Manafonistas

on life, music etc beyond mainstream

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Seeing my blog brother Micha’s incredibly varied and deep list of rediscovered music got me thinking. I too seem to be on a roll of rediscovery. I really noticed this during the pandemic: I started revisiting old music, music from my formative years. I already posted the rediscovery of early electric Return to Forever through the remixed Anthology set. More recently, another guilty pleasure insinuated itself into my consciousness.

As a young hippie, I fell under the spell of one of the most unusual bands of the era – I am speaking of the Incredible String Band. A folk group which at first was comprised of 3 young men, their eponymous album was a pretty straightforward affair, captured without overdubs by the man with the golden ears, Elektra’s young wunderkind Joe Boyd, who heard something special in these young songwriters from Edinburgh. That first album won a prestigious folk award and garnered some positive reviews, but nothing could’ve prepared listeners for the journey to come.

After the release of the first album, Mike Heron stayed back in Scotland in hopes of playing gigs and taking the project to the next level, but oddly enough, Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer had different ideas, and left the British isles to travel abroad. Robin headed to Morocco and parts unknown where he had decided to study Middle Eastern music and wasn’t quite sure he was going to return at all. When he finally returned, he came bearing armloads of instruments and together with Mike, began reforming the group as a psychedelic folk/world duo. Mike had stayed busy as well, writing songs and opening his ears to world music.

During the next 8 years, ISB would make 11 more albums. After their first release,  in just two short years they put out 4 genre (and gravity)  defying albums that influenced everyone from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin, yet they mostly appealed to a relatively small but devoted fanbase. I was one of them.

My love affair with ISB began with a musician friend of mine laying a copy of The 5000 Spirits (aka The Layers of the Onion,) on me. With its uber-psychedelic cover, designed by two Dutch artists known as The Fool, it immediately grabbed my attention. Inside the grooves was a new kind of hybrid music that incorporated the folk traditions of the British isles with influences from India, China, the Middle East, the West Indies and beyond. How did these two make such a quantum leap in the space of a year? Some of it was Robin’s incredible mind and his innate ability to make music on almost any instrument he took in his hands, his uncanny ability to absorb and borrow from multiple traditions, and part of it was perhaps the broader zeitgeist of freedom and experimentation that permeated the air. Mike Heron’s more straightforward, heartfelt, earthy approach to songwriting was the grounding element, which contrasted nicely with Robin’s penchant for far flung audacious experimentalism, odd juxtapositions of Indian, folk, blues, music hall and Celtic traditions, (often in the same song!) and somehow, it all just effortlessly worked.

As Joe Boyd once said, for a time these two could literally do anything. But that magic, like most magic, was fleeting. ISB was like a cosmic juggling act and there was simply no way all of those orbiting spheres could remain in the air forever. Not to say there aren’t many gems to be found on later releases, because there most certainly are, but those records never seemed to reach the consistently high bar the band had set for itself on those first four albums. 

Most String Band aficionados will immediately point to the 3rd release, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter as their best, and I would begrudgingly have to agree. It is certainly their most beloved album. Quirky in all the best ways, inspired, surreal, varied in musical influences, it encapsulated all the elements that endeared the group to their fans. With its exoticism, surreal lyrics, cosmic references, whimsy and humor, dream imagery, summoning of archetypes, reverence for the sacredness of nature and of all living things, it is truly a wondrous recording. The opening track, Koeeoaddi There, embodies so much that is likable about the band. It’s a dream-like  journey into Williamson’s childhood, sketching out the local scenes, characters, shopkeepers, the joys of skating on Happy Valley Pond,  the gambling soldier’s admonitions (“Don’t worry, we won’t send anyone after you, they screamed.”) In just a few minutes, Robin outlines inexplicable events – the strange mysteries of the world seen through the innocent eyes of a child, replete with routine greetings to “The Invisible brethren,” the ritualistic “Earth Water Fire and Air” chant punctuating the stream of consciousness childhood reveries – somehow all the disparate elements meld into a perfectly cohesive whole. And Heron’s A Very Cellular Song, the centerpiece of the album, the song which for many epitomizes ISB, was like nothing that had come before it. A medley of snatches of a Caribbean religious folk tune (borrowed from The Pindar Family – Nonesuch,) songs about amoebas, cosmic paens to the Unseen, whimsical imagery inserted into harpsichord laden baroque verses, all coalescing into a pagan religious ritual, replete with themes and variations accompanied by guitars, gimbris, clay drums, mandolins, organs, jews harps, kazoos, and whatever else the boys could get their hands on.

