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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dave Brubeck and Sons on Fathers Day - Ravinia Festival, Highland Park IL

It is a great thing to have great friends. My old buddy, John Raitt, couldn't use his Ravinia tickets last Sunday (Father's Day evening) so he tossed them over to me. My dear wife and I saw one of the most amazing and poignant jazz concerts in history - Dave Brubeck and his 4 sons - Darious, Chris, Dan and Matt, performing together in the wonderful outdoor setting. Dave turned 90 years old in December of last year, and while he seemed to be fighting jet lag, his playing was beyond belief. Dave has a unique piano "voice," instantly recognizable to a semi-serious jazz fan like me. I put him in a small group of players that have established a voice - Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock are part of that fraternity.

I am astonished that this man has not lost any of his artistry to age. He started playing the Ravinia Festival in 1955; he has graced the stage at least a dozen times. Brubeck's story is well-known; the idyllic California boyhood in the East Bay Area and on a ranch, the switch from veterinary medicine to music in college,the WWII service in Patton's army, the studies with Darius Milhaud, the French classical composer. I can remember some folks sneering at Brubeck's music - accusing him of cultural appropriation, intellectualization of the jazz idiom and so forth. To this I say, "Horseshit." You can like his music or hate it, but you can't deny his impact. The man has created some of the "greatest hits" of jazz - "Blue Rondo a' la Turk," "Take Five," "In Her Own Sweet Way," " Unsquare Dance" and several others. He brought odd meters to the attention of the American public. His record, "Time Out," went platinum in 1959, giving Elvis and Buddy Holly a run for their money. A lesser known fact - he was a quiet but determined advocate for racial justice. He integrated his quartet in 1958 when bassist Eugene Wright became a member; Brubeck cancelled dates at clubs that objected to integrated bands,. He cancelled television appearances when the station management wanted to keep Wright off-camera. These are the types of actions that helped to break down the evil system that dominated the United States for much of the 20th Century.

At Ravinia, Brubeck did his hits - but he also pulled out a couple of surprises. "St. Louis Blues" sounded fresh in the hands of the Brubeck clan. "Someday My Prince Will Come" became a poly-rhythmic, counter-punctual, dense and exciting collection of multiple melodies, odd meters and chord voicings - pretty radical, in fact. "Black and Blue" featured Chris Brubeck's bass trombone - the cat has serious chops - with Matt on cello taking the bass line since Chris put down his bass to pick up the 'bone. "Take Five" was very interesting - the melody was carried by Matt's cello. Now Matt can really play; it is clear that he is a serious classical player. His jazz work is formidable. I haven't heard the cello in a jazz quartet context, so the sound was odd, but not unpleasant.

As the evening progressed, the Dave seemed to tire somewhat. He let Darius play the aggressive piano lead on "Blue Rondo a' la Turk." But when the nonagenerian settled in for a solo, the years fell away. He also was an effective and amusing story-teller between tunes. The encore was a brief and very touching version of Brahms' Lullaby, with chord voicings that made the little piece brand new and uplifting.

The four Brubeck brothers all met the challenge of their father's musicianship. Dave would occassionally stand up at the piano and gaze at his sons making music, and he would smile. They bowed at the end of the second set and left the stage with their arms draped over each others' shoulders. It felt like the folks at Ravinia had been invited to an intimate family celebration.

And as the patriarch and his sons ambled off stage, I found myself thinking about my own son, Ben. He is a successful educator now, living far from me. I miss him. I salute him.

I look forward to celebrating Dave Brubeck's 100th birthday

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Father's Day

Human relationships can be puzzling. Why do we love or hate each other? Is it right to expect others to help you? What is one’s obligation to family members? To friends? To strangers that need assistance?

It may be best not to think too much about these questions. Maybe it is best to embrace the “Golden Rule” as an organizing principal and just take action. “Analysis leads to paralysis” as the saying goes. Or put another way, don’t ask “What is the meaning of life?” Ask “How should I live?”

Let’s consider fatherhood. I am a father – I have four children. They are all interesting individuals. I have intense emotions when I think about my children. I use the word “love” to describe those emotions, but that word has been over-used and trivialized. I can’t really come up with an alternative word or phrase that fits, however.

Let me describe a fatherhood experience.

On Father’s Day weekend each year, there is an art fair in my neighborhood. It is called “Custer’s Last Stand” because it is centered on the intersection of Custer and Main Street in Evanston IL. My youngest daughter (now age 15) loves Custer’s Last Stand. Last year, all of her friends were out of town during the weekend that the fair was scheduled. To her chagrin, I was the only available companion. So we walked to the event and perused the art stalls, the food stands and the music stages. After an hour or so of walking about, we bought ice cream cones and sat on a curb in the shade at the very south end of the fair area. As we ate our cones, about 8 people we knew wandered by and greeted us. Some were my friends, so I introduced them to my daughter. Some were my daughter’s friends, so she introduced them to me. It was a quietly marvelous time.

