Don Byron: Next Love

14 Dec


My better half is gone for three days, and who can blame her: the wind from outside is louder than the clarinet from the digital device inside.

But this means that she can’t critique what’s on the CD player from 1,000 miles away, and that Don Byron’s Tuskegee Experiments, which met with less than positive reviews from her, is back on. Last time I played it she heard six notes of the first song, said it hurt her ears and exercised the power of a veto.

This isn’t the first time we’ve navigated a tenuous truce on what comes out of the speakers and won’t be the last. Her taste in the arts runs more to Garth Brooks, mine to Mel Brooks; her taste in accompaniment while driving runs more to NPR; mine to NRBQ.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also makes the ear more appreciative.

Tuskegee Experiments from 1992  was Byron’s first album as leader, and the clarinetist is joined by guitarist Bill Frisell, among others. The music befits its title, which derives its name not just from the infamous study conducted on African-American men for untreated syphilis, but from the Tuskegee Airmen, the aviation group which fought World War II in a segregated U.S. armed services. Hence the plural.

From Byron’s liner notes to the album: “To me, these two experiments are metaphors for African-American life. In one, we saw once again that black life is cheap, and that a person of color can be enlisted to work against the best interests of his group, for nothing more than a brief ‘vacation’ from the pain of invisibility or the pressure of being seen as part of the ‘inferior’ group. The aviation experiment reflects the struggle black people constantly face: having to be smarter, better, more qualified simply to justify being given any opportunity.”

The album has nine cuts, a couple of covers and a poem by Sadiq for the title piece. “The strong themes … the advanced yet logical improvising, and the often-dramatic music make this a particularly memorable set,” wrote Scott Yanow in his review for

The best of the nine, to these ears, is Next Love, linked below. “To this day (Frisell’s) extended solo on Byron’s ‘Next Love’—one of his most moving compositions ever—remains one of my favorite: perfection in tone, construction, choice and sheer emotion,” wrote John Kelman on

Of course if you’re in auditory distress after the first six notes of the first cut (Kelman: “Byron’s a cappaella solo … opens the album on a particularly poignant note.” Go figure), you won’t make it that far.

“a row of crows on a rickety fence.
no book learnin’.
po’ as dirt.
never heard Monsieur Bechet
play the clarinet.
this experiment is not a crime,
but a rite of sacrifice”
— Sadiq





Count Basie: One O’Clock Jump

11 Jan

I’m about 70 pages into Joe Posnanski’s book The Soul of Baseball, which is about a year spent traveling and listening to Buck O’Neil, whose two great loves were jazz and baseball.

“Buck always said the two greatest things in this world are baseball and jazz,” Posnanski wrote, and if Buck was wrong, it’s not by much. They’re certainly in the top five.

O’Neil was once a star  player before blacks could play in the major leagues, so he was a Kansas City Monarch in  the Negro Leagues, which brought him into close contact with the Kansas City jazz scene of the time.

O’Neil was in his 90s when he told Posnanski his stories a little more than a decade ago, so who knows if he embellished at all or took literary license. If he did, there wasn’t anyone around to correct him.

Once Duke Ellington led O’Neil into a club where the saxophone player was a “chubby Kansas City kid.” Of course it was Charlie Parker, at a time when if you yelled Bird at a jazz club, patrons would look up and not at the stage.

And once Joe Louis and Billie Holiday were having breakfast at the hotel O’Neil was staying at. O’Neil didn’t say if they were talking about left hooks or “What A Little Moonlight Could Do.”

Which brings O’Neil back to One O’Clock Jump. The song was written in the 30s (“Basie’s name ended up on the copyright, but alto saxophonist Buster Smith and arranger Eddie Durham likely wrote it,” according to and Basie spent lots of time in Kansas City, so it’s possible O’Neil had an insider’s knowledge. The story has been retold similarly elsewhere, but not as well.

Basie’s orchestra was playing, in a bar, for a radio station. They played a song they called “Blue Balls,” and the radio announcer asked the name of the song. O’Neil didn’t specify what year it was, but it was before integration and Howard Stern, and it’s safe to assume a song called “Blue Balls” by a black bandleader wouldn’t get an encore.

“(Basie) looked at the clock and saw it was 1 a.m.,” wrote Posnanski, in O’Neil’s retelling. ” ‘We call it One O’Clock Jump,’ Basie said.”

Thus was Count Basie’s most famous song named. Who knows how it would have endured as Blue Balls.


