Hans York at Egan’s

 

 

 

Hans York

Hans York

 

What a pleasure to experience live an artist sharing his craft, expertise and joy with friends and strangers! That was the scene for a recent concert by Hans York (http://www.hansyork.com/) at Egan’s Ballard Jam House (http://www.ballardjamhouse.com/) in Seattle.

 

Hans is a German now living in Texas, with time spent in Brazil and much travelling along the way. Playing guitar in DAGDAD tuning, he showed that he has “done it all” musically through his career – been a bass player, member of various bands, producer, songwriter, etc. Rumor has it he is even venturing into musical theater! This diversity of experience was evident in the completeness of his sound – many layers of rhythms and harmonies working with his vocals, a terrific sense of dynamics and tension so that you soon forgot this was a solo act. Terrific ability, but no showing off purely for techniques sake. His focus is on connecting with the audience, not just impressing them.

 

His songs are true unifications of words and music, and the theme for the evening was, very loosely, the journey. Hans has what I can only call a very professional innocence – a totally competent musician who has obviously paid his dues, but chooses to celebrate it instead of whine about it. His sense of inclusion is quite infectious and the crowd found themselves very happy to come along for this portion of his journey.

 

While many of the audience (myself included) had seen Hans before, there was one fellow who had heard a song while walking by during the sound check and decided to stay for entire show!

 

The tunes all seemed to build on each other, highlighted with his finale, Lifeline, which pulled together his theme of life’s journey and how we all need to keep each other on the path and moving forward. For an encore he delivered a sambafied version of Gershwin’s There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York , a perfect nightcap for the evening.

 

This is the power of live music, the old fashioned analog interface between performer and audience that makes it possible for art to help us all rise above the stale and mundane and reach toward our true potential as individuals and as a group. Kudos to Hans and Egan’s for making this night possible.

Posted in Concert Venues, Egan's Ballard Jam House, Folk music, Hans York, Live Music, Seattle, Songwriters | Leave a comment

Tom Kell & Emiko Woods

Tom Kell & Emiko Woods

Tom Kell & Emiko Woods

Tom Kell and Emiko Woods

Kenyon Hall, West Seattle and Sammamish house concert, August 16 & 17, 2014.

Two nights in small intimate venues experiencing the creative joy of Tom Kell and Emiko Woods proved that time and age are not barriers to art.

It also proved that the quality of the song has nothing to do with age but everything to do with well learned skills lovingly directed to producing a quality final product. Like the partnership of a five-star chef with 40 years of experience and accolades from around the world and a young, vibrant and well-trained cook, this compelling duo served up a sumptuous fare of artisanal songs and harmonies that showed the care and nurturing that go into all the microscopic details and subtle nuances required for a true gourmet listening experience.

What Tom and Emiko created these two nights obviously benefitted from a deep well of over forty years of professional experience for Tom Kell but equally from the input of gorgeous young Emiko who obviously “arrived” some time ago if she was not indeed “born ready”. The two have what must be the most democratic relationship I’ve ever seen in music. Their loving and symbiotic collaboration is very relaxed but totally focused on one goal only – to write and perform the perfect song. Which they kept doing in a continuous stream, as more than one member of the audience kept saying “I thought the last song was my favorite!”

So I must contrast this with the recent experience of taking my 14-year-old granddaughter to an Austin Mahone concert at Marymoor Park. Here was a totally opposed vision of music – seeing it as an industry to deliver to the masses (in this case, teenage girls) as opposed to music as a part of a creative and cultural tradition, meant to be carefully learned and passed on and shared with others, a tradition started centuries ago.

At the Marymoor Park concert, young, perfectly coached and talented young men and women performed very obviously programmed and controlled songs designed to agitate or soothe the built-in teenaged girl hysteria they were all thriving on. It was all very professional, very digestible and for the most part, forgettable.

Kell and Woods on the other hand had over 600 hand-crafted tunes to choose from and each performance was quite unique to the audience and circumstances, as well as the mood of the performers and the “vibe” between audience and artists.

