While I’m Far From Home

I’m far from home myself right now, making a trip with stops in the mountains outside San Diego, then on to Phoenix to visit friends. When I’m on the road, I often hear music from a completely new perspective. The music of uilleann pipes is the music of the soul; the plaintive wail of agonizing pain; a soul so full of joy it can’t be expressed by words; a lifetime of sorrow, deep and intense, but at the same time hollow and empty.

Renaissance Woman’s Journey Within

Recently, I was privileged to receive an advance copy of “Journey Within”, the first album by pianist, fellow web designer, and friend, Shirley Kaiser. In the hopes that you’ll be able to listen yourself in the very near future, I’d like to share my impressions of the original compositions which make up the album. For more information about Shirley, her musical philosophy, clips of all eight songs, and much more, please visit her website.Edit: Shirley Kaiser has graciously commented on my scribblings. I’m including her annotations in a different font.

Journey Within, by Shirley KaiserRecently, I was privileged to receive an advance copy of “Journey Within”, the first album by pianist, fellow web designer, and friend, Shirley Kaiser. In the hopes that you’ll be able to listen yourself in the very near future, I’d like to share my impressions of the original compositions which make up the album. For more information about Shirley, her musical philosophy, clips of all eight songs, and much more, please visit her website.

Edit: Shirley Kaiser has graciously commented on my scribblings. I’m including her annotations in a different font.

“Journey Within” contains eight piano solos as beautiful and inspiring as the Renaissance Woman herself. Based on classical formats, the pieces generally run longer than pop tunes, but while they’re more complex than pop music and deserve audiophile-level attention, the melodies are memorable and meaningful enough to be enjoyed without unnecessary mental strain. All show clearly the composer’s powerful classical influence, but contain unmistakable references to jazz and modern music. Like many free-spirited intelligent musicians, Shirley’s style is not easily pigeon-holed.

All the music that I hear in my head has other instruments along with the piano, although there are piano solos within that. In order to get the music out there to be heard, though, what you’re hearing is actually piano renditions of fully orchestrated music. Sometimes it might be just a couple of instruments, a solo instrument such as a flute (often I use the higher areas of the piano to denote a flute). Other times, other pieces may have full orchestra.

  • “Love Song” – The opening track begins with the simple melodic theme that continues throughout the tune. A gentle song, straightforward and uncomplicated, it feels like it’s about, not love in real life, which tends to be anything but straightforward and uncomplicated, but instead, love in a fairy tale; love in a romantic movie; love in a dream. One of the shorter works on the album, it’s also one of my favorites. It fairly begs to have romantic Elizabethan lyrics written for it.

    You’re correct about this one not being inspired by romantic love. It’s inspired by the purest, most unconditional love, a spiritual love that recognizes, embraces, and celebrates one’s being.

    Actually, a movie I saw was the inspiration for this. I was at a retreat, and before the movie was over, the entire piece had created itself in my head. A dear friend had loaned me his synthesizer while I was there, so as soon as the movie was over I ran up to my hotel room and played it out in its entirety. I didn’t have any manuscript paper with me, so I sketched an outline of the melody and chords in my notebook and also called my home phone and played it into my voice mail so that I’d be sure to have all the details.

  • “Journey Within” – The title piece, as the name suggests, is very introspective. The pianolongest cut of the group, various pensive themes wind through and around each other. Having been recently exposed to the work of John Field, one of Shirley’s influences, that influence is evident to me in “Journey Within.” A repeating set of themes lead us down a quiet path to a private place where we can sit and think without the press of our daily cares. A very therapeutic composition which has a pronounced relaxing affect on me personally.

    It’s inspired by my own inner journey, of finally letting go, being in touch with my inner being, being at peace and centered. It’s inspired by my meditations, my journey of tapping into my soul and becoming one with it.

