NOAHJAZZ - NB PONTIFICATES

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

Robin Williams, Roberto Clemente and the Solidarity of Inescapable Humanity

When I heard the news of Robin Williams’ suicide I was saddened and certainly taken aback but not shocked. This is not because I had any inside information or because I’ve become jaded about the downfall of celebrities. Rather, I’ve become acutely aware that artists, performers, athletes, politicians and all other celebrities and other “successful” people are simply prone to the same struggles as the rest of us humans.

It gives me no pleasure to perceive Robin Williams as human and frail, given how much I admire his work. I loved his standup routine (he is easily my all-time favorite comic) and found him to be an improviser on par with the great jazz musicians who are my professional heroes. I love his dramatic work – indeed, his performance in “Good Will Hunting” should be studied by any social worker who deals with traumatized young adults. I think he was a genius and yet he seemed like the kind of approachable fellow with whom you’d want to have lunch.

But as advanced as we are technologically, the human race has not figured out how to insulate from tragedy. Sure, being successful has its perks and wealth certainly increases the odds of having food, shelter, medical care and protection from certain types of violence. But illness, injury, death of loved ones, inner turmoil and other adversity don’t discriminate. If you have a body, live on this planet and care about others, you will experience difficult circumstances and, most likely, ones that call into question the real importance of status, power, self-importance and all that stuff.

This spring’s Ripples release (and tour) was the biggest undertaking of my artistic life so far, and I find it striking that the timing was so seamless in the sense that I went essentially straight from that to the discovery of my father’s terminal illness and then death, followed in turn by the last days of Kate’s aunt Dottie, in turn followed a few days later from a debilitating back injury (which thankfully has since healed). Is the correct response to a) thank the universe for the eerily sequential nature of these events or b) curse the universe for following my biggest artistic triumph to date with one momentum-halting scenario after another?

Of course the correct answer is “c” (as it usually is when examining polar opposites), so the philosophical conundrum in recent weeks has been what exactly “c” is in this case, or at least what the take-away should be. It begins with the awareness that however important I may wish to think my work is, I am not the center of the universe, so the impact on these circumstances on my work and life are largely incidental regardless of my spiritual beliefs. But the point is not that everything is meaningless and random – far from it.

As I’ve contemplated, my mind has continually returned to Roberto Clemente. For non-baseball fans, he was a brilliantly successful player, who reached the career milestone of 3000 hits (something at that point only 10 other players had ever done) in his last at-bat of the 1972 season. And then he got on a plane to delivered relief supplies to Nicaragua and died in a crash. He has been rightly celebrated ever since both for his on-field accomplishments and his off-the-field humanitarianism.

I don’t know a lot about the aftermath, his family and so on. But I can only imagine that his revered status is a fairly hollow source of consolation for his absence. Sure it’s great to see him admired for his accomplishments, but it’s very difficult to picture those bereaved by his loss taking great solace in thinking “well, at least he didn’t get stuck at 2,987 hits and then die.”

What about all the musicians who could have been superlatively successful but they became sick or died or injured or depressed or addicted or simply sidetracked by other life challenges and responsibilities. Is that tragic? From a certain perspective, maybe, but ultimately real life is what it is. In addition to the perks of fame, celebrities may have certain specific risks that are greater than for the general population – musicians have greater exposure to illicit substances, professional athletes travel more frequently on airplanes, actors are more likely to be stalked and so on. But ultimately these kinds of details obscure the immovable fact that we all experience heartbreak and difficulty. We covet celebrity and success in large part because we imagine it to provide greater immunity from this. But guess what, when you’re depressed or hurt or experiencing the illness or loss of a loved one, all the trophies in the world don’t make a lick of difference. That’s why I’m not shocked by Robin Williams’ passing – he was a human being.

If Robin was the kind, thoughtful man that those who knew him say he was (and that to the rest of us he appeared to be) I suspect he would have appreciated the outpouring of grief and appreciation. And all the same I find it hard to imagine that he would have wanted people to perceive his own succumbing to personal demons as a greater tragedy than that of the countless others similarly afflicted. It would be naïve and probably downright irresponsible of me to speculate that if he’d lived in a utopian world in which we all supported each other openly in all struggles that this might have “saved” him.

