Manafonistas

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We were evacuated from my house last Saturday evening because of the threat of the Kincade Fire, which was due to be whipped up by a “wind event” predicted to arrive later that evening, continuing into the following day. The evacuation order came at 6:00 pm, precisely at the moment we had just finished packing my entire music studio into our two cars, along with a few cherished items, some clothes, essentials and some art works. We went to my partner Melissa’s place in Santa Rosa which still had power (PG&E was turning off power in order to prevent more fires,) and thought we would be safe there, spending a sleepless night with the crazy winds banging shrubbery against her windows and periodically being awakened by yet another sheriff’s evacuation warning on my cell phone, until early morning when Santa Rosa was also evacuated. So early ‪Sunday morning‬ we drove to the Whole Foods in nearby Petaluma because we couldn’t think of what to do next. The 101 freeway was packed with evacuees, all headed south; it looked like a scene from a cheesy sci fi apocalypse movie from the 90’s. When we arrived at Whole Foods, it was a wild scene, because it appeared many other west county folks had the same idea. I saw some of my musician friends there, bleary eyed, drinking coffee and milling about, not knowing where to go. We talked about our plans and made a few phone calls to friends, eventually landing in Berkeley where we stayed for a few days with one of my dearest friends.

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile the fires continued to burn largely uncontained, growing to over 78,000 acres, while over 5000 fireman hailing from 300 fire companies from all over the country battled the blaze and bravely protected little towns less than a mile west of the fires, and in some cases the fire was literally within a few hundred feet of swallowing up whole developments, as in the photo below. The fear was with the fierce Diablo winds blowing (gusting up to 100 mph,) the fire would jump the 101 freeway and land in our neck of the woods, an area that hasn’t burned since the 1940s, where it could get a foothold and sweep through everything in its path all the way to the sea. Around 90,000 structures were threatened – that’s why they evacuated west county all the way to the coast.

We know we have problems here: it’s a complex issue, with the urban/woodland interface that has grown up all over the area, and contrary to Trump’s blaming the state for poor forest management, for the most part it wasn’t the forests that were burning – up here it was mostly grassland and chaparral near the vineyards. And with some 33 million acres of forests state wide, about half of which are federally owned, it would be virtually impossible to “clean it all up“ because we’ve had wet winters the past couple years, which only increases the fuel load in summer, and it would take many millions (more likely billions) of dollars to clean it up, and it still probably wouldn’t be enough. And of course, our president doesn’t even acknowledge climate change, choosing instead to ignorantly blame California and because you know, we don’t like him.

And then we have problems with our power company PG&E, because they continue to put profits for their shareholders above maintaining their infrastructure. This was the reason for the Paradise fires in Butte County where so many people died – some folks got ahold of PG&E’s records that showed they deferred maintenance there for some 30 years. The same holds true for our area. Thus it was that a similar accident occurred here: a transmission tower failed. Two of my friends were in Geyserville the evening the fire broke out- at 9:30 PM they witnessed the explosion of the transmission tower high on a distant hilltop. Some people even caught it on video. At least this time PG&E is fessing up – last time they lied about it. Now they’re already in bankruptcy and even more people have lost their homes (around 400 structures this time, 1/2 of which were homes, nothing compared to the 10,000 structures we lost in 2017 but still …) This time almost everyone was evacuated and there were no lives lost. Kudos to Sherrif Esseck for declaring the largest evacuation (over 200,000 people) in Sonoma County history. Under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do.

 

 

 

 

Our friend in Berkeley had a family member who was also in need of a place to stay, so we had to leave and we stayed a couple more days with good friends in Brentwood out towards the Sacramento Delta. It was so peaceful and quiet out there. Except for the faint smell of smoke and the brown skies on the horizon, one would‘ve never known what was happening up north.

