Friday, May 15, 2009
Master guitarist Pierre Bensusan has a lovely, lyric little masterpiece of a tune called Nefertari.
Nefertari, whose name means, variously. "beautiful companion", or "most beautiful of them", was the favorite queen of Pharaoh Ramses II way back in circa 1290-1250 BC.
She was uniquely loved by her husband, as, at his time, most royal marriages were made and kept solely for political reasons. Nefertari was 13 when she was betrothed to the 15 year old Ramses. From his numerous wives he is said to have fathered 100 children but Nefertari remained the favorite companion. She is oft depicted in paintings of the era as the same height as Ramses which was an unheard of violation of Egyptian representational protocol! Ramses built a temple for her and the god Hathor at Abu Simbel, and she is seen on the walls there as a companion of the goddess Isis.
Nefertari apparently took an active role in negotiating peace between the Hittites and her husband, and there are surviving cuneiform tablets from Turkey that contain correspondence from Nefertari with the king and queen of the Hittites.
Poems written by Ramses to her filled her burial chamber, and in one he says;
"My love is unique—no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart."
She is pictured below playing senet, a boardgame that, when skillfully played, insured smooth transition into the afterworld.
Pierre Bensusan has long been a favorite guitarist of mine. I discovered his Pres de Paris record in a Santa Cruz shop in the mid-70's and was bowled over by his solo fingerpicked renditions of the Irish jigs Cunla and Merrily Kiss the Quaker's Wife. On those tunes, much like Martin Carthy or the bluesman Mance Lipscomb, Bensusan propels the beat with a dampened, often monotonic bass on the low strings while the intricate melodic line rides on the high strings. He makes liberal use of open strings in the melody and this gives the tunes a harp-like singing, suspended sound. His placement of open string notes is tastefully and expressively executed; without the excessive "open-tuning" drone style of most American "folk-style" players and, on the other hand, it creates a resonance that would would be lost in most "classical" guitar renditions which are stultified with precise clipped notes.
Inspired by Bensusan's example as well as similar ventures by Carthy and John Renbourn I went through 2 years of playing almost exclusively in the tuning DADEAD (sometimes used by the latter two) and concentrating on Irish/Celtic instrumental tunes and my own material before it dawned on me that I was digging myself into a pit of obscurity and would need to return to standard tuning if I wanted to interact at ease with other musicians. Pierre, plays solely in DADGAD - the "Davy Graham" tuning - but has the technique and versatility to, doubtlessly, adapt to any musical situation.
Here , Pierre plays two Irish tunes
Thursday, May 14, 2009
I habitually read a daily "meditation" from J. Krishnamurti's The Book of Life - one can take it or leave it, but I usually take it. He was just the sort to get teed off if you accepted anything he said without question and I greatly admire that.
here's the entry for today, May 14.
here's the entry for today, May 14.
Remain with a Feeling and See
"You never remain with any feeling, pure and simple, but always surround it with a paraphernalia
of words. The word distorts it; thought, whirling around it, throws it into shadow, overpowers it
with mountainous fears and longings. You never remain with a feeling, and with nothing else: with hate, or with that strange feeling of beauty. When the feeling of hate arises, you say how bad it is; there is the compulsion, the struggle to overcome it, the turmoil of thought about it....
Try remaining with the feeling of hate, with the feeling of envy, jealousy, with the venom of ambition; for after all, that's what you have in daily life, though you may want to live with love or with the word love. Since you have the feeling of hate, of wanting to hurt somebody with a gesture or a burning word, see if you can stay with that feeling. can you? have you ever tried? Try to remain with a feeling , and see what happens. you will find it amazingly difficult. Your mind will not leave the feeling alone; it comes rushing in with its remembrances, its associations, its do's and don'ts, its everlasting chatter.
Pick up a piece of shell.
Can you look at it, wonder at its delicate beauty, without saying how pretty it is, or what animal made it? Can you look without the movement of the mind? Can you live without the feeling that the word builds up? If you can, then you will discover an extraordinary thing, a movement beyond the measure of time; a spring that knows no summer."
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
912 Greens is the title of a song Ramblin' Jack Elliott recorded on his album Young Brigham in 1968. It tells the story of a trip Jack made to New Orleans in 1953 to visit a banjo player named Billy Faier who lived at 912 Toulouse Street. The song is not sung, but a "talkin'" narrative with Jack accompanying himself with a flatpicked handful of repeated chords ornamented differently each time they cycle around; sometimes lingering and ruminating on one chord in that hypnotic flowing style that Jack had.
His idol and friend Woody Guthrie, (Woody's son Arlo too), had some talkin songs, as did Bob Dylan, who early on was referred too, not entirely in jest, as Ramblin Jack's son.