They were courageously experimental in those days, and even though there were the obvious imperfections due to an understandable lack of  proficiency on many of the instruments they had picked up, none of that really mattered – their sheer unbridled creativity and confidence in their collective vision overshadowed the occasional out of tune vocal or flubbed instrumental notes. There were also unexpected moments of virtuosity. In fact, both were decent musicians on guitar and mandolin. Mike’s sitar was one of the more successful uses of the instrument in a non-traditional pop setting. People often criticized their vocals, but I have always thought Robin’s melismatic flights of fancy back in the day to be pretty spot on, even inspired in terms of note choices and phrasing. And Mike’s earnestly honest vocals carried a certain charm all their own, even if he sometimes strained to reach notes that were a bit out of his range. Again, none of this mattered one whit – their technical limitations didn’t get in the way of their seeming boundless creativity. They were completely fearless.

For me, the high point of the ISB’s short period of conjuring the miraculous out of thin air culminated in Wee Tam And The Big Huge. Released as a double album in the UK, they were released separately in the US, but they really were a double album. I originally recorded them from a KPFA prerelease broadcast and listened to them incessantly. I remember taking those reels to a friend’s country home up in Connecticut and playing them over as elaborate system that had speakers hidden in the trees all thru the woods surrounding their house – a magical experience in the snow. These two albums in my opinion, were the last of the totally magical ISB albums. All the elements were there: the mysticism, some of Robin’s best long form tunes (Maya, The Iron Stone,) and some of Mike’s best innocent child-like tunes. (Puppies, My Greatest Friend.)

By now Robin and Mike had fully integrated their girlfriends into the group. Licorice and Rose brought their innocence and sweetness to the table. Neither was a trained musician, in fact, except for a few violin lessons as a child, Rose, a university student and mountain climber, had never played an instrument. Licorice had some guitar background and a little girl’s voice that was deployed to great effect on stage and on recordings. But musicianship wasn’t the point at all. As Robin once said when asked about the choice of including their partners: it was about friendship – that and chemistry – that’s the reason the girls were in the band. As anyone who saw the band in their heyday knows, the young women graced the stage with their shy presence, even when not doing anything but sitting and smiling when they weren’t playing finger cymbals, keyboards, singing backup vocals or playing an occasionally out of time dumbek. Somehow, Licorice’s and Rose’s mere presence gave the band even more charisma. In fact it was this odd combination of genius and amateurism that gave the band its unique, ineffable sound.

I still remember that first time seeing them. October 1968 – It was a magical night, a night to remember for sure. It had started with a personal initiation ritual: losing my virginity earlier that very evening. Then, synchronistically, my musician friend who had first turned me on to the String Band called to let me know his girlfriend couldn’t make the show and asked if I would like to meet him to see ISB at the Fillmore East. I remember that concert vividly. The stage setup with all those exotic instruments, the excitement and joy in the air, and the opening song, “Jobs Tears.” Robin in full hippie renaissance faire regalia was sitting on a chair playing guitar and Licorice, in a flowing dress, was kneeling on the floor singing the response to Robin’s lines. That image and Licorice’s little voice singing, “All will be one, all will be one” is permanently etched in my mind.

I’m currently reading Rose Simpson’s memoir of her time in ISB. It’s title, “Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden” sums up this honest journal of a young woman’s improbable adventures into music and celebrity. It is an extremely well written and unflinching look at a time that will never exist again, compassionately seen through the eyes of an older, wiser woman who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Imagine Mike Heron coming home with a bass one afternoon, sticking it in Rose’s hands and saying “learn this.” And a few weeks latter she’s appearing onstage at Royal Albert Hall to a packed house with the Beatles, members of Led Zeppelin and other pop luminaries in the audience. That happened.

