Archive | October, 2013

Butch Warren: Eric Walks

22 Oct

Dexter Gordon’s Facebook page announced the death of bassist Butch Warren earlier this month, but it could have come from any number of the pages of the musicians Warren played with: trumpeter Kenny Dorham, who once championed Warren; pianist Thelonious Monk, with whom Warren once toured: or Blue Note itself, where Warren was the house bassist.

Warren was 74 when he died of cancer on Oct. 5, well known in Washington D.C. jazz circles if mostly long since forgotten elsewhere. Warren’s story was alternately heartbreaking and triumphant: early success, mental illness abetted by drugs, four decades of instability and one final encore with a return to Europe and the release of his first album as leader in his 70s.

“For nearly half a century, he (was) a ghost, a legend, a slender whisper of a man who appeared sporadically at Washington jazz venues, closing his eyes and leaning over his bass, noticeably lifting the level of play, usually without uttering a word,” wrote the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher, little more than a month before Warren’s death.

It was Fisher who helped publicize Warren’s plight, finding him in 2006 living in a mental hospital in Sykesville, Md. “He had lost most of his teeth, and he seemed dazed and distracted,” wrote Fisher. “The staff at the mental hospital knew him only as ‘Ed’ until a worker on the ward got curious, Googled him, and discovered that the patient who kept asking for permission to play the piano in the recreation room was one of the lost bassists of the venerated Blue Note era.”

Warren was in his 20s during the “Blue Note era” and playing with Gordon, Dorham, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Clark, Jackie McLean and others — Gordon’s Facebook page linked to Gordon’s 1962 recording of Cheese Cake, with Warren on bass. Warren also was the bassist on Herbie Hancock’s original Watermelon Man.

Warren spent time on the road with Monk’s band and was cited in Time magazine’s 1964 feature on the pianist. “Warren’s rich, loping bass is well suited to Monk’s rhythms if not his harmonic ideals,” Time said, according to Fisher. “He is like a pony in pasture who traces his mother’s footsteps without stealing her grace.”

Shortly thereafter, Warren checked himself into a hospital; thus began the nearly half century Fisher described above.

Above is a link to Eric’s Walk, a Warren composition he wrote for his son, when he began walking, and recorded with Sonny Clark on Clark’s 1962 album Leapin’ and Lopin’, his last as a leader. Clark died in January 1963 at just 31; Warren’s problems were just manifesting themselves.


Mark Knopfler: Sailing to Philadelphia

16 Oct

Mark Knopfler’s Sailing to Philadelphia is based on the author Thomas Pynchon’s book Mason & Dixon, an historical fiction about the English surveyors who gave their names — and several years — to the boundary lines between Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

In the song, Knopfler takes the part of Jeremiah Dixon, James Taylor guests in the part of Charles Mason (the album also includes a guest cameo from Van Morrision).

“I suppose any good work, like the Pynchon book, makes you think about the present,” Knopfler said in the not-too-distant past, in a 2000 story with the Independent’s Patrick Humphries. “It’s a book about many things. And in a way, a song is only an attempt at a miniaturisation of something like that – it’s a huge great baggy book, which goes in any one of a million directions. So, if you like, the song is my three-minute take on a three-year book.”

Pynchon’ book was 773 pages, and published in 1997, some three years before Knopfler’s song on the solo album of the same name. Perhaps Knopfler’s description is coincidence, perhaps not.

(I confess I’ve not read the book, nor Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s best-known work. Three years is a long time. Pynchon is an annual contender for the Nobel Prize, which has not been won by an American since Toni Morrision in 1993, and wasn’t again this year. “Of the Americans thought to be on the long list, only Pynchon has written a big novel of big ideas — but it’s been 38 years since “Gravity’s Rainbow,” wrote Alexander Nazaryan in 2011 on Nazaryan called Mason & Dixon “a chiaroscuro patchwork of brilliance.”)

“Certainly it takes a lot of nerve (and ego) to write a nearly 800-page novel featuring two surveyors — yes, surveyors — as its heroes, but in Pynchon’s capable hands, Mason and Dixon become a great buddy act,” wrote the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani in a review of the book, “reminiscent, by turns, of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Bouvard and Pecuchet, Tom and Huck, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Mason, who has trained as an astronomer, is the melancholy one: dour, meditative and given to bad dreams, he is haunted by the death of his wife, Rebekah, and shy about talking to his sons. Dixon is the outgoing one: fond of women and drink and song, he has a “general desire for anything, and on lucky days everything.”

Knopfler’s “miniaturisation” has its advantages. I was reminded of the song not long ago when happening upon the sign below on a late afternoon in the early fall (looking out on a rush hour traffic jam, it was easy to think Mason and Dixon would have made better time 250 years ago). And, in particular, the last part of the last verse Pynchon’s and Knopfler’s happy-go-lucky Dixon sings to Taylor’s Mason:

“Come up and feel the sun
A new morning is begun
Another day will make it clear
Why your stars should guide us here…”


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