Sunday, April 2, 2017

(Probably Not) The Final Word on the Pronunciation of "GIF"

The pronunciation of the popular image file, "GIF," (an acronym standing for "Graphics Interchange Format") has been a subject of intense debate over the last few years. There are those who argue that the "G" is soft, choosing to pronounce it like the ubiquitous mass-marketed, over-sugared peanut butter, and others who maintain that it should be pronounced with a hard "G," like "gift" minus the "t". And then there are others who wonder what the hell these geeks are arguing about.

Well, I happened to be one of those geeks and I will say that arguing about minutia is a proud past time of geeks everywhere, and we are not ashamed of this. In addition, I will propose that accuracy and correctness are still important, in spite of what an increasing number of people seem to believe these days.

Some have tried to say that both pronunciations are acceptable.  I disagree. GIF is a recent entry to the lexicon, so it has not been subject to the same linguistic evolution that older words were, with their pronunciations changing over time and being twisted with regional accents. The word "aluminum" may sound completely different on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, but there should be agreement on GIF.

So how do we decide who's right? For me, it's simple. Go to the source. Steve Wilhite, the inventor of the GIF declared in a comment to the New York Times in 2013: “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations... They are wrong. It is a soft 'G,' pronounced 'jif.' End of story."

That should be the end of the story, right? Yet, people come out of the woodwork to contradict the man on how to say the name of his own invention. Really? Would you go up to a mother and tell her that she is mispronouncing the name of her child?

Personally, I always said it as "jif." I don't remember anyone telling me that was how is was said. That is simply how it sounded in my head when I read it off the screen (if it was "Graphics Interchange Format File" or "GIFF," I would definitely pronounce it with a hard "G.") But I must be a weirdo because culture writer Joanna Brenner declared in a Newsweek article last year, that "our brains logically just want to pronounce it with a hard G."

So I guess I do not have a logical brain, at least as far as Brenner would define it.  And, evidently, that is the case for many others as well. The fact that this argument rages on is a testament to that fact.

To be fair, Brenner does make a compelling point in her article when she asserts that "every word that starts with G, then a vowel, then an F, is pronounced with a hard G... For example: Gaffe. Gift. Guff. Guffaw."

I am tentatively willing to concede that point, even though I cannot attest to the veracity of this claim. I do not have a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to pore through to find a counter-example. All I can respond with is that English is a highly irregular and elastic language, that there is a first time for everything, and that this linguistic observation is not enough to dissuade me from my immediate impulse.

The biggest argument that I hear all the time, though, is that the "G" stands for "Graphic," and thus should be pronounced with a hard "G." Mic drop.

I will admit it. That one had me stumped for a while, but the other day I realized something. Yes, GIF is an acronym, and acronyms can get tricky. Even looking at acronyms of other file formats, we can see how the rules of pronunciation can be fluid. JPEG (short for "Joint Photographic Experts Group") is pronounced "JAY-Peg," and not "juh-PEG." To be fair, two consonants together can make things difficult, and JPEG is really a compound of an initialism (like "BBC") and an acronym. The pronunciation is merely something that is easy to say and easy on the ear.

GIF (consonant-vowel-consonant) is relatively straightforward, though, and follows the definition from Merriam-Webster, being " a word (such as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term."

Examining the examples provided in that definition, one would immediately find that the pronunciation of acronyms are unrelated to the sounds that the letters made in the original words. For example, though the "A" in NATO represents the word "Atlantic" (as in "North Atlantic Treaty Organization"), it is not pronounced as such. The "A" in "Atlantic" is pronounced as an open front unrounded vowel, the same sound as in "at" or "apple." However, the acronym, NATO, is pronounced "NAY-to." The letter "A" sounds quite differently in the acronym from the way it sounds in the original word.

While we're at it, let's look briefly at the other two examples in the Merriam-Webster definition. We pronounce "Radar" (RAdio Detection And Ranging)  as "REY-dahr," but if one would pronounce the word with the second a representing the word "and," it would sound more like "rey-DARE." Breaking down "Laser," normally pronounced "LEY-zer," given that the "E" represents the word "emission," it would be pronounced  "lahy-ZEER. "

So even though these are vowel sounds and not consonants that are being twisted around, I still will put forth that within this specific published definition of the word, acronym, there is evidence that the pronunciation is independent of the original words.

You may say that I have not proven myself completely right, and I will respond by saying that I don't have to. In this case, all I have to do is prove that I'm not wrong. And I think that even if I may not have completely discredited them, I have at least challenged most of the arguments that say that "jif" is not a viable pronunciation. Given that, I think maybe it's time to drop the arrogance and defer to the designer.

Get my gist?

