Sunday, August 24, 2014

The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs

By Greil Marcus


Genre: Rock


Greil Marcus may be the best living music writer on the planet. He has a scholarly edge but that doesn't hide his emotional enthusiasm for the music he writes about. He writes in an almost free associational way that fills you with facts and emotions but always managed to come back to his point and his passion.

That is what makes his new book, The History of Rock N' Roll in Ten Songs so utterly fascinating. The author takes a different approach to the history of rock. Gone are the linear citing of performers and dates. Instead he takes ten songs that he sees as representing the essence of the music and describes their hold on us. In the chapters for each song, he tells about the first recording of the song but will also mention later version showing how they become timeless in our psyche.

A couple of the songs he mentions are puzzling. "Shake That Action" by the Flamin' Groovies is in my opinion, one of the great trash heap songs with little redeeming value. But the author, and many other rockers, obviously disagree with me. Most importantly, Marcus makes his points about the immortality of the song quite well even if he doesn't convince me. Other songs like the Buddy Holly's "Crying , Waiting, Hoping" and the standard oldie "In The Still of The Night" are much better choices and their greatest is easily understood. Marcus does not fail to forget the later masterpieces either paying special attention to "Transmission" by Joy Division. The author in his unique style brings importance to these songs and is saying...Yes, the performances is awesome but the meaning and emotion of the actual songs is also part of the magic of rock 'n' roll.

It is nice we still have veteran writers like Greil Marcus around. It seems like most have either retired (Robert Hilburn) or died too early (Lester Bangs). The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs can be read as either an unconventional history of rock or a fine example of literary prose. Either way, it is an enjoyable and informative read. The one thing I would recommend is to listen to the song before reading its chapter. Most of these songs and recordings can be found on YouTube.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Creating Jazz Counterpoint: New Orleans, Barbershop Harmony, and the Blues

By Vic Hobson


Genre: Jazz

You would think the origins of jazz is a cut and dry case. After all it was just 100 years ago. Things were pretty modern relatively speaking. But the generation of Justin Beiber may be surprised to know that the recording era was barely in its infancy at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. The knowledge of the precise evolution of a music based more on improvisation than composition is rather difficult without the luxury of a recording device. Oral histories only goes so far and, as this book attests to, can be very unreliable. Much of the musical influences were regional, with urban and rural styles having melded together as musicians and listener spread the music. New Orleans is often called the birthplace of jazz. However, the modern music was probably being incubated in many areas. New Orleans' reputation in strengthened in usually infamous ways due to the advent of the vice and prostitution district of Storyville where many visitors, not least military personnel and sailors, would hear the music and spread the word. Add onto that the many musician who came there and added their own notes, so to speak.

Who originated jazz, if anyone can be called the one of two individual that invented it: the idea in itself being probably faulty,, will always be a source of interest to scholars. Creating Jazz Counterpoint: New Orleans, Barbershop, and the Blues by Vic Hobson appears to be a doctorate study on this topic and also pushed the notion that the black barbershop quartets were a decisive influence in the creation of jazz counterpoint and harmonies. Going trom scholarly study to book, even a textbook, can be fraught with problems. Not the least, is readability. Creating Jazz Counterpoint can be very dry even when your focus are on very colorful personalities like Bunk Johnson and Buddy Bolden. Buddy Bolden was a trumpeter often credited with being the first jazz player yet he made no recordings while trumpeter Bunk's recordings were made in the 30s way after his heydays. Add to that, Bunk's remembrances were notoriously contradictory. Hobson relies on documents which included interviews with Johnson and others plus city and historical records,then tries to decipher the 1890s and 1900s musical environment as well as he can. Ehich is quite impressive. Yet he doesn't really add that much we didn't already know. Some parts, like pages on the actual birth date for Bunk Johnson seems trivial to the utmost. As for Buddy Bolden, the best book on this enigmatic musician is still In Search Of Buddy Bolden: First Man Of Jazz by Donald M. Marquis. It is also one of the best books on New Orleans of the turn of the century.

Yet Hobson does open a little new ground here. He examines the influence of barbershop quartets on the beginning of jazz. This is a new idea to me. The barbershop quartets I am familiar with sound as far from jazz as possible. Yet Marquis makes a good case. Bolden and Johnson appears to have participated in these quartets and the black quartets were more apt to borrow from other sources including the ragtime and the blues. It's a interesting idea. I just wish his writing style made it a more intriguing hypothesis. But in the end, whatever influenced barbershop quartets had, it still must be said that jazz had many musical parents including ragtime, gospel, the marching bands like James Europe's, and the blues. As intriguing an idea, barbershop quartet music sounds more like a distant cousin.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire

By Philip Bailey

Genre: R&B

Earth, Wind & Fire has always been one of my favorite 70s groups. They had a distinct R&B sound that blended with a 60s quality of "love, peace and understanding". Incorporating all kinds of rhythms, visual effects, and high quality musicianship, EWF also managed to maintain an universal audience that went beyond ethnic groups and black and white. In some ways, they were a family friendly mix of Sly and The Family Stone and James Brown. If sometimes I felt they were a little too commercial for my taste, Maurice White and Phillip Bailey always won me over, not to mention that kick-ass horn section.