Evacuations were lifted Thursday afternoon and power finally came back on that night, but Melissa had had a mishap 2 days before – she scratched her cornea really badly and had to go to the emergency room. After that there were follow up visits to the ophthalmologist. So we were stuck in the East Bay until she saw the doctor one more time. My studio equipment was still over at the last house we stayed in Berkeley. So after her appointment we went back to my friend’s house, re-packed all of our stuff and finally headed home. Needless to say, it has been a very stressful experience for many of us. And this is the 2nd time in just two years – Welcome to the new normal.

But of course until the rains come, I will not feel comfortable in my own home. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe in my home again. We’ve been looking to move for the better part of the last year and have made multiple trips up north. It’s not easy to find a place to land, knowing it’ll probably be the last place I live. And of course, Melissa has to be happy as well; so much has to be considered. The bay area affords a vast variety of diverse cultural experiences, not to mention the beauty of the coastline. That’s the ”problem” with where we live: We are 30 minutes from the ocean, 45 minutes from the mountains, and about an hour from San Francisco: It’s hard to beat. San Francisco remains a vital cultural arts center on the west coast, especially for the kind of music I enjoy. We have the amazing SF Jazz Center, the one of a kind Chapel, West Sonoma County’s own formidable Healdsburg Jazz Festival and a number of smaller venues that support the sort of eclectic, esoteric music I love. I’m fully aware that cities like Eugene, Portland or even Seattle don’t have this kind of programming and if they do, it tends to be a rarified event. Of course one can travel to the Bay Area or anywhere else for that matter for a healthy dose of culture. I just have mixed feelings about cutting the cord here, because I know once I do, I’m never coming back, and after 45 years in my beloved Sonoma County, that’s a sobering thought. That being said, the prospect of not moving is even more sobering.


 
 

Saw an extraordinary concert last night with Tigran Hamayasan and Areni Agbabian. Tigran played a beautiful solo piano set comprised of pieces off several of his more recent Nonesuch recordings including things from his latest solo album For Gyumri, the village in Armenia where he grew up – then he brought vocalist Areni Agbabian to the stage. Rather than perform her music, they performed more of Tigran’s music interspersed with free pieces, one of which was built on layered synth drone loops created on the fly by Hamyasan. This impromptu piece turned out to be one of the most powerful and transcendent moments of the evening. Most of the pieces presented were meditative and slow, although the closer, a piece off one of his Nonesuch records (they all sort of blend together for me-could’ve been off Shadow Theater,) was a powerhouse, a mind- blowing epic that had Tigran playing two fisted grooves in a long odd beat cycle (15) while Areni sang high-wire instrumental lines over it with surgical precision.

Areni Agbabian possesses one of the sweetest non-operatic soprano voices around and has a very refined if understated vocal technique. The pristine purity of her voice really has to be heard live to be appreciated. While I love her performances on Tigran’s non-ECM projects, I am really enjoying her ECM album Bloom. Although she’s a capable accompanist for herself, Tigran’s inspired playing elevated her performance to an entirely different orbit. She improvised along with him several times – although she seemed a bit shy at first, her melodic sensibility was virtually infallible.

Sometimes the two sang together, voices blending effortlessly. At one point during the closing piece, Tigran took a “beatbox” solo, but that is too shallow a description for what he actually does. Besides exploring his Armenian roots, it appears Tigran has studied the Indian rhythm system known as Konecol. His polyrhymic beatboxing is so complex, his mastery of the subdivision of the beat so prodigious, that drummers on youtube are learning his solos from posted videos, playing along with them and posting videos of their own. There were so many lightening-in-a-bottle moments filled with ephemeral beauty, I lay awake late into the night still feeling the impact – a profound journey through modal worlds filled with forest magic from another time and space – yet at the same time imbued with the sort of subtle dissonance associated with composers such as Bela Bartok and (early) Stravinsky. Tigran expertly crafts a harmonic language that doesn’t eschew tonality – instead he chooses augment it with beautiful yet dark dissonance.

Sadly, the hall was only slightly more than half full, yet by the end those of us who had stayed (surprisingly, a number of people had walked out,) and surrendered to the music were treated to three encores, including a stunning arrangement of a piece by the great musicologist monk, Komitas.

