NOAHJAZZ - NB PONTIFICATES

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

Mastery Is Not A Lost Art (or What I Know About Life I Learned From the Fruitery)

As a jazz musician, is it weird to cite the guy who sold me a bunch of cantaloupes as a bigger influence on my career than Duke Ellington? If you look at it that way then of course. As you might expect, though, there is a bit more nuance in here – Ted Xenelis and the crew at the Middlesex Fruitery have driven home the lesson of what it means to be a master practitioner.

The Middlesex Fruitery has been a community landmark here in Middletown, CT since the 1920s. Ted took over his father’s business and continued the wonderful if (in his own words) archaic practice of offering full-service produce. That is, you go into the Fruitery and once you make it to the front of the line, someone helps you. Quite often that someone is Ted or his wife Mary, or possibly his longtime employee Brendi.

What does “helping you” entail, exactly? I mean, don’t you just grab a couple peaches and an eggplant, pay and get out of there? Well, no. You can’t actually touch the fruit or vegetables. This is the part of the explanation where neophytes are often put off or at the very least confused . . . until I explain further. Would you rather have a tomato that 15 other customers have fondled or one that has only been touched, gently, by the staff?

Never mind that, but let’s get real – go to the supermarket and grab a peach and you are essentially playing roulette. Comparatively low-stakes (depending on how much you need that peach) but with all due respect to the hard-working folks in the produce departments at Stop and Shop or Price Chopper, you’re not likely to get a heck of a lot of guidance. Go to the Fruitery and ask for a peach (keeping your grubby mitts off, of course) and here are some likely responses:

“When do you expect to eat it?”

“Would you like a taste of one?”

“The weather in Georgia has been rough this month – I think you should really try the nectarines this week, they’re spectacular.”

For the last 15 years this routine has been part of my existence and rather fundamental to my civic pride here. I keep speaking in the present tense as I describe this, but as of Saturday Ted and Mary will begin their hard-earned transition to retirement and Kate and I and others will begin our own transitions back to hunting down a worthwhile peach with the rest of the poor saps who walk the aisles of Whole Foods or C-Town or wherever it may be, making at best semi-educated guesses about the melons and green beans.

Now, anybody who knows me (or uses the recently-neglected recipes section on this blog) is aware that healthy food is central to my existence. So a big part of my disorientation as we anticipate this transition is the straightforward and relatively mundane question of finding the best fruit and vegetables we can, a quandary that I recognize is one of privilege. Not everybody has access to such things even under ideal circumstances.

Really, though, the biggest thing for me is that I have never before found buying food to be a soulful, educational and life-affirming process and frankly, I don’t expect to find that again.

What I find myself reflecting on is the care and attention to detail that was so clear whenever I walked in the door there, and the epicenter of all that is the notion of a job well done. I now realize that all my experiences at the Middlesex Fruitery galvanized my determination to embody that in my own career. In a world where “good enough” is the standard, commitment to excellence is all the more conspicuous.

I have always valued this notion, but Ted has been a vital mentor in that regard. My father was widely respected in the architectural world for his comprehensive mastery of the specific sub-specialty in which he chose to specialize, and reflecting on his life that stands out as one of the most resonant lessons he passed on. But, frankly, I’m just not that interested in architecture and while (like computer science and road paving) it impacts me, the specifics are just over my head. Conversely, I think of some of my jazz instructors’ high standards, something that affected me profoundly. But that was trade school, and I interpreted it as learning what the wider world’s expectations were and how one could “compete” in a crowded field – I didn’t think much about how it translated to life beyond.

Yet watching Ted in action has driven home how a life and career can be built from a core sense of expecting to provide something exceptional to people. I’m no idiot, and I know that caring that much is at best inconvenient and at worst impractical. Owning a business like that, there’s no “overtime pay” for the 4am trips to the market and for the long work days on purported days off. I don’t know how to quantify how these high standards translated to profit, but I’m pretty confident that this is beside the point anyway. As far as I can tell, this kind of excellence and attention to detail come from an inner sense of integrity and determination to serve both other people and the ideals of your field (whether music or fruit). I sometimes think of Ted when I’m rewriting a composition for the third time or doing that extra bit of research to corroborate a detail or listening to multiple examples of a tune to offer the most relevant example of something for students. In most cases I could get away with not doing that, but that feels irrelevant – sometimes pragmatism demands that you do the best you can and move on, my sense of duty is not governed by what I can get away with.