This might have been my best Father's Day, and no one bought me a tie.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chicago Blues Fest Day Two

I left the Blues Fest on Friday feeling a little bummed. I went back Saturday, in spite of that. It has taken me a while to get my thoughts in order, but the quick summary is "I feel better now."

The weather was slightly better. Weather conditions matter a lot at these outdoor festivals, obviously. It is tough to get in a jolly, music-listening mood when the rain is coming down and the temps are low. And many folks stay away, which reduces the crowd count, which reduces the audience energy, which impacts the engagement of the performers. Bad weather kicks off a negative feedback loop at a blues festival.

By the time I hit Grant Park, the place was pretty full. There were many more young people in attendence yesterday - and they were dancing! This is a very good thing. I think its wrong for people to sit motionless while intensely rhythmic music is produced by highly engaged performers. I always feel like yelling "Get up offa that thing!"

While I heard several acts, I want to focus on just one set - Curtis Salgado, backed by Nick Moss and the Flip Tops.

Nick Moss is a torch-carrier. He is creeping up on 40 years of age, still a kid in the blues world. He started playing professionally around Chicago in his late teens, and he did his apprentice work with guys like Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Jimmy Rogers before he launched his career as a band leader. I have been listening to Nick for years; he amazed me the first time I heard him and he keeps getting better. He has mastered the craft of playing the blues guitar, and now he is moved on to creating art with his ax. Nick plays harmonica, and he started his career as a bassist. Ain't no flies on this fella. He also has "blues presence" - he is a hairy bear of a man, and he does the "blues face" really well. For those of you that don't know, "blues face" is the series of grimaces and squints that a guitar god conjures up while wrapped in the passion of a solo. I view Nick as a rock-toned player - in the same zip code as Melvin Taylor, but a bit more traditional in his phrasing and ideas. He also doesn't unleash the "wall of sound" as often as some of the rock-oriented blues guitarists. Nick is a dynamite player.

Nick's band is full of fresh young talent. Travis Reed on keyboards is capably filling the chair held by the legendary Piano Willie O'Shawny. Nik Skilnik on bass and Patrick Seals on drums are tight in the pocket, playing with assuredness not often seen in 20-something musicians. And sitting in on rhythm guitar and vocals, Michael Ledbetter really filled out the band - he has the vocal chops to match up against Curtis Salgado, no small feat. Michael comes from the R&B/soul school - his range and control are impressive, he can handle the falsetto swoops and vocal glissandos that most singers can only dream about. He is young, too - 26 years old, I believe. Unlike some bands in Chicago, Nick Moss' band is an intergrated team.

Nick's wife, Kate, also sat in on a tune - she can shred on guitar! She is a little easer to look at than Nick. Kate is not just a supportive spouse; she is Nick's business partner, too.

I am not a good person to talk about Curtis Salgado because he is one of my idols and I go all "fan-boy" when I get started on him. He is one of the top blues harmonica guys on the planet (up there with Kim Wilson and Billy Branch), but he doesn't play that much harp on his records. He often won't touch a harmonica for an entire set during his live gigs. I think that is interesting - he views his main instrument as his voice; the harp plays a supporting role. Salgado's vocal performances are stunning. His phrasing, tone, range and delivery combine to grab the listener by the throat and the heart. His personal story, the near-death experience with liver cancer and the liver transplant, make his energy and power even more impressive. Curtis opened with a Jimmy Reed tune (You Don't have to Go) and followed with a Muddy Waters cover (Long Distance Call) He is one of the few singers on the planet that is capable of delivering Long Distance Call - other cover versions I have heard have generally been mediocre, embarrassing or both. He covered Magic Sam and Little Milton too. It was an amazing and moving performance. Nick and the Flip Tops were very locked in to what Curtis was doing - it was a great ensemble blues performance. And Curtis played some harmonica - and he killed. Curtis and Michael Ledbetter also sang an R&B duet - their voices blended beautifully.

I didn't make it to the Chicago Blues Fest on Sunday; I was convinced that there wasn't anything that I had to see that day. I stand by my earlier comment that the event was an anemic version of past Fests, but seeing Curtis Salgado with Nick Moss made it all worthwhile for me.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Chicago Blues Fest Day One/Reality on the Street

It was a misty afternoon in Chicago on June 10. The cloud cover slid down to about the 20th story of the Aon Building near Grant Park. The temps were in the upper 50's, some festival attendees were wearing hoodies and windbreakers. It was disorienting - we experienced a 40-degree temperature drop in 28 hours earlier in the week and some people were still in their shorts and tank tops, shivering.

