NOAHJAZZ - NB PONTIFICATES

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

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.

Whiplash and Ted Dunbar: Tough Love in Education

One of the most important things I offer as an educator is honesty. While I like to think I am a kind person, I feel I am doing no favors if I allow a musician, especially a young musician, to delude him or herself. It was in that spirit that I went into watching the film Whiplash, and it is why I found the movie upsetting and possibly even irresponsible. I am no film critic (I found the plot and characters thin, but what do I know?) and I also do not need to rehash the many musical details that were portrayed inaccurately (others have already done this). However, if anyone mistakes the dynamic depicted in the film as having merit on pedagogical or moral levels, then that is a big problem.

I needn’t go into great depth about my philosophy of the morality behind this sort of tough love . . . because I already have in past entries on this blog. I wrote extensively about the balance between nurturing and administering “butt-whoopings” in a post a couple years ago (click here to read) and a little more recently about the importance of teaching young people to be consistent with word and deed, particularly as relating to setting goals one legitimately intends to do the work to pursue (click here to read).

When I look at my own years of study, I got lots of tough love. I still remember the time that Ted Dunbar, when giving me the final exam in my first of six semesters of classes with him, asked me “Do you study classical music?” I beamed and said yes, thinking he was praising my technical abilities. He then said “I thought so. You see, you have to understand that jazz has a different feeling rhythmically.” Imagine the sound of one’s ego going into the toilet, and that was the sound amplified throughout my being at that moment. And so I worked harder.

Ted taught me more than anyone I’ve ever met about pedagogical tough love. I’ll write another post sometime about his music (which I have always found extraordinary), and I found his pedagogy extremely effective (as have so many others, hence his guru-like status) but it was his high standards that really changed me more than anything.

Ted believed that he was simply expressing the standards inherent to the music itself. If you did all the assignments for a class on time and at high quality . . . then you got a grade of B. Because just doing your job equals a B, and jazz demands far more than that. In six semesters I got an A once, and it was literally the most profound growth I ever experienced in music. The A itself meant very little by the time I checked my transcript, it was the work that got me there that changed me. He was never unkind, but he also didn’t seem to see himself as a motivator – indeed, the music should provide ample motivation if you love it enough to make this sort of pursuit at all sane (a phenomenon conspicuously absent in Whiplash, sadly).

I am tempted to say he was a gatekeeper, but he wasn’t keeping any gates, he was simply stating what he had observed for decades about how good you need to be to thrive and how much work you need to do to get there. Did I feel like Ted liked me, that he cared or thought about me beyond doing his job to teach me music? Strangely that was never that important. At a certain point I realized that his opinion was valuable as a yardstick for measuring how close I was getting to my goals, not as something of great interpersonal importance. Once I saw that, I was liberated from caring what he thought of me . . . while at the same time being bound (until I die or quit) to the objective truth of how well I’m pursuing my goals. That truth is unyielding, which is frustrating at times but is a lot more straightforward than trying to curry someone’s favor and confusing oneself about what that person’s approval does or doesn’t provide.

On the other hand, I experienced numerous educators who were just jerks, or who at least engaged in unkind behavior with no real intention. I saw teachers insult people for their music . . . and for things other than music. Maybe it’s clever to say “you think that’s worthy of a Master’s degree? Maybe a master of baiting” or to let out a big fart and say “I guess that’s what I think of your assignment.” But any valid substance there could be communicated with dignity. Ultimately I never saw an instance in which cruel words or actions had any positive effect on the delivery of a pedagogically valid message.

I had one teacher, who subsequently went on to become the head a reputable jazz conservatory program, publicly mock a lump on my elbow that had plagued me for years. As he, I and a number of other students stood in a courtyard, he declared “it looks like there’s a f***ing PRUNE on your arm! Hahahaha!” I look back now and, as the public shame has dissipated over the years, what strikes me most is that I was a lot more self-possessed at that time than I gave myself credit for. I say that because I didn’t think “that’s it, I quit,” nor did I think “I’ll show him.” I thought that was a mean thing to say, something that was utterly independent of music aside from the fact that I’d have to suck that up if I wanted continued access to the knowledge that instructor possessed, which I did.

Which begs the question: are these two things mutually exclusive? That is, does cruel behavior negate pedagogical legitimacy or even genuine desire to see a student thrive? Can valid information only come from those who deliver it with dignity? Not necessarily, which is why this subject is complicated. It would be easier if it were a duality, but it’s important to see that these issues of pushing someone to excel and being a jerk are not interconnected in terms of cause-and-effect or even springing from the same well, but they can coexist.

There are essentially three elements that are conflated here:

1) To survive as a jazz musician, you have to be really good.