Of course, no utopian vision can last forever, and the ISB’s juggling act had to lose a few balls. Rose, unhappy with the band’s fascination with Scientology and the direction they were taking, left first. Licorice was next. Years later it was reported Licorice had completely disappeared – as the story goes, she was last seen hitchhiking in the Arizona desert and has never been heard from or seen again. I suspect she is still very much alive but doesn’t want to be found. There was a looming tension between Mike, who wanted to go electric (in truth he had always had the heart of a rocker,) and Robin who was heading in an opposite, more traditional acoustic direction. Something had to give.

ISB went on for a few more years, eventually reinvented as a much more conventional folk rock band with a “real drummer and bass player.” I made the sad mistake of seeing them in that last configuration in LA around 1973 or so. That performance left a bad taste in my mouth and for many years, I stopped thinking about the band completely.

But recently I picked up some newly remastered reissues on the Fledgling and BGO labels and re-collected all of the ones I care about on CDs. I’m pleased to report a lot of it still speaks to me today – it’s not such a guilty pleasure after all, and as it turns out, is much more than just a mere nostalgia trip.

 

There is going to be a new Oregon album release of a 1974 live concert in Bremen. Unlike so many bootlegs from this era, this is an “official” Oregon release, which I presume will have better sound quality as Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless were evidently involved with the mix/mastering process. There aren’t too many documents of this group from that period, which many feel to be their golden era. There’s Oregon in Concert (Vanguard) performed and recorded in Vanguard’s Studio NYC in front of an invited audience in 1975. This was once an extremely difficult recording to find, fetching as much as $100 or more on Ebay,  but it was finally reissued on the Wounded Bird label a couple years ago. I feel this recording is the best live Oregon album out there. There was also the 2nd Oregon in Concert recording (Elektra,) recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1979, but I never found it as compelling as the first. This new live recording features some of their best compositions from that era and could very well be an important document of those early days with the original percussionist/sitarist Colin Walcott. It’s a double CD on the Mooiscus label.

Track Listing:Disc 1:

Brujo
Ghost Beads
Dark Spirit
Ogden Road

Disc 2:

Distant Hills
Embarking
Raven’s Wood
Canyon Song
The Silence of a Candle

 
 

We lost one of the greats, Chick Corea earlier this year. It was one of those losses that are hard to absorb. He was so incredibly vital. Even while ill, during the pandemic he was streaming regular solo piano concerts from his home studio. He always exuded such positive, life affirming energy, right until the end. In his last year, he started Chick Corea University and was teaching one to one over Zoom. In retrospect, I think he knew his time was short and wanted to share his knowledge with as many people as possible.

Chick was one of those people who strongly influenced me in my formative years. I loved his early acoustic work, Tones for Jones Bones and Inner Space and all his wonderful contributions as a sideman for Miles Davis, Bobby Hucherson and Stan Getz, among others. I consider Now He Sings Now He Sobs to be one of the top 10 trio albums of all time. He was only 26 when he recorded that timeless masterpiece. Chick thought it was his best album.

He had such a long and mercurial career, moving from one genre to another. I loved all the ECM releases, the duo albums with Gary Burton, the trio album with the original Now He Sings lineup (Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous,) the two iconic solo piano records and the eponymous Return to Forever album. In fact, I was a huge fan up until the ill conceived last RTF album, Music Magic, which I simply couldn’t stand. After that, I stopped automatically buying his albums and slowly lost touch with his musical career. Now that he has passed, I am reconsidering his importance in the history of the music, and am checking out some of the later albums I missed. I saw him countless times during his ever changing musical incarnations. I was lucky to see him perform a burning straight ahead set with Brian Blade and Christian McBride just a few years back. He remained a magnificent jazz pianist right until the end. The last time I saw him was locally – he brought the Elektrik Band to a nearby town for a fun night of virtuosic fusion closing for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Both bands performed together for the encore. But enjoyable as they were,  the Elektrik band just never had the chemistry and grit of early RTF.