But I do know that this particular form of utopia is actually not crazy and that countless people would benefit. I want to deify those I admire as much as anyone reading this might – it’s frankly hard for me to imagine them experiencing the spectrum of human existence to which we’re all vulnerable, whether Stevie Wonder feeling down in the dumps or Roger Federer taking a crap or Bill Cosby grieving the profound loss of a child. But what if we all just recognized that each of us is human, with all the heroism and frailty that goes along with that? What if we stopped imagining that some elusive form of success would give us protection from the mess that is human life and instead embraced the mess . . . and each other?

Top 10 (x2) Unjustly Obscure Jazz Albums

Of course, given the role that jazz plays in our society there are only a tiny handful of albums that DON’T fit this category (“unjustly obscure jazz album” is kind of like “ice cream flavor containing dairy products”). But there are some albums that I think are exceptional and, in some cases, important in their time, that have been essentially forgotten even among the jazz intelligentsia.

I have divided this list into two categories based on availability. As such, the first ten are albums that deserve wider recognition but that (as of this writing) at least you are likely to be able to find by legitimate means through one of the various online streaming/downloading outlets (ITunes, Spotify, Rhapsody, etc) or new in CD form (as opposed to having to hunt for used copies). When I first compiled this list years ago, a good many of the albums on this list were not as readily available, so I’m encouraged! The second ten will require you to do some hunting-down, alas.

And, as with all of my lists of this sort, remember that these are my personal favorites and I’m not trying to make any case for these being necessarily more “important” than any others.

IN PRINT (OR SORT OF IN PRINT)

1 ) Hampton Hawes – Blues for Bud (a.k.a. Spanish Steps)

This record, made in Paris in a trio with Jimmy Woode and Art Taylor, is my favorite example of the late-60s, post-prison era of Hampton Hawes, where his signature flowing lines and bluesy time feel are enriched by a deeper sense of modern harmony and phrasing. Considering how ubiquitous that approach has become, it’s puzzling to me that this record hasn’t gotten its due among fans of Chick, Herbie et. al.

2 ) Kenny Barron – Quickstep

This one is finally available again. It features Kenny’s “classic” quintet with Victor Lewis, John Stubblefield, Eddie Henderson and David Williams (who took over the bass “chair” from Cecil McBee) and had a huge formative impact on my own musical concept.

3 ) Mickey Tucker – Blues in Five Dimensions

Though guitarist Ted Dunbar released a number of albums under his own name, he intimated to me that this was the recorded work of which he was proudest. It’s easy to hear why – the vibe is unlike anything else and he and Tucker play some of the most melodic solos I have ever heard.

4 ) Young Men from Memphis – Down Home Reuinion

Booker Little, George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Phineas Newborn, Jr. and more, jamming hard. In particular, check out the quartet workout on “Star Eyes,” featuring Strozier and Newborn.

5 ) Joanne Brackeen – Six Ate

Joanne Brackeen generally doesn’t get her due, and much of her most inspiring work is out of print. Fortunately you can still get your hands/ears on this 1970s trio session with Cecil McBee and Billy Hart, featuring her flowing yet angular playing at its muscular best on some jazz classics and some signature Brackeen originals.

6 ) Jaki Byard – Solo/Strings

Jaki Byard playing solo piano is always a treat, and this two-fer features his Solo Piano album packaged with his remarkable Jaki Byard and Strings album, with a “string” section of Ray Nance’s violin, Ron Carter’s cello, George Benson’s guitar and Richard Davis’ bass, alongside the drums (and on one track vibes) of Alan Dawson. That record features some of the most authoritative, modern-yet-swinging playing in Byard’s catalog.

