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

A Legacy of Love

It’s 4:30 a.m. and, not surprisingly, I can’t sleep. My brain is not adequately developed to process this confluence of milestones. On the one hand, last night marked the passing of Kate’s aunt Dottie, with Kate by her side. On the other hand, this month marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of our parenting journey. On the surface these are events related to one another only by emotional intensity, but there is more entanglement than that.

When Kate and I became parents, there were plenty of things I naively did not expect. That litany of surprises is in and of itself common enough for parents, of course. One thing I was really not prepared for, however (indeed had never given any thought to), was the disparity in reactions to (or degrees of acceptance of) our “non-traditional” family. The community of people who have embraced our daughters (as, indeed, they well should) is substantial and inspiring. It’s also striking, though, how others have struggled with that (or, worse, haven’t perceived that it was important enough to take on said struggle).

Often it’s the sort of careless statements that are in large part society’s fault for failing to create a culture in which all families are embraced, regardless of age or DNA. “That’s nice – do you have any of your own kids?” (these are my own kids) “They must be SO grateful.” (they are, but that’s not their job any more than it’s any kid’s job to get down on his or her knees to give thanks for being cared for) “What about their real parents?” (Kate and I are not mirages. Yes there are birth families and varying degrees of relationships with them) You get the idea. These sorts of comments are innocuous enough, but for the deeper and often un-verbalized way in which so much discrimination manifests.

But there’s a reason that there are so many songs and poems and stories in the world reflecting the sentiment of “love conquers all.” It truly does take a village and as I mentioned above, we have been blessed with some remarkably soulful villagers who have helped us thrive and feel genuinely embraced. And for most of this time, Dottie has been something akin to the grand matriarch of the village.

There were many tangible things she did for us and for our girls. But overriding it all was the most potent thing of all – she loved them. I’ve written plenty in this blog about what love actually means, and I don’t need to get into the semantics of that here. But I will say that watching Dottie love them up with such joy and appreciation was one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever experienced. And seldom have I felt the sort of gratitude that filled me seeing the way this love nourished them. There was never a germ of evidence that she thought of our family as any less authentic than any other. This is the way it is supposed to be.

So the flip side of that is that now she’s gone. All the things they say about the wonder of seeing things through your kids’ eyes? All true, but usually people don’t think of grief and loss in these terms. My kids are no strangers to loss, but this one cuts deep and I am powerless to heal the wounds or to invent a magic pill that could get them to smile in the unique way that only Dottie was capable of inspiring them to. That hurts and I can’t sugar coat it. I will, of course, miss her too, but if all I had to do is put on my big boy pants and deal with my own personal loss, that I could manage.

As far as I can tell, there are three things I can do. One, I can celebrate this legacy of love, which will nourish us all as long as we live. Two, I can (and most certainly will) double down further in my commitment to love my kids with all the heart a human can muster. Three, I can challenge YOU to step up. We’ll be okay, but what about the adoptive families who haven’t had a Dottie? What about the kids who are thirsty for the kind of unbridled warmth that seemed to change the atmosphere whenever Dottie walked into our house? Can we change the culture so that everybody has that? Yes, we can – the only question is whether we will make it a priority.

Dottie was human – an imperfect person and lived an imperfect life. It is not my place or my intention to paint a portrait of a saint who moved on with no baggage, and indeed a broader discussion of her life is not within the scope of this essay (due to both length and sleep deprivation). But her capacity for love made her both a role model and a gift, and for that I will be forever grateful. With 10 years in the bank, it’s almost comically obvious that parenthood has been the deepest, most fulfilling and most important thing in which I have ever participated. I may not be religious in the strict sense, but if any proof is needed of a benevolent higher power, Dottie’s presence in our family for that time provides just that.

Top 10 Favorite Joe Lovano Tracks

Joe Lovano (who is coming to Wesleyan tomorrow!!) is one of the major musical voices of his generation, having gotten there honestly through a long dues-paying process both in terms of professional apprenticeships and development of his sound. That sound is now somewhat difficult to describe in words, in part because his voice has become so distinct (as with, say, Joe Henderson, whose sound is itself a point of reference for describing other things rather than a compendium of adjectives). I can, say, though, that his versatility (in addition to his well-documented virtuosity on tenor and soprano saxophone, he plays various other woodwinds and is actually a great drummer as well) and his vision as a composer and bandleader have been profoundly influential, and yet he continues to be able to fit seamlessly into a wide variety of scenarios.

I discovered his music in 1991 before he was a household name in the jazz world, and so I’ve been a fan for more than half my life. As such, it was difficult to whittle this list down – I could easily do another 10 just from his own records that I neglected here, not to mention many other great sideman appearances with Lonnie Smith, James Williams, Dave Brubeck, Yoron Israel and several of the artists below (and on and on). Hopefully you enjoy checking out this sampler platter.

1 ) “On This Day (Just Like Any Other)” (from On This Day at the Vanguard)

This epic live track, featuring Joe’s Nonet, encapsulates numerous elements of his sounds. There is a mix of tempos, great improvising (by him and by the ensemble together), great writins g and orchestrating by Joe and particularly stellar interplay between him and the drums (in this case Lewis Nash).

2 ) “Monk’s Mood” (from One Time Out by Paul Motian Trio)

This 1987 track showcases Joe’s exceptional ballad playing, as well as documenting some early work by the landmark bass-less trio that drummer Paul Motian led for over 20 years with Joe and guitarist Bill Frisell.