Philip Bailey is most distinctive for his great falsetto voice and he probably contributed more to EWF than he admits. One thing you discover in reading this memoir of life with EWF is that Bailey is a gentle, thoughtful and humble man. It's a refreshing tone after reading so many pop music autobiographies by egomaniacs. But he is probably right when he says that EWF was primarily Maurice White's show. Maurice White developed what was known as "The Concept" and rarely deviated from it. For Maurice, EWF was more than a music group. It was an experience, a statement, a spectacular and foremost a concept. The idea of universal harmony is never too far away in any EWF song. White's insistence on control is one of the main reason EWF worked so well and, as inevitable with most music endeavors, the main reason it fell apart.

Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire is written by Philip Bailey with assistance from Keith & Kent Zimmerman. It is sometimes a bit pedestrian yet sincere account of his life with emphasis on his time with EWF. I can't help but like the Philip Bailey that comes through on paper. Growing up in Denver, he seems to have avoided a lot of the pitfalls of West or East Coast urban life. He never got into drugs and, despite some forays into adultery, he never went to the party-til-you-die excesses we expect with music stars. He credits much of that to his religious background and he eventually converted to born-again Christianity. This is also a refreshing turn since most rock star conversions stories are hit-bottom types with all the horror stories. Bailey write about it as a part of growing up and a natural progression in his life. What Bailey lacks in backstage horror stories is well compensated by his description of living the musician' life and how EWF went from a vague concept to a fully developed phenomenon. He makes it clear that this was hard work for White, himself, and all the members of the band. It is that insight in the creation of a band that is the strength of this book and why I would recommend it.

Bailey continues his memoirs after the break-up into his own solo career culminating with the Phil Collins collaboration of "Easy Lover" and then to the reunion of EWF. In many ways Shining Star is a typical music biography but in other ways it is quite irresistible in its casualness. Bailey comes across as real. He tries to tell the truth the best he can but is never mean. He may criticize some aspects of Maurice White's style and decisions but he also clearly admires who "Reese" is and what he accomplished. And most important, Bailey doesn't just write about music, he writes about the cost of making his own decisions, accepting responsibility and the importance of his family. Bailey stays real which is more than I can say for most over-hyped rock autobiographies.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz

By Cary Grinell

Genre: Jazz

Herbie Mann is unarguably the most famous jazz flautist of all time. He is also said to be the first jazz musician to specialize in this instrument although it can be argued that the distinction should go to Sam Most. It can also be argued that Herbie Mann's popularity is not really based on his jazz work or even his technical expertise on the flute but on Mann's talented tendency to pick commercial trends and follow them. And lastly it can be argued that Mann's singular gift is not based on him being the best flautist in pop music or jazz but the one most able to greet listeners at the lowest denominator.

The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz is part of a "series of jazz biographies by Cary Ginell published by Hal Leonard Books". It is on the short side at under 200 pages and therefore tends to cause any musical analysis by Grinell tio be a bit thin. That is unfortunate because the author does seem to have a nice grasp of the music and the musician's role in developing our understanding of jazz. However he is primarily regulated to a straightforward description of Mann's history and discography. He does seem to lightly touch upon the issues I mentioned in the first paragraph. He is quite aware of Mann's lean toward commercialism. He quotes Sam Most talking about Herbie Mann as saying,
"One time I told Herbie, "Wow, I wish I could be as successful as you. "I was working in L.A. at that time. And Herbie said "One of us has to be the artist and one of us has to be the business."

..but he is also aware that Mann did have a innovative style in that he searched for music that was not only appealing to the public but was something new to be heard. Mann was one of the first musicians to experiment seriously with Brazilian and third world musics in jazz and if his experiments seem a little tame to today's standard, he did open the world to a better understanding of third world music.

One of the things I thought was interesting is that Mann did not start out as a Flautist. He wanted to be a tenor saxophonist. Part of his reason for picking up the flute seem to be that as a saxophonist he was out manned...
When I went into the Army, I wanted to be Lester Young. That's all I thought of. When I got out, I found Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Brew Moore and Allen Eager had beaten me to it."