As far as I’m concerned, the beginning of the fusion era really started in that iconic year that has been referenced a lot lately, 1973. That was the year Mahavishnu Orchestra put out the searing Birds of Fire. It was also the year Chick Corea’s newly reformed Return to Forever released Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy. Neither release was anything like Weather Report’s early excursions, even 1973’s Sweetnighter still owed a great deal to Miles Davis’s more spontaneous form of jazz-rock. And the same could be said of Herbie Hancock’s Miles influenced Sextant. No, even though Chick was a part of the Miles lineage, having played on Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew among others, this was something entirely different. It was totally composition driven, groove centered, bottom heavy music firmly rooted in Stanley Clarks rude, snarling bass and Lenny White’s unabashed balls to the wall rock drumming. Pre-synth, Chick conjured all those wildly distorted sounds with nothing more than a Rhodes piano and a few effects put thru a Fender Twin Reverb amp. Bill Connors rounded out the group on electric guitar. Bill is a melodic player, even on electric. And even in this extremely aggressive setting, his solos are models of soaring lines and emotional intensity, with none of the wanking virtuality Al Di Meola was prone to in the coming years after he replaced Connors. I loved Hymn then and played it to death, but even then thought the sound quality left a lot to be desired – it was such a poor recording, it just didn’t communicate the raw magnificence of the live band (saw that incarnation at the Troubador in LA where they performed the entire album -unforgettable.) I have not really thought much about it since and when revisiting, and was frustrated by how thin and small the sound was on the poor sounding CD release.

I knew about the 2008 remixed Anthology but had never picked it up- until about two weeks ago – these remixed tracks are something else, a whole new way of listening to RTF. I already owned a remastered Japanese version of the more prog influenced Romantic Warrior which was amazing…before I heard the remix. These were done at Chick’s Mad Hatter Studio with Chick on hand to supervise. I bought this primarily for Hymn – after all, it was The album that made me a fusion believer. This remix conveys the power and glory of Hymn – It is nothing short of astounding that they were able to create such a powerful and ballsy remix from those ancient tapes. It sounds as if it was recorded in a modern state of the art studio. Lenny’s drums are much more forward and deep – his kick is solid as a rock here. Stanley’s bass growls and struts like a prehistoric beast across the primal aural terrain. It is literally like hearing it for the first time. Just to hear Hymn this way is worth the price of admission, but you get so much more, including the entire Romantic Warrior, sounding better than ever. The only thing that could’ve improved this compilation would’ve been to include the other two RTF albums, No Mystery and Where Have I known You Before in full. You do get sone of the best tracks off both of those worthy albums. I am left wanting more and simply can’t go back to those earlier wimpy sounding CDs. Even the vinyl pales in comparison.

If you are an RTF fan, especially of the “first 4” (post-ECM Return to Forever and Light as a Feather (Polydor,), both classics,) RTF albums, you simply have to get this. Remember those old Maxell tape ads back in the 70s, where the guy is listening to music while siting in a lounge chair and his hair is being blown back as if by a gale force wind? Listening to this remix actually does that.

It’s been a year since I went to a live show. Over that time I have tried to watch streaming shows in order to support the artists by paying a fee to “attend” these shows. It’s always the same thing though – I set up my stream through my big screen TV, set the sound to come out through my stereo, sit back and try to get excited about the show. It’s a weird experience, because no matter how many times I tell myself, “this is different – it’s live”, I don’t feel much of a quantifiable difference in my experience than if I were watching a BluRay, DVD or Youtube stream of a prerecorded concert. Why is that?

I’ve been in touch with Richie Beirach through Covid. He has a bunch of new material on his new website, interviews, books he has co-written on various musical subjects etc. There is one such video where Richie speaks of what it has been like for him during lockdown. For a jazz artist, the only way to ply one’s trade is to perform live for an audience. Richie says he doesn’t practice – he did that diligently for some 25 years and he really doesn’t need to. Indeed, Miles told Herbie and the band Not to practice, just to play on the gig in order to remain fresh. During this long monologue, Beirach is asked why he doesn’t participate in streaming shows. He says its because he needs the ambience of the room, the people sitting there who walk in as strangers and through some mysterious alchemy, join in a kind of musical communion that he claims can only occur when both the musician and audience are sitting in the same room together. He describes streaming shows as unfulfilling because there’s no “feedback” in terms of energy coming back from the crowd, like playing in a vacuum.

 

video

 

It’s interesting that this experience of disconnection is felt on both sides of the screen. I for one can’t wait until my first live show, possibly a concert of Paul McCandless and the Bay Area trio Charged Particles in a tribute to Lyle Mays’ music, coming up in a month or so. Should be a great show. Until then, I’ll be listening, but not watching so much.

