Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Music Never Stopped Over the Weekend (René Marie, Oliver Lake & more)

I was occupied with live shows all weekend. This month is pretty jam packed, with more coming up. 

Friday night, I played at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern. Every time I've mentioned playing there, before and after the show, variations on the same thing are heard: "I thought it was closing;" "Wait - it's not closed?" No, not yet, or else I wouldn't have played there. The last show is October 22, or thereabouts. Get your fill of pierogies and haluski while you can because everyone and they're mother are doing that now, keeping the kitchen staff running. 

Anyhow, the Love Letters played there, in our first show as a five-piece band, since Amy Kline has joined us on keyboards. We played third, so by then the evening was in full swing. The thing about the BBT is that the stage set-up is at the back of the room and the only things that get miked are the vocals. It's up to the band to adjust the stage volume appropriately. It wasn't until we were a couple songs into the set that I realized Amy's keyboard amp should have been set up on her right side, shooting the sound into the audience, rather than on her left, tucked behind Mike Prosser's guitar amp. Oh well, we had a good time. There were new people in the audience and they said they dug our set! Success on both counts!

Before our set, I climbed onstage with John Young and Kip Ruefle to become Husker Don't, the city's premiere Husker Du cover band. This had been planned long before Husker drummer Grant Hart died (the day before the show) so the evening was a celebration of the band and of his spirit. We were practiced just enough to know what we were doing, but loose enough that some of it was going to be left up to chance. In short, great time. If you want the set list, I'll put it in the comments.

John, from Husker Don't, played with his band the Optimists to kick off the show. Their sound is more power pop than the Love Letters, but they still put a lot of kick into their delivery, which might be due in part to new drummer Tyler. He, guitarist Steve Morrison and bassist Rick Gercak harmonize really well, so it got me energized for the whole evening. 

Saturday night, René Marie performed at the New Hazlett Theater. (For my preview of the show, click here.

It's pretty impressive when a singer can fill up a room with only the accompaniment of her bassist. Marie did that in her opening number - and she did it with a personalized version of no less than Bob Seger's "Turn the Page." Yes, her introduction made me think, "Uh oh," but she and Elias Bailey avoided the heavy-handedness of the original, making it swing and feel dramatic.

Marie told me during our interview that she took some inspiration from Nina Simone and, like the High Priestess of Soul, she wasn't afraid to blur genres during her set. From "Turn the Page" she went into her own "Black Lace Freudian Slip," a bluesy number that overflowed with sensuality. The set also included "It Might As Well Be Spring," Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" and "Rimshot," an original inspired by a desire to get drummer Quentin E. Baxter to give her that drum trick in a song. The easygoing rapport between Marie and Baxter made the singer crack up repeatedly during the song (maybe a few times too many) but it added to the singer's casual, friendly manner. (Which of course was not something you'd get from Nina Simone.)

There were no songs from Marie's Eartha Kitt tribute album I Want to Be Evil, nor did she sing "Blessings," the heartfelt, gospel-driven anthem that closed last year's Sound of Red. The latter song weighed heavy on my mind as I was writing the preview, in light of all the turmoil that has gone done in places like Charlottesville in the last month.

Regardless, Marie still left the audience in a good mood after her solid 90-minute set. Special appreciation should be given to Allyn Johnson, who substituted for the trio/s regular pianist. He might have learned the music on the fly, but his comping and solos were in the pocket, picking up on the Marie's vibe and groove.

The René Marie show ran from 7:00 to about 8:30 in part because Oliver Lake was performing with Jump Up, right around the corner and up the street at Alphabet City, the performance space connected to City of Asylum. All month, the space is hosting performances with jazz and poetry, which started when Lake was first brought to town in 2005 to perform with Chinese poet Huang Xiang. (That whole story can be found here.)

I didn't make it to Jump Up, still feeling like I needed some time at home to relax after the previous night's jumps around the stage. But I did catch Lake's set on Sunday evening, in a trio with Pittsburgh bassist Dwayne Dolphin and New York-based drummer Pheeroan akLaff (who also played in Jump Up). The music was pretty free and loose, and often times very spare. Dolphin coaxed gentle double-stops with just his left hand, while Lake emitted high shrieks and barbed low-end growls. There were times when I wished he cut loose a little more,  developing a more lengthy statement. Still, the atmosphere he created was strong, especially in the opening of the set, when the trio accompanied a video projection (behind them) of Lake reading a poem about the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

AkLaff fit right in with Lake and Dolphin when it came to keeping things open, but two pieces also found him playing variations on a Second Line groove. This approach wasn't meant to merely lighten the mood with something happy. It added more dimension to the whole performance.

During the second set, the trio accompanied poetry readings by Román Antopolsky (whose Spanish poems were translated on the screen), Dawn Lundy Martin and Jericho Brown. The musicians seemed to be holding back quite a bit, perhaps not to overpower the readers, so the combination was a little off balance. But the poets themselves were all dynamic readers.

