Friday, January 23, 2009

Thursday’s Playlist on Friday A.M. #2

Yesterday morning was the weekly trek to Donnelly—a bitterly cold morning at that, with frozen fog down here in the valley & overcast at the higher elevations.

& a mentally foggy drive for yours truly, as my old companion insomnia paid me a call in the wee hours of Thursday morning—first time in quite a while—& that does put one in a state of somewhat forced focus while navigating the canyon roads. The January landscape has become sober in these parts, too—a lot of grays, the eerie sight of the fog crystals frozen on the skeletal limbs of sagebrush &, at higher elevations, the fog frozen in clumps on the lodgepoles & ponderosas. McCall & Donnelly were both cloudy with the raw promise of snow moving in the air—at 5,000 feet, these towns were above the inversion, but the clouds hung low & heavy.

My mind was scattered & my heart somewhat heavy with childhood recollections, & more recent memories as well: Charlottesville, VA; San Francisco…. I felt the need for a guitar, just as I felt the need for a piano in my adolescence. Hard to drive & play, tho. Later, yesterda
y evening, I could sit down & work on some material: Mississippi John Hurt’s version of “See See Rider,” which has the lovely line about “Ain’t no more potatoes, the frost has killed the vine,” & “Make Me a Pallet,” & Kansas Joe McCoy’s “Joliet Bound.” During the drive, I did have some wonderful music to listen to & meditate upon, however.

Cynthia Sayer: Attractions (with Bucky Pizzarelli) (Plunk Records)

1. Viper Man

2. Half as Much
3. Banjo Tango
4. Shakin’ the Blues Away
5. Over the Rainbow
6. El Choclo
7. The Gift
8. Romance without Finance

9. Dark Eyes
10. You Are My Sunshine
11. Swing De Paris
12. Abba Dabba Honeymoon

13. Hungarian Rhapsody No 2

This album has been my introduction to plectrum banjo wiz Cynthia Sayer (the ba
njoist in Woody Allen’s dixieland ensemble), & I’d call it a good listen. Sayer’s voice has personality, & she does some interesting melodic & rhythmic improvisations while singing some old standbys, as well as her composition, “The Gift.” In fact, her rather bouncy interpretation of “Over the Rainbow” is quite fresh, & she does a bang-up job on the old novelty tune “Abba Dabba Honeymoon.”

To my ear, tho, we’re listening to Sayer’s banjo first & her voice second. She’s at her best when she’s trading licks with the magnificent Bucky Pizzarelli, & the two of them, as well as violinist Sara Caswell, really cook on several cuts: “Banjo Tango” (Sayer's own composition), “El Choclo,” “Swing de Paris,” & “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” (I kid you not on the latter) are standouts. Sayer also proves in spectacular fashion that she can really burn up the fretboard going solo too—her version of “Hungarian Rhapsody No 2”—just her & her banjo—is a tour de force.

I have a few quibbles with the album, mostly at the level of production & arrangeme
nt. Both “Half as Much” & “You Are My Sunshine” seem to lag a bit below the overall level. “Half as Much” seems a trifle desultory during the break; I just can’t make much sense of what Sayers intended in a banjo solo that seems a tad aimless. I do think she had a fresh take on the vocal, tho. “You Are My Sunshine” also never seems to quite get off the ground, & then it’s marred (to my ear, but this may just be a quirk of mine) by the dreaded half-step modulation (this also occurs at the end of “Dark Eyes,” which I find a trifle annoying, but the playing on “Dark Eyes” is pretty strong overall). For you non-musician types out there, the half-step modulation (also called the “truck driver’s gear change”) consists of taking the song up a half step in key, usually toward the end of the song; if the body of the song is in C, the band & singer take it up to C# as a flourish toward the end. Besides the fact that it’s the same interval as the sound a truck makes when shifting gears, it also seems to say: “We have no more ideas in the original key, so let’s make it sound like we’re doing something by modulating." I admit this is done habitually by some pretty great musicians (as well as in some truly horrific pop songs)—Patsy Cline & the Beatles both were notorious practicioners of the truck driver’s gear change, & I forgive them. So I forgive Sayer & Co. too. This album really is worth a listen—Sayer’s tone & technique on the plectrum banjo (a rather unusual instrument these days—I wrote about it in an early post here) are both superb, & Pizzarelli is his usual masterful self on the 7-string guitar. The addition of Caswell’s violin makes the ensemble recall the hot jazz days, & the horn section of Scott Robinson, Randy Sandke & Jim Fryer is first-rate.

Bill Evans Trio: Waltz for Debby (Riverside)

1. My Foolish Heart
2. Waltz for Debby
3. Detour Ahead
4. My Romance
5. Some Other Time
6. Milestones
7. Waltz for Debby (alt. take)
8. Detour Ahead (alt. take)
9. My Romance (alt. take)
10. Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)

This album, along with its companion Sunday at the Village Vanguard, are masterpieces of the piano-bass-drum trio format. The music was recorded in June 1961 during a week-long run at the Vanguard; the trio played both a matinee & an evening show over the weekend. Unfortunately, these were the last recordings made by this trio, because bassist Scott LeFaro was killed not long afterwards in a highway accident.

