Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and One Night in New York City ~ The New Yorker

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Since the nineteen-sixties, there have not been jazz musicians as artistically significant and generally popular as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, or Bill Evans. Today, jazz music is a miscellaneous collection of wide-ranging and disputed genres that stands to the side of American culture. How did the train go off the tracks? A listen to Ellington and Evans both playing an Ellington standard, “In a Sentimental Mood,” on the same hot Thursday night in New York City—August 17, 1967—offers a few clues. Here is Ellington’s version at the Rainbow Grill, with the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, along with John Lamb on bass and Steve Little on drums. And here is Evans’s version at the Village Vanguard, with Eddie Gomez on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums.

Ellington, in the twilight of his career, had several long residencies at the Rainbow Grill, a restaurant and ballroom on the sixty-fifth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Ellington would work on new music during the day (with the passing of his collaborator Billy Strayhorn, in May, 1967, Ellington’s final decade would see a much higher percentage of original music solely from his pen) and, in the evening, would play for dinner, dancing, and listening. This functional gig was a different experience than the glamorous concert tours that the full band made during the year. Yet each night at the Rainbow Grill high society, music fans, and hangers-on came together to see Ellington. You never knew who would drop by: Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, a Rockefeller.

For the summer of 1967, Ellington brought in an octet with the legendary veteran Ellingtonians Cat Anderson, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Lawrence Brown, and Harry Carney, accompanied by a young, mainstream rhythm section. They played the hits and a few minor new pieces. (A bootleg of a complete set came out recently on the Gambit label—an imprint for collectors who don’t mind potential illegalities). Everything is enjoyable, but the highlight is the Gonsalves quartet and “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Ellington packs a whole history of composition into only two and a half choruses. The first chorus is piano in D minor/F major, the “old style,” fairly close to the first 1935 recording. After the “old-style” chorus, Duke modulates to Bb minor/Db major for Gonsalves’s entrance, the same key used for the “new-style” version of “In a Sentimental Mood” tracked with John Coltrane, in 1962. Gonsalves’s greatest fame was authoring twenty-six choruses of shouting blues on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the Newport Jazz Festival, in 1956, a moment that many credit with revitalizing Ellington’s career. However, Gonsalves was also one of the greatest ballad players, and his silky, furry, almost murky legato here is pure delight.

Gonsalves’s mastery is only to be expected, but the sixty-eight-year-old Ellington is still full of surprises. Playing with Coltrane, Ellington’s “new-style” arrangement had a mournful raindrop piano part that was dramatic and distinctive. At the Rainbow Grill, Ellington doesn’t play many of the raindrops but goes all out in rhapsodic style: heavy block chords, cascades, even a long left-hand trill underneath pointillistic right-hand stabs. It would be hard to find ballad accompaniment this busy anywhere else.

Downtown, the vastly influential keyboard artist Bill Evans was enjoying another run at the Village Vanguard. He was a regular at the club, with his 1961 LP “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” well on its way to canonization. When he was in residence, Evans would put a table from the front by the back stairs, come early, and drink coffee while reading the racing news.

In 1967, you could still get a hamburger or a turkey club sandwich at the Vanguard, but there certainly was no dancing. It was a nice, quiet audience for Evans that night. This recording of “In a Sentimental Mood,” which was released on the Verve double LP “California, Here I Come,” has less audience noise than “Sunday at the Village Vanguard.”

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Van Morrison Rides Back Into The Mystic With ‘Transformation’

As with the best Van Morrison songs, “Transformation” billows out from its oft-repeated refrain. The lead single off Morrison’s upcoming Roll With The Punches (out Sept. 22) consists largely of the 71-year-old Irish singer belting “gonna be a transformation” over a triumphant soul progression. But if there’s been a transformation in Morrison over his long career, it isn’t evident here. This is a soaring bit of classic Morrison roots-soul — and his best outing in recent years.


This song has some of the wily, indulgent excess of Morrison’s most influential work, with more organic production than much of his modern output that’s far better suited to his loose vocal style.

