Sunday, April 28, 2013

When Les Was MOR

My first wife was not a forgiving woman. (She still hasn’t forgiven me for being whatever lesser man I was in my callow 20’s.) When the slightly older, laid-back-hippieish filmmaker Les Blank--actually working on his fifth or sixth documentary, and by 1968 already on the verge of greatness--would cadge a meal and a couch to sleep on, then drink too much and inevitably hug and paw the hostess... well, that was about her limit.

So when heavy smoker Les also carelessly charred a gouge in her favorite coffee table, it was “Blank you, Les, and Sayonara... no more freebies at the Leimbachers.” But he and I kept in touch--for who wouldn’t and didn’t marvel at his bracing, embracing portraits of crazed, crooked-teeth Cajuns and little-known Bluesmen like Mance Lipscomb, Les's quirky camera eye meandering on and on from there for almost 50 years, finding some bizarre character or strange old music and culture to film (Asian green tea, women with gaps in their teeth, the Savoy family of Eunice, LA, even director Werner Herzog going crazy in South America).

I couldn’t keep up with his casual gypsy lifestyle, but I did borrow his shed-turned-house, hideaway-in-Hollywood when I went to the other L.A. trying to sell my Robert Johnson screenplay in 1970 or ’71. But I immediately caught some virulent flu bug that kept me feverish and flat on my back in 90-degree heat without air conditioning, trapped in that one-room garden shack, it seemed forever, crawling out to find water and a dollop of sherbet once a day for nearly a week.

We went our separate ways. He continued the ascent to an eccentric fame, while I couldn’t give my Hellhound script away. (Blaxploitation movies had not yet made their mark. No way was “a downer Bluesman who dies at the end” the prescription for a hit movie!)
Les Blank died a couple of weeks ago. Age 77, he had lived long enough to win acclaim and honors; but even though he’d quit the habit years before, the cancer-sticks got to him after all. He was working on a couple of new films (according to the obit I read) but to finish them someone will have to step into his oversize Madison shoes!

Way back when, Blank was for several years loosely linked to the Arhoolie record label (see previous post below), creating brief and brilliant portrait-films--20 or 30 minutes in length--of musicians Arhoolie was promoting: The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, A Well-Spent Life (his film on Lipscomb), and a longer piece on Zydeco accordion great Clifton Chenier. These persuaded owner Chris Strachwitz actually to partner with Les for three other films, most notably J’ai Ete au Bal, a terrific study of the differences and similarities between the “twins separated at birth,” South Louisiana musics casually identified as Country-ish white Cajun and Rhythm’n’Bluesy black Creole Zydeco.

But sharing the lead didn’t last long; the principals’ work habits and social skills were just too divergent, with take-charge, get-it-done, Roots-music-loving entrepreneur Chris bumping up against--and sometimes stumbling over--mellow Les, full-size Ferdinand the Bull, sniffing the flowers and smoking their green leaves, too hippie to be hip, yet so lazily laid-back that he could settle into almost any scene, absorb it, and then slyly film it.

Blank’s production company occupied space in the Arhoolie headquarters building for many years after the partnership was dissolved, and he managed to take part, quietly, in the label’s big 50th anniversary celebration. His final year saw brief upticks around the honors accorded him, but a quiet letting-go was evident as well...

Regardless, his mortal coil now shuffled off, the wonder-filled lives and works will amble on, all those firmly fixed documents of oddities and crudities, madcap musicians and molarless meals, mescal and Mason jars, shrimp gumbo and “snap beans ain’t salty,” holidays on horseback, booze and the Blues, and earthy dancers, always.

* * * * *
Was it ironic or perfectly right that I learned of Blank’s death thus: an email from Arhoolie arrived to announce the release of an album that sounded promising, so I clicked on the link, and the first thing I saw, heading the home page, was Arhoolie’s lament for his passing. Then, below that, the announcement for Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles, major label debut (on both CD and LP) of juke joint-styled Blues trio HowellDevine, consisting of Joshua Howell on harmonica, Hill Country slide guitar, and vocals; mighty rhythm man Pete Devine (machined to sit tight and fit right); plus, takin’ up any slap bass slack... whoever’s made the gig.