    After many, many years of trying to compose, I finally realized that I had to let it flow, that I couldn’t force it, that I couldn’t try to make it perfect in form or anything else. I had to let whatever was inside just flow on its own. The cork unpopped at long last, and out poured Journey Within. Much of it poured out at once, and I finished it in its entirety within just a few days. By letting it flow, it worked effortlessly, and it’s been that way ever since. So Journey Within was the beginning of an amazing journey that I’ve been on since then and was the first piece I wrote on this new journey that’s ended up with this CD.

  • “Sunrise Reflections” – The first of a few pieces which have a defined introduction, “Sunrise Reflections” soon introduces the melody which reminds me so much of the sunrise in the southern California mountains where I’m writing this. Away from the noise and confusion of the city, the sunrise on a silent country morning is an event you participate in, not just something that happens. This sunrise draws you in; it makes you realize this will be a good day. One of the tunes that I think is especially worthy of full orchestration.

    This one is inspired by the setting of a 5am sunrise over Lake Tahoe when the water is still as a mirror and perfectly reflects the world all around it while the sun rises over it sending the most amazing colors throughout the world and reflected by the Lake. It’s all about memories of the only times I got up that early when my babies would wake up hungry. I’d remove the curtains on the wall of glass overlooking the lake and make ourselves cozy on the couch. I’d feed my little baby in the most amazingly beautiful place at the most perfect moment watching the sun rise over Lake Tahoe on a very early, cool, crisp, totally peaceful summer morning.

    It’s also all about memories of watching their young childhoods at the Lake, running along the sand, building sand castles, laughing and playing, riding in the boat, sitting in the shade on the porch overlooking the lake, many things like that. It’s all about sweet, precious memories of my children when they were very young there at the Lake.

    The title is a play on words in one sense since I’m reflecting on beautiful sunrises and times and in the other sense it’s also actually about a beautiful sunrise reflecting on the lake.

  • “Separation” – At first somber and pensive; clearly a sad tune, “Separation” feels so much like being away from the ones you love. Doc Watson - MemoriesA second theme, though, is strong and hopeful; a feeling of anticipated joy at being reunited. The two themes, sad and hopeful, flow into each other as they might flow through mind and heart. The hopeful theme reminds me strongly of “Thoughts of Never” by the late Merle Watson, son of guitar great Doc Watson.

    Yes, this one is inspired by being apart from those I love the most, my children. Divorce is a tough, tough thing in that regard, and it was a huge adjustment for me to be away from my children at night especially. Their rooms were so quiet and empty, the house was so quiet and empty, and it was a very painful and tough adjustment, despite the necessity of divorce.

  • “Maya” – From the opening moments, “Maya” is a more complex, more powerful melody. Now slow, now accelerating; even the quiet portions have a feeling of barely restrained power. Shirley has acknowledged being in a very ‘Beethoven’ mood during “Maya” and it shows. This is the rebel; the melody that doesn’t quite fit with the others, but manages to belong just the same. A colorful piece which took longer to appreciate than any of the others, it displays Shirley’s intimate grasp of the old masters in a very modern sounding work.

    This one is indeed a departure from the moods of the other pieces, while also being reflective of my inner journey at the time. Maya was inspired by the illusions we can become trapped in within this life. People are lured in by drugs, money, fame and fortune only to be destroyed by it, for example. People can betray us and cause so much pain. The interplay of the tantalizing melody is that illusion’s enticement, and then it returns to stab you when you’re not looking. Beethoven’s music was a big influence on this piece, certainly.

  • “Dancing in Circles” – If the title were any indication this would be cheerful, almost bouncy tune. But instead of joyfully sharing the dance with a partner, this dancer seems to be alone, spinning sadly on an empty dance floor. Its spirit somehow reminds me of Sting’sThey Dance Alone” and brings to mind visions of solitary dancers clutching photographs of missing loved ones; loving them, sharing the dance with their memory. But like all of Shirley’s music, it doesn’t just tell a story, it inspires feelings. Instead of melancholy, you feel the desire to join the dancer in hopes of easing their sorrow.

    Inspired by a whirlpool at the ocean and thinking of a couple of relationships that weren’t going anywhere….. just dancing in circles. This one for me is about being caught up in that whirlpool and working one’s way out, remembering to avoid those whirlpool, going nowhere dances in the future. It’s about learning lessons and growing within.