 

 

 

It was New Year’s Eve 1969 and I had tickets to see Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies, the evening they recorded the live album at the Fillmore East in NYC, but it was not meant to be. You see, I had a bad case of strep throat that was keeping me home on that cold, snowy winter’s night. I was 17 years old and my entire family was out partying, even my little brother. So I was left alone in our New Jersey suburban house, gazing out the window at the flurries of snow and the icy driveway illuminated by streetlights, imagining all the revelry I was missing down at the Fillmore in the East Village.

In the midst of feeling terribly sorry for myself, the phone suddenly rang. I picked it up and it was one of my friends who happened to live in the house I grew up in down the hill. He told me that a girl, Judy, whose boyfriend was visiting his parents back in Wales for the holidays, had asked about me. “Judy is here and is apparently very horny – she pretty much told me she wants to sleep with you tonight,” he informed me. “You should come down – this is probably the only chance you’ll ever get with her.”

Judy was an artist, a gorgeous black woman hailing from Britain. She was sophisticated, older by at least three years and had reportedly dated Stevie Winwood – in other words, she was way out of my league. My friend handed the phone over to her. “Brian, you just have to come down. We’re having quite the party and it would be lovely to see you.” I mumbled something about being ill but she pressed me to come over. “I promise it will be worth it,” she purred seductively.

I had to go – What else could I do? I gathered myself together, took a hot shower and dressed for the cold weather. The ice made a crackling noise under my feet as I made my way down the hill to my childhood home. It was always weird revisiting the home where I had spent a good portion of my wonder years. When I arrived I was greeted by a group of hippie friends who were of course already quite high, giggling and embracing me in the doorway. They guided me to the back den which had once been a screened in sunroom when I had lived there. They were playing the Jimi Hendrix album, Axis Bold as Love. My friend had lived in England for a year and had returned with some great records, including the British version of Are You Experienced. He had turned me onto Hendrix and all things fab from the British Isles. And now he was turning me onto Judy.

I walked into that now enclosed sunroom, a room I had almost burned down as a child when a science experiment took a bad turn – and there she was, sitting in the corner on the couch looking radiant, wearing a black dress and a beautiful gold necklace with matching earrings. She was stunning – with her high cheek bones and her hair plaited and pulled tightly back, to me she looked like a model. She was flirtatious and when I told her I wasn’t feeling well, she immediately dug into her purse and brought out an Alka-Seltzer. Dissolving it in a glass of water I dutifully drank it down. Feeling no better, she proceeded to ply me with alcohol, a dirty martini as I recall.

After hanging around listening to the Stones Aftermath and the latest Traffic album, she invited me downstairs to my friend’s bedroom. This was really odd for me. As a young child, I never had a bedroom of my own, having shared a room with my older, then younger brother. It wasn’t until I turned 13 that my parents remodeled the sub-surface playroom, the only window which was at ground level. I remember feeling somewhat isolated from the rest of my family who lived two flights of stairs up from me, almost as if I lived in the basement, although it certainly had afforded me plenty of privacy. I noticed it was still the cheery orange color it had been when I first moved in. There was a small double bed and a chest of drawers. A small desk was tucked away in a corner. Judy lit a candle, sprawled out on the bed and motioned to me to join her. She then proceeded to try everything in her repertoire to arouse my interest, but I was just too ill. To tell the truth, she intimidated me, and besides, it was just too weird being in a room I had lived in as a 13-year-old. Childhood memories kept flooding back, distracting me from her amorous efforts.

After exhausting a good number of pages from the Kama Sutra to no avail, Judy and I went back up to join the group. It was then that we got a call from another friend who lived further down the street in an old Victorian. He invited the group of us to make our way over for a hookah full of hashish and the newest Who album. We carefully picked our way down the slippery sidewalk, a couple of us nearly falling enroute.

Tom’s room was a hippie dream – Candelight flickered against the high embossed tin ceiling and on the classic psychedelic posters that dotted the walls; tin foil had been artfully laid in just below the crown molding, giving the room a mirrored appearance, and the antique windows made everything outside look like an impressionist painting. The centerpiece of the room was a low brass Persian table on top of which sat a hookah. Underneath the table lay a luxurious Iranian rug. We sat on floor cushions and took turns taking hits off the hookah. My friend put on Tommy and as was the custom in those days, we sat back and listened in silence.