In the end, though, so many of us need to have this in our lives. Any adult who has a really trusted attorney, accountant or car mechanic knows what it feels like to put something important in the trusted hands of another and also knows how that feeling contrasts with the sense of “geez, I HOPE this works out.” Fruit may on the one hand seem more trivial than taxes or car maintenance – I could argue that food is more fundamental than any of that, but that’s ultimately not my point. My point is that commitment to deep knowledge, hard work and excellence may be on some level impractical, yet it’s so vitally necessary. This is true on both ends. As the consumer, that sense that wisdom is out there and someone will care enough to dispense it for our benefit is a vital source of security. As the purveyor, our personal growth is at a certain point tied in with our ability to commit to something in that way (whether it be a profession, parenthood, training for kayak races or whatever else).

If all this sounds like a big deal to make over a produce vendor, then I’m sorry you did not get to visit the Middlesex Fruitery. However, it is far from too late to embrace these principles in our own lives and to cherish those in our communities who bring this sort of love and commitment to their work. In the meantime, bravo and thank you Ted and Mary.

Top 10 Favorite Joni Mitchell Tracks

Shameful confession: I didn’t “discover” Joni Mitchell until my twenties. They didn’t play her on the rock stations I listened to as a teenager, and as a college-age jazz student I was maybe a generation too old; nowadays musicians like Brian Blade openly cite her influence and have made it hip to dig into the textures, harmonic complexities and emotional resonance of her music. Me, I thought she was the chick who wrote that “Big Yellow Taxi” song, which was pretty clever. My roommate played “The Last Time I Saw Richard” from Blue for me once and I indeed thought it was emotionally potent, but that was about it. In general I lumped her in with other folkie singer-songwriter types of the era like Judy Collins (who, I wasn’t hip enough to know, had the earliest hit versions of Joni’s tunes), James Taylor and so on – nothing wrong with them, but that wasn’t my bag. Then, doing some research for a graduate school project, I checked out the Court and Spark album and had a “my God, where have you been all my life?!” moment. In the ensuing years, I’ve gone both forward and back in exploring her catalogue, much of which has left an indelible mark on my own musical vision. Thanks Joni, and sorry it took me so long!

These lists are always “favorites” and not “bests,” and in this case it’s particularly geared towards pointing out the stuff that has impacted me.

1 ) “Free Man In Paris” (from Court and Spark)

Who knows what would have happened if I heard Court and Spark when I was 17 instead of 23? No matter, I still heard it and it still blew my mind. The textures of this song have penetrated my consciousness deeply, never mind that it’s got the best lyrics ever written about being a record executive. And even if there were more such songs, that would probably still be true. Most songs on this record belong on this list, but if I had to pick one, then here it is.

2 ) “River” (from Blue)

Many folks, when they think of Joni Mitchell, think of solo piano or guitar plus a single voice. While that’s not necessarily true for me, that stuff is of course brilliant, and never more so than on this heartbreaking and harmonically rich performance from her seminal Blue album.

3 ) “Dreamland” (from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter)

To say this is one of the coolest tracks that exists in music is, I suppose, not particularly useful. Manolo Badrena, Don Alias, Alex Acuna and Airto create a dense, propulsive layer of Brazilian percussion, and over that Joni sings an utterly gorgeous melody with ethereal lyrics, eventually joined by Chaka Khan. That’s the closest I can get to describing it, it’s just otherworldly, and who needs chords? I felt I could only include one voice-and-percussion song, thus bumping off her experiment with drummers from Burundi (and Moog synthesizer) on “Jungle Line” from Hissing of Summer Lawns.

4 ) “Good Friends” (from Dog Eat Dog)

Not unlike Miles Davis, fans of Joni Mitchell tend to gloss over the aesthetics of the output from the 1980s, but in both cases there are some real gems in there. This Thomas Dolby-produced album has a number of them, most notably (to my subjective ear) this gorgeous song featuring a wonderful blend between Joni’s smoky vocals and those of Michael McDonald. I’ve been grooving on this song for 15 years but I actually didn’t realize until about 5 minutes that they made a video for it, too, with some cool 1980s animation.

