Even when Loudon Wainwright III (left in photo with Ramblin' Jack Elliot) was a young man he was writing autobiographical songs, and his old themes of family, sex, and death resonate more deeply on his new record, Older Than My Old Man Now. He usually performs solo, armed with just an acoustic guitar or a banjo, but most of his recordings present more heavily produced versions of LWIII's music. When I chatted with LWIII in late April I wanted to explore that dichotomy and how those transformations take place.
Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice
By Tad Hershorn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 470pp. Hardcover, $34.95.
One night in 1942, Billie Holiday was singing at a Los Angeles nightclub. Between sets, she crossed the street to have a drink with Norman Granz. She was in tears because some black friends who had come to hear her had been turned away.
Up on the old church altar, under the ceiling's massive and ornate wooden arches, in front of an array of stained glass whose center panel has been replaced with a modern rendering of a trio of bluesmen, singer and harmonica player Phil Wiggins and singer-guitarist Corey Harris are nearing the end of their set. Wiggins pauses, looks at his watch, and smiles.
"Time flies when you're playing blues in a church."
For the musically prolific, releasing too many records too close together can be problematic or worse. Just because you can make a record every week in your home studio doesn't mean you should. The impulse to commit every golden thought and performance to tape without self-editing or even pausing to reflect screams narcissism run amok. Asking listenerseven dedicated fansto then buy and spend time listening to half-baked nonsense that might have become something, given more time and care, is a sure career destroyer. There's truth in the old saw about building demand, avoiding saturation, and creating a hunger among the listening public. Most critical of all, despite downloads, piracy, and Lady Gaga's pointy hats and eggshell entrances, the old Hollywoodism still applies: while spontaneity may sound like a radical idea, you're only as good as your last album.
Kurt Sanderling died on September 17 in Berlin, just two days shy of his 99th birthdayof "old age," according to his eldest son Stefan. Sanderling was the last of a generation of conductors displaced by Hitleran exodus that included Otto Klemperer, Josef Krips, Sir George Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, Bruno Walter, who all went West. (Never mind that Klemperer had converted to Catholicism and that Krips was half-Jewish.) Sanderling fled East, to the Soviet Union.
Big bands died out back in the 1950s, right? They went away when the jitterbug faded and folks began dancing to music other than swing? And then real jazz fans departed when the bebop soloists came along and made big-band players look clumsy and quaint?
"Sometimes I can evoke the breathless rush of feeling that I experienced the first time that I ever really heard Robert Johnson's music. Sometimes a note will suggest just a hint of the realms of emotion that opened up to me in that moment, the sense of utter wonder, the shattering revelation."Peter Guralnick, from Searching for Robert Johnson (New York: Dutton Obelisk, 1989)
It's an experience that all true blues fans need to savor. Fly into Memphis, drive south on US 61, into Coahoma County, Mississippi, down to the Delta, down to Robert Johnson country. There, on one of those steamy nights when the moon is full and fog, or maybe restless spirits, rise from the cotton fields, you can drive down to his two graves, in two churchyards nearly within sight of each other. You can sit in the dark and listen to the trains that were his constant mode of transportation. And on the way back to Clarksdale, the Delta burgh where Bessie Smith passed, you can go down to the crossroads and judge for yourself. Romantics say you can feel, smell, and even hear Robert Johnson's music, if not his desperate deal, still hanging in the humid Mississippi air.
To write about music, you must first come to terms with your fanboy urges. You must brush off the fairy dust and see your heroes for who they really area picture that in many cases is all too human. Yet that first blush of idolatry is an experience you never quite forget, no matter how many times you interview a person.
There was a time, back in the St. Elmo's Fire 1980s, when Steve Earle's first album, Guitar Town, was an object of abject slobbery for a generation of rock critics. Turning a near-mint LP copy of that album over in his hands, Earle begins to reminisce about a record that changed Nashville and country-rock music and, for many, remains his undisputed career masterpiece.