Not that the hash did much for my condition – instead of being sick, I was now very high and sick. Taking a cue from Judy’s obvious determination to seduce me, everyone tactfully left the room. Once again, she tried everything she could think of to interest me, but alas, her ministrations were all in vain. Eventually she gave up and decided to drive home. New Years Eve was over. I honestly don’t even remember the long, cold walk back to my house.

A couple weeks later, I was on my way to school in NYC. I was walking through the uptown NY Port Authority Terminal on 178th St when I spotted a beautiful woman carrying a rather large black leather art portfolio. It was Judy. I made my way over and after chatting for a couple minutes I mumbled an apology for what had transpired, or rather, what had not transpired on New Years Eve. “Umm, Do you think we umm, might get together again, uh, now that I’m feeling better and all?” I asked, my voice trembling with trepidation. Judy gave me a cool look and uttered, “I don’t think so. Take good care luv.” And that was it. She wandered off towards the subway and disappeared into the crowd. I never saw her again.

 

 

I once hung out with Michel, the late Bay Area sax player, Mel Martin, Michel’s Italian friend and bass player (whose name I forget) and a couple other folks for one wild unforgettable night at the home of the late Jerry Sealund in Sebastopol CA. A wild man, a blind bassist and a friend of Charles Lloyd, Jerry had once played with a lot of the free jazz cats and recorded with some of them, but by the time I met him, had reinvented himself as the owner of the largest health food store in Sonoma County. He was a notorious party animal, and had quite a colorful history, which included hosting Stephen Gaskin’s Monday night Class (which became a classic New Age book)in the back of his Haight Ashbury health food store, Far Fetched Foods. Incidentally, that store burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances, and it was said that was how Jerry financed his large new store in Santa Rosa. But I digress …

Parties at Jerry’s were notorious. I had been to a few and knew what to expect. Predictably, the evening was a mad melange of lots of playing, drugs, alcohol, stories and plenty of colorful expletives.

Michel dug into his wallet at one point, took out a crumpled piece of paper and handed it over for me to read. It was a note by Chick Corea that said something to the effect that Michel was a fantastic talent and that he was sure he had a big career ahead. Tragically, that career was cut short.

We were all extremely high when Michel looked at me and said, “You know, people with my condition (glass bones disease,) never live that long. I’ll be lucky to make it to 30.” He raised his glass and said, “I don’t care motherfucker, lets enjoy this life!” And we proceeded to party like it was 1999. (It was actually probably around 1983.)

Michel hated being carried around. Eventually this strong willed little giant figured out a way to use short crutches to walk to the piano. I saw him do this one memorable night @ Kimballs in SF. After he got to the piano he somehow lifted himself up to the bench, no small feat. Once situated, Instead of using his brace which in the past he has attached from his foot to the pedal, he leaned precariously forwards on the edge of the bench and managed to reach the pedal without it. Somehow he played that way the whole night. It was beautiful.

I found out a while ago from a post by Michael that the enigmatic guitarist Steve Eliovson had passed away on March 15th. Anyway, someone posted a little video about his memorial service. It seems a fan who had once briefly been friends with him tracked him down after many years, but it was too late to reunite. The saddest part of all this is the only people who even knew him and his wonderful album, Dawn Dance were these two out of towners who came from Johannesburg to find him. The rest were just a random quorum of 10 local Jews, none of whom knew him or had any idea who they were burying. I found it a poignant experience to watch this.

