NOAHJAZZ - NB PONTIFICATES

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

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.

Top 10 Most Memorable David Letterman Musical Guest Performances

As someone who has spent over 15 years living without a TV, you might be surprised to hear that I’m a big David Letterman fan. In my formative years I saw tons of noteworthy (and, for me, impactful) musical guests appear on his show(s), sometimes with their own bands and sometimes accompanied by Paul Shaffer and his wonderful , versatile band. In many cases, since the show was on after my bedtime on school nights, I would set the VCR because a guest I wanted to see was on and then, if it was good, watch it over and over again.

Given that Dave has just had his swan song, it only makes sense for me to reflect back on some of the ones that hit me the hardest. Note that these are not necessarily the “best,” nor have I made any attempt to go back with a curator’s mind to scan the thousands of shows I never saw. These are the ones that made a mark and that I had the dumb luck to encounter, all of them awesome in their own way. This is based entirely on musical performances (thus leaving out some great interviews – look for Frank Zappa’s in particular).

1 ) Warren Zevon – “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” 2002

A year before Zevon’s death from cancer, Dave had him on as a guest and devoted a whole show to his performances and interview. The wrap-up was a characteristically sardonic wrap-up

2 ) Robert Cray (with David Sanborn) – “Acting This Way,” 1988

The recording of this song, one of my all-time favorites by Cray, features no real solo by Robert, but rather a soulful alto sax turn by David Sanborn . . . who just happened to sit in with Paul and the band with some frequency, as he does on this one (notably, playing a completely different though equally effective solo, something that was eye-opening to me, as I’d memorized the one on the record and just assumed that this was what one played there).

3 ) Roy Haynes – “Summer Nights,” 2013

Of more recent vintage is jazz drum master Haynes, here 88 years old, appearing on “drum solo week” with his Fountain of Youth band. What a coup for all involved.

4 ) Joe Jackson – “Nineteen Forever,” 1989

This was during my peak period of Joe Jackson fandom, and he and his band were spot-on in interpreting his then-latest single.

5 ) Bonnie Raitt & Delbert McClinton – “Good Man, Good Woman,” 1991

My first time hearing/seeing Bonnie Raitt on the show was when she performed the title track of Nick of Time with Paul and the boys, and that was just lovely. Here she ramps the energy up a notch on this bluesy, funky collaboration with blues singer and harmonica man Delbert McClinton from the Luck of the Draw record.

6 ) Van Morrison – “Days Like This,” 1995

I’m cheating here in that the most MEMORABLE Van Morrison moment was in 1989 when he appeared on Dave’s show to sing “Whenever God Shines His Light On Me” a gorgeous song he had recently recorded as a duet with Cliff Richard. A quick perusal of the YouTube archive confirms that performance to have been every bit as awkward and out of tune as I remember it being, forgivable as it was the stage-fright-prone Morrison’s first US TV appearance in 12 years. By the time of this performance 6 years later he had more than retrieved his sea legs and was back to singing his butt off.

7 ) Lake Street Dive – “Bad Self Portraits,” 2014

Speaking of singing one’s butt off, the hip young Boston band Lake Street Dive is quite good at that (as well as playing or writing). This, the most recent performance on the list, shows off not only them but also Dave’s track record of giving attention to up-and-coming artists.

8 ) Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir – “Deep Elm Blues,” 1982
The Grateful Dead’s Jerry and Bobby were repeated guests on the show, both together and separately. Here is their first one, with the acoustic “Deep Elm Blues” coming in at about 5:55.

9 ) Gnarls Barkley – “Crazy,” 2006

Moody, creepy, soulful, powerful, check, check, check and check. As I’ve found typical on the show, the arrangement isn’t the carbon-copy of the recording that one gets in certain other contexts, and I’ve always appreciated that.

10 ) Branford Marsalis – “Giant Steps,” 1988

Why, you may ask, did Branford Marsalis think that the notoriously difficult “Giant Steps” was the tune to play with Paul and the band? I will leave you to speculate on that, but the results fascinated me back then and still do – skip to about 28:25 for the performance (which unfortunately begins on the bass solo, but we get to hear plenty of Branford’s blowing). Look out also for his performance of “Tenor Madness” from a different episode around the same time.