I listened to a couple of sample tracks, then rode the link to their home page. And when I found THIS engine of regress, I knew I had to buy the album. (Hitch a ride on the Yella Dog and hear for yourself!)

Meanwhile, I also realized that this confluence represents the passing of the baton, from venerable bearded oldtimer to up-and-coming young whippersnappers. Les began with the Blues and certainly structured some of his best films around those vital elder “musicianers.” I believe he would have taken to HowellDevine immediately. (In fact, might have done so already.)

Chris Strachwitz launched Arhoolie the same way: Mance, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams, the Black Ace, John Jackson, Lightnin’ the wry and worldly wise. After 25 years or more of them “away,” working well and apart, and in other genres, for the two men to come back to their Blues/Roots Music base--even if only figuratively--and then face a definite permanent parting, well... I guess, as a scuffling musician might say (irony included): “It’s all good.”

R.I.P., Les... Keep on it, Chris... P.I.R., HowellDevine. (Yeah, play it right.)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

4 by 4

 That title is not meant to suggest a Jeep or Ram truck or any other “four-wheel-drive” vehicle, nor does it indicate the “four on the floor” beat of disco music. It’s not some doubled-up 2x4 construction beam; and I have no idea if Jimmy Rushing, “Mr. Five by Five” in the flesh, so to speak, ever went on a crash diet!
No, it’s that the other day I was remembering how LP records back in the Fifties and early Sixties still nearly always were issued singly. A two-record set was as uncommon as, say, a Blues 78 in Mint condition. So Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde of 1967 was a bigger deal than we knew, one more challenge to the cultural hegemony of the Arts Establishment--upstart disposable Pop Music, call it, versus the supposed high culture of Opera, where three and even four “LongPlay” vinyl platters were needed to encapsulate a Rigoletto or La Boheme. The gates were pried open, creaking and groaning, and squeezing through came major double sets by the Beatles and Taj Mahal, the Dead and the Who, C.T.A. and CSNY: bootlegs and hits packages and an Exile on Main Street.

Two, then three, then... well, whatever number of records an artist’s fans would bear and buy--meaning more and more as lightweight compact discs supplanted bigger, heavier vinyl. Now some Classical box sets house hundreds of discs presenting the complete works of Bach or Mozart. Now the voluminous record sessions and live performances of Miles on Columbia or the Duke on RCA can come to you in a replica Davis trumpet case, a miniature steamer trunk of Ellingtonian elegance, in fact practically anything a record label’s Marketing and Art Departments can dream up.

Now a multi-talented performer like country great Vince Gill with 43 of his own new songs pent up and wanting to pour out can persuade his label to issue them all at once, filling four CDs with Vince’s genial, Jim Dandy vocals, electrifying eclectic guitars, Bluegrass-style harmonies, big-star pals dropping by, and so on, the four released in a quietly tasteful box with inner sleeves that differentiate each disc by style or substance, and the whole package offered at a bargain price, approximately what a single CD used to cost!

Actually four-disc sets pretty much became the standard for any comprehensive look back--whether a single artist’s career and hits, an important period in a genre’s development, or the different chops and sound from one tenor sax man to the next--as a result of looser copyright laws in Great Britain. In the late Nineties or ‘Oughts as fifty-year protection ended on major figures across the recording industry, new reissue labels like JSF and Proper began flooding the shops in Britain and subsequently the US (as import goods not otherwise available) with amazing and often quite desirable four-CD anthologies rich in discographical information and housed in small-is-better packaging.

... Which brings us circling back to that post title given up top: within a six-week stretch just ahead of and mostly after New Year’s 2013, four divergent four-disc box sets were released, all of them historically important (three not previously available), and all well worth your hard-earned cash. (I’m giving shout-outs here rather than full reviews, but think Five Stars for each set.)