Morrison is an artist who’s never been afraid of risking the ridiculous in pursuit of the transcendent. For proof, see: the line “Yeah when there’s no more words to say about love I go, NNGEEEEEEEEEE” at the end of “You Know What They’re Writing About,” the various growls on the 11-minute “Listen To The Lion,” the barn-burning cover of “Bein’ Green” live at the Rainbow and various album covers including — but not limited to — Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart and A Sense of Wonder.

Here, that tendency takes the form of a moving climax, complete with some vintage scatting. The moments that simultaneously elicit a laugh at his excess and a swell of feeling at his conviction — these are his specialty. “Transformation” brings us there once again. This is yet another testament to the transportive power of music and the changing force of a righteous love. That’s a note he’s sounded before, often over and over again at the end of a song, until the words loose their meaning and the inarticulate meaning comes clear.

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1967 ~ Fleetwood Mac, the blues band beginnings



Today, August 13th, marks the 50th anniversary of Fleetwood Mac. On that date in 1967, the band played their first ever show, alongside artists like Cream and Jeff Beck, at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival. But according to drummer Mick Fleetwood, even with their massive success in the years since, much of Fleetwood Mac‘s early history remains unknown to everyday fans, many of whom quite likely believe the band to have begun life in the mid-Seventies, with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks at the helm. The drummer intends to shine a light on his band’s oft-ignored formative years as a crack British blues outfit with a new book, Love That Burns: A Chronicle of Fleetwood Mac, Volume One 1967–1974, due September 19th from Genesis Publications. “It’s about giving kudos to the founding fathers of a very strange journey that Fleetwood Mac ended up taking over the course of all these years,” he tells Rolling Stone.


Those founding fathers include thefounding father of Fleetwood Mac, guitarist and vocalist Peter Green, who formed the band with Fleetwood (the initial lineup was rounded out by guitarist Jeremy Spencer and bassist Bob Brunning; John McVie, the “Mac” in Fleetwood Mac, replaced Brunning not long after the Windsor gig) following a stint in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. They soon welcomed a third guitarist, Danny Kirwan, and achieved success in the U.K. with Green-penned songs like “Black Magic Woman,” “Albatross” and “Oh Well.” Over the next few years, the band cycled through members and musical styles; Green, Spencer and Kirwan each exited under unusual circumstances, among them psychological and emotional struggles exacerbated by drug and alcohol abuse, while later members like guitarists Bob Welch and Bob Weston and keyboardist and vocalist Christine McVie – who remains with Mac to this day – came in and helped to lead the band down new sonic paths. In late 1974, Fleetwood and the McVies were joined by Buckingham and Nicks, which is the point at which Love That Burnsconcludes. “That’s why it’s called Volume One,” Fleetwood says. “And hopefully there will be a Volume Two that will pick up from there. But I wanted this to be a separate story, because it is an important story in its own right.”


Fleetwood Mac ~ LOVE THAT BURNS

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In Love That Burns, this story is afforded a gorgeous presentation. Fleetwood’s insightful and sometimes humorous first-person account of the band’s origins is fleshed out by more than 400 stunning (and in some cases never-before-published) images, as well as intimate archival material and rare memorabilia. There are also additional recollections from those close to the band at the time, including John Mayall and early Mac members Jeremy Spencer, Christine McVie, John McVie and the rarely-heard-from Peter Green himself. It’s all gathered together in an exquisitely produced large-format tome that is limited to just 2,000 copies, each one signed by Fleetwood himself. “A lot of care and a lot of love went into this, and I give kudos to Genesis for that,” Fleetwood says. “They don’t do it unless it’s done right. And there aren’t hundreds of thousands of these books that are going to be made. So it really is a labor of love that something like this gets to exist, and it also is great to know that this story can be told, and anybody who has an interest in it can now know about it.


