Gypsy Jazz Reborn

A friend recently returned from a trip to St. Louis, where she made time to check out the St. Louis Jazz Festival. Lucky for me she did. On her return to SoCal, she brought an autographed copy of the latest CD by the gypsy jazz phenomenon The Robin Nolan Trio.

When she mentioned ‘gypsy jazz’, like any music lover I immediately thought of Django Reinhardt (didn’t you?) Nervous about the unavoidable comparisons I knew I was going to make between the great Django and anyone who even attempted to emulate him, I gave the CD a listen. I was not disappointed.

Over the course of seven albums, Robin Nolan has advanced far beyond emulation to originality. The trio’s latest release, “Mediterranean Blues” is their first album comprised completely of original material, composed by Nolan and his bassist, Paul Meader. (The final member of the trio is Nolan’s younger brother Kevin, who plays rhythym guitar.) The tributes page at the official website makes it clear that Robin Nolan is a musician’s musician – anyone George Harrison would fly to his estate every year for five years running is clearly not an average guitarist.

“Mediterranean Blues” has all the fire I love in Django’s recordings, with a modern rhythmic flair I think he would have loved. The tracks, all instrumentals, run the gamut from the blazing title track which opens the album, through quietly romantic pieces, to languid daydreams set to music. “Luna Tango” is the track which most reminds me of Django’s work, but after a first listen, that comparison becomes unimportant. Since two of the band members list the Beatles first among their influences, it’s not surprising to hear a few bars from “Norwegian Wood” tucked into “Friar Park.”

Full of beauty and fire and joy, “Mediterranean Blues” is a special collection from an amazing group of musicians. Expect to hear more about the Robin Nolan Trio as I collect the rest of their albums.

Return of King L

A few years ago a friend loaned me a CD I’ve been looking for ever since. Karen’s brother, Eric Pressley, played bass for “King L”, a group founded by the mysterious and talented Gary Clark. I remember very little about the album except that I really liked it. Two songs stuck in my head: a hard-driving rocker called, appropriately enough, “Tom Driver”, and a pseudo-country romp called “Hopin’ They’ll Be Open.”

I just discovered that the album, “King L's 'Great Day for Gravity'Great Day for Gravity“, never released in the US, is still available in the UK. It was ordered within minutes, of course. Surprisingly, the total cost, including shipping from the UK, is about $15US. I can guarantee I’ll be expanding my album-searching horizons, now that I’ve discovered such a reasonably priced British location.

Know of inexpensive places to buy non-US albums online? Drop me a note and I’ll start a list of resources for those hard-to-find albums like “Great Day For Gravity.”

When “Great Day for Gravity” arrives for review, I’ll include a teaser for Gary and Eric’s other group, “Transister” and its edgy late-60s sound.

Fair Summer Evenings

Nanci Griffith is a poet of the highest caliber. It’s an added benefit that she puts her poetry to beautiful music and sings it with an angel’s voice.

I first heard that voice in 1989, when my sister suggested I listen to “More Than A Whisper” from Nanci’s 1986 album “Nanci Griffith's 'Last of the True Believers'Last Of The True Believers.” I immediately thought of James Taylor – the delicate style of guitar picking, the flow of the melody, the interplay between vocals and guitar. Like many of her tunes, “More Than A Whisper” is a cry for a little reason and sense in the usually irrational arena of love.

And like many of her finest tunes, “More Than A Whisper” was included in her first live album, “Nanci Griffith's 'One Fair Summer Evening'One Fair Summer Evening.” Recorded at the Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant on two summer evenings in 1988, the songs are presented in their purest form; simple acoustic numbers, standing on their beautiful melodies and touching lyrics rather than fancy instrumentation. It’s easy to forget, listening to the richness of each song, that the only instruments played are Nanci’s guitar, long-time compatriot James Hooker’s keyboards, and Denny Bixby’s bass.

While many live albums eliminate the between-song patter, part of the appeal of “One Fair Summer Evening” is Nanci’s commentary; why songs were written, who they’re about, and in one case, what the little ‘ding’ is during the quiet instrumental sections. Her stories of great-aunts and uncles, her love for Ireland, and the loves and lives of her own loved ones, all flow naturally between and around the songs chronicling those same events.

Two new songs were introduced on the album. “Deadwood, South Dakota” is a quietly biting commentary on the plight of native Americans, told through the events in a small-town drug store when news arrives that Crazy Horse, enemy of the people, has been killed. The sarcasm of the chorus is atypical of Griffith’s lyrics, but apropos to the poignant tone of the track:

 And the gold she lay cold in their pockets And the sun she sets down on the trees And they thank the Lord for the land that they live in Where the white man does as he pleases

The second of the new tunes, “I Would Bring You Ireland”, is a ‘thank you’ to the people of Ireland. Nanci explains that the Irish have always made her feel especially welcome, and the song is a glowing portrait of a place she obviously loves.