2019 22 Okt

Years and Years (HBO)

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Years and Years is the kind of show that I had hoped Black Mirror would be but never could deliver because much as I tried to like it, BM comes across to this viewer as The Twilight Zone without heart. The creator of Black Mirror seems to revel in torturing his protagonists with the futuristic technologies he conceives. There are rarely happy endings in the dystopian worlds he creates. After a while, I just couldn’t hang with it.

Not so with the new HBO miniseries Years and Years. While dealing with big ideas and imagined (but entirely plausible) new technologies, Years and Years retains its humanity. And in contrast with Black Mirror’s obsession with tech gone awry, Years and Years has far bigger fish to fry.

It’s hard to write about the series without giving away any spoilers. Suffice it to say Years starts out in the year 2024 and spans nearly a decade. The world is in a shambles of course. With climate change getting worse and economic meltdowns on the horizon in the UK, Emma Thompson, cast against type, plays the rising new political star, a monster just as clueless and dangerous as Trump. Thompson seems to relish the role (she produced the series,) and her character stokes the dark corners of the collective British psyche much as the Orange One has done in the US.

It’s a sprawling story: Besides functioning as a caveat for the perils of technology and its negative effects on privacy, health and it’s potential for inflicting massive human abuses with the kind of efficiency the Nazis could never have dreamed of, it’s main focus is on climate change migration and the logical conclusions of the current virus of nationalism and xenophobia which seems to be infecting the globe. In short, it takes what’s happening today and extrapolates where we might end up if humankind keeps going on its current trajectory.

The writing is smart in that the series gets its larger ideas across by keeping its focus on just one family. Thus through the lens of individual struggles and conflicts, the show succeeds in humanizing the larger issues by illustrating how they affect real people we grow to care about deeply.

Years and Years can be looked upon as both an allegory for what’s happening today and as a warning of the real possibility of a much darker future if we humans don’t start to become active as individuals (and collectively) and do our part to prevent looming catastrophe. Rather than merely preach, the show’s creators chose instead to involve the viewer on an emotional level, delivering their messages through the actions of the characters. There is one powerful summarizing monologue delivered by an unlikely character towards the end, but when it comes, delivered with a walloping performance by Muriel Deacon, the show has more than earned it.

There’s wry humor here, high drama and devastating tragedy, but behind it all lies a higher, transcendent purpose. To say more would be giving away too much. Highly recommended.

 
 

In the midst of escalating chaos in my homeland, I have officially retreated into the world of nostalgia. But not just your garden variety nostalgia, as in for instance, listening to the old worn out vinyl of say, the Small Faces Ogden’s Nutgone Flake or the Incredible String Band’s 5000 Spirits, both good elixirs in our humorless, decidedly un-whimsical age. No, today getting away from the constant onslaught of dark forces trying to undermine all that is good in a 24/7 news cycle takes decidedly stronger medicine.

Besides being the 50th anniversary of the release of Abbey Road, 2019 is also the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, an event I wasn’t able to attend due to extenuating circumstances – a story for another day. I was still in high school – a 16 year old who went from being president of his class in 1967 to a complete hippie and unpopular anti-war activist over the course of one year. I didn’t complete this transformation gracefully; by 1968 I was outspoken to the point where I had alienated most of my classmates in my small New Jersey town, many of whom had brothers serving in Vietnam. And there I was, my picture on the front page of the Bergen Evening Record, holding a peace sign, shouting Hell No We Won’t Go with my fellow protestors. It didn’t win friends and influence people at home. After that I was targeted and had it not been for the fact I was one of the fastest runners in the school, I would’ve had my ass handed to me many times during those years. And weirdly enough, those were what I refer to as gentler times. What kept me sane then as now, was music.

