on life, music etc beyond mainstream


  • John Abercrombie – Up and coming
  • Björn Meyer – Provenance
  • Frisell / Morgan – Small Town
  • Chris Potter – The Dreamer is the Dream
  • Aaron Parks – Find The Way
  • Ralph Towner – My Foolish Heart
  • Scofield / Medeski / Holland / DeJohnette – Hudson
  • Allan Pasqua – Northern Lights
  • Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
  • McCandless/Taylor / Balducci – Evansiana
  • Trio Mediaeval with Arve Henriksen – Rimur
  • Tigran Hamyasan- Ancient Observers
  • Fleet Foxes – Crack up
  • Mike McGinnis – Recurring Dream (with Art Lande and Steve Swallow)
  • Oregon – Lantern
  • Yelena Eckimoff – In the Shadow of a Cloud
  • Alex Cline – Oceans of Vows
  • Tartovsky Quartet – Nuit Blanche
  • Arve Henriksen- Towards Language
  • Benedikt Jahnel – The Invariant
  • Vijay Iyer Sextet- Far From Over



  • Beatles Sgt Pepper bluray audio box
  • special mention: Django Bates-A Salute to Sgt Pepper

Old music: first time release:

  • Bill Evans – Another Time (excellent recording and performance!)

From the ECM website:


Over the past week we have begun the process of entering the world of streaming, and from November 17, the full ECM catalogue will be available to subscribers to services including Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, Qobuz and Idagio. This simultaneous launch across the platforms – facilitated by a new digital distribution agreement with Universal Music – invites listeners to explore the wide range of music recorded by our artists in the course of nearly five decades of independent production.

Although ECM’s preferred mediums remain the CD and LP, the first priority is that the music should be heard. The physical catalogue and the original authorship are the crucial references for us: the complete ECM album with its artistic signature, best possible sound quality, sequence and dramaturgy intact, telling its story from beginning to end.

In recent years, ECM and the musicians have had to face unauthorized streaming of recordings via video web-sharing sites, plus piracy, bootlegs, and a proliferation of illegal download sites. It was important to make the catalogue accessible within a framework where copyrights are respected.

ECM Press Office
Munich, November 14, 2017


I have many thoughts about this and have expressed them on the FB ECM listener page, a passionate group that posts music and has lively discussions of all things ECM. This is a very divisive subject and a heated discussion is going on there right now. Here are a couple things I wrote:


I doubt the artists will see much in the way of revenues. I suppose they will be told it’s good exposure and I guess it could be argued that this venture will attract a wider audience. But I doubt most of these new listeners will buy anything if they can stream it. For most listeners today, streaming quality is acceptable to them: i.e. this IS the way they listen to music. For me however, I will get to audition things before I buy, by which I will be able to make more informed choices. I will still buy hard copies.

I was staying at an Airbnb not long ago and and my 30 something host listened to music on his iPhone. He placed it in a plastic coffee mug for what he considered to be „high fidelity“ sound. Either that or listened over his laptop speakers. He is not poor – it’s a choice. This is how many millennials listen to music.


… and this:


Maybe this is just succumbing to the inevitable; ECM was one of the last holdouts.

I do think we’re reaching the end of an era and it concerns me for several reasons. The irony is, while there’s never been an easier time for a middle-income person to own an audiophile (or at least near-audiophile system) most folks settle for way worse sound quality through compressed files and listening thru earbuds or shitty laptop speakers etc. Some of this is due to being low income (which is perfectly understandable), some ignorance, some convenience, and some of it is just simply being of a mindset of simply not caring.

That being said, most people, when given the opportunity to hear quality recordings over a decent system usually have a positive reaction, and are amazed to discover what they’ve been missing.

I do have a concern that eventually CDs will go out of production completely or will become such a niche thing that they will become cost prohibitive. There will of course be HD downloads, but as many passionate collectors know, downloads have zero collectible value, nor do they have any appeal as the „magical objects“ that CDs and LPs, with the artwork and the booklets, possess. I have dabbled in downloading hi def music, but the majority of my purchases are still CDs. As CDs go out of print, there will be a collectors market that will drive the price of out of print CDs even higher than it already is.

Of course there is the whole issue of artists getting paid for their work. As far as I’m concerned the $0.006 to $0.0084 cents an artist gets paid per stream is a total joke. I have friends, such as composer / performance artist Amy X Neuberg who actually get respectable plays, but even after some 43,000 plays she received a check for $1.27 or something like that (she posted the stats on FB). Yes, it’s all about touring these days, but setting up a tour is expensive and here in the states we only get to see most European artists once a decade, if we’re lucky.

Of course, it is better to post say, Spotify links, where the artist gets „something“ instead of YouTube links where the artist isn’t compensated, not even minutely. And there is also the revenue an artist gets when someone actually attends a concert by an artist they were exposed to on a streaming site. So there’s that …


I would love to hear any thoughts my fellow Manafonistas have on this controversial subject.