 

 

v i d e o

 

 

Here is what the person who filmed this wrote:

 

 

The Quiet Funeral of a Great Guitarist – Steve Eliovson – Born: 1954 – Died: 15 Mar 2020 **There is a Thundafund underway to raise funds for a gravestone for Steve –  ** There are perhaps many thousands of people around the planet who want to know about Steve Eliovson and what has happened to him. We have decided to put this video up of his funeral for all those who want to know. Had they been given advance warning, I’m sure many would have been at his funeral on this day and to say farewell to an enigmatic and brilliant musician. The 17th of March was a sad and strange day. I received a message from my friend Herby Opland that Steve Eliovson had died and that his funeral was this very day at 12 noon at the West Park Jewish Cemetery, Johannesburg. The news took me back a few years to when I actively spent a few weeks trying to track the man down. I had made up my mind that if he was alive, I was going to find him. I failed utterly. The closest I got was to a cousin of his in America who then asked me if I had any news. My desire to find Steve was driven by an obsessive curiosity as to how and why such a talented and awe-inspiring musician could simply disappear off the face of the earth. For a brief moment, we had become friends in the mid 1980’s after he walked into my gig in Sea Point and asked if he could sit down with me. I was taking a break and eating my supper at the time. He asked me point-blank if I remember a guitarist by the name Steve Eliovson and because a few years earlier I had watched him perform two incendiary performances with jazz guitarist Johnny Fourie, I immediately recognised him. He came out to my place in Muizenberg twice and we got to jam a little together and then he was gone. I never saw him or heard of him again. When I looked again he had so successfully removed himself from the grid that he was utterly invisible. Steve’s one and only album titled ‚Dawn Dance‘, (ECM), recorded with the late Collin Walcott in 1981, has in the interim, become a highly-acclaimed collectors item, revered by maybe hundreds of thousands of people across the world. Many of whom voice their desire to know just what happened to the mysterious guitarist and why he never recorded again. I have only been able to fill in tiny bits of detail. He went to the USA and was lined up to record a second album with ECM when he broke his leg badly. This put him out of action for a while. There may have been complications. There are tales of him squatting with a friend and having to store his guitars which were never reclaimed. How he survived over there I do not know. There is another tale that he came back to SA and tried being a farmer for awhile in KZN. Today I went to his funeral. Myself and my friend Herby, outside of the minimum ten Jewish men required at any Jewish burial, were the only people there who knew who he was. There was no family, no friend, not a single soul who knew and loved him. Steve had died two days earlier in the Johannesburg General, he had end-stage cancer. He had been living in a flatlet in Berea for some months. Where he was before that is hazy. These flats are owned by the Jewish Benevolent Society and are made available to those who have fallen on hard times. Steve lived there quietly, never once reaching out to old friends and family. This astoundingly talented master-musician gave us a brief flurry of his brilliance and then for reasons still unknown, walked away from it all so quietly that there was no-one outside of Herby, myself and ten strangers at his funeral today. RIP Steve Eliovson, we did not and will not forget you brother.

 

2020 19 Feb

RIP Lyle Mays

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I am still pretty broken up about the loss of Lyle Mays, a true innovator on keyboards, a gifted arranger and composer, and when at the piano, a formidable and expressive melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic master on the instrument. He was one of my musical heroes.

There is no doubt in my mind that while Pat Metheny was the frontman and “star” of the Pat Metheny Group, it was Lyle Mays who added that special secret ingredient. His distinctive gifts helped catapult the band to major international success and achieve that rarified level of music making for which it became known.

The chemistry between Metheny and Mays was entirely unique. While it is not uncommon for jazz musicians to forge long-term associations, Metheny and Mays were also a writing team, something common in the pop world but almost unheard of in the jazz idiom. When they would perform together in the middle of PMG’s epic three-hour shows, one could hear them finishing one another’s musical sentences—-two musical minds in perfect sync, acting as one. As a writing team, they were truly the Lennon/McCartney of jazz. While Metheny’s compositions without Lyle’s input were always solid, there was something ineffable and synergistic about this collaboration. In fact, I used to call the Pat Metheny Group the Beatles of jazz. Anyone who caught them, especially in those early years, knows exactly what I mean. From the first few bars of “Phase Dance,” their ritual opener for many years, the excitement in the audience was more akin to what one would expect at a concert of a great rock band than a conventional jazz group. But then, they were anything but conventional in their approach.

Lyle Mays clearly owed a lot to the jazz greats who came before him—-he had a particularly close musical affinity with Bill Evans. You could hear it not only in his lyricism, but also in the way he pushed and pulled at the time with his over-the-bar phrasing, something Evans pursued and perfected over the entire course of his career.