3 ) “Luna Park” (from Universal Language)

I still remember where I was standing when I first heard this track in 1993 (and, subsequently, the rest of the album – I did eventually sit down). There are great instrumental solos by Joe (on tenor and soprano), Tim Hagans and Steve Swallow but what particularly blew my mind was the musically seamless way he incorporated Judi Silvano’s voice, both as an improviser and particularly as part of the horn section. I had not ever heard Abbey Lincoln’s work with Max Roach at that point so this was my first exposure to voice-as-horn ensemble textures and I was knocked out. I still am, really.

4 ) “Big Fan” (from Meant to Be by John Scofield)

The Scofield Quartet with Lovano (and, here, Marc Johnson Bill Stewart) was very influential to many musicians of my generation, and this driving yet melodic performance offers a glimpse of why. For younger musicians who associate Sco with more “jam band” based music, this is necessary research.

5 ) “Blessings In May” (from Cross Culture)

Us Five is one of Joe’s current projects, featuring two drummer/percussionists (Francisco Mela and Otis Brown, III) as well as bassist Esperanza Spalding (maybe you’ve heard of her?) and the great pianist James Weidman (who himself has visited Wesleyan often to perform with our own Prof. Jay Hoggard). This recent track shows the interactivity and rhythmic infectiousness characteristic of the band.

6 ) “Vista” (from Form by Tom Harrell)

I could easily do a Top 10 list of just collaborations between Joe and trumpeter/composer Tom Harrell (indeed, Joe is on four of the albums cited in my Tom Harrell Top 10 here and that doesn’t even include other records like Steve Swallow’s Real Book). For this list I chose a moody yet hard-grooving track from an early recorded collaboration between the two. Just gorgeous stuff.

7 ) “Sounds of Joy” (from Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard)

And I was there! It’s true, actually, and it was mind-blowing to hear Joe, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash and the late Mulgrew Miller throw down on a bunch of jazz standards. They did throw in a few Lovano original tunes, though, and this rhythmically assertive one made the cut for the live album, a two record set also featuring tracks from another quartet with Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox and Billy Hart.

8 ) “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” (from Symphonica)

Joe recorded this lovely 1970s Mingus ballad on the previous album on the list, but here it is creatively and lushly reimagined by arranger Mike Abene. Joe has recorded on numerous occasions in an orchestral setting, and he has both the warmth to blend and the assertiveness to cut through as needed.

9 ) “Say Hello to Calypso” (from Live at the Regattabar by Grand Slam/Jim Hall)

Warm yet assertive. Lyrical yet dexterous. Commanding as a soloist yet highly interactive. Am I describing Joe or guitarist Jim Hall? It could be either, of course, and that may offer a tiny bit of insight into the longstanding musical rapport they shared. This live recording features their “Grand Slam” quartet with bassist George Mraz and once again Lewis Nash on drums.

10 ) “Work” (from From the Soul)

In the early 1990s, shortly before his Blue Note deal, Joe cut this great session on the Soul Note label with pianist Michel Petrucciani, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Ed Blackwell (both an important figure in Joe’s career and another Wesleyan connection, having taught here for a long time up until his passing). Joe makes great use of this highly interactive rhythm section, displaying both his signature sound on soprano and his special connection to Thelonious Monk’s compositions.

Top 10 Favorite Piano-Plus-Keyboard Tracks

Last night was my first of what I hope to be many multi-keyboardist gigs blending acoustic piano with electric keyboards. It was a ton of fun, and that got me reflecting on some of my favorite examples of the blend between piano and other keyboards. For this list I spanned multiple genres, but limited it to examples with these instruments played by different people (thus ruling out some other great overdub-dependent examples featuring keyboard artists from Benmont Tench to Stevie Wonder to Herbie Hancock).

1 ) Aretha Franklin: “I’ve Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” from I’ve Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You

Aretha’s rocking piano and Spooner Oldham’s brilliant and iconic Wurlitzer are in perfect synergy here.

2 ) Eddy Louis and Michel Petrucciani: “Jean-Philippe Herbien” from Conference de Presse

I’ve mentioned this album in other posts, and it remains one of my favorite two-keyboard duet albums, particularly among those that aren’t just two-piano (I almost put the Larry Young/Joe Chambers “After the Rain” on this list, but 10 is a small number!).

3 ) Walter Hawkins: “Goin’ Up Yonder” from Love Alive

Gospel music has a rich history of piano/Hammond organ blends, and the two instruments predominate from the very start of this epic track.

4 ) Wayne Escoffery: “Banishment of the Lost Spirit” from The Only Son of One

This is hardly the first jazz example of piano (in this case Orrin Evans) and synthesizer (Adam Holzman) being used together, but this track in particular was for me the most ear-opening of a whole album of textural enlightenment from my old pal Mr. Escoffery.

5 ) Jimmy Cliff: “Struggling Man” from Struggling Man

I’ve always loved Jimmy Cliff’s use of the piano/organ combination, and on this song the two instruments are both prominent and infectious.

6 ) Count Basie and Oscar Peterson: “Lil’ Darlin’” from Satch and Josh . . . Again

Oscar and the Count recorded multiple albums of duets and combos with two pianos, and they’re all great. My favorite moments, though, are the ones with greater textural contrast, as on this one on which Basie’s elegant piano blends seamlessly with Peterson’s bluesy electric piano.