There are a lot of nice things being said about this album, that it’s an instant classic, one of the best ECM releases of the past decade, hearkening back to the „golden years“ (70s-early 80s?) in ECM history. So it was with some trepidation that I placed it on the Oppo, worrying it couldn’t possibly measure up to all the hype. Thankfully, all of those accolades turn out to be true.

The album has a shape all its own, a storytelling arc that swoops up the listener on a sonic journey; it really seems to be meant to be heard in its entirety. It’s a fairly low key sojourn, but it’s not without its dramatic moments, at least in contrast to its constant return to a contemplative center.

When I first heard Maqams, oddly enough In a Silent Way came to mind, not so much for content, which couldn’t be more different,  but in the way both albums wash over the listener, enveloping them in a specific environment, not unlike immersing oneself in a great ocean of spacious sounds, one that, like the sound of the surf, can be put on repeat without tiring of it. Each piece seems to flow inevitably and effortlessly into the next. And there is a connection between these two fine albums: they both have Dave Holland on bass. Holland is like a rock in both settings, laying down the groove and stating the time when necessary, floating when appropriate. DeJohnette, a powerhouse drummer, opts to sit in the background for the most part here, sometimes sitting out altogether, and only showing his formidable creativity and chops in a couple key places.

Pianist Django Bates shows particular discipline in the way he interacts with Brahem’s passionate, sensual, yet understated oud. There is not a note that doesn’t belong- the interaction is a precise give and take, sometimes almost call and response, but the two never get in the way of one another. I for one can’t wait to hear Django’s first ECM release as leader.

Of course there are „tunes“ on here, recognizable melodies, tempos and time signatures that one can eventually differentiate from one another. Yet the overall sense, even after many listenings, is of a complete whole, combined with a luxurious use of silence and a disciplined intention to only play what is absolutely called for. With music this open, these artists achieve a miraculous balance of freedom and form.

I can’t recommend this album highly enough. And I honestly can’t remember the last time I found something so inherently listenable that I just put it on repeat while hanging out at home. Yet putting one’s entire concentration on the music yields vast rewards. It is that good after all!

In the wee hours of Monday morning October 9, a firestorm came roaring down on Santa Rosa at the speed of a freight train. I didn’t get the evacuation call in Forestville because I wasn’t in town. I woke up to the news in LA, where I had just attended my niece’s joyous wedding in Malibu. I discovered my flight into Santa Rosa had been cancelled – in fact all flights into Santa Rosa had been cancelled.

After the hottest summer on record, in which temperatures had soared upwards to 110 degrees numerous times, we’d had an Indian summer that was only slightly less blistering. Welcome to the new normal: The night of the fires the humidity was down to 7%, typical in the desert, but not up here in Northern California. The freakish warm winds came up from the east, gusting up to 70mph, and when my friends in Santa Rosa heard there was a fire in Calistoga, they were concerned but not alarmed. Little did they know that fire was moving at the speed of 1 football field every 3 seconds. Only 2 hours later they had to flee their home, leaving everything behind,  even their photo albums, a lifetime of memories they had never gotten around to digitizing.

In fact, several friends lost their homes. None had time to think about what they would pack. Two were musicians who lost all their instruments. One couple sped up their driveway, flaming branches hitting their car. They barely escaped with their lives.

Finally getting a flight into San Francisco the following Wednesday, I was immediately struck by the toxic air – it had migrated all the way down to South San Francisco. The sky appeared dark and foreboding, almost apocalyptic. It was painful to breathe. But I was a man on a mission. The fires were burning out of control and I had decided to get back to my house if I could and pack up my studio.

The bus ride up north revealed the smoke was even worse as we neared Santa Rosa. Familiar landmarks were gone – the old Round Barn, a symbol of another, gentler rural time was obliterated, as were the Hyatt and the Fountain Grove, the two big hotels sitting on the hill right above it. Just to the east, the high-end neighborhoods had been hit hard, and as the wind pushed the wall of flames right across the 101 freeway, low income neighborhoods were completely leveled, leaving nothing but the chimneys jutting out from piles of pulverized ash, as if they had been firebombed. The Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, (only 10 minutes from my house,) a place I had seen Pat Metheny, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock among others, and had spent many an evening listening to the SR Symphony, looked severely damaged. My hospital next door was closed, the Journey’s End trailer park next door, wiped from the face of the earth.

By the time I got to my house I was exhausted, had a meal and went straight to bed. In the morning I decided to pack my girlfriend’s Ford Escape and head back down to LA where she had stayed in order to protect her asthmatic lungs.

There were still fires burning out of control just miles from the powder keg of a canyon I call home. But what to bring? I started with my studio- my monitors, computer, drive bays. That’s what I had come for. To save my work and my clients work. My instruments, piano, vibraphone etc were staying – too large. My percussion instruments were too many. So I took my handmade one-of-a-kind Array Mbira and my electronic marimba – at least I would have those. I figured you could always replace an electronic keyboard or module, even a vintage one. Thus I left my rack full, only taking my favorite tube channel strip. I also threw a box of precious photos into the car.