  • “Mended Wings” – Exceeded in length only by the title track, “Mended Wings” is a long journey itself, from a sad past to a hopeful, even joyful future. Building from a very quiet beginning, we feel the sadness of loss and separation build to the firm determination to build a better future. Although the memories of the past arise throughout its nine-minutes, the overall feeling is positive, at times even clearly forgetting there was ever a sad past. Rather than the giddiness of temporary happiness, we’re left with the lasting comfort of deep inner joy.

    Just as the title states, I imagine a beautiful eagle soaring once again, reaching new heights, flying over the Grand Canyon perhaps, over forests, and over the world’s beautiful, majestic scenery. And yes, the wings were injured, time was taken to heal and mend and become even stronger, appreciating even more the beauty and wonder of being able to soar. This is reflective of my own life and some major obstacles that I overcame.

  • “Celebration” – The album opens with its shortest tune, and closes with the second shortest. Here is the giddy happiness; the overwhelming feeling of things too good to be true. A large, round sound, this is another track that cries out for orchestration to even more fully realize the depth of its joy.

    This one is definitely giddy happiness, as you mention, celebrating the love of close friendships, and being so thankful and grateful for them. I wrote it for a dear friend of mine who encouraged me to record this CD and actually recorded it all for me. This one is dedicated to him (Ron Mann) and to the preciousness of friendship.

“Journey Within” has changed the way I listen to music. And if things go well, you’ll soon be able to listen for yourself.

Grapes of Route 66

I love Woody Guthrie. My father wanted to be Woody Guthrie. If he’d been a few years older, he would have been Woody Guthrie.Woody Guthrie was an honest man, trying to tell the truth in a dishonest world. There are places and times in the past where men like him were hunted and killed for what they did. It tells me something about the advance of civilization, about which I worry just a bit, that Woody Guthrie wasn’t put away by the government or lynched.

I love Woody Guthrie. My father wanted to be Woody Guthrie. If he’d been a few years older, he would have been Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie was an honest man, trying to tell the truth in a dishonest world. There are places and times in the past where men like him were hunted and killed for what they did. It tells me something about the advance of civilization, about which I worry just a bit, that Woody Guthrie wasn’t put away by the government or lynched.

His songs are wry, dry, and witty. His songs were simple statements of fact about simple ugly facts no one else was talking about. I honestly don’t know how much impact his music had on the course of events, or what its value will be perceived as somewhere down the road, but every once in a while it makes me stop and think, and that’s enough.

As much as I enjoy listening to Woody himself (my father sounded so much like him, it’s like listening to the recordings of him that don’t exist) there’s one cover of a Woody Guthrie tune that transcends musical boundaries: Odetta, singing “Ramblin’ Round” on the 1972 “Tribute to Woody Guthrie” album. Backed by Arlo Guthrie and a group of remarkable musicians not yet known as The Band, Odetta swings this simple folk tune into a rollicking blues rock paean to the man himself. It’s one of those tracks that I just have to listen to more than once (on the tape I play in my car, I have Arlo singing “Oklahoma Hills”, a childhood favorite, and Odetta’s cover alternating, repeated three times so I don’t have to rewind it.)

Just discovered that Joel Rafael will be performing at this year’s Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Ah, to be in Oklahoma in June.

Jumping Japanese Jazz

Yup; jazz again today. I promise to continue my efforts to diversify, but the music does what it wants. I’m a helpless victim, just like you.Do you like cartoon music? While most Americans would recognize the theme song from ‘The Flintstones’ not many would buy the album. My oldest son Tristan might, but we’ll get to that later.

Yup; jazz again today. I promise to continue my efforts to diversify, but the music does what it wants. I’m a helpless victim, just like you.

Do you like cartoon music? While most Americans would recognize the theme song from The Flintstones not many would buy the album. My oldest son Tristan might, but we’ll get to that later.