Mann's decision to specialize in the flute was an important move for jazz. He started as a pure jazz player but became intrigued with the use of the flute in Latin orchestras and eventually found his own vote mixing jazz with Latin, Brazilian, and African rhythms. But as Ginell notes...
As with everything Herbie did, there was a business angle to accompany the creative decision. At the end of his contract with Verve, he put these ideas to work in a project that would change his life as well as the direction of jazz.

Mann liked to say he wanted to be like Benny Goodman, a distinct musician and popularizer of his instrument (in Goodman's case, the clarinet). I think Mann accomplished that with the caveat that Goodman remained a jazz musician while Mann swerved into easy-listening. I say with only a bit of sarcasm that Herbie Mann is one of the reasons we hear so many flute solos in elevators.

The author does a good job following Mann's changes of direction and writes a nice biography, giving the title Evolution of Mann a very appropriate turn. Yet aside from a few pages at the beginning about the limited use of the flute in American Music before the 50s, he doesn't say that much about the evolution of the flute after that. Yes, Herbie Mann may of been the most popular but he wasn't necessarily the best or the most innovative. To my ears, Sam Most is a much more accomplished flautist and the first to play the flute regularly as a jazz musician. While Herbie Mann was busy become the Kenny G of the 60s and 70s, Hubert Laws took the mantle of most popular jazz flautist and while still concerned with a cross-over style, spoke more to the modern jazz of the time. But while this was all going on, other seminal musicians less beholden to commercial interest such as Julius Hemphill, Eric Dolphy, and Yusef Lateef were stretching the boundaries of jazz and the flute. In fact, on a list of 100 innovative flautists, Mann was listed second to Eric Dolphy.

So Ginell's biography may be good for a basic history of Herbie Mann and even a must read for the avid Mann Fan, it doesn't really help us learn much about jazz and the role of the flute. For this reason, it becomes a disappointing read despite the author's distinct to-the-point style which I find refreshing. It still remains to see if Herbie Mann takes a front row seat in jazz history. The recent environment seems to be against him. But I do appreciate Grinell's biography for reminding us that Herbie Mann did play a brief role in the development of jazz even if Mann himself decided to turn against that role later in his life.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

In It For the Long Run: A Musical Oydssey

By Jim Rooney

Genre: Americana

In terms of music, Americana is a sort of catch-all genre that includes all kinds of grass root American music. It entails folk, country, blues, bluegrass, early (and usually more acoustic) rock and roll, and all the offshoots that comes from the history of American music. The term recognizes the more noncommercial sounds that have been abandoned by the mainstream as American music became more homogenized by corporate interests. Much of what is termed as Americana is the type of music that you experience as you would trek across America, forsaking the top 40 channels and listening to what the locals are creating on their acoustic instruments. Accepted as a genre by The American Music Association in the 90s, I find it a much better description of grass roots American music than country, folk, or any of the more specific terms.

If anyone can claim to be at the forefront of Americana, it just may be Jim Rooney. He makes a good case for that in his autobiography, In it For the Long Run: A Musical Odyssey. Inspired as a young boy by the likes of greats like Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters, he formed his own band which was primary country, but later started an early folk club in the 60s and went on to be a musical coordinator for the Newport Folk Festival. Then in the 70s he went on to form his own record company and produce music with musicians like John Prine and Nanci Griffith. During all this, he kept his hands in the music by performing, playing in his own bands, and composing.

A memoir by someone who was if not a household name but was still steeped in the Americana tradition, promises to be a seminal and unique look at the development of the music and the scene. Yet Rooney's book falls far short of being that. It isn't that he doesn't write about the scene and the music. He does in much detail. But there is little insight in the music. It is more of a "And then I did this". He writes much about the various artists like Muddy Waters, John Prine,and others but there no real revelations. Pretty soon the book feels like a lot of name-dropping and not much else. When I read a memoir like this I want to get a sense of time and place; a feel for the excitement that the artists and the musical environment brought to the writer and the excitement he transmitted to them as a promoter and producer. That sense of excitement never materializes.

Perhaps this book is meant more for the Americana aficionado or for the ones that lived through the scene. But for someone like me who loves music and would like to know more about a particular kind of music, I just didn't think this worked. Perhaps there is another book out there that does justice to the Americana scene. This is not it.

Background Music:  The Music of Bill Monroe 1936-94

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Haunted Rock & Roll: Ghostly Tales of Musical Legends

By Matthew L. Swayne

Genre: Rock

There are two things I love: Music and tales of the supernatural. But I don"t believe there are ghosts, curses etc. I just find them fascinating. I like the chills a good horror tale delivers or remembers the fun of telling ghost stories around the campfire. Plus I love rock music. So <i>Haunted Rock & Roll: Ghostly Tales of Musical Legends</i> seemed a natural for me. And, by Ghost, Matthew L. Swayne does a great job in pulling the two together.