But what about my CD collection? What desert island discs should I take with me? While I don’t have a huge collection, I realized they still represented a significant cash outlay, but more importantly, and far more than material possessions, they are a kind of soul food that I simply can’t live without. I looked at those discs, many of which I had spent hours seeking out, Internet hunter gatherer that I am, and thought of all those hours spent perusing the bins at Rasputin’s in Berkeley, Amoebas in SF, or the Last Record Store in Santa Rosa. And most of all, I thought of all the liestening pleasure they had brought me over the years.

Somehow, no CDs or vinyl made it into the Escape, and I „escaped“ the horrific air and drove back down to LA with the knowledge that if I did have to start over, at least I’d have a studio and a computer full of tunes. And a giant Mbira! And yes: The irony of driving to Los Angeles to escape bad air is not lost on me.

The whole experience got me thinking: what things are important? Evidently not clothes or tchotchkes-of those I only took a few. But music being soul food – then why had I not taken at least 20 of my desert island discs? I think by the time I left, I was pretty sure I’d be coming back to my house. Or maybe, I just couldn’t make up my mind. It was just too painful to choose, a kind of audiophile’s Sophie’s Choice… Or perhaps I was simply too lazy.

I’m curious if anyone would care to post their 10 or 20 desert island discs below. I think it would be a good exercise. Maybe someone else can do what I was not able to do myself. What discs would you take?

The fires are finally out as of Friday 27th, but my whole area is still in shock and grief. We have lost 42 people (with 12 still missing,) around 8900 structures including some 4000 homes, and over 200,000 acres of parkland, vineyards and farmland were burned. The priority was in saving lives- property was 2nd – and at least 3 of our state parks were allowed to burn. My hospital has yet to open. Recovery will take many years. Santa Rosa is a very different place from what it once was. For those thousands of people like my friends who lost their homes, it will be a long, slow process. I kept thinking, “ this could happen to any of us.“ Yes it can. Everything we have can be taken away from us in an instant. And yet, here we are. What a mystery!


The new album, Last Leaf by the Danish String Quartet (ECM New series,) is the kind of music that beckons one to listen in wonder, like a child. At its heart, it’s an album of deeply felt folk music, albeit dressed in superb, sophisticated arrangements and executed with consummate classical precision. Put it on and at once, you’re in familiar territory. Yet, what was that strange chord there, and why did that song start out one way and take me here …?

Besides the odd moment of untraditional dissonance, there are times when the album invokes classical minimalism, inviting one to think of Terry Riley’s string quartets – in more reflective moments I hear snippets of Arvo Part at his most spare. I even hear moments that remind me of Lou Harrison. But then, suddenly the group is off at a bright pace on what almost sounds like a traditional jig from the British isles. I have found Scandinavian folk music to be like that sometimes, not so very far from the British Isles after all, and I like it.

This is a gorgeous album that is almost impossible not to like. It is by turns, dramatic, mournful, playful and ecstatic. But it is always beautiful, sounding like it rose from a natural spring fully formed and perfectly in tune, so light and dynamic it feels as if it is being played by angels.

2017 21 Sep


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Heading home from a freewheeling trip—to visit friends in Long Island, New York, to visit old and new friends in the verdant hills of Vermont; and to meet my girlfriend’s extended family in upstate New York—I was left with a lingering sense of the friendly intimacy of the eastern landscape. Its green rolling hills, dotted with farms and forests, offered a welcome respite from the west’s big sky and relentless, dry summers.

The east coast had a mild summer this year. I was happily surprised to be greeted by pleasant temperatures, low humidity, swollen lakes and rivers, and lush forests just beginning to be tinged with red and gold. The green grass was like a luxurious carpet under my feet, which carried me along, so buoyant I felt almost weightless treading the meandering paths in the summer sun. The rain, when it came, was a shower of sweetness, so delicate, warm and soft, like a delicate kiss. At dusk, the trees, bathed in gold, stood in sharp relief against dark thunderheads.

Walking by a river with my partner, we were giddily happy, smiling in childish delight at charming covered bridges, taking silly selfies by flowing waters, giggling hysterically as we were drenched by a sudden downpour while hiking to a hidden waterfall. I thought to myself, „Does it get better than this, this life?“

Having spent my whole life waiting to be happy, I asked myself whether this was the epiphany I had always sought—this evanescent moment with the light just right, the sun’s shimmer reflected in a solitary creek, the hills dotted with cozy farmhouses and lazy grazing cows,  fields of goldenrod glinting with raindrops, the grey sky resting against a green mountain laying across the earth like a sleeping dragon.

As we traveled, I found my reverie tempered by the circumstances of the people I met. Everywhere I went I saw adversity and resiliency, friend’s new and old struggling, some looking for meaning, some without the luxury of time to do so, simply trying to make it through another day.

My Long Island friend, whom I’ve known since college, is battling serious illness, bravely meeting each day with determination, wry humor, and a strong spiritual practice. Despite the obvious discomfort and psychic weight of his condition, we had a wonderful connection.