Rock and Roll Hall Class of 2016: Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before

21 Dec

I don’t understand the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and with every year it makes less and less sense.

At least the baseball Hall of Fame has standards. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has ambiguity. What is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s equivalent of 500 home runs or 300 wins?  Is it hits or depth of material? Is it Top 40 songs and albums sold or the opinions of critics, popularity or creativity, times performing in Cleveland or favorable reviews in Rolling Stone?

I don’t undertand the Rock and Roll Hall any more than I do every song of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (a friend once offered to digitize my vinyl collection and barely got done with the A’s before he re-emerged, looking haggard, saying he thought he would never get through all the Art Ensemble albums. I told him you had to persevere through the cacophony of songs to get to the good stuff.)

The Hall inducted five groups last week, including rappers NWA. The others were:

  • Deep Purple, which is credited for being a forerunner to heavy metal. From where I listen, that should count against them, not for them.
  • Chicago, which named its albums the way Sylvester Stallone does his movies. We can be grateful Chicago has been more active, even if partly because it got an earlier start. But among recent  work, Stallone is getting better reviews.
  • Steve Miller, who did some fine music that was little listened to before he did some simpe stuff that everyone had to hear, if only to change the station. Miller churned out hits as if they were trashy paperback novels. It’s fitting that Take the Money and Run was so big, since Miller did exactly that. “He makes music that teenage boys can get 70 percent excited about,” wrote Dave Holmes on 
  • Cheap Trick, which peaked in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “Can you honestly tell me that you forgot? Forgot the magnetism of Robin Zander or the charisma of Rick Nielsen?” implores Mike Damone, futiley trying to scalp Cheap Trick concert tickets. “That’s kid stuff,” says the bored female high school student, unimpressed by the magnetism of Zander, the charisma of Nielsen or the pleading of Damone. No sale, even if it’s Hall of Fame kids stuff.

That’s your Hall of Fame class for 2016. No Yes. No females. No Smiths. No rationale.

It’s not all bad.  Chicago’s second album was my first favorite album, even if with a teenager’s world view. Steve Miller’s Abracadabra has been nominated as the world’s worst song, but I like it in a guilty pleasure sort of way.

But this is the class for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not the playlist for an oldies station. Bypassing the Smiths for Cheap Trick is exactly that. Cheap Trick was the punch line in a movie 33 years ago. When did they get noticeably better?

Music is subjective, and this opinion may be no more valid than the next. But the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should strive beyond the lowest common denominator. Maybe it’s not an affront that Cheap Trick is in and the Smiths are out, but that they were on the same ballot at all.

    Blind Willie McTell and 1928

    9 Nov

    A local public radio station has spent the last few week promoting a contest to determine the greatest year in music, a silly if fun exercise trying to measure that which is unmeasurable.

    Their on-air, and maybe off-, personalities have volleyed back and forth, like dueling jazz saxophonists trying to woo the audience, on whether Dylan’s Highway 61 (1965, ninth) is greater than Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991, 13th) which is greater than Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979, 15th) which is greater than Prince’s 1999 (1982, 19th).

    The winning year was 1969 (The Who’s Tommy, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, The Doors’ Soft Parade, The Band, Abbey Road), which no doubt didn’t offend the sensibilities of any of the Baby Boomers who are the dominant audience demographic. It’s safe to say 1969 didn’t win for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Don Cherry’s Mu or Jan Garbarek’s debut album as a leader, Esoteric Circle.

    Instead of The Greatest Year in Music, it was really The Greatest Year of the Music We Listen To, and 1969 was selected for the same reason political viewers watch either MSNBC or Fox: it reinforces what they already think they know.

    It’s akin to the sports fan of a certain generation who thinks Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete ever, because ESPN did a documentary on him. If Jackie Robinson (baseball MVP, major-college football player, Olympic-caliber track athlete) was as good, he’d have been featured. To say nothing of Jim Thorpe.

    We’re the product of the times we live; I grew up not listening to Sinatra or Billy Eckstine or Louis Jordan because who would want to when The Kinks had a new album. Forget about Duke Ellington or Tchaikovsky.

    Roll over Beethoven indeed.

    There wasn’t much support for 1959, which jazz historians identify as that genre’s greatest year (Miles’ Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Horace Silver’s Blowin’ The Blues Away or Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come) or 1824 (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) or 1875 (Carmen).

    I’m not sure what’s the greatest year for music or even the greatest generation for it, but my favorite vote in the aforementioned contest was author/record producer Josh Rosenthal’s. He chose 1928.

