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Monday, April 28, 2008

The First Job

I am lucky to have four children, ranging in age from 12 to 26 (the boy is the oldest: the other three are girls). The two older offspring have launched into adulthood and are off the parental payroll. My next eldest daughter, Amanda, is 16 years old - a magical/terrifying year in the typical human's life. My youngest girl has just turned 12 and is gingerly navigating the choppy waters of middle school. It is the 16-year old that has had the biggest life change recently - she has taken Her First Job.

Amanda has always been fascinated by plants and nature - she loves to hike in the woods, and she can stare at flowers for a very long time without becoming bored. It seemed very sensible to follow this passion into the workplace, so she applied for and was hired as a part-time worker in a major nursery in our area. It is quite interesting to observe the changes in Amanda's perspective now that she is in the workforce - she is incensed when a co-worker slacks off, she is delighted to hang around plants all day and she is interacting easily and comfortably with many strangers (Amanda has never been an extremely outgoing person in the past, but she is when she is on the job).

Like any parent, I am proud of what she is doing at this nursery. I am also relieved - it looks like she will be able to navigate her working life successfully. It looks like she will come off the parental payroll, just like her tow older siblings. Whew.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Another Living Musician I Love - Gary Valente

As a former trombonist, the sound of a well-played sliphorn stirs my blood and causes my heart rate to increase. Gary Valente has the most intense tone of any trombonist - indeed, his raucous, growly shout is unique among all instrumentalists. His use of dynamics (from pianissimo to triple fortisimmo), the rip-roaring glissandi, the splattering stacatto attack - this guy is unique. But it isn't his technique that grabs me - it is his towering passion. Gary Valente is the only trombonist that causes me to choke up when I listen to his solos. I just don't know why I react this way, can't tell you specifically what it is that sends me over the edge.

I first heard Gary Valente on the "Carla Bley - Live" album, which was recorded in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall ("GAMH") in 1981. The GAMH is still open; the building dates back to 1907, but the GAMH began operating in 1972 (I saw Duke Ellington at the GAMH in 1973, less than a year before he died). Gary's "star turn" on the "Carla Bley - Live" album was "The Lord is Listening to Ya, Hallelujah." This tune is a total gospel rave-up; it is on my top ten list for instrumental performances. This is a great tune for people that want to start investigating Valente's work. His other stuff with Carla Bley is also great, and Gary is on at least one of Joe Lovano's records ("Worlds," 1995). Valente is also on George Gruntz's 2006 album, "Tiger By The Tail." As far as I can tell, Gary Valente has not put out an album under his own name, which is too bad.

So check out Gary Valente - you won't be sorry.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Gone Too Soon - Sean Costello

This is from the Bob Corritore Blues Newsletter:

RIP Sean Costello 4/16/79-4/15/08: This shocking and sad news just in from Steve Hecht of Piedmont Talent: Blues singer/guitarist Sean Costello was found today dead in his hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia. He would have been 29 tomorrow. Cause of death is not known at present but details will posted on the Piedmont Talent website as they are revealed. Sean had recently released his fourth CD, We Can Get Together on the Delta Groove Record Label, and was a featured guitarist on the acclaimed new Nappy Brown CD Long Time Coming on Blind Pig Records. A handsome young man with amazing guitar ability, a fine voice, and a strong sense of carrying forward the tradition of the blues, Sean was a rising star with a brilliant career in front of him. In a world where we sorrowfully watch so many elder statesman of the blues pass, the loss this youthful bright light is especially hard to take. Rest in peace, Sean.

This is a shocking loss - too soon, Sean, too soon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Little Arthur Duncan is Sick

This doesn't sound good - 75-year old Little Arthur Duncan, the "real deal" harp blower and blues shouter, was rushed to the University of Illinois hospital over the weekend for emergency brain surgery. He is in intensive care, apparently conscious and somewhat responsive. According to Twist Turner (Arthur's drummer for the past 30 years), he had a golf ball-sized tumor in his brain.

I am a long-time admirer of this man. I hung out with him whenever I had the opportunity (see photo above). A wonderful fellow and one of Chicago's greatest blues performers. We are praying for his recovery...

