Tuesday, December 3, 2019


What really killed rock music wasn't rock critics, but rather fans who bought the records and went to the shows. And I noticed in my time that the fans who buy the newer, grainier, more strident and dissonant stuff are younger than I am--gadzooks! The avant gard I matured with was now a younger listeners retro-indulgence. Simply, styles change, and much of what is new at first seems ugly to an audience who's tastes are entrenched and internalized. Rock criticism, like in any other criticism, makes the unknown explicable, or at least momentarily comprehensible for the moment. Blaming writers, though, for the murder of a music gives them too much power--it's doubtful that the history of long, abstract, numb skull dissertations in the Village Voice, let alone Rolling Stone ever convinced a tenth of their readership to make the album go double platinum. Calling Robert Christgau, a racist simply because he not favorably disposed toward a particular Aretha Franklin album is ludicrous--I remember the review as well, and I recall that his points were subtler than you make them.
Punk is racist because it eschews black influences? It may be a matter of style, and that preference may have its roots in some lumpy, swirling matrix of cultural forces one may term "racist" in some inconclusive, knot-headed reliance on aimless lefty jargon, but the exclusion of African American influence in a music does not make it "inherently racist" as you rather narrowly maintain, nor does it make it "stupid". Given the particulars, that absence may make it more honest. Rather than attempting to appropriate musical culture to the exclusion of all other comprehension, musicians in given communities--and communities have their niches in areas even great critics, theorists, or grouchy, partisan fans can imagine-- may choose, non-vindictively, non-judgmentally, to assimilate and reconfigure melodies that they find appealing to them. One plays a particular way because they want to play that way: the how and the why of that want is mysterious, but its existence cannot be attributed to racism. To say that it is racist is bone-headed. Let me rephrase that: it's ignorant and cheap.
I don't follow the argument that this topic wants to make. It sounds as if someone has the feeling that they've fallen from grace, that the keys of the musical kingdom are lost to them, and that it's the critics, always the critics, who have to take the rap for making the Perfect World all wrong. What stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music intact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweep is anyone’s' guess. In the meantime, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. Rather, I think it's criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine auteurs, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions and for the scads of "serious" commentary, much of it has vanished behind faux post- structuralist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artist’s work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead, again, from the worn trails of Lit/Crit, has abandoned the idea that words and lyrics can be about anything.
But rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit that moves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstruse writing can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivial exercise.
My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm a harmonica player of thirty-five years gasping experience in sometimes bands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between technique versus talent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to get your fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent, though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is an instinct that, or let's say intelligence that knows how to make the best use out the sheer bulk of technical knowledge: making it all into music that's expressive and new.
Rock, like the blues, it's closest elder relative, is principally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others as great musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musical elements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums, bass and guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice that seeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth of Lit Criticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitar lick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-mike drums, and abstruse lyrics convey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel, or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip-hop, a sense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when to withhold. Feel. Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Christgau, Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, at least, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again, so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivism of art making, be it music or otherwise. The Garden of Eden was so much nicer before the corporate snakes moved in and loused it up for everyone, and that, regardless of musical terminology tossed about like throw rugs over a lumpy assertion, is the kind of junior-college cafeteria table thumping that is demonstrably empty of content.
Reading any good history of rock and roll music will have the music develop alongside the growth of an industry that started recording and disrupting increasingly diverse kinds of music in order to widen market shares. The hand of the businessman, the soul of the capitalist machine has always been in and around the heart of rock and roll: every great rock and roll genius, every jazz master, each blues innovator has the basic human desire to get paid. Suffice to say that some we see as suffering poets whose travails avail them of images that deepen our sense of shared humanity see themselves still as human beings who require the means to pay for their needs and finance their wants, like the rest of us.
There has always been a marketplace where the music is played, heard, bought and sold--and like everything in these last months, the marketplace has changed, become bigger, more diffuse with new music, and new technologies. Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being an artist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the act of borrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, right up and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities for Borg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have no music to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selves may be locked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but our cultural forms mix together freely and easily. I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of an instrumentalist to a soundboard jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops, but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new art seems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader media brings itself up to speed.
I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is an entrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll, and wiil mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise.
Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehow responsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in the narrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, this is where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what they gather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general. Neither the quacking vulgarisms of the left nor the quaking apostles of the right like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarily reasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was to fall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists' responsibility" for the defamiliarizing "aestheticization" of real social problems, thus robbing working people of real political consciousness and maintaining the force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative.

Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a I listened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Frieda Kahlo’s' portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upon their canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, that babies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn, finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bible or in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involves a tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible, in their view, to the errant need for self-expression. Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, and again, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocative to bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth that stirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to want to fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenet that artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so many conditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless. We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bake sales.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019


Chick Corea: Corea Concerto / Spain for Sextet & Orchestra / Piano Concerto No. 1


Spain for Sextet and Orchestra
-Chick Corea w/ the London Philharmonic Orchestra 
featuring Origin (Sony Classical)

The word "pretentious" comes to mind, as well as "waste", in so much as Corea, one of the surest and most ingenious musician/composer talents alive, takes one of his most perfect compositions, "Spain" and elongates into a series of "movements", no doubt meant to explore new ideas, poetry, impressions. What he has here is near unrecognizable from the original, except when the orchestra kicks in with some ob
ligatory figures: the improvisations from Corea and the worthy members of Origin are tentative at best--they sound like they are sitting next to insane wrestlers on a crowded bus-- and the piece, long, shall we say, stops and goes with no real dynamic emphasis or emotional wallop delivered, or even hinted at in the foreshadowing. Corea ought to know better; he can certainly do better.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019


Image result for corey harrisCorey Harris, a fine blues guitarist, songwriter and singer in a neo-traditionalist blues  style writes a provocative column on his blog  Blues is Black Music entitled 'Can White People Sing the Blues?" Harris, a musician specializing in a style of blues that's been around much longer than his years on this earth insists it's an important question. His primary objection to the idea of whites playing what is a black art form is that while listeners find themselves entertained by technical competence and show business bedazzlement, they do not have legitimacy because the music is robbed of historical context and is, as a result, merely ornamentation, not art that convincingly interprets personal and collective experience in a cruel, problematic existence. There is no culture without the long, collective memory to inform it and keep it honest, 

 " Without culture there is no music.  Music is the voice of a culture.  Separate the two and the music can never be the same.  Of course, it may be in the same style as the original, but the meaning of a song such as Son House's 'My Black Mama' will always be changed with a different performer.  This is especially true if the performer is not from the Black culture that gave birth to the blues."
I agree that those aspiring to perform blues, jazz or soul should forever know what they are picking up is black music created by and defined by black artists and the culture , twisted as it may have been, that contained the forces that brought together elements of African and European tradition that otherwise would not have met. Would that the institutions that created the genius of African American music hadn't been the racist and economically determinist demon of Slavery? Harris, though, assumes that culture is static and implies in his argument that black culture has remained still. The creation of Black American culture regarding art, education, literature, music, theater, speech, theology refutes that rather handily, as it arises, through forced circumstances, from a system of oppression; oppressed classes create counter- institutions .

The new black culture that gradually arose and developed as the response by black communities to the decimation of the institutional, social and spiritual traditions that had been theirs in their own land. The new culture, in turn, influenced the larger culture, the culture of white people. One can single out exploitation, minstrelsy, racist practices, blatantly a bad and watered down imitations of popular and emerging black art forms, especially musical idioms, but there is the area of the personal, the localized, the influence of blues culture on white musicians quite apart from record companies, promoters and agents where the younger musician is influenced and, in effect, being mentored by the black musicians they admired and took their cues from.  Harris makes a powerful argument that is based on a series of cherry-picked conceits to the exclusion of glaring contradictions. He speaks that the metaphysical essence of blues is feeling, emotion, the ability of the human voice to convey true experience, and yet he speaks in racial absolutes, denying the capacity of individual musicians, black and white, to transcend, mature, grow out of the imitative phase and achieve a true feeling, a true vision of the music they love. 

The case is that while self-righteous revisionist scolds like Harris is articulate will limit the range of blues to exclude all who are not black from having true blues authenticity, art does not sustain itself by remaining in a vacuum. No matter how righteous the argument who the music belongs to, without the constant input from musicians attracted to it and perform it according to their the narrative of their personal lives, the music ceases to grow. It shrivels up and dies and becomes only a relic that is notable mostly for how distant and antiquated it sounds. I have always insisted that blues and jazz are black-American inventions and it's important to keep that fact in mind, but the blues, being music , is something that catches the ear of the blues lover , regardless of race, and speaks to those people in deep and profound ways, giving expression to perceptions, emotions, personal contradictions in ways that mere intellectual endeavor cannot; it is this music these folks come to love and many aspire to play, to make their own and stamp with their own personality and twists and quirks. That is how art, any art, survives, grows, remains relevant relevant enough for the born-again righteousness of Harris to reshuffle a less interesting set of arguments from LeRoi Jones' book "Blues People".

