Monday, April 24, 2006

Caitlin Tully

Saturday night we went downtown to see the symphony. Somehow I got hold of cheap 3rd row seats for 5 performances this year (I'm thinking they mixed me up with someone else!) This has been a real blessing - a chance to watch the performers up close and pick up on the body language and sometimes the real emotional response of the players to the music itself. I've seen a violinist break down in tears after a recital of Strauss's
last songs (the modern one), laughter at humorous passages, the vocal humming and growling of a guest pianist, the looks that said "I wonder what's to eat when this is over?", "My shoes are too tight", as well looks of transport out of this world...
I didn't know the details of Saturday's program until I sat down. The 2nd of the 3 offerings was to be Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2. featuring an 18 year old violinist as guest soloist.

The symphony players tuned up, adjusted and settled in their seats.
Out walks a slender girl with light auburn red hair and a coppery red strapless gown who smiled and took a deep bow before beginning. With no music in front of her she closed her eyes and swept herself, and everyone, into the music. Her face had a kind of Irish babyfat look but with fine features nevertheless - with a little exagerration she could have been tweaked into a Tim Burton version of a Dr. Seuss story - but what struck me was the asymmetrical furrows of concentration that would breeze across her, as if she was being possessed by some ancient soul or, at least, the vestigial memory of one of her teachers.
I'm no judge of classical violinists but her tone just sang and she just breezed through intricate, modern chromatic passages that i imagined 10 years of confinement to a Tibetan monastery couldn't achieve. The looks on the faces of the symphony members seemed to confirm that my dazzlement wasn't entirely bumpkin.

After the show I looked up everything I could find about Caitlin Tully. She was not, as we had thought likely, born to musician parents. Her folks noticed her unusually strong attraction to the sound of the violin before she was three. Well-meaning, they bought her a keyboard and she got mad. When they got her violin next Christmas she was in joy and began lessons - eventually leading to lessons with Itzhak Perlman, public performance at 10, and its been steadily upward from there.
I was relieved to hear that she has understanding, non-interfering parents and a wide range of interests beyond the violin. She enjoys composing - working on a children's opera for which she composed the libretto and designed the clothing - studying languages, competing in 10k races, paragliding, and unicycle riding.

Yehudi Menuhin, famous violinist and child prodigy himself, said of Caitlin "She plays with more integrity than any young violinist I have heard."

Meanwhile - I sez to my 53 year old self - I want to get some practice in...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Kaleidoscope's Taxim

While corresponding with my guitarist/percussionist friend Matt about improvisation in Arabic music - the word "taqsim" came up which is roughly equivalent to "improvisation" as in jazz. However ( as mentioned in the article "Arabic Concepts For Improvisation , By: Daniel Schnee, Canadian Musician, 07089635, Nov/Dec2005, Vol. 27, Issue 6)
it differs from "traditional" jazz forms in that "An Arabic taqsim is organized on the inverse concept. There is no fixed rhythmic form in bar scheme, time signature, or pulse. Because of this, it may seem that a taqsim sounds kind of random or formless, without what we would call 'direction' in the West." It actually has a definite direction, similar to the ragas in Indian music where certain notes and sequences are emphasized and expounded on to it give each piece its unique flavor.

When I read "taqsim" a bulb was lit and I was somersaulted back to the late 60's and "Taxim" a lengthy instrumental tune played by Kaleidoscope - just your typical underground, eclectic/ethno-jug-blues-psychedelic string band based out of LA..
"Taxim" starts slow and meditatively with Solomon Feldthouse on saz and Lindley on harp-guitar and builds steadily almost from formlessness to form.

Jimmy Page was very impressed by them. He'd heard them at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco back when he was with the Yardbirds. His quote;“They’re my favorite band of all time—my ideal band.” came at time when he was looking to incorporate some of the Middle Eastern and Celtic influences he was picking up from Davy Graham and Bert Jansch - touched upon in his instrumental feature back then "White Summer".