Other highlights:

  • “Love At The Five And Dime”, a wonderful story of enduring love in everyday life, and featuring the ‘ding’ of the elevator bell in a Woolworths’ store. Nanci opens this one with her fond and funny memories associated with Woolworth stores. She perfectly describes something I remember well: the smell of a Woolworth’s store is the smell of “chewing gum and popcorn rubbed around on the bottom of a leather-soled shoe.”
  • “Trouble In The Fields”, a story inspired by Griffith’s great-uncles and aunts who farmed the land, enjoying good times and enduring bad. The lyrics use the hardships and joys of farming as an analogy to the hardships and joys of relationships. Acknowledging the hard work necessary to make anything grow, the chorus closes
     Come harvest time we'll work it out There's still a lotta love, here in these troubled fields

My next Nanci Griffith album is going to be her 1993 release “Nanci Griffith's 'Other Voices, Other Rooms'Other Voices, Other Rooms“, a tribute to the people whose music influenced her. Not only does she cover her benefactor’s tunes, the list of guest artists read like a “Who’s Who” of modern folk and country: Nanci Griffith's 'Flyer'Chet Atkins, Bob Dylan, Bela Fleck, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, John Hartford, Leo Kottke, Alison Krause, Odetta, John Prine, Amy Ray, and Emily Saliers.

Sometime soon I’ll tell you all about Nanci’s fantastic 1994 album “Flyer“, another of my favorites.

Elvis Einstein Rockefeller Jones

A while ago my second son Brendan played an MP3 he’d downloaded called “Wake Up Charlie.” It’s a poignant bluegrass tune about a young boy caring for his older brother, and why. I recognized the voices as Berkley Hart, an alt-country duo whose songs “High School Town” and “Something to Fall Back On” get some airplay on our local independent radio station KPRI.

Jeff Berkley and Calman Hart are gaining notoriety in the local music scene, and I certainly hope the rest of the country catches on soon. They swing wildly from bluegrass and straight country to tunes which defy pigeon-holing. Their lyrics are intelligent and thought-provoking and sometimes sad, their music carefully crafted and deceptively simple.

Songs like “Elvis Einstein” are the reason the genre ‘alt-country’ exists. The opening banjo is closer to Bela Fleck than Earl Scruggs, and the lyrics are a tale of a baby found in a dumpster. Delivered to a nearby church by the old man who found him, he’s left with a note telling the priest that, in order to give him a good start in life, his name is ‘Elvis Einstein Rockefeller Jones.’ In each succeeding verse, the boy gets a new name from someone who thinks he deserves better, but in the end, it’s not his name that makes him who he is.

Jeff and Calman have two albums together, “Wreck ‘n’ Sow” released two years ago, featuring Charlie, Elvis Einstein, and the tragic couple of “Barrel of Rain”, and their new album “Something To Fall Back On” released July 27th of this year. Many of their tunes are available at MP3.com. While you’re there, get copies of “Up the River” and “If I Die In A Nuclear War”, only available on Calman’s solo album “The John Boy Drum” which I can’t find anywhere.

What Was The Question?

One of the search entries recently was “who sings walking in memphis” (sic); I hope you found your answer. If not, here it is: (shameless plug, forcing you to read my review).

If you’ve ever got questions about music or musicians and can’t find the answer, let me know. I love a challenge. I’ll do my best to find the info you seek, and we’ll all learn something. If I can’t come up with the right answer (or a really good wrong answer) I’ll post the question here and perhaps our esteemed cohorts can.

Feeling Waterbox

If Tangerine Dream wrote soundtracks for Alfred Hitchcock, the results wouldn’t be far from Waterbox.

Besides masterminding WaSP, the Web Standards Project, Jeffrey Zeldman is the primary conspirator behind a collection of what he refers to as ‘ambient music.’ ‘Ambient’ comes from the Latin for ‘surround’, and allowing yourself to be completely enveloped in the music is the best way to appreciate it. When I first discovered Waterbox, I listened to the tracks as if I were listening to the radio on my drive to work. I didn’t get it.

Recently, I gave Waterbox another listen, but this time, with headphones. I was working on the redesign of another of my websites, and just let the songs loop while I worked. After while, I wasn’t so much listening to them as experiencing them emotionally. My propensity is to dissect a work, instrument by instrument, note by note, looking for the patterns and structure. Ambient music is better served (or better serves) by allowing yourself to feel what the composer conveys.

  • Tether Part7 — Awakening in a strange place, we find ourselves unwillingly embroiled in a mystery, experiencing the disorientation of discovery.
  • Invaders — Rather than fear, we feel strength. We are the invaders.
  • The Years — Yearning, across