Jazz music is really hard to play at a high level, requiring a degree of devotion (as crazy as this may sound to non-musicians) not out of proportion to attorneys, doctors and other highly skilled professionals . . . except that in those other fields, employment and healthy compensation are comparatively likely. Because the jazz business is extraordinarily competitive and the finances are scarce, the degree of commitment and dues-paying required just to playing at a reliably employable professional level (i.e. to get enough gigs to eat food and sleep in a dwelling) is tremendous.

2) Young musicians need mentors both to become that good and to know if/when they’ve gotten there.

Most really accomplished jazz musicians had, during their developmental years, the mentorship of at least one key figure, whatever the setting or the degree of formality to the relationship.  A central facet of that mentorship is honest, sober assessment of the “disciple” in terms of potential, growth, work ethic and other pertinent facets of the disciple’s growth. Given all this, there inevitably has to be some “tough love” along the way in communicating ways in which the student must step up his or her work to achieve ambitious goals. Likewise, there is inevitably a degree of faith on the part of the disciple that the mentor possesses a greater degree of wisdom and objectivity about where the disciple’s skill set places him or her on the food chain; pleasing that mentor can become the mechanism by which to evaluate whether the skills are adequate.

3) Some of us are vulnerable to abusive yet charismatic authority figures.

Some people are abusive, angry and cruel. Some of those people are in positions of power. Some people “underneath” them in the hierarchy have a desire to please them. This isn’t a blog post about deep patterns of abusive relationships, but there is much documentation in the literature of psychology about the ways in which some vulnerable people long to have the approval of those who are inaccessible or (downright nasty) and the dynamics that result.

This is in a sense what was so amazing about Ted Dunbar’s relatively detached objectivity. I say “detached” not because he lacked passion or didn’t care about his students, but because it was inherently not about him. By all means it’s great when you can find a teacher who is nurturing, inspiring and deeply caring, because we all need people like that for the good of our souls. But in a perverse way the pedagogical danger there can be comparable to that of encountering the type of miscreant who is so exaggeratedly portrayed in Whiplash. That is, pleasing ANYBODY else (whether they deserve it or not) is not the point.

Trying to please a cuddly teddy bear feels a hell of a lot better than trying to please a rabid grizzly bear, but then maybe the latter feels like more of an accomplishment. All of this just diverts attention in the wrong direction, because both put the focus elsewhere. The music itself is where the truth lies. The joyless, status-obsessed student character in Whiplash was so vulnerable to that abuse in large part because he forgot (or perhaps never perceived) that. Pursuit of joy and truth through the study itself is what has driven every accomplished musician I’ve known, and with that on one’s side, even the most exaggeratedly despotic authority figure is utterly powerless.

Top 10 Favorite Orrin Keepnews Prodctions

History-altering record producer and label head honcho Orrin Keepnews passed away on Sunday, 1 day short of his 92nd birthday. We as a society talk little enough about the great jazz musicians of the 20th century, and we certainly don’t talk much about the other contributing figures. But Keepnews, particularly as the visionary head of Riverside Records, left such a mark on modern jazz that I really can’t imagine the history of the music without him. Fortunately he was appreciated in his lifetime (winning a NARAS lifetime achievement award and the NEA Jazz Master fellowship).

Lately my Top 10 lists have been song/track based, but the continuity and conceptual brilliance behind the great records Keepnews oversaw lend themselves better to full albums. And while there are some historically monumental records here, this isn’t an attempt to necessarily measure his “most important” records, though I did try to think in terms of his impact on the process. The number of records I had to omit from the list is pretty staggering, including some of my favorite work by Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Drew, Jimmy Heath, Barry Harris, Wynton Kelly, Abbey Lincoln, Yusef Lateef, Elmo Hope, Red Garland (gasp), not to mention later, post-Riverside classics by Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner and others. So with no further ado:

1 ) Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk, 1956

Monk obviously wrote the music and led the band here, but to me the MVP goes to Keepnews the strategist, in that he a) lured Monk away from Prestige records, b) started off with an Ellington record and a standards record and c) dropped this classic once the audience had been given a point of entry. And so began a relationship that produced easily enough classic music that it could’ve populated this whole list.

2 ) Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans, 1961

There is limited documentation of Evans’ classic 1959-61 trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, and save for some bootlegs, it’s all on Riverside. Keepnews couldn’t have known the importance of recording this live date (given that less than two weeks later LaFaro would be dead in a car accident), but the music herein profoundly impacted the course of many musicians to follow.

3 ) Incredible Jazz Guitar by Wes Montgomery, 1960

Another major coup for Keepnews was his trip to Indianapolis to sign Montgomery to a contract. This was not the first Riverside session for the great guitarist, but it’s arguably the first classic, and this is another record that changed the course of things for many musicians to follow.