There is the aspect that blues is something in which anyone one can play the game, an element that exists in any instance of arts one thinks ought to be restricted to particular groups, but what really matters is less how many musicians have gotten in on the game as much as how many are still on the playing field over the years, with great tunes, memorable performances, slick licks, and most importantly, emotions that are real, emphatic, unmistakable. Without real emotion, new inspiration from younger players bringing their own version of the wide and disperse American narrative to the idiom, there is no music. There is no art. It dies, falls into irrelevancy, and is forgotten altogether.


Image result for larry coryell 1974(This was an interview I did with the late guitarist in 1974, in a Sunset Strip hotel room in Los Angeles where Coryell and his new band, The Eleventh House, were performing at the legendary Troubadour to support their debut album Introducing the Eleventh House. It's been often said since his passing that Coryell was a very nice guy, a class act, a friendly and amiable sort. Sorry, scandal seekers, no dirt here, as I can attest that the guitarist was absolutely all those things. This piece originally appeared in the San Diego Door). 
“John McLaughlin and I shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence,” said jazz guitarist Larry Coryell reacting to the endless comparisons between him and his British counterpart. Well meaning comparisons between Mahavishnu Orchestra and Coryell’s new band. The Eleventh House have been so relentless that a novice listener might
Assume that the veteran musician is arrive late to the jazz-rock arena. Coryell shrugs and sits back in the  chair in his Sunset Strip hotel room where he’s been resting before that night’s engagement at The Troubadour in Westwood. He has an unplugged electric guitar in his hands, his fingers running through a series of nimble exercises along the frets as he speaks. The guitarist is emphatic on the distinct nature of the music of the Eleventh House.

“Similarities exist, sure,” he continues, casually scanning the swimming pool of a Sunset Strip hotel while he stifled a yawn, “but beyond that, the styles vary vastly. I’m basically a white rocker caught up in black music. Tm funky, and I like to keep a funky edge to my playing. McLaughlin hasn’t an ounce of funk in his body. I admire him an awful lot and we’re good friends, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I think the Eleventh House is going places Mahavishnu Orchestra overlooked.”

Larry Coryell is a member of that small vanguard of jazz musicians to seriously pursued the elusive jazz rock fusion, the notable others being Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Gary Burton , with whom he played, and a number of others who broke ranks with tradition. From his days with the Gary Burton Quartet in the mid-sixties to his own series of erratic but always boldly experimental albums, Coryell has sought to fuse the hard rock immediacy to the fleet fingered ecstasy of jazz. Riffs,phrases and whole lines of blended improvisational strategies that are his creation are only now being assimilated into the lead guitarist vocabulary.Against the jazzy feel of Lawrence’s soaring trumpet soliloquies and Mandel’s elegant piano textures is the abrasive hard rock of Coryell’s guitar. He likes to start playing up the blues end of it all, then whipping out unexpectedly, some deliciously fast jazz lines. Getting faster and more complicated as the solo continues, you’re sure his fingers will burn holes in the guitar neck. His body rocks steadily on the stage, making faces with each long and mournful sustained note. Not exactly an Alice Cooper feat of showmanship, but it’s nice to see someone having a good time without breaking his neck to prove it.

“I’m the luckiest cat in the world,” said Coryell, “This band is literally bursting with ideas. Our first album was ' only a sampler of what were capable of. Alphonse, he’s got material, Mandel has material, and I’ve got some. Maybe the next album will be a double record set. Then we could really stretch out things and give everyone room.” The album. “Introducing the Eleventh House” on Vanguard has “With Larry Coryell” emblazoned under the group’s name, a necessary move on the record company’s part to help sell records. “I’m nore of a leader in name,” clarified Coryell, “I’m a central point where all this unbelievable energy is organized. Frankly, these cats are too good for me to have to ^ull any authoritarian trip. If someone ‘messes up, a cold look from me is all the reprimand needed. We communicate that well. We know exactly what’s on each other’s minds.” “I wish Vanguard would go out of their way and be a big record company for us,” he laments, revealing a disdain of corporate meddling.