    That year had as much chance of winning as Al Smith did of beating Herbert Hoover in the ’28 presidential election (and look how that turned out). But Rosenthal’s essay (link here) wins by a landslide.

    “… in 100 or 1000 years, if there are still human ears to hear,” wrote Rosenthal, “the distance between the earliest blues, country and jazz recordings and the music of the 60’s, or of today, will become so compressed that the seemingly wide chasm between 1928 and 1969 will become non-existent. There are only 39 years separating Zep’s ‘The Lemon Song’ and Skip James’ ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor.’ The distance between this week’s new Neon Indian record and Led Zeppelin’s debut is 46 years. Yet, presumably because of its scratchy, archaic recording quality, Skip’s song seems ancient, while Zeppelin’s seems perfectly modern and relevant.

    “So stop your dismissive harrumphing when I state that 1928 was the best year in recorded music history.”

    Maybe it was, because of Jimmie Rodgers and Tommy Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt or the Carter Family or Blind Lemon Jefferson or Blind Willie McTell or Charlie Poole or Lonnie Johnson, all of whom Rosenthal linked to and only some of whom most of us know,  or because of Ellington’s The Mooche or Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, whom he didn’t.

    As Rosenthal wrote in introducing Blind Willie McTell: “As Dylan said, no one sings the blues like BWM (except maybe Tommy Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.”)

    I’m not sure whether Rosenthal is right or wrong, or if there is such a determination to be made. But music is infinite, and nothing against 1969, which may have been a great year for music and for the Mets, but I’d rather learn about Charlie Poole than listen to that which I’ve already heard over and over and over.

    Steely Dan: Things I Miss the Most

    3 Aug

    Streely Dan: Everything Must Go

    To date, Everything Must Go is the most recent Steely Dan album of new work, released 12 years ago.

    Steely Dan is in town tonight, which you’d know if you listened to the oldies station.

    If you’re a longtime fan, that should be as arresting as the first notes of Kid Charlemagne. Steely Dan, which once sang about the most unsavory of characters, is now promoted on the most normal of stations.

    It’s as if there’s a romance novel in the hidden papers of Hunter S. Thompson. Or as if Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch is a racist.

    Somebody’s not reeling in the years, because they’ve completely lost track of them.

    There’s a  clear demarcation in the Dan’s work, and the after part has become the norm. That’s unfortunate.

    In the first decade, they were about defiance and rebellion and the underside; beginning with Aja and for 30 years after, they’ve been music to move a shopping cart to. The Dan went from non-conformity to acceptance to a a reserved seat at the head table. Sort of like John McEnroe at Wimbledon.

    Their second act may be enduring, but I’ll take Don’t Take Me Alive over Hey Nineteen.

    Steely Dan concerts — tonight is No. 5 personally, but the first by Groupon — are usually mixed: some of the post-reunion collaborations, dabs of Becker’s and Fagan’s solo work, not enough early stuff, too much Aja and even more Gaucho. More fans perk up when they hear the introduction to Babylon Sisters and Deacon Blues than they do to King of the World, and the reaction from the oldest of fans is akin to that of seeing someone reading a trashy novel on public transportation: at least they’re reading, or listening.

    Maybe Haitian Divorce will register.

    Woody Allen recently said he’s not too old to do his best work at 79, and maybe neither are Becker and Fagan  at 65 and 67. It’s hard to know since they haven’t released a new album in more than a decade.

    That’s OK, though. They’ve already done Pretzel Logic, Royal Scam and Katy Lied. Or Countdown To Ecstasy. And that’s plenty good enough.

    Joe Bonner: Impressions of Copenhagen

    15 Dec
    Joe Bonner New Beginnings

    Joe Bonner’s album New Beginnings

    Joe Bonner died at age 66 last month, and if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve probably never heard his best-known song Impressions of Copenhagen.

    There aren’t one-hit wonders in jazz, but Bonner was most-easily recognized by his beautiful song about a beautiful city.

    The 1981 album of the same name sold 35,000 copies in its first printing, according to a piece on Bonner’s death at the blog, but good luck to anyone searching for any of Bonner’s other albums. I know, because I did, and I spent more nights in Copenhagen (two) than I found additional Bonner albums (one) in the bargain bins in the 33 years since.