Top 10 Favorite B.B. King Tracks

I suppose I knew it was coming, but I can’t really imagine a world without B.B. King (1925-2015) in it. We all know he was one of the great voices on the blues guitar, but he was much more than that. As a singer, songwriter, bandleader and pioneer for enduring success with non-commercial black music he made a huge mark and his guitar playing far transcends the blues, as can be heard in the generations of R&B, blues and rock guitar players who have adapted his style. In the interest of expediency, there are fewer discographical notes and less commentary than usual, I just wanted to highlight 10 of the performances that have most impacted me.

1 ) “Lucille”

This 10 minute tour de force of slow-tempo, wailing blues says all that needs to be said

2 ) “The Thrill Is Gone”

Of course – the song perhaps most associated with B.B. King – he performed this one so often, always embodying the pathos of the blues and always with searing lead guitar.

3 ) “Sweet Little Angel”

This is one of B.B.’s first singles, presenting him in a fairly standard 1950s blues combo setting, and at that he hits it out of the park with his singing and playing.

4 ) “Caldonia”

B.B. had a real knack for up-tempo “jump blues,” and my favorite example of that is this swinging interpretation of a classic Louis Jordan song. It’s hard to top Louis Jordan’s singing, but the way B.B. wails this one sure comes close.

5 ) “When Love Comes to Town” (by U2)

The blues purist in me cringes a little here, but when I was 14 (and already a blues fan) it made me so happy every time this track from Rattle and Hum came on the radio and I got to exalt at all the pop and rock music fans who were getting a dose of super-melodic, vibrato-drenched B.B. without even knowing it. Call it the early days of my subversive life . . .

6 ) “I Don’t Want You Cuttin’ Off Your Hair”

The lyrics here are perhaps a bit dated, but the song provides some classic slow, soulful B.B. singing and characteristically intense guitar work.

7 ) “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss”

Again, somewhat dated lyrics on this one (the old trope of “I’m paying the bills, so obey me”) but if we take it as a product of its time we can focus instead on the infectiously swinging groove and soulful performance. This one actually made it onto rock radio when I was a teenager, albeit in a cover version by Pat Benatar.

8 ) “Hummingbird”

This slyly funky 1970 version of a sentimental Leon Russell tune offers pretty conclusive proof that if B.B. had wanted to cross all the way over from the blues, he had the wherewithal to do it.

9 ) “Precious Lord”

Though far less credited than Ray Charles or Sam Cooke for embodying the hazy distinction between blues and gospel, B.B. showed (in a strangely out of print recording of spirituals) that he could draw authoritatively from both of these overlapping wells.

10 ) “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother”

Rather than a guitar feature, this short tune is a lighthearted-yet-tragic tale of marginalization that he delivers perfectly.

Top 10 Favorite B.B. King Tracks

I suppose I knew it was coming, but I can’t really imagine a world without B.B. King (1925-2015) in it. We all know he was one of the great voices on the blues guitar, but he was much more than that. As a singer, songwriter, bandleader and pioneer for enduring success with non-commercial black music he made a huge mark and his guitar playing far transcends the blues, as can be heard in the generations of R&B, blues and rock guitar players who have adapted his style. In the interest of expediency, there are fewer discographical notes and less commentary than usual, I just wanted to highlight 10 of the performances that have most impacted me.

1 ) “Lucille”

This 10 minute tour de force of slow-tempo, wailing blues says all that needs to be said

2 ) “The Thrill Is Gone”

Of course – the song perhaps most associated with B.B. King – he performed this one so often, always embodying the pathos of the blues and always with searing lead guitar.

3 ) “Sweet Little Angel”

This is one of B.B.’s first singles, presenting him in a fairly standard 1950s blues combo setting, and at that he hits it out of the park with his singing and playing.

4 ) “Caldonia”

B.B. had a real knack for up-tempo “jump blues,” and my favorite example of that is this swinging interpretation of a classic Louis Jordan song. It’s hard to top Louis Jordan’s singing, but the way B.B. wails this one sure comes close.