The collection youngest in years that yet reaches farthest back in the story of Roots Music in America is They All Played for US: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration, honoring that great label and shoestring operation, which driven by founder Chris Strachwitz discovered (or rediscovered) and recorded many splendid Roots Music figures--and so became the unheralded major repository for nearly all the musics (plural) of North America, post-1960: Blues, Gospel, some Jazz, Old Time Country, casual Bay Area Folk; obscure Cajun counterbalanced by the genre-defining Zydeco of Clifton Chenier, plus slightly West, a dozen different sub-versions of Tex-Mex/Frontera/Norteno/Border Music; brass bands, merengue players, polka dancers Old World and New; Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mama and Rose Maddox, Whistlin’ Alex and Miss’ippi Fred, Memphis Minnie and Lydia Mendoza, Robert Pete Williams and Sonny Boy 2...

But many musicians passed on over the 50 years of Arhoolie, so the three-day party featured “younger” stars, more-recent Strachwitz discoveries, and cheerful friends of the label: Taj Mahal and the Creole Belles, Ry Cooder and Country Joe McDonald, Any Old Time String Band and Treme Brass Band, Barbara Dane with some local Trad Jazzers, Peter Rowan with accordion master Santiago Jimenez Jr., and three groups alone worth the price of this 200-page, horizontal folio-sized hardback book with terrific reminiscences, commentary, and color photos (by Mike Mednyk).

The picks that really clicked: a multi-generation, La Raza-style group of political-activist singers called Los Cenzontles; the amazing Sacred Steel group The Campbell Brothers (a special interest project for Strachwitz for a decade now); and one of my own lifetime faves, the ever-driven, always-effervescent, Louisiana-hot-spiced Savoy-Doucet threesome, with two of the brightest stalwarts of the Cajun Music revival (fiddler extraordinaire Michael Doucet and squeezebox-maker/mentor Marc Savoy) challenging each other and Miz Ann Savoy, rhythm guitarist and nonpareil scholar of Cajun music and mores. These three will enliven your life.

In 1975, during the brief union of Jazz label Artist House and Pop megalith A&M, guitarist Jim Hall, a great melodist and nervy soloist, received mildly favorable notices when his Live! album appeared (distilled from a week’s performances at a club in Toronto). A low-key, retiring sort of chap, Jim was back then a hidden commodity, indifferent to public acclaim, but in fact the sought-after equal of his peers--notably Rollins (never having played on the Bridge, Hall yet played on The Bridge), Giuffre, Farmer, Desmond (Jim’s Nova sparks striking Bossa Paul), several classic duet albums with Ron Carter or Bill Evans (Jim’s solos comfortably occupying the space between Evans and earth).

These days when octogenarian Hall is feeling his oats he’ll go play with one of “the kids,” whether that younger duetist bears the years of Metheny, or Frisell, or Geoff Keezer. A match whatever the moment, Jim can still pick mighty quick, strum with aplomb, or extoll a droll solo. For example: “Stuck in his strum, Jim pulled out a plum, and got right back in the pocket.” (All right, I agree... no more puns.)

Remember that Live! album? In the four decades since, guitarists and others have discovered it, loved its beauty and wit and immaculate sound and completely inventive playing, studied it note by note by note, and now adjudge it one of the supreme Jazz albums of the 20th century. Much credit belongs to the Canadian sidemen, bassist and crafty sound recorder Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke, both playing at the top of their game, both simultaneously supporting and challenging Hall. Still mesmerized after many listens, many a listener has wondered what the rest of that astonishing week could have sounded like...

Wonder no more! The canny, fan-funded ArtistShare label has worked with Hall and Thompson to assemble and, late last year, issue Live Vol.2-4 (4CD set ASO116, maybe available from the ArtistShare website only)--21 performances of melodic standards and excellent originals, three hours and seven minutes of gorgeous, perfect guitar-trio Jazz. These occupy three of the CDs; the fourth is a CDR offering High Res 24bit/48K Audio Files of the music for your computer or other sound-system device. And all housed in an inch-thick, extra-sturdy, 5”x6” album-book with essays, photos, drawings, news clippings, et al. I can only add... BUY IT! NOW!