During his career, Mays only produced four solo albums, each one well worth tracking down. That first album, “Lyle Mays,” is a marvelous example of his compositional mastery, his personal approach to orchestration using his trademark synth sounds, and his exquisitely sensitive piano touch. I consider it to be a desert island record.

Although Lyle stopped performing around 2011, there was a more recent surprise release of a live quartet two-disc album recorded in Ludwigsburg, Germany back in 1993. It’s a near-audiophile recording and, devoid of synths, the set really illustrates just what a resourceful pianist Mays truly was. Some jazz snobs criticized Lyle’s playing in PMG as too “rhapsodic” due to his tendency to play solos that often built up to large chordal climaxes. One listen to this live album dispels any false notions regarding his line playing. Mays had obviously absorbed the entire history of jazz, up to and through bebop and beyond, and went on to effortlessly augment that vocabulary with rock, gospel, R&B, Afro Cuban, world, and classical influences. When I was a young player, I was amazed how he managed to inject Floyd Cramer and Vince Guaraldi licks into his solos—-the essence of heartland America—-and somehow it all fit beautifully. For these reasons, his music speaks to a wider audience than most mainstream jazz musicians are able to reach.

For over a decade it was a mystery why Lyle dropped out of the music world to pursue a career as a music software product specialist. There was much speculation. Pat Metheny, respecting Lyle’s privacy, only said Lyle was “enjoying his civilian life” away from the rigors of constant touring. All of this may be true, but we now know Lyle was dealing with a long-term recurring illness, which may have contributed to his decision to stop performing. One thing is certain: Lyle Mays’s music has made an indelible mark on our musical culture, one that went far beyond the insular world of jazz to inspire a multitude of fans and musicians (the latter often his most ardent fans.) The universal spirit and depth of Lyle’s generous heart, distilled in every single note, touched us all.

2019 20 Dez

My Best of 2019 list

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To tell the truth, I don’t really listen to much new music these days. The things I find myself most listening to are old – either things I want to study, perhaps transcribe and learn to play, or things I want to chill to in these stressful times. That being said, here is a list of 2019 releases that did get into my head and heart this year to varying degrees.

 

In no particular order:

 

  • Mats Eilertsen- And Then Comes the Night (a favorite)
  • Bill Frisell Thomas Morgan – Epistrophy
  • Dave Holland/Chris Potter/Zakir Hussain – Good Hope
  • Tigran Hamyasan They Say Nothing Stays the Same (soundtrack to the film -simply gorgeous music)
  • E.S.T. – Live in Gothenburg (their best live album – maybe their best album period.)
  • Keith Jarrett – Munich (For disc 2)
  • Ethan Iverson Quartet – Common Practice
  • Avishai Cohen/Yonathan Avishai- Playing the Room
  • Celesta – Michael Jon Fink (meditative and mysterious solo Celeste)
  • Søren Bebe- Echoes
  • Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance
  • Rymden- Rymden
  • Scott Kinsey – We Speak Luniwaz (because its good, and because it’s an homage to Zawinul and I miss him.)
  • Marc Copland – And I Love Her
  • Nguyen Le- Streams (Nguyen le is back in jazz form with this hard hitting but subtle quartet album with bass, vibes, drums and of course guitar. His best in years.)

 
Reissues (HD downloads)
 

  • Double Image – Dawn
  • Art Lande Rubisa Patrol – Desert Marauders
  • Tom Van der Geld – Path
  • Gallery – Gallery

 
Reissues Pop
 

  • King Crimson 50th box – In the Court of the Crimson King
  • Beatles – Abbey Road

 
Chill Albums
 

  • GS Sachdev – The Art of the Bamboo Flute (I never get tired of this album- no rhythm or tablas, just on the breath with tamboura- essential listening)
  • Tony Scott – Music for Zen meditation (classic for a reason)
  • W A Mathieu – Streaming Wisdom/In the Wind
  • W A Mathieu – Second Nature

(These are two CD reissues of three 80’s albums by my teacher, who went thru a wonderful period of experimentation with an analog 4 track recorder and his piano, recorded in his octagonal studio high on a hill in Sebastopol. While much of Mathieu’s music is highly composed, these pieces are mostly improvised, joyful multitrack discoveries, sometimes employing prepared piano and vocals which were inspired by his study of the North Indian vocal tradition and African mbira music.)

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.


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