5 ) “Carey” (from Blue)

Also from the “Blue” album this song was technically a minor hit in 1971, but is primarily known by Joni-philes at this point. If you had told me at 15 that I would be permanently haunted by a song revolving around vocal overdubs and the Appalachian dulcimer, I would have . . . well, I actually have no idea what I would’ve said (I was a pretty open-minded young dude) but in my 20s that’s precisely what happened.

6 ) “Woodstock” (from Ladies of the Canyon)

It was probably 10 years between my getting acquainted with the hit Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version of this song and my first time hearing Joni’s version, and frankly my first exposure was rather disorienting because I’d become so used to all those harmonies. But what a potent performance of an iconic song this really is, and I’m glad I took the time to figure that out!

7 ) “Trouble Child” (from Travelogue)

This is a great tune from Court and Spark, rearranged in an orchestral context (and in a lower key) by Vince Mendoza, making it all the more moody.

8 ) “Let the Wind Carry Me” (from For the Roses)

The For the Roses album fascinates me, particularly in that Blue and Court and Spark are the two records that have most influenced me and this album represents the transition between them. This track, featuring Joni’s piano, the lush woodwind overdubs of Tom Scott and a gorgeous, often surprising set of chords accompanying her

9 ) “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” (from Hissing of Summer Lawns)

Bassist Gary Wang, knowing I was into Court and Spark, was adamant that I needed to check out this, the follow-up album. The juxtaposition between the edgy quality of the songs and the slickness of the musicians is striking and foreshadows some of her future collaborations with Jaco Pastorius and others. This song takes the “12 bar jazz blues cover” idea from Court and Spark (where she did “Twisted” by Annie Ross) to another level, with a great version of “Centerpiece” (featuring Joe Sample’s piano solo) sandwiched amidst the ethereal “Harry’s House.” I challenge you to listen to the transitions and not feel a little disoriented . . . in a good way, of course.

10 ) “The Gallery” (from Clouds)

If Joni hadn’t evolved past the style of her earliest work, I’m not sure if I would have ended up revering her the way I do, but boy is it still lovely stuff. This haunting track from 1969 already shows a great degree of insight and sophistication.

the other 45 ways to leave your lover

Recently Kate and I were making dinner, with my Ipod on a shuffle of Paul Simon tunes, and the song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” came on. Ever the observant one, Kate pointed out that in the song he only lists FIVE ways.

I love Paul Simon (click here for my top 10 favorite Paul Simon songs, of which this isn’t even one, though nonetheless, how can I resist the great tune, Steve Gadd’s drum groove and so on?), and I recognize his poetic license, but c’mon already! Far be it from me to stand idly by while my wife is dissatisfied, so I decided to help her (and Paul) out by coming up with 45 more. There are presumably others, but this at least brings it up to the proper number, while maintaining the song’s presupposition that this is a man’s departure under discussion.

DISCLAIMER #1: there is a fair bit of rhythmic/metric variety here, but each of these ways to leave your lover has been carefully vetted to fit within the (now-extended) song structure.

DISCLAIMER #2: the lover-leaving methods contained herein are for fictional purposes and do not reflect the viewpoints on fidelity held by the creator of this list or those entities he represents. In other words, men, stay put. Unless, you know, you have to go, in which case . . .

Take a hike, Mike

Look through new frames, James

Get away from the pain, Wayne

Slide away in your sled, Ned

Get up and go, Moe

Don’t stop to grieve, Steve

Get out tout de suite, Pete

Get in the car, Jair

And fill up the tank, Hank

Or hop in your Rover, Grover

Buck up and be brave, Dave

Get out and move on, Juan

Slide though the grate, Nate

It’s time to reject her, Hector

Time to find your bliss, Chris

Leave as soon as you’re ready, Freddie

Don’t waste your time there, Pierre

Go with what you feel, Gilles

Let me say it again, Sven

Don’t keep the truth hid, Sid

Give the door a new lock, Brock

Write, call or text her, Dexter

Her welcome is worn, Bjorn

Sign a new lease, Maurice

Stop paying the rent, Brent

Float down in a barrel, Carroll

Sail off in your ark, Mark

Don’t keep yourself here, Sabir

Load up the UHaul, Paul

Get the scissors and trim, Tim

Up up and away, Clay

Go off with a bang, Wolfgang

You need to keep things fresh, Dinesh

Walk off down the block, Jacques

Have ‘em forward your mail, Gail

And the box that it’s held in, Sheldon

Go out the side, Clyde

Get away quick, Rick

Find yourself a new thing, Ling

Get straight in your head, Ahmed

Don’t stall or delay, Ray

Ride off on your cow, Joao

Or gallop on your steed, Reed

Be strong, not weak, Malik

No more of your jivin’ Ivan

(and get yourself free)