Four-set number 3 comes from a trumpeter you would not think to call under-recorded. But elegant little album-book Columbia/Legacy 88725418532, Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol.2, presents the only known recordings (and live ones at that) of Miles Davis’s so-called “lost band,” the transitional quintet he had in 1969 between the splintering of his long-lived “second quintet” (Miles + Shorter, Hancock, Carter, Williams) and the several changeable, gauntlet-thrown-down, Fusion bands of the Seventies.

“Lost band” is actually an unfortunate appellation, because to my aging ears that’s what I’m hearing in too many places: musicians who are lost and struggling to find a way--forward or back they don’t care, so long as there’s movement. Well, with a rhythm section as speed-ready and stamina-sure as Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack deJohnette, the trick for Miles and Wayne Shorter is either to keep up, to ride those tigers--or to rein them in. And that’s the fractious and fractured para-Jazz we hear taking up too much aural space: grooves few, swing absent; the sounds unsettled, falling between two stools; neither the Miles that was--whether soft and sensuous, or shattered blue glass--nor the Fusion that would be... something... something not yet defined.

So discs 1 and 2 document summer festival dates, with Miles alternately sputtering fire and squeaking futilely, and Shorter exploding all cylinders, as frenzied-fast and angry as Coltrane on a bad-karma day. The third CD is more transitional. Early fall in Stockholm finds the music clearly on a course for Fusion, Corea trinkling a real piano and the “tunes” now tumbling roughly into place...

And suddenly it’s disc 4, a spectacular color DVD with the band fully “found” at last, five powerhouse players concertizing in-the-round, their in-Fused notes like imperious fists pounding and resounding throughout the Berlin Philharmonic’s shuddering foundations. Roll over, von Karajan, and tell Furtwangler the news: the barbarians are at the gates, ‘Gate. And that Fusion rift? Man, it’s da Bomb!

If I’m lyin’, I’m tryin’. Czech it... Miles has dedicated the concert to Duke Ellington. (Huh? See the Aryans whispering, “Is that the Duke of Hohenzollern?”) Our five NeuMuziKnights confront Deutsche dragon ComplaZenSie, and snicker-snak... behold, from the entrails of the beast drift partial visions of players yet unknown: Zawinul to Jarrett, Mahavishnu to Bartz, a massive Jack Johnson rope-a-doppelganging, and Miles-to-be going before he sleeps. (Mistah KunFused--he live...)

But the capper, the last laugh, the final geste and gesture... in a placid farewell to his past, Miles ends this brilliant set, this irony of the moment and augury of things to come, with a near-solo stroll across “I Fall in Love Too Easily” (plus, band back, a sign-off whisp of “Sanctuary”)--spirited and dispirited, fragmented and fragile, broken and bereft, brazen and beautiful. It’s Berlin all over again, an un-Sally’d Joel Grey and goodbye-to-all-that cabaret, a cock in the snoot to good-German kunst and the rusticals of the Wall, and--above all--a five-band of brothers in a divided city, about to divide the whole world of Jazz.
* * * * *
Rather than keep over-writing, I think I should wrap things up. The fourth set (ordered but not in hand when I began this meant-to-be-light essay) turned out to bring mixed results--100 Hits Legends: The Everly Brothers (set LEGENDS019), takes five CDs, 20 cuts per CD, to deliver most (but not all) of the Cadence and Warner Bros. hits and best other tracks... but only 80 or so in this selection are really worth reissuing. (Hands up if you think you need to hear the Brothers whipsaw through “My Mammy,” “Mention My Name in Sheboygan,” or “O Mein Papa.”) But even the bad songs still have the gorgeous, soaring, brothers-in-arms harmonies pretty much patented by the Everlys.

I was fooled too by the widespread publicity; I guess the 2010 not-new set was instead being dumped on the market at a ridiculously low price, so the good news is you can probably find one at Half-Price Books or on the Internet for about $10. As some song our Daddy taught us might say:

If you write for no money,
Put on a free show,
You got to be ready...
Sometimes it’s no go.

Yet in this case,

At a dime a song
For those harmonies,
You can’t go wrong
With the Everlys...