Thursday, July 14, 2011

CD Review: Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn – Small Source of Comfort (True North CD, 2011)
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
July 2, 2011

Bruce Cockburn’s latest release could be called a “best of,” but this term is reserved for previously released material. Let’s instead call it a “culmination,” for on his new Small Source of Comfort CD Cockburn is able to assimilate all that has been good in his catalogue since 1971.

Politics have not left the singer’s oeuvre, but neither has Cockburn’s sense of humor. Simultaneously fearless, bizarre, and compelling -- “Call Me Rose” is a first person narrative by Richard Nixon reincarnated as a single mother-of-two living in the projects. Accepting this strange premise prepares the listener for other surprises.

Perhaps more unexpected than Nixon’s transformation is that of Cockburn himself as he reassess his own long held views concerning war. Having recently seen Canadian casualties at Camp Mirage in the Middle East, Cockburn sings “Each One Lost” with an attitude reflecting far more sorrow than anger. This, from a man who may be best known for his revenge-soaked “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”

Cockburn’s love songs are still poignant and increasingly mature, which makes sense as the artist cruises past the 60-year mark. “Radiance” and “Boundless” both address physical love, but each also moves into different directions of spiritual and Jungian devotion.

Another form of love is found with “Lois on the Autobahn,” an instrumental work inspired by Cockburn’s late mother. Each of the CD’s five instrumentals serve as islands on which one can reflect on the album’s lyrics. Most were commissioned for, but not used in various film projects. I suspect that the reason a director would refrain from including these rich pieces is because none behave like background music. Each is strong enough on its own to compete with a film’s visual elements.

Small Source of Comfort closes with the brief ballad “Gifts,” used for years by Cockburn in concert as a final encore. The inclusion of this long withheld jewel makes it clear that the performer himself regards this CD to be a special release. Last year the government of Canada honored Bruce Cockburn’s career with a high profile concert broadcast from Toronto’s Massey Hall. This album demonstrates why such recognition is appropriate.

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Book Review: Prince biography

Book Review:

Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution. By Jason Draper
Backbeat Books, 2011. 272 pp. $20
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
July 1, 2011

Must tremendous talent always be accompanied by startling strangeness? Perhaps not, but Jason Draper’s new biography of Prince portrays equal doses of prodigy and poser.

Draper does a good job of chronicling Prince’s rise from a Minneapolis basement studio to the world stage. The book also stresses Prince’s early awareness of the power of the Internet, only to later miss various web-based opportunities and ultimately to remove himself from cyber space. The infamous battle with Warner Brothers Records is recounted, and the reader can see why both artist and label could have had legitimate reasons for unhappiness.

One of the strengths of this biography is Draper’s meticulous discussion of Prince’s numerous early side-projects, many released under pseudonyms. Also tantalizing is the author’s description of Prince’s Vault in his Minneapolis home, where great unreleased jewels are said to reside. What undercuts the desire to open this Vault is found in the latter part of the book – if so much wonderful Prince material lies dormant, why does he insist on releasing unremarkable music at this point in his career?

Draper is not afraid to be critical of his subject’s career mis-steps, but the author also never loses sight of why Prince is worth an exasperated fan’s devotion: This is one very talented cat! The book is sometimes repetitive, but descriptions and assessments are clear and fair throughout. A useful Career Timeline appendix is included. A complete discography would have also been welcome, but such a list for this extraordinarily productive artist may have necessitated a second volume.

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Essay: Portrait of Leigh Kamman

Portrait of Leigh Kamman – Jazz Broadcaster
Article written by Tom Wilmeth
June 27, 2011
First Published by JazzTimes on-line site, June 2011

Leigh Kamman is alive and well and living in Edina, Minnesota. Now recently retired from the airwaves, Leigh (rhymes with say) had been a fixture on jazz radio for many years before I met him. That was in the summer of 1980, while interviewing for a board operator position at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Leigh had caught-up with the person who was interviewing me to discuss a jazz event taking place that weekend in Minneapolis. Leigh’s program The Jazz Image was the late night show which the state-wide network of stations ran each Saturday from 10 P.M. until 4 on Sunday morning. It was a voice well known to me long before this meeting, and I quickly realized that this unerringly polite man was its source.

More striking than the familiar and well articulated speech patterns of this announcer was his professional attitude, clearly evident in his manner and his clothes. While most everyone I encountered in the halls of the radio station on that hot July day wore shorts, T-shirts, and sandals – Leigh Kamman had on a tailored 3-piece suit. Since this was a job interview for me, we were the only two in sight formally dressed. Leigh’s professional attire fit his voice perfectly and, as I think back on it, I’m not sure I ever saw him in anything but a suit and tie.