Japanese animation, or anime, is substantially different from American cartoons. One of the many differences is the music, which is given greater prominence, much like the soundtrack of a good movie. In American cartoons, it’s more like the laugh track than the soundtrack.

Cowboy Bebop, in spite of the unusual name, is well worth watching. But what originally got my interest was when Tristan pestered me into listening to the opening theme, “Tank!” Written by anime’s answer to John Williams, Yoko Kanno, it is a remarkable three-and-a-half minute ride. Kanno writes for many animes, and alters her style to match the mood of the story and characters. Jazz was a natural choice for “Cowboy Bebop” not only because of the name, but because the characters always seem to be coloring outside the lines; maintaining the appearance of normalcy just long enough to throw you a curve when they shoot off in an unexpected direction. The soundtrack to “Bebop” is performed by Kanno’s group “Seatbelts” with Kanno on keyboards.

A blast of horns, and we’re off. As suddenly as they assault, the horns disappear, leaving just an acoustic bass and guitar, now joined by bongos, then a deep male voice speaking the only ‘vocals’ of the tune, “I think it’s time we blow this scene; get everybody and the stuff together. Okay, three, two, one; let’s jam . . .” And they do. First, it’s a pretty normal repeating horn riff; little blasts of punctuation, wandering briefly into what sounds like 60s television theme songs. At exactly the midpoint, though, one saxophone steps out front and takes command.

From here on the ride is frenetic. While the lead sax staggers and slashes through multiple differently phrased leads, even the backing horn section picks up the mood and goes into ‘bouncy syncopation’ mode. After a minute and a half of this relentless assault, the horns all climb to a soaring conclusion – but that lone sax has the last word, firing off a gattling-gun close which is joined by the whole ensemble as it plummets off the peak to what sounds like a painful death on the slopes below.

The Cowboy Bebop soundtrack covers at least five albums, “Cowboy Bebop 1“, “Cowboy Bebop 2“, “Cowboy Bebop 3 (Blue)“, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Future Blues)” and (perhaps to offset the appearance of tunes named after Vitamins A, B, and C on volume 2) “Vitaminless.” You’ll hear a wide range of jazz and jazz oriented tunes, and bits of folk and rock, instrumentals and vocal (in various languages.) It’s not all as ferocious as “Tank!” but it is all worth a listen.

Ben Dyer writes:

Yoko Kanno just blows me away with her music. I’ve seen several other animes that she’s involved in (Macross Plus, Escaflowne), and the music is always 100% dead-on appropriate. I just love Cowboy Bebop the most because she basically had license to do anything and everything for the show (so almost every genre of music I can think of is represented at least once in the CDs: jazz, blues, country, rock, metal, opera).

What’s even crazier is that almost every song has worked its way into the series at some point (giving a completely different – but still appropriate – feel to every episode, some are funny and silly, some are dark and forboding, others are action-oriented, others are sad and depressing).

Perennial Favorites, Indeed – Squirrel Nut Zippers

Not to be confused with the candy of the same name, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are probably even nuttier. If you like jazz or just appreciate fine musicianship, you’ll enjoy their third album, “Perennial Favorites.” As with many avant garde bands, they can be a little uneven or hard to understand at times, but for the most part, the album delivers on its ambitious title. As a general rule, the lyrics are just as important as the music, so pay close attention.

Not to be confused with the candy of the same name, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are probably even nuttier. If you like jazz or just appreciate fine musicianship, you’ll enjoy their third album, “Perennial Favorites.” As with many avant garde bands, they can be a little uneven or hard to understand at times, but for the most part, the album delivers on its ambitious title. As a general rule, the lyrics are just as important as the music, so pay close attention.