In the past couple of years, there have been multiple remixes and deluxe packages of some of the music that kept me sane when I was a teenager. On a certain level, I suppose this can be looked upon as blatant money grab by the powers that be to try to squeeze a little more bread out of the baby boomers, who like me, had bought these chestnuts already in vinyl, then as CDs, then as remastered CDs and now in “deluxe” form. A case in point are the 3 deluxe reissues/remixes of Beatles albums. I was a sucker and bought all of them. I realize part of that was an attempt to relive that moment when a new Beatles album came out- it was monumental, a ritual where I sat down in our living room, fired up my dad’s Scott receiver and listened to Sgt Peppers for the first time over those KLH speakers.

Unboxing the new Abbey Road remix deluxe package was sort of a similar experience. It’s a beautiful package, a nice book with many photos I had never seen before-thick paper too. Of course I immediately started with the Blu-ray 5.1 mix. (There’s also a Dolby Atmos mix but I don’t own that tech yet.) The remix was done by both Giles Martin and Sam Okell. I became familiar with Sam Okell’s work on the first official remixed Beatles album, the excellent Yellow Submarine Songtrack. Most people don’t know about this project and up until the release of these deluxe packages, it was the best sounding Beatles album in my collection. The 5.1 mix is beautiful, immersive and totally satisfying on every level. While discrete enough to satisfy surround junkies such as myself, it’s such an organic, perfectly balanced mix that one is never shaken from the experience by mere aural gimmickry. (Although Her Majesty does slowly make its way around the speakers before ending on that famous cut off guitar string- and it’s cool.)

Of course, Abbey Road was already the best sounding Beatles album. With George Martin back at the helm and at least judging from the 2 CDs of session material, the boys in better spirits than most accounts give, it’s an overall optimistic project. Listening to Here Comes the Sun in surround, I was able to let go of my general anxiety about my country’s descent towards the dissolution of democracy, the dying oceans, the loss of 1/3 of our birds, melting glaciers and the looming mass extinction event we are witnessing, and just relax into George’s eternally optimistic paen to the sun and his timeless, gentle reminder that “its alright.”

The sessions are fun too. It’s a crackup to hear John and Paul play The Ballad of John and Yoko as a duet, Paul on drums and John on guitar. After a take, John gently chides Paul for speeding up a bit, calling him Ringo. Paul comes back with a gentle jibe, calling John “George.” I didn’t know there were only two Beatles on that entire track.

The session CDs are full of bright moments such as these: Paul’s stripped down version of If You Want it, Come and Get It, which was exclusively covered by Badfinger and as predicted by Paul who insisted on their copying his arrangement to the letter, would become a huge hit. Or Paul doing a basic version of his bittersweet “Goodbye,” which was covered by Mary Hopkin on an album he produced for the Apple label. Another high point from the sessions is the trial edit of The Long One, the medley from Side 2, in which the songs were placed in a different order from the final version. There is a startling moment when Her Majesty shows up in the middle of the medley and ends with a power chord going into the next tune. It’s also really nice to hear George Martin’s wonderful string arrangement for Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight all by itself. Lovely stuff.

What’s apparent from the sessions is that despite the fact that the band was falling apart, everyone seemed to be in a good mood, and the band was working hard on getting these tunes down to the finest details. According to the liner notes, fittingly, The End was the last thing the boys recorded together.

Now I think I’ll balance out all this lovely deluxe nostalgia and watch another episode of the amazing “Years and Years” on HBO. Hey, you gotta balance out the nostalgia with a dose of speculative hyper-reality. I will probably write something about that show after I’m through with it. It’s a trip.

 

Neil Young’s Lonely Quest to Save Music

 

Wow, this is my kind of interview. Addresses the negative effects music file compression have on the body / mind, of childhood polio and what that did for Young as a young creative, breaks the “4th Wall” and allows the writer’s personal story to interface with Young’s in an incredibly honest, vulnerable and not at all gratuitous way, speaking to childhood diseases (both the writer and Young have kids with neurological diseases) and using music to help rewire their brains. A fascinating read.