I landed the job and was soon fulfilling the various functions of radio station board operator. Before long, Saturday’s late night shift fell my way. Most thought this an unenviable position, but I was glad for the opportunity to serve as Leigh’s engineer. The near-empty station and Leigh’s jazz selections created a relaxed atmosphere compared with the frenetic pace of the broadcast day.

Leigh is a Minnesota native who spent some time in New York City in the early 1950s and then returned to St. Paul to work in radio and later for the 3M Corporation. That’s about all I knew about his past. His taste in jazz was a bit different than mine, but that was not surprising. Leigh was deep into Johnny Hodges and the big bands. I liked Paul Desmond and fusion. But to pigeonhole either of us by these narrow overviews would be a disservice, as I quickly came to see. As the weeks went by and my number of Saturday night shifts mounted, my interest in older jazz increased. Leigh played a mix of old and new, but largely stayed with the music of the 1940s and 1950s, which his listeners had come to expect.

As my father prized arrangements over solo virtuosity, I grew-up hearing Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman, and especially Glenn Miller. Leigh played a little of the Dorsey Brothers and less of Miller. He too liked Benny Goodman, but was even more interested in bands that I knew little about. I was aware of the bigger hits of Duke Ellington, of course, and had even participated in two high school jazz clinics run by Stan Kenton, but Leigh played material from these artists that I had never heard before. Deep catalogue stuff. I learned a lot about music on those Saturday nights, but was usually ready for 4 A.M. to roll around so I could start the syndicated Jazz Alive reels and head home to bed. It wasn’t until Leigh was assigned the task of recording individual jazz modules that my Master Class in Jazz Appreciation really began.

By the early 1980s, the Minnesota Public Radio empire had multiple FM stations positioned around the state and one AM station in St. Paul. I think the AM had been a donor’s gift, but it was sort of a white elephant for the place. We filled the signal with news and some simulcasting, but the FCC demanded that the station not just be a “repeater” of the FM signal. Leigh was asked to put together a series of one hour shows which could be run on the AM station at night. These were to be self-contained shows that would fill time while providing original content. Leigh agreed to come in to record these shows after his 3M day was over, and I volunteered to be his board operator.

We were well aware that these were production-line shows, cranking out 3 or even 4 of them a night if we could do them in real-time without stopping. “Sausage links,” is what Leigh called them, but he also knew that there was precious little space given to jazz on any radio station, so was glad for the opportunity to fill this void. He took the task very seriously. Because of repeats, these shows could ultimately have a larger audience than his Saturday night state-wide broadcasts.

Every module needed to be exactly 55 minutes in length in order to allow for the 5 minute newscast from AP at the top of each hour. No problem. We started with some basics, recording four hours on Louis Armstrong. Featuring only one artist per show, Leigh was able to give his listeners a well rounded musical portrait of each artist. While rolling tape in the control room, I learned of artists never heard in my youthful years – Jimmy Lunceford, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter. Fascinating material, with each selection back-announced by Leigh’s informative but concise commentary. Sometimes he was reading liner notes, sometimes jazz reference books, but most often he was giving information from his own knowledge of jazz and from years of living with the music.

Leigh was open to suggestion – direct or circuitous. At one break between tapings, I asked about baritone sax man Gerry Mulligan and his unexpected tenure with Dave Brubeck. After answering my question, Leigh decided that we would next do a series of Mulligan modules. Fine. I think we did 6 hours. I even provided a couple of albums. And then we did two more hours of lesser-known material by the classic Brubeck quartet. It was work for both of us, but simultaneously a luxury to be able to record as many shows as we wanted on whichever artists struck Leigh’s fancy.

We were in the studio when the wire services reported the death of Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. We assembled a 4-hour special on the great pianist that very night which was picked-up the next day by the NPR network and distributed nationally. Leigh had the knowledge and the recordings; I knew how to operate turntables and tape machines. We flew.

Leigh Kamman was successful in providing jazz to the Minneapolis/St. Paul region and beyond. As suspected from the first, those modules were aired frequently for a period of several years, but because there were so many of them we never had a listener complaint concerning duplication. Also, each hour would stand-up to repeated listening. This is because Leigh would play the well known material by an artist from the station’s music library, but he would also dig into his personal record collection and into that of his friend Ray Marklund. Together they would regularly come-up with fascinating recordings from deep within their own archives.