5 ) “When Love Comes to Town” (by U2)

The blues purist in me cringes a little here, but when I was 14 (and already a blues fan) it made me so happy every time this track from Rattle and Hum came on the radio and I got to exalt at all the pop and rock music fans who were getting a dose of super-melodic, vibrato-drenched B.B. without even knowing it. Call it the early days of my subversive life . . .

6 ) “I Don’t Want You Cuttin’ Off Your Hair”

The lyrics here are perhaps a bit dated, but the song provides some classic slow, soulful B.B. singing and characteristically intense guitar work.

7 ) “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss”

Again, somewhat dated lyrics on this one (the old trope of “I’m paying the bills, so obey me”) but if we take it as a product of its time we can focus instead on the infectiously swinging groove and soulful performance. This one actually made it onto rock radio when I was a teenager, albeit in a cover version by Pat Benatar.

8 ) “Hummingbird”

This slyly funky 1970 version of a sentimental Leon Russell tune offers pretty conclusive proof that if B.B. had wanted to cross all the way over from the blues, he had the wherewithal to do it.

9 ) “Precious Lord”

Though far less credited than Ray Charles or Sam Cooke for embodying the hazy distinction between blues and gospel, B.B. showed (in a strangely out of print recording of spirituals) that he could draw authoritatively from both of these overlapping wells.

10 ) “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother”

Rather than a guitar feature, this short tune is a lighthearted-yet-tragic tale of marginalization that he delivers perfectly.

Top 10 Favorite John Blake, Jr. AND Johnathan Blake Tracks

When I first played with Johnathan Blake in 1997, I had already heard that the great Philadelphia-based violinist John Blake, Jr., of whom I’d already been an admirer for years, had a hot-shot son who played drums. I first heard about him from the pianist Orrin Evans and then more buzz started to develop. Indeed, the reports were true – he was very young and played his butt off. What I hadn’t yet heard, which is now common knowledge, is that he is also kind, humble and thoroughly devoid of diva behavior. This makes him a pretty perfect foil for my mentor, Kenny Barron, whose trio is one of a number of current groups (including the Three Cohens and the groups of Tom Harrell, Ravi Coltrane and Lonnie Smith) in which JB is the first call drummer. In a music business so full of inequity, it is wonderful when a ubiquitous player is quite legitimately a great musician and person and I’m certainly grateful to have him as a charter member of the Jazz Samaritan Alliance.

As Resonant Motion prepares to invite Johnathan in this week for the second installment of this year’s Jazz Up Close series, I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite moments in his discography, which is already substantial for someone who’s still pretty young. Through that reflection, I’ve found myself digging back into the recordings of his father, who tragically left this realm last year and whose deep legacy needs to be remembered.

So there are two different lists here, but it seemed more appropriate to present them in one post. And if you want to start off with one track to cover both of them, I suggest the transcendently soulful quartet track “A City Called Heaven” from the elder Blake’s Motherless Child album from 2009, and also featuring the great pianist Sumi Tonooka (a teacher of mine as well).

Top 10 Favorite John Blake, Jr. Tracks

1 ) “Horizon” from Horizon by McCoy Tyner (1979)

I could realistically do a whole list of highlights from John Blake’s time in the frontline of McCoy Tyner’s phenomenal turn-of-the-decade group. The capacity to be soulful yet modern that is central to Blake’s style served him very well on this deep music.

2 ) “Motherless Child” from Motherless Child (2009)

This gorgeous performance is from the same album cited above, but with the addition of the Howard University Jazz Choir (who grace most of the album, in the spirit of great 1960s progressive jazz plus choir recordings by Max Roach and Duke Pearson) and Mulgrew Miller sitting in on piano.

3 ) “Suite for Albeniz” from A Tear and A Smile by Catalyst (1975) (reissued on Complete Recordings, Vol. 2)

Perhaps no group under the broad umbrella of jazz screams “Philly” as much as the unjustly obscure proto-fusion/R&B/jazz group Catalyst. It’s appropriate, then, that on this track, John Blake sits in, both offering layers of violin and then a burning solo.