Larry-Coryell is the first jazz musician to seriously pursue the elusive jazz/rock fusion
“I listen to young guys like Tommy Bolin who played on Billy Cobham’s’ album, or Bill Connors from Chick Chorea’s Return to Forever,” he reflects, “playing licks 1 created back in the mid-sixties, but adding their own ideas. Man, they turn my head around. I end up taking some of their things and sneaking it into my own playing.” He eases back in his chair, rubbing his hand through his lightly greyed black hair and adds, “Man, in a few years, these guys will burn while I’m playing cocktail jazz.” But in the meantime, Coryell thinks he’s the best at what he does, and thinks the Eleventh House is the band to bring the best out of him. Live, the band is a testimonial to high energy music. As the band assumed the minuscule Troubadour (where they’d been playing a week long, three show a night gig). Eleventh House’s technicians didn’t appear much different than the varied roadies who rushed around trying to shift equipment for each set. But once past the hassles, the band exploded in an intense kinetic fury. Playing against Coryell’s galvanic guitar was Mike Lawrence on electric trumpet and Mike Mandel on electric piano and synthesizer. Bolstered and driven on by the multi handed percussion of Alphonse Mouzon and Danny Trifan’s agile bass underpinnings, Coryell, Lawrence and Mandel would play a series of quick and complex melodies, and then spin off into individual superfast but concise solos. Then, Coryell and Lawrence would trade fours at breakneck pace while Mandel laced through it all, creating delicate patterns until the other two muted themselves and let him make a definite other worldly statement with his synthesizer. becoming known to the general record buying public. “Selling fifty thousand copies of a jazz album is respectable, but we want to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Man, we want this band-to be known to the world, but for the music, and nothing else. It’s to our disadvantage, I suppose, that we don’t wear funny clothes, jump around on stage, or destroy our instruments. We’re naked on stage, there’s nothing else except the music, and there shouldn’t be. On a good night, we can’t be touched.”

Scratching his chin, Coryell pushed the owl framed glasses up the rim of his nose and regretfully added, “The band sounds tired. We’ve been on tour. 1 wish we could recapture the energy we had last week at the University of Paris. There, the Eleventh House’s rapid fire energy was so intense that the rhythm section broke into a musical fight. It was like going beyond racial, cultural and religious barriers and them saying to each other ‘All right motherfucker, get down,’ then driving the music to the wall and then right through it. Alphonse energized everyone, Danny pushed harder, Mike Lawrence and Mike Mandel and I were trading fours and switching eights so insanely fast that no one in the band could believe it.” He closed his eyes and picked off a fast lick on the guitar he’d been toying with. “I think Tm the luckiest cat in the world to have this group,” he restated as he stood up and took a long swig from his beer, “The communication is= fantastic. Basically, let me say, there are only two kinds of music in the world: good and bad. Eleventh House does the best music in the world.”

Sunday, November 10, 2019


Image result for radiohead
After many years of  young fans and assorted bright acolytes telling me that I must have a listen to Radiohead's "Okay Computer" to experience one of the most important rock (or post-rock) albums ever committed to the ways of digital distribution, I finally did so, a close listen (or at least an earnest one), and found their enterprise. Far less the game changer claimed by defenders, it never distinguished itself from the other skeins of slow-coursing sludge that one finds at the extra musical margins. It's Super Mope, the mostly unassembled tunes framed by accidental associations of chord, tempo, tuning. I've absolutely no doubt that Radiohead worked diligently, night and day, for hours and hours until there were no more hours, to make sure "Ok Computer" was as close to their ideal before they released it into the wild. That, sadly, does not make this an enjoyable or anything less than irritating. Few things in music listening are trying to some make sense of some feeble ideas that sound labored over. And yes, there are lyrics, and awful ones, to match the dopey dissonance Radiohead favors. Writing from the center of a depression one cannot shake is an honored tradition, at least in 20th Century American and British poetry, with the works of John Berryman, Plath, Lowell and too many others to mention attest. And certainly, manic lows are the source of a good many lyric writers who sought to write their way out of a bad head space. Their collective goal was, if one can use such a presumptuous term, was to leave something after them that would remain as art, instances of inspired writing, even if they failed to alleviate a malaise. Radiohead's rhymes, half rhymes and no    rhymes seem more symptoms than wit, more fidgeting with a notebook and pen than a focused attempt to get at a fleeting set of moods or insights that won't quite lend themselves to common speech. It's a generational thing, I'm sure, and I reveal my age without having to tell you, but it actually is a matter of having seen this before, heard this before, having had this discussion before. The last five decade are crowded with thousands of nameless creatures at the margins of popular culture, convinced of their genius but unsure what that self-diagnosed brilliance consists of. The difference is that Radiohead caught a break. Well, good for them on that score.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