Leigh consistently kept the focus on the music, and never on himself. He had spoken to Duke Ellington on numerous occasions, first as a 17-year-old fan at a train station! But he wouldn’t think of dropping this fascinating nugget into a conversation in order to impress. I had worked with Leigh close to three years before I heard him mention, in-passing, about speaking with Charlie Parker. I froze at the tape deck with reel in hand. I asked him to expand a bit, but he drifted away to another subject.

It makes sense that Leigh would not stress his conversations with Charlie Parker. For one thing, hard bop was not his favorite form of jazz. And there weren’t a lot of upbeat aspects to address in Parker’s life during the 1950s, when they met. Leigh played Bird on the air, but not frequently. One time when I pressed him a bit, Leigh did say that he had talked to Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Oscar Pettiford. As I recall, Leigh said they were all together at his NYC apartment after their respective gigs. I asked Leigh if he had any overall remembrances of the conversation. He paused for a long while and then finally said, “They were all quite bitter about money.” “You mean,” I asked, “They felt cheated?” “Yes,” was all Leigh said, but this short response said worlds.

Leigh had very little to say about various musicians’ public struggles with substance abuse or their detrimental personality quirks unless these things had to do with the music itself. During his time in New York, I’m sure he had seen the darker side of the music alley up close and had no interest in lingering there.

If Leigh was a jazz fan first, he also knew the realities of the business side. He was slow to get involved with anything which might step on the rights of musicians, keenly aware that paying gigs were a professional musician’s life blood. I never knew Leigh to take a comp seat; this would hurt ticket sales and the bottom line for the performer. He was also very aware of who owned the rights to which recordings and was determined that no one was to be cheated out of a fair share. One night I showed Leigh a recent Joel Whitburn book which listed a record’s peak position and overall statistical performance on the Billboard Magazine charts. Leigh looked at it for a while and proclaimed it of limited use because it did not include the copyright holder for each song. Wow. But that’s what he wanted to know! Chart position and sales figures can be manipulated. Ownership is ownership.

Leigh was responsible for helping keep jazz not only on the airwaves but also on the stages of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Whether from weekly promotion on the radio or actual involvement with booking artists, he remained among the greatest supporters of jazz in the area. One time Leigh told me that an old friend from New York was coming to town and that he wanted the station to record his talk. I didn’t think much about it until he later casually mentioned that the name of his friend was John Hammond!

Some younger jazz aficionados – usually new to the genre – were critical of the playlist heard on the Saturday night show. True, it did not always reflect the latest trends, but that wasn’t because Leigh was unaware of them. I would regularly see him investigating the Minneapolis jazz scene – from locals like the Natural Life band and the talented Peterson family to touring individuals like Phil Woods, Howard Roberts, and Jon Hendricks. I saw him at Minneapolis’ famous First Avenue club when Wynton Marsalis first played there in 1981 -- checking-out the new young lions. Leigh was easily identifiable in the packed house by his suit and tie, the only one so dressed except the band. Just as with his radio show, he was drawn to the music. He had a very open mind and a broad musical perspective; but he also knew what would and would not work well on his weekly Jazz Image broadcast.

When the numbers were counted, we did a total of 187 modules and I worked at least 150 Saturday nights with Leigh. After that, the MPR network acquired a long sought-after deal with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the need to fill time became less critical. We would plug-into the CBC for long stretches. The modules project was suspended and even the length of Leigh’s Saturday night show was scaled back. Formats shifted.

In the fall of 1983 I made plans to depart Minnesota for Texas. I didn’t have direct contact with Leigh for several years after that. Even so, it was clear that he was keeping his ear to the ground. When I received an academic accolade, he sent congratulations through mutual friends. On the rare occasions when our letters did form a pre e-mail conversation, he was always encouraging me to return to radio – even going so far as to point out to jobs he thought appropriate. His confidence was encouraging, of course. But I left radio, in part, because I had already enjoyed the good fortune of doing everything in broadcasting that I wanted to do – things almost exclusively related to music. I would later have other fine teachers in various fields of study, but Leigh Kamman’s lessons on jazz and on personal grace have stayed with me the longest.

2,102 words

Tom Wilmeth
MPR retirement piece
Museum of Broadcasting link

Essay: Jazz in the Key of Bob

Jazz in the Key of Bob May 23, 2011
Article written by Tom Wilmeth
Published on the JazzTimes web site – The Wilmeth Wyvern

Bob Dylan turned 70 last week. That statement alone is a mind-bender. That he is still on the road more than 100 nights of the year is amazing. Yet it’s true. I noted with interest Rolling Stone magazine’s new issue, which celebrates Bob’s 70th birthday with a list of his best 70 songs, as chosen by their editors. The issue also contains lists of Bob’s most inscrutable lyrics (“Gates of Eden”) and what they consider overlooked jewels (“Dark Eyes”). These lists put me in mind of a tape I compiled ten years ago, for Bob’s 60th birthday. Inspired by the famous bootleg Elvis Presley’s Greatest Sh*t, my idea was to create a set-list of Dylan recordings that would make a hilariously bad collection.