4 ) “Serengetti Dance” from A New Beginning (1988)

This energetic, diverse live album was recorded live at the Village Gate and is well worth seeking out. This funky track is buoyed by the bass work of Gerald Veasley.

5 ) “Fleurette Africaine” from The African Flower by James Newton (1985)

Speaking of inexplicably out of print records, this is a highlight of the 1980s in general. Flutist Newton offers one of the best versions of the classic Ellington tune that I’ve ever heard, supported by Blake, bassist Rick Rozie, drummer Billy Hart and my friend and colleague Jay Hoggard on vibes.

6 ) “Tell Me About It Now” from Paradise by Grover Washington, Jr. (1979)

Speaking of Philly stalwarts, Blake’s violin graces multiple albums by the lauded saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., who is well-known, but (not unlike Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles) was more versatile than many realized.

7 )  “Soprano Song” from Colors In Thirty Third by Muhal Richard Abrams (1986)

Once again, Blake’s versatility serves him well here on Muhal’s progressive but not all-the-way-out music. The interplay between drummer Andrew Cyrille and Blake on this track is to me the highlight of the whole record.

8 ) “Sookie Sookie” from Sparks by Charlie Apicella (2009)

One of Blake’s last commercially released recordings was his guest turn on this classic-sounding boogaloo by guitarist Apicella.

9 )  “Ginseng People” from Right There by Steve Turre (1991)

This wonderful straight-ahead track features the delightful texture of Turre’s trombone blending with Akua Dixon’s cello and the violin of Blake, who also takes an authoritative solo, buoyed by the swinging work of Benny Green, Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.

10 ) “Last Tango in Paris” from Fuego by Mongo Santamaria (1972)

This short, funky track document’s Blake’s early career, which also included some landmark sessions with Archie Shepp. This performance climaxes with wailing electric violin, sharing a solo with the tenor saxophone of Justo Almario.

Top 10 Johnathan Blake Tracks

1 ) “Freefall” from The Eleventh Hour (2010)

Johnathan’s first album as a leader deserved every bit of acclaim it got, and more. Aside from his predictably great drumming, it showcases his mature concept as a composer and bandleader. This wonderful modern-yet-soulful tune features authoritative solo work by Kevin Hays, Mark Turner and JB’s fellow Philadelphian and longtime musical cohort Jaleel Shaw.

2 ) “For the Love of You” from Live at Jazz Standard Volume 2 by Russell Malone (2006)

The tradition of taking pop and R&B tunes and turning them into bouncy swing tunes is alive and well, and guitarist Malone’s wonderful take on the Isley Brothers classic rides on the coattails of Blake’s super-swinging groove and expert dynamic contrasts.

3 ) “Born Yesterday” from Gone But Not Forgotten (2014)

Johnathan’s most recent album is a tribute to many people who have passed on. In most cases those feted are important musicians, but this original tune from JB’s pen pays tribute instead to a sweet little girl, Ana Grace Marquez-Greene. The gorgeous, solemn song is rendered with great sensitivity by his pianoless quartet featuring Ben Street on bass, Mark Turner on soprano and Chris Potter on tenor.

4 ) “Dream Text” from The Time of the Sun by Tom Harrell (2010)

As it turns out, JB shares multiple bandstands with my old pal and high school classmate Wayne Escoffery, none more vaunted than that of Tom Harrell, one of my musical heroes. This slyly funky tune features both of them within the rock-solid quintet.

5 ) “Like Joe” from Force of Four by Joe Locke (2008)

These days the modern-yet-soulful torch is carried capably by a number of jazz artists, none more authoritative than vibraphonist/composer Joe Locke. This quartet with Robert Rodriguez and Ricky Rodriguez embodies that balance and JB makes it all sound organic and natural.

6 ) “Music Is the Magic” (by Claudia Acuňa) from Home Gift of Music – Japan Earthquake & Tsunami Relief (compilation) (2011)

Johnathan is also part of a powerhouse couple, as his wife, Rio Sakairi, is the Artistic Director of the Jazz Gallery in New York, as well as a noteworthy poet. She also can add record producer to her resume as the visionary behind this wonderful benefit album. The whole record is great, though my favorite track is the wonderful Chilean vocalist Claudia Acuňa’s moody interpretation of an Abbey Lincoln composition, with an ethereal vibe aided by JB’s colorful percussion.