7 ) Bruce Springsteen: “Prove It All Night” from Darkness on the Edge of Town

The Roy Bittan/Danny Federici two-keyboard texture was fundamental to the E Street Band sound for decades. This track, possibly best known for Springsteen’s underrepresented guitar soloing, features a particularly well-synced piano and organ.

8 ) The Band: “Up on Cripple Creek” from The Band

Richard Manuel’s piano here is juxtaposed against Garth Hudson’s organ and clavinet on this classic track – indeed, the Band may well count as the all-time MVPs of two-keyboard-istry.

9 ) Bill Stewart: “Tell a Televangelist” from Incandescence

Drummer Bill Stewart and organist Larry Goldings have played together a ton in a trio with guitarist Peter Bernstein, but on this album Peter’s “chair” is taken by pianist Kevin Hays. Goldings is also a great pianist – whether that’s the reason behind his expert blend with Hays, I’m not sure, but the results are wonderful.

10 ) Steely Dan: “Aja” from Aja

Steely Dan’s 1970s records provided no shortage of thick, luscious multi-keyboard textures. With all due respect to Donald Fagen’s own piano and synth contributions, I picked this iconic track that features Joe Sample’s Rhodes and Michael Omartian’s acoustic piano.

Top 10 favorite “One Man Band” tracks

I have long been fascinated with music that was recorded by a single person. As my friend and colleague Dave Kopperman (himself an underappreciated master of this approach) has pointed out, there is the potential for the results to have a synthetic quality. Indeed, at their worst, songs recorded in this manner sound artificial, not to mention wonky due to the virtual inevitability of the artist having limited proficiency on at least one of the instruments. At their best, though, these songs not only avoid these pitfalls but also display as close as one can reasonably get to an unfiltered view of the sounds going through that artist’s own head.

Though I’m long overdue for a technology upgrade, I secretly (oops, secret revealed) love creating songs this way. Rest assured that I would never venture to try to make a jazz recording myself, but the semi-closeted singer-songwriter in me loves having that level of input into the product, even though the results are borne of all the things with which I have limited proficiency. In other words, from a process standpoint, I can see the appeal, even though there are obvious benefits to having a real guitarist, drummer, singer and so on.

As I feel the itch increasing to mess around more with this (a couple years removed from my last wave of such activities), I find myself reflecting on some of my favorite examples.

Before we get to the list, here are the ground rules for inclusion: there have to be at least 3 instruments (voice does count as one), those instruments have to represent at least 2 distinct categories (keyboards/electronics, stringed instruments, wind instruments, percussion instruments) and the recordings have to be the work of one man or woman alone.

So if there are only two instruments (sorry Eddie Harris – I love your piano/saxophone duets), if the instruments are all in the same “family” (sorry Pat Metheny – I love your bazillion-guitar textures; ditto Bobby McFerrin and others with one-person a cappella excursions) or if there is (sorry Andre 3000 – if you had played the bass part on “Hey Ya,” you’d be here) then the track isn’t eligible. I’ve also stayed away from the “Youtube One Man Band” phenomenon, hence the omission of ridiculous talents like Giulio Carmassi and Jacob Collier. And some people are eligible but just got bumped out of the top 10 by others (sorry Dave Grohl and Lindsey Buckingham and Nicholas Payton and others). Without any further ado . . .

1 ) Stevie Wonder: “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)”

You knew Stevie would be #1, right? I mean, come on. I can’t necessarily say this sounds like a band (i.e. a bunch of different people), but I can’t imagine this (or anything else, really) sounding any more soulful and organic. The “band” sounds great, but what’s most striking is the rich vocal chorus.

2 ) Steve Winwood: “Night Train” (from Arc of a Diver)

With all due respect to Stevie Wonder, this Stevie gets an added layer of props for covering the stringed instruments as well. Though there are numerous good examples (and almost-examples), I chose this one because in addition to his much-heralded singing and keyboard playing, here we get to observe his wonderful lead guitar work as well.

3 ) Paul McCartney: “Maybe I’m Amazed”

I would make the case that Paul, and indeed this song, set the modern standard for one-man-band recordings. There’s nothing flashy (though the guitar solo is certainly nice – iconic, even), but everything feels totally organic.

4 ) Prince: “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (from Prince)

Prince’s body of work in this vein is significant and diverse – some of it groovy, some of it quirky, some of it flat-out weird. This song is simply one of the classic R&B songs of the late 1970s. Though his virtuosity as a guitar soloist is not on display here, his solid command over the full spate of rhythm section instruments is.

5 ) Joan Armatrading: “Back On Track” (from Starlight)

This recent album was an eye-opener for me, significant given my 20+ year love affair with Joan’s records. She did the drum programming and played bass, guitars and keyboards in addition, of course, to singing. If you can resist this groove, get your backbone checked.

6 ) Sidney Bechet “Sheik of Araby”

Lest you think that this sort of overdubbing began in the late 1960s, here comes Sidney. As Lewis Porter pointed out when I was in graduate school, this recording features Bechet on two saxophones, clarinet, bass, drums and piano. Apparently, he simply played a track and then recorded another track of him playing along with the recording of the previous track and so on until done. Upon discovering this I went immediately and tried doing this myself with a cassette player. Let’s just say it worked better for Sidney than for me.

7 ) Lenny Kravitz”: “When Morning Turns to Night” (from Mama Said)

When I was a freshman in college, there was an ad in the Village Voice soliciting auditions for the keyboard chair in Lenny Kravitz’s band. Though I never wound up doing that (and would at that point have been far too green anyway), For several weeks, though, I did immerse myself in his first two albums (particularly falling in love with his second one), not realizing how much of the deep groove was coming from him alone.