4 ) Power to the People by Joe Henderson, 1969

Recorded for Milestone after the demise of Riverside, this amazingly powerful album shows that Keepnews’ ear for modernism was not left behind at Riverside. The rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette plays with an unusual degree of vitality even by their lofty standards, coaxing some of JoeHen’s best playing on wax.

5 ) Caravan by Art Blakey, 1962

Blakey and the Jazz Messengers are rightly known best in this era (the Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton sextet with either Reggie Workman or Jymie Merritt) for their work on the Blue Note label, but mixed in there are several classic albums for Riverside. This one features the gorgeous “Skylark” and the moody Shorter tune “This Is For Albert” alongside two utterly burnin’ rave-ups in “Caravan” and Hubbard’s “Thermo.”

6 ) In San Francisco by Cannonball Adderley, 1959

It’s hard to pick one Cannonball record here, as his groups were so synonymous with the Riverside sound in a lot of ways and, arguably, his most influential years as a recording artist came for the label, not to mention some classic work as a bandleader by his brother Nat. I picked this great, ebullient live record in part to represent the great pianist Bobby Timmons, himself an important Riverside artist.

7 ) Freedom Suite by Sonny Rollins, 1958

Rollins had already recorded important work for multiple labels (including Blue Note and Prestige) by this point and had already done work in a piano-less trio. Nonetheless, this amazing album and especially its epic title track.

8 ) Duke with a Difference by Clark Terry, 1957

While Riverside became known for both the hard-swinging and progressive sides of hard bop, he also got started with more traditional forms of jazz. This delightful swing-era throwback features a band of Ellingtonians playing buoyant, joyful interpretations of the maestro’s music.

9 ) Cole Porter – In A Modern Mood by Randy Weston, 1954

Even before Monk’s signing to Riverside, the progressive elements were evident. This record represents the beginning of that for Keepnews and the beginning of a then-young Randy Weston’s long career as a bandleader. These angular interpretations in the form uets with bassist Sam Gill (later packaged with other sessions of this era and reissued as Solo, Duo and Trio in A Modern Mood)

10 ) Ezz-Thetics by George Russell, 1961

There are few albums like this – we get to hear Russell’s piano playing (of which there is too little documentation) alongside great solo work from trombonist David Baker (yet another major composer/educator inadequately documented as a player – but check out his solo on Ezz-Thetic), trumpeter Don Ellis and reedman Eric Dolphy, on a program of extremely progressive yet equally soulful music.

Top 10 Most Personally Mind-Blowing SNL Musical Appearances

Through my formative years, I watched a lot of Saturday Night Live, and the musical guests (not surprisingly) always fascinated me, in some cases blowing my mind. As a teenager especially I would videotape the show and if the performance was good (or, often, even decent) watch the musical bits over and over, studying the performances. I would also watch reruns on cable and was interested in the differences in musical style and allowable levels of eclecticism.

The Top 10 list below thus leans heavily on those years and also plays up performances that stood out relative to that artist (Bonnie Raitt, for example, had multiple appearances and sounded pretty much as good as she always did, which was amazing; on the other hand, I never heard the Neville Brothers sound better than in the performance cited below). Notable omissions include Betty Carter, Phoebe Snow, Joan Armatrading, Leon Redbone, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, Stevie Wonder, Santana, Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Living Colour, Tom Petty, Wynton Marsalis’ Quintet, Sting and (PLEASE pay attention to this caveat) EVERY artist who has appeared in the last 20 years, during which time I have seldom had a television. I’m sure there are many great performances that I have not included here, and I refer you back to the post’s title – these are performances that really impacted me, so if I didn’t see them they are inherently not relevant to this list, great though there may be. There are also lots of hidden gems that I did catch (the Power Station in 1985 – no one will likely claim that “Some Like It Hot” was a landmark, but with Tony Thompson’s drums and Lenny Pickett and the rest of the SNL horn section, it was SO funky) for which there’s not nearly enough space.

Without further ado . . .

1 ) “Diamonds On the Soles Of Her Shoes” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon (1986)

Mind. Completely. Blown. To Bits. The song, the band, the grooves, yes, yes, yes. But the singing and dancing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo left a deep mark on me. This gets the nod over numerous other noteworthy Paul Simon moments, including his great “Rhythm of the Saints” band and his 1989 (15th anniversary special) reprise of “Still Crazy After All These Years” with the immortal Richard Tee on electric piano and Lenny Pickett taking a soulful and Brecker-worthy saxophone solo.

