Turtles and Tricycles and Tortion

illiam Ackerman’s dreams must be difficult to follow, if they have anything to do with his song titles.I recently found a copy of Ackerman’s first album, “In Search of the Turtle’s Navel” and have enjoyed it almost every night since I bought it. A long-time casual fan of the founder of Windham Hill Records, I’ve lately become a bit more active in my appreciation.

[l1]W[/l1]illiam Ackerman’s dreams must be difficult to follow, if they have anything to do with his song titles.

I recently found a copy of Ackerman’s first album, “William Ackerman's 'In Search of the Turtle's Navel'In Search of the Turtle’s Navel” and have enjoyed it almost every night since I bought it. A long-time casual fan of the founder of Windham Hill Records, I’ve lately become a bit more active in my appreciation.

Originally released in 1975, the album is composed of ten songs written over the period 1970 to 1974. Peopled with such characters as Windham Mary, Jose Pepsi, and the Pink Chiffon Tricycle Queen, and concepts like the second great tortion bar overland of West Townshend, Vermont and a slow motion roast beef restaurant seduction, these guitar solos have more personality than many single-instrument tunes.

While I find the music of Leo Kottke a bit more accessible, Ackerman frequently sounds like Kottke, but with another dimension, another undiscovered room in the mansion of sound. Such is the case with the opening track, and still my favorite, “The Pink Chiffon Tricycle Queen.” Written in 1973, the liner notes claim that this ‘proves once and for all the speed and dexterity are not enough.’ Whatever that means, there are speed and dexterity aplenty in this Kottke-esque romp. There are also those other things implied in the liner notes – quiet passion, delicate nuance, and a complex time signature which comes and goes like a turtle popping in and out of its shell.

It’s not stated explicitly whether Will ever finds the turtle’s navel. He did find a most remarkable guitarist, ‘the guitarist from outer space’, Michael Hedges, coming soon to an Know Your Music entry near you.

Fish Out of Water

“Yes” has been around for over 30 years, releasing their eponymous first album in 1969. Of the five founding members, only two have remained with the band for their entire tenure: vocalist and lyricist Jon Anderson, (even Jon was missing once, supplanted by Trevor Horn of “The Buggles” on 1980’s release “Drama”), and bass player Chris Squire. But perhaps that’s because, without Squire, “Yes” literally wouldn’t be “Yes”, since he owns the name.Squire is ocasionally listed as ‘lead’ bass player, as if there were more than one. Where most bassists are content to be part of the percussion section, thumping along with the drums, Squire, like Jack Bruce of “Cream” and Tony Levin of everywhere, plays leads, not just rhythym. “Yes” classics like “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper” just wouldn’t have had the same presence without Squire’s unconventional style.

Drama[l1]Y[/l1]es” has been around for over 30 years, releasing their eponymous first album in 1969. Of the five founding members, only two have remained with the band for their entire tenure: vocalist and lyricist Jon Anderson, (even Jon was missing once, supplanted by Trevor Horn of “The Buggles” on 1980’s release “Drama“), and bass player Chris Squire. But perhaps that’s because, without Squire, “Yes” literally wouldn’t be “Yes”, since he owns the name.

Squire is ocasionally listed as ‘lead’ bass player, as if there were more than one. Where most bassists are content to be part of the percussion section, thumping along with the drums, Squire, like Jack Bruce of “Cream” and Tony Levin of everywhere, plays leads, not just rhythym. “Yes” classics like “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper” just wouldn’t have had the same presence without Squire’s unconventional style.

Squire’s musical training was classical, in a sense. As a boy, he joined the church choir in order to be with a friend who had joined. Almost as if foreordained by the gods of music, the new choirmaster from Cambridge was a perfect mentor for the young Squire; so talented that he ended up at Charles and Diana’s wedding. According to Squire, their church choir became the best in England, travelling from church to church giving concerts.

