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.