 

 

 
 
Woohoo! I’ve been hoping for this to happen and now its almost here. Official release date here in the states is September 27. Includes the stereo remix, the bluray 5.1 mix a lot of outtakes including an earlier experimental longer side 2 edit, and of course a nice book. What follows is the official release copy:

This is the first time Abbey Road has been remixed and presented with additional session recordings and demos. To create Abbey Road’s new stereo, 5.1 surround, and Dolby Atmos mixes, Martin and Okell worked with an expert team of engineers and audio restoration specialists at Abbey Road Studios. This Super Deluxe Edition of Abbey Road features the new stereo album mix, sourced directly from the original eight-track session tapes. To produce the mix, Giles was guided by the album’s original stereo mix supervised by his father, George Martin.

Abbey Road’s Super Deluxe box set presents 40 tracks – including “The Long One” Trial Edit & Mix for the album’s epic Side 2 medley – on three CDs (stereo) and one Blu-ray disc (Dolby Atmos, 96kHz/24 bit high resolution stereo, and 96 kHz/24 bit DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1). The four discs are housed in a slip-sleeved 12” by 12” 100-page hardbound book with McCartney’s foreword; Martin’s introduction; insightful, in-depth chapters written by Beatles historian, author, and radio producer Kevin Howlett covering the months preceding The Beatles’ Abbey Road sessions, track-by-track details and session notes, the cover art and photo shoot, and the album’s reception upon its release; plus an essay by music journalist and author David Hepworth looking at the album’s influence through 50 years. The gorgeous book is illustrated with rare and previously unpublished photographs, including many taken by Linda McCartney; never before published images of handwritten lyrics, sketches, and a George Martin score; Beatles correspondence, recording sheets, and tape boxes; and reproduced original print ads.

 
 

Laura Allan was one of those Marin County folksingers who didn’t become a household word. She put out 4 albums in her short career (Allan passed away in 2008.) Those first couple, which were released on small labels, were really good. Then she got a record deal with Elektra. They didn’t seem to know what to do with her and came out with an album („Laura Allan“) which was way overproduced and far too slick for Laura’s delicate touch, sounding like a hybrid of Joni and Laura Nyro. After that, I never had the heart to listen to the later releases, fearing more of the same.

I remember an album of Joni Mitchell-like tunes played on mountain dulcimer (or I think I do), and I remember this ambient New Age album, Reflections. Look at the cover – it says it all, a fresh faced hippie goddess who happens to play a special zither redesigned to play like a Celtic harp. And Paul Horn on flute with tons of delay. And then there’s Laura’s angelic, lilting vocals. What’s not to like? Yes, it‘s absolutely lightweight, a mood album from a bygone era – and I love it. But then, it’s a nostalgia thing for me – your mileage may vary. Yet at the same time this one seems to transcend its time and in a strange way, sounds almost contemporary.

There are only four tunes, though rather lengthy – one is around 10 minutes long. It’s so 1970s Marin you can almost smell the sweet grassy hills – one tune is even named Nicasio, after a small rural town in West Marin. Laura’s lovely unaffected voice weaves in and out of the mix, occasionally overdubbed, but mostly just that pure soprano. Occasionally there is a refrain with words, but mostly it’s just wordless vocalizing. Her melodies are purely intuitive, lovely, delicate little phrases that seem to appear and disappear on the wind. Listen to just 30 seconds and you can hear why she was friends with David Crosby. This is inspired music of the moment, and I doubt there was much in the way of preparation – a few key melodic phrases perhaps and away we go.

It was never released on CD but old copies can be found on vinyl, and I’m told it’s available for download. It fulfills a certain ache for a more innocent and simpler time. It’s worth tracking down, even if you just want to stream it. Pretty stuff for a quiet morning, or perhaps a rainy Sunday afternoon. A postcard from another age, another time, another world.

This was an exceptional year at our local Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which has become one of the premiere small jazz festivals in the country, if not the world. It is mind blowing to think a lineup like this year’s could exist in the provincial parts of rural west Sonoma County, but it has not only existed – over the course of its 21 years it has thrived, attracting world class acts from around the country.