Top 10 Favorite Musical Primal Screams

Sometimes you just need to let it all out, especially when you’ve got a jumble of pent-up emotions going on. Here are 10 examples of that in music that I find particularly effective.

Note that there are some restrictions here. One is that at least the first scream in a song has to come dramatically, thus songs that are full of screams are off-limits for this list, such as those by Lorraine Ellison (“Stay With Me”), the Mighty Clouds of Joy (“Mighty High”), Bobby “Blue” Bland (just about anything). Second, they have to be vocal screams, thus ruling out incredible saxophone bellowing by John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and others. Finally, these are songs in styles that don’t revolve around screaming (punk, metal, etc.), again, making the use of the screams more dramatic. Any metalheads offended by the many resulting omissions, I’m sorry and will gladly discuss over chamomile tea and tofu salad sometime.

And here we go:

1 ) Charles Mingus: “Haitian Fight Song”

Bellowing became a hallmark of some of Mingus’ music (the Oh Yeah album being particularly dramatic for this), but first there was his cathartic primal scream in the last minute of this epic performance from the Pithecanthropus Erectus album.

2 ) Wilson Pickett: “Hey Jude”

This is an all-time great R&B Beatles cover, but just when we get to the “na-na-na” part, Wilson shreds a couple vocal cords to take the whole thing up a couple notches.

3 ) John Lennon: “Mother”

There are numerous examples of great Beatles screams ( “Twist and Shout,” “Revolution,” “Helter Skelter,” etc.), but on this track we literally hear him showing some of the results of his primal scream therapy to cope with his childhood abandonment, and the result is chilling and potent.

4 ) Beth Fleenor: “Exploding Syndrome” (by the Sam Boshnack Quintet)

There are numerous reasons to check out this album by Pacific Northwest-based trumpeter/composer Sam Boshnack – great playing, great group concept, beautiful tunes. You’ll come for those things, but you’ll stay and listen again after hearing clarinetist Fleenor show another side of her skillset on the title track. I’m only sorry that I gave you advance notice and potentially spoiled the drama . . .

5 ) Roger Daltrey: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (by the Who)

As the tune wraps up, we get one of the most iconic primal screams in all of classic rock. I actually had a student propose to write an 8 page college essay on how this particular moment embodies the meaning of life. I’m not sure it does (and I said no to the paper, sorry) but it sure does rock.

6 ) Ronald Isley: “Love the One You’re With” (by the Isley Brothers)

Ronald Isley has hit plenty of high notes in his day, but this one is special. You know that part in the original Steven Stills version where after the bridge there’s a dramatic Hammond organ glissando? Well, hearing Ronald do that with his voice is a trip and a half.

7 ) Yamatsuka Eye: “Osaka Bondage” (by John Zorn)

Zorn’s “Naked City” band features a cast of great musicians like Joey Baron and Bill Frisell, and a great diversity of music ranging from cocktail jazz to hardcore punk. And plenty of throat-shredding screaming from Yamatsuka Eye.

8 ) Merry Clayton: “Gimme Shelter” (by the Rolling Stones)

Clayton (who is profiled in the wonderful documentary 50 Feet from Stardom, and whose own records are rather underrated) is best known for this spontaneous performance on a Stones classic. She sings passionately throughout, but it enters the scream lexicon on her own solo feature on the tune, as her voice cracks ever so dramatically.

9 ) Jim Morrison: “The End” (by the Doors)

At about 7:45 of this epic (as the spoken word section wraps up) we get Jim Morrison’s iconic Oedipal shriek.

10 ) Elvis Costello: “Let Him Dangle”

Though this is perhaps a little more potent in live versions, Elvis’ passionate retelling of a story of a questionable murder trial ends with a chilling “string him up.”

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.