I find attempts to pigeonhole music are of very limited use – Americana, country/folk, singer/songwriter, whatever you call it, Tom Kell and Emiko Woods are the real deal and not fast-food trendies riding the latest fad. Check out their sounds at https://www.facebook.com/TomKellAndEmikoWoods or better yet, catch them live or even sponsor them for a house concert. They will deliver a feast for your ears.

Posted in Americana, Concert Venues, Live Music, Seattle | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Long Live the Lizard King

July 12, 1968, The Doors, the freshest sound to come out of LA during the psychedelic years, live at the Seattle Center Arena. Six years after the World’s Fair, in a hall often used for hockey, a clean cut and hopeful 15 year old takes his bus transfer and finds his seat with about 5,000 other fans.
These were the heady days shortly after the release of Waiting for the Sun, the Doors third album. The sound was edgy and tight, a perfect vibe for the times and the group. The Viet Nam protests were in full bloom, the Yippies were planning for big things at the upcoming Democratic convention in Chicago, and students had occupied Columbia University. In Europe, it was the Prague Spring and student protests in Paris. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, in June Andy Warhol and Robert Kennedy.

Jim Morrison was the ideal bard for America of the day, delivering his wild Irish poetry over the electric Renaissance sound of his band mates.
The only real peer to Dylan as a rock poet at this time, Morrison was having fun bringing his lizard King persona to life for the crowd. The set included mostly materiel from their latest album, Waiting for the Sun. The cover of “Hello, I Love You” was a bit lackluster, but everything else came across with conviction. Particularly powerful were “The Unknown Soldier” and “Five to One” (they’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers), synching with the restive and antiwar currents that were swirling amongst young people at that time.
Drummer John Densmore was in splendid form, sitting high above the rest of the band, setting the broiling beats that defined the Doors sound. One of the better and jazzier drummers in rock, it was easy to see in a live environment just how much he contributed to the drive behind Mr. Morrison. The highlight of the night was “When the Music’s Over” from their Strange Days album, as perfect a piece of rock psychodrama as has ever been performed. From the “screaming of the butterfly” to the wide range of dynamics, the interplay between all the Doors as musicians and of course the climactic announcement of “we want the world and we want it… NOW!” Densmore’s drums really punctuated that number, like a fire axe breaking through a door, to unleash the flames contained.
No riots, no arrests, no drunken drooling of profanities, just rock ‘n roll and poetry perfectly combined and delivered; that was the Doors in the shadow of the Space Needle.
The Doors still capture for me at that moment and with that album the pulse of youth, 1968. Casualties of the music industry, of stardom and drugs, they were never the same for me after that release. In the summer of ’69, the Doors returned to Seattle in our version of Woodstock (in Woodinville), the Seattle Pops Festival. I attended Sunday only, with the likes of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, Charles Lloyd and Led Zeppelin also on the bill.
What a world of difference between the two shows. Morrison was drunk and stoned, incoherent, singing different songs than the band was playing, an embarrassment to his band mates. In a modern karaoke night, he would have been laughed off the stage.
Less than a year after the Pops Festival, Jim Morrison was found dead in Paris, following Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and however many servicemen in Vietnam. In their wake loomed disco, Watergate and Gerald Ford. I’m thankful that I got to experience, live and sober, Jim Morrison and the Doors.

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Mary Francis Gospel

Mary Francis Gospel

It was the Sunday morning after; after a long, hot Saturday
at the Florida State Folk Festival, Memorial Day weekend, 2002. Set in northern
Florida, only 60 miles south of Georgia along the banks of the Suwanee River,
we had spent 12 hours walking and crisscrossing the beautiful Stephen Foster
Folk Culture Center State Park, 800 hundred acres of southern grace in White
Springs, Florida. Traces of Foster’s lyrics and music saturated the tall pines
and hanging loss draping from the ancient oaks – Genie with her light brown
hair floating totally like a vapor; old folks with banjos on their knees; plain
folks wishing for the hard times to come again no more and for the good times
at the racetrack, doo dah, doo dah.

Scattered amongst all this were nine or ten stages with
mostly Florida-grown musical acts, workshops, dances, watermelon seed spitting
contests and even a bullwhip lesson so you could be a “cracker” too. All this
was before dinner, and then the main amphitheater opened up for the evening
with the “big” acts, and usually one nationally known act per night.  So Sunday was kind of a wind down day to get
yourself ready for the road and the return to work.