He kindly drove me to my childhood home in New Jersey, where I walked down the placid suburban streets that had once been home to the kids I played with, past the elementary school I had not seen in 47 years. There was the spot the school bully Bobby Bull (his real name) had thrown a punch that hurled me to the pavement. There were the ghosts of the girls on whom I had harbored secret crushes, the creek I had played in, the house of a childhood pal with whom I had had terrible fight that ended our friendship, and finally, the house where my first love had lived. Her name was Alice. We were both 4, when one day her dad, a botany professor, turned his shirt collar around beneath  his black jacket and solemnly married us near the rock garden, she veiled in a tiny white dress, and me looking ever so serious in my checkered suit and bow tie. There was the spot in her backyard where her dad had built us a tiny playhouse. And the chimney where I first met the fairies Alice had discovered.

Up north, on a blueberry farm in Vermont, were two old friends brought together by fate, one a talented musician, struggling with depression, the other a retired school guidance counselor. Two years ago, their 150-year-old farmhouse burned to the ground, and they lost virtually everything. Friends came out of the woodwork, sending funds to rebuild their foundation. Precious instruments lost in the fire were miraculously replaced, some by complete strangers who mailed surprise gifts of guitars. My friends had rebuilt their house but are still in the process of rebuilding their lives.

Sitting on the plane, reflecting on my own past and absorbing the beauty, tragedy, and quiet dignity of people’s lives, I found myself playing Vince Mendoza’s Epiphany on my portable player. From the grandeur of the opening strings, this was the music I was seeking; this was balm for the soul. It is full of melancholy and sorrow, imbued with spiritual longing.

As each distinct voice came to the forefront–first John Abercrombie’s soulful opening phrase, then Michael Brecker’s powerful tenor, Kenny Wheeler’s plaintive flugelhorn horn, and John Taylor’s refined and understated piano accompaniment–it suddenly struck me: all of these great artist’s unique voices have been stilled.

There is something in knowing these artists are no longer with us that imparts even more poignancy to this stellar album, in which classical music and jazz come together in a natural marriage of orchestra and jazz sextet.

I often quip that at this stage of life, most of my heroes are either really old or dead. This unavoidable truth is made that much more apparent with the almost weekly report of the passing of yet another master.

Each of us is part of a wave; all of us witnesses to the waves of the generations before us breaking on the shore. For many of us in our 60s, we have already lost one or both of our parents, and most of us have lost friends and colleagues, some of whom have left us all too soon.

Even though we all know death is a natural part of the life process, somehow each loss feels like a shocking surprise. We’re just wired that way, perhaps for a reason: if we fully comprehended the human predicament, would we be able to manifest anything at all, create art, build cities, make a family, go about our day?

On my trip, I experienced the joy of life. But the lives of the people I met, even the autumnal landscape itself, reminded me of life’s inevitable losses. True to its title, the album gave me my own realization: the fleeting appearance and disappearance of all things makes every one of us—all our loved ones and each moment in which we miraculously reside—that much more sacred and precious. Like the grey clouds set against the illuminated green hills, our impermanence stands in stark contrast to our desire to be happy and our need to feel our lives matter. And within the mysterious web of these seemingly irreconcilable polarities, there is beauty and grace.

I had just turned 15 in February of 1967, thus I was a bit young to fully appreciate and understand the Summer of Love. But I was ripe for it all the same. I was tuning into Sgt. Pepper’s, The Doors’s first album, the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, etc. I had already smoked my first joint.

Even though I was all the way over on the East Coast, the vibe of San Francisco had drifted across the country like heady incense. It showed up one day in the form of my best friend’s older brother. He came east bearing gifts: good strong pot and a stack of records from the left coast. He wore tall black boots with pointy toes, bell-bottom jeans, and a blue denim jacket. He had a mustache and a beard and hair down to his back. He was a self-proclaimed anarchist – and the coolest guy I had ever met!

In truth, I idolized the hippie movement. I’d already gotten a taste of it—a free concert in New York City’s Central Park. The lineup was impressive: the Butterfield Blues Band opened, followed by the Jefferson Airplane. The Grateful Dead in all their glory played a long closing set. That concert turned out to be a life-changing experience. I still remember the Airplane hanging out on a riser behind the Dead, swaying to the music of (the yet to be released) Anthem of the Sun (possibly the most adventurous album of their entire studio output), Augustus Owsley Stanley (the legendary acid maker) at the mixing board and Grace Slick throwing candies out to the uber-stoned crowd during the Dead’s set. It was a taste of heaven. I walked out convinced I was destined to become a musician and that somehow, I had get to San Francisco.