  • “Suits are Picking Up the Bill” – Who wouldn’t love to tag along on somebody else’s spending spree? From the first cheerful grunts of Ken Mosher’s baritone sax and Andrew Bird’s scratchy scraping fiddle, it’s just plain silly, and just plain fun. Fun, with a very tight, snappy horn section featuring Je Widenhouse on cornet, and Kathleen Whalen’s well-handled tenor banjo. Jim Mathus is a great jazz singer, expanding (or maybe ignoring) the boundaries of normal pop melodies for his vocal line.
  • “Low Down Man” – Slow, sad, torch song. Kathleen Whalen . . . brrrrrrrr; what a voice. I can just hear Patsy Cline covering this . . .
  • “Ghost of Stephen Foster” – Makes me dance. No, really. It does. Klezmer is such joyous music. So full of bizarre images I just can’t keep up with them all. “If we were made of cellophane we’d all get stinking drunk much faster.” Fit that line into your average pop tune. For that matter, feature any portion of ‘Camptown Ladies’ in any tune. The kids and I have a contest to see who can hear the first clang of the bell, as the piano of “Low Down Man” fades.
  • “Pallin’ with Al” – Suddenly, the Squirrels are almost traditional. Great swing tune. So much fun; love the guitar, but the fiddle’s never far behind. “Alright, go tell Al you love him!”
  • “Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter” – I can’t help but picture Peggy Lee singing “He’s A Tramp”, but I just prefer Kathleen Whalen. Machine gun drumming, flying acoustic bass, tight snappy rhythym.
  • “Trou Macacq” – Brasil! Another very dancy bit, about the not-very-dancy concepts of evolution and the deterioration of the human condition. ” . . . ride the pine-box derby to the finish line . . .”
  • “My Drag” – If Bessie Smith had been born in Czechoslovakia, she would have recorded this. Once again, what should sound bizarre is instead stimulating and evocative.
  • “Soon” – This is far enough out there that it makes “My Drag” seem normal. Give it a few listens; it grows on you. The lyrics are especially fun —
    “I have a dream where snowflakes fall inside a painted hall . . . Hah! That don’t pay the rent! But if you draw a bow, draw the strongest, and if you use an arrow, use the longest!”

    I didn’t say they made sense, just that they were fun.

  • “Evening at Lafitte’s” – More great swing. So nice to listen to Kathleen Whalen once more. Almost traditional, except at the beginning where she sings the line about “a kind of creepy feeling is stealing over me.” I’m not sure that was intentional, if you listen to how it’s worded on the second go ’round. Beautiful. “It’s great for dancing, and romancing . . . that’s the place you and me should go if we were lovers stealing an evening at Lafitte’s.”
  • “The Kraken” – Okay, now it’s downright strange. Reminds me of Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out”, the track where everyone in the band tried to demolish all the rented percussion equipment. After 18 listens, it’s a little less strange. A little. The closing minute, though, is more lilting Kathleen, totally detached from the previous cacophony.
  • “That Fascinating Thing” – Blowsy horns, drums, and banjo; a strip tease, pure and simple. Switches to double-time in the middle. The Squirrels are still enjoying themselves. So am I.
  • “It’s Over” – Really really really strange. I just don’t get it.

W. C. Handy Walking in Memphis

oday was going to be Squirrel Nut Zippers, but Marc Cohn had other ideas, forcing his way into my consciousness once again. “Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane. Touched down in the land of the delta blues, in the middle of the pouring rain . . .””Walking in Memphis” is filled with the mental imagery and musical references that inspire and evoke. At the beginning spare and simple, building to a nearly symphonic conclusion and tossing in some Jewish gospel along the way, Marc’s piano and voice solidly lead us through. Opening with solo piano and Marc’s distinctive voice, eventually including a choir and full band, in the end winding back down to Marc’s voice and the beautiful piano theme that characterizes the tune.Sounding terribly autobiographical, the tune is about travelling to the home of so much of American traditional music. Homage is paid to W. C. Handy, the late Muriel (pianist at the Hollywood Cafe), Elvis, and Beale Street itself.

Today was going to be Squirrel Nut Zippers, but Marc Cohn had other ideas, forcing his way into my consciousness once again.

 "Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane. Touched down in the land of the delta blues, in the middle of the pouring rain . . ."