7 )  “Motivation” from Blood Pressure by George Colligan (2006)

One thing you can count on from the powerhouse pianist/composer George Colligan is high energy, and it is incumbent on a drummer in that setting to be able to bring it, while also navigating the challenging twists one inevitably finds in George’s tunes. It is not surprising, then, that JB nails it here.

8 ) “I Want to Walk With Jesus” from Makin’ It by Oliver Lake Organ Trio (2006)

The long, rubato intro suggests that as soulful as it is, maybe this won’t be a song that features much drums . . . but eventually they get into the hard-swinging organ groove that is so central to jazz and more specifically to the legacy of Philadelphia.

9 ) “Muna’s Sleeping” from Changu by Jaleel Shaw (2007)

Here is Shaw again, along with pianist Robert Glasper and bassist Joe Martin. As facile as JB is on all kinds of high-energy music, his way with gentle songs is also remarkable, as evidenced by this song that one can presume was written for Johnathan and Rio’s adorable daughter.

10 ) “Haitian Fight Song” from Blues and Politics by the Mingus Big Band (1999)

The oldest track on this list, I actually wound up listening to this one a lot recently as this is a chart we did as I filled in for the semester directing the Wesleyan University Jazz Orchestra. It was a treat to be able to tell the students that if they stuck around through exam week, they could hear and even meet the gentleman who played the drum solo toward the end.

Top 10 Favorite Neville Brothers Tracks

Some of my most formative music-listening moments have come through the Neville Brothers. I got to see them live on two occasions as a teenager, while listening incessantly to what I’d consider their two truly groundbreaking albums, Yellow Moon (1989) and Brother’s Keeper (1990). The grooves were like nothing I’d ever heard before, the social conscience was dramatically overt yet poetic and the combination of the four lead voices (Aaron’s angelically high voice, Cyril’s gruff tenor, Art’s low-toned and often partly-spoken vocals and the unique saxophone style of Charles) meant that there was someone there to cover pretty much any job.

Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril Neville, on the heels of some collaborations via the Meters and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, got together in the 1970s to form their own group together. The rest is musical history, though a sadly marginalized part of that history. Perhaps because of their eclectic, hard-to-categorize music, they have amassed a loyal following and an impressive discography, yet never really broke through to the mainstream, unless you count Aaron’s middle-of-the road solo ballads (which I don’t, though they are some of the best things I’ve ever heard in that vein).

1 ) “My Brother’s Keeper” from Brother’s Keeper

More than half the songs on this album are indelible parts of my consciousness, and it pains me to leave off “Brother Blood,” “Fearless” (featuring Aaron’s sometimes duet partner Linda Ronstadt), “Witness,” “Falling Rain,” “Sons and Daughters” and “Jah Love.” This one has it all, however. Smooth saxophone from Charles, soulful belting from Cyril, ethereal soaring from Aaron, low-toned sermonizing by Art and a slow-burning groove that could only come from New Orleans.

2 ) “Brother John/Iko Iko” from Fiyo on the Bayou

When one thinks of New Orleans R&B, this medley pretty well synthesizes the sly rhythm, incorporating the classic song “Iko Iko,” which I’ll admit I first encountered through the Grateful Dead, who were themselves big fans and supporters of the Nevilles.

3 ) “Fire and Brimstone” from Yellow Moon

Art Takes the lead in this moral study with a ridiculously propulsive groove buoyed by fellow New Orleans stalwarts the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

4 ) “I Can See It In Your Eyes” from Family Groove

This album was largely disappointing to me, as it represented a shift to more commercialized sounds after the previous two albums of moody Daniel Lanois-produced sounds. And yet there are still some classic moments, particularly this slow but funky lament of fading love sung by Aaron.

5 ) “Washable Ink” from The Neville Brothers

Though the Brothers are great songwriters, they also really know what to do with others’ songs. Here, led by Cyril’s plaintive singing, they offer the definitive interpretation of one of John Hiatt’s most noteworthy tunes.