(Now for those who would dismiss my analysis by scoffing and saying that I have too much time on my hands, I am issuing a preliminary middle finger.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Larry Coryell: Ruminations

Iridium Jazz Club 2/17/17
Larry Coryell, the pioneering jazz/fusion guitarist, passed away on Sunday.

I'm assuming that anyone who would be reading this knows that already, so I don't have to go into the details.

I do get tired of my blog looking like one long series of obituaries, an effect that was particularly pronounced in 2016, but when artists who were so prominent in my mind and often were so pivotal in my aesthetic development pass on, I am simply forced to try to process my thoughts the only way I know how: To sit down, put on a record, and try to describe what I loved about their work, how they influenced me, and how grateful I was to have experienced their artistry in a live setting (or regretful If I didn't). Often, these musings are more for my benefit than anyone else.

As I sit here writing, I am listening to my old LP of Larry's solo guitar arrangement of Ravel's "Boléro," and thinking about the last time I heard that piece. It wasn't that long ago. In fact, it was last Friday, February the 17th when he was performing at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City.

He was playing a set with his trio which included the rhythm section of drummer Steve Johns and the young upright bass prodigy Daryl Johns. The band wound their way through a set including old standards and Larry's own compositions, with the father-son rhythm section locking into a psychically linked groove with Coryell weaving his own lines within.

Coryell, always generous in sharing the spotlight and showcasing his fellow musicians, gave Daryl ample space to solo. Playing with a steely intensity, the young musician showed the audience why he has generated such a buzz in recent years. He was equally generous in his praise of the drummer, complimenting him on his sophisticated economy of style. "When the drummer is so unobtrusive, it shows what a great drummer he is."

And then he played "Boléro."

Iridium Jazz Club 2/17/17
Playing acoustically on his own, he freely explored ideas and textures, improvising a beginning to the piece based on mood and atmosphere before laying down Ravel's melody. Though he had been playing the piece for decades, it felt like he was exploring it for the first time, toying with the familiar melody, leaping off from it, and touching base again just before he went too far. Even when he started to sing along with his playing (I never thought that Larry's singing was his strong suit) his delight in rediscovering the piece and seeking out sounds in the moment was infectious. The performance was thrilling and made my hair stand up on end. Concluding, he received a well-deserved standing ovation.

As the band returned to the stage, Larry welcomed up saxophonist Bob Mover, with whom, he hinted, a collaborative recording was in the works. As the band tore into the last piece of the evening (I honestly don't remember what it was) Mover, in spite of his seeming frailty contributed some thrilling be-bop inflected soloing, ending the set on an energetic note.

Of course, I had no inkling as I left the club that that would be the last time I would see Larry Coryell perform. I simply assumed I would be seeing him in the summer with a reconstituted version of his old band The Eleventh House, as they toured in promotion of their new album, the yet to be released, Seven Secrets. The last I saw of him, he was looking to the future.

It's just weird to wrap my brain around it. His passing in his hotel room on Sunday doesn't fit the narrative that I had in my head. These shows at the Iridium were supposed to be the beginning of the next chapter.

By the end of last year, I was so shell-shocked by the sheer number of beloved artists that were leaving us, I think part of my subconscious felt that if we just survived 2016, we would somehow become immortal, and we would never have to bury another hero ever again.

2016 had been a rough year for Larry as well. He had seen the loss of longtime collaborators including bassist Victor Bailey, and his Eleventh House co-founder, drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Furthermore, he did not get out of the year unscathed himself. He had had severe health issues last summer after a botched sinus surgery resulted in a viral infection, leading to several cancelled shows and a long painful recovery.

But he had seemed to come through it all. He appeared to be in fine health and seemed full of new ideas, speaking about numerous new projects and collaborations. There was no hint of the turmoil of the previous year.  It still seems unreal.

Obviously, my thoughts go out to his family. I think about his wife, Tracey, and her sorrowful note regarding how he died on the road. "I'm heartbroken- you never came home." Though I never knew either of them personally, it's hard not to feel a personal sadness at such a sentiment.

But even if I never actually knew Larry, he was my guy, if you know what I mean. When I got into his music, I felt like I was joining a secret club. It's well known in jazz circles that, as time went on, Larry did not maintain the same profile as did many of his contemporaries and the musicians he inspired. Many see that as a gross injustice. Some view it as just bad luck. But in any event, Larry was not on my radar when I was first exploring jazz and jazz/fusion music. In fact, I didn't discover Larry until I had over a decade of rabid music collecting under my belt.

I remember the first album I bought. I was at a used record store in the East Village where I found a copy of Level One, the second album by The Eleventh House. I had definitely heard his name at some point, and I remembered pulling the album out, noting the presence of Mouzon, who I knew from his playing on the first Weather Report album. The guy behind the counter looked at my acquisition and commented simply: "The only word I can use to describe these guys is 'relentless.'"