Image result for strange storm darrin james band
Strange Storm--The Darrin James Band
Strange Storm, the third album from the Detroit based Darrin James Band, is truth-telling of the bitterest sort, ten tracks naming the slights we do each other, intended and otherwise.  Following suit, Darrin James, principle songwriter and singer, growls, rasps, sneers and bellows through the trouble-minded lyrics. James, of course, hasn’t the market cornered in outrage, but he’s not one to wring hands and resign himself to regret and rumination.

The album isn’t a mere scolding for the sins society commits against fellow citizens, but also a grand and roiling work out by an instrumental troupe that cuts a rapid and confident path through a heady number of approaches, be it traditional folk/protest, hard rock and polyrhythmic , through a grainy brand of fusion and wrenching excursions in dissonant free-jazz wailing. It’s refreshing, it’s bracing, it’s a welcome relief from the prepackaged reflexes that dominate the chatter in the major music media. These guys get your attention and don’t waste your time once they have it. 

The band is adroit, with mastery of varied grooves and rhythms. Generous chunks of hard rock guitar balance against the quick reflexes of a funk and fusion-honed rhythm section underpins the James’ snarled ire. Hardly a droning list of the evils of wealth, power and status seeking; the songs are varied, the rhythms are sharply executed, venturing from more traditional folk protest style as in the opening “Walking in the Footsteps”, through the hammering downbeats and stuttering Meters-style funk of the title track.Suitably, it’s not just lyrics that characterize the outrage, but also the music, especially in two instrumental tracks, “Downdrafts Cold Fronts” and “Covert Mission Anthem”. With nods to P-Funk, Zappa’s more crowded orchestrations and the anguished improvisations of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, this a swerving ride between over lapping modes and moods, subdued textures and light embellishments morphing into angular, off-center progressions , with sharp guitar riffs and arguing horn and reed solos traipsing through the coarse density. The abrasive layering of trumpet and sax effectively match James’ excoriations. Strange Storm has impressive brilliance in their harnessing anger and railing against injustice.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Image result for you can't go home again chet baker
Trumpet player Baker has a cool, lyrical, muted style not similar that of Miles Davis from his Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain period. One ought not stop with the maybe too obvious comparison , as Baker is fairly much his own man when it comes to speaking in the hushed , muted tone that Davis also preferred in his best period. Baker's riffs are his own,personalized medals and scars of good looks and good loving gone bad due to women, whiskey and heroin. Baker did eventually succumb to a drug related death, a repeating tragedy among artists as it is among the rest of us , but his particular album was made during one of his periods of getting clean and commencing to make music again. It's a good one, seductive, alluring, not perfect and a bit frayed around the edges of Baker's improvising; some notes are harsher than you know he intends, some ideas are a little clammy in this mood  inclined project. But it works, soulful, intuitive, honest.   You Can't Go Home Again (released in 1977) , applies himself more tactfully and imaginatively than a dozen other flashier players could, Freddie Hubbard (Liquid Love ) included. The music is generally lyrical and moody with heavy orchestration by Don Sebesky (whose career as CTI house arranger has converted many a talent into a white faced, mass market commodity) , but Baker's pensive, searching emotionalism transcends the limits, as well as the efforts of a superb group of sidemen, including drummer Tony Williams, saxist Michael Brecker, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist John Scofield, along with other famous names like Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond, and Alphonso Johnson. The group playing is infectious and allows for a number of sparkling moments, particularly in the solos of Scofield, Desmond and , Brecker. The lyricism here is terribly handled, without  sentimentality. Emotionally, this music is tougher stuff. Baker's power seems to come from a deeper; each note, even when he quickens his phrases as the rhythm section doubles and triples the time, seems like a hard won victory of expression. Today, pain , heart ache and the series of self inflicted wounds that constitute Baker's non-music playing life, cannot quiet this man's need and ability to create a terse and jarring poetry.