6 ) “Fever” from Live at Tipitina’s (1982)

What was I saying about cover songs? With great respect to the fabulous Little Willie John, this has to be the most potent version of the R&B classic “Fever” that I have ever heard, with particularly effective group vocals.

7 ) “Yellow Moon” from Yellow Moon

The title track of this artistic breakthrough album has a slinky, swampy groove, haunting soprano saxophone by Charles and one of Aaron’s most iconic vocal turns. If one wanted to encapsulate the sound of this era of Neville Brothers, this would be a pretty great place to start.

8 ) “Brother Jake” from Live on Planet Groove

Unfortunately, I haven’t heard much in the way of live recordings from this post-Yellow Moon era of Nevilles that come close to capturing the real spirit. The closest I’ve encountered is their performance of this great song from Brother’s Keeper on Saturday Night Live in 1991, something that totally turned me on my head (if you have access to SNL, run, don’t walk to find this). This version isn’t as potent as that, but it still burns.

9 ) “If I Had a Hammer” from Valence Street

One of their later recordings, this track displays their way with a cover song as well as their enduring social conscience. Once you hear this folk classic funked up with a New Orleans groove you’ll wonder why you never thought of it yourself.

10 ) “Soul to Soul” from Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin/All My Relations

This is so low on the list in large part because this mid-90s album is inexplicably out of print. The album contains great cover versions of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” (in tribute to the then-recently departed Jerry Garcia) but my favorite is this definitive interpretation of my favorite latter-day Temptations song.

Top 10 Favorite Joan Armatrading Tracks

As Joan Armatrading embarks on the USA portion of her last extended tour, I’ve been thinking a lot about her legacy (and listening to a lot of her music). At least in this country she is vastly underappreciated, at least for an artist of her magnitude. She is a great singer, songwriter and instrumentalist (especially on guitar) and the excellence of her songs is matched by her longevity.

I can’t think of a pop/rock artist of whom I can say I enjoy their output comparably at any point along a 40 year career as a recording artist. Sorry Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney et al, but Joan’s got it. Maybe Bonnie Raitt, but because Joan writes all her own material one could make the case that the feat is all the more remarkable. In any case, I’ve been a fan for roughly 25 years, beginning in high school with growing attached to “Drop the Pilot,” doing further research after hearing Bobby McFerrin’s version of “Opportunity” and then seeing an hour-long live performance on the A&E Network that included numerous great Joan-penned songs plus a performance of “Moondance” that I don’t think she ever recorded in the studio and that is also the only time I think I’ve heard her do a cover song (after all, when you wrote “Love and Affection” and “Show Some Emotion,” who needs to do others’ tunes?). Over that time, I just keep finding one expertly-crafted song after another.

In service of this prolific excellence, I made sure that the Top 10 covered 10 different albums, and even that still neglects some excellent records entirely.

1 ) “Down to Zero” from Joan Armatrading

If I could really sing, this is the kind of song I would want to sing, at times gentle and at times anthemic, with soul and irresistible melody throughout.

2 ) “Drop the Pilot” from The Key

Joan’s biggest hit in the U.S. and the first one I heard. I probably heard it 30 times before I even tried to figure out the clever lyrics, as the infectious melody and propulsive groove were enough for me.

3 ) “Willow” from Show Some Emotion

Joan has always had a way with emotionally compelling slow numbers, and this one is possibly her best-loved song in that vein. This is perhaps the most memorable song on an album full of truly wonderful songwriting.

4 ) “Tall in the Saddle” from Live at the Royal Albert Hall

This fairly recent live recording turns the already sweeping song from over 30 years prior into a bona fide whisper-to-a-scream epic.

5 ) “Something’s Gotta Blow” from Into the Blues

This song closes out Joan’s award-winning blues album and her funky piano work is second in prominence only to her stinging lead guitar.

6 ) “In These Times” from Lovers Speak

For any number of reasons, this inspiring ballad hasn’t taken its place in the pantheon alongside “Lean On Me” and “Let It Be” and so on, but it melts my heart whenever I hear it.

7 ) “Me Myself I” from Me Myself I

Early-80s funky rock at its best here, buoyed by Marcus Miller’s bass work and Joan’s delightful singing.