Jazz Poetry month continues this week. Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel appears solo on Friday, with writer Osama Alomar and poets Toi Derricote and Maung Day. All of these shows are free but reservations are required (and seats seem to be going fast!). Visit www.alphabetcity.org for details.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

RIP Grant Hart

Right around the beginning of my senior year in high school, in the fall of 1984, I picked up Husker Du's Zen Arcade. Prior to that, I didn't know a whole lot about them. The previous summer, I worked in a used record store and the owner told me about seeing them at the Electric Banana, probably on some weeknight. I remember him describing Grant Hart in a way like, "this drummer with really long hair that was hanging in his face while he sang. And most of the time he was screaming." Remember, in 1983, a guy in a punk band with long hair was a rarity. Henry Rollins might have been growing his out by that time, but he was one of the few.

Then I heard a song from Zen Arcade (possibly "Chartered Trips") on Concrete Window's Friday night show on WYEP. Up until then I thought Husker Du was just a hardcore band (maybe I was mixing them up with the Meat Puppets early work, which was going over my head), but there was something else going on here. It was time to check them out.

Taking the double album home and throwing it on the turntable, there was so much to investigate: Greg Norton's chugging bass under Grant's giiddyup drumming that opened the album; Bob Mould's brutal but compelling set that opened Side Two, followed by the long and equally painful (because of all that screaming) Grant opus "What's Going On"; not to mention Side 4, which had a Grant song that - forgive me, man - reminded me of a band climbing up the charts at that time: Twisted Sister. It was followed by a 13-minute instrumental that seemed to drag on and on but was still compelling enough to make me come back and investigate it even further.

Punk rock was evolving in ways that I wouldn't fully grasp for a few years. I'm pretty sure that, on the same day I bought Zen Arcade at Jim's Records, I picked up a copy of the zine Matter which featured several people opining on the album and whether or not it made sense. Clearly, this was a big deal.

Looking back now, it's obvious that Grant, Bob and Greg couldn't care less about aligning themselves with any particular style. They were simply following their muses. (Grant would probably make fun of that assessment, but at the moment, it works.) Years later, Grant would talk in an interview about how punk rock was becoming limiting around that time and how he hated seeing the "uniforms" associated with it (anyone seen a black t-shirt with a band name on it and black jeans lately?). Say what you want about those guys, but they were brash enough to do what they wanted and let everyone catch up to them later. And we did.

While I was making this morning's coffee at 6:30, I heard the text alert go off on my phone. I figured it was something from Twitter or a reminder about how many texts I've sent in the last 30 days. Instead it was message from my pal/bandmate John Young, commenting on a previous text that I hadn't seen yet. "No no no," was John's message, which I figured was some joke about a show we're playing tomorrow.

But the inspiration for his message came from Kip Ruefle,  also a bandmate, who told us that Grant had died. I reacted the same way as John. It can't be. It's a rumor. It was all too close to home because the three of us are doing a gig tomorrow as Husker Don't - a tribute band to our Minneapolis heroes.

Of course these things are rarely wrong, thanks to the information superhighway. Although there were no details, other than the fact that Grant had been suffering from cancer, it was true. He was a mere 56. Damn.

There are plenty of Grant stories I could add to this: meeting them at Jim's Records a few months after buying Zen Arcade and having them autograph it with a ballpoint pen; only getting to see them once, on the Warehouse tour, at the point when they were playing that album all the way through (which they stopped doing a little later in the tour); and of course there's Grant's return to Pittsburgh when he played Howler's in 2009, but you can read about here.

And this is enough for now. He touched a lot of us, and because of the time that music came out and where I was, it still hits me the same way. "New Day Rising" still sounds like a song of optimism mixed with fury. "Keep Hanging On" is a simple message with a basic structure, but - goddam- with the passion that Grant has as he screams it at you, HOW COULD YOU NOT FIND THE POWER TO KEEP HANGING ON?

Thanks, Grant.

PS - "The Baby Song"? Hilarious, man. Loved that!

Saturday, September 02, 2017

CD Review: Mike Reed - Flesh & Bone

Mike Reed
Flesh & Bone
(482 Music) www.482music.com

Anytime I've taken a trip to another city for a jazz festival, there is usually one performance that makes me think I have become fully immersed in the whole event, or it makes something go off in my head that says, "This is the reason you came here." That voice starting screaming enthusiastically upon seeing Mike Reed's Flesh & Bone at Winter Jazz Fest back in January.

In the relatively intimate confines of the Glass Box Theater on the campus of the New School, drummer Reed's sextet played an intense set that was rhythmically straight forward with plenty of drive and room for four horns to go wild or calm down as the mood called for it. Marvin Tate stood silent throughout most of the set, but during a few transitions in the music, he added some pointed spoken word passages to the proceedings. Normally on the fence about this blend of disciplines because of the way the delivery can upset the flow, I walked away thinking, "I wish they used him more. That really added to the intensity." Speaking of intensity, I concluded my notes from that show with the scribble, "This is like Mingus, turbo-charged."