That summer, my parents sent me on a camping tour called Wagons West. A very straight couple ran it. They hired teachers to drive a couple dozen rambunctious teenagers in Ford econo-vans across the country to visit the nation’s landmarks. They had the annoying habit of embarrassing us in crowds by shouting loudly, „Waggoneers, over here!“

I admit it,  I was one of the wilder ones. I didn’t fit in with most of them; they were far too sedate and, well, straight for my tastes. However, it turned out that there were several other characters with whom I quickly aligned myself. One of them turned out to be the son of Robert Rauschenberg, the late contemporary artist. He even crazier than I was, espousing an incomprehensible philosophy that seemed to include spaghetti as the ultimate form of God. The other character was Jason, whose father was a well-known science-fiction writer. His dad had written an apocalyptic novel about the reemergence of a new society after the psychedelic wars. Jason was 15 going on 25 – he’d already managed to grow a sort of mustache, had long hair, and always wore dark shades. And he lived in Greenwich Village. He was an aspiring photographer and always had his camera at the ready.  His dad would eventually go on to publish an article in Life magazine entitled, “My Son Is on LSD.“  These metropolitan New Yorkers seemed far more experienced than I was. They became my mentors, especially with regards to drugs and generally getting into trouble, which we did quite a bit that summer.

After endless stops at national monuments and parks, we finally arrived in San Francisco. As we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, Scott McKenzie’s “If You’re Going to San Francisco” (wear some flowers in your hair) came on the radio. This was how I wound up at 15 in San Francisco during the Summer of Love.

We were staying at the Y, and managed to ditch the group almost immediately, making a beeline for the Haight. It was teeming with energy; the streets were full of colorfully clad hippies and runaways. The smell of pot was everywhere. People were drumming and dancing in the park. Head shops looked like dark caves, filled with glowing black-light posters; smoke and music were drifting into the streets. Long haired freaks were giving away copies of the beautiful and mystical Oracle on every street corner. There was a vibe of unbridled creativity and freedom in the air. I drank it all in, too young and naive to see the shadow that lurked beneath the veneer of “Love on Haight.”

It is impossible to convey the feeling this experience transmitted to an impressionable 15-year-old. A new and mysterious world was being revealed, a world rich with the promise of altered consciousness, drug-and-music fueled ecstasy, and at least to my testosterone fueled teenage mind, the possibility of getting it on with far-out hippie chicks! And somewhere, mixed in with the drugs, music, and sex, there was also a feeling of nascent spirituality crackling in the air.

Of course, the first thing we did was to try to cop some drugs. Jason simply went up to the most promising hippie in the vicinity and asked. The longhaired, bearded freak with the requisite flowers in his hair responded with, “No problem, man.” Jason proceeded to give him a laundry list of uppers, downers, pot, and LSD etc. The hippie told us he would get the stuff and come to our room at the Y. (Yes, we were that naive!) A few hours later, back in our room, there was a knock on the door: The hippie had actually come through with all of Jason’s requests! The rest of the summer was admittedly a blur, but I do remember nearly getting sent home several times for our escapades. (After that summer, the tour banned all longhaired kids.)

We hid our stash inside a portable battery-driven record player we had bought in Chinatown. We only had a couple of records with us, Sgt. Pepper’s, Surrealistic Pillow, Country Joe and the Fish’s Electric Music for Mind and Body, and, for some reason, Projections, the second Blues Project album.  Those 4 albums became the soundtrack of that crazy summer. We played them ad nauseam, never tiring of “Lucy in the Sky,” “White Rabbit,” “Sweet Lorraine” and “Flute Thing.” “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love” became a sort of anthem for us.

Radio was cool in San Francisco. KSAN played a mix of psychedelic rock, blues, Indian ragas, folk, and classical music. You never knew what you were going to hear next. It was true free-form radio—before it was even invented—as anti-corporate as one could possibly imagine. Bulgarian music, Vivaldi, Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar all mixed together in equal measure. Even the top 40 stations were pumping out Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” the Doors’s “Light My Fire,” or Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

And what a year for albums! Bands didn’t just put out one classic; many had no less then two: the Airplane released both Surrealistic Pillow and the boundary breaking Bathing at Baxter’s; the Doors had their eponymous first album and followed it with Strange Days; Hendrix released Are You Experienced? and Axis Bold as Love. This was also the year that Buffalo Springfield Again was released, as well as Forever Changes by Love. Moby Grape put out its near perfect first album. The psychedelic movement had a strong showing in Britain as well: The marvelously creative and zany The Who Sell Out came out alongside one of the best Kinks albums, Something Else. The Incredible String Band put out the amazing 5000 Spirits. Pink Floyd released its first album, the trippy Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And of course, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper (and later in the fall, Magical Mystery Tour, which may have been a shitty movie, but was certainly a solid collection of songs).

The first time I heard Sgt. Pepper was on the radio. FM radio had just gotten its first pop station and a DJ named Rosko (“on the go in stereo“) played it in its entirety before it was officially released. I had on my dad’s Scott tuner and listened with his Sennheiser headphones. In short, it blew my stoned 15-year-old mind. I even thought I distinctly heard one of the Beatles call out my name (right before the reprise of Sgt. Peppers!) I had never heard anything quite like it. Some rock critics thought it was overproduced and put it down for not being pure enough rock-n-roll. I remember reading a review that focused on dissing “Within You and Without You,” because it was „too Indian“ and the lyrics were too „overtly spiritual.“ For me all of it was ear candy I was ready to devour. And devour it I did.