In addition to the even greater tragedy of a young life ended in such an untimely way, the loss of LeFaro's music was itself a tragedy. LeFaro’s bass lines, both as a back-up player & as a soloist were stunning; he has been compared to Mingus, & this doesn’t strike me as hyperbole. Some have said his bass solos sound as if they were played on a huge guitar—this also seems true: they have the melodic flow of a guitar, but with the unforgettable bass timbre. Fortunately, LeFaro gives his instrument a real work out on this album, so his playing really can be appreciated.

Evans is of course acknowldged as a master of jazz piano. As I listened yesterday, I was struck again by how much feeling & beauty he was able to convey in a simple phrase—even at times in a single note or chord. The very rubato opening of the old piano lounge standard “My Foolish Heart” shows this; his transformation of the tune into a Debussy-like melody is stunning, as is the grace he displays on his own standard, “Waltz for Debby,” or the rich darkness he brings to Miles Davis’ “Milestones.” Evans was a player who could communicate clearly on an emotional level, & he used his considerable technique to serve this—just as LeFaro used his technique to serve the song, & not vice-versa. Throughout the album the light & sure-handed drumming of Paul Motian provides a solid background for the two great improvisers; Motian is a
ble to convey the shimmering undercurrent of the ballads, & is also able to swing, as in the upbeat 4/4 section of “Waltz for Debby.”

There are literally hundreds of jazz albums that could be categorized as “must listen.” This is not the least amongst those.

Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues (Rounder)

1. Big Road Blues

2. Preaching Blues
3. Joliet Bound
4. Maggie Campbell
5. Hellhound on My Trail
6. Bye Bye Blues
7. Gone Woman Blues
8. Peavine Blues

9. Rolling Log Blues
10. I Let My Daddy Do That
11. Tallahatchie Blues
12. Tain’t Long Fo Day
13. Terraplane Blues
14. Come On In My Kitchen
15. Be Ready When He Comes
16. Cypress Grove
17. Railroadin’ Some
18. Hawkins Blues
19. Cool Drink of Water
20. Do Your Duty
21. Rowdy Blues
22. On the Wall
23. Devil Got My Man
24. Take My Heart Again

I’ll admit it had been quite some time since I’d listened in any thorough way to Rory Block before I compiled the fingerstyle list for Michelle Lemon (& y’all) last week. Since then I’ve listened to this album a few times, & I continue to be blown away by the passion of Block’s singing & her guitar playing. I tend to be less than enthusiatic about latter day blues interpretations by famous white musicians—as just one example, if I want to hear "Crossroads Blues,” I prefer Robert Johnson’s original a good bit over the version Eric Clapton did with Cream. But Block is the real deal. Her playing generally packs a wallop, but she can also come up with some lovely riffs, as at the beginning of “Rolling Log Blues.” Her slide work is also fantastic—a startling accent, not overbearing or intrusive.

The album is a “greatest hits” compilation, tho it’s clear that Rory Block is all about making the music she loves in the best way possible, & not necessarily worrying about churning out hit records in the usual sense. The tracks are drawn from her 1991 Mama’s Blues; her 1995 When a Woman Gets the Blues; 1992’s Ain’t I a Woman; the 1996 release Tornado; & her 1989 High Heeled Blues. All of these albums were issued by Rounder.

In addition to showcasing Block’s considerable playing & singing skills, this album also has a wide range of material—from the boisterousness of “Big Road Blues” to the eerie “Hellhound On My Trail” (Block does a fine job on all the Robert Johnson covers) to the joyful sexuality of “I Let My Daddy Do That” & “Do Your Duty” to the rollicking gospel of “Be Ready When He Comes.” Block is capable of conveying all these moods effectively & with great feeling. It would be difficult to pick favorites: I do like her take on the Johnson songs, & “Peavine Blues” is wonderfully moody. Block also does a wonderful job with “Joliet Blues,” a favorite of mine from the Kansas Joe McCoy/Memphis Minnie version.

While I try to encourage folks to go back to the source with country blues & listen to the likes of Mississippi John Hurt & Robert Johnson & all their amazing counterparts, this is a truly inspired album that very much deserves a listen—& more than one listen, too.


  1. Evans' rendition of "My Foolish Heart" is to me the ultimate expression of jazz romanticism.

    I've been listening a lot to Paul Bley lately. Bley is/was a leading light of the jazz avant garde. His solo work is very cerebral, but is nonetheless influenced by Evans' romanticism. Open To Love and Mondsee Variations are excellent, but I'm really into last year's About Time.

  2. I only have a passing acquaintance with Paul Bley's work-- actually know his ex-wife Carla's work somewhat better. Will try to give him a listen soon-- thanks.


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