That was enough for me. Listening to the album, however, I found that, while tracks like "Nyctaphobia" fit the record store guy's description perfectly, I found other words aside from "relentless." I heard pieces that were more lyrical, more funky , more wistful, more mysterious. It didn't become an instant favorite, but something made me want to find more.

As I searched out his material, I found that so much of it was difficult to find. Even now, some of his finest albums from the 70s are out of print. Of course, at the time, this was both frustrating and alluring. As a record collector, half of the fun was in the hunt, and scouring record stores throughout the city and beyond yielded little thrills whenever I would find clean copies of albums like The Restful Mind or Standing Ovation.

Furthermore, as I listened to his early work as a sideman, playing with the likes of Chico Hamilton, Gary Burton, and Herbie Mann, I started to really see what set him apart from guitarists like John McLaughlin and Al DiMiola, players of consummate skill who arrived on the scene slightly later, essentially walking through the door that Larry broke open. I began to notice that Larry's playing was the intersection between the past, present, and the future. More so than the guitarists who followed, I could hear the rhythm and blues influence, while at the same time hearing the echoes of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Barney Kessel .

Coryell in 1982
After he released two albums under his own name which melded rock, blues, jazz, and even country, he released Spaces, an album on which he brought in musicians John McLaughlin, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Miroslav Vitouš, and drummer Billy Cobham; All musicians who would change and define what jazz would be over the next decade. Even though I wasn't even alive at its time of release, listening to that album I can hear how he was straddling tradition and a thrillingly wide-open future. Along with Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and The Tony Williams Lifetime's Emergency, that album was a pivotal point in the development of what would later be dubbed fusion, and more people should know it.

(Again, I know that I am probably preaching to the choir, and that most of people reading this are going through the same period of remembrance and contemplation. If you are reading, I thank you for indulging me.)

But beyond that, I just always found that his playing had an edge to it that I didn't find elsewhere. Whether that edge was anger, or vulnerability, or whether it was a burst of some other unforeseen emotion, there was simply this other intangible quality. Nobody played like he did. He wasn't simply about virtuosic pyrotechnics, there was a connectedness, and a spontaneous expression of an agile musical imagination. He didn't want to show what he could do. He wanted to see what could be done.

I think some Larry fanatics revel a little in his relative obscurity. It may be a bit (or a lot) pretentious, but there is some delight in being in the know about something that other people aren't. There have been times when I have been hanging with friends at my apartment, and after a few drinks I'll say: "Hey, do you want to hear something that will blow your mind?" and play them a track like "After Later" from the Live at The Village Gate album, or "Ruminations" from Offering. And I can think of a number of conversations that I have had with musicians who respected my opinions just a little bit more after they found out that I was a full-fledged member of the Larry club. If you were into Larry, you were definitely hip.

So, yeah. He was my guy.

I regret never meeting him. Obviously I wanted to. I'd seen him hanging around venues before or after shows, but I didn't want to intrude. When I found out that he would be playing at The Iridium, I planned to reach out and ask if I could get a few minutes for a casual interview, but I figured it was too short notice. Also, I'll admit it, I chickened out. Plus, I didn't know what to ask.

There were the obvious questions about new projects and whatnot, but there were other questions in
my mind that I wouldn't dare ask. I wanted to know how he was feeling after his health scare last year. I wanted to know how he felt about touring with an Eleventh House without Alphonse Mouzon kicking it behind him. I wanted to know his thoughts on growing older as an artist, what he felt like he's learned and what he thinks he might have lost. I wanted to ask if he felt as underappreciated as I believed he was. Maybe I should have just asked the easy questions and then thanked him. Maybe he wouldn't have been available anyway.

I definitely would not have simply come out and told him to his face that I thought he was one of the most daring guitarists I had ever heard, how much I admired his capacity for invention and reinvention, how amazed I was with his ability to take risks, how exploring his catalog yielded endless delights, and that the hunt to track down those old LPs proved to be such a great source of fun and pride, and that seeing him perform live was enthralling. Maybe I would have said the last one.

But I'll always have "Boléro."

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Scott Sharrard with Connor Kennedy, Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 1/20/17

Scott Sharrard
Last Friday, at Rockwood Music Hall in New York, guitar ace Scott Sharrard and a group of musical cohorts marked the occasion of the Presidential Inauguration with a scorching performance of Pink Floyd's classic album, Animals.  By his side was guitarist Connor Kennedy, with whom Sharrard previously played this material at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, and who, additionally, handled much of the vocals. The band also included friends and frequent collaborators including Scott's bandmate in Gregg Allman & Friends, Brett Bass on bass, along with Eric Finland on keyboards, Fab Faux drummer Rich Pagano, erstwhile Ratdog sax player, Kenny Brooks, and Broadway performer, Joshua Kobak, providing additional vocals and spoken word interludes. Together, they blazed through the entirety of Floyd's scathing work of progressive rock socio-political criticism, making no bones about where they stood in regards to the events of the day.