Randy Newman Avenges a Murdered Bluesman on “Dark Matter”


The standout track on “Dark Matter,” Newman’s first solo album in nine years, is “Sonny Boy,” about a blues musician whose identity and music catalogue were stolen posthumously.

Photograph by Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP


The New Yorker

In the early nineteen-seventies, when the Rolling Stones were at the height of their powers, the American singer-songwriter, composer, and pianist Randy Newman was taking a less conventional approach to rock and roll and the blues. In his music, Newman paired rolling New Orleans piano lines with mordant lyrics to write satirical songs about life, often conjuring narrators—both fictional and real—to help him get his point across. The results were sometimes hilarious, as on the 1971 novelty tune “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong,” a shambling waltz about failing to find your way around in the sack. But they were also controversial, as with “Short People,” from 1977, a catchy little pop number on which Newman channelled the voice of simple-minded bigots so successfully that he was accused of being one himself.

Newman grew up visiting soundstages in Hollywood; three of his uncles wrote film scores for a living. Later, Newman’s career would also include some significant work for film, most notably his music for Pixar’s “Toy Story” movies. Now, for the first time in nine years, the seventy-three-year-old has made a new addition to his solo catalogue with the release, last week, of “Dark Matter,” his eleventh studio album and perhaps his most topical. There is a song inspired by photographs of a shirtless Vladimir Putin, a song about the differences between science and faith, and another in which the Kennedy brothers discuss the Bay of Pigs. (There was even, in an early version of the album, a song aboutthe size of Donald Trump’s penis.)

The standout, however, is “Sonny Boy,” a languorous jazz tune about the tragic life and death of Sonny Boy Williamson, a successful blues singer-songwriter who was murdered in 1948 after a gig on Chicago’s South Side, and who had his identity and music catalogue stolen posthumously when another artist started performing his songs under his name. In it, Newman imagines the bitter resentment in Sonny’s voice from beyond the grave: “This man stole my name, stole my soul / They’re so holy up there, they don’t understand / But he even tried to steal my jelly roll!” Although Newman surely has very little in common with a dead bluesman from Tennessee, he manages to sound damn convincing.

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First Listen: The Blind Boys Of Alabama, ‘Almost Home’


If The Blind Boys of Alabama’s surviving founders, Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter, never get around to writing their memoirs, the autobiographical slant of the legendary gospel group’s new album, Almost Home, will be close enough. Fountain (87 years young) and Carter (85) started singing together as schoolboys in 1939 and went pro in 1944; The Blind Boys of Alabama began their recording career four years later. Nearly seven decades down the line, Almost Home looks back on the long, hard, but ultimately gratifying road they’ve taken.

Blind Boys of Alabama, Almost Home.

The album includes bespoke compositions by Americana songsmiths like Ruthie Foster, Cris Jacobs, and Valerie June, as well as a couple of straight-up cover tunes. But the whole thing really revolves around a batch of songs written by others with input from The Blind Boys, making the personal stories of Fountain and Carter a crucial part of the proceedings, and chronicling a journey marked by both jubilation and tribulation. Don’t forget we’re talking about an African-American group from the South that spent a sizable chunk of its career sans civil rights.

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The Uncertain Musical Legacy of Merle Haggard


Merle Haggard’s torch is carried by roots rockers and old-school acts, but his place in mainstream country is less secure.

Photograph by Michael Williamson / The Washington Post / Getty


One of the year’s best albums is a Merle Haggard tribute called “Best Troubador”—the odd spelling is deliberate—from the singer-songwriter Will Oldham, working under his stage name, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Oldham, who is thirty-seven, specializes in a ragged, old-time hillbilly style, often updated with ladles full of irony. But on “Best Troubador” he sounds as serious as heartbreak; the album lacks even the hint of playfulness that lurked about Haggard’s most earnest performances. Oldham performs living-room-still versions of songs selected mostly from outside of Haggard’s classic period, relying heavily on album tracks rather than big hits. His readings of cult favorites “The Day the Rains Came,” “Roses in Winter” and “If I Could Only Fly”— a Merle-associated Blaze Foley song, included here in a recording that would barely qualify as a proper demo—are so delicate and mysterious that you fear a stiff breeze might blow them away forever.