It sounded like a fun plan, an inverted exercise in fan devotion, and so I set to work. I drew, of course, from the notorious 1970 double album Self Portrait and from various back-roads of the Dylan canon. My final list included such original jewels as “Wigwam,” “Billy 4,” “Handy Dandy,” and “New Pony.” The tape also featured Bob’s covers of “Let It Be Me,” “Froggy Went a-Courting,” “You Belong to Me,” and “This Old Man.” All officially released tracks.

But damn -- once completed, the tape was not the humorous artifact I had intended. I instead discovered what perhaps I had known from the start -- that even a set spotlighting Bob Dylan’s strangest odds & ends held interest, and that the very selections I had intended for comic value held up well to repeated listening.

One of the songs I included came from the 1970 album New Morning. This was supposedly the album that Bob quickly recorded after the debacle of Self Portrait in order to shore-up a sagging reputation and to appease stunned fans. The song I used was not chosen because I thought it to be bad, but because it was like no other in Dylan’s canon. “If Dogs Run Free” is as close as Bob himself has come to recording a jazz tune. The number is a spoken work of hipster monologue, a la Kenneth Rexroth. Scatting in the background behind Bob’s narrative is Maeretha Stewart, along with the single-note improvisations of Al Kooper’s tinkling piano accompaniment. I am not arguing here for Dylan to be viewed as a jazz artist, of course, in spite of this one-song genre exercise.

The reason “If Dogs Run Free” stood out for me is because the concepts of Jazz and Bob Dylan are not often linked. While not obvious matches, they are also not mutually exclusive. Dylan has certainly had songs that do not adhere to traditional folk, blues, or rock chord changes – his “Too Much of Nothing” is interesting for its ascending chromatic chords, while other songs from this same era, such as “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” and “Tiny Montgomery” each use only two chords.

Yet no matter the simplicity or complexity of the songs’ structure, few musicians seemed to have taken interest in arranging Dylan melodies for a jazz setting in the 1960s. This, even as Beatles’ melodies were making tentative inroads into jazz with albums like Basie’s Beatle Bag (1966) and George Benson’s The Other Side of Abbey Road (1970). Still, there were a few.

Among the first jazz renditions of Dylan’s material is Bud Shank’s 1963 release Folk & Flute, which included 3 songs credited to Dylan – “Quit Your Lowdown Ways,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Although a jazz player, Shank was apparently riding the still-expanding Folk Music wave, as he had previously done with albums of jazz arrangements of Brazilian, Bossa Nova, and Broadway music. As such, even with an album title with the word Folk in it, a quartet including Joe Pass on guitar, Charlie Haden’s bass, and session leader Shank on alto sax and flute, this LP must be seen as an outing for jazz musicians.

Perhaps surprisingly, baritone sax-man and cool jazz pioneer Gerry Mulligan was another established jazz musician to record Dylan early-on. In his tellingly-titled 1965 album If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em, Mulligan included an unusual, piano-dominant version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

The first full album of jazz arrangements of Dylan songs appears to be Dylan Jazz, from 1966. One can argue about whether these arrangements are truly jazz charts, but with high caliber session cats like a then-unknown Glenn Campell on guitar, Jim Horn on reeds, and Hal Blaine on drums – it makes for some interesting interpretations. Also of note, this album was co-produced by Leon Russell.

Like Shank’s inclusion of Dylan’s then-unreleased “Quit Your Lowdown Ways,” Dylan Jazz also includes an original which had not yet been issued by Dylan, “Walkin’ Down the Line.” I believe that this is a clear indication that these musicians are making some of their song choices from publisher’s lead sheets and not necessarily from listening to Dylan’s albums.

This same theory can also be used to demonstrate that Elvis Presley was not extremely familiar with Dylan’s actual recording of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” since Presley follows the published Witmark sheet music version of the song. As such, Elvis sings the verses in an incorrect order – inverting verses two and three as performed by Bob on the Freewheelin’ album. A big deal? Well . . . Yes! By the way – Dylan has said that his favorite cover version of any of his own songs is Elvis’ version of “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” a song that, like some jazz arrangements, was released before Dylan’s own recording of the song. This too indicates song selection chosen from sheet music over album awareness, just like other albums of Dylan songs interpreted by performers from Odetta to Sebastian Cabot. Honorable mention must go to the 1972 release Lo & Behold by Coulson, Dean, McGuiness, Flint. The album contains this quartet’s renditions of ten then-unreleased Dylan originals, three of which remain unreleased by Bob to this day!

