Sting Ponders The Multiverse

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As a rule, musicals tend to strike me as amusing at best (Passing Strange aside), and only time will tell whether Sting and his cohort of Broadway pros can pull off the rare feat of successfully marrying rock, pop, or folk songs to an emotionally resonant and theatrically stageable story. But the more I listen to the numbers Sting has written for his The Last Ship project, the more they grow on me. You can listen to many of those songs, performed live by Sting and several cast members, on this American Masters episode. Meanwhile, here’s one of the more thought-provoking and suggestive songs from the album (not included in the Great Performances episode), one that demonstrates how a talented – and well-read – songwriter (or two) can relate an interpretation of quantum physics to a theme with a lot of poetic and dramatic potential: how choices create universes, and how those universes might be related to parallel universes not only physically, but – more humanly – by relief, or regret, or resignation, or…

“It’s Not The Same Moon”
by Sting and Rob Mathes

Did you ever hear the theory of the universe?
Where every time you make a choice,
A brand new planet gets created?
Did you ever hear that theory?
Does it carry any sense?
That a choice can split the world in two,
Or is it all just too immense for you?

That they all exist in parallel,
Each one separate from the other,
And every subsequent decision,
Makes a new world then another,
And they all stretch out towards infinity,
Getting further and further away.

Now, were a man to reconsider his position,
And try to spin the world back to its original state?
It’s not a scientific proposition,
And relatively speaking…you’re late.

It’s not the same moon in the sky,
And these are different stars,
And these are different constellations,
From the ones that you’ve described.
Different rules of navigation,
Strange coordinates and lines,
A completely different zodiac,
Of unfamiliar signs.

It’s not the same moon in the sky,
And those planets are misleading,
I wouldn’t even try to take a bearing or a reading,
Just accept that things are different,
You’ve no choice but to comply,
When smarter men have failed to see,
The logic as to why.

It’s not the same moon,
It’s not the same moon,
In the sky.

Jason Isbell’s “Elephant”

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I heard Jason Isbell play “Elephant” on an NPR show a few months back, bought it on iTunes and didn’t listen to it again until recently. Some tout it as the best song ever written about cancer (not that there’s much competition on that score), but I’ve come to think of it as one of the better songs ever written about a rare sort of friendship.

Here’s a well-recorded live version from SiriusXM radio. Please excuse the obscenities, by which I mean the embedded ads, the first of which can be clicked away, the second of which will fade on its own-

She said Andy you’re better than your past,
winked at me and drained her glass,
cross-legged on the barstool, like nobody sits anymore.
She said Andy you’re taking me home,
but I knew she planned to sleep alone
I’d carry her to bed, sweep up the hair from the floor.

If I’d fucked her before she got sick,
I’d never hear the end of it.
She don’t have the spirit for that now.
We drink these drinks and laugh out loud,
bitch about the weekend crowd,
and try to ignore the elephant somehow…
somehow…

She said Andy you crack me up,
Seagrams in a coffee cup,
sharecropper eyes and her hair almost all gone.
When she was drunk she made cancer jokes,
she made up her own doctor’s notes,
surrounded by her family
I saw that she was dying alone.

I’d sing her classic country songs
and she’d get high and sing along.
She don’t have much voice to sing with now.
We’d burn these joints in effigy,
cry about what we used to be,
try to ignore the elephant somehow…
somehow…

I buried her a thousand times,
giving up my place in line,
but I don’t give a damn about that now.
There’s one thing that’s real clear to me-
no one dies with dignity,
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow…
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow…
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow…
somehow…
somehow…

Pannonica – Thelonius Monk

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I stumbled upon Thelonius Monk’s “Pannonica” leafing through an old collection of jazz standards about a year ago. I slowly sight-read through the 32-bar tune, finding the changes intriguing but mysterious, the often chromatic melody fluidly elegant. On paper, the composition is something of a conundrum; in the air, it is seriously playful. I was hooked immediately… but what did that strange title mean? Googling it revealed that ‘Pannonica’ – or ‘Nica’ for short – referred to the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, née Rothschild (1913-1988). She was a well-known jazz connoisseur, and the musicians she supported and promoted seemed genuinely to respect her. She gained some notoriety when Charlie Parker died of an overdose at her house in 1955, an incident depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film Bird (which I recommend). Monk lived at her house from 1970 until his death in 1982.

Nica and Monk in 1964, at the Five Spot in New York. Photo by Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Nica and Monk in 1964, at the Five Spot in New York. Photo by Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

For months I struggled to find a way of soloing gracefully through those seemingly disjointed changes, not to mention ways of comping that did the tune at least minimal justice on guitar. Of course I listened to Monk’s solo piano rendition, and realized instantly that trying to emulate that masterpiece would be hopeless. So here’s the best I could come up with, given limited time and resources-

Hannah Rothschild, Nica’s great-niece, recently wrote her biography (thanks for the tip, Berry). Here’s The Guardian’s review. It follows by a couple of years David Kastin’s well-regarded biography. I’ll probably read one of them eventually. But for now I think I’ll just continue to relate to her through Monk’s masterful musical portrait – he knew his subject so very well.