It’s a marvellous tribute, but not one likely to inspire waves of Haggard converts. There will be other tribute albums—Willie Nelson, Haggard’s old friend and collaborator, already has one in the can. And at the close of his latest album, “God’s Problem Child,” Nelson makes a promise about Haggard: “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” It’s a nice song and a nicer thought. But is it wishful thinking?

Popular music rarely lasts, even when its creators build it for that purpose—as Haggard typically did, with one eye on the past and another on the ages. Such endurance depends on external factors. Johnny Cash, Haggard’s friend and occasional recording partner, had a network-TV series and a late-in-life resurgence that was popular with alternative rockers, as well as an Oscar-winning movie made about his life, in 2005. Haggard’s working-class persona proved mostly resistant to crossover appeal, and his counter-to-the-counterculture political associations always muted his broader appreciation. The question of a lasting and widespread musical legacy remains wide open.

In April, on Haggard’s birthday—which was also a year to the day since he’d died, at the age of seventy-nine—eighteen thousand people gathered for an event called “Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard,” at Bridgestone Arena, in Nashville. The several generations of fans present already knew both the words to Haggard’s songs and his roles in country history: blue-collar poet and proto-outlaw, devotee of idiosyncrasy, at once a follower and advancer of tradition. Performances proceeded briskly but without much sense of celebration or loss; participating artists had clearly been instructed to eschew sharing any Haggard stories or memories in the interest of time. Merle’s mourners came, sang, and went, all in a tearless rush.


The Last Word: Carlos Santana on Turning 70, Trump’s ‘Darkness’ ~ RollingStone interview


Fifty-one years after the Santana Blues Band played its first shows, Carlos Santana never fails to surprise. He’s one of the spiritual founding fathers of the Sixties counterculture but currently lives in, of all places, Las Vegas with his wife, Santana drummer Cindy Blackman. “I’ve never had that gambling bug at all,” he says, “but everything I said I would never do is in front of me. I didn’t realize that some of the most gifted musicians, like Nat ‘King’ Cole and Sinatra, did [Vegas]. So I rearranged my position.” He records with modern pop acts and has covered AC/DC and Def Leppard – but reunited an early lineup of Santana last year and is about to release Power of Peace, his first-ever collaboration with longtime friends Ronald and Ernie Isley. Here, Santana shares life lessons from his five-decade cosmic journey – the beliefs that keep him going, how he’s trained his inner child and the times when he’ll defend himself.

What are the best and worst parts of success?
I get to meet like-minded people like Harry Belafonte and Desmond Tutu. I also got to meet Dr. J and Wilt Chamberlain. You ask Wilt, “Hey, how’s the weather up there?” He says, “Which state?”

Sometimes you also get to meet a knucklehead. If I’m out at a restaurant, I’m more than happy to take a photo with someone, but if they get a little too intense or drunk, I tell them, “I need you to honor my wife and honor me because you may have to call an ambulance for you and the police for me.” They say, “Oh, I thought you were spiritual.” I say, “I am, and I’m trying to stay that way.”

What was your favorite book as a kid, and what does it say about you?
Anthony Quinn’s autobiography The Original Sin. He had an inner child who was always putting him down. Everyone has some serious inner child that can be a demon and make you feel like crap. I learned to train that child to respect me and honor me.


The Unfinished Work of Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox


Alan Lomax, the musicologist and musician, with microphone, and Pete Seeger, right, practicing for a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1959. CreditJohn Cohen/Getty Images


There’s a fundamental contradiction to the life and work of Alan Lomax, the prolific collector of American folk songs. He encouraged Western audiences to appreciate rural and indigenous traditions as true art, on the same level as classical music. Meanwhile, he wanted to help those marginalized societies maintain distinct cultural identities, empowering them against the encroaching influence of mass media.