Music genres were in the midst of radical and unprecedented cross-pollination in the mid-1960s. One who was quick to grasp the possibility was Willie Nelson, who in 1966 would slyly slip The Beatles’ “Yesterday” into a live set for a rough Houston crowd by introducing it as a song by “a little country quartet you may have heard of.” Two years later vibraharp virtuoso Gary Burton plays Dylan’s “I Want You” at his 1968 Carnegie Hall concert. After the melody is introduced by Burton and guitarist Larry Coryell, this brief number becomes a solo feature for bassist Steve Swallow.

Dylan’s melodies seemed to lend themselves well to bass features for Bob’s early jazz arrangers. The same year that Burton played “I Want You” with his quartet, Keith Jarrett’s 1968 live trio recording of “My Back Pages” also becomes a bass feature – again for Charlie Haden – on the album Somewhere Before. This take of “My Back Pages” was used by Vortex Records as the B-side of a Keith Jarrett single. The A-side is an instrumental studio recording of another Dylan song, “Lay Lady Lay.” The song did not chart, and Vortex failed to include it any of Jarrett’s albums.

It’s hard to know whether the pianist himself had any input on the release of either side of this single, but what is unmistakable is Jarrett’s appreciation of Dylan’s music and of his lyrics. In an 1987 interview for the NPR radio show Sidran on Record, Jarrett tries to express to host Ben Sidran some of the indefinable aspects of music. At one point he attempts to sum-up his feelings by quoting, “Beauty walks a razor’s edge.” He repeats the line and tells Sidran that this type of beauty is what he is trying to create at each performance and on every recording. “Beauty walks a razor’s edge” is a line from Dylan’s 1974 song “Shelter from the Storm,” whose imagery clearly had an impact on Jarrett.

The Dylan numbers selected by Burton and Jarrett are interesting choices. I recall talking between sets to Texas guitarist Jimmy Raycraft. His band had just performed an instrumental medley of Dylan’s “I Want You” and The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” I mentioned to Raycraft that the Bob song was a good choice for such a workout because Bob’s “I Want You” is so melodic. He immediately countered, “No man! It has no melody. That’s what makes it so great! All of those lyrics are sung on one note.” And after reflecting on this for a while, I saw that he might be right. He sure thought so. There are chord changes to the tune, and the bright accompaniment provided by Nashville’s studio A-team is infectious. But the memorable vocal passages of “I Want You” do not follow the melodic accompaniment.

In the late 1960s, Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett were among the young lions of jazz. They were arguably looking at music in a different way than their respected elder statesmen, most of whom were certainly not interested in Bob Dylan. Bassist Rob Stoner encountered this situation head-on when he accompanied Dylan to Chicago in December 1975 to be the closing act on the PBS special The World of John Hammond. The program was to bring together many of the music legends who Hammond had signed to Columbia Records. Among those performing on this two-part tribute were Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Milt Hinton. While Stoner does not get specific with names, he says that none of the jazz performers would even talk to him because he was associated with Bob’s band. These had been his “heroes,” laments Stoner, who was crushed by their collective snub.

It was rare for the old guard of any musical genre to embrace Dylan’s work in the 1960s. Flatt & Scruggs – the most famous of all bluegrass duos – broke-up their act because of Earl Scruggs’ fascination with Dylan’s songs. This may sound like an over-statement, but if Dylan’s music was not the cause for the split, it certainly embodied the different paths the two wanted to take. On their later albums, guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo master Earl Scruggs recorded enough Bob Dylan songs to fill a 60-minute tape. I know; I compiled one. Earl loved the new directions; Lester couldn’t relate. They parted.

No less a player than the great country guitarist Chet Atkins was never one to reject a melody because of genre. Atkins recorded instrumental versions of several Dylan compositions and even performed a medley of three Dylan tunes on a 1970 episode of Porter Waggoner’s syndicated television show. Atkins always seemed to have his ears wide open. I saw him play in St. Paul in the early 1980s, during one of his first visits to the Prairie Home Companion radio show. Seated alone on stage, he concluded tuning and said to the audience, “Well folks, you take a good song where you find it.” And with that he played a beautiful version of the recent #1 pop hit, “Heart of Glass” by Blondie. When I later spoke with Atkins, he voiced dismay over those among his fans who dismissed new music. Atkins had obviously held an unbiased view of melody for some time, as he recorded an instrumental version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” as early as 1965.