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009): 475pp. Hardcover, $30; paperback, $16.95.
If you plan to read just one book about Louis Armstrong, whose virtuosic cornet solos pushed jazz past rudimentary ensemble playing and launched his phenomenal career as an instrumentalist and singer, make it Pops. Teachout built it on brickwork laid by authors who preceded him, so you'll benefit from their research, as well as from narrative on 650 previously private reels of tape that Armstrong recorded and archived. Moreover, Teachout is a musician and music critic who offers opinions on his subject's discography.
Few people seem to realize that Armstrong (19011971) called himself LOU-iss. "All White Folks call me Louie," he once noted, and in some instances that may have been patronizing. In others, it was surely an instinctive response to the man's infectious warmth and informality.
How am I to convince music lovers that this CD is markedly different from Attention Screen's first two live CDs?
The question kept running through my head as I marveled at the breadth and maturity of Attention Screen's remarkable improvisations during a pre-concert sound check in the Piano Salon of Yamaha Artist Services, Inc. (YASI), at 689 Fifth Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan.
Attention Screen impressed even more at the public concert the following night, April 24, 2010. As the band members engaged in one improvisational miracle after another, fearlessly exploring new territory, the beauty and inventiveness of their playing astounded me.
Whistling ductwork, whirring fans, murmuring pipesalong with being jazz's most storied location, a living shrine to the memories of Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and so many others, Manhattan's Village Vanguard, on Seventh Avenue South, was, on this winter's night, the Das Boot of jazz. In every corner, every stairwell, every square foot of available backstage space, some kind of furnace machinery audibly ground, banged, and/or wheezed away.
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
By Robin D.G. Kelley (New York: Free Press, 2009): 588 pages; hardcover, $30; paperback, $18.
Bebop was new and controversial when, in September 1947, writer-photographer Bill Gottlieb profiled an obscure jazz pianist for Down Beat magazine. The story, which appeared just before Thelonious Sphere Monk (19171982) turned 30, called him an "elusive" figure "few have ever seen."
Then Lorraine Lion, the wife of Blue Note Records' Alfred Lion, began to tout Monk's first releases on the label. Her hyperbolic prose portrayed him as a man "surrounded by an aura of mystery . . . a strange person whose pianistics continue to baffle all who hear him." Ms. Lion anointed Monk the "High Priest of Bebop."
The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, by Eric Siblin (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009); hardcover, 318 pp. $24.
In his lifetime, J.S. Bach (16851750) was an obscure figure. He never lived in a major city, he didn't work in the musical formoperathat in his era could propel a composer to stardom, and his style seemed antiquated to many. Bach saw a mere nine of his compositions published; when his consummate masterwork, The Art of the Fugue, appeared the year after he died, it sold just 30 copies.
Eric Siblin includes these and countless other facts in The Cello Suites, a book that will fascinate anyone who loves Bach's music. He notes, for instance, that Bach's four musical sons kept his work in circulation, that Mozart was mightily impressed by a motet he heard at a Leipzig church, and that the 12-year-old Beethoven raised some eyebrows when he performed The Well-Tempered Clavier in Vienna.
At a time when the heads of most record labels barely know how to play a record, let alone make one, Manfred Eicherowner, founder, and inspiration of ECM Records, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010has been intimately involved in the making of nearly 1200 of them. How many, though, can he actually remember working on?
"When I listen back to them, I know the story of every record," he says without a smile or a moment's hesitation. "There is never an easy record. Every record needs a lot of input and concentration and dedication and passion to be made, that's clear. Create an atmosphere that is a productive search for music, and when this is the case, you have very memorable records."
The phrase "the mystic chords of memory" comes from Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. Of course, larger issues than those addressed in this column occupied most peoples' minds just then. But it is nonetheless worthwhile for us to spend a moment or two thinking about how differently people experienced music in 1861, compared to how things are today.