We didn’t have much for breakfast,  sort of forced ourselves to go to the 10:00 AM
gospel set at the festival, I’m not sure whether it was seeking to repent for
having had such a good time the day before or just to give thanks.  We were definitely two of the hardy few – only
about a dozen drowsy, caffeine assisted spectators sat scattered on their
folding chairs on what is called the Old Marble Stage. It was really a tin
roofed pavilion of stout timbers over a slab of concrete. On the low stage at
one end stood a Baptist mixed quartet from a nearby town in the Panhandle. They
were happy enough, dressed in orange and white, bright colors for a Sunday
morning  but somehow didn’t sound much
more awake than the audience.

Next up was a slight black lady named Mary Francis. She had
tender skin and a wrinkle free complexion that made her appear younger than her
actual age (probably fifty something). I noticed more than a few gray hairs and
that she wore hearing aids. She didn’t seem all that sure herself as she set
up, almost apologetic. She set up to sing a cappella, her only early accompaniment
an old shoebox cassette player. Apparently no one had told her that they were
obsolete. She performed the sound check, the tinny sound of a piano barely
audible.  I was thinking this is like
Sunday morning karaoke. Straightening herself, she steps up and starts singing.
Suddenly, she’s transformed to a larger-than-life diva, emanating the energy
and the spirit of the Lord himself! The modest crowd can’t help but be jolted
by the power of her presence in the soulfulness of her singing.

Truly a conduit for a higher power, she swells in size to
fill the stage, her voice enclosing the entire area in the word of the Lord.
Soon we are all clapping and singing along, “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” – sincere
ones – erupt at random, everyone standing and smiling.

Mary Francis could only do three songs. Holding nothing back,
she had no more to give for now. She received the most enthusiastic applause of
the weekend, but she didn’t need it – she knew she had done her job. We smiled
and shook our heads in wonder at what we had just witnessed, energized now for
the rest of the day.

This is the beauty of these local festivals; you never know
who you may “discover”.  In this case, a
local woman who cleans hotel rooms and runs the little church choir, teaches
the kids the hymns they will carry with them all of their lives and pass on to
their children and grandchildren, without a trace of show business in her blood,
no desire to be famous, on a humid Dixie Sunday morning, made true believers
out of a handful of hung over and caffeine deprived urban professionals.

And so it was that a hearing impaired cleaning girl from
just up the road, with no record deals or DVDs, no stories of years on the road,
just an obligation to share her Divine gift, was the highlight of the festival.

Posted in Americana, Florida, Folk music, Gospel music, outdoor concerts | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

James Cotton and the Transcendence of the Blues

 

 

James Cotton and the Transcendence of the Blues

 

 

The band warms up, their opening instrumental laying down a definite groove of Chicago blues. Bass, drums, guitar and organ, tight as a hangman’s noose, yet free as the sky. The organ player has a marmoset on his shoulder, a lucky monkey for sure. Already, this is some of the best music I’ve ever heard.

Enthusiastic applause erupts from the vastly white, young audience. Through the speakers the fat, reedy sound of a full size chromatic harmonica fills the room. All by itself, the harp sets an inexorable pulse and tempo that immediately excites the crowd, setting all the funky young white boys into motion. Entering from stage right, blowing his soul through the mouth organ, steps James Cotton. The band falls in behind him as he rips through his signature tune, Rocket 88.

From that moment on, I was “gone”. That night of straight ahead Chicago blues mixed with a little R&B changed my young life. For three or four days afterwards, I was still disconnected from the mundane exercise in futility known as high school, pressures of the draft, of Vietnam, of the sense that I was wasting all my time learning things I would never use. That night I first realized the potential power of live music and how it could help me so much more than American history or algebra to navigate the shoals and reefs of my life. To this day, I can’t hear Rocking’ Robin without thinking of James Cotton’s raucous version and smiling and grooving to myself and helping make things smoother somehow..