8 ) John Fogerty: “Big Train (from Memphis)” (from Centerfield)

It was really hard not to include Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” here – it’s an absolute classic, and purportedly John Fogerty went into the studio by himself and recorded it right after writing it. I can’t corroborate that story, so I figured it was safer to pick from among the many one-man tracks on his classic 1980s album Centerfield. I chose this one (which I used to listen to on a jukebox at my mother’s favorite luncheonette in New Haven) for his pitch-perfect simulation of a rockabilly band.

9 ) Todd Rundgren: “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” (from Something/Anything)

This record (or at least 3 out of 4 sides of it) stands as one of the acknowledged landmarks in all-by-yourself recording. There are numerous strong examples here, but I chose this tune (which I discovered in my mid-teens around the time I heard him live in New Haven) as probably the hardest-rocking.

10 ) Shuggie Otis” “Inspiration Information” (from Inspiration Information)

Shuggie O stands as an interesting and hard-to-categorize figure in pop music history. He was a brilliant prodigy blues guitarist as a kid playing with his dad, Johnny Otis, and he later wrote “Strawberry Letter 23,” later a hit for the Brothers Johnson. Though he never became a star, he played most of the instruments on this “cult classic” album, showing a solid bass and drum groove, convincing keyboards, a pleasing voice and, of course, wonderful guitar playing.

EDS Awareness 2014: Persistence

Last Tuesday, my father was put into hospice care and the medical staff evaluating him said that he had maybe a couple more days, possibly more like hours. This was not a shock – indeed, I dare say the news was something of a relief. He was 82, had lived a full life, and was experiencing such a diverse portfolio of unsolvable medical challenges that a return to a life he would find tolerable was essentially unattainable even in the extremely unlikely event that his multiple failing organs could be coaxed into functionality. Then a couple days passed. Then another. And things didn’t seem to really be changing much even though he wasn’t really waking up and was no longer receiving any food or fluids. We planned a small family memorial to occur over the weekend while my brother was still there (having flown in from Germany for the week), but that became a family meal as you can’t really have a memorial then the person being memorialized is still there (item 28b in the rulebook).

One thing that this did was provide me with the impetus to contemplate the notion of persistence.

Among the visitors were his granddaughter and 16 month old great-granddaughter. At one point she was playing with some toys in the hospital room and trying to make them do something. In the blur of it all I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I do remember that the toy simply wasn’t doing what she was trying to make it do, yet she kept on trying and trying. My sister made an observation about how some say that this (doing the same thing over and over while expecting different outcomes) is the definition of insanity, to which I retorted that it could also just be persistence. I wasn’t meaning to be philosophical at that moment – really I was just making conversation to break up the monotony of days of sitting vigil. Yet that moment, juxtaposed against the backdrop of my father stubbornly hanging in there in the adjacent bed, got me thinking.

Indeed, he died on Monday, so I can’t ask him, but frankly I don’t know what was keeping him going for those six days. Was it devotion to his family? Unfinished business? Reluctance to meet his maker? Simply that he was a big guy and it took that long for him to deplete his inner reserves? He had cheated the reaper on numerous occasions before, whether falling off roofs (twice – once in his capacity as an architect, once working at home) or being flung from the window of his VW bus in a collision (whereupon said vehicle flew into the air and LANDED ON HIM) or various less “glamorous” but grim moments of acute heart issues in his elder years. So not unlike Keith Richards (the last remaining person to make me question whether mortality is indeed a universally valid phenomenon) it started to look like he had simply decided not to go.

Because he was a strong-willed person in other facets of life, all of this just seemed to be of a piece. And though I am in some ways rather unlike my father, that sense of stubborn persistence stands above all other traits (from my convoluted sentence structures to my fondness for hot cereal) as the most lasting behavioral inheritance I’ve taken. Nowhere is this more evident than in my dealings with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. When people ask me about my soldiering on with music in spite of the physical obstacles, my first response is usually to simply acknowledge that I myself am a stubborn bastard. There’s more to it than that, of course, but in essence all of my strategies and adaptations spring forth from a basic sense of “no, I’m going to keep doing this.”

As with the dialogue about my grand-niece in the hospital room, the question does emerge of how to distinguish the admirable sort of persistence from the delusional and self-defeating sort. This is a tough one because there is often a very fine line and to a large extent it depends on how important outcomes are to you when you assess. That is, we celebrate those who are persistent and eventually succeed, but do we equally admire those who are similarly persistent and don’t ever get “there?” At best, we can make those evaluations eventually, but most likely only with significant hindsight. So what about when we are in the moment and actually making decisions? The uncertainty and subjectivity of all this also means opportunity – specifically the opportunity to define for ourselves what the parameters are. If I make the responsible decision that persistence is necessary, appropriate and consistent with my values and priorities, then who can argue against that?

I was 18 the first time I was consciously faced with that conundrum due to EDS. I have written before about my first semester of college and the difficult realization that my body was breaking down before my eyes. The best I could get in terms of guidance was a well-intentioned platitude here and semi-sympathetic shrug there. Any statements of “hang in there, buckaroo, you can do this” were going to have to come from within.