I don't think anyone is surprised that there are plenty of supernatural legends involving rock stars. Swayne runs the gamut from Robert Johnson to Janis Joplin to Curt Cobain to Whitney Houston. His tales are grouped into "Rock Star Ghosts", "Haunted Rock Spots", "Premonitions, Signs, and Omens",  and "Rock Stars Most famous Curses and Mysteries". There is inevitably a bit of overlap and redundancy that probably can't be avoided considering the grouping. For instance, we hear about Buddy Holly's accident in the Ghost section and Again in  the premonition and curse sections. I tmay have been better to group them by the rock star's name but that is just hindsight on my part. On the other hand, it is fun to hear the stories again, each time looking at a different angle.

It is easy to be too serious with a book like this like narrating each tale like it is the absolute truth and with no skepticism. That is the downfall of many true hauntings books. Swayne has just the right amount of "Hey this could have happened." and campfire storytelling skills. As a skeptic, I still enjoyed the stories immensely and didn't feel the author was trying to convince me they were real. Again, the author has a good mix of wit and spookiness.

So what about the tales. Of course,most of the stories are anecdotal, yet the author blends the anecdotal with the historical facts very well. The farthest he goes back is to the Delta Blues master Robert Johnson and the story of how he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. If you never heard of Robert Johnson, shame on you. Go right out and buy a CD of his music and be amazed! When people say Rock & Roll starts with Robert Johnson, they are not lying. But then the author goes on to the usual suspects; Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, etc....and a few that may surprise you; Mama Cass, Sid Vicious, Ricky Nelson, Harry Nilsson and others. But I really enjoyed the mix of devil stories and witchcraft centered around...who else?...Black Sabbath. The story about Black Sabbath, and specifically Bassist Geezer Butler's exploration into the occult, brings out the author's droll side in sentences like "For Butler, seeing the devil was not as fun as writing songs about him."

One fascinating thing is how often the name of Aleister Crowley comes up. It seems like rock stars were fascinated by the occult figure and self proclaimed "evilest person in the world". Perhaps someone should write a book about the influence of Crowley on Rock & Roll. Just saying...

Another thing I liked is the story about the Devil's Chord. The Devil's Chord predates rock all the way back to classical music but...No..I don't want to spoil it for you.

I could continue and analyze each story. I could scoff at some of the more outrageous and give more mundane explanations for some of the events and interpretations but that would be killing the entertaining qualities of this weird and spooky book.. Simply put, this is a fun book that will delight the Rock & Roll fan, the ghost hunter, and ghost story aficionado. For a little dose of eerie, put on Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" or the versions by Cream or the Allman Brothers. Then enjoy a little chill to the bones as you read aboutits curse.

Happy hauntings.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Madam: A Novel of New Orleans

By Kari Lynn & Kelli Martin

Genre: Jazz (fiction)

In the 1890s and 1900s the city of New Orleans instituted boundaries for a place where there would be legalized prostitution and all the vices that go with it. Nicknamed Storyville, a reference to the man who proposed the idea, it became a notorious few blocks serving both Blacks and Whites as a prurient playground for lust. Its most remembered contribution to history was as a musical incubator where ragtime pianists and early jazz innovators like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong set the beginnings of Jazz. Contrary to the popular myth that Jazz began in Storyville, its real importance was how the musicians of Storyville spread the music throughout the country due to the large amount of sailors and other travelers who heard it in the whorehouses.

Madam is a fictional account loosely based on Mary Deubler who later became one of the leading madams under the name of Josie Arlington. It starts with Mary's low stature as a prostitute in a "crib", one of the lower settings of her trade, to the emergence of Storyville and her rapid ride to the role of Madam. In between we are given a few feuds and murders, a look at New Orleans style voodoo and other corrupt and decadent events. Authors Kari Lynn and Kellie Martin employ a number of historical characters in this novel including pianist Morton, photographer E. J. Bellocq and others. The authors attempt to evoke a feel for the era while telling a personal story of a woman at the bottom working her way up in the only way she was allowed.

But does it work? This is where I had some problems. The style of writing seems rather light and melodramatic for such a often bleak historical tale. I never really got a good grasp on who Mary was except that we should have sympathy for her plight and admire her gumption. None of the other characters really stood out and the historical "cameos" didn't really add much. Storyville never came alive for me partly because the novel ended at the first days of the district. The first task of a historical novel is make the era sound authentic and this never happened. Instead we get a soap operatic telling of a often told story that felt like the treatment for a TV mini-series.

Overall, despite my enthusiasm for that period of history and the important role it played in American music, the novel fell flat. It is a mildly entertaining novel that fails to give us anything new and inspiring. This book will appeal to those who like hard luck tales and "poor girl fight to the top" stories. But as an historical novel that gives you insight on the times and human nature, I just can't recommend it.