This is the reason people play and listen to the blues, to lose the blues of life and living. For an upper-middle-class teenager in 1970 America, it was the chance to feel alive and vibrant without doing something stupid. It reached me on a spiritual level, something I did not realize until years later. For years I tried to find a James Cotton recording that captured what I experienced that night, but again many years later came to realize that you can’t put live music in a can without losing the life and flavor of the live experience, the true transcendence of spirit over the mundane and boring, the numbing aspects of living in this unforgiving and cold universe.

The musicians on stage were not supermen. They all had their own problems, the various economic and traveling hardships that burden working musicians, wives and families that missed them (or hoped they would never come back). But for that brief time on the Eagles Auditorium stage that night, they were magicians and wizards from another realm, creating an illusion of active and brilliant happiness, making it real enough to be felt and shared. For those of us willing to experience it, the blues that night lifted us above our normal plane of existence so that we could go out and re-attack life with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. 

And that is why I listen to, dance to, sing, play and believe in,the Blues.

Posted in Blues, Concert Venues, Eagles Auditorium, Harmonica, Insturments, James Cotton, Live Music | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sacred is Forever

Duke Ellington

W. A. Mozart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred is Forever

 

Music, in its highest applications, has long been used to communicate the infinite, even to the Supreme Being. Song, dance and all kinds of instrumental music, have been seen by virtually every culture through history as a means of getting closer to wherever and whoever that culture considers God. Two concerts I attended in recent months both displayed the attempts of the most famous composers of their day to express the connection of the material world with the spiritual.

Just after Christmas, the Seattle Jazz Repertory Orchestra gave the 26th of its annual Duke Ellington sacred music concerts. It was my first, but I think I can safely say that everyone in the sold-out audience left there feeling closer to whatever their concept of God is. The concert featured the entire pallet of Ellington the composer – blues, dance, “serious” music, vocals for soloist and ensemble, solo piano and, of course, pieces featuring one or more members of the orchestra. As I experienced the concert unfolding, I related it to my seeing Duke himself in 1973, one year before his death. What I realized was that Ellington’s instrument was the orchestra. One reason his music lives on so vibrantly is that everyone who plays it feels like he wrote whatever piece they’re performing expressly for them. He had the wonderful ability to control and direct the very talented people around him while allowing them to shine individually and grow artistically.

Duke’s connection with the spiritual side of life came through in everything he did, but this night and these pieces were steeped with a conscious effort to express that connection and share it with all mankind. He understood the power of music to move and unite people as well as to entertain. There were stellar performances throughout the evening, particularly the piano, vocal ensemble, the vocal soloists and soprano sax but the focus rightfully was on The Infinite and the Supreme Being. The spirit of the holy name was best summed up by the final piece, Praise God and Dance (Psalms 149:3 & 150:4). An elated celebration of Life and the Lord, complete with baritone and alto, full chorale, every part of the orchestra and a sensational tap dancer.

Duke Ellington has been quoted as saying, “Every man prays in his own language.”  Clearly, Duke’s language was music.  

In February, a different sort of sacred concert was held at Benaroya Hall. One of my musical fantasies has always been to hear Mozart’s Requiem performed in a church in Vienna at Christmas time. I’ll still hold out for that one, but this performance should keep me satisfied for some time to come.

The evening started out normally enough with a Mozart symphony and horn concerto. Both were impeccably performed, and a total delight to experience live. I’ve always enjoyed Mozart’s sense of structure, dynamics, melody and his sense of humor.

His Requiem and Mass in D Minor, however, was an experience of an entirely different flavor. For one, the piece was obviously composed with the human voice in mind, and the orchestra in this piece was very much subdued. For this instrument (the human voice), considered by many to be most intimate and closest to God, he wrote some of his most beautiful music in what amounts one long prayer. Throughout the performance I kept thinking how it would’ve seemed so much more appropriate to have stained-glass windows and high arched ceilings and to be sitting on a not so comfortable pew. The holiness and reverence of the peace pervaded the hall regardless. I really felt as if I was witnessing the very personal act of one man opening his soul to the Lord in prayer.