Good Bye, Michael "Blue Stew" Miller

I lurk on "Blues-L," a list-serve devoted to blues music and blues people. One of the most prolific posters was a gentleman that went by the handle of "Blew Stew," which was the name of his band. Michael Miller had a wicked sense of humor and lots of interesting insights. He died a week ago; the word went out on the list and the members were pretty stunned - he was only 56 and no one knew about his health struggles. So we Blue-L members (aka 'Zellers) are coping with cyber-grief. Mike Miller was one of those musicians that worked hard, had serious talent, but did not gain wide fame - which is, of course, the lot of most musicians.

Here is Mike's obit, posted on his website.

Michael Paul Miller, lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter for Blue Stew, passed away at his home on April 8, 2008 at the age of 56 years.

Mike graduated from Oxnard High School in 1970 and began touring across the US performing in various bands. While at a gig in Minnesota he met his future wife Julie and moved back to California to start a more stable lifestyle. He graduated from the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood in 1981 with the goal of becoming a studio musician, but as he had difficulty reading sheet music this goal never came to fruition. Instead he continued with bands and eventually joined Blue Stew. In 1983 he married Julie and they had one son, Justin.

Blue Stew became a key focus for Mike and allowed him to write and play numerous songs in his 14 years with the band. Mike and the band originally enjoyed local success before getting recognition further afield, with the last recognition winning the Santa Barbara IBC and traveling to Memphis to compete in the 2008 International Blues Challenge Final.

Mike's life and musical inspiration came from many sources, but his struggle with living with Tourette's Syndrome, which is a genetic disease that manifests itself by vocal and motor tics, severe headaches, A.D.D., and severe depression, was a key factor in many of his songs and lyrics. Mike kept his struggles with Tourette's Syndrome private, but spent many hours on the internet helping other families deal with the disease. The Tourette's made him unable to maintain a normal job, so he found his solace in drawing, songwriting, singing, and playing guitar. Besides constant writing and listening to music, he also enjoyed music trivia, watching movies, playing with his dogs, and anything that included his son Justin.

Mike believed in the power of music and the ability it had on changing people's lives, including his own. With Blue Stew he wrote numerous songs for their four albums in addition to performing. In 2002, Mike set up recording equipment in his bedroom and for months he would be alone in his room recording every instrument and every vocal on his own and the result was his very personal album, Homeward.
Mike lived for the feedback from others and just wanted to have his music heard and although to many he was a star, his depression would always make him feel less worthy. As a way to have his music spread, we would like to offer his Homeward album available for download with your donation. Your contribution will go directly to the family with a portion donated to the Tourettes Association to raise awareness of the disease. The family thanks you all for your love and support.

May our memories of Mike be an inspiration for all and may his spirit live on through his music.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Yoko Noge and Jazz Me Blues at the Velvet Lounge

I finally made it out to see Yoko Noge and her "Japanesque" Jazz Me Blues band last weekend - they had a date at the Velvet Lounge in Chicago. The Velvet Lounge is operated by the great saxophonist, Fred Anderson; he has run the joint since 1982 - it moved from its spot on S. Indiana around the corner to Cermak about a year ago. I am ashamed to admit that this was my first visit to the Velvet. Fred was at the door, collecting cover charges, last Saturday night. My jaw dropped - this would be like Charile Parker covering the door at Birdland.

The picture above is Yoko with her husband, soprano saxophonist Clark Dean. Clark didn't play with the band during the set I saw at the Velvet Lounge - Jimmy Ellis was playing alto. Mr. Ellis is up there with Fred Anderson, Sonny Rollins, Von Freeman and other senior practioners of the jazz saxophone art. He has performed with a huge range of talented people - from Nat King Cole to Sun Ra. His work with Yoko Noge last Saturday was stunning - his tone was keening and beautiful, his demeanor was joyful.

The rest of Yoko's band was equally killer. The regular bass player with my band, E.G. McDaniel, was in the rhythm section; Jimmy Burns, the blues superstar, played guitar and contributed some vocals, and Joe Junkins was on drums. Rounding out the band were some Japanese instrumentalists. Tatsu Aoki played the shamisen (the traditional Japanese 3-stringed cross between a guitar and banjo - you would recognize its sound if you heard it). It was a total hoot to hear Aoki-san jamming away on the shamisen, plinking out blues riffs. He usually plays bass in Yoko's band. There were also two taiko drummers in the band - I didn't catch their names - but they contributed much drive and flash to the music.