But the music they played that night, which appears on the Flesh and Bone album, has a back story. In 2009 Reed was touring Europe with his People, Places and Things quartet (with alto saxophonist Greg Ward, bassist Jason Roebke and tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman, who all appear here). Traveling by train from the Czech Republic to Krakow, Poland, a conductor told them they needed to transfer trains in the Czech city of Prevov. It turned out to be wrong information which the conductor intentionally told them, because it put the band (which included two African-Americans) right in the middle of neo-Nazi rally that had been planned for that afternoon. For several hours, the quartet was trapped in the train station, fearing for their safety, before a stranger found some riot police to help them.

Flesh and Bone doesn't try to chronicle the event specifically through its 11 tracks. (At the Glass Box Theater, there was no mention made of it at the show itself.) But it does have a sense of urgency and fire that runs through it, even in the tender sections. In addition to Reed's PP&P members, the group features bass clarinetist Jason Stein and trumpeter Ben Lamar Gay.

Back in January, I scribbled that Gay "just swore at us" with horn, after a particularly biting moment in "Conversation Music." He doesn't quite do that on this version, but this track offers plenty of dynamics during an opening section where Stein gurgles and grumbles and the rest of the horns play a minor riff behind him. This title comes from the term Duke Ellington used for music he once played, which allowed people to talk over it. In this case, the conversation takes a more ominous turn. By the end, Ward and Stein are weaving countermelodies around each other, not sounding sinister but still intriguing.

Along with the frenzy of "My Imaginary Friend," with a climax that gets some great screams from all the horns, Reed gets more subdued in the folk-like "Watching the Boats." He sits this one out, but Roebke makes an opening statement before he laying the groundwork for the horns to co-mingle. Tate raises the intensity of the whole performance, with long, vivid imagery that might not fully register on the first or second listen. Like the music, each new listen illuminates more of his points. His assessment of how "freedom" is spelled backwards ("Call of Tomorrow [My Life Up Until the Present]") is mandatory listening.

"Scenes From the Next Life" ends the album with a sound collage of bass playing (by Reed) and disembodied voices. It doesn't so much wrap up the album as simply bring it to an end. But after all that came before, and the subject, it's appropriate.

Flesh and Bone would have been considered an important album regardless, for both the powerful interactions of the musicians, the events that led to its creation and what it says about the state of the world. (For years, the common thought was that jazz musicians were treated better in Europe than they were in the States.) At Winter Jazz Fest, everyone was thinking about the way art reflects on life, and there almost seemed to be a heavy uncertainty for what the future might hold. In the last month, things have gotten even more divisive with the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Now, it feels like the album feels has taken on a greater significance, serving as a reminder that there is more we need to do.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

CD Review: Tyshawn Sorey - Verisimilitude

Tyshawn Sorey
(Pi Recordings) www.pirecordings.com

It's only been a year and a few weeks since I reviewed The Inner Spectrum of Variables, Tyshawn Sorey's two-disc suite of music for piano trio with string trio. During 2016, he also premiered a composed work titled "Josephine Baker: A Portrait" at the Ojai Music Festival, which made the New York Times' Best Classical Music of the Year list after it was performed at Lincoln Center. His trio debuted at the Village Vanguard (which now seems to be synonymous with greater acceptance for adventurous musicians like Sorey and Mary Halvorson, who also performed there in recent months), and played the Newport Jazz Festival. This year also saw a return to Ojai, reception of his Doctorate of Musical Arts and the beginning of his Assistant Professorship at Wesleyan University.

Of the five pieces on Versimilitude, two were commissioned for last year's Newport Festival. But the way the music flows from track to track - moving at a languid pace, rising and falling, staying in one place at length - it comes across like one larger, captivating work. The pauses between tracks don't last long, but all the open space amidst the compositions makes any more breaks unnecessary.

"Cascade in Slow Motion" lives up to its name, with pianist Cory Smythe playing simple eighth-note figures (rhythmically similar to Monk's "Misterioso") over Christopher Tordini's bass lines. "Flowers for Prashant," dedicated to filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, plants itself on rolling piano chords which Smythe embellishes with single-note additions in the right hand. Beautiful in its execution (Smythe's technique adds to the dynamics) it makes a rich melody out of simple figure, packing all the emotion of the subject matter into it.

"Obsidian," the other Newport commission along with "Cascade," also begins with spare, loopy electronics, not fully catching fire until well past the halfway mark of its 18 minutes. Sorey switches from woodblocks to trap kit, with Tordini rumbling below him, and they start to build, while Smythe hammers away at a low, thunderous chord beneath them. The rise in volume doesn't last, but this doesn't imply an anti-climax. Suspense has been created, and the trio has you hanging on every note and gesture, wondering what were those eerie closing sounds (bowed drum heads?).