Classical training, an ear for complex harmonies and construction, and proximity to the divine, are all evident in Squire’s only real solo album, “Fish Out of WaterFish Out of Water.” Released in 1975, consisting of only five tracks, it is a master work that few rock albums can match. Squire is joined by fellow “Yes” alumni Bill Bruford and Patrick Moraz, along with Andrew Pryce Jackman, arranger for Barbra Streisand, Michael Crawford, and more, and Mel Collins, frequently seen with Dire Straits, Alan Parsons, King Crimson, Clannad, and a host of others.

While Squire’s voice works well in his harmonies with Anderson and Howe on “Yes” tunes, on “Fish Out of Water” we see the fruits of his choir training. There is a precision and control in his singing which isn’t obvious until you listen for it. Each of the songs on “Fish” has long complex lyrical sections which require exact timing and phrasing to work with the syncopations and rhythmic complexities of the music. Chris is dead on, every time. His singing has a subtlety which does’t force itself to the fore; it must be sought out and discovered.

Each song flows into the next, as in a classical composition. Well, except for the break between side one and side two, since it was originally released on vinyl. Second Winter(You see, kids, a long time ago, we didn’t have CDs, with all the music on one side. They made ‘records’ out of vinyl, and you had to stop halfway through the experience to turn it over and hear the other side. This resulted in anomalies like Johnny and Edgar Winter’s “Second Winter” having three sides. Honest it did.)

The songs:

  • “Hold Out Your Hand” – The opening notes of the album are the pipe organ of (I believe) St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The bass jumps in right away to establish dominance, driving both the melody and rhythym. Not quite a pop tune, this was still the obvious single, in my opinion. The pipe organ solo is a rare effect which lends an ethereal air seconded by the strings. It flows without pause into
  • “You By My Side” – A beautiful love song, both lyrically and musically. The simplest of the album’s tunes. If “Hold Out Your Hand” was the obvious single, this should have been the follow up.
     "Here am I dreaming  I stand by myself Look and it's easy to see, that, I'm not the only one reaching for a new kind of wealth Reaching with nothing to hide And you by my side"
  • “Silently Falling” – Flutes, oboes, strings; then a single flute, trickling down to a pool below, then lilting back up to Chris’s voice. An eleven minute long work, it gradually turns from classical to a very “Yes” sounding prog rock tune. After establishing the new ‘rock’ theme, everything begins to wind up to a frenzy of organ, piano, bass, and drums; faster and faster, until suddenly – silence. Now, piano and horns, softly supporting Squire’s quiet voice, leading us through a reprise of the opening theme and into a fusion of the two themes. “Falling” depends much on the piano for its feel. It doesn’t sound like a complex piece in spite of its length and the varying thematic segments. One of only two tracks to actually fade out at the end.
  • “Lucky Seven” – Side Two opens with a simple keyboard intro, then a syncopated dance between Squire’s bass and Bruford’s drums. Next, Mel’s sax introduces one of the two themes, and almost immediately Chris’s voice introduces the other. The complex rhythym continues throughout the song. The lead instrument is the bass; not the sax, and not the vocals. Snapping, popping, fluttering in a tremolo the likes of which few bassists could muster, it is powerful even in the segments where it falls silent. Subtle punctuation by a real string section adds a surreal feeling. Finally, near the end, we’re treated to a writhing sax solo by Collins. Oddly, this complex piece was the single chosen for glory and renown by the record label. This ain’t top 40 pop.
  • “Safe (Canon Song)” – On a stage set by the piano, flute and orchestra join Squire’s voice in a fifteen-minute long piece which is more classical than rock. The most difficult vocal lines of the album, the music and vocals don’t always seem to be going the same direction, but always end up at the same destination. Building, then easing, building again, then moving off in a new direction; it is a marvelous blending of chamber music and progressive rock. After all, didn’t prog rock always want to be chamber music when it grew up? In the end, it builds to a large climax of horns, piano, then the full orchestra to a grand finale. But not quite the finale; the final minute and a half of the album is extremely quiet and very unusual bass playing; it sounds as if it’s been filtered though a Leslie organ amp, the way Jimmy Vaughan does his steel guitar sometimes. Sliding, whispering, a tiny, one-instrument fanfare, and then, finally, silence.