8 ) “Kissing and A Huggin’” from Steppin’ Out (Live)

Okay, maybe I’m cheating a little on the self-imposed “10 different albums” rule, as this live track is a performance of a song from Show Some Emotion, one of the most hard-swaggering love lust songs in 1970s rock. And, not surprisingly, the live version swaggers plenty hard too.

9 ) “Stronger Love” from The Shouting Stage

Late-1980s production with lyrics of mature love. That doesn’t sound very good on paper, but my goodness is this a great album. This particular song revolves around synthed-up piano and soprano saxophone – props as well to the gnarly “Words” and the title track, featuring Mark Knopfler’s guitar.

10 ) “Back On Track” from Starlight

As of this writing, Starlight is Joan’s most recent record, and it’s the first where she is the sole musical contributor – on Into the Blues she plays everything but the drums, and here she goes one further by doing drum programming. The whole album is terrific, but this slyly funky song has stuck with me the most.

Honorable Mention: “Never Is Too Late” from Show Some Emotion

Okay, I’m totally cheating here, but this song is one of my favorite examples of reggae-infused rock and quite high on my “why doesn’t anyone know this great song?!” list.

Every Day I Push: Sisyphus as Role Model

What if the notion of failure lost its context? What if the seemingly paradoxical pursuit of the unattainable became, in and of itself, the ultimate goal? Welcome to my life.

I’m very excited to be premiering my extended new composition The Rock and the Redemption on April 25 at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts with the Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble. Other excited folks have asked for an explanation of what it’s about. Another time I’ll talk about the personal elements therein, (in fact, those who like the in-person variety can come on down the previous Wednesday to hear my talk about all of it), but in the meantime, here is the philosophical crux behind this new music (and/or you can watch the video above for a more poetic and verbally sparse explanation, with utterly stunning visuals by the lovely and talented Kate Ten Eyck).

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man who tried to one-up the gods. They punished him with an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill; just before he reached the top, the boulder would tumble back to the bottom and he would have to start all over. People now use the term “Sisyphean” to describe repetitive, hopeless situations and endlessly futile tasks. All of us inevitably feel stuck in this way sometimes.

But is Sisyphus really a tragic figure? Historically we have assumed so, but there are other interpretations, one of which is foundational to the core philosophy by which I live.

Maybe through all the days of pushing the boulder, Sisyphus found a sense of inner peace and calm. Maybe his body became strong from the daily workout. Maybe he evolved past the narrow belief that the only reward is to get the boulder all the way to the top of the mountain and have it stay there.

Think about the most meaningful pursuits: growing as a person, nurturing others, changing the world. The top of the mountain is a mirage – the best you might ever hope for in that regard is to get close enough to the top to see the next, higher peak over the horizon. And yet, there’s such value in pushing – indeed, pushing with all our might.

As contemporary humans we, of course, have more free will – the gods aren’t forcing us to push. We can just lean on the rock and lament our circumstances. Or we can just walk away and avoid the risk of failure.

After all, Martin Luther King didn’t reach the mountaintop in his lifetime. Susan B Anthony didn’t live to see all women able to vote. Every time John Coltrane played his saxophone, he strove for something and fell short. So if these giants failed, then why should we bother, right?

But of course that logic is suspect from a human standpoint, even if the case can be made in purely rational terms. Seriously, can we imagine a world in which these people watered down their ideals and their transcendent intentions, governed by a sense that goals statistically likely to reach tangible objectives are the only ones worth pursuing? Can we imagine a world in which we dismiss the lessons and inspiration they gave us? Can we imagine a world in which Van Gogh gives away his brushes, Kafka starts writing limericks instead, Galileo says “never mind” and every athlete on a team unlikely to win the big prize just stays home? Or, maybe even more insidiously, where all people faced with disability, trauma, prejudice or any other adversity  they can’t 100% obliterate just stay in bed?