Sarah Jarosz On NPR

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Yet another reason to love NPR: their “Tiny Desk Concert” series, which provides talented young singer-songwriters like Sarah Jarosz with an intimate, non-commercial, high-quality venue. Here Jarosz performs three tunes from her latest album, Build Me Up From Bones, with fiddler Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith. The album is beautifully produced, but I love these cut-down versions even more-

Donald Fagen: Hell In A Handcart

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“Hell in a handcart”.

That’s where Donald Fagen, in unabashed curmudgeon mode, thinks we’re all headed, thanks to the ubiquitous social media that keeps kids – by whom he means anyone born after 1960 and raised by television – staring at the gadgets in their palms instead of relating to each other in person. Or at least that’s what he told Tom Ashbrook – who seems to be developing more of an appreciation for quality music lately – at the end of his recent On Point interview, in which he was selling his recently released memoir, “Eminent Hipsters“. You can listen to the interview on the podcast or here. The book is near the top of my someday-I’ll-have-the-time-to-read list.

And while we’re talking Steely Dan, here is some recent concert footage of the band playing that old chestnut, Do It Again, featuring Michael McDonald (!) singing all but the last verse, when Donald chimes in. Enjoy some of the best pop-rock-jazz-r&b ever conceived of in this or any other universe-

And to just for the hell of it, here’s a short documentary about the making of one of my favorite tunes off perhaps Steely Dan’s most exquisite album Aja: “Home At Last”.

Stew On Art: Luxury Or Necessity?

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I’ve blogged before about Stew (AKA Mark Stewart), the Tony award-winning playwright for his rock musical Passing Strange and accomplished singer-songwriter (check out his latest album, Making It), but his lecture/performance at UW Oshkosh the night before last gave me another opportunity to share him with you.

Stew-Image-4

The answer he gave to the question – is art necessary? – was, as you might have expected, yes… but the reasons he gave were not the usual ones. For instance, it wasn’t that cultures require art to flourish, or that art is needed to civilize the heathen soul. Rather, Stew riffed on three main themes, and I’ll just state the gist of them here, along with some of my own elaboration I don’t think he’d object to.

First, art is what people do, as people. You simply can’t be a person unless you create art, even if the only art you create is yourself. When you step into your grandma’s house, you notice – if you have any eye for it at all – that she has carefully placed keepsakes and photos on the coffee table, the shelves, etc.. Her whole life is (or at least those aspects of it she cares to remember are) on display, if not for others, at least for herself. Then there’s the annual holiday card, letter, or now email that many of us send to our friends and family, updating them on our “true stories”. This is a creative act. It is art. Similarly, we’re all playwrights. Every day we choose our own costumes and dabble with our sets; we also write most of own lines. I would add that, unlike the days when radio ruled, we’re now our own music supervisors as well, as we carry our music libraries on our phones. But – and here I’m developing Stew’s theme in a way with which he might not entirely approve – for better or worse we’re not entirely in control of the final product. We’re not the sole producers of our art, after all. Our parents, and everyone who came before us, and for that matter the entire universe, also have that honor (or should I say dubious distinction?). Nor, even if we are self-directors, do we contractually have control over the final cut. We all wander onto each other’s stages, often in the middle of productions we have nothing – or nearly nothing – to do with. Narratively this should result in relative chaos, and sometimes it does, but usually we manage to muddle through. It is, as Stew said, what we do.

Secondly, art is necessary in the sense that, paradoxical as this might sound, it keeps life real. It always, though often unintentionally, offers a critique of the status quo: the one-dimensional, black and white, reductive Grand Narratives proffered by politicians, religious leaders, and mass media marketeers. Art does this merely by reminding us of the particular, the personal, and the idiosyncratic. Impoverished art – and here’s my somewhat more Aeolian take on Stew’s relatively Ionian melody – is little more than some permutation of the status quo that the artist has perhaps unconsciously internalized and regurgitated. Impoverished art merely reflects the status quo by being overly simplistic, stereotypical, shallow, sentimental and/or sensationalistic… Sartre would call such art “inauthentic”. When impoverished art is intentionally produced and therefore bad in addition to impoverished, there might be a temptation write it off as prostitution – it is often done just for money, and it does similarly satisfy a consumer’s need (so perhaps even bad art is “necessary”, in a sense). But artists that intentionally produce impoverished art invest less of themselves in their work than even the most jaded prostitutes, who at least have to use their own bodies. Such artists merely pretend, without taking any chances, without revealing anything about their actual selves. More “authentic” artists also pretend, but never merely. Their pretending is not deceptive; it’s not pretense.