Think about it too long and it's easy to miss the fact that "Algid November" has begun with spare piano chords. This might be a remote comparison, but early moments during the 30-minute track recalls the explorations that pianist Lowell Davidson recorded for ESP-Disk' with Gary Peacock and Milford Graves in 1965. It also got me thinking of Thelonious Himself, the solo session where Monk struck chords in a haunting, halting manner, as if he was unsure of them. Most of the focus remains on Smythe, who sounds like he utilizes electronics again, as notes cut off unexpectedly, like an edit has been made. He eventually begins repeating a note in the upper register, while unleashing chords and fragments with his other hand. This brings the trio to a boil until Sorey brings things down with an extended toll on the gong. And that's only two-thirds of the way into the piece.

While those four tracks could have satiated the intriguing listener, Sorey has another quarter-hour piece with "Contemplating Tranquility," which flows right out of "Algid November" with more gong rolls. It's safe to say that nothing like these last two pieces has ever been heard at the Village Vanguard, where he debuted them.

Who knows where Sorey will turn up next (he's appeared on albums by Roscoe Mitchell and Vijay Iyer recently too). But all that is secondary right now. Verisimilitude requires - actually it demands - multiple explorations. And it should be done from various angles and systems. When I listened in the car, I noticed Smythe's toy piano parts. Listening as I write this, Tordini's contributions stand out in greater relief. Short of giving play-by-play descriptions of everything, there's little more than can be said right now. And I don't want to spoil anything more than I already have.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

CD Review: Vijay Iyer Sextet - Far From Over

Vijay Iyer Sextet
Far From Over
(ECM) www.ecmrecords.com

Running order.

Once upon a time, it was an element of an album that was taken for granted. Songs (tracks, or tunes, if you rather) were placed in certain spots on an album for dynamic effect. A term even existed for the tracks mid-way through the side of a record that gave the listener a jolt to maintain their interest. They were called tent songs. It made perfect sense and was such a revelation to these ears because, without knowing the lingo, I noticed that happening on my band's first album. Aside from that, running order creates a "wow" factor, or in some cases a "yeah" or "damn right" factor. Think of the energy at the end of "Good Morning Good Morning" and the way it leaps into the upbeat drive of the "Sergeant Pepper" reprise. Or, on the same album, the way "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" wipes away the melancholia of "She's Leaving Home," going on some new wild trip in the process.

The significance of a running order isn't dead but it's not as valued as it once was, at least to consumers. Technology allows us to overlook, or completely miss, the relationships between tracks. This thought was driven home recently when a friend talked about buying albums online, lamenting how this act often requires one to purchase the album's lackluster songs along with the good ones. I shook my head. Once upon a time, there was no choice. Everything came together and while some songs might not initially stack up against the best tracks, they might come alive with repeated listens. (This brings up the whole wrongheaded issue of deciding immediately whether a song is good or not, which is a whole other can of worms.)

Far From Over, for which Vijay Iyer expanded his trio to a sextet of A-list associates, flows with a dynamic running order, which emphasizes the contours of his writing, the changes in mood and the way his group digs into all of it. Bassist Stephan Crump is aboard, but instead of longtime drummer Marcus Gilmore, Tyshawn Sorey sits behind the kit this time. Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, the third piece of the Fieldwork trio with Sorey and Iyer, is also on board. Graham Haynes (trumpet, electronics) and Mark Shim (tenor saxophone) complete the group.

Iyer can create suspense with the gentlest opening notes, which happens with "Poles." The track is one of those that requires several volume knob adjustments as it takes shape. The horns move together but gradually spread out over the beat, in much the same way the Iyer trio has toyed with the idea of groove. Things get a bit fierce during Lehman's solo, while Haynes calms down during his, and where Iyer shifts to Fender Rhodes. Rather than returning with the whole group, they end on this intriguing mood.

Haynes and Iyer work closely on two tracks that almost act interludes between the more complex pieces. "End of the Tunnel" and "Wake," which both include Haynes using echo effects on his horn, recall the spacier moments 1970s Miles Davis. In the former, Haynes does evoke the title, while Iyer's Rhodes resides at the front of the tunnel. Both are tracks relatively brief, but "Wake" sounds like it could have evolved into a longer piece, as Crump and Sorey both add color. But even at 4:47, it presents more intrigue that satisfies.

"End of the Tunnel" also acts as the thoughtful break between the laidback funk of "Nope" (listen on earbuds to appreciate the way Sorey is panned between the channels) and "Down to the Wire," where Iyer combines rapid piano figures and some taut rhythms, driven by Sorey. The pianist sounds like he could explode into a visceral attack at any moment, but he keeps things calm but complex. During Sorey's solo, all four limbs work freely,  in a manner that sounds totally in keeping with what preceded him in the song.