Marc Cohn's eponymous debut'Walking in Memphis” is filled with the mental imagery and musical references that inspire and evoke. At the beginning spare and simple, building to a nearly symphonic conclusion and tossing in some Jewish gospel along the way, Marc’s piano and voice solidly lead us through. Opening with solo piano and Marc’s distinctive voice, eventually including a choir and full band, in the end winding back down to Marc’s voice and the beautiful piano theme that characterizes the tune.

Sounding terribly autobiographical, the tune is about travelling to the home of so much of American traditional music. Homage is paid to W. C. Handy, the late Muriel (pianist at the Hollywood Cafe), Elvis, and Beale Street itself.

An astute reader, Sam, raised an question not answered here, so it’s answered elsewhere.

(More recently, Cohn has touched me with his song “Lost You in the Canyon.” It vividly reminds me of lost relationships, and some that never were.)

W. C. Handy is credited with writing, in 1910, the first American blues tune, “The Memphis Blues” which, due to publishing difficulties, was not released until 1912. The Handy tune I love most is his “St. Louis Blues”, especially Bessie Smith, 1924-1925Bessie Smith‘s version. The quintessential blues voice, drawling, swooping, climbing up to find one note, then sliding down for the next, is backed by one of the most passionate performances I’ve ever heard Louis Armstrong give. The only other instrument on the recording is Fred Longshaw’s harmonium (think ‘table-top accordion’) but somehow, it achieves a full-throttle sound you’d expect from a full jazz band.

As someone wrote to me recently, “Jazz does so many creatively unique things with its wonderfully rich chord progressions and improvisatory nature. Classical music does, too, but in a much more structured way. Jazz encourages improvising, wants it, demands it. If you examine Jazz, it has its rules, too, but the rules just lay the foundation, then off ya go.” In my opinion, that’s the very definition of jazz, and one of the reasons it has become the music about which I am most passionate. As an anal-retentive mathematician/computer geek, it forces me to think and feel beyond what is simple and obvious. Music should stretch your soul. Jazz stretches mine.

In Memoriam: The Red Back Book

Sixteen years ago today my father was killed when a truck hit his bicycle while he was riding to work. He gave me my love of music and my love of computers, but he never saw a PC and never knew the internet. This special entry is about an album that drew us closer and helped smooth things over when they weren’t otherwise smooth. Thanks, Dad.In 1973 American music was re-introduced to Scott Joplin, one of its most important sons. From Hollywood, the classic film “The Sting” featured half a dozen of Joplin’s rags, as performed and arranged by Marvin Hamlisch (who made a hysterical appearance on the ‘Tonight’ show, almost entirely because he was being attacked by a previous guest – a giant owl, which had escaped from its trainer.) Hamlisch won three Oscars in 1974; two for “The Way We Were” (Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Title Song.) The third was for the score of “The Sting.” He is often credited with ‘single-handedly reviving interest in ragtime music’ but at our house, that honor goes to Gunther Schuller.

Sixteen years ago today my father was killed when a truck hit his bicycle while he was riding to work. He gave me my love of music and my love of computers, but he never saw a PC and never knew the internet. This special entry is about an album that drew us closer and helped smooth things over when they weren’t otherwise smooth. Thanks, Dad.

Ragtime isn't jazz, but it's close enough for meIn 1973 American music was re-introduced to Scott Joplin, one of its most important sons. From Hollywood, the classic film “The Sting” featured half a dozen of Joplin’s rags, as performed and arranged by Marvin Hamlisch (who made a hysterical appearance on the ‘Tonight’ show, almost entirely because he was being attacked by a previous guest – a giant owl, which had escaped from its trainer.) Hamlisch won three Oscars in 1974; two for “The Way We Were” (Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Title Song.) The third was for the score of “The Sting.” He is often credited with ‘single-handedly reviving interest in ragtime music’ but at our house, that honor goes to Gunther Schuller.

Born in 1925, by the age of 25 Schuller had already performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and the Metropolitan Opera. In May of 1972, nearly 30 years ago (and before the release of “The Sting”) Schuller and his talented young New England Conservatory musicians performed four Scott Joplin rags from the legendary collection officially known as “Fifteen Standard High Class Rags” but more frequently referred to by its New Orleans nickname, “The Red Back Book.”