The band bookended the set with other memorable Floyd pieces which highlighted the evening's theme. Opening  with "Us and Them" from Dark Side of the Moon, the show began on an apocalyptic note as the band vamped behind Kobak while he recited the classic Robert Frost poem, "Fire and Ice," in which the author asks himself in which of these two will the world end, and whether it will be brought about through passion or hatred. Segueing into the song, the sonic tone of the evening was firmly established. The dynamics inherent in the original material were even more emphasized in this intimate setting as the band glided between delicate passages and dramatic bursts of incredible power and flesh-melting volume.

The set ender, "Comfortably Numb" from The Wall, arguably one of Pink Floyd's most well known songs and a crowd-pleaser, provided a cathartic conclusion, and the audience was encouraged to sing along. The song, originally about a jaded rock star, took on a new meaning in the context of this performance, and contributed to the theme of the evening.

Sharrard and Kennedy
The event was organized as a benefit for ProPublica, a New York based, public interest oriented, non-profit newsroom. Sharrard was intent that the evening was to be "a celebration of freedom of speech and transparency in media that is vital for our collective survival." The band pulled no punches, musically or politically, but in the end, the feeling in the room was of unity and not anger. And though Roger Waters'  caustic lyrics on Animals seem even more relevant today, I felt that the real theme of the evening was summed up by the first and last songs, and that we must recognize and heal the divisions between us, that we must be vigilant and aware, and not allow ourselves the luxury of simply becoming "Comfortably Numb."

Monday, January 9, 2017

Brand X at Iridium, NYC 1/3/17

Founding members John Goodsall and Percy Jones
"Thanks for having us back... Especially after last time."

Sometimes it's tough to figure out English humor. The "last time" to which John Goodsall, founding guitarist of the classic progressive/fusion band, Brand X, was referring was the band's appearance in October at New York's Iridium jazz club, their first gigs in the city in over a decade. Goodsall's self-effacing jibe notwithstanding, the hotly anticipated reunion shows went off brilliantly, with the band proving that they were still a powerful force, musically: Tight, yet free, aggressive, yet ethereal. Brand X was back.

It was the initial run of shows with this new line-up, which featured Goodsall and co-founder Percy Jones on bass, along with Kenwood Dennard on drums, who had done a stint with the band in the late 70s (after the previous drummer, Phil Collins, went back to his day job in Genesis), and two new members, Chris Clark on keyboards, and Scott Weinberger on percussion. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of their live LP, Livestock, the set lists of those shows had centered around material on that album and their previous studio releases: 1976's Unorthodox Behaviour, and 1977's Moroccan Roll. The reconstituted  band executed the material admirably, and the music felt energetic and fresh.

Percy Jones
However, the band that returned to the Iridium stage last Tuesday was even more confident, more cohesive. It was clear from the start that the band was gelling even more than they had in October, and the unique skills and personalities of the new members were becoming more evident. "We're a real band," Goodsall announced, and if the shows last fall had a feeling of testing the waters, on this evening the band's future seemed brighter and more certain.

Still largely basing their set around Livestock era material, in the past several months, the band began expanding their repertoire, opening this show with "The Poke," from their 1978 Masques album (the first time with this current band, I'm told), and later including a playfully funky instrumental cover of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." Also, the band continued to assert its musical identity by playing the older material based not on how it had been done before, but based on the styles of the current members. The differences were sometimes subtle, drastic at others, but always noticeable.

Scott Weinberger 
This band's reading of "Euthanasia Waltz" was more driving than its original recorded version, with drummer Kenwood Dennard creating a more propulsive groove while percussionist Scott Weinberger played on top and in between, alternately adding elegant splashes of color and jarring counterattacks. Weinberger's unique percussion rig, self-constructed of numerous disparate pieces, including an actual mounted garbage can lid, was sight to see, an ingenious construction, and he used it to great effect.

Meanwhile, "Born Ugly," from the band's debut album Unorthodox Behaviour had been taken down in tempo, with Dennard burrowing in deep alongside Jones' bass which churned out deep, gurgling, bubbling tones to create a raunchy, swampy funk that gouged right into the gut. All the while, Chris Clark's piano dexterously danced on top, weaving the melody in unison with Goodsall's guitar.