Iyer called some of these tracks "fiendishly difficult" and it can be felt throughout the album. After the maniacal theme of "Good On the Ground," before Shim digs into his solo, there's quick open spot which almost feels like a collective sigh of relief - or triumph really - that the septet made it that far. "In Action" also contrasts a funk backbeat with horn lines falling in odd places, in a manner that recalls Iyer's days with Steve Coleman.

But along with the complexity there are moments of beauty, like "For Amiri Baraka" a tranquil piano trio piece. This too comes between "Down to the Wire" and "In Action," another perceptive choice for the running order. "Threnody" begins gently with just the piano trio, eventually bringing in Lehman for a performance that builds in intensity, bringing the album to a passionate close.

Vijay Iyer has proven himself over the last few years to be a creative composer and performer, not easy to summarize easily. His work has received recognition too, which isn't always the case for artists like him. That being said Far From Over represents that strongest set of material in his catalog so far. While 2009's Historicity has been my favorite of his albums (combining his own work with interpretations ranging from Andrew Hill to MIA and others), this all original set presents a greater perspective of thecreative forces at work in his head.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Spoon and New Pornographers in Pittsburgh

I know I still owe a dispatch on the Johnny Mathis show last week, but I wanted to write about last night's Spoon and New Pornographers show at Stage AE while it was fresh in my head. 

"So who's headlining?"

"Is it a split bill?"

I heard that a couple times before the show started, and they were legitimate questions. Both Spoon and the New Pornographers could top a bill. Stage AE seemed like a much bigger venue for each band, compared to where they both played the last time they were here. (The NPs sold out Small's in 2015; Spoon was last here in 2014 at the Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead.) 

But the New Pornographers kicked things off. At 8:00 pm, they launched into "Moves," which goes back seven years to the Together album, which it also kicked off. No Neko Case this time around, but instead we were introduced to Simi Stone, who played violin, a bit of percussion and handled Case's vocal parts with ease. Longstanding drummer Kurt Dahle has moved on, but his successor Joe Seiders was aptly described by a friend as the band's secret weapon and I can't argue. He was in-the-pocket the whole night and sang harmonies on top of that.

Carl Newman (seen above) didn't have much to say between songs, which was fine because they only had 50 minutes to do their thing and they gave us a baker's dozen of their hookiest songs from all seven albums. At one point, it seemed like the set list had been written to incorporate all the songs that featured "uh-uh-oh-oh" vocals parts and the like, which was a fine recurring theme. It was great hearing all the layers of vocals in "Dancehall Domine" in person.

Among the surprises in the set, Newman introduced an "old prog rock song," which gave the impression a cover was on the way. Instead, they slammed into "The Jessica Numbers" from Twin Cinemas, which spends most of the time in 11/8 (I was able to count it last night) though it shifts towards the end of the verses. Again, kudos to Seiders for making it sound like he's been playing it for years and making sure that it rocked. Or swung, depending on how it's considered. Guitarist Todd Fancey did some shredding during this one as well.

Even though Dan Bejar was absent from the new Whiteout Conditions album and the show, Newman pulled off a powerful reading of the enigmatic one's "Testament to Youth in Verse," complete with its bell-like coda, which Stone and keyboardist/vocalist Katherine Calder made pure bliss. Speaking of Whiteout Conditions, the recent album contains some of Newman's strongest writing in years, blending major/minor chord hooks and sharp lyrics. Some of the best were in the set, including "Colosseums" and "High Ticket Attractions."

While they would've had me screaming like a Beatlemaniac in 1964 had "The Bleeding Heart Show" been on the list (click here if you want to see my true feelings about that song), they ended with "Mass Romantic," the title track of their debut album, with Calder singing the lead in the first half. Ecstasy had been reached. (Below: Stone, bassist John Collins, Calder)

After that, I could've gone home happy. Anything short of another set might seem anti-climatic to my head. But I was curious to hear Spoon. I haven't followed them anywhere near as religiously as I have with the NPs, and the last album I bought by them didn't quite do it for me. But I'm of the mind that a live performance can make all the difference, even in a big cavernous not-quite-arena as Stage AE. (Locals take note: I thought the show was going to be outside, which would have been cool with me, but it was inside.)

Spoon's set was more of a production. It began with Alex Fischel playing a long Fender Rhodes introduction in the dark. One almost expected flashes to go off, making the band magically appear next to him. Instead, the other four members of the band casually strolled onstage, and they launched into "Do I Have To Talk You Into It."

For most of the show, the band was back lit, with strobes going off and bright lights exploding at key points during some choruses. Britt Daniel even stalked to either end of the stage mid-song, though nowhere near as dramatically as Nick Cave did a month ago (not that it's fair to make a comparison). I don't want to deny Spoon any accolades for their success and longevity after 20 years, but the presentation seemed more in line with a band like Interpol - or another band that seems more serious.

