I was a teenage Deadhead. Well, sort of . . .
I was a teenage Deadhead. Well, sort of . . .
Given that Dave Letterman 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.
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.
A pair of top 10 lists, featuring the brilliant and sadly departed violinist John Blake, Jr. and his son, the powerhouse drummer Johnathan Blake.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
I am a sucker for musicians who play overtly soulful music and then turn around and play the hippest modern jazz, especially when they find organic ways to integrate the two. Joe Locke is one of the hippest and most technically facile vibraphonists active today, but can always be counted on for achingly soulful music as a player, composer and arranger of others’ material. Here are some of the tracks that most embody that to me.
November 25 marks the release of A Beautiful Life, a musically brilliant and emotionally potent new album by Jimmy Greene in tribute to his murdered daughter, Ana Grace. I could write a long essay about Jimmy the human being – we’ve been friends over half our lives by now – his humility, his strength, his faith and his caring responsibility. But that’s not what this is. Instead, I wanted to whet your appetites with some personal highlights from the catalog of Jimmy the musician. Though he is my friend and a major formative figure in my own development as a young musician, I have also been a fan of his music since I first heard his soulful, mature playing when he was 16. It has of course only gotten better. As a saxophonist and composer he has developed a distinct and important voice.