There are times when I dig out and play the old copy of an album that has never left my collection of music. It’s Jazz at Massey Hall by the Charlie Parker Quintet. It’s an album that I have as a CD as well as in lossless digital files and if I get one in vinyl format I shall buy it. The concert took place in Toronto’s Massey Hall on May 15, 1953.
The band was what we can (blasphemously) borrow from rock’s lexicon to describe as a ‘supergroup’: Parker on saxophone; Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet; Charles Mingus on bass; Bud Powell on piano; and Max Roach on drums. These five were unarguably the stars of that era’s bebop, each one on top of his game, and the concert was the first and only one that they recorded together. For Bird (Parker) and Diz (Gillespie), this was the last time they would record together because Parker died a couple of years later.
The concert is a perfect example of bebop, a jazz style that emerged in the 1940s and one that is characterized by a fast, uptempo and frenzied pace, and trademark solo improvisations by each player. All the five musicians were the best exponents of bebop and the album’s six songs showcase their talent perfectly.
But what adds a mythical dimension to the album is its fascinating back story. First, the concert’s organisers didn’t realise that May 15, 1953 was also the date for a Rocky Marciano versus Jersey Joe Walcott boxing match with the result that they couldn’t sell enough tickets to be able to pay the musicians. Second, Parker (his heroin addiction had made him infamous) landed up without his saxophone, which he had pawned ostensibly to get drug money. So he got a plastic sax from somewhere and played that through the gig. Third, pianist Bud Powell who was out with permission from a New York hospital where he was being treated for mental illness, came drunk and remained so through the performance. Fourth, Gillespie kept meandering off backstage between his solos to try and catch the commentary on the boxing bout and would come back and announce what was happening to the audience. Fifth, the original recording was so terrible that Mingus went back and re-dubbed his bass lines.
Yet, it’s such a great album that one version of it is marketed with the title, The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever. As soon as the band begins with the sizzling opening tune, Perdido, which showcases both Parker’s saxophone and Gillespie’s trumpet, and then moves into Salt Peanuts (a Gillespie composition from 1942), you know that you’re on to something unique here.
As you progress through the rest of the album – All the Things You Are, 52nd Street Theme (a Thelonius Monk composition), Wee (Allen’s Alley), Hot House and, finally, A Night in Tunisia – things get even better. It is very rarely that I spin Jazz at Massey Hall and don’t repeat it. It’s just that kind of an album – I can’t get enough of it.
I can’t get enough of another band of six extremely talented musicians. Singer John Bell, bassist Dave Schools, lead guitarist Jimmy Herring, percussionist Domingo S Ortiz, keyboardist John Hermann, and drummer Todd Nance make up Widespread Panic, a band from Athens, Georgia, which is known more for its long jams and for its melding of rock, blues and folk music all with a southern twist.
This September they released a new album, Street Dogs, which was recorded live in a studio. It’s their best studio effort in a long time. The 10 songs have a loose, live, gig vibe but yet are remarkably well recorded. The trademark Panic sound is there: John Bell’s gravelly vocals infused with just the right touch of disquiet; the versatile Dave Schools who plays the bass guitar like it’s a lead guitar; Ortiz and Nance’s nicely complementing percussion and drums; Hermann’s keyboard in a style that is redolent of New Orleans jazz; and above everything else Jimmy Herring’s superlative lead guitar.
Widespread Panic struggled for a bit after they lost their original lead guitarist Michael Houser in 2002 but Herring (also a member of Aquarium Rescue Unit and Jazz is Dead – the latter a band that does Grateful Dead songs only in instrumental jazz style) is a perfect fit. On Street Dogs, his virtuosity as well as that of the other members shines brightly. If you’ve never heard Widespread Panic, get this album for a starter. And then go on to their live ones.
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July 17: Tipped off by a friend on Twitter that Wilco, the rock band fronted by Jeff Tweedy, had made a surprise release of their new album, Star Wars, as a free download on their website, I head there to do the needful – a quick download. For a couple of days after that, Star Wars is my playlist.
The 11 songs cut across genres – and belie the lazy label of an alt-country rock band that is sometimes accorded to the band. They’re far more than that. Good guitar rock is how I’d classify Star Wars and the songs on that album become an earworm for days.
Best tracks: The upbeat Random Name Generator; and the mellower, You Satellite.
July 20: I realise that I have 210 Grateful Dead albums (some incomplete; some complete; most bootlegs) in the cloud, on my iPad and the iPods. A hopeless obsession? Probably.
But for Monday morning, I choose an album full of rareties and old songs: it’s called Birth of the Dead. And it has the band in its early days performing songs such as Mindbender (Confusion’s Prince), Don’t Ease Me In (an instrumental version followed by the one with vocals). Pigpen is in full form through the two-disc collection.
Best tracks: A 1968 version of The Eleventh Jam of 15 minutes; and a Warner Brothers radio commercial exhorting people to buy Live/Dead (I kid you not!).
July 23: Midweek. I find Apple Music’s Beats 1 Live Radio difficult to outdo for a playlist. Didn’t check who was DJ-ing and from where (LA, NYC or London? Who knows?), but I got introduced to new artists such as Seinabo Sey, the Swedish (actually, she’s part Gambian) R&B singer. Her single Pretend, released this year, is guaranteed to aurally seduce you to check out more of her work.
Also watch: Seinabo Sey – Younger
The other highlight of the Beats1 listening session was another young R&B artist, the American, Miguel. His single Coffee will hook you.
Best tracks: Sey’s Hard Time; and Miguel’s cover of Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets.
July 24: I decide to take things back under my own control! And make a playlist. I take the easy way out: I take the three Little Feat albums that I have (Waiting for Columbus; Hoy-Hoy!; and their first studio album, Little Feat) and listen to them nonstop.
Also watch: Little Feat – Rainbow Theatre London 1977
The LA band’s frontman, the late Lowell George’s vocals, the band’s eclectic influences and excellent musicians, including co-founder Bill Payne on the keyboards, make for a compelling listen. Sadly, Little Feat in that form was short-lived. The band was formed in 1969. George died in 1979 (a year after he produced the Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street).
Best tracks: Dixie Chicken; Tripe Face Boogie; and Rocket in my Pocket. Preferably all three heard in a row.
July 25: Mellow, lo-fi stuff is what I go for. New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo with their vast catalogue of new, old and cover songs is it. Although Stuff Like That There, their new album will not be out before August end, they’ve been releasing a few songs, three till date.
And I begin with their cover of The Cure’s Friday I’m in Love, acoustic-y and delightful. The others from the new album are Automatic Doom and Deeper Into Movies, which actually is a new interpretation of an old, more electric version of the song by the band (yes, they sometimes do those kind of covers too, re-tweaking their own compositions).
After the three, I go for their 1997 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and 1990’s Fakebook, which has 11 cover songs, including Here Comes My Baby by Cat Stevens and Oklahoma U.S.A. by The Kinks, plus a few originals.
Best tracks: Friday I’m in Love; Yellow Sarong; and Upside-Down.
July 27: It’s a Sunday and I need to get ready for tomorrow’s inevitable blues. I go for the soundtrack to the movie Southpaw, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the boxer Billy Hope.
Mainly hip-hop and rap, and produced by Eminem who has two standout tracks on it, Phenomenal, and Kings Never Die (on which Gwen Stefani joins in), it features many stars from hip-hop, R&B and rap – 50 Cent, Joey Bada$$, Slaughterhouse and The Notorious B.I.G. The soundtrack is super and makes me want to watch the film, which, considering that it was released only on July 24, I haven’t yet.
Best tracks: Phenomenal; R.N.S.; and Raw.
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The late American singer Nina Simone’s voice was markedly distinctive. A contralto (the term used to describe female singers with the lowest musical pitch), when Simone sang, her voice seemed full of passion and character – a voice that you couldn’t not take note of.
In recent weeks, I’ve been listening to several of her albums: 1974’s It Is Finished, 1984’s Live at Ronnie Scott’s and the mega ‘Best of’ collection, Sugar In My Bowl, which, on two discs, has 40 songs spanning the early part of her career.
Simone, a North Carolina preacher’s child, wanted to be a classical pianist but couldn’t get admission to a music school because she was black. She turned then to playing and singing in small venues and clubs, covering everything from jazz, gospel and blues to pop and R&B.
Many of her recordings are of songs written by others but covered by her in a style that is her own. On It Is Finished, she does a version of The Pusher, a song that was made famous by Steppenwolf but was written by Hoyt Axton.