Another supremely gifted guitarist, Jim Hall, brings us full circle to jazz versions of Dylan songs. Unlike the late 1960s examples I cite from Gary Burton and Keith Jarratt, Jim Hall has released a 2008 recording of Dylan’s “Masters of War,” another jazz arrangement featuring bass, this time Bill Frizzell.

Known as a superlative wordsmith, it seems clear that Dylan has also worked hard on his melodies and song structures. In the first volume of his Chronicles autobiography, a somewhat defensive Dylan asks, “If my songs were just about words, then what was Duane Eddy, the great rock-and-roll guitarist, doing recording an album full of instrumental melodies of my songs?” Probably unaware of Duane Eddy, some jazz musicians would nonetheless soon follow his lead.

If most of the jazz community was slow to hear Dylan, he had certainly been listening to them. Also in Chronicles, Dylan remembers his early days in New York. “I’d listen to a lot of jazz and bebop records,” and to the arrangements of Gil Evans. “There were a lot of similarities between some kinds of jazz and folk music.” Dylan then lists several Ellington compositions, including “Tattoo Bride” and “Tourist Point of View” and concludes that, to him, “They sounded like sophisticated folk music.” It is also in this section where Dylan talks of the influence of jazz records by Roland Kirk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Christian’s sides with Benny Goodman. Living and working in an early 1960s New York City, Dylan attended various jazz clubs, being taken with the music of Thelonious Monk and speaking briefly with him. When Dylan introduced himself as a folk music performer, Monk would tell the young man from the Midwest, “We all play folk music.”

This article does not attempt to be comprehensive in its examination of Dylan jazz arrangements. Certainly many other artists of this genre have offered interpretations of Dylan’s work, from Duke Ellington’s recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to guitarist Michael Hedges’ cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” Surprisingly few jazz vocalists have waded in to this interpretive stream, although genre-crossing Janet Planet has recently released an entire CD of Dylan’s work. We should be surprised by none of these jazz interpretations. As Bob himself explains, “Musicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words, but most people are not musicians.”

#30# 2,275 words

Tom Wilmeth

Essay: John Coltrane: Thank God He's a Country Boy!

John Coltrane -- Thank God He’s a Country Boy!
Essay written by Tom Wilmeth
April 27, 2011

There is a something very curious taking place right now on the Billboard Magazine Country Music chart. I’m certain there is no Grammy Award or even a statistical category for this anomaly, such as Artist with the Most Records Sold, the Single with the Most Weeks at #1, or even sub-categories such as the Longest Song to Make the Chart. Nonetheless, let me briefly draw your attention to a strange confluence now on country radio: There are specific references to the late jazz saxophone master John Coltrane currently found within not one, but in the lyrics of two separate country hits this week!

The jazz recordings of John Coltrane are about as far from country music as one can travel while still being on American soil. Briefly, Coltrane was born in 1926; he joined Miles Davis’ quintet in 1955; in 1960 he began his own solo career. Before his death in 1967, Coltrane was responsible for expanding not only the possibilities of the tenor saxophone, but of jazz itself.

So how is it feasible that two discrete references to a jazzman more than 40 years dead are simultaneously appearing on country radio in the spring of 2011? What does it mean? Why do we care? Let’s look:

The first Coltrane sighting is found on the latest single by guitar virtuoso Brad Paisley, whose abilities could make Eric Clapton stop and listen. Paisley offers another of his up-tempo hot and clever country numbers on the song “Old Alabama.” It is sung from the point of view of a young man wooing his lady to the sounds of the band Alabama – a country group with its own very impressive chart statistics. The kicker here is that Paisley, in a continuing nod to his country music roots, has persuaded Alabama itself to come out of retirement to accompany him.

As the young lovers of the song are entwined on the back roads, headed for the back seat, their music of choice is that of Alabama. Paisley sings:
“Forget about Sinatra or Coltrane / . . .
And Barry White ain’t gonna work tonight /
If you really want to turn her on.”

“Forget about Sinatra or Coltrane”? Frank Sinatra was, of course, the singer of choice for make-out artists of a previous generation. Barry White has similar appeal as the go-to guy for inducing romance. But John Coltrane? That’s a disconnect; a non sequitur. Why would this truck- driving Romeo even have Coltrane on his I-Pod? Just what sort of mood does the young man want to create? True, John Coltrane recorded many lovely ballads, but he is far better remembered for his lengthy, sometimes atonal exploratory improvisations which quickly leave any semblance of melody in the dust.