As it turns out I’m still devouring it: Earlier this summer I bought the newly released deluxe package of Giles Martin’s remarkable remix of Pepper. It is everything I could’ve hoped for. Giles used the original mono mix as his template for relative volume balances, and got ahold of the individual tracks (before they were bounced to the final 4-track), and flew the tracks into the computer, where he was able to sync them up. This enabled Giles to create a true stereo mix from scratch. To me this mix, best heard in hi def (either in stereo or 5.1,) is the perfect Pepper. It has the solid bottom of the mono mix, bringing up the bass and drums for added power, yet possesses a wide, balanced and satisfying stereo soundstage, all the while retaining the relative balances and gutsiness of the original mono mix. The 5.1 mix is well worth checking out. It starts off mostly in the fronts with just a little ambience in the rears, but as the album unfolds, so does the surround-sound experience. By the end it entirely envelopes the listener.

There is an overriding theme here: The Beatles seemed to be telling us that we all have the ability to paint our reality as we so choose. You hear it in “Fixing a Hole,” “Getting Better,” the fantasy world of “Lucy in the Sky,” the emancipation proclamation of “She’s Leaving Home.” The message was clear: You don’t have to settle for the status quo: You are free to create the reality you want, if not externally, at least within your own internal landscape, where you can escape the humdrum 9-5 world.

Listening to this album all these years later, I am struck by how ahead of its time it really was. This is not only apparent in the arrangements and boundary pushing production, it’s also embedded in the sophisticated lyrics—it’s not all peace and love either. There is an underlying thread of discontent and darkness brewing just beneath the veneer of psychedelic good vibes. Even as a teenybopper I could feel the despair and anger in the lyrics of “Good Morning, Good Morning”; Lennon was already emerging as the misanthrope he was to become in his later solo years, the dark clouds of a world in chaos seeping into the hermetically sealed bubble of his acid-infused days and nights. Even the Beatles couldn’t completely isolate themselves from the real world, the daily tally of war deaths, scandals, and the ever-present mortal news. “A Day in the Life” summed it all up.

It has been 50 years since the months we so romantically refer to as the Summer of Love. But by the end of that summer, the stories of drug burnouts, alcohol abuse, and the use of meth and other decidedly nasty drugs were circulating. Even as the busses carrying tourists, eager to see the hippies in their natural environment, were still driving through the Haight and the Village in NYC, the Diggers, a group of idealistic anarchists and performance artists who were feeding hippies in Golden Gate Park and had started the Haight Ashbury Free Store, proclaimed the „Death of the Hippies“ and marched through the streets of the Haight carrying the Hippie Coffin. Yes, it was over almost before it began. Shortly after, came the deaths of Jimi, Janis, Jim, and all the rest. Not to mention the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Lither King.  After that it was only a short trip from Woodstock to Altamont. The dream was over.

I read recently that the American neo-Nazis have dubbed this summer the Summer of Hate. No surprise there – the Blue Meanies are still trying to ruin our day. And we’re still trying to fight the good fight. Some things will never change.

It may be a cliché to say the music lives on. But, you know, it really does!

2017 15 Mai

Stepping into the Light

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He was one of those eccentric friends I seem to collect – a creative right down to the cellular level, but a troubled soul: He had never quite found his footing. He may have been on the edge financially, but you’d never know it from looking at him: in his elegant suits, scarves, and homburg, he cut a colorful profile in the increasingly drab and generic San Francisco social landscape. He was definitely old San Fran.

On any given day, you could find him in certain coffeehouses, poring over the New York Times Book Review or some esoteric text, occasionally scribbling down ideas in his ubiquitous notebook, chuckling to himself in a knowing, endearing way. He had a kind word for everyone and unconditionally loved and accepted me. I suspect he did the same for everyone he knew.

An artist at heart, he had once been a drummer for indie bands down in Los Angeles, as well as an aspiring actor, waiting tables in a fine Italian restaurant in to make ends meet until he got his big break. When I met him, he was a writer, living in San Francisco, working for catering companies to pay his bills. He turned me on to all sorts of great music and films. His tastes were eclectic – Faure to Terry Riley, Joanna Newsom to Chet Baker to Nina Rota. He could sing, precisely and in perfect tune, passages – even entire movements – from classical pieces I barely knew. He was once flown to New York City to audition for the Blue Man Group. He didn’t get the gig.

His friends all suspected he carried a heavy burden but, if he did, he mostly kept it to himself, preferring to speak of his mystical experiences, his favorite visual artists and filmmakers, or his latest conspiracy theories. He was a riot, although he could also suddenly become deadly earnest. His shadow lurked just below the surface of his banter.

We had a ritual. I would drive into the city to see a show, usually at SF Jazz in the bustling Hayes Valley, which happened to be his favorite haunt. We would always meet at the Blue Bottle coffee kiosk. After a far-reaching philosophical discussion about the role of hallucinogens in the evolution of human consciousness or an in-depth Jungian analysis of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, we would head over to Two Sisters or Arlequin for a late afternoon bottle of wine. I would then take him out to an early dinner and go to the show on my own. Sometimes I even took him with me. It was always a delight to see my whimsical friend. He enriched my life.