Maybe Sisyphus is actually a role model for perseverance and ambition. What if we look at our own challenges that way? The very act of pushing has its own value – really, it’s central to the human condition and tragic only if we choose to assign that meaning to it. And when we inevitably fall short of the mountaintop, we still achieve things that would be impossible if we opted out. In that paradigm, so-called failure loses its meaning, even in the bleakest situations. We keep striving and every action becomes a celebration of humanity itself. And even if the philosophical end of this is too touchy-feely for you, it also works as pure mathematics. If you get a rock halfway up a 1000 foot mountain before it starts rolling down, you still achieved higher elevation than by reaching the peak of a 300 foot one.

We can’t really know whether Sisyphus felt like a cursed failure or whether he found strength and tranquility and maybe even gratitude. What we do know is that whether we curse the gods or embrace the challenge, we have the choice in our own lives every day.

What if the notion of failure lost its context? What if the seemingly paradoxical pursuit of the unattainable became, in and of itself, the ultimate goal? Welcome to my life.

I’m very excited to be premiering my extended new composition The Rock and the Redemption on April 25 at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts with the Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble. Other excited folks have asked for an explanation of what it’s about. Another time I’ll talk about the personal elements therein, (in fact, those who like the in-person variety can come on down the previous Wednesday to hear my talk about all of it), but in the meantime, here is the philosophical crux behind this new music (and/or you can watch the video above for a more poetic and verbally sparse explanation, with utterly stunning visuals by the lovely and talented Kate Ten Eyck).

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man who tried to one-up the gods. They punished him with an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill; just before he reached the top, the boulder would tumble back to the bottom and he would have to start all over. People now use the term “Sisyphean” to describe repetitive, hopeless situations and endlessly futile tasks. All of us inevitably feel stuck in this way sometimes.

But is Sisyphus really a tragic figure? Historically we have assumed so, but there are other interpretations, one of which is foundational to the core philosophy by which I live.

Maybe through all the days of pushing the boulder, Sisyphus found a sense of inner peace and calm. Maybe his body became strong from the daily workout. Maybe he evolved past the narrow belief that the only reward is to get the boulder all the way to the top of the mountain and have it stay there.

Think about the most meaningful pursuits: growing as a person, nurturing others, changing the world. The top of the mountain is a mirage – the best you might ever hope for in that regard is to get close enough to the top to see the next, higher peak over the horizon. And yet, there’s such value in pushing – indeed, pushing with all our might.

As contemporary humans we, of course, have more free will – the gods aren’t forcing us to push. We can just lean on the rock and lament our circumstances. Or we can just walk away and avoid the risk of failure.

After all, Martin Luther King didn’t reach the mountaintop in his lifetime. Susan B Anthony didn’t live to see all women able to vote. Every time John Coltrane played his saxophone, he strove for something and fell short. So if these giants failed, then why should we bother, right?

But of course that logic is suspect from a human standpoint, even if the case can be made in purely rational terms. Seriously, can we imagine a world in which these people watered down their ideals and their transcendent intentions, governed by a sense that goals statistically likely to reach tangible objectives are the only ones worth pursuing? Can we imagine a world in which we dismiss the lessons and inspiration they gave us? Can we imagine a world in which Van Gogh gives away his brushes, Kafka starts writing limericks instead, Galileo says “never mind” and every athlete on a team unlikely to win the big prize just stays home? Or, maybe even more insidiously, where all people faced with disability, trauma, prejudice or any other adversity they can’t 100% obliterate just stay in bed?

Maybe Sisyphus is actually a role model for perseverance and ambition. What if we look at our own challenges that way? The very act of pushing has its own value – really, it’s central to the human condition and tragic only if we choose to assign that meaning to it. And when we inevitably fall short of the mountaintop, we still achieve things that would be impossible if we opted out. In that paradigm, so-called failure loses its meaning, even in the bleakest situations. We keep striving and every action becomes a celebration of humanity itself. And even if the philosophical end of this is too touchy-feely for you, it also works as pure mathematics. If you get a rock halfway up a 1000 foot mountain before it starts rolling down, you still achieved higher elevation than by reaching the peak of a 300 foot one.

We can’t really know whether Sisyphus felt like a cursed failure or whether he found strength and tranquility and maybe even gratitude. What we do know is that whether we curse the gods or embrace the challenge, we have the choice in our own lives every day.