Jack's talkin narrative in 912 Greens has some similarity to those of the aforenamed but there is a distinct mixture of humour and sad resignation to this one - it's never quite one or the other and it's an odd mix of ordinariness (just friends sitting around getting acquainted) and absurd - "a lady that had once been ex-ballet dancer" dancing in the rain around a banana tree amidst the courtyard of the fenced in apartment pads that Billy and other musicians lived in.
This little sojourn is encircled with a kind of hobo fairytale magic; as far as Jack knew the only entryway to Billy's pad was though a back alleyway and over a fence. The two weeks Jack spent there were entirely under rain and rainclouds; he never saw the light of day in New Orleans and he hadn't returned since. It's the kind of tale told by campfire, or waiting out the rain huddled neath an awning in a train station between ramblers and drifters - and miscast poets - who may never see one another again.
Jack continued (and continues, to this day!) to sing the tune and it changes everytime. But I tend to believe this, the first recorded version of 912 Greens, is closer to the truth - if there is one.
Uh yes, if you listen to the very end you will hear the only sung lines in the tune, which add to ramblinesque proceedings:
"Did you ever
stand and shiver
just 'cause you were lookin'
at a river?"
* To understand better what the ramblin of Ramblin Jack is all about have a look at "The Ballad of Ramblin Jack" a documentary made by Jack's daughter Aiyanna.
A must-see, but, I would hope you listen to this song first.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Just a quick "thumbs up" to a movie that is catching a bit of underground buzz, the Swedish-made "vampire" film Let the Right One In.
Having read that there is likely an American version in the works, I am urged to get this recommendation out before this small masterpiece is summarily crapped upon.
I'm not much on gore for gore's sake, but I do like suspense and mystery. Though I generally avoid modern vampire depictions - Shadow of the Vampire with Willem Dafoe is about the only one I've intentionally seen twice - I also think there's something primally attractive to the dilemma and myth of the vampire which appeals to the experience of all of us as suffering beings, caught up in attachments and curses that seem beyond our control.
Let the Right One In moves at a contemplative pace without dragging, and builds the suspense with a "show, don't tell" approach. The viewer must come to his own conclusions as to the why and wherefore but these questions arise naturally rather than as an intellectual game to be solved. The movie, though mercifully avoiding Hollywood cliches, does not leave us hanging in the non-sequitur, "ok, just another weird slice-o-life" state that many independent or "art" films favor; it has a conclusion that is both liberating and disturbing.
While necessarily tagged as a "vampire" movie Let the Right One In is also a "coming-of-age" story, about friendship and loyalty and, yes, romance.
Rather than detail the plot I submit this link to the allmovie.com synopsis and review.
*Be sure and have the Swedish audio voice/soundtrack with the English subtitles - which are, at least in the version I secured, rendered very clearly.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
John Abercrombie is one of the instantly recognizable jazz guitar stylists. His sound and conception have a pastoral elegance attuned to Indian Raga or Persian modal improvisations as much as it does to his precursors in the jazz world such as Bill Evans, Jim Hall, and Miles Davis.
Characters is the only completely solo record Abercrombie ever made, and my personal favorite of his many releases. It was recorded for ECM by Manfred Eicher in Oslo, Norway in November of 1977. The album is distinguished by Abercrombie’s blend of acoustic guitars – primarily as chordal background – with melodies overlayed by the electric guitar, and occasionally, electric mandolin. Together, the acoustic and electric never sound crowded but complement one another like entwined branches of a vine.
The songs, all Abercrombie originals, are at once lyrical and harmonically daring, reminiscent of compositions of Evans like Blue in Green; they seem to be heading for a familiar resolution but pause to take another sidepath that opens out into something else.
Backward Glance from Characters
...(listening now, my take on it)
a bicyclist rounds a street corner
voice and touch of fingertips
remembrance of pathways in sunken cities
steps winding down always to a new door
light filtered by waves above
from tears of a thousand burning suns
of long gone galaxies
and curtains of persian night
forgotten the way back
flutter of wings
murmur of the heart
Abercrombie in the 70's
* Here is an interesting (at least to the explorative musical types) youtube clip with Abercrombie recently demonstrating the art and discipline of improvising on one string. By restricting the sonic "palette" to a narrower range, the musician finds resources to break out of the box of mechanical playing and away from licks that habitually "fall under the fingers". John starts with a basic Lydian modal thing and then uses the same approach against the chord changes to "Stella By Starlight".
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
The melody for Oleo was, at least partially, composed on the spot by Sonny Rollins for this Miles Davis session, now issued on "Bag's Groove" (this version of the song not to be confused with that on the later Prestige session, "Relaxin").