An advertisement for some of Joplin’s rags published in 1904 read, in part: “If you were at the St. Louis Fair and heard the Kilties, or the Washington Marine Band play these classic rags, then we will not need to strain the tired language in a vain effort to describe them . . . If you are alive to impulse you felt the ground wave under your feet, and you dropped into sublime reverie . . .” If you know that feeling, you know what it’s like to hear Scott Joplin’s rags for the first time.

Schuller and the New England Conservatory recorded eight rags on their 1973 album “Scott Joplin: The Red Back Book.” All eight are performed by the 11-man ensemble in the original arrangements, but two are given special treatment. Both “The Entertainer” and “Sun Flower Slow Drag” are also performed as piano solos by Myron Romanul in what have become two of my favorite tracks of all time. Sadly, the CD version contains all eight orchestral versions, but not the piano solos.

The original song list of the vinyl copy of “The Red Back Book” is as follows:

  • The Cascades
  • Sun Flower Slow Drag
  • The Chrysanthemum
  • The Entertainer (solo piano version)
  • The Rag Time Dance
  • Sugar Cane (not a Red Back Book tune, but apparently Schuller likes it)
  • The Easy Winners
  • The Entertainer
  • Sun Flower Slow Drag (solo piano version)
  • Maple Leaf Rag

The Red Back Book and Scott Joplin became part of our lives. When we made our yearly trip to Disneyland, we always scheduled an hour or so to stand near the piano player on Main Street. Every year, my sister would request “Solace”, her favorite Joplin tune (featured in “The Sting” soundtrack) and after a couple years, when we’d walk up, he would smile and nod, and slowly, almost absent-mindedly, without waiting for the request, wander into “Solace” for my sister, my father, and I. It was the reason we went.

I’ve never been to Disneyland with my sister since my father’s death. My brother and I stopped playing guitars together as well. But ragtime is alive and well, and so am I. I just dug out Dad’s original vinyl copy of “The Red Back Book.” I think it’s time for a little solace.

Edit: Shirley Kaiser just told me she inherited a passel of turn-of-the-century ragtime sheet music from her grandmother, and wondered if there would be interest in a concert. I say, let’s record a whole album! Any time you’re ready, Shirley. (And thanks for the artwork.)


If You Ever Plan to Motor West

This song’s been as many places as the hiway itself. Originally penned by jazz pianist Bobby Troup, it’s been covered by nearly everyone. Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Mott the Hoople, and the Rolling Stones have all had a crack at it, and it remains intact.Troup had quite a career as a jazz pianist and composer, but somehow, as someone who spent the early 70s glued to a television, I can only think of him as Dr. Joe Early from the series ‘Emergency.’ Both of his albums listed at Amazon.com (he recorded six) contain his version of the song. The two versions I’m listening to right now couldn’t be more different from each other, but I love ’em both.

This song’s been as many places as the hiway itself. Originally penned by jazz pianist Bobby Troup, it’s been covered by nearly everyone. Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Mott the Hoople, and the Rolling Stones have all had a crack at it, and it remains intact.

Troup had quite a career as a jazz pianist and composer, but somehow, as someone who spent the early 70s glued to a television, I can only think of him as Dr. Joe Early from the series ‘Emergency.’ Both of his albums listed at Amazon.com (he recorded six) contain his version of the song. The two versions I’m listening to right now couldn’t be more different from each other, but I love ’em both.

The more traditional version of the two is by a Santa Cruz band called “Wally’s Swing World.” I discovered Wally Trindade and company on a business trip to San Jose, and I was stunned by the intensity of this little swing band performing literally on a loading dock in an alley. (A full review of the group’s efforts is planned; ask me about it, in case I forget.) Their second album, “Full Swing Ahead” (1996) opens with a very bouncy, very traditional reading of “Route 66.” Wally has a great voice, and the band has performed together long enough that everything has the crisp precision of a Glenn Miller recording. Further down the playlist, Wally’s cheery passage through “I Get A Kick Out of You” made it impossible for me to listen to Sinatra’s version again; it’s Wally’s tune now. Although it was a star of the band’s live act, Wally’s guitar (a ’58 Gretsch Country Club . . . be still my beating heart) doesn’t really show up until their fiery blitz of “American Bandstand.” It’s worth the wait. Trindade could make it on his guitar-playing alone.

The album closes with “Mack the Knife” which is remarkably underplayed, considering the clowning Wally does during the live show. Musical integrity seems to have compelled the band to turn in a very straightforward version, and they do it well. A third album, “More Than A Swing Thing” is currently available; I’d recommend getting one quickly; their first album, “Welcome to Wally’s Swing World” (1994) is out of print and can’t be had for love or money (although, if anyone’s got one, I’m willing to negotiate.) And of course, while you’re there, get “Full Swing Ahead” too.

In a very different place, Depeche Mode cranks out an atypical rock anthem; it’s not your father’s “Route 66” and it’s not your daughter’s Depeche Mode. This interpretation comes out of the chute with a repetetive, pounding guitar riff that makes it clear that we’re heading into unmapped territory. Vocals, sung to an almost traditonal background, alternate with the crunching guitar to make a song that drives harder than any other version I’ve heard. When I’m on the road, this is one tune that’s always along.

Stardust

“And now the purple dusk of twilight timesteals across the meadows of my heart . . . “Although I\’m much given to hyperbole, it\’s safe to say that Nat King Cole\’s recording of this is my very favorite song of all time. Wistful lyrics, beautifully understated orchestration, and deliberate, almost casual vocal phrasing combine to embody the sadness of a lost love. (Not the delirious “I can win her back” kind, but the heavyhearted “What do I do now?”)

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
steals across the meadows of my heart . . .

Although I’m much given to hyperbole, it’s safe to say that Nat King Cole’s recording of this is my very favorite song of all time. Wistful lyrics, beautifully understated orchestration, and deliberate, almost casual vocal phrasing combine to embody the sadness of a lost love. (Not the delirious “I can win her back” kind, but the heavyhearted “What do I do now?”)

Written in 1927 and 1929, it was recorded many times before Nat took his turn in 1957. Originally an instrumental by the great Hoagy Carmichael, two years later Mitchell Parish (“Sophisticated Lady”, “Stars Fell On Alabama”) added the brooding lyrics. Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra all had turns at it, but according to Parish’s obituary in The New York Times, April 2, 1993, Cole’s version was his favorite. (Not even remotely related – Avery Parrish recorded the classic blues instrumental “After Hours” with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra in 1940.)

The orchestration by Gordon Jenkins is critical to this version’s appeal. A brilliant arranger, Jenkins was largely responsible for Harry Nilsson’s very special “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night“, featuring a dozen standards wrapped in the velvet of Harry’s voice and Gordon’s orchestration.

The first time I heard “Stars Fell On Alabama” was on Jimmy Buffet’s 1981 Album “Coconut Telegraph.” Jimmy seems to get the mood right. The album also features the flip-side of the wistfulness embodied in “Stardust” in the song “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful.” The story of a man who’s had enough, he takes off on vacation alone when his girlfriend can’t make the time to join him and ends up making the vacation permanent. By the end, you’re pretty sure there’s nothing wistful happening here.

Another of my personal favorites, the album also contains the song “Little Miss Magic” written for Savannah Jane Buffet just two years before the birth of my own daughter. For a crusty old pirate, Jimmy does all right as a tender, loving father.

Overture

‘Hothouse Flowers’ has long been one of my favorite bands. From the eponymous ‘Thing Of Beauty’ to their moving cover of ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ I am always captivated by their grasp of the emotional power of music.

Hothouse Flowers has long been one of my favorite bands. From the eponymous ‘Thing Of Beauty to their moving cover of ‘I Can See Clearly Now I am always captivated by their grasp of the emotional power of music. Continue reading “Overture”