Stylistically, the piece is much more baroque than most Mozart and showed how thoroughly he understood his craft and how steeped he was in Bach and Handel. The overall feel of the piece was much more Baroque than the Classical genre Mozart typifies. It seemed more appropriate to the Latin text and the singers.

Bottom line for any work of art though is whether or not it had an emotional impact on the intended audience, not whether it pleased the masters or critics. Judging from my reaction and that of the rest of the audience, Mozart’s Requiem still packs a punch some 220 years after its composing. Absolutely sacred.

Posted in Benaroya Hall, Classical Composers, Concert Venues, Dance, Duek Ellington, Duke Ellignton, Jazz, music legends, Sacred Music, Uncategorized, WA Mozart | Leave a comment

The Evolution of the Jazz Piano Trio

Two recent concerts, both at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, illustrated the continuing evolution of live improvised music we call jazz, and serve to underscore that it is a living breathing part of our culture and not something frozen in so many bits and bytes of digital data.

First was Ahmad Jamal, master pianist who has been pleasing crowds all around the planet for the last 60 years. Appearing with a standard bass/drums/piano trio plus an additional percussionist, Mr. Jamal served up exquisite evening of musical delights and had entirely too much fun while doing it. It was obvious he loves his work and sharing it with others.

While his body’s age may be around 80, Ahmad’s spirit was as young and playful as a spring colt, and the manner in which he shared this spirit with his band members was positively contagious and it spread naturally to the audience as well.

Truly a cliché free player, he delivered every selection in the NOW and never resorted to any tricks or lazy phrases. Each song was essentially a clinic in the creation of the music of the moment.

Watching his band mates observing their leader, both for cues and also to marvel in what Mr. Jamal was creating, I sensed that Ahmad was the kind of musician that they would almost pay to play with because they were enjoying themselves so much and learning from a true master.

He ended every piece with a “yeah yeah yeah”, signifying his satisfaction with the result. It also seems that his Muslim faith has served him well, for he had a very calm and easy presence and seemed not to have any amount of bitterness in his bones. A note on the crowd, there were no “hipsters” in the crowd, only people who really loved this music and I’m sure a generous portion of who were musicians themselves. All in all, it was an evening fulfilling the potential of music as a universal solvent.

Later in the month came the appearance of The Bad Plus, the younger, more modern piano trio that has been together for 10 years now. Their approach is more aggressive and edgy than Jamal’s, and they were a bit more consciously cliché free. But after comparing the two, it is really just part of the continuing evolution of jazz and improvised music and their concert was just as exciting in its own way.

The crowd was full of young jazz players from the Pacific Jazz Institute. It was great to see young and old alike taking in this very “alive” music. It also made for a bit of a rowdier crowd which added the performance, I think. Not your typical appreciative but subdued Seattle crowd.

Sitting across the aisle from me sat a young southpaw, obviously a drum student, taking notes in his mini notebook, counting the rhythms that drummer David King was playing. The Bad Plus does not play typical toe-tapping jazz but rather keeps things on edge with odd meters, multi-meters, polyrhythms and the like. They did this as a seamless ensemble however, so it never seemed forced or effected. The highlight of the evening for me was a ballad from their new release, the beautiful use of dynamics, tension and release that really captured the spirit of ensemble creativity and the wordless power of music.

For their encore, The Bad Plus started into what sounded like a classic walking bass, uptempo swing number. Quickly into it they started messing with the tempo, seamlessly and in unison slowing it down and speeding it up, never playing more than four bars at the same speed. It was a comical piece of mastery that could only be pulled off by a close-knit group with great technical chops.

Kudos must go to Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley for providing the environment so conducive to the artists and the music they create. It is a fabulous addition to Seattle’s cultural resources and gives listeners of all ages the opportunity to hear the finest musicians in the world in an ideal environment. Thankfully the days when one had to go to a smoky nightclub full of phony hipsters and dope dealers to hear the best in jazz are gone. Not only do you get a world-class jazz club, fine food and great sound, but free parking. That is rarer than rare in downtown Seattle.

Posted in Ahmad Jamal, Concert Venues, Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, Dimitriu's Jazz Alley, Jazz, Jazz legends, Live Music, music legends, Piano Trio, Seattle, The Bad Plus, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment