Buckwheat Zydeco Jackpot!

Buckwheat Zydeco Jackpot!
Buckwheat Zydeco : Jackpot!

This sounds perhaps a little sad but I discovered Buckwheat about 25 years ago as a teenager when my mom bought the soundtrack album for ‘The Big Easy’. Even in the dead of winter in Rochester NY his tracks on that album were able to evoke swampy hot good times. It made me want to learn how to play the accordion – something I still have not done and vow to do soon. The fusion of blues, R&B, funk, reggae and Creole that is Zydeco makes it one of the most vibrant of the roots music forms and has endowed it with the DNA complexity that makes for healthy evolution over the years. Buckwheat himself has been no less iconoclastic with his career and he happily touches on all of those styles on Jackpot! – his latest release. The bonus is that Buckwheat has also returned to his original instrument, the Hammond B3 on several songs. It made me want to hunt down some of the 70’s Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers and Clifton Chenier stuff that features his Hammond playing. In the excellent live show I was lucky to see last month, Buckwheat and his band were the ultimate Lousiana street band. Buckwheat is a warm and natural live performer and it is almost impossible for his shows not to turn into a party. Call me a romantic but there is something about watching a room full of people of all ages, races and sizes getting silly together and laughing and dancing that makes me happy.

Clavinova Love

Clavinova Love
Yamaha Clavinova Supernova

I am a pretty serious piano snob so a lot of people have been surprised that I bought a Yamaha Clavinova about 6 months back. I came to this conclusion because I live in an apartment and I sometimes like to wake up at 3AM and play my little heart out. When I used to do this with my (very loud and very awesome) baby grand it resulted in nasty phone calls making me feel I was doing something bad when I was making music which is supposed to be making me feel good. Musical bad mojo is hard to shake and is to be avoided in my opinion. Once again, just like my high school guidance counselor warned me, life is all about trade offs and here I had to make an important one. I decided that I was willing to give up a certain amount of ‘piano-ness’ in order to retain the freedom to play whenever I want. There are others who would say that they would NEVER have purchased a digital piano over an acoustic but my guess is most of these people don’t actually play a lot of piano at 3AM nor do they live in an apartment. It is easy to to have rigid idealistic beliefs when you are not in the trenches. I have not regretted this decision one bit and it turns out the trade-offs were minor. The Clavinova is not an acoustic piano but it is damn close. To put it in terms we can all understand, the Clavinova is not that sad inflatable sex doll that Hopper drags around in Blue Velvet. No this is a true Cylon – a piece of technology that can actually ‘pass’ for the real thing in many applications including recording. It feels very good to play, is always perfectly in tune and I can play with headphones on at a satisfying volume any time I want. …and I do. So take that Mrs Ratouche in 1C! You, Madame, will no longer hamper my musical creativity you intolerant music-hating nightsleeper! Frankly, I pity you.

There are a lot of models of Clavinovas out there. The number of models is actually ridiculously confusing and seems rather excessive but Yamaha must know what they are doing. I ended up going with the CLP-240 which is a mid-level model that has the good piano touch and nice speakers without a lot of extra features like tons of silly sounds, room character-sensing digital effects and cruise control. Highly recommended.

A Song of its Time

A Song of its Time
Noel Harrison

Two of Portishead guest DJd on All Songs Considered a few weeks back. They brought in a varied combination of music that was important to them as a band and were mocked playfully for including Noel Harrison’s cover of Michel LeGrand’s ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ in the list. They defended this track by describing it as a sonic experience that displays orchestration techniques and studio production that is no longer available to us today and is ‘perfectly of it’s time’. This has stuck in my mind because I feel that we often lack language to describe all of the hidden forces of what makes music ‘great’ to us and they kind of hit on something there. It is a bit of a paradox: in order for a song to become timeless it needs to be of it’s time. It is this perception that enables us to connect with the some old songs – ignoring the shifted tides in production, language and themes while we attack other songs for these same failings. If a song is not speaking of it’s own time with honesty and energy it will never speak to another time. OK now I’m confused and I must stop.

‘Third’ is worth listening to as well.

Battling Butler with the BQE Project

Battling Butler with the BQE Project
Tom Nazziola conducts the BQE Project

Back when I was but a wee lad growing up in Rochester New York I used to play piano in a society orchestra called The Len Hawley Band. It was made up of a mix of local jazz musicians, down-on-their luck lounge buskers and top talent from Eastman School of Music. The band’s mission was to keep an audience dancing no matter what. We played an eclectic and often crazy mixture of styles from a vast heap of fake books that Len carted around. We did not take a lot of breaks and often did not get fed. These were not easy club date gigs for the faint of heart and the Eastman kids often had a hard time getting through them. Some would show up for their first gig, go outside for a cigarette after the first set and never return. One exception was a drummer named Tom Nazziola. He rocked those gigs. He could play anything on drums and also played a mean piano and was a very capable rock singer. He really knew how to spin gold from straw. Tom has ended up becoming a serious composer. He heads up The BQE Project – a chamber ensemble that performs original Film scores. I recently got to see them perform to Buster Keaton’s hilarious “Battling Butler” at Lincoln Center. Tom has composed a vibrant, carefully synced score that sounded both modern and thematically appropriate. It is a rare treat to watch a great old movie on a big screen accompanied by a live chamber band performing an original score. I would highly recommend checking out one of their performances if you get a chance.