This year’s festival acknowledged the 50th anniversary of the ECM label. One of the first weekend’s highlights was the Carla Bley Trio with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard. Carla, who’s 83 and had cancelled the trio’s fall tour last year, seemed frail and very thin, but her focus and energy were apparent from the first note. The trio played a number of tunes off their first and second ECM albums and a couple new pieces as well. From the first downbeat there was such a palpable feeling of rapport between the musicians – deep listening was the evening’s theme, and every musical gesture was clear, concise and inspired. The tunes were respected almost like hallowed ground – even when improvising, the players kept in mind the spirit of the composition and exercised great restraint. These three artists are not “lick players” by a long shot, but here everyone digging in, mining the hidden gold within the musical structures.

Highlights for this listener were Wildlife and the beautiful Utviklingssang, a delicate, relatively simple composition, imbued with deep emotion, brought the house down. Carla announced the trio had just recorded new music in Lugano. She also said at the end of the show, “This is not goodbye.”

 
 

 
 

The other highpoint of the festival for this listener was the series closer, the Dhafer Youseff quartet, a surprising act for a festival that tends to cleave to the mainstream and has a tendency to be American-centric. It’s a pity the jazz crowd who attends these shows didn’t know who these guys were, because it was far from sold out – It should’ve been packed.

Although I really like Dhafer’s music, I had unfortunately been turned off to his recorded work by a couple of early releases that seemed too experimental and unstructured for my tastes at the time. (Malek). Years later, I only bought the excellent Abu Nawas Rhapsody because Tigran Hamyasan was on it. The album wears well- the compositions are strong (4 are collaborations between Dhafer and Tigran.) I have since gone back though his catalog only to discover the collaborations he has made with Eivand Aarset, Nils Petter Molvaer and other great Norwegian musicians. I have had a lot of catching up to do.

Tigran Hamyasan is an extraordinary pianist with a wide palette of musical interests, including jazz (he won the Thelonius Monk International Piano Competiton at the age of 19,) prog rock, heavy metal and electronica. You can hear some of these influences on Red Hail, Shadow Theater and Mockroot. His own recorded work tends to be highly compositional – there are a number of albums where he doesn’t even feature himself soloing on piano, even though he is a singular force of nature as a soloist.

The quartet performing last Sunday evening had one change in personnel from the album: instead of the highly competent, powerful (but to my ears, somewhat sterile) Mark Guiliana on drums, Marcus Gilmore was in the drummer’s seat. It made all the difference for this listener. As Gary Burton once said, “you only sound as good as your drummer.” Well, Marcus Gilmore, who incidentally is the grandson of none other than Roy Haynes, certainly knows how to make a band sound great. First, Dhafer chanted while Tigran extemporized. It was like a ritual, a meditative preamble for what was about to happen. After a few minutes of contemplative bliss, the band literally exploded – when Gilmore, Tigran and bassist Chris Jennings hit it, a visceral shockwave went through the room. At the end of that very first tune, the entire audience leapt to its feet

Besides being a wonderful singer (if an acquired taste,) Dhafer himself is a fine oud player, composer and soloist, yet generously gave plenty of blowing time to his sidemen.

 
 

 
 

Tigran Hamyasan seems to be the one pianist on the planet who possesses secret rhythmic knowledge – yes, there are many jazz pianists with advanced rhythmic concepts, but there are few as well versed in eastern rhythmic systems or as comfortable playing in odd meters as Tigran. It’s as though besides mastering the odd meters of his own Armenian roots, he seems to have studied and absorbed the Indian Konecol system. This study has allowed him to subdivide the long odd metered periods of this music like no other pianist. While I love hearing him on his own music, the openness of Youseff’s modal compositions, with their long beat cycles is the perfect musical landscape for Tigran to let forth his prodigious rhythmic and melodic concept. And whereas the compositional discipline he exercises on his own albums doesn’t seem to allow a lot of room for blowing, here he was given plenty of room to stretch. He seems to relish playing in this band as a sideman- watching him play in this context is quite different from seeing him play solo or even when he’s fronting his own band. He was far more expressive Sunday night, moving, smiling, interacting with the band and displayed fiery chops. Occasionally a line would fly off his fingers and he would literally be thrown backwards from his seat, as if a bolt of lightening had transmitted itself from the keyboard into his body.