Kenwood Dennard
The band pulled out the stops on the concluding song of their first set, "Nuclear Burn." The hyper-
kinetic performance dazzled listeners with its frenetic pace and the band's ability to start and stop on a dime. Did I say a dime? I meant a goddamned ha'penny (look it up). Meanwhile, Dennard was playing with such head-shaking intensity, that his plastic New Years Eve prop hat fell off his head.

Jones opened the second set with a bass solo that exhibited his dazzling technique and his capacity to generate atmospheres. Improvising over a loop that evoked a digital didgeridoo, his bass work ebbed and flowed, harshly percussive one moment, lyrical and harmonically dense the next.

Dennard joined in with Jones and the two set off on a high energy, be-bop fueled duet , before the rest of the band came in to play "Nightmare Patrol," the opening track on Livestock. Co-written by Dennard, he displayed here an energetic, flamboyant showmanship that would appear distasteful on a lesser musician. As it stands, though, his pure, uncut chops stand above all else, and the visual element of his performance is simply icing on the cake.

Chris Clark with Jones, Goodsall, and Dennard
New member Chris Clark, on the other hand, showed himself to be the complete opposite, visually. In contrast with the with the cliché of the prog rock keyboardist, instead of hunching behind a giant array of keyboards, he sits high above his noticeably scaled back rig (after all, you can do more with far less these days)  perfectly postured, poignantly free of eccentricity while his interprets the songs with a dexterous ease (his reserved onstage demeanor is fitting given his time John Entwistle's solo band). His solo piano interpretation of "...Maybe I'll Lend You Mine after All" from Moroccan Roll, was a stand-out performance, working dazzling improvisations into the haunting, simple melody.

They concluded their set with "...And So to F...," arguably the band's best known song (mostly due to the fact that former drummer Phil Collins frequently would include it in his shows when he went solo). A good old fashioned rave-up, or at least the closest thing you'll find in the prog/fusion world, the high energy workout had the crowd enthused and chanting along with its wordless chorus.

After the band bid the crowd good night, the more astute members of the audience not only knew that there had to be an encore, but knew exactly what it would be. There was just a feeling like something was missing, like there was unfinished business. Sure enough, the band returned to the stage and broke into "Malaga Virgen." Originally featured on Moroccan Roll featuring Collins on drums, Dennard's version on the Livestock album reinvented the track with a mind drilling beat which he was more than ready, willing, and able to recreate here. For a band that refuses to be pigeonholed, "Malaga Virgen" does a great job of encompassing their style and strengths. At times propulsive and at others atmospheric and then somehow managing to be both at the same time, it features a delicate, tickling, crystalline melody dancing over an intense groove with sudden changes of mood and vector.

John Goodsall
In all, it was another excellent show by band that is continuing to coalesce. In retrospect, I think it was a bit strange that they ended their set with "...And So to F... " and encored with "Malaga Virgen." It was a little like having crème brûlée for dinner and a forty ounce porterhouse for dessert. But at the end of the day I'm always glad to see a band changing it up. They're trying out new things, rediscovering instead of rehashing, continuing to explore. After the show, Jones told me that they are going to continue to expand their set lists, both through further digging into the back catalog as well as writing new material for this current band. That, of course is welcome news indeed.

In short, Brand X came back, they delivered, and they showed that they still have more to deliver.

Photos by Jeremy Gordon

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Greg Lake: An Epitaph

Greg Lake died yesterday after a long bout with cancer. He was 69 years old.

I hate everything about that sentence. So dry and perfunctory, yet devastating, and all too common this year. 2016 has gotten me really tired of writing about death. Unfortunately, the artistry of so many of the people who have passed this year had such an impact on me during my youth that I couldn't not explore my thoughts in writing.

Just a few months ago, I wrote a tribute to Keith Emerson, the legendary progressive rock keyboardist, who took his own life in March. Today, I find myself weighing in on his old bandmate, Greg Lake, bassist, guitarist, singer, and songwriter in the supergroup, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

A seminal figure in progressive rock, both he, and arguably the genre itself, emerged onto the scene with King Crimson's 1969 album, In the Court of the Crimson King. The album was a milestone, influencing all so-called progressive music that came after. In a thrilling fashion, it combined rock, jazz, classical, experimental styles, with even a substantial helping of heavy metal aggression on its opening track, "21st Century Schizoid Man." As such, Lake's singing was notable for its versatility, from the brutal attack of "Schizoid Man," to the delicate lamentation of "Epitaph."

Lake (second from right) with King Crimson, 1969
It was his voice that made Keith Emerson desire to form a group with him in 1970. Emerson, who felt that his own band, The Nice, was unable to explore more nuanced, dynamic music, had been drawn to Lake's vocal abilities and capacity for lyricism. Lake left King Crimson and the two recruited Atomic Rooster drummer, Carl Palmer, to form Emerson, Lake & Palmer. They soon gained the attention of the world after their grand performance, their second ever as a group, at the Isle of Wight Festival that year.

