Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Bucket List: The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Out (1959)

I've always liked jazz, but I'm far from an expert, which is why I seldom write about the genre sometimes known as "America's Classical Music." However, Dave Brubeck's Time Out, the first instrumental jazz album to sell one million copies, is celebrating it's fiftieth anniversary this year so it's time to take a look at one of the most famous jazz recordings of all time. Time Out is the ultimate classic by Brubeck's quartet and it's one of those rare records that have always been appreciated by both jazz aficionados and pop music fans alike.

Time Out is famous for being one of the first jazz records to employ unusual time signatures. Until this album most jazz was in either 3/4 or 4/4 time. Brubeck dared to use 5/4 and even 9/8 time signatures while offering up some of the most melodic jazz ever put on vinyl. Brubeck's piano and Paul Desmond's saxophone received most of the attention even though the rhythm section of Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums were outstanding. Morello, especially, has never received the accolades he deserves for his unique work on this disc.

"Take Five," Desmond's only composition on the record, is the stunner and it became a huge crossover hit. It even broke ground on mainstream radio in an era of rockabilly, doo-wop, and teen idols. The LP's opener, "Blue Rondo A La Turk," with it's tempo changes and offbeat arrangement is the album's other standout track.

Why did this album and "Take Five" find their way on to the pop charts? By 1959 Elvis Presley's stock had already started to plummet, and the British invasion was still a few years away from shaking up the planet, so there wasn't a whole lot of quality pop music available. Maybe the answer is that during this dark period between two musical eras that became cultural phenomenons the public was clamoring for something more substantial and Brubeck's band simply found a way to satisfy that need.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mary Travers: R. I. P.

Folk-rock hit it big in the mid-60s. It became one of the dominant sub-genres of rock for about a decade with bands like Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds leading the way. Even today many bands continue to fuse folk music with their rock 'n roll. However, there was a time in the early 60s, before Bob Dylan plugged in, when real folk music actually generated hit records that were played on the radio. In the forefront were Peter, Paul, and Mary who became huge stars in 1962. The group earned gold records and won Grammy awards.

I've always been one of Peter, Paul, and Mary's fans and I will miss them working together because Mary Travers, the female voice of the group, died yesterday of leukemia at age 72.

Travers' beautiful alto had much to do with the trio's success. She was the lead singer on their hit single of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind," a tune that became their signature song. She also sang lead on "If I Had A Hammer," Leaving On A Jet Plane," and more. The trio can be credited, along with Joan Baez, for helping push Dylan's music into the mainstream. People who were not won over by his frequently off-putting vocal style soon realized how great of a songwriter he was by listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary cover his work. "Too Much of Nothing," another hit with a great vocal performance by Travers, is further proof of how good Dylan's songs were when performed by real singers.

All three members had a great sense of melody and harmony and they possessed a lighthearted stage presence that prevented them from coming across as too self-important. In fact, before PP&M, Noel Paul Stookey once pursued a career as a stand up comic.

I know the trio's liberal to far-left politics may not sit very well with a whole bunch of people. They were often visible at anti-Viet Nam War protests and civil rights marches and sometimes they even allowed themselves to be deliberately arrested for their causes. Forty-seven years after they had their first hit records their beliefs never wavered. Today I am asking anyone who enjoys outstanding vocals and great songs to look beyond their politics and thank Travers and her two friends, Peter Yarrow and Stookey, for their five decades of great singing together.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Black 47 - Iraq (2008)

The very left-wing Larry Kirwan has never been afraid to tackle deep and controversial subjects with his music. He has written about "Bobby Sands, MP," tackled homosexuality on Black 47's updated version of "Danny Boy," recorded a song titled "Bobby Kennedy," wrote about Paul Robeson, and named dropped James Joyce in a song.