Then, about two years ago, came the inexplicable seizures. The first one occurred while he was waiting in his car for the seniors he drove to medical appointments—his job ever since the catering gigs had dried up. He woke up in an emergency room, the beginning of a cascade of bad juju. Because of the seizure, he lost his driver’s license. He could no longer work.

The next seizure wasn’t so lucky: He fell backwards on the sidewalk and sustained a serious brain injury. He was in the hospital in a coma, convalescing for almost two months. He recovered slowly, but was never quite the same afterwards. Visiting him there in that huge, impersonal hospital was devastating. Other people came to see him as well, but he was, for the most part, unaware of his visitors. His father, who had advanced Parkinson’s, made a super-human pilgrimage to see his son for what would be the last time: He died while my friend was still in a coma.

When my friend was finally released, he was a changed man. Between the lingering symptoms from the brain injury and the side effects of the anticonvulsants he was on, I never knew what to expect. Always a bit of a loose cannon, his thoughts would careen wildly from one topic to another. One moment he would regale me with a wild tale of the trip he took with his ailing father to see John of God in the jungles of the Amazon. The next moment was all about the origins of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. On more than one occasion, he spent the entire day speaking with an annoying fake Italian accent. He couldn’t help himself. He had, for lack of a better word, become unhinged.

One day he told me he had had a miraculous healing. An angelic presence had come to him and had swept his body clean of his affliction. He was certain he no longer needed the medications, which he complained were turning him into a zombie, and that he was completely cured. I gently pleaded with him to stay on his meds. His next seizure occurred in his kitchen and knocked out one of his front teeth. He never fully smiled again.

I couldn’t fix his life. Nobody could. All I could do was give him a day of pleasure here and there.

Last Tuesday, just after midnight, he left a note on the kitchen table in the apartment he shared with his sister, walked over to a nearby park, and hanged himself. He was only 51. I can see him methodically cleaning his room, dressing in one of his impeccably tasteful suits, and walking determinedly in the moonlight, to the specific tree he had no doubt picked out beforehand. I can’t help it—my mind plays that dark movie over and over again.

I know there is nothing I could’ve done to prevent it. He never confided his morbid thoughts, at least to me. There is something altogether uniquely tragic about suicide—it reverberates in the minds and hearts of those left behind, leaving feelings of guilt and questions that remain forever unanswered.

I hadn’t slept well for days, but I still drove down to the city yesterday for the first time since my friend departed. Although the sun shone brightly, there was a cold wind blowing. We were supposed to have met for our usual ritual. But today I made our customary stops alone. I could feel his presence as I sat on the outdoor concrete bench at Blue Bottle and sipped my mocha. His ghost followed me over to Arlequin, but it just wasn’t in me to order a glass of wine and toast him, as had been my plan. Instead, I got a cup of soup and sat in my chair, at turns morosely staring at the empty chair across the table and watching passersby on the busy street.

Then I walked over to SF Jazz. Eliane Elias was completing her four-night residency with a reunion of Steps Ahead. It was a late afternoon show and vibes player Mike Manieri had only just stepped off the plane, coming in on the red-eye from a gig in Bonn, Germany. He looked frail and tired. Eliane had assembled a crack group of old friends: Peter Erskine on drums, Bob Shepard (replacing the late Mike Brecker) on sax, and her husband, Mark Johnson, on bass.

After playing an extraordinarily beautiful version of the great Don Grolnick tune “Pools,” they got off to a rather shaky start on “Islands.” After that however, it was smooth sailing. They played confidently, with great passion and clarity, each supporting the other as they opened up on some of the Steps’ old material and some things written by Eliane and Mike Manieri, who, despite his jet lag, sounded brilliant. As this life-affirming, optimistic music washed over me, I felt my heart lift. I could sense my departed friend encouraging me to be present with the joy of the moment, as he himself had done in better times.

After the last bit of applause waned, I walked out feeling transformed by the warmth and beauty of the performance. It was still daylight, and I felt that strange sense of displacement one gets after walking out of a movie theater. Dazzled by the light, the cold air biting through my coat, I walked to my car, feeling a sense of peace for the first time in days. I wished my friend well on his way, and felt his blessing wash over me as the wind whipped across the clear, empty blue sky.

2017 13 Apr

An Ancient Observer – Tigran Hamyasan

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On this new album, Tigran has gone deep into his Armenian roots, pulling epic compositions from ancient folk melodies and inventing some of his own. Letting this music wash over you, it’s hard to tell which one is which.

Like his earlier A Fable, this too is a solo album- the vocals, synths, Fender Rhodes as well as various percussion overdubs all belong to Tigran. But this is first and foremost a solo piano album. And what an extraordinary solo piano album this is!

Tigran is a very disciplined composer. He introduces the listener to a theme, develops it, turns it upside down, throwing in sideways Bartok-like harmonies, and then goes his own improvisatory way.