The first half of the set leaned more on the band's riff songs, built on one or two note vamps, in the mid-tempo range. "I Turned My Camera On" sounded good but Jim Eno's beat was almost identical to "Inside Out" which preceded it, and took away some of the edge. But as things moved on, the energy and the mood picked up. When the bass was making my throat vibrate, the after-chorus blind flashes weren't as bad.  In one song during the encore, it seemed like they borrowed a trick from Mission of Burma, looping Daniel's voice and panning it between the speaker columns for a dizzying effect. While I would've preferred to hear more of Daniel's brittle guitar sound more often, the blend of Rhodes and keyboard-generated vibes brought some great nuance to the songs too.

By the time Spoon said its final goodbye, at almost exactly 11:00, they had been on the stage for 90 minutes, so there's no denying they know how to put on a strong, moving set. And now I do want to hear Hot Thoughts.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Johnny Mathis Interview

Johnny Mathis at a recording session in the 1960s, Photo courtesy of Columbia Archives.
Saturday, July 22
Johnny Mathis: The Voice of Romance Tour 2015
With the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Heinz Hall, Downtown. 8 p.m. 

Frank Sinatra might have been The Voice, but Johnny Mathis has The Voice. A few months shy of his 82nd birthday, Mr. Mathis sounds as youthful on the phone as he did on the recordings he made in the majestic-sounding Columbia 30th Street Recording Studios, starting in the late 1950s. Mitch Miller, the head of Columbia Records' pop music department, has gone down in history as one of the squarest figures in the music industry. Back then, though, he was right on the money, taking this self-described "jazzer" from San Francisco and pairing him with lush, orchestral arrangements.

Mathis was discovered at the Black Hawk by George Avakian, who ran Columbia's jazz department. The 19-year old singer soon made a life-altering decision, scrapping a chance to join the USA Olympic Team in favor of a trip to New York to record an album. Johnny Mathis - A New Sound in Popular Song (1956) paired him up with arrangers like Gil Evans, Teo Macero and the Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis for a set that included "Star Eyes," "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "Babalu." Listening back today, it's impressive to hear his distinct vibrato with some often swinging charts, and to hear him cut loose on "Angel Eyes," normally taken as a dark blue, cry-in-your-cocktail number. But the album only had moderate success. Soon Miller took over, trading the bands for the orchestras of Ray Conniff or Ray Ellis. And Mathis never looked back.

In advance of Mathis' appearance this weekend with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I spoke with to him this past Monday. When I asked, "How are you," at the top of the call, he replied, "Old!" He then left fly with the first of many laughs I heard during the talk. We covered a myriad of topics, from his voice to current recordings, to his experience with Mitch Miller and the way the acoustics of the Columbia Studio helped him to deliver an important note in one of his biggest songs. I only wish the audio would be included here. His speaking voice sounded as crisp as his singing voice and he often emphasized his words as if they were lyrics.

I saw you perform here five years ago. Within a few syllables I was completely blown away. So I wonder - how do you keep your voice in such good shape? Is there some regimen that you follow?

I was wondering that. I'm 81, I'll be 82 in a couple months. My voice teacher was really my godsend. My dad insisted that if i wanted to sing - and he was a singer, a very good singer but he had a big family so nobody ever heard him other than us. He insisted that we find a voice teacher. I said, "Dad, I don't need a teacher. I can sing!" But he was adamant about it. and fortunately we found a wonderful woman who taught me.

In some ways she might have been the catalyst not only because she taught me about the physical proprieties of singing - how to keep your throat open when you're singing, how to support your tones from the diaphragm, that sort of thing - which most opera singers know backwards and forwards. But she was an opera singer and she insisted that that's what would help me over the years. Just learn how to do it so you won't injure your vocal chords. And of course she was absolutely right.

As you were starting to perform, did you feel like you were coming up with your own style? Jazz musicians are always told, "Find your own voice." Your style with the vibrato - was that something you came into on your own?

The vibrato is a natural, physical occurrence. Ask Eartha Kitt. You can't control it. So no, I never thought of anything like that. Other than the fact that I didn't really like it. I thought it was girlish sounding, or something. I started singing at such an early age. Under [my teacher's] tutelage, I got a chance to go to the opera quite a lot. Living in San Francisco, I got a chance to meet a lot of singers who came through at the local jazz clubs. There were a myriad of jazz clubs in San Francisco.

I listened to all these people. Along the way I was concerned about my vibrato. But I learned over a period of time how to control it. And then [laughs] I forgot about it and said, "Well, that's the way I sound!"

I was listening to some new stuff that I'm doing with Babyface [Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds]. A lot of popular songs of the day. There it is! That vibrato that I've always been hearing. But you get used to anything. [laughs]

What songs are you working on? You're going to call it The New American Songbook right?