Greg Lake first came to my attention in what I think was the most appropriate way: A friend playing me ELP albums while sitting on a dorm room floor smoking something other than cigarettes. It was the mid 90s, and I was a college freshman year acting major who had dipped, a bit too heavily, perhaps, into musical theatre music when I was in high school. By the time of that evening, however, I had been subsisting on a steady diet of The Who, Frank Zappa, The Police, and Cream, with a little Sublime thrown in just to seem current (they were actually still a functioning band at that time). My friend was a pianist and played me pieces like "Karn Evil 9" and "Take a Pebble" to illustrate Keith Emerson's prowess on keys. I was dazzled and it led to my journey into prog rock that continues to this day.

I can't overstate the importance of that moment. Getting into prog rock opened my eyes to possibilities in music and art. And though I recognize now that prog is pretty grandiose and pompous, so was I at time (who wasn't at 18?), and don't we always hold onto the music that we cherished in childhood?

I wish I could say that I was immediately wowed by Greg, but I wasn't. While I was intrigued by Keith Emerson's strumming of the piano keys on "Take a Pebble," I didn't know that Greg had written this ethereal piece that gave Emerson his place to explore. I wasn't even that knocked out by his voice just yet. I discovered the extent of his vocal chops later when I heard tracks from Tarkus and Trilogy, such as "Time and a Place" and "Living Sin," that showed his aggression and wide vocal range, while songs like "From the Beginning" showed his softer, nuanced, and emotional touch. Though it was perhaps to Keith's resentment, it was, in fact, Greg's ballads that provided the group's greatest chart successes.

Lake with Keith Emerson, who died this past March
Though I knew he was a great singer, it was only as I got older that truly recognized how expertly and uniquely Greg filled his role in the band. Both Emerson and Palmer were classically trained musicians, both with dazzling technique. Greg's bass playing, on the other hand, was agile, but consciously avoided the pyrotechnics that were a hallmark of many of his colleagues. It would be a cliché and uncomplimentary to say that his playing "grounded" the trio, and moreover it would be inaccurate. Though on some of the faster pieces his bass lines could be a tad simplistic, his playing was, more often than not, elegant and melodic, and instrumentally added the same lyricism that his voice provided. (The fact that he was recruited to play bass on "Real Good Looking Boy," the first single by The Who after the death of John Entwistle is no small praise.)

Still, I believe it will always come back to his songwriting and his voice. Working within a genre known for its high-mindedness and bombast, he provided the delicate touches that gave the music its dynamics. While prog rock was known as music of the head, he wrote the melodies and words that kept the feeling of the music from moving too far from the heart. Moreover, as producer of all of ELP's albums during their 1970s heyday (and, it has been said, handling the majority of the work on the group-produced debut by King Crimson), he showed a talent for creating albums that balanced all of the band's disparate elements. In a group that was pulling in more directions than it had members, it seemed that, for a time, he could find the balance in imbalance.

A couple years after that night on the door room floor, that same friend and I went to see ELP at the Harbor Lights Pavilion in Boston. The show was delayed by what seemed like hours, and a wiring malfunction caused a small fire onstage (actually in the Hammond organ that Keith was going to use for the finale) resulting in an interruption of the show right in the middle of "Tarkus." However, the band was so well oiled and powerful that, in spite of these things, we did not leave disappointed. Greg's voice had lowered by this time into a deeper baritone sound, that was so expressive and rich, that his high notes were not missed. The band seemed to have plenty of life still in them.

It was not be, of course. They band broke up again the following year, only to reunite for a one-off festival performance in 2010. Because of this, I am glad for that night in the dormitory when my friend pulled out his book of CDs and indoctrinated me with his favorite music. If I had gotten into ELP a couple of years later, I probably never would have seen them perform. So while I am sad, I have nothing to regret.

So once again I'm dwelling on how 2016 has done a hell of a job of taking away pieces of my childhood. Greg's death came as quite a shock, as I had no idea he ill. The fact that he was a part of so much of the music that made up my late adolescence and still listen to today makes his passing stand out for me even among the so many others that have passed this year. So in spite of the fact that 2016 has been a confusing  year, hopefully artistry and lyricism will be Greg Lake's epitaph.

(The prog rock geeks will get that last reference.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ever Since the World Ended: Missing Mose Allison

is licensed under CC BY 2.0
I've been in real funk for the past week (no real reason, nothing worth discussing), and I found myself doing what I frequently do when I am overcome with depression, when I lose faith in humanity, and generally begin to view the world as one big, unfunny joke: I pulled out my Mose Allison records.