    Joe Bonner

    Joe Bonner at the piano, from the inside cover of New Beginnings

    Bonner is only the second-most famous pianist born in Rocky Mount, N.C., behind Thelonious Monk. It’s indicative of Bonner’s lack of fame and appeciation that Monk is listed as a notable resident on Rocky Mount’s Wikipedia page, but Bonner is not.

    But the pianist Bonner was most often compared to was not Monk but McCoy Tyner. Scott Yanow’s review of Impressions of Copenhagen said Bonner’s piano playing was “McCoy Tyner-inspired.” Bonner’s admittedly biased drummer, Tom Tilton, even felt Bonner surpassed Tyner. “Joe Bonner has all the power of McCoy, he has all the capability of McCoy, but he’s so much more romantic,” Tilton said, according to “I mean, I’ve been there time after time where there were tears running down people’s faces when he would play a ballad. He could captivate a room like nobody I’ve ever experienced before.”

    Bonner did most of his playing over the last two decades in Denver, where he was beloved and appreciated. Even Gov. John Hickenlooper was a Bonner fan. “He was without question, the most talented piano player I’ve ever heard,” the governor told the website in a remembrance of Bonner. “… I want people to know that I loved Joe Bonner.”

    On the inside cover of the CD version of New Beginnings, is a poem by Devorah Major:

    some nights
    ivory keys
    must echo through his dreams
    while the wooden piano frame
    creaks inside his belly
    waking him up, demanding to be played

    Below is a link to Bonner’s Impressions of Copenhagen. Wrote Yanow: “Bonner is an underrated talent, and this is one of his finest recordings,” and he’s right on both counts.

    Jack Bruce: Folk song

    27 Oct

    Eric Clapton was the most famous musician in the band Cream, though Jack Bruce supplied more of the voice and the music. In rock and roll, fame can apparently be a fickle mistress.

    The band lasted 18 months and made four albums, which were good enough for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which makes Cream the Sandy Koufax of its genre.

    Bruce did 14 solo albums, the last just seven months ago, and collaborated with countless big-names with differing styles. Yet most of the news of Bruce’s death this weekend focused on his time with Cream or his place among bass guitarists, which was pretty high. Folks who wouldn’t know a bass guitar from an air guitar said Bruce was the best ever, although Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who knows a thing or two about bass guitar, said Bruce was “the most gifted bass player who’s ever been,” according to Rolling Stone. That’s credible.

    But Bruce could leave his bass in the corner, as he does on the link above, play the piano, put music to Pete Brown’s words and produce a beautiful song.

    That his weren’t as popular as Clapton’s, or a lot of lesser musicians, is one of the disconnects of art. Popularity often has little to do with quality.

    “Bruce slowly disappears from rock history over the following decades,” wrote Neil McCormick in a appreciation of Bruce for the Telegraph. “He made a lot of music in a lot of different set ups, but none of it made much of a commercial impact. … He was probably too esoteric for his own good, shifting his musical attention too often, never really pinning his flag to any particular post.

    “In a way, he was too famous and too restlessly creative just to become a bit player in another band, but too musically complex for the mainstream.”

    Away from the mainstream can be a fertile place to listen. Songs For a Tailor, Harmony Row and Out of The Storm were all quality work, done in the aftermath of Cream’s breakup (Harmony Row, if I had to pick one, without conviction; Bruce cited it as his favorite in the liner notes of the 2003 re-release). Folk Song, the link above to a solo Bruce performance of it, is from Harmony Row.

    From Joe Viglione’s review of the album: “Harmony Row is the album that combines many flavors of Bruce’s experimentations, making it courageous, adventurous, and hardly the product for a mass audience. “Folk Song” is barely a folk song; it is a progressive pop tune with that elegant, Procul Harum-like, sweeping, mystical statement. … it’s a song which should have made him the darling of underground FM radio.”

    It didn’t make him a darling, and it barely made him an acquaintance. Songs for a Tailor, which was released first, reached No. 55 and Out of The Storm No. 160, but Harmony Row barely sold any at all; it didn’t even crack the charts (I’m sure my copy came from the discount bin with a cutout in the side and the store was happy to get$1.99 or $2.99 instead of nothing at all).

    And maybe that’s why it was Bruce’s favorite. It wasn’t popular to a wide audience, but it was wildly so for the small one it reached.

    From on the album’s cover: “‘Harmony Row’ was a street of slums, now demolished, close to where Jack spent part of his childhood (in Glasgow). The building pictured was famous for being the longest unbroken tenement in Europe, at just over one mile long.”

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