I hate to say it but I will - this year's Blues Fest is a shadow of its former self. If you pick a year at random, say 1989, who was at the Fest? Buddy Guy, Dr. John, Junior Wells, Allen Toussaint, Kinsey Report, A.C. Reed, Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton, Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas and many more. Other stellar names from past Fests - Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, and B.B. King. In 2009, the Fest was cut from 4 to 3 days to save money. This year, there seems top be two fewer stages operating during the day. I think that the lame duck Daley Administration, the Chicago budget crisis and the retirement of Barry Dolins has led to a less ambitious festival. There was some great music happening yesterday at the fest, but there was less of it. Dolins ran the Blues Fest for 27 years and it will take a while for The Fest to re-set. And I guess that it is a good thing that more of the performers are local blues artists - This is the CHICAGO Blues Festival, after all. But the crowd was smaller and even older than usual. I fear at times that blues music is heading toward irrelevency, like Dixieland jazz, beloved by a small group of eccentric elderly people. This thought makes me feel gloomy.

So I heard my buddies Mark Wydra (guitar) and Harland Terson (bass) playing behind Sam Lay. Sam is a terrific guy and one of the best blues drummers in the history of the music. He played with Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Wille Dixon Howlin' Wolf and was the man who set the beat for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And of course, Sam Lay played on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album back in the day. He didn't play the drums yesterday - he sat up front, sang and played the guitar. He is not a highly skilled guitarist. The band was very loosey-goosey and under-rehearsed. These are outstanding players, though, and the blues is a genre that can be great even if the band isn't tight. I chatted with Mr. Wydra after the set - he noted the scaled-back Fest vibe and seemed a bit glum. But we agreed on one thing - people still need to listen to the blues, but they just don't realize it. If the current economic environment and global mood had a soundtrack, it would consist of blues music, the music of lament.

I also caught the Sanctified Grumblers, a local trio of creative countirfied acoustic blues guys. Eric Noden is a heckuva player - guitar, banjo and vocals. Rick Sherry is always a hoot, playing harmonica, clarinet and washboard. Rick has one of the most interesting voices and vocal styles I have ever heard - he has a ferocious baritone that cuts through the clutter like an auctioneer.

Super Chikan was also booked for the fest this year. This guy is ubiquitous on the blues festival scene during the summer months; he is a road dog with tens of thousands of miles on his sneakers. He is skilled, and he is a crowd-pleaser with his home-made electric guitars and his wild-and-crazy demeanor.

I also caught a bit of the Kilborn Alley Blues Band, a group of young guys from Champaign IL. They were definitely worth hearing, and brought energy and passion to the little Windy City blues Society stage. Great to see some 20-somethings loving the music.

I left Grant Park when the mist turned to rain and headed west toward Ogilvie Transportation Center to catch the 7:35 train back home. There was a large young man standing in a doorway on an empty block of Jackson Street, trying to avoid the mist. He was begging, and not in a quiet voice. I glanced at him, and passed by. But then I turned back - there was something in his eyes, too much pain. I dug in my pocket for some small bills, shoved them in his cup while he thanked me. I asked him his name, he said "Brian, sir, and what is your name if I may ask?" I told him, and he turned his eyes skyward and said "Thank you, Father, for Chris. Thank you, Father, for Chris..." repeating the phrase over and over, mantra-like. Tears rolled down his cheeks. I told him to take it easy, good luck, and a couple of other banalities. I turned and fled. And I thought, "What the hell is going on?"

Monday, June 06, 2011

Remembering Lowell Fulson

A dozen years have passed since Lowell Fulson died and I am still digging into his work. I think that he ranks with the other major blues poets - Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Son House and the rest. I have memorized one of his lesser-known, later songs - "Thanks A Lot." This is one of those tunes that tells a perfectly formed story - in this case, it is the tale of a married man resisting the advances of an unmarried woman. This song has some terrific couplets - here is one I love; "My wife would not suspect because her trust in me is deep; But I would suffer anyway. My conscience would not let me sleep." Arnold Schwartznegger should have listened to this song every day.

Lowell was born in Tulsa OK, allegedly on a Chocktaw Indian reservation. He claimed to be part Cherokee and part Chocktaw - it might be true. He learned to play the guitar and worked with Alger "Texas" Alexander when he was 18 years old in 1940. Lowell toured with the Texas bluesman until 1943 when he was drafted. After he got out of the service in 1945, he ended up in Oakland California. He started up his own band, which included some amazing cats - a young Ray Charles on piano, David "Fathead" Newman on sax and many others. Lowell began uncapping a string of classics in 1948 with "3 o'Clock Blues," a slow, sad tale about a wayward woman. This tune was B.B. King's first big hit.

Lowell's most famous tune is probably "Reconsider Baby," a mid-tempo blues with clever lyrics. This song has been covered by everyone - Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Joe Bonamassa and every singing blues guitar player in the world. Lowell had some other big songs ("Tramp," which is a favorite sample used by Ice Cube and many other hip hop artists), but none as huge as "Reconsider Baby."

Lowell Fulson played for over five decades, shutting down his act in 1997 when his health started to fade. He died in 1999; he was almost 78.

This is a guy that deserves to be celebrated - he was a soulful, funky dude that contirbuted a lot to contemporary music. He had a solid baritone voice and played terrific blues guitar. He was a huge influence on Ray Charles. Why isn't he famous, dammit?