I've been collecting Mose Allison's records since college. A legendary jazz pianist, singer and songwriter, his blues-influenced compositions also inspired many rock musicians in the 60s. I knew his name years earlier because of covers of his songs done by the Who and other bands, but it was only in college that I started to seek out the original versions. In the ensuing years, though, I discovered that Mose's best material was rarely, if ever, covered by other artists. The songs were too subtle, to snidely nuanced, too... Mose. He could be misanthropic without being pessimistic, sardonic without being mean. This was a guy who proclaimed: "I don't worry about a thing because I know nothing's going to be alright," a whole fifteen years before Bob Marley proposed the opposite. There was just something about his cool cynicism, his dark, ironic turns of phrase delivered with a smooth, ultra hip delivery that always brought a smile to my face, cooled my nerves, and made the cosmic joke seem funny again.

The first thing I did last Wednesday was to pull out his 1987 album, Ever Since the World Ended, and go straight for the title track. "Ever since the world ended," he sings in his inimitable style, "I don't go out as much," snarkily belittling the apocalypse by dwelling on how it affected his social life, only before declaring: "It's just as well the world ended-- It wasn't working anyway."

The song cut to the quick of what I was feeling. And yet Mose was never one to deliver bad news without a smirk, or even (gasp!) provide a glimmer of hope. As the song goes on to illustrate a new world devoid of the problems that presumably brought about the old one's demise, he ends by proclaiming: "Ever since the world ended, I face the future with a smile."

It was just what I needed to hear. While several of his other records hit my turntable last week, it was only that one that received numerous spins.

Mose Allison died yesterday, four days after his 89th birthday.

And so here I am again, going through my collection yet another time (as I type these words, I have side 2 of his 1966 live album, Mose Alive, on my record player), and in deep thought.

Hearing that news yesterday was just too much to take. I knew he was old, and his passing was inevitable, but finding out about it just after his music had barely gotten me through a wretched week, it was just plain horrible timing.

Of all the musical luminaries that passed in the last week, most notably Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell, Mose was the one to whom I had the most exposure and the greatest affinity. Also, not coincidentally, he was the only one of those three that I ever got to see live (I did have the pleasure of seeing the bass virtuoso Victor Bailey, whose death last week largely went unheralded, but that's another story).

In 2003, I attended Mose's late set at The Iridium in New York. I went with a friend who had no idea what or who she was about to see, but I promised her it would something special. (I had just happened to run into her when she was waiting in line to get into the free concert that the Dave Matthews Band was giving in Central Park, which was nearly over by that point. I convinced her that seeing a jazz legend would be better than seeing the last ten minutes of a band she had already seen.)

We arrived at The Iridium just as the set was starting. Mose was cool as ever. The hipness and humor that characterized his songs and delivery was augmented with a world-weary wisdom. As far as I know, he had been referred to as "the Sage of Tippo" since at least the 1960s, but it seemed more appropriate now. Though his piano playing didn't have quite the dexterity that it once did, his voice was only richer. He played and sang like he was he was conveying a lifetime's worth of experiences, but not getting too hung up if we couldn't dig what he had to lay on us. Needless to say we all did.

After Mose finished his set, I caught him as he was leaving the stage. While I generally think it to be in poor taste to accost artists in this way, I extended my hand and said: "Hey Mose, great set!"

He shook my hand while the casual raise of his brow said to me that he was neither too impressed nor too offended by the gesture and moved on. But hey, at least his didn't leave me hanging.

So at least I have that. I'm glad I got to see him when I did. I got to see him face to face and hear him in the moment, delivering the songs that fit so closely with my sense of humor and the world, and made my own cynicism a little easier to handle.

And so now Mose is gone. I've still got his records. They got me through last week, and hopefully they should get me through the next one.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Les Brers: A Band of Brothers Back in New York

Les Brers at Brooklyn Bowl 10/12/2016

When I was telling people that I was going to see Les Brers at Brooklyn Bowl last Wednesday, I found it a little tricky to briefly describe the act I was going to see. Are they an Allman Brothers spin-off? Are they a tribute act? Are they a continuation? All of the above?

Les Brers, named after the Eat a Peach instrumental, "Les Brers in A Minor," and which is apparently a French/Cajun/Southern mutant translation of "The Brothers," was founded last year by Butch Trucks, drummer and founding member of the Allman Brothers, who invited some other Brothers and extended "family" (both literally and figuratively) to perform music from that band's original line-up. Obviously, this is no "tribute act." The fact that Les Brers includes more than half of the final line-up of the Allman Brothers, including two founding members, should put that notion to bed immediately.