Yoko Noge is a unique musician. She plays piano with authority and power - not surprising since she learned her craft from the legendary Erwin Helfer. And her voice - wow! It is hard to describe. Very soulful, not "sweet" - Yoko is not a typical crooning female vocalist. At times, she reminded me of the late, great Betty Carter - adventerous, unconventional and delightful. Yoko projects a warm, kind aura - you feel better about life when you are in the same room with her

So now I am an offical Yoko Noge fan. Anyone who has not heard this great musician needs to get with the program. She plays every Monday at Andy's in Chicago. Go see her!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Making a Record

This is a picture of the control room at Reeves Audio Recording, a hidden gem of a recording studio in Evanston IL. The owner-operator of this temple of audio recording glory is Mr. Jim Reeves, an old-skool superstar recording engineer with cutting-edge equipment and technology. My buddy, bass player EG McDaniel, introduced me to JR. He has served as engineer/producer for recordings by Sly Stone, War, Wynton Marsalis, Count Basie, Johnny Winter, Lou Reed, Gregg Allman, Mott the Hoople, ZZ Topp, and a host of others. He has been in this game for 45 years or more, and his 64-track recording studio is absolutely top-shelf.
The Mystery Band has been receiving repeated requests for a recorded sample of our music. I have waved these off for over a year, but I finally decided to move ahead and make a professional recording. There will be a dozen original tunes on the disc, all from the quirky, twisted mind of Mr. G.
We got all the tracks in the can in about ten hours of studio time. I have never participated in a lengthy recording session as the leader of a band - it is weird. Every musician is in a different room to isolate his contribution and record it on a separate track. Eye contact is pretty much eliminated, and all communication between musicians is done over the headphones and via video monitors. This makes it tougher to be spontaneous and "call audibles" during a tune. The Mystery Band is all about spontaneity and happy accidents that produce good music. This is hard to recreate in the studio.
I have been listening to the rough cut of the tracks for over a week and I have started to return to Jim's studio to fix glitches. It seems like the fixing is tougher than the initial recording - it took JR and I three hours to get an acceptable version of one song!
This is all costing some serious coin, so the project has shifted from being a goof/hobby expenditure to more of a business endeavor. I want to sell enough copies of this disc to break even (at least). I think that will mean selling 800-900 copies of the CD (or generating equivalent revenues from track sales on-line). This is a pretty lofty goal for a part-time bar band........

Friday, April 04, 2008

Gruenling and Guyger

Joe Filisko's Monday Night Chicago Advanced Blues Harmonica class at the Old Town School of Folk Music was jammed on March 24th. Dennis Gruenling and Steve Guyger were visiting to play and promote the Little Walter Jacob tribute album "I Just Keep Lovin' Him," assembled and produced by Dennis (Mr. Gruenling also performed on most of the tracks). Steve and Dennis are a study in contrasts - Guyger is a craggy, broad-shouldered, compact man well into his 50's; Dennis is a tall, slender guy in his 30's with very long hair. They are united by their devotion to blues harmonica generally and Little Walter Jacobs in particular.

Dennis' album is delightful, and I am very impressed with the way he is building a multi-faceted musical career - he is a performer, a recording artist, a teacher, a blues disk jockey and a harmonica microphone technician. This is a busy young fellow.

Ah, yes, the Great Little Walter.......

Harmonica players all know how important Little Walter was to the instrument. More than any other player, he inserted the blues harmonica sound into the American culture. His creativity and aggressive musicality placed him above any other player. Yes, he built on the foundation established by John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy I), but he took it far, far beyond the point that Williamson reached.

Dennis and Steve took the Monday night crowd on a tour of the world Little Walter created...from the early years through his jazzier, jump blues period. it was terrific.

The group that assembled at the Old Town School of Folk Music was amazing - lots of harmonica stars in the room - Dave Waldman, Jim Leyban, Tom Albanese, Buzz Krantz and many others. We are lucky the Chicago fire marshall didn't poke his head into the small classroom - it was filled to 3-4 times its recommended occupancy, with several people (including me) sitting on the floor at the feet of the two harmonicists.

An observation - we were celebrating the life and artistry of an African-American blues genius, who died violently in Chicago at the age of 39, cutting short a life that may have continued to produce great musical innovation. Yet there was not a single African-American in the room - all white folks of various ages and genders, with a sprinkling of Hispanic people. Is this due to a lack of outreach on the part of the organizers of the event or a lack of interest in the blues legacy by African-Americans in Chicago? Probably a combination of both factors. It would have been cool to have Bob Stroger there - he played with Little Walter - or Billy Branch. It seems strange to be celebrating an African-American artist without the participation of African-Americans.