2 ) “Brother Jake” by the Neville Brothers (1990)

This tale of an ill-fated New Orleans man encapsulates the Neville’s sound, and when I saw this performance it was everything I wanted a soul/R&B/rock/swamp jam to be. Great song, great vocal harmonies, great lead vocal turns from Aaron and Cyril, great organ from Art, great saxophone from Charles. The performance trumps any live or studio version of the song I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a bunch.

3 ) “Sunless Saturday” by Fishbone (1991)

There had been numerous hard rock performances on SNL that I had seen and wanted to get into (Faith No More’s “Epic” did cross the I-dig-it threshold), but in hindsight I always longed for a little more soul. Enter Fishbone, whose thrashing guitars and drums provided a perfect backdrop for the socially conscious lyrics of this song (which they followed up with a super-soulful “Everyday Sunshine”).

4 ) “Radio Radio” by Elvis Costello (1977)

In this famous performance, Elvis changes course seconds into another song and lashes into a high-energy romp on this one.

5 ) “Drive” by Bobby McFerrin (1988)

Bobby McFerrin’s solo a cappella work also left a huge mark on my musical conception as a teenager. This is perhaps his best known song in that vein and shows his voice range and rhythmic command in full bloom. By 1988 the musical acts were getting more mainstream, so kudos to them for taking a chance here, prior to his commercial breakthrough.

6 ) “I’m the Slime” by Frank Zappa (1976)

Zappa’s snarl and burning lead guitar are supported on this classic tune by the voice of SNL’s Don Pardo representing the “slime” from the TV set.

7 ) “Big Bottom” by Spinal Tap (1984)

The greatest rock band that never was gives a signature performance of their signature song. It is worth noting that the doppelgangers of David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls (Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer) were all at one time SNL cast members.

8 ) “Truganini” by Midnight Oil (1993)

Australian band Midnight Oil was a bit past their commercial peak in the U.S. by this point, but had lost none of their musical crunch or political swagger. This searing indictment of environmental irresponsibility and aboriginal exploitation manages to make you think and rock out, and this is the best live performance of the song I ever saw.

9 ) “Johannesburg” by Gil Scott-Heron (1976)

This important political yet super-funky song about the situation in South Africa is given a percussion-heavy reading and Gil is in fine voice.

10 ) “Give It To Me” by Rick James (1982)

That funk. That sweet, that funky stuff. What more can I say? All the evidence you need of what a dynamic performer Rick James was (and with noted irony of his appearance on a sketch comedy show, given that to younger generations he is better known as a character on Dave Chappelle’s show).

Love: Savor Every Moment

We all know that life and just about everything else we see are impermanent. We all know that we need to savor what we have because it may not last. This is especially true of love, that most precious of elements in our universe. We all know this, and yet it is so easy to forget. As the dust settles a bit (hopefully) after a few years marked by loss, I have become more determined to incorporate this awareness into my own life and consciousness.

This will likely sound a bit morbid at first, but lately I have had a little perspective-checking exercise I undertake whenever my wife or I is about to leave for work or otherwise. I think “if this is the last time I ever see her, will I regret the last interaction?”

Allow me to explain a little bit. This semi-philosophical question could lead down any number of rabbit holes, such as panic, sadness or even simply never getting to work because I’m clinging to her ankles too hard. On a good day, though, none of these pitfalls are relevant.

Ultimately the sense that all we have is this moment and anything can happen is simply the literal truth. Thinking ahead to consequences is a straightforward, rational thing. There is so much we can’t predict, but I can say with great certainty that whenever that inevitable last moment comes (hopefully a long time from now) I want the last interaction to be one of loving and full engagement.

But here’s the thing to latch onto, even if that line of thought is just too depressing for you: any actions governed by that principle are likely to be healthy and uplifting. Even though Kate did, in fact, return home from work the other day, I’m still glad I got up from the email I was writing to say a meaningful goodbye. Even though we both woke up this morning, I’m still glad I put my phone down and paid attention to her.

I have a hard time withholding judgment of people who squander riches that others do not have in comparable abundance, and I am determined as hell not to be one of those people. There are lots of poems and songs about how love is a gift that money can’t buy . . . and you know what, it’s true. It’s easy for other things to feel urgent (indeed, sometimes they are), and yet if we’re not careful we can get so caught up that we forget what’s really important. And this principle applies, of course, to all forms of love for others, not just romantic partners (“Cat’s in the Cradle,” anyone?).

I’m going to make this one uncharacteristically short so that more of Valentine’s Day can be free for attentiveness. In the meantime, you can entertain yourself with my Valentine’s gift from last year, a song/video that addresses, a bit more cheekily, the idea of savoring every moment.