And if I ever grow up, I want to be Chris Squire. At the very least, I dream of one day creating a musical effort as intellectually stimulating and musically fulfilling as “Fish Out of Water.”

Scheherazade

For a thousand and one nights, tales so bewitching that a powerful ruler, mad with jealousy and power, set aside his murderous intent so as not to be deprived of their continuing enchantment. While the stories have been the subject of numerous recreations in paper, celluloid, and digital media, their narrator has been less honored.Scheherazade, wife of King Shahryar, was the namesake of a magnificent symphonic suite by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov. No less ambitious is the more recent 25-minute long work composed and recorded by the progressive rock group Renaissance in 1975.

[l1]F[/l1]or a thousand and one nights, tales so bewitching that a powerful ruler, mad with jealousy and power, set aside his murderous intent so as not to be deprived of their continuing enchantment. While the stories have been the subject of numerous recreations in paper, celluloid, and digital media, their narrator has been less honored.

Scheherazade, wife of King Shahryar, was the namesake of a magnificent symphonic suite by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov. No less ambitious is the more recent 25-minute long work composed and recorded by the progressive rock group Renaissance in 1975.

This version of the Arabian Nights story, entitled “Scheherazade and Other StoriesSong of Scheherazade“, focuses on three portions of the tales, as lyricised by Betty Thatcher: The Sultan, The Young Prince and Princess, and The Festival. Michael Dunford’s music provides a rich backdrop for the real star of the piece, the astonishing voice of Annie Haslam. Reputed to have a five-octave range, Annie makes you feel that she is Scheherazade, captivating with both her stories and her voice.

Opening with some very eastern sounding horns, a mini-overture grows as the strings, then piano, drums, and electric bass join. An upbeat cheerful horn-filled fanfare is followed by a dark, foreboding vocal section; the betrayal of The Sultan by his wife. Harmonizing vocals describe the sultan’s cruel response; taking a virgin bride each night, then beheading her at dawn to guarantee no woman will ever be unfaithful as his wife was. But tonight, the virgin bride is Scheherazade, and the brightening of the melody tells us things will be different this time; flutes, chimes, and a choir join the original voices, climbing to a more positive conclusion to this opening movement. It closes with a feeling that it could be a standalone piece, if it weren’t for the unfinished story.

Now, the subtle notes of the piano announce the love theme. Followed immediately by the tale of The Young Prince and Princess as told by Scheherazade, it isn’t yet clear if the love theme is for them, or perhaps for the sultan and Scheherazade.

A delicately beautiful song, only a quiet acoustic guitar and oboe accompany Haslam’s voice as she sings of their love.

 "And you would cause the sun to see your light and then be shamed You cover darkness with a thousand secret flames With your love O my love O my love, my love

 And I would cause the wind to blow A hundred different days And bring the perfumes of the gardens of the ways Of your love O my love O my love, my love"

First the piano, then the orchestra swell the delicate love song to a gentle conclusion. At the end, when Annie sings, “He would vow to love her for the rest of all his days” we know that, although it may be about the young prince and princess, it’s also a sign that Scheherazade has won the sultan’s love, and with it, her life.

Dawn; but instead of preparations for an execution, we have preparations for a wedding! (Dawn, by the way, sounds ever so much like “The Day Begins”, the opening track on the Moody Blues‘ “Days of Future Passed.”) An opening fanfare, then we’re whisked down the winding streets with a parade; joining the jugglers and jongleurs, the merchants and customers, young and old alike dancing in the streets to celebrate the wedding feast.

As quickly as it began, the parade disappears, leaving us alone with Scheherazade as she prepares for her sultan. Slow melodic flute, glittering piano; Scheherazade is at peace.

Now the sultan; perhaps not as calm and composed as his bride-to-be, the sultan’s fugue begins with a single piano melody, then a second contrapuntal melody; now oboes, and finally the full orchestra, taking us to The Festival.