Even for the outspoken Kirwan it is really brave, and maybe a bit over the top, to devote a whole album to the war in Iraq, yet that is exactly what he does on Black 47's latest CD, Iraq. He sings about "Sadr City," "The Battle of Fallujah," and honored war protester Cindy Sheehan with her own song. As always, Kirwan is very critical of the former Bush administration.

Much of the inspiration for Iraq comes from the real life experiences that Black 47 fans have shared with the band. Many of the soldiers who returned home from Iraq come from the side of the political spectrum Kirwan never crosses, yet his lyrics succeed in giving the brave men and women who fought for us overseas the respect they deserve. It is because of former and founding member Chris Byrne (a member of the NYPD during his Black 47 career) that Kirwan writes about the band's diverse fan base on his website. "Because of our background, we've always had as strong a fan base of right wing cops, firemen and conservatives, as of left wing students, radicals, and the working disaffected..." "Southside Chicago Waltz" is about one of these young Black 47 fans."

Production-wise, this is the loudest album the Celtic-rockers have ever recorded. The volume, especially Kirwan's electric guitar, is cranked up to ten, too often making the all important lyrics hard to comprehend. While Black 47 have never been a quiet band Kirwan's vocals have always been upfront and that is extremely important for a writer as literate as he. However, because his voice is often lost in the mix the tragic and moving tales are frequently buried under the noisy, industrial sounding clatter. That's unfortunate because the subject matter deserves more.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Richie Furay Band Live at the Sellersville Theater, August 30, 2009

Left to right: Richie Furay, Jesse Furay Lynch, and Aaron Sellen
On Sunday, August 30, 2009, The Richie Furay Band played live at the Sellersville Theater, in Sellersville, PA. Furay took the stage with his current band who, not coincidentally, are all parishioners of the church he leads in Broomfield, CO.

Furay played acoustic and electric guitar and handled lead vocals while his indispensable sideman, Scott Sellen, contributed lead guitar, banjo, pedal steel, keyboards, plus harmony and background vocals. Furay's daughter, Jesse Furay Lynch, contributed harmonies and played percussion, Sellen's son, Aaron, was the bassist, and Alan Lemke, Aaron's best man at his recent wedding over which Furay presided, was the drummer.

Don't let the lineup fool you. This band could really play. Sellen is one of those consummate, multi-talented sidemen who can shift gears and change instruments at the drop of a hat. Lynch is a very good harmony and background vocalist. She is pursuing a professional singing career and in June Furay traveled with her to Nashville for her own recording sessions.

The show featured a couple of songs from Furay's latest mainstream CD of 2006, The Heartbeat of Love, two songs from his devotional releases, and an old, yet never recorded, Furay composition sung by Lynch. The rest of the evening offered an excellent program of well known Buffalo Springfield, Poco, and Souther, Hillman, Furay Band tunes. In addition to "Crazy Eyes," we were treated to an electric version of "Pickin' Up The Pieces," and country-rock standards "Just For Me and You," "Good Feeling To Know," "Kind Woman, "Go and Say Goodbye," "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," A Child's Claim To Fame, and more.

The Heartbeat of Love is the first mainstream work released by Furay in more than two decades. Lynch and Sellen are everywhere on the disc and the latter co-wrote a few of the songs with him. There are many guest appearances by the bandleader's old friends. Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Rusty Young, Paul Cotton, Timothy B. Schmidt, and Kenny Loggins are among them.

The twelve song CD features updated versions of "Kind Woman" and "Let's Dance Tonight." Because of his Christianity I'm sure Furay avoided writing anything too provocative or controversial so most of the rest of the disc is full of new songs about love in all of its various stages. If you are not bothered by his overly syrupy lyrics (most of them feature the words "love" and "heart" in abundance) this disc is outstanding. "Callin' Out Your Name," "You and Me," and the title track are all great radio songs that could have been huge hits if released in the 70s.

The vocals, the country-rock arrangements, the production, and the overall presentation of the disc are superb. Furay can still hit the high notes with ease even though his tenor has deepened slightly over the years. Age has given him a fuller and richer voice and that is a good thing.