Bassist Chris Jennings was the ground for all of the pyrotechnics. He laid down a solid foundation for these wild excursions, keeping the music rooted to the earth.

Marcus Gilmore seemed quite comfortable in this world of long, odd beat cycles (I counted 25 beats on one tune.) He is such a smooth yet soulful player-he made it all look and sound effortless. His technique is fabulous, but it’s his remarkable feel that helped glue the music together that night. The magic was also due to his incredible sense of dynamics. With music this open and modal, solos need to shape themselves and grow to a climax or one can feel like the player is treading musical water. This was never the case that evening; Every solo started at near zero, and took time to build rhythmic tension, eventually exploding into a crescendo as Dhafer would cue in the next unison line and beat cycle. With music this improvisational, it is worth mentioning the great skill Youseff exhibited in subtly directing the band, often cueing dynamic changes with a subtle hand gesture or bringing in a line with a slight nod. He often conducted the band from his oud, sometimes dancing around the stage, keeping eye contact with the players at all times.

It was a generous show; the band played two full sets. They ended the show with one of my favorite tunes off of Abu Nawas Rhapsody, Les Ondes Orientale, which starts off in 17/8 but goes through multiple beat cycles over the course of the tune. Dhafer said this was the encore and they wouldn’t be coming out for another one. (The band had flown in the day before and was probably exhausted.) That didn’t stop the audience from going wild – with a standing ovation that must’ve lasted 5 minutes or longer, even when the applause coalesced to the “one clap” and not without more than a little stomping, the band didn’t come back out. Which didn’t matter to this listener. This was one of the more memorable concerts I had seen in a year of extraordinary shows.

Here’s one of my favorite youtube videos, the band (with drummer Guiliana) playing the closer, Les Ondes Oreintale. Note that this video has over 1.5 million views – a high number for music like this …

 
 
I was lucky to see the first duo performance ever by Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless, two of the founding members of Oregon last night at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. It’s interesting to note that Oregon is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, which has to be some kind of record. Yet considering the enormous influence this group has had, it’s surprising and sad to realize the short shrift they have received here in the States. They haven’t performed on the West Coast for nearly 10 years, and amazingly, they have never graced the stage at the SF Jazz Center. With Ralph having turned 79 this year, and Paul not that far behind him—it is anyone’s guess whether there will be another Oregon tour or album. All of which is to say that seeing these guys perform together is a very precious and rare thing.

I’ve been a follower of Oregon since I was a teenager. I was lucky enough to see the original lineup featuring Colin Walcott on numerous occasions. I am an unabashed Oregon completist, having tracked down virtually everything they ever recorded (except for the elusive Oregon Trio’s Music for a Midsummer Night’s Dream.) No, it’s not all essential, but it all tells something of the Oregon story, a long strange trip of a very different sort.

The history of that legacy was palpable in the elegant, light-filled room at the Soda Springs Winery last night. The crowd was mix of local concert supporters and Oregon fanatics, those of us in the latter category seeming to immediately gravitate towards one another. One guy had traveled from Sacramento to see the duo; another had come all the way from New Jersey. I recognized amongst the fanatics, music journalist extraordinaire Anil Prasad, who has a wonderful website (and a great book) where one can read interviews with cutting-edge musicians from the jazz, pop, and prog worlds. There is a fairly recent McCandless interview and at least one major Towner interview (www.innerviews.com). We shared a bottle of wine and the stories began to flow. We started to talk about our most memorable concert experiences. I realized that many of mine belonged to those performed at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. In its heyday, amidst its excessively ornate, velvet-Victorian beauty—the building once housed a brothel—the stage hosted some of the greatest jazz acts of the mid to late 20th century. (The Great American has since become a boring venue which hosts mostly mediocre rock and pop acts.) It was there in that intimate hall in 1977 that I saw the original Pat Metheny Group. They played “San Lorenzo” and all the white album stuff, threw out new tunes from the yet-to-be-released American Garage. It was here that I saw Eberhard Weber and Colours play the entire Silent Feet album, with the added bonus of “T on a White Horse” for quartet. (Imagine my surprise to find the entire concert was recorded and is up on YouTube.) And it was here that, around 1976, I saw Gary Burton with the Passengers lineup sharing the bill with none other than Oregon. While Gary and Ralph were playing duos between band sets, my date asked Paul to come over to our table and share a blunt. That was the first time I met Paul. He now lives in Healdsburg, and we are friends.