In the 70's after the demise of Kaleidoscope I was unknowingly blown away by the performances of Solomon Feldthouse - both in Santa Cruz and at the Novato Renaissance faire where he played with a gypsy style/flamenco dance and music troupe and later a belly dance troupe. He was calling himself Sulyman and I thought he was some kind of wild gypsy living in the hills - until somebody mentioned that he'd been in Kaleidoscope. Turns out he was born in Idaho but moved to Izmit, Turkey when he was 10 “I started playing while I was over there…Greek, Turkish and Persian music, ‘coz that’s what I heard every day. My mama used to like to go to Istanbul on the weekends sometimes…She ran into this gal from Spain that worked there [the singer Pepita Lerma] who was half gypsy, from Madrid…She gave my mother some records to give to me and I went berserk. We went to visit her in Madrid and she bought me my first guitar and showed me some of the stuff…I got a terminal disease from that.” He returned to the U.S. after 6 years and eventually began gigging in solo folk flamenco and belly dance situations.

David Lindley - another multi-instrumentalist who continuously grows and explores and has gained notoriety playing with Jackson Browne and countless others.
I don't know much about the rest of the guys except that they too came various backgrounds with a tilt towards jazz and bluegrass. There has been a recent reunion minus Lindley.

The basic line-up for the Beacon From Mars lp that contains Taxim gives you an idea of their sound:
David Lindley- banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, harp-guitar and 7-string banjo
Solomon Feldthouse- saz bouzoukee, dobro, vina, doumbeg, dulcimer, fiddle and 12 string guitar
Fenrus Epp (AKA Chester Crill)- violin, viola, bass, piano, organ and harmonica
Chris Darrow- banjo, mandolin, fiddle, autoharp, harmonica and clarinet
John Vidican- percussion

some related links to check out: a site dedicated to Kaleidoscope; - Solomon's longtime band in the Santa Cruz area - The site of Hamza El Din, my favorite Middle Eastern style instrumentalist. Traditional roots, creative outcome. An inspiration to me since his Vanguard records in the late 60's and in live performance.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Poems in the Lestorian Mode

Dexter Gordon grew up in Los Angeles and recalled young hipsters in the '30s on the street corner laying down rhymes to the tenor saxophone solos that Lester Young spun out for the Basie band.
The Beat writers and poets yet to come also dug Lester; Allen Ginsberg, speaking about his poem "Howl", said, "I depended on the word 'who' to keep the beat, a base to keep measure, return to and take off again onto another streak of invention..." (blowing, jazzlike) "Lester Young, actually is what i was thinking about...'Howl' is all 'Lester Leaps In'. And I got that from Kerouac."

When off-duty from his gig as poet of the tenor saxophone, Lester Young himself spoke, if he spoke at all, in phrases, metaphors, of is own invention -'takes' or improvisations riffed off the changes life handed him. Lester's poetic language was like a code, sometimes a playful way to conceal his true thoughts from the "unhip" but often a total puzzlement to his fellow musicians.
The pianist Jimmy Rowles, who composed the lovely jazz standard "The Peacocks", played with Lester for a few years and recalled, "You had to break that code to understand him. it was like memorizing a dictionary, and I think it took me about three months."

The keys on the piano or horn were "people", "left people" the fingers of pianist's left hand. The bridge of a tune "George Washington". If Lester was on the bandstand and wanted the bass player to take a solo
he would look over at him and say, "Put me in the basement". Drummer Roy Haynes was asked by Lester to join his band; "He didn't just come out and say 'Do you want to join my band?', Instead he said, 'Do you have eyes for the slave?'."
If Prez liked or was digging something he'd say "eyes!" and in some cases "bulging eyes!" or "Catalina eyes!" or "no eyes" if he didn't. If he was happy to see someone it was "bells!". "How are your feelings?" was a greeting - not a tough one...A new girlfriend was "a new hat" - then there were variations; "mexican hat dance", "skull-cap", and "homburg". A particularly good-looking woman was a "pound-cake". "Bing and Bob" (ala Crosby and Hope) were the police.
If there was an unpleasant person on the scene, rather than use "m-fer" Lester would say "Tommy Tucker is here" or another word similar in rhyme. Someone that would be a bringdown was "Von Hangman".
He'd punctuate his phrases with some Slim Gaillard jive like "oodastadis", "vout" and "oreeney". Something inordinately expensive was "chandelier". I picture Lester, at the counter of today's corporate coffeehouse with his long braided hair under the porkpie hat, all in black, and spats purchasing a latte and muffin;
"That will be 8 dollars,sir"