And then I thought “well, maybe this is a sign.” It’s certainly common to think this when things go a certain way. I hit traffic on the way to the store and then by the time I got there it was closed . . . that must be a sign that I really shouldn’t be buying the trunk-load of Beanie Babies I went there for. And then I went to the supermarket and they were out of green peppers . . . that must be a sign that I should be making something other than chili tonight. So was this set of physical obstacles a sign?

In that moment, I decided that a) yes, it likely WAS a sign, but b) there’s no reliable way I could know of WHAT it was a sign. Maybe it was a sign from the universe that my music career was doomed and that I should pack it in before it was too late . . . or maybe it was a sign that the universe was testing me and that I needed to prove to it, to myself and to the music that I was sufficiently committed. I decided then that I was going to choose the symbolism and that it would be the latter.

One litmus test I have used with myself ever since is asking “what if it doesn’t work?” If I project the answer to be “well DANG, that sure was a waste of time and energy” then it’s reasonable to call into question the sanity of persisting. On the other hand, if the response is “I will be able to sleep at night knowing that I gave it what I had,” then how could I do anything BUT persist?

The ensuing 22 years have given me no shortage of opportunities to reaffirm and recalibrate this perception, and as I have discussed extensively in past writings, persistence for me involves a great deal of adaptation as well. I have been hard at work my whole adult life to figure out the most intelligent, physically sensible ways to proceed.

Neither does persistence mean pig-headed avoidance of the questioning. I woke up this morning with aching hands and had the thought that I’ve had literally thousands of times: is it worth pushing through this? Today the answer, once again, was yes. Some days the answer is “I don’t know,” and on those days I step back a bit and assess whether this is a blip on the radar or a real paradigm shift. If I don’t know, I give it time.

At the core of it all, though, is the persistence itself. It has been truly amazing to me to find this as a common thread among those in the EDS community who I have gotten to know. Each of us deals with different obstacles and each of us has different things we are trying to maintain, against the odds. There are lots of ways to adapt, to change expectations, to access resources and to find solace, but much of it boils down to the seemingly simple question of whether to fight or whether to roll over. Rather often, rolling over looks on paper to be the most sensible conclusion, but most of the people we celebrate in human history are those who persisted against the odds and in some way came out on top. I am certainly not encouraging anyone to stick their heads in a lion’s mouth in the name of defying the odds, but when our basic human dignity is at stake, a certain degree of stubborn defiance is healthy.

At this point my father is at rest and presumably adjusting to whatever his next realm of being may be. I will never really know the reasons behind his last burst of persistence, but it was a fitting end and an apt demonstration for all of us who are hesitant to take the limitations we see at face value. Thanks for giving us all one more lesson, Dad.

To read Donald Baerman’s obituary, please click here

Music = Love

I think I may have figured it out . . .

Though with this Friday’s big CT debut of the Jazz Samaritan Alliance at Firehouse 12, my Ripples release tour is not yet in the “wrap-up and assess” phase (stay tuned for “tour diary”), I have begun the contemplation of where I go from here. As such, on a broader level, I’ve been chewing on the question of “why do I do it?” This is useful for anyone, but given that Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome makes playing music (and especially travelling to do so) a somewhat questionable choice, I feel an even greater obligation to have my motivations be clear.

After all, there are myriad reasons why one can play music. I’ve actually been addressing a lot of this in my teaching, particularly in the context of helping students see the differences in approach between folk music, commercial music and “art” music, along with all the grey areas in between. We can do music because it moves us and/or because we have something we need to express. We can do it because it’s simply a part of the fabric of our lives (something that, sadly, is increasingly rare in American society). We can do it for personal gain of either an external nature (money, fame, sex, status) or a more internal one (pride, validation, attention). Or maybe it’s just fun.

As I was contemplating this, yesterday I came across this lecture by the always thought-provoking Derek Sivers

(you can read the transcript here).

I enjoyed the lecture, but there is one very little part that rubbed me wrong. It is probably just semantics, but sometimes it takes getting your buttons pushed by something to put our own thoughts and feelings in sharper focus. When discussing all the things that MIGHT illuminate the meaning of life (time, learning, memory, choice), he considers some other possibilities and makes the statement “Life is LOVE? Too ambiguous.” Sorry, Derek, but I disagree.

Love is courage.

Love is truth.

Love is compassion.

Love is feeling responsible for the well-being of your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters.

Love is awareness that all humans are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters.

Love is God. And if you don’t believe in God, it’s the life force that propels us all.

And that doesn’t even count all the things such as kindness, respect, patience and affection that maybe aren’t love, but that, when you add them up, represent the methodology for embodying it. I will concede that this is all ambiguous if clarity is synonymous with quantifiability. However, on a deeper level, we all know this and need only tune in to it (easier said than done, I realize) to understand, even if it can’t be articulated as clearly as some things can. Love is, after all, the force that brings meaning to virtually everything and that inspires us to keep going.

And then it HIT ME: music is love.

Not always, mind you. Music can be pretty mundane in plenty of contexts, whether it’s a lounge pianist phoning it in to an empty hotel lounge (been there) or the formulaic background music for a diaper commercial. But at other times it is utterly transcendent. When Aretha hits the goosebump-inducing high note or Howlin’ Wolf grumbles low. When Elvin slams the snare drum while McCoy pounds and Coltrane wails. When Sweet Honey in the Rock admonish us to be responsible or Otis admonishes “Gotta Gotta Gotta.” When Joni delivers sweet poetry or Ella scats sweet nonsense. When Stevie soars above a previously-unimagined musical landscape.