Yeah, Clive Davis is an old pal of mine. He was of course, for many years, the president of Columbia Records. He still advises me on a lot of things. He is the guy who decided he would like to produce my new album, he and Babyface. They came up with the songs. And a lot of them are good songs. It was kind of hard to find good songs in today's market that I really wanted to sing. But the kids like what they like, and of course that's the way that we grew up too, playing the songs. They came up with the Keith Urban song, "Blue Ain't Your Color." Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Wow! That's got to be great.

I love that! It's quite a project! We did "Hello" by Adele. "I Believe I Can Fly," R. Kelly. "Once Before I Go," Peter Allen. "Remember When," Allen Jackson. "Run to You," a Whitney Houston song. They're all songs the public are familiar with. It goes back to when I first started making albums at a very young age. I did it with Mitch Miller. We also sang songs that the audience were familiar with. Most of the songs I chose in the beginning were popular standards. You know I started singing int the '50s and '60s and there were a lot of novelty songs. Very much like nowadays. But that's kind of what I fall back on when I do my concerts. People like to hear songs that are familiar to them.

I wanted to ask you about Mitch Miller. Throughout history he's gotten a bad rap but he had a vision that really worked for you. What was your working relationship like with him?

The thing about Mitch was he was a classical oboist for one of the symphonies in New York, I can't remember which one. But he was absolutely adamant about wanting, as most classical musicians are...their whole life is spent learning their craft. And very few of them make a lot of money. Including Mitch Miller, so he wanted to make money.

So somehow he became head of popular music at Columbia Records. He worked with all of us: Vic Damone, Rosemary Clooney. And they were very boisterous about his ability. And he had none! He hadn't a clue as to what to do in the studio. BUT, he wanted to make popular songs. So he would give us these songs to sing. Most of them were trivial. I'll never forget Rosemary, when he gave her [starts singing Clooney's classic "Come On-a My House"]. But it ended up being a hit record for her. So we had that little thing going on with Mitch.

I was 19 years old, maybe 20 at the time. I was looking for somebody to guide me. George Avakian - God bless him, he's still alive and almost 100 years old now [NOTE: Avakian turned 98 this year] - signed me. We tried a little bit of jazz orientated first album that didn't impress anyone, other than some vocal pyrotechnics here and there on my part. We met Mitch Miller and I said, "Yeah, let's do something." So he came up with a pile of songs and handed them to me. It was as tall is I was. I picked out four songs. "It's Not for Me To Say," "Wonderful Wonderful," "When Sunny Gets Blue," and a song a new kid brought him, "Warm and Tender" by Burt Bacharach.

That was what I did in the studio. Mitch was there. He did nothing but stand next to me while I'm singing. While I'm singing, if you can imagine that, patting me on the back to [speaks rhythmically] make. Sure. That. I. Sang. On. The-beat. Be-cause. Jazz. Music. Does. Not. Sell. [We both laugh.]

And I was a jazzer, you know? He had to knock that out of my head. that's what he did. He was next to me and he went, "Sing. On. The-beat. Don't. Do. Anything. Otherthanthat." We got lucky.

And I've nothing but good things to say about Mitch. Other than all of the things that you've heard are true. Everybody hated him. Rosemary hated him. Tony Bennett hated him. Vic Damone hated him. Because he didn't know what he was doing and he got lucky with me.

Was that at a time when you didn't dare stand up to Mitch? Did you feel like you needed to listen to him?

I listened to anybody who... people who didn't even know what they were talking about, I listened to them. I was a kid! Wide-eyed, And also I have a very flexible voice. I could do whatever they asked me to do, vocally. It wasn't a big deal. I'm a jazz-orientated singer. Jazzers don't care what you do, you just do it! I was good fodder for them.

Mitch was just one of the many people..... I'll tell you this: I thought I was going to have more oversight when I went into the studio. But when I was singing and making my recordings, everybody was adamant about getting the instrumentation correct or hearing the sound of their voice right. But absolutely zero kind of help that I could get vocally. It was nonexistent. It just was not there because I guess they felt that if I was a signed, contract singer that I knew what I was doing. But I certainly didn't. And I needed all the help I could get. and the first person that gave me any parameters about singing was Mitch Miller.

Prior to that, would you be waiting for feedback, only to be told, "Great! Let's go to the next song"?

Well, mostly I listened to the people who did the charts, some of the great jazz artists were on my first album.

Like Gil Evans and Teo Macero.

And John Lewis, of the Modern Jazz Quartet. They were very nice and they were concerned about getting the arrangement done. Not a peep as far as what to sing or how to sing it. I was really quite on my own. All my great vocal heroes at the time - you have to remember that I was 13, 14 years old when I was heard by George -they were all girl singers. And jazz singers. I was really unstructured as far as singing on the beat, and singing with an orchestration. I was all over the place, and that's the way the first album turned out. I would sing pretty well and towards the end of the song, I would think, "Ahhh, this is BORing!" Then I'd go [yells out a high note], running off the melody.