So how does that work? How can we bring these traditions into a cosmopolitan world without compromising them? When a culture comes under the anthropologist’s gaze, can it still write its own history?

In 1983 Lomax established the Association for Cultural Equity, known as ACE, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing that tension, largely by making sure the communities he had recorded reaped some reward. This spring, the organization unveiled the Global Jukebox, a free, interactive web portal with recordings of more than 6,000 folk songs from around the world that Lomax recorded or acquired. Most have never been publicly available.

It’s still imperfect, but the jukebox is a huge achievement. It will ensure that his work lives on in a single, broadly accessible collection, under the stewardship of an organization whose mission he helped define. Yet there are some questions it still must answer. What is it doing to further the creative life of the communities that created this music? As Lomax put it in a dispatch from 1976, how can the jukebox “make culture again grow on the periphery — where culture has always grown”? And does the Global Jukebox resist the false notion that homegrown expression in nonurban areas is a thing of the past — or does it feed into it?

On the Global Jukebox website, the recordings are plotted on a world map. Using a system called cantometrics, devised by Lomax and the ethnomusicologist Victor Grauer, each song has been analyzed according to 41 variables, such as vocal inflection and ensemble size. Users can sort songs from around the world and sift for commonalities, finding clues to migration patterns, or the ways that societies with similar structures share modes of expression.

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For The 4th Of July, La Santa Cecilia ~ one of my all time favorite groups ~


There are a few lines from the oft-covered song “México Americano” that sum up the experience of millions of folks in the U.S. and have always seemed to me to be the ultimate expression of patriotism:

Por mi madre soy Mexicano. (From my mother I am Mexican.)

Por destino soy Americano. (By destiny I am American.)

Celebrating bi-cultural patriotism is La Santa Cecilia‘s stock in trade. From its cover of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” spotlighting workers who pick strawberries, to this raucous rockabilly-conjunto cover of “México Americano,” the band’s very essence reflects the sentiment of the song.

The roots of the song are in conjunto, the accordion-driven mashup of eastern European waltzes, polkas and Mexican storytelling that was born along the Texas-Mexico border. Music and life there, where culture ebbs and flows through cowboy boots and Spanglish, give meaning to the song’s lyrics:

I have two languages, two countries

And two cultures.

I first heard “México Americano” performed by the south Texas band Los Pingüinos del Norte in a scene from Chulas Fronteras, a brilliantly heartfelt documentary about conjunto music and culture made by the late Les Blank. The song has been covered by such high-profile acts as Los Lobos and Alejandro Escovedo.

For its own take, La Santa Cecilia has joined forces with the Rebel Cats, a Mexican band devoted to American rockabilly music. They turn both the accordion and the hollow-body guitar up to 11 to infuse the song with the perfect mixture of styles and cultures. On this most hallowed of national holidays, it’s an ideal celebration of the diversity of cultures that make up our country.


Massive Muddy Waters Mural To Be Dedicated in Chicago

The City of Chicago will dedicate a ten-story mural to late blues icon Muddy Waters June 8th as part of the Chicago Blues Festival, TheAssociated Press reports. The mural is painted on the side of the building at 17 North State Street, at the corner of State and Washington Streets.


Waters was born in Mississippi and learned how to play guitar and harmonica as a teenager. He moved to Chicago in 1943, where he worked various odd jobs while playing clubs and cutting records. After several unsuccessful singles, he scored his first hits at the end of the Forties for Chess Records, including “Rollin’ Stone” and “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” Over the next decade, Waters would help define the gritty Chicago blues sound that would inspire rock and roll.

“We can’t even imagine music today without Muddy’s contributions coming out of the Chicago blues scene,” said Mark Kelly, who led the Big Walls project for Columbia College, “He’s a cultural hero and maybe someone who should be better honored and remembered, and what an incredible opportunity to put Muddy Waters up front and center in the middle of Chicago.”

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