These are the sorts of unquantifiable things that, for me, resonate in the same way as the other trappings of love. These are the things that have hypnotized me. And this is why I do it. I don’t know how much time I have on this planet (none of us do), but I know that the more of it is filled with love, the better off I am. And I know the more of that love I share, the better off I am AND the better off the world is. If music didn’t have this capacity to soothe, inspire and generally affirm the meaning of life in ways that words will always fail to do, then it would just be another leisure activity alongside backgammon and tic tac toe.

Just as kindness and patience are important tools for love that need to be practiced in order for one’s actions to embody love, I devote a lot of time to studying and teaching the corresponding tools in music. A lot more of my musical practice time goes into technique than expressiveness, but that is so I can better communicate and so that on the bandstand I can focus on aiming for that feeling. I don’t always get there, but those fleeting moments when I do are enough to fuel the devotion. And when I have moments like I have had so humblingly often on this tour when an audience lets go of limitations and preconceptions and feels the inspiration along with me, that’s why I endure.

I don’t know how much longer my body will allow me to keep going, never mind whatever other mundane factors will invariably have a say in the future (economics, presence or absence of opportunities, other unpredictable life circumstances). But I am fortunate to at least have a mission, and I will keep pursuing it as long and as vigorously as I can!

Top 10 Favorite Victor Lewis Tracks

In 1992 my friend Amanda Monaco played me a track by Kenny Barron’s quintet called “I Wanted to Say.” I didn’t know that the drummer was Victor Lewis, but I knew that it swung hard but elegantly and that whenever he switched between brushes and sticks, the light in the room changed. I also didn’t know that he’d composed the tune, but it haunted me and has done so ever since.

As it turns out, he soon became one of my favorite drummers (certainly on the short list of favorites of his generation) and I’m mega-excited that Amanda and I will get to play with him this Saturday at the QJOG Spring Jazz Festival (and yes, nerd-police, we ARE playing “I Wanted to Say”). Looking at the breath of his career is fairly overwhelming – the list below omits records I love by Dexter Gordon, John Stubblefield, Larry Willis, J.J. Johnson, Jessica Williams, Eddie Henderson, Stephen Scott and Steve Nelson. Likewise the whole list could have been of his own compositions – as it is, four of the tunes here were composed by Victor, and that doesn’t even include the aforementioned one.

If you can’t make it out on Saturday, enjoy the music on this list. If you can, then you’re in for a treat, as everyone is whenever he plays the drums.

1 ) Kenny Barron: “Big Girls” (from Quickstep)

This tune/performance make the Top 10 of virtually any list of mine where it’s eligible. Victor’s composition is hauntingly gorgeous, the performance is epic (especially John Stubblefield’s saxophone solo) and the rhythm section (also including David Williams on bass) gives a clinic in dynamics and slow-boiling groove. Victor’s role in Kenny Barron’s groups (especially this “classic” quintet) can’t be overstated and it took discipline for me not to make the whole list of their work together.

2 ) Bobby Watson: “Eeeyyess” (from Horizon Reassembled)

Likewise, I could easily make a full list of tunes pairing Victor with saxophonist/composer Bobby Watson, especially with their quintet Horizon (whose recorded output is mostly out of print, a fact as bewildering as it is unfortunate). This irresistible “straight 8th” tune of Victor’s is also the title track of one of his own records from the 1990s.

3 ) Woody Shaw: “Theme for Maxine” (from Rosewood)

You can’t really talk about Victor’s career without bowing to the great Shaw of Newark, and this track (chosen to represent Victor’s great waltz playing) is one of dozens that I could have picked. Are you noticing a trend?

4 ) Victor Lewis: “Hey, It’s Me You’re Talkin’ To” (from Know It Today, Know It Tomorrow)

This is debatably Victor’s best-loved tune as a composer. I first learned it from Kenny Barron’s Other Places, but soon got hip to this great album, Victor’s first as a leader and the first significant recording to feature the young saxophonist Seamus Blake.

5 ) George Cables: “Cheese Cake” (from A Letter to Dexter)

Victor swings like crazy (and gets some nice trading/solo work) on this track from a wonderful tribute album by fellow Dexter Gordon cohorts Cables and Rufus Reid. The Cables-Lewis hookup is documented on many albums and is always delightful.

6 ) Stan Getz (and Chet Baker): “Stablemates” (from The Stockholm Concerts)

This 1983 recording features pianist Jim McNeely, who predated Kenny Barron in Getz’s band (of which Victor was a longtime member). Chet Baker is on much of the album, but on this assertive track Getz is alone on the frontline.

7 ) Victor Lewis: “Another Angel” (from Three Way Conversations)

This album features a series of piano-less trios that demonstrate both Victor’s interactivity and the textural fullness that his drumming provides. This track features the fiery alto saxophone work of Steve Wilson.

8 ) David Sanborn: “Mamacita” (from Sanborn)

Straight-ahead jazz fans: were you aware that Victor can also bring the funk? Consider yourself informed, and check out this mid-1970s Sanborn record for proof.

9 ) Art Farmer: “I’ll Be Around” (from Blame It On My Youth)

This whole album (featuring pianist James Williams) is lovely – Farmer actually sits this one out, though, giving way to his frontline cohort Clifford Jordan. I had to include at least one ballad, and his sensitivity here is a great example.

10 ) James Carter: “Sunset” (from Gardenias for Lady Day)

Here we get to hear Victor work within an elaborate orchestration (which he does with characteristic skill and sensitivity) as well as hearing his deep hook-up with longtime cohort John Hicks on piano.