Last night, Ralph first appeared on stage solo and played a lovely set comprising old and new tunes, mostly off of the latest album. The title track, “My Foolish Heart,” was given a tender and detailed rendition. A new as yet unrecorded tune called “Flow” (Ralph spelled out the title to make sure we understood it wasn’t a woman’s name,) was presented. A spirited performance of “Saunter” followed, along with a lively version of “Dolomiti Dance” and a very sweet rendition of “I’ll Sing to You” (which Ralph forgot the title to for a minute, but, hey, he remembered all the notes).

Paul came on stage, armed with just his soprano sax and bass clarinet, and the two launched into a set of classic and lesser known Oregon tunes, all Towner compositions, including Duende, Anthem and The Prowler. It was a beautiful set, and a deeply emotional experience for me. As I mentioned, I grew up listening to these guys, and here they were, still playing, exploring and taking chances, leaning into the moment some 50 years later. The duo received a warm welcome and undivided attention through the set. After the the classic Oregon closer “Witchi Tai To,” on which Paul played penny whistle, the duo came out and played an encore of Towner’s “Celeste,” a delicate tune written for his daughter. Afterwards, I spoke with Paul about the show. He told me the fact that the duo had never performed before made the music feel very fresh for both artists.

It was hard and a little embarrassing for this fan nerd to do, but I had brought the cover to Ralph’s newest solo disc and was determined to have him sign it. When I approached him, he smiled disarmingly as if he recognized me. I reminded him of a workshop the original lineup of Oregon had given at Sonoma State University back in the late 1970s. I had taken a composition class with Ralph and recounted how he had sat at the piano and asked students to throw out chords for him to play at the piano. He wrote them down and attempted to find melodic common ground, a thread that might bind together these random chords. (It was almost as if the students were messing with him, suggesting the weirdest possible succession of chords.) He remarked, “Hey, that was a cool idea. How did it go? Did I succeed?” “Not really,” I told him and we both broke out in laughter. But it was a fascinating exercise in getting a glimpse at his composition process: Start with a couple good chord voicings, which hopefully suggest a melody on top, and then keep at it until a tune emerges. It was a revelation for me personally: His process was no different than that of the rest of us mere mortals; he just had a better ear and perhaps a lot more determination and patience than we did.

After the performance, Ralph and Paul hung around, and no one seemed to want to leave. Pictures were taken. I got my precious autograph and drove home, thinking of all the musical gifts I had received from these two masters for the last five decades.

2019 17 Feb

Big Ears Festival 2019

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This has to be one of the most exciting and most cutting edge music festivals I have ever come across in the US. It’s a staggering lineup this year, including a significant group of ECM musicicians in celebration of the label’s 50th anniversary. I would definitely have made this show, but we’re all set up to go to the Kongshaug Festivalen in Oslo, our Big Trip for the year. It will torture my significant other with Arild Andreson’s latest trio and other more “out” groups, as well as delight her with Mathias Eick’s Quintet. I will also be a reporting Manafonista on this diverse festival that goes beyond ECM artists exclusively.

But back to the Big Ears Festival this year – a formidable and diverse event worthy of Manafonistas. And of all places, it’s in Knoxville Tennessee. Check out the lineup

 


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