7 ) Tom Harrell – Moon Alley

This record has Tom Harrell at his lyrical best as a writer and player, a spot-on-rhythm section of Kenny Barron, Ray Drummond and a young Ralph Peterson, Jr. and an early featured slot for Kenny Garrett on alto and flute. In my opinion, this is one of the great records of the 1980s.

8 ) Tete Montoliu – Piano for Nuria

Because he played in the U.S. relatively infrequently, Tete’s piano work is inherently underappreciated. At that, it wasn’t even until recently that I stumbled upon this authoritative trio set featuring some great interplay with “Tootie” Heath on drums. The piano sounds pretty lousy, but it doesn’t matter.

9 ) Mary Lou Williams – Free Spirits

This is as low as it is on the list because I like to think it’s maybe not quite as obscure, but it’s a shame for any young pianist not to dig into this trio set with Buster Williams and Mickey Roker, both because of how it debunks preconceptions about age and gender and because it’s one of the best examples in recorded history of that sweet spot that accommodates both soul and modernity.

10 ) Do The Right Thing (score)

I think I can call this a jazz album, though there are parts that are largely orchestral in nature. Bill Lee’s gorgeous writing for his son’s movie is brought forth by lush but soulful strings and a jazz cast including Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Jeff “Tain” Watts and my two biggest direct piano influences, Kenny Barron and James Williams.

OUT OF PRINT

1 ) James Williams – Magical Trio 2

This album (with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones) changed my life and is more responsible for my becoming a jazz musician than any other.

2 ) Ahmad Jamal – Tranquility

Given the amount of Ahmad in print, it’s strange that this classic example of his late 60s trio (with Jamil Nasser and Frank Gant) is hard to find. Worth the search, though.

3 ) Various Artists – That’s the Way I Feel Now

This Hal Wilner-produced multi-artist Thelonious Monk tribute has never been issued on CD to my awareness. Do seek out the two-record set, though, featuring contributions from jazz greats including Charlie Rouse, Steve Lacy, Elvin Jones, Carla Bley, Randy Weston, Barry Harris and many others . . . as well as luminaries from other genres including Joe Jackson, Dr. John, Todd Rundgren and (I’m not making this up, and it’s actually kind of burning) Peter Frampton.

4 ) Sweet Basil Trio – St. Thomas

Of all the many great recordings with Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins, this live trio set with Ron Carter is my personal favorite.

5 ) Out of the Blue – Inside Track

One of the original young lion supergroups (on Blue Note) I really don’t understand how this 1980s band gets so little attention now. Kenny Garrett, Ralph Bowen, Michael Mossman, Harry Pickens, Robert Hurst and Ralph Peterson, Jr. show the balance between reverence and forward motion that one always hopes to find in young musicians, and indeed their subsequent evolution as musicians bears that out.

6 ) Sphere – Bird Songs

The recorded output of Sphere (Charlie Rouse, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, Ben Riley) is generally hard to find, and that’s particularly true of this irresistible album in which they broke away from their Monk-centric repertoire and focused on Charlie Parker’s music.

7 ) McCoy Tyner – Expansions

I really haven’t the vaguest idea why this important Blue Note album is out of print. With a front line of Wayne Shorter, Gary Bartz, Woody Shaw and Ron Carter (on cello) backed by McCoy, Herbie Lewis and Freddie Waits, this features incendiary playing and some of the most gorgeous, intense Tyner writing and arranging on record.

8 ) Clare Fischer – Machaca

Michael Mossman turned me on to this one in college. With a bevy of great percussionists and the guitar of Rick Zunigar, Fischer shows here why he was one of the unsung giants of Latin jazz.

9 ) Billy Taylor – I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free

Many people know and love this soul-jazz song turned civil rights anthem penned by Taylor, but it’s really hard to find the original album. And it’s worth the search, as the whole album (a live set with George Tucker and Grady Tate) is delightful.

10 ) Danilo Perez – The Journey

There is plenty of work available by Perez, as there should be, but my socks were first fully knocked off by this 1993 album, a suite of music that is emotionally intense and compositionally rich and unified on a level that had a direct impact on some of my own larger-scale works down the road.

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