Maybe the inclusion of the sax-man’s name is a hip, inside joke by songwriters Paisley, Randy Owen, Dave Turnbull, and Chris Dubois, especially since the word Coltrane doesn’t even rhyme with any other lyric line. Maybe the girlfriend in the song is a meth freak. But no matter the reason – a reference to John Coltrane appears in a current Billboard Country Chart entry!

Unlike the one-time, passing reference in Paisley’s “Old Alabama,” the second example is even stranger as it links a young man’s positive attitude with a specific Coltrane composition. Uncle Kracker exudes extreme happiness during the sunny number “It’s Good To Be Me.” In the song’s culminating comparison, the singer’s euphoric attitude is equated with having “caught some Coltrane Love Supreme.” That’s odd.

John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a 4-part cycle of compositions praising God. Released in 1964, it is a well known concept album in the jazz canon. The work was embraced as a religious touchstone in the mid-1970s by guitarists Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, and more recently on separate recordings by both Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Primarily instrumental, the piece does have a hypnotic spoken repetition of the title words “A Love Supreme” during much of its opening section.

Similar to the source itself, Uncle Kracker’s “It’s Good To Be Me” also repeats the phrase “Coltrane Love Supreme” numerous times. The reference only appears near the song’s conclusion, but becomes a shouted mantra of sorts as Kracker reaches his joyous finale. I suspect that songwriters Robert Ritchie, Brett James, Matthew Shafer, and Thomas Harding are purposefully mimicking the spoken chant in Coltrane’s original recording with the repetition found here. But why is it included at all?

I don’t know. Other than this specific reference, “It’s Good To Be Me” has no religious overtones. It is a number glowing with life-affirming optimism but is completely secular. Its tone bears little resemblance to the extremely sincere gratitude shown towards God or the humility found at the center of the Coltrane work it sites. I’ll say it again -- very odd.

So, what can we learn from these unexpected examples of musical cross-genre references? From Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama” we discover – and guys take note – you should not attempt to create a romantic mood for your girl with John Coltrane tunes. Simple advice, perhaps, but well worth the reminder.

In “It’s Good to Be Me,” the words “Coltrane Love Supreme” become a late-song sing-along hook. It’s the part of the melody and lyrics which one remembers after the number is over. I maintain that if you can get a young Country Music fan to sing the words “Coltrane Love Supreme,” you are well on the way to planting seeds for one of the strangest musical pollinations imaginable. The true country devotee may one day wonder just who or what this Coltrane might be. And with just a cursory search, a new musical world could unfold. That is, if the listener doesn’t think that Uncle Kracker is singing about a Coal Train.

This type of discovery flash point happened to me, albeit in a less jarring musical transition. In about 1985, when I was just getting over being a snob about current country, I was enjoying a live set by George Strait on Austin City Limits. After a handful of hits he introduced a song that he said meant a great deal to him, called “Lefty’s Gone.” It immediately stuck in my brain, but I had no idea who Lefty was and I didn’t worry much about it. However, after continually singing these heartfelt lyrics to myself for a few days, I thought that the man who inspired this tune might be worth finding. Early in the search I found Willie Nelson’s tribute LP, From Willie to Lefty, and some of Merle Haggard’s recordings of Frizzell songs. But Lefty himself remained elusive.

When I finally tracked-down original recordings of Lefty Frizzell, I was transformed. I immediately realized why, in spite of only a handful of hits, his style had been so influential and important to country radio in the early 1950s. Hearing George Strait sing “Lefty’s Gone” that night ultimately resulted in my purchase of a 12 CD set of Mr. Frizzell’s complete works. Small seeds of interest can grow large. And perhaps this type of discovery is what will eventually occur with these two Coltrane citations. A few curious country fans may search-out the references found in songs they like and become devotees of John Coltrane. I hope it. And I doubt it.

But apart from possible repercussions of influence, I still marvel at two different country music songs dropping Coltrane’s name into the lyrics. Even stranger, how could these songs share the same chart? This seems like it should be a once-in-a-generation songwriting fluke. And who in the country audience did these songwriters expect to connect with by using jazz references? I’d give worlds to know. I began by saying that Billboard Magazine had no category for such an anomaly, but I would like to suggest one for next year’s Grammy Awards – Most Pleasantly Unexpected Reference to a Musician from Another Genre in the Lyrics to a Hit Song. Hey, why not? We already have two entries vying for the award.

