (unlike, say, playing Rachmaninoff), we get to choose much in terms of what and how much we play. For some a valid solution might be to play more sparsely. Me, I like to have furious moments (I’m more McCoy Tyner than Count Basie – apologies to non-jazzbos to whom this is a meaningless statement), but whenever I play a burner, I follow it with a ballad to let myself recover. I play less solo piano than I used to and if the gig is beyond a certain length I almost always play with a rhythm section that will keep things going seamlessly if I need to shake out my hands for a moment. I have stopped playing in scenarios such as dance classes in which it is disruptive for me to adapt in this way, and in the big picture it’s well worth it.

* Be efficient.

The more efficient you are and the better able you are to practice mentally, the better you can make use of whatever time you have at the instrument. I talk about this in depth in the following blog post:

http://blog.noahjazz.com/?p=481

* Keep in mind that all bodies break down.

This sounds kind of depressing, but it’s true – unless you die suddenly, your body will break down regardless of underlying disability. Maybe age, maybe accident, maybe disease, maybe a combination. The relevance here is that a) whenever you’re forthright with others about your circumstances, you’re helping them prepare for the inevitable challenges they’ll face with their own bodies and those of their loved ones, and b) this basic awareness can help mitigate bitterness over “why me?” Indeed, I keep coming back to the notion that, as obscure a condition as EDS may be, in the bigger picture it is part of a universal struggle with human frailty. It may be counter-intuitive for some, but there is nothing inherently stopping us for coming together in nurturing solidarity over this – everybody wins when this happens.