Not that I have anything against the occasional “guilty pleasure”… For instance, I confess to regularly watching the latest version of “Hawaii 5-0″, mainly for the scenery and, since I grew up in the Islands, its nostalgic value. Sometimes, serendipitously and for purely personal, idiosyncratic reasons, even impoverished art resonates.

Finally, art provides us with at least one half of a real friendship in a world where real friends are always rare, but grow even rarer as we age. Poets, novelists, singer-songwriters, filmmakers, and others put the best of themselves into their works; they represent themselves – or at least how they see the world – as honestly as they can. What more could you ask of true friends, except perhaps that they also show some interest in you? And these friends, unlike the flesh-and-blood kind, are never far away. There they are, under a layer of dust on your bookshelf, in your rarely opened music and movie files, undemanding, patiently waiting to be discovered or re-discovered when you most need them. Of course, just like the flesh-and-blood variety, such friends might fail to live up to expectations, or lose their attractiveness over time. But to co-opt and re-purpose Matthew 7:16- By their fruits you shall know them… not to mention yourself.

Speaking of fruits (or, less metaphorically, works), it seems fitting to end this post with the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Burnt Norton”, the first of his “Four Quartets” – which Stew mentioned as being a very old friend of his, but one that he’s just now really getting to know:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

Gary Burton: Learning To Listen

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High on my list of “books to read if I ever have the chance to read for pleasure” is jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton’s new autobiography, “Learning To Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton“. Burton, who started playing professionally when he was just 8 years old (and who recently turned 70), revolutionized jazz vibraphone by inventing a four-mallet technique that allowed the solo instrument to play chord voicings previously available only to pianists, harpists, and, to a lesser extent, guitarists. By impeccably combining that technique with a mastery of the most advanced improvisational theory to be found in jazz, Burton managed to stay on the forefront of jazz-fusion for well over fifty years, and he’s still going strong. Here’s an example of his youthful virtuosity in what appears to be the early 1970s, when I first became aware of his playing: a solo performance of Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”)-

If you can tolerate Tom Ashbrook’s overbearing interview style, check out today’s “On Point” podcast, in which Burton discusses his long career as a performer and a teacher, as well as the challenges he faced – before coming out in the 1990s – as a closeted gay man in the relatively macho jazz community.

Happy Fourth of July

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You know, I sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” countless times in elementary school, but I’m quite sure we never sang the last three verses. On this Independence Day, as many state politicians seek to sell off public property, discourage public education, and generally devalue the very notion of a public sector, here’s the whole gall-darn beautiful song-

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

Klimbim Duet

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Don Ross and Jimmy Wahlsteen are, separately, extraordinary solo acoustic guitarists. Since both record for CandyRat Records, it’s not particularly surprising that they recorded this duet of Ross’s “Klimbim” back in 2010 to publicize an upcoming tour. What is amazing, however, is how tight the performance is, considering that they’re recording live on a sidewalk in Nova Scotia. At one point a fire engine comes blazing by, siren wailing; it hardly fazes them.

Really, except perhaps for the location, this is at least one way steel-string acoustic guitars were always meant to be played.

Lest We Forget…

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On this synchrodipitous [adj. derived from 'synchronic' and 'serendipitous'] confluence of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and President Obama’s second inauguration, let us not forget how recently the events recorded below occurred, nor how history tends to repeat itself when forgotten…

Featuring a super-funky-bluesy-gospelly version of “Eyes On The Prize” by Ms. Mavis Staples. Take it, Mavis-

(Thanks Berry)

A Prayer For The 21st Century: Come Healing (Leonard Cohen)

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Dedicated to everyone I know – and anyone I don’t know – who has recently dealt with a serious health issue.

Cohen’s song and unique voice speaks for itself. In the video accompaniment, I just embedded his lyrics into photos of some of the nicest flowers I’ve ever met.

If you have the bandwidth, view this fullscreen in HD if that setting is available on your system, or else here on YouTube. (Sorry for any pop up ad you might see, on which I make no money but which Cohen’s publisher apparently requires of all videos featuring his songs.)

Happy Holidays!

Larry

Post-Election Adrenaline Rush

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For Obama fans it’s been a long two years since the disastrous 2010 election, and now that the unpleasantness of the 2012 campaign is finally over, I’d say that an adrenaline rush is just what the doctor ordered… this one courtesy of Gareth Pearson, surely one of the “young guns” of finger-pickin’-to-the-max:

Ana Maria

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While I’m in the mood to post some of the music I’ve been working on lately, here’s my rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Ana Maria”. I played the electric guitars on it, and programmed all the rest. The video is a capture of my iTunes Visualizer.

Quiet Now

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Here’s my rendition of Denny Zeitlin’s jazz ballad, “Quiet Now”. I played electric and acoustic guitars on it, and programmed the bass. The video is just a slideshow of some quiet places I’ve been lucky enough to visit. (This is the SD version; see the HD version – if your internet connection can handle the bitrate – here).