His longtime fave drummer Jo Jones has this memory; "I saw Lester across the street in New York one day with one of his children - very young, you know. So i crossed over and asked him how he was doing. Now what he wanted to tell me was that he didn't mind if the child wet itself, but he didn't want to clean up any shit. So what he said was, 'I don't mind the waterfall, but I can't take the mustard!:

Thirty-some years ago listening to an early Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson record in the dark, I heard a horn come in during the break of "Sun Showers" - it was the coolest/warmest swingingest little 8 bar phrase in a sound so voice-like and direct-it was like a being from out-of-this-world world that just materialized, drawn to the euphoric smoke-cloud of the session to give everybody just a taste was Lester and it was just a taste enough for me vow to learn the tenor sax one day if only to play something just close to a few notes of of what I'd heard.

Lester Young discography:
note: Anything before 1945 is Lester at his peak. The irony is that as Lester's health problems began to severely effect his playing (beginning after his return from the army in the 40's) he finally was able to make recordings under his own name. The upshot of this is that the novice listener comes across these later recordings more readily and assumes - scratching his head - that this is the Lester Young that inspired Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Miles Davis etc... Not so, his early work was what turned the direction of jazz around, although once in awhile a gem that echoed the facile brilliance of the early days pops up in the later years.
the good stuff....
Easy Does It: 1936-1940 (a lot of his solos with Basie and some great samll group sessions)
The Lester Young Story (box set from the UK)- a great well-rounded set.
The Keynote Sessions
Alladin Sessions (from 1942 and 1945)
Spirituals to Swing; Carnegie Hall 1938
(my favorite Lester is in relaxed, groovin' small group sessions and this set features some fantastic quartet/quintet numbers with Lester and Charlie Christian)

Best books:
A Lester Young Reader - edited by Lewis Porter
You Just Fight For Your Life - Frank Buchmann-Moller

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Born To Kvetch

"If the Stones's '(I Can't Get No)Satisfaction' had been written in Yiddish, it would have been called '(I Love to Keep Telling You that I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (Because Telling You that I'm Not Satisfied Is All That Can Satsify Me)." - Michael Wex Born To Kvetch

I grew up in West Los Angeles with close friends of Jewish heritage. Though their families were far from orthodox, there was enough Yiddish bandied about I could return from a pal's house and realize what a tsuris I'd gotten my self into at school, bemoan the mishuganeh drivers on Santa Monica Blvd., and say "oy gevolt!" when i hit a baseball through a parked car window.
I was particularly taken by the Jewish-Hungarian dishes, served with selzer water, of my friend's mother and grandmother and how my sanity was questioned when I wouldn't go beyond three helpings.
In my teens I had a Jewish girlfriend - if I'd been fluent with Yiddish, here I would've answered my friends "Iz zi sheyn? is she beautiful? Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy miyes My enemies should be as ugly (as she is beautiful)" I went to her house for the first time and recalled not a word from her mom but in a flash an unforgettable warm plate of kasha was put before me - nothing like the pseudo-macrobiotic stuff i'd been making that my friends lovingly referred to as "gruel".

Born to Kvetch - Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods is one of the few books i've recently been unable to put down. Admittedly, it helps if the reader is a bit of a language nut, but there are some laugh-out-loud moments throughout. Interspersed with Talmudic interpretation and syntactical gymnastics, Wex cites incidents of Yiddish phrases in Three Stooges movies, comparisons with Twilight Zone episodes, analogies to songs by ? And the Mysterians, and Albert King.

In a nutshell the "kvetch" is portrayed not just as a complaint but as a kind of pre-emptive strike against those forces of evil and mischief that would love to pounce upon compliments or other admissions of joy and acceptance. Thus, the tradition of breaking glasses at the start of a wedding - those spirits that would seek to ruin the joyous occasion are somehow appeased by these acts of symbolic destruction. As with the phrase I mentioned earlier, complimenting the beauty of the woman is not enough when the praise can double as a curse against one's enemies.
I enjoy the way Wex seems to reach out personally to the reader, suggesting that if the going gets rough, skip ahead to another chapter. I followed his advice and relished the delicious lists of Yiddish curses, ie.;

You should lose all of your teeth but one, so that you can have a toothache

Doctors should have need of you

Your brain should dry up

May you have a calamity in your flanks

A maniac should be crossed off the register of madmen and you should be inscribed in his place

Hours of fun, this. If you happen upon this wonderful book, Mazl Tov!