40 Things I Love About My Wife

It’s Kate’s 40th birthday. I was going to write a song, but it’s been a tricky month. I was going to write a rhapsodic essay about all the things she is, but . . . well, I think she’d rather I spend the day with her than spend it doing that. So instead here is a list of some of the things about her I think are fabulous (I almost came up with commentary for each, but that would be a can of worms akin to the rhapsodic essay). I will simply say that it’s telling that I had to cut myself off at 40 rather than scraping the bottom of the barrel once I hit 14, and for anyone who knows her, this is appropriate. xo

  1. Loving heart
  2. Creativity
  3. Sense of humor
  4. Devotion to parenting
  5. Kindness
  6. Spirituality
  7. Discipline
  8. Hotness when dressed up
  9. Teaching skills
  10. Hotness when wearing overalls/work clothes
  11. Emotional openness
  12. Hotness when wearing a burlap sack (or equivalent)
  13. Artistic talent
  14. Artistic vision
  15. Intelligence
  16. Courage
  17. Desire for growth
  18. Capacity for growth
  19. Sense of adventure
  20. Sense of responsibility
  21. Honesty
  22. Athleticism
  23. Taste in music
  24. Smile
  25. Cooking skills
  26. Spirituality
  27. Ability to fix anything
  28. Sense of gratitude
  29. Patience
  30. Laugh
  31. Sound and embouchure on the trumpet
  32. Caring toward animals
  33. Capacity to give truly constructive criticism
  34. Inclusiveness
  35. Humility
  36. Reliability
  37. Ability to nurture
  38. Commitment to health
  39. Constant learning
  40. Capacity to make all those around her love her

Why Help Others?

The air has been thick with “shoulda-been” birthdays, with Ana Grace’s 8th birth anniversary last weekend and my aunt Margie’s 73rd birth anniversary today. On Ana’s birthday a playground was dedicated in her name at Elizabeth Park in Hartford, and while the weather was uninviting, people flocked out to be there and I didn’t see a single person leave. Meanwhile, this weekend I will be celebrating Margie’s life and the music it inspired on Ripples in Baltimore to an audience of her devoted friends and family. Through it all, I can’t stop thinking about the spirit of human connectedness.

I am, for the second time, teaching Music of the 1960s at Choate Rosemary Hall this term, and yesterday was when I introduced “protest music” and, correspondingly, the very notion of protest and what conditions people in the 1960s had to endure that might have been cause for protest. For most of the class I was provocatively playing devil’s advocate. “Why,” I asked, “should someone like ME care about the plight of African-Americans? I’M not black, and I never will be.” Throughout the discussion I got some feedback, including one student pointing out rather articulately that the protection of self-interest is valid from a primitive standpoint but is unsustainable in the long-term. That said, the students were unusually quiet overall. Maybe it’s because the conversation was making them uncomfortable, maybe they had never thought about this stuff or maybe I was just doing a lousy job of provoking critical and ethical thinking.

Finally, with less than five minutes to go, and after listening to several songs by the SNCC Freedom Singers (“This Little Light,” “Certainly Lord” and “Dog Dog,” for those keeping score at home) I asked one more time why people should care about the oppression of groups to which they don’t belong. A girl who is usually quiet in class spoke up, forehead wrinkled, and said “because it’s WRONG.” Amen, amen.

At that point I took off the actor/devil’s advocate hat and got serious. It was, after all, after discussing similar issues the first time I taught this course that I walked downstairs and learned of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. While that tragedy is never far from my mind, the ribbon cutting at the playground put me in a particularly raw place.

So I told my students that while I don’t know any of their economic circumstances, their very presence at an institution like that represents privilege and opportunity. I told them about Sandy Hook and the little girl who I still can’t believe I’ll never see again and about how even in purportedly privileged communities, nobody is entirely immune to bad things. I said there are two responses to that: one is to simply build a thicker fence to increase the illusion of full insulation from harm and the other is to use whatever privilege and opportunity you have to fully participate in making the world a better place. I was glad I saved that for the end of class, because after that spiel (which lasted all of maybe two minutes) I was literally shaking and on the verge of tears. I remained seated and kept cool as the students left, but I essentially had to stagger through the next couple hours of teaching (note to those students – sorry ‘bout that!).

As such, it feels just right to be going to celebrate Margie’s life this weekend, though it goes without saying that I would much rather be visiting her instead. She and my uncle Tom (who thankfully will be sharing in the festivities) were tremendous, if extremely unassuming, role models during my formative years. Role models for caring even when one could make the case they didn’t “need” to. Margie was successful and lived comfortably but had no illusion of being above it all. Her own medical issues certainly could have played a role, but from my observation that only added an area of focus to her already-honed sense of broader responsibility.

I have ranted before and will surely rant again about how we are all one and how when you look beyond the most specific details it is clear that the adversity with which we all cope is a force that unites us. If others are suffering, why shouldn’t we ignore it? If the opportunity to create a more compassionate world exists but it requires effort or sacrifice on our part, why shouldn’t we look away? Well, as my astute student observed, because it’s wrong. That’s reason enough, isn’t it?