Hamyasan is one of the more rhythmically precise pianists out there, having seemingly absorbed not only the complex odd time signatures of his homeland, but also having studied the East Indian Konocal tradition as well. As such he brings more rhythmic savvy to the table than most piano improvisers can ever hope to summon. It’s his original voice and this genius for rhythmic complexity that separates him from so many sound-alike prodigies on today’s scene. In a way I think of him as a sort of Armenian Chick Corea-full of ideas, bursting with creative fire, and while steeped in the jazz tradition, delving deep into his own ethnic roots and discovering huge veins of gold, ore that has never been mined before. This is one of the secrets to Tigran’s uniquely fresh approach. He also happens to be a fierce improviser: just listen to the middle section of Nairian Odyssey, an 11:00 epic piece that alternates between almost Debussy-like passages alternating with wildly jagged improvised sections. A masterpiece and for me, the centerpiece of the album.

Many of these compositions sound through composed and a few sound totally improvised- a number of these are very short. Just listen to the tightly drawn Etude No1: playful, minimalistic – it’s a little gem that tells its story in a mere 2:08. It’s followed by another moody miniature, the Egyptian Poet: using just voice and prepared piano, it evokes windswept dunes and a wise old sage somewhere in the middle of the vast Sahara desert. Pure magic.

This music is very different from his past couple of albums. Whereas Shadow Theater is a large highly produced, high energy prog-rock and fusion masterpiece utilizing many musicians and voices, with Mockroot a similar but somewhat less dense project, An Ancient Observer is for the most part a gentler, more inward affair, although it is not without its moments of fire.

My only criticism is that that Tigran’s falsetto voice is not a strong one, and there are times I wished he had broken with his solo vision and added a female voice on a couple tracks instead of his own, such as the haunting Lenninagone and the title track, which is the album closer. It’s a small quibble, because there is something surprisingly disarming and charming in that little falsetto, something that grows on me with each listen, something personal and affecting that perhaps only Tigran could’ve brought to the table after all.

An Ancient Observer is a richly rewarding album, filled with extreme dynamic contrasts that go from the contemplative to the dramatic to pure joyousness and wonder. This is a wonderful, original and essential album for all fans of Tigran, and not a bad place to start for those only just becoming familiar with this amazing artist. I would also highly recommend the aforementioned Shadow Theater, Mockroot and Red Hail. But really, all his stuff is worth picking up, if you can find it. Warning: Tigran is highly addictive.

2017 5 Mrz

Ralph Towner My Foolish Heart

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I recently saw Towner perform a stunning solo set at the SF Jazz Center. It was a remarkably fresh set from someone who has been on the scene for some 50 years. Most of the tunes came from the new album.  He did play a few classics such as If and Redial. He also played a beguiling version of I Fall in Love Too Easily.

At 77, Towner shows no signs of slowing down or losing his edge. He took chances during his 50 minute set, occasionally flubbing a note that he tried to grab, but then, that’s always been Ralph’s style-thank God, he doesn’t play it safe. Of course, sounding  perfect on the solo classical guitar is a challenge that even many of the classical greats fall short of- I have heard Parkening blow a note and even the ever reliable Williams buzz a few on the fretboard. Not that I care personally about such nonsense. Still it makes me laugh to know Ralph’s classical guitar teacher once told him he would never make the cut as a classical guitarist-and in a way he was right: Towner is SO much more than a mere interpreter of written music-he is a major creative force. He has penned literally 100s of compositions, many of which are played by aspiring classical players. As an improviser on the nylon string he is perhaps in a class by himself.

This may very well be Towner’s strongest solo album yet. The ever prolific master has gifted us with 10 new originals, most written in his neo-classical style. His playing is in top form- indeed Towner is one of those artists who has only improved with age. What you have here is a very listenable album, a kind of rainy day music for thoughtful listeners. It is anything but background music, although I suppose it could be listened to as such-repeated listenings reveal hidden depths.

The opening piece, Pilgrim, sets the tone for this mostly introspective set. It’s all there: a strong melodic classical piece tinged with contemporary harmony and rhythm, that familiar and specific world that only Towner seems to inhabit. There are two tunes on which Ralph plays his signature 12 string. It’s great to hear that unique sound again. His reading of My Foolish Heart is as sweet and tender as Bill Evans’s classic version at the Village Vanguard, which according to Towner, was the inspiration for choosing to become a jazz musician in the first place. You can certainly feel the Evans influence here. To close out the set, he plays a remarkably complete sounding solo version of his Oregon composition, Rewind.

I just want to add that this may very well be the best recording yet of Ralph’s custom nylon string. It’s almost as if he’s playing in my living room. Towner is a bit of a reverb freak-it should be noted that his live performance was slathered with was in my opinion, way too much verb.  Thankfully this is not the case on this recording, which has just the right amount of hall ambience to give the recording some needed space around the luscious notes. Kudos to Manfred Eicher and the fantastic engineers at ECM, who continues to outdo themselvs in the production department.

Towner has done it again. An instant classic.

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