Simone’s blues-soul version of what is originally a rock classic is unique. As is her cover of Mr. Bojangles, the country song that has been covered by dozens of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Arlo Guthrie.
Her own songs span an impressive range of themes. Mississippi Goddam, which became a civil activists’ anthem, was written after the bombing and killings of blacks in Mississippi and Alabama in the 1960s.
I Want A Little Sugar in My Bowl, a delightful blues song, was based on a composition with a similar title (Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl) by Bessie Smith, the early 20th century blues singer, but with Simone’s own tweak to the lyrics. But the one song that got her fame and became her first hit in America was George and Ira Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy.
Simone’s was not an easy life. Her early years as a performer were filled with long hours at small bars and clubs where she sang nightly. Her husband (a former New York cop) who also managed her career was abusive and violent (the marriage finally broke up).
And finally, after finding success as a prolific recording artist and performer, she had to live in exile in France for much of the latter part of her life because of taxes that she left unpaid in the US (as part of her protest against her country’s involvement in the Vietnam war).
I had read about Simone and her troubled life but last week when a film turned up, a biopic titled What Happened, Miss Simone?, with rare footage, interviews and narratives, it gave me a deeper insight into one of America’s finest musicians – as well as an inspiration to rediscover Simone’s music.
The film has some footage of her performances, which were known for their magnetic nature and her powerful presence. She often blended dialogue with the audience or just self-spoken words into songs.
Simone died in France in 2003. She was 70. Her discography lives on, of course, with her music frequently used by others – from filmmakers to rap artists.
As I wrote this, I was listening, back-to-back, to her versions of three songs: Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne; The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun; and Bob Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. All three are classic songs. Without doubt, Simone’s versions must have made their composers proud.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
I just managed to restrain the temptation to lead with this part of Download Central. Last Sunday at 8am, I used a combination of Airtel, Google Chromecast, my Internet browser, my laptop, my TV set, and (of course) my credit card, to watch in its entirety (three hours plus) the first concert of Grateful Dead’s last tour from Santa Clara in California.
I was, of course, in my bedroom. Trey Anastasio (lead guitar) joined the remaining members of the Dead (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) as did Bruce Hornsby (piano) and Jim Chimenti (keyboards).
The setlist was vintage Grateful Dead: think Truckin’, Alligator, Cryptical Envelopment, Dark Star, St. Stephen, Drums, The Other One and plenty, plenty more. Superb. The closest you could get to a Dead gig in Gurgaon.
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Last weekend in a curious case of serendipity, I found The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir, a documentary film by Mike Fleiss. The film is focused on the Grateful Dead’s co-founder, singer and rhythm guitarist but as expected, the spotlight is also on the late Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s legendary guitarist; on the band and its origins; on its cult-like followers; on the influence of drugs and psychedelics; on the 1960s; and all of the other things that any film on any aspect of the Grateful Dead can’t not cover.
If you’re not a fan of the band, it’s not a film for you — but if you are one, then it’s a must-watch. Weir who quit school at 16 to become the youngest member of the band in 1965 is at the centerpiece of the film and talks candidly about his experience; about Garcia; and about the pressures that fame had on the band members.
Also watch: Grateful Dead Final Concert 7-9-1995
And there’s rare footage that those familiar with the Dead will love to see – including one from the early 1990s of Garcia and Weir scuba diving at Maui, Hawaii, with one underwater sequence showing the former stroking the neck of what seems to be a giant eel with its head protruding from a cave, quite in line with what you’d expect Garcia to be doing underwater.
I mentioned serendipity in the beginning because this month happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead and all eyes are on its remaining members who have decided to go on one final tour with a number of concerts that start on June 27 in California and end on July 5 in Chicago.
The tickets for the actual concerts sold out in less than five minutes after they went on sale (scalpers will no doubt have a field day) and so have those for the several simulcasts that are planned in theaters across various cities in the US.
Although all the remaining members of the band (Garcia died in 1995) are aging – Weir is the youngest at 67, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are 69 and 71, respectively, and bassist Phil Lesh is 75 – the yet-to-be-staged final Dead tour is already a huge draw.
The Dead have been a touring act – by one estimate, between 1965 and 1995, they may have played more than 2,300 concerts and many of their die-hard fans may now be as or near about as old as the living band members are.