#30# 1,329 words
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appears in JazzTimes May on-line issue; direct link at:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

CD Review: Neil Young & The International Harvesters

Neil Young & The International Harvesters – A Treasure
Reprise Records / Neil Young Archive Series #9
Recorded in concert 1984/1985 – Released 2011
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
July 13, 2011

This one is a bit difficult to assess because it is hard to separate the music from the events surrounding Neil Young’s career in the mid-1980s. I mean, how many artists get sued by their own record company for not sounding enough like themselves? Few, but this what Geffen Records did to Neil after he submitted a string of albums which were not in line with label expectations.

Evidence for the prosecution include Trans from 1982, an odd experiment in vocoders and electronics. This was followed in 1983 by Everbody’s Rockin’, credited to The Shocking Pinks, on which Neil offers a brief Rockabilly rave-up. These uncharacteristic styles incensed his new label because the records sold so poorly. Young apparently tried to appease Geffen in 1985 with his appropriately titled Old Ways album, but then immediately toured with a band he christened The International Harvesters.

Neil took this country group seriously, hiring crack players and appearing on Nashville Now with Ralph Emory, who wasn’t quite sure what to make of his rock star guest. In fact, the first track on this live compilation CD comes from the Nashville Now cable show. Maybe Emory would not have been as surprised if he had been aware of Neil’s brilliant and respectful interpretation of Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” a full 15 years earlier. Still, if Ralph Emory was a dumbstruck observer, many of Young’s actual followers had gotten off the fan boat years before. Neil followed the huge success of Harvest in 1972 with a tour of largely unrecognizable selections and dense electric sound, as documented on the live Time Fades Away LP. Neil’s new fans also faded away when his subsequent studio albums bore little resemblance to Harvest.

So, battles with Geffen Records and the artist’s indifference to frustrated fans aside –
How is the music on A Treasure? It’s good, and this is a most welcome release. It could be called a historical document, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inferior set. The band is tight and Young is keeping the songs concise and clear – no 16-minute guitar workouts here. Also, nearly half of the songs are previously unreleased in any form. And of the rest, only the true Neil devotee attending these concerts would have recognized many of the tunes.

Young released his car-themed Fork in the Road CD in 2009, but it is clear that his mind has wrestled with the subject of efficient automobiles since at least the early 1980s. On “Motor City,” first heard on Re-ac-tor (1981), Neil is angry over North America’s automotive situation. Interestingly, the take included here comes from a 1984 Los Angeles show. I will leave it to the Neil obsessives to research whether the song was in his set-list throughout this tour or whether it was included on this night as a specific shot at the Los Angeles car culture.

One of the highlights of the CD is “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” first recorded in 1966 when Neil was a member of the Buffalo Springfield. This is a fine arrangement of a number that shows the high quality of Young’s songwriting abilities at the beginning of his career.

On the other end of the time spectrum are the five songs which are new to Young’s canon:
If “Motor City” laments America’s relationship with cars, “Southern Pacific” is a love song to the railroads. “Amber Jean” is a more traditional love song, including references to the moon and to the girl’s pretty eyes. “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking” is a humorous western lament about a woman who formerly “gave good phone” to the singer. But no more.

The new “Nothing is Perfect” might first appear to be a criticism of “God’s perfect plan,” but is clearly a song of gratitude. Neil here sings of comparisons, urging the listener to “look in the shadow.” By viewing the dark side one will see that “we got so much to be happy about,” including “plenty of food on the table” and “lots of love in the house.” This unexpected song of appreciation perhaps speaks to the contented nature of the singer. He has an “honest, strong, and soft woman” who “helps me be a good man.” Yet in the midst of this description of bliss comes one verse about soldiers burying their dead and then “shooting blind,” and another verse about airport hostages and an abused workforce. A very odd lyrical juxtaposition, this, but Neil makes his point: Doesn’t an awareness of the bad make the good seem all the better?

“Are You Ready for the Country?” and “Get Back to the Country” are used as concert bookends of sorts. But without the brand of International Harvesters on the label, I doubt that all of these songs would be termed Country Music. Notwithstanding the oft-heard fiddle and steel guitar, some of these tracks would easily fit into live shows from Young’s other eras. This is never more true than on the final new offering, “Grey Riders,” which closes the album and whose thick electric guitars would be at home on last year’s fine Le Noise release. Interestingly enough, it is this song -- uncharacteristic of the set -- that has been released to radio as the CD’s first single.

I’m glad to have these beautifully recorded concert tapes released. Unknown material and surprising trunk songs placed within a well paced live overview. In its own way, this CD is “a treasure,” as it documents an unexpected and short-lived era of Neil Young’s performance history in a most engaging manner. So when do we get similar live document for the Shocking Pinks?

#30# 937 words

Tom Wilmeth
Grafton, Wisconsin
Former Home of the Paramount Records blues label
(262) 243-4218