Catching the Wave

Catching the Wave
Antonio Carlos Jobim: Wave

Well it is that time of year again. Winter blahs. Even with the pathetic warm winters that NYC has been serving up lately, February finds me lusting for sun and hammock. There are things about this album that works to cure these ills for an hour. First of all I love the cover. It was taken by Pete Turner, a fellow RIT alum who recently put out a book of his Jazz record cover photography. Turner shot a lot of timeless covers and this one is one of his most evocative. The second thing is that it is produced in 1967 by Creed Taylor – the founding father of the 60s bossa nova explosion. It sounds fantastic. This is V.S.O.P. bossa. Then there is the actual music. It is the rare combo of lush orchestral lounge cheese and subtle songcraft that makes me think of international airports back when air travel was still sexy. This is not elevator music but it gets close enough to scare the casual listener. The thing is, this would not work in a department store. Jobim’s music is not particularly happy. This is not Jimmy Buffet-esque ‘tropical party music’. When I listen to this record I think of a more lonely, sophisticated hot place. This is a Graham Greene novel not an MTV beach party. Now if i could just find this place on the map!

RIP OP

RIP OP
Oscar Peterson Trio

Jazz piano has lost one its Jedis with the passing of Oscar Peterson on Sunday. Peterson was one of the pianists who really excited and inspired me about the potential of jazz piano when I was most at risk of giving up practicing the piano for sensualist teenage pursuits. Critics who have dismissed OP as merely a domineering master technician have clearly not spent a lot of time listening to the joyful and electric trio communication that is revealed on recordings like ‘The Trio’ [1973]. Peterson had such a huge technique that he could slip into cruise control and still wow a crowd but this is a ‘problem’ most pianists only wish they had. I intend to see the New Year in with Night Train on my turntable. There are albums where jazz pianists are being sorta bluesy and there are albums where blues pianists are being sorta jazzy … then there is Night Train. Tasty. Thank you for the music Mr. Peterson.

Colin Bates

Collin Bates
Pianist Colin Bates

A friend of mine recently forwarded me a few out of print records that his jazz pianist uncle, Colin Bates played on. Colin Bates was an Australian pianist who moved to the UK and played with pretty much everybody there during England’s postwar ‘swing renaissance’. Two of these records are George Melley recordings. Melley, who just passed away, was England’s version of a top Vegas showman and these recordings are very fun to listen to if you have any appreciation for the humorous, boozy side of Dixieland. The other is a trio recording entitled ‘Troubadour’ where Bates shows that he possessed a broad talent and could conjure up many styles in one song. His powerful and subtle musicianship would have surely put him on the short lists on this side of the Atlantic. Be on the lookout for these records. Meanwhile here is a great video of Bates performing with Bruce Turner’s jump band.

The Prowler

Target Show : Knight Rider
Target Year : 1982

I got into an early 80’s cheesefest one Sunday that lead to this. It also lead to some complaints in my apartment building but that is only because some people just don’t get it and never will. I always thought the Knight Rider theme was hilarious but also kinda cool. I appreciate it’s techno minimalism and slightly Arabic cadences.

The Prowler

Spiders on the Keys

Spiders on the Keys
James Booker: Spiders on the Keys

Listening to James Booker, half crazy and in the final years of his hard life make spine tingling music on this horrible saloon upright takes the term ‘it is a bad craftsman who blames his tools’ to a new level. These recordings were taken from hundreds of hours of tapes from Booker’s ‘77-82 solo piano performances at the Maple Leaf bar. He dances effortlessly all over the style map from Chopin-meets-gypsy to Spanish influenced boogies and seems simultaneously possessed by what seems to be both demon and angel these performances. Booker is a master at setting up seemingly untenable grooves and making them work without letting them box him in a corner. He creates a sublime paradox of lightness and rock hard percussiveness that seems to defy the laws of piano physics. There is only a smattering of drunken applause at the end of a lot these performances. Many great moments in music come and go without anybody noticing. It is the curse of an art form that exists so stubbornly in present time. Recordings are often bad representations of what was happening in a room – especially a live performance with a personality of this size. Despite all of that, we should be grateful that someone set up a cassette deck on this particular mixing board.

Sounds and Scores – Mancini

Sounds and Scores - Mancini
Sounds and Scores: Henry Mancini

This is Henry Mancini’s famous book on orchestration. Every musician should own a copy. It has been around for many years in many formats but exists now as a book with accompanying CD. Sometimes I just like listening to the example CD and reading trough the score like it is a very cool story album. Mancini is great at describing the textural effects that can be achieved with different unconventional big band/orchestral instrumentation and how that could map to certain moods or visual cues in a soundtrack. He describes the philosophy and uses of some of his signature colors like alto flute + alto sax. He also walks through single pieces with different voicing and instrumentation structures so you can hear the result of certain decisions. There are extremely cool, useful tricks to be had here that could apply to almost any style of music and this type of knowledge is also highly applicable to jazz piano voicing/comping.