Then there was a story in the June 8 issue of The New Yorker magazine about how Weir was rehearsing with Phish’s Trey Anastasio in New York before the Fare Thee Well concerts begin because the phenomenally talented Phish lead guitarist will be filling in for Garcia at the concerts.
And the info that singer-pianist Bruce Hornsby has been enlisted to do duty on the keyboards, an instrument that has been an essential part of the Dead’s ensemble. Hornsby has played nearly 100 shows with the Grateful Dead in the early 1990s and is like an extended member of the band. Anastasio would probably need to rehearse more.
All of this information has re-created interest in the band for its fans, including probably the hundreds of mostly middle-aged fans in India, all of whom will likely have hoards of their music but few of whom will have had a chance to watch the Dead in the flesh.
And then, in another serendipitous dose, to mark the 50th anniversary of the band, music website Aquarium Drunkard compiled all of its Dead Notes – in flysheet format – accompanied with zipped downloadable files of iconic performances of the band’s songs (mostly from gigs in the late 1960s and the ’70s), which together makes a great collectible for an old Deadhead (ask me, I know!). It was, altogether, a pleasant series of fortunate events to mark a landmark anniversary of a band that I loved.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
It hasn’t been two weeks yet since Ornette Coleman, jazz saxophonist, trumpeter and violinist, died on June 11. Coleman was known for his unconventional style that became a genre named ‘free jazz’ (that name came from Coleman’s 1960 album of the same name).
The blues influenced Coleman’s music but it was iconoclastic for its time – creating controversy in the jazz world of the 1960s – because of its free form structure and non-conformist improvisation. Later, he embraced electric sounds – guitars and keyboards mainly.
And here’s some more serendipity: on Coleman’s 1988 album, Virgin Beauty, Jerry Garcia played the guitar on three tracks; and, in 1993, Coleman got on stage while the Grateful Dead were playing to jam on at least five songs.
If you haven’t heard Coleman or jazz ain’t your thing, those could be the entry point to one of the genre’s greatest innovators.
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Fifty-four-year-old guitarist, bandleader and lead singer, Warren Haynes, can be described as a ‘rockaholic’. Haynes fronts his own southern blues-rock band, Gov’t Mule; he played lead guitar and sang for The Allman Brothers Band (in two stints: from 1989 to 1997; and again from 2000 to 2014 when the band retired); he regularly plays with a host of other bands, including Phil Lesh and Friends, The Dead (which is a vestige of the original Grateful Dead), and The Derek Trucks Band; besides, he also records and performs solo. Read more
This one’s strictly for hardcore Deadheads. It took me nearly 20 years to discover Grayfolded, a nearly two-hour-long album divided into two CDs – Transitive Axis and Mirror Ashes.
Every time this column makes even the tiniest mention of the Grateful Dead or offers on its web version, a download link for one of their concerts, there is one guy, a friend, actually, but also a virulent critic of that band, who makes it a point of making a snide remark. There are many people who consider the Dead’s fans as drug-addled hippies who get lulled into a happy, semi-comatose state by the band’s improv-heavy meanderings. That certainly amounts to gratuitous stereotyping. Read more
In the late eighties when Neneh Cherry first burst onto the scene with her album, Raw Like Sushi, and won two Brit awards, she promptly melted one of them and got it crafted into jewellery, some of which she gifted to other nominees in the categories she won the award for. Raw Like Sushi showcased the then still incipient trend of hip-hop and rap but with an infusion of electronica, a genre that earned it the label trip-hop. The tracks on that debut album, including two major hits, Buffalo Stance and Manchild, brought her instant fame. And, more important than that, an enviably cool image.
Mud Morganfield and his half-brother “Big Bill” Morganfield play the blues. Sometimes they play together. I have a live recording of the two playing at the Chicago Blues Festival, doing songs such as Mannish Boy, Nineteen Years Old and Forty Days and Forty Nights, all songs that you can instantly recall as being standards sung by blues legend, the late Muddy Waters. No coincidence there because both the Morganfields are his sons. Remember Muddy Waters’ real name was McKinley Morganfield. Muddy died in 1983 but his two sons in their 50s–Mud’s the older one—keep his trademark Chicago blues sound and legacy alive. They play gigs. They cut records and have a considerably big fan following among blues aficionados. Read more