R.I.P. Al Jarreau

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Sad to say goodbye to one of the most talented jazz vocalists of all time, Al Jarreau. (Wait… did I say one of the most talented of all time? How about just the most talented of all time?).

Here’s a version of “Summertime”, recorded at an outdoor concert on a hot night in Los Angeles, August 1994, featuring a particularly polished band (including Larry Williams on piano, Neil Larson on Keyboards, Steve Gadd on drums, Andrew Ford on bass, and my friend from way-back, Charles Johnson on guitar), along with a laudably clear mix.

Check out Al’s scat solo starting around 3’12”.

And Now For A Little Americana…

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Sarah Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan sing a John Hiatt tune, with three-part harmonies to lift the souls of angels…

Baby’s gone and I don’t know why
She let out this morning
Like a rusty shot in a hollow sky
She left me without warning

Sooner than the dogs could bark
Faster than the sun rose
Down to the banks on an old mule car
She took a flatboat ‘cross the shallow

Left me in my tears to drown
She left a baby daughter
Now the river’s wide and deep and brown
She’s crossing muddy waters

Tobacco standing in the fields
Be rotten, come November
And a bitter heart will not reveal
A spring that love remembers

When that sweet brown girl of mine
Hair, black eyes are raven
We broke the bread and drank the wine
From a jug that she’d been saving

Left me in my tears to drown
She left a baby daughter
Now the river’s wide and deep and brown
And she’s crossing muddy waters

Baby’s crying and the daylight’s gone
That big oak tree is groaning
In a rush of wind and a river of song
I can hear my true love moaning

Crying for her baby child
Or crying for her husband
Crying for that rivers wild
To take her from her loved ones

Left me in my tears to drown
She left a baby daughter
Now the river’s wide and deep and brown
And she’s crossing muddy waters

Now the river’s wide and deep and brown
And she’s crossing muddy waters

And The World Spins Madly On

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When I first heard the Weepies back in 2006 (thanks Cheryl!), it was by way of the song featured in the video below: And The World Spins Madly On. I thought: “Hmmm… a duo that, in some oblique way, sounds a lot like Simon and Garfunkel”. It was partly the two-part harmonies, partly the songwriting, partly the lightness of the production, bathed in a semi-transparent haze of reverb – one reason why this song seems to almost float away as you listen to it. I’ve since learned to appreciate the duo for their own quirky but relentlessly accessible style, which is most evident on their current release, Sirens.

Ryan Woodward’s animated video, uploaded in 2010 but which I just stumbled upon, nicely captures the song’s tragi-romantic sentiment.

“How I Got My Song” – Leonard Cohen

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So… it seems that I haven’t posted anything all month. Chalk it up to the summer doldrums.

In any case, I’m determined not to neglect July entirely. So, for your amusement, here’s a curious little acceptance speech Leonard Cohen gave at the 2011 Prince of Asturias Awards event in Spain. He won the prize for Literature, but his speech is mostly about how he came to be a songwriter. As you might well expect from Cohen, what he has to say is a little bit beautiful, a little bit tragic, and just a tad absurd (particularly in its opulent setting).

Enjoy!

Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes”

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I haven’t had much time for music lately, but for a few months I’ve been dabbling with Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” in my spare moments. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far, along with a collection of fractal images I’ve generated using FRAX, the iPhone app. If you enjoy it, please go to iTunes and buy Wayne Shorter’s own one-of-a-kind rendition.

Infant Eyes from Larry Herzberg on Vimeo.

R.I.P., Jack Bruce

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Photo of Jack Bruce,  2006Photo by Christian Sahm (2006); used under the Creative Commons license.

Of all the rock “icons” whose talents peaked in the late 1960s through the early 1970s, Jack Bruce – bass player, songwriter, and remarkably polished vocalist – is probably one of the more under-appreciated. He certainly contributed more than one-third to the sound of Cream, the band he formed with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. But his solo work during a slightly later period garnered him relatively little acclaim, as I recall, probably because it was so much subtler and harmonically complex than his work with Cream. His musicality was not lost on me, however, just a high school senior at the time of his 1971 release, “Harmony Row”. That year, if you remember it at all, was a time of high historical drama and, for some of us, personal lessons learned. Bruce provided part of our common soundtrack, in an uncommonly sophisticated way. Here’s one of my favorite songs from Harmony Row: “Can You Follow”.

 
Hey can you follow,
Now that the trace is fainter
In the sand
Try turning your face to the wall

Can you still read me
Now that the chase is wilder
In your hand
Try losing your place in the sun

All the praises of the dream
Turned to tangles in the trees
All yesterday’s fine chariots
Turned to buses in the street

Can you still hear me
Now that the songs are moving
Into night
Try sleeping with the dancers in your room

R.I.P. Chuck Silverman: A Keeper Of The Flame

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I just learned that an old friend of mine passed away unexpectedly last May: Chuck Silverman, a man whose life-long obsession was drumming – particularly Afro-Cuban percussion. Along with a couple of other aspiring musicians, Chuck and I shared a house high up in the Hollywood hills in the late ’70s. When he wasn’t at a gig, he was almost always at the house, but rarely seen: he would practice literally all day in a narrow walk-in storage closet he’d (somewhat) sound-proofed, using headphones to play along with his favorite latin tracks. After that household dissolved in the early ’80s, we largely lost track of each other until he emailed me a few years ago to catch up. In addition to having studied ethnomusicology at UCLA, he’d become a successful teacher and writer, authoring several highly-regarded books and columns, teaching at the Musician’s Institute in L.A., and introducing anyone who would listen to Afro-Cuban rhythms. At the time of his death, he was trying to complete a documentary film on a style of Cuban music he feared would soon be lost. As a memorial to Chuck, and in the now perhaps dim hope that his film will eventually be finished, here’s a short video he made about the project (before his initial filming began in 2013).

“Keepers of the Flame” Documentary Film Fundraising Video

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”.