Top 10 Favorite Isley Brothers Tracks

I love the Isley Brothers, and their place in my heart is as unique as their place in music history. If superlatively great R&B singer Ronald Isley and his great backing singer brothers O’Kelly and Rudolph had retired after producing “Shout,” “Twist and Shout,” “This Old Heart of Mine” and “It’s Your Thing,” they would have been borderline Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and even those songs alone represent a great stylistic diversity. But they didn’t retire. Instead, they added the younger generation of guitarist Ernie (perhaps the most direct inheritor of Jimi Hendrix’s mantle, both stylistically and due to the direct mentorship that occurred when Jimi was a member of the band and Ernie was a kid), bassist Marvin and keyboardist Chris Jasper (a brother-in-law, but that’s cool too). This began the 3+3 era and spawned all sorts of other classics like “That Lady” and “For the Love of You.”

You’ll notice that none of the above-referenced songs are even on this list. That’s partly to give space to some of their other great songs and because there are simply so many of them that 10 is a very small number! I’m hard pressed to think of many other artists who’ve produced strong work with such a diversity of sounds and a consistent evolution over such a long period of time. I don’t love all their stuff, but I’m glad for all of it, as the diversity is central to what makes them so awesome.

1 ) “Harvest for the World” from Harvest for the World

There are a few songs that I can listen to over and over and still consider to be perfect, and this is one of them. Of course Ronald’s lead vocals are passionate, as they always are, but on top of that the chord progression is rich, the groove simmers and the lyrics walk that difficult tightrope where they’re concerned, utopian and literate all at the same time.

2 ) “Fire and Rain” from Givin’ It Back

This record introduced a formula where the often-covered Isley Brothers gave their own takes on then-contemporary rock songs. Though there were several hits among this initial batch of covers (notably “Love the One You’re With,” where on the way out of the bridge Ronald nails the part that is an organ glissando on the Steven Stills original) and a chilling medley of Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” this one is my all-time favorite. The gentle pathos of the James Taylor original boils over with passion via Ronald’s vocals and the amazing groove.

3 ) “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)” from various compilations (issued as a single on Motown)

The Isleys’ relatively short Motown tenure was, by all accounts, somewhat frustrating, as they never became an “A-list” act. Maybe that’s not so bad insofar as it spurred them to focus on building their own T-Neck label. In the meantime, though, the Hitsville USA assembly line produced some good stuff for them, including this definitive rendition of a song better known for the similarly produced Motown hit version by Kim Weston (and, to rock fans, for the Doobie Brothers’ 1970s cover).

4 ) “Take Me to the Next Phase” from Showdown

I’m not crazy about the fake audience sounds, BUT they could overdub the sound of porpoises here and I’d still listen over and over again for this groove. The thick bass lines fusing Marvin Isley’s great bass and Chris Jasper’s synth make for a bottom end rivaled in the 1970s maybe only by Parliament’s “Flashlight.”

5 ) “Summer Breeze” from 3+3

This is another one of the 1970s cover songs that they did so expertly. I like Seals and Crofts as much as the next guy (assuming, I suppose that the next guy is neither Seals nor Crofts) but the Isleys really make it their own and, notably, this is one of Ernie Isley’s most stank-face-inducing guitar solos on record.

6 ) “Move Over and Let Me Dance” (issued on the It’s Your Thing compilation)

Oh yeah, that Hendrix guy. You might have an easier time finding “Testify (Part 1 & 2),” though the Hendrix style is less distinct there. This live bootleg, meanwhile, shows how the Hendrix guitar style fit into their mid-1960s high-octane R&B groove.

7 ) “Ballad for the Fallen Soldier” from Between the Sheets

Yes, this 1983 album is best known for its title track, one of the smuttiest hit songs of the 1980s (and pretty awesome if that’s what you’re into). This track, though, shows that their nuanced songwriting and social conscience had hardly exited. Ronald’s passionate lead vocals and Ernie’s edgy (and, when the solo comes around, searing) guitar dominate.

8 ) “Fight the Power (Part 1 & 2)” from The Heat Is On

This is a wonderfully hard-edged song both musically and lyrically. I’m not sure half the time when I listen whether I should be shaking my fist or my booty, but one wonderful thing about these guys is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. This song gets extra props for putting all three older brothers in the forefront on the vocals.

9 ) “Nobody But Me” (1962 single)

As a kid I saw George Thorogood do this song on MTV and thought it was very cool. Then some years later I heard the 1968 hit version by the Human Beinz and felt like I had become hip and educated by discovering the source. Still more years later I heard the Isleys’ original version and my goodness is it awesome. As much as I love “Shout” and “Twist and Shout,” this is still my favorite early-years Isley Brothers recording, even though it strangely wasn’t a hit for them.

10 ) “Ernie’s Jam” from Eternal

I’m of two minds on the material that the Isley Brothers (which is to say, really, Ronald, Ernie and some producers) produced in the new millennium. It’s not really my aesthetic, I miss the other four, and some of the lyrics are downright tawdry in a way that (to me) is less endearing than some of their earlier work. On the other hand, bravo to them for remaining relevant, and as you can hear here, Ronald can still sing and Ernie can still play. This is the requisite Ernie-blows “slow jam,” in place of other songs like “Voyage to Atlantis” and “It’s Too Late” that nearly made this list.

Honorable Mention: “Caravan of Love” by Isley-Jasper-Isley

Because I’m often a stickler for the literal, I can’t include this song in the above list since technically it wasn’t issued under the name “Isley Brothers.” But the younger 3 of the 3+3 really knocked it out of the park on this Jasper composition, one of the great universal brotherhood songs of a decade that (save for star-studded things like “We Are the World”) had far too little of that.