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Archive for February, 2011


When I was seventeen and a senior in high school I decided I wanted to play piano again. I had taken lessons until I was twelve, then got bored with my teacher and practice – not untypical for a sixth grader. By senior year, I had rediscovered music, but wanted to play it on my own terms. My parents agreed, in that it was clear if I was going to take lessons, I was paying. They already had one son studying music in college, and I think, at least subconsciously, they were reluctant to have another.

A kid I knew at school suggested I take with his teacher. I was thinking rock and roll – I loved Nicky Hopkins on the Stones records and his performance on the Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Just For Love”.

I didn’t get rock and roll. The teacher was a jazz teacher, and a formidable one at that. His name was John Mehegan, and he had literally written the book on jazz piano improvisation. I didn’t know any of this about him – I was an idiot seventeen year old. I showed up at 10:30 on a Saturday morning and he put me through the paces. He had me return to classical piano to learn fingering. He taught me voicings and a modal approach that I still carry around with me today, even though most of my songs are three chords and a little bit of the truth.

He wasn’t interested in me if I hadn’t practiced. One week I hadn’t done anything, and he walked out in the middle of the lesson. I stayed there until my time was finished and left. The next week, an assistant appeared, and I had the assistant for a month. One week I worked extra hard on “All The Things You Are”, and the next week, Mehegan reappeared, as if I had passed some test.

He also had me listen. He gave me a list of records to go out and buy. I went down to Klein’s on Main Street in Westport, CT and Sally, the queen of the record shop, guided me to the jazz section, where I bought music that was very foreign to me. I lay down on my bed at home, put on the cheesy earphones I bought at Radio Shack and listened. Over and over. Blowin’ the Blues Away by Horace Silver. The Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson (monster album). Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock (another monster album). I had already fallen in love with Les McAnn and Eddie Harris’s “Swiss Movement”, and of course the song “Compared to What”, which defines blues/funk jazz, with his amazing vocals on it, recorded right at the height of the Vietnam War.

A lot more – all kinds of stuff I never knew existed. I listened to all of it over and over again, trying to understand what was happening.

And then there was Kind of Blue by Miles Davis – with Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderly and Wynton Kelly (for one song), and the impressionistic playing of Bill Evans, defining modal harmonies. Paul Chamber’s bass notes – that soft, ascending riff that opens up the whole album – were like a secret, a hint of what was to come. Mehegan gave me the chord progressions and voicings of “So What” and I almost wet my pants when I played those amazing chords and the sound came out of my own fingers.

I’ve been thinking about Kind of Blue lately, and the other music I listened to that year, late in high school, because it strikes me that it’s rarely that I listen to music so intensely anymore. I could sing every solo that Miles played (still can, when it comes on). I knew the first note of every tune before it played, and could also predict exactly how much space was between each track on the recording. Because I listened to that stuff so intensely, it influenced the way I thought about music and played it. It made me a better musician to know every note, every hesitation and slur and chord change involved.

And of course, it wasn’t just jazz, though jazz was terra incognita, and therefore more impressive to me. I wore out the grooves on Crosby Stills and Nash’s first album. And Who’s Next, too. My girlfriend gave me Blue by Joni Mitchell (one of the truly great albums of all time, to my mind), and I learned every phrase. Love helps, of course.

Are there albums out there today that will define a genre of music, or a trend, or a period, like Kind of Blue did, or Blue, or Rubber Soul, or even Graceland? What new recordings bear a hundred listenings? Do we listen that closely any more?

Very rarely. There seems to be too much music, even though much of it is unbelievably wonderful. Now, music serves as soundtrack, not as a proposition demanding center stage. I have tried, lately, to just lie down and listen to one recording. I should just choose one album and listen over and over, and give it the care that the musician gives to it, until I know every note – then I would learn from it – something different from what I get from a cursory listening to see if I “like” it. I suppose part of it is that my hard drive is full, and my mindset is more rigid than it was when I was seventeen. But part of it, most of it, is time – which is, after all, what music is made of. Music requires time. Just like life. Just like love.

What recording does it for you?

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As some of you who read this blog know, I was nominated this year for a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word Recording for Children category.

And if you know that, you may know that Julie Andrews won in that category for her reading of a book of poems she wrote with her daughter. Spoken word is an odd category – it’s mostly people reading books – as before, I was the only storyteller in the category, who works by and large without written text – so it’s a little apples and oranges. We need to work to get more spoken word artists into the category. I’ll think about that.

And then, well, the winner of a category often wins not because of a particular recording, but often because of their body of work. This is a little unfair for someone who has a truly great recording, but it’s the way it is. This year, for instance, I think Justin Roberts richly deserved the Grammy award in children’s music – Jungle Gym is a wonderful recording. But Pete Seeger (one of my biggest influences) was in his category. If you didn’t know the recordings and looked at the lineup, who would you vote for?

But, like they say, getting nominated is already being a winner, and there are a lot of other things that go into determining who wins other than artistic merit of the recording. That said, winning is more fun – I love Julie Andrews, but I would have liked the award.

I digress. I went this year, knowing my chances were pretty slim. I was disappointed when they didn’t call my name. But getting to go, I met some pretty interesting people. The night before, I got to sit and watch Julie Andrews get a lifetime achievement award. She was gracious and eloquent, and I felt a nail in the coffin as far as winning goes. The Ramones that were left and their various family members were still rebellious, and that was heartening. I had a nice talk with Roger Linn, another honoree, who revolutionized the music industry with his drum machines of the late seventies and early eighties, and is still creating stuff. He explained some of the projects to me, and I really wasn’t sure what he was saying, but it sounded cool.

At the nominees reception the night before the awards, I ended up in line with a Nashvillle writer (you can tell by the hat) there for the first time. I gave him the rundown of what would happen in the various lines, having been there before, and we had a great time. Halfway through the line, I learned he was Allen Shamblin, up for best song of the year for “The House That Built Me”, and also writer of “Don’t Laugh at Me” – a great song on bullying that I have sung, and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” – sung by Bonnie Raitt – which I think is just about a perfect song. We were pals before I realized who he was, or otherwise I would have been a little tongue-tied.

Later that night, I ended up in a conversation with someone else in a line. I had voted for Gregory Porter in best jazz vocals because I loved his music – didn’t know anything about him or what he looked like. There he was. We took pictures and traded e-mails. He’ll be more famous than he is now – he can really sing.

And finally, after I lost to Julie (no, didn’t meet her) I sat in the Staples Center to watch the show next to a very elegant couple, and shortly found out I was sitting next to Albert Bell, the head of Stax records during the sixties. Present at the creation with Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, and Booker T. and the MGs. Then, I was tongue-tied. I finally said, “You were the soundtrack for my growing up.”

He said, “Glad to hear you have a little bit of soul in you.”

I responded, “Some folks are even whiter than me.”

So – tell me who the winner is here.

A lot about the Grammys is ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. It’s inevitable that there is a grasping for attention in the entertainment business. The posturing and preening is stunning, as is the sycophant aspect. If you’re famous, people want to be around you for very weird reasons. (Not that such a thing happened to me for Spoken Word for Children – kids just shake hands with me and give me their cold viruses)

But watching Mavis Staples break down into tears when she learned she had won her first Grammy, you knew that there was something else going on other than fame, fortune and glitz.

Just lucky to be there. And glad to head home.

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