Still, though I was outwardly excited for the show, inside I was only cautiously optimistic. The Allman Brothers Band broke up in 2014 after guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks (Butch's nephew) announced their intentions to leave the band. The final line-up of the Allman Brothers Band was its most stable, with no changes since Haynes rejoined the band in 2001 following founding member Dickey Betts' departure. In that decade, the band had reestablished themselves with classic rock fans, while finding a new fan base with younger music aficionados in the improvisational (or "jam band") rock scene. Meanwhile, Haynes and the younger Trucks also established themselves as bona fide "guitar gods." So how would this new band fare?

Quite well, in fact. Or to put it in other words, risking sounding like a sycophantic Peach-Head (the designated term for hard-core Allman Brothers fans, of which I am one), Les Brers kicked some serious ass.

As soon as the band kicked into Hot 'Lanta, their Fillmore East era barn-burner, it became clear that this band was a formidable beast. The thundering rhythm section of original Allman Brothers drummers Jaimoe and Trucks along with longtime percussionist Marc Quiñones and bassist Oteil Burbridge immediately displayed that propulsive, muscular drive that has been the backbone of the band for decades. The fact that they were seasoned and well oiled came as no surprise, given that this rhythm section has remained unchanged since Oteil joined the Allmans in 1997.

The band powered through a set of Allman Brothers classics the way the old band did for decades: With reverence for the past, but keeping the music fresh through intense, in -the-moment playing, with all band members in deep communication.

Pearson and Williams
Early on in the set, guitarist Jack Pearson established himself as the focal point of the band, playing a My Cross to Bear, Gregg wrote that "Jack Pearson is tops--he can do it all. There's no question that he's one of the most accomplished cats I've ever played with[.]" That says a lot, but not nearly as much as Pearson said with his tasty, imaginative, and virtuosic playing.
blistering solo on the old Dickey Betts composition, "Blue Sky." Pearson's unique style and use of harmonics added a new dimension to the music. An obvious choice for the gig, Pearson was member of the Allmans from 1997 to 1999 and would frequently play with Gregg Allman's solo band. Indeed, In his memoir,

Pearson was joined on guitar and harmonica by Nashville session man Pat Bergeson. While he never really stole the spotlight from Pearson, he nailed his parts like a true pro, and the two guitarists expertly matched each other to execute the dazzling guitar harmony lines that were the Allmans' trademark.

Playing Gregg Allman's keyboard parts was Bruce Katz, sideman for such performers as John P. Hammond and Delbert McClinton. With more finely honed chops, and greater capacity for improvisation (Gregg Allman himself confessed that he was the least accomplished instrumentalist in the ABB, unless you counted his voice as an instrument), Katz' playing was the one aspect of the show that actually surpassed the original band.

Gregg's vocal parts were handled by Lamar Williams Jr. The son of Lamar Williams, the bass player for the Allman Brothers between 1972 and 1976 (the peak years in terms of the band's popularity) and ABB spin-off Sea Level, Williams had a tough role to fill. Allman had always been possession of one of the finest, blues/soul voices, and even in his advanced age, when his higher range diminished in favor of a deeper growl, his voice always had a breadth and richness that was mournfully expressive, while cutting through the arrangement perfectly. For his part, Williams did an admirable job throwing himself into the music and doing the songs his own way. While his singing didn't have the same weight to it, he displayed an easy charisma and had a fine voice for the material, shining most on the soulful ballad "Please Call Home."

For the song "Dreams" (notably, the first song that Gregg brought to the newly formed ABB in 1969) the band was joined by Scott Sharrard, guitarist for Gregg Allman and Friends, who contributed a solo that was nuanced and propulsive (though a bit low in the mix from where I was). The band then finished with a potent, albeit truncated, medley of "Mountain Jam" and "Whipping Post."

Would I have liked a longer set? Sure (it was a relatively short show by ABB standards). Did I wish that Oteil was showcased a bit more? Of course (his solos in the early 2000s were always a highlight for me). Still, I would be an ingrate to complain. Les Brers put on a great show and I would be content to see a dozen more like it. Hopefully they'll come around again. I would like to see Les Brers shows become as much a New York tradition as the Allman Brothers Beacon runs were. I would be eager to see how the band would expand its repertoire, and hear how they would  get deep into the groove that comes with time playing together. Perhaps that is a lot to hope for.

In the end, the band succeeded in making classics sound fresh and immediate in a way that I did not think I would hear again after the Allman Brothers Band disbanded. This group of expert musicians were certainly the right guys for the job. They had the chops, the passion, and the inventiveness to pull it off. They also had the pedigree and credibility. And even if there were no one named Allman on the stage, they had definitely kept the music in the family.