According to Davis, Sonny would tear off scraps from paper found in the studio to write down his ideas, which also included two other songs that became jazz standards, Doxy and Airegin.
This song, as composition and in this particular performance, broke new ground somewhat analagous to the concurrent infusion of Zen thought and poetry into "Beat" culture. Here, a direct simplicity is achieved by paring down to essentials.
Oleo ia played over I Got Rhythm chord changes, as were countless compositions of the bop era. In most cases the melodies for the typical bop "heads" based on these changes were close to improvisations themselves, but with slight adjustments for compositional continuity. Rollins' melody, by contrast, is based on a shorter offbeat rhythmic "burst" motif, an urgent telegraph popping up from the melody stream - an energy pocket, a musical photon carrying an electromagnetic force. The improviser - or listener - uses this seed motif to fuel his own storyline. There are echoes of the deceptive simplicity of Monk and also the "cool" compositions from Davis' own Birth of the Cool sessions - check out "Deception" (Miles' revamp of George Shearing's "Conception") from there.
Oleo, rhythmically, bears some similarity to Charlie Parker's
Relaxin' At Camarillo - composed and performed not long after his release from the California state mental hospital of that name. Parker's tune, built on blues changes, also carries a threaded rhythmic motif that propels the tune along.
The arrangement of Oleo is also unique; the only constant is Percy Heath's spry walking bass line. In the statement of the "head" Miles Davis' Harmon-muted trumpet and Sonny's tenor in play unison over the bass-line with Kenny Clarke's understated drums and Horace Silver's melodic chordal comping coming in for the bridge. During the solos this arrangement remains basically the same although Clarke's drumming comes in, subtly, during the A sections and with a little more panache in the B.
Miles' solo is a gem of understatement - the first few bars are dashed off like a child's rope skipping song with a brilliant sweeping bop line here and there; predominately on the turnarounds.
While Miles's phrasing is already sparse and punctuated by empty bars, in Sonny's solo the phrases are more explosive but, in his first chorus, he leaves as much 2 or 3 bars empty. In the second chorus, after short, abstract jabs he pauses in and gathers himself before jumping into an extended line punctuated with accented peaks; picture a childlike figure cut at odd angles on paper folded in layers and then suddenly unfolded, a neo-bop daisy chain with sunlight pouring through each section differently.
Monday, April 13, 2009
The Lake - Ernest Blumenschein
I live about three blocks from the Phoenix Art Museum and you would think I was a frequent visitor. Alas, it's a case of jaded convenience; already a procrastinator, I am comforted by the proximity of the Museum and set my intended visits upon the enormous heap labeled, "Things That I Really Want to Do That Can Always Be Done Later".
However, when I do get around to it, I love to go to the permanent collection and ritually soak up the "rays" from a few favorite paintings. One of my favorites is Ernest Blumenschein's "The Lake". Blumenschein captures the mystical, dramatic beauty of the Southwest - in his case New Mexico - but brings a decorative
element to the scene. Decorative, in the sense of using design elements suggested by the natural scene that are not there but that bring a unifying and personal element. Often Blumenschein has a shimmering detail - as of the reflection of the land and sky on the wind-stirred ripples that rake a watery surface - in the foreground and then a kind of sculptural, blocky, background of clouds or mountains that seems art deco.
Eagles Nest Lake
Presently, the Museum is showing a complete exhibit of Blumenschein's work and I have been blessed to see a great many works I never knew of. Though his paintings of Native American figures are impressive in their execution and color, I always have the nagging feeling that this caters to a kind of Eastern tourist fascination of the time. This may have not been Blumenschein's intent but I, as a resident of Phoenix, have seen quite enough of this sort of thing. It's the Blumenschein high desert landscapes, especially the water scenes therein, that speak to me and seem to be entirely unique and non-traditional.
Blumenschein was very fond of fishing, and though he later tended to move away from portrayals of the human figure as his landscapes came to the fore, he often punctuated his lake and river scenes with tiny figures of fishermen, either solitary or in groups.
Before taking up a career as an illustrator and then fine artist, Blumenschein was a musical prodigy on violin. Beginning musical studies in his native Ohio, Blumenschein moved on to New York City to study painting at the Art Students League.
To support himself, he took on a position as first violinist in the New York Symphony, conducted at that time by the great composer, Anton Dvorak. The story goes that Dvorak immediately hired the young Blumenschein for the first violin chair merely after hearing him play a D minor scale!
As Joan Carpenter Troccoli puts it in her masterful, "Painters and the American West; the Anschutz Collection"
"...his paintings seem analogous to music in their rhythm and repetition. One might even say the roundness of tone sought by musician's echoed in his sculptural forms."