We’re treated once more to Annie Haslam’s voice, describing the gifts from afar being laid at Scheherazade’s feet. Sounding at one moment like a pop tune, with insistent drums and bass, and in the next, like a movement from a Tchaikovsky symphony, the festival builds intensity. The people cheer their sultan, but, knowing she has saved more than her own life, even moreso their queen. As her subjects sing her praises, the orchestra takes us to the finale, capped once more by Haslam’s crystal voice in the final note.

Renaissance provided the soundtrack for my teenage years. I may be prejudiced, but I have yet to find any work which does a better job of combining the grandeur of the classical style with the power of a rock band better than “Song of Scheherazade.”

A remakable bit of trivia: the live version, recorded at Carnegie Hall, was released before the studio version; an unusual twist, especially with such a complex piece. For fans of progressive rock, I’d recommend the live album. It contains an excellent cross-section of the band’s repertoire. Containing the studio version of “Song of Scheherazade”, “Scheherazade and Other Stories” opens with the excellent jazz/rock/classical fusion piece “Trip to the Fair” which was actually played on US radio twice (or perhaps more; I only heard it twice.)

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 Kaiser[l1]R[/l1]ecently, 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.

Burning Airlines Block Black Light Syndrome

Yup; it almost spells ‘babbles’ and that’s how we’ll pronounce it, okay?

[l1]Y[/l1]up; it almost spells ‘babbles’ and that’s how we’ll pronounce it, okay?

Quick jaunt through three songs you may not have heard, but should:

  • “Deluxe War Baby” from the 2001 “Burning Airlines” album “Identikit” – formed four years before their name would become permanently politically incorrect, the band’s “Deluxe War Baby” is a fine example of what loud rock can achieve when it’s arranged well. Dynamics (as in using both loud AND soft) play a huge part, with the opening plunky sounding guitar and Dylanesque vocals eventually puncuated by crunchy drums, bass, and more guitars, just before the time signature switches to 3/4 time (yes, that’s a waltz.) This ain’t no waltz, though. When lead vocalist J. Robbins wails “Never have I felt so well policed; why should I be anything but pleased?” the discordant rumble of multi-layered guitars makes the sarcasm bite harder. Even if edgy rock isn’t your cup of whiskey, “Deluxe War Baby” is worth a listen. “We’re all headed west, whatever we think we believe . . .”
  • “Rhinoceros” from the 1996 “Block” album “Lead Me Not Into Penn Station” – I like Jamie Block’s sense of humor. Lyrically and musically, it’s a fun song. “My lawyer said, ‘Hey Jamie, think poppy; think catchy’; okay . . .” A simple bass line alternating with sandpaper rhythym electric guitar and a not-too-difficult chorus (“Rhinoceros” [x4]) make this one of those catchy tunes you’ll find it difficult to put out of your head. Interesting jungle-fever-bird/chattering monkey guitar licks near the end. Also available on the “Blast from the Past” soundtrack, where it has some impressive company which we’ll discuss later.
  • “Spiral” from the 2000 “Black Light Syndrome” album “Situation Dangerous” – Hmmmmm . . . where does one begin? Tony Levin (bassist for Peter Gabriel, Yes, King Crimson, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Lucy Simon, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits, James Taylor, Livingston Taylor, Ringo Starr, Pink Floyd, Nanci Griffith, Judy Collins, and a bazillion others) joins Terry Bozzio (Missing Persons, Frank Zappa) and Steve Stevens (Billy Idol, grammy for “Top Gun”) to form a power trio not unlike a new millenium “Cream” with a twist. “Spiral” is not their usual black thunder, though. Beginning slowly, almost pensively, Stevens’ classical guitar becomes more and more complex and fiery, joined by ever intensifying percussion of every kind. Behind it all, swirling, dancing, now echoing, now countering, is Levin’s bass, never in the same place twice. A journey of epic proportion which never fails to bring a smile to my face; whether you love classical guitar, progressive rock, or something in between, I defy you not to be captivated.