Most of my vocal heroes at the time were girl singers. Chris Connor, June Christie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne. For some reason, those were the voices that I liked. I tried to emulate them.

I copied what I thought I really liked as far as vocalizing on a song. If I liked one person's rendition of i then ...[that's what I emulated]. As far as "Angel Eyes" was concerned, I remember falling in love with a version I heard which was quite different from the way the song was written. But you were guessing all the time! I never had anything I was adamant about when I was making those first recording.

George Avakian... was just interested in the fact that I was very young and I sang jazzy stuff. Because he was the head of jazz at the time. Eventually the fact of my youth and my inexperience showed up on that first album. I was really kind of happy when Mitch gave me some direction, vocally. [Laughs] And then it got kind of boring [for Mitch]. I said, "Now I know what to do!" And he wouldn't go away. Finally he did.

I think he was in the studio on occasion after that, when I did my first few albums. Actually I remember he was. Because Percy Faith hated him. Percy did my first few albums. He was a wonderful, wonderful composer and arranger. He was an artist in residence on the label at the time. So he was doing a big favor to accompany me with his orchestra at the time. And it was a big boost to my career at the time. God bless Percy Faith.

The Columbia 30th Street Studios - everything I've heard out of that place sounded wonderful. As you were recording it, did you get a feel for how rich it made the sound?

Absolutely. It was a church, and the record company bought the church and turned it into a recording studio. And it was absolutely the most wonderful place to sing in. I remember how Mahalia Jackson loved it. Because I used to follow her. For some reason, we got booked one after another. she just loved it. And I did too.

I did so many things in that studio that I could've never done any place else. For instance, the high note  in the middle of my recording of "Misty," I started singing in the hallway. And I walked into the studio [singing], "Onnnnnnnnnnnnn my own." [In the studio you could do] all sorts of crazy things like that! Because you felt so comfortable with the sound in the studio because it reverberated. And singers love to sing when the sound is reverberating.

I'm going to remember that every time I hear the high-note in "Misty" now.

Ha ha ha! I started in the hallway!

And back then, everything was recorded completely live with everyone in the same studio, right? You didn't do overdubs did you?

No, we didn't. And I did four songs in three hours for 20, 25, 30 years. Get or no get! You know - sometimes you didn't "get it" but it came out anyway.

I was wondering about that because I was looking at the discography on your website. 1964 was an especially big year because you have seven albums come out. I wondered if you did more than one album in one session. But you said it was...

Four songs in three hours. It was always that way. I'll never forget it. And God bless [arranger/conductors] Glenn Osser and Percy Faith and all the other extraordinary arrangers that I've worked with over the years. They had to come up with these ideas, you know? So many of the songs were standard songs. Quite beautiful, but very well known songs. So they had to do their take on a song better than [what had been] recorded thousands of times. I give them a great deal of credit. And they were working with a young, unknown singer!

But things took off within a few years, right?

Yeah, and after the success of my single recordings, [pauses] I had all my knowledge of songs instilled in me by listening to all these jazzers over the years that I had mentioned to you earlier. And they sang all standard songs. So all of my repertoire at that time, being so young, was all the songs I had heard all these jazz singers sing - Ella, Sarah, all the rest. That was my trunkfull of songs.

Then when I asked to make albums, Mitch was at a loss because he didn't know any of these songs. At least he sat in the studio and listened. Because when people like Percy Faith, who was a working artist himself, had a very little patience with someone like Mitch Miller who knew nothing about what he was doing. Shot in the dark all the time, all the time. He was quite a little bit intrusive and not very polite about it.

He was just looking to find successful songs. It didn't matter the quality of songs, or how it came about, or how it was recorded. But he was very much interested in making money. Which isn't a bad idea. A lot of people are that way. But Mitch was doing it with very little knowledge of what he was talking about. That's what got under the skin of all these learned musicians. He was a wonderful musician. He certainly knew nothing about making records.

After awhile, getting into the 1960s, would you be the one who picked everything - the concept for the album and the songs?

Yes. Along the way, I met people like Bob Prince, who very early on was in the studio as a young, aspiring producer. [Prince arranges and plays a few songs on A New Sound In Popular Song] He was also a wonderful musician. And he liked my singing. He helped me in so many ways. He was my liaison between the record company and the orchestra that was going to accompany me on my next project. I always have to remember to give him credit because I was at the mercy of the people who were in this building that I had never met. But they were the business people of the record.

So when it was time for me to make an album, because basically that's what I did a lot. The single records were kind of [the case where] I'd run in do something but I never thought too much about it because the songs were all new. They were all written by local songwriters, [who gave] me a little idea about the song. But other than that, it seemed that because I could really learn some of these songs really fast and go into the studio, record them according to their likes. The writer was always there saying, "Okay, that's very good. I like that."

One final, off-the-wall question. Since you came up in an era when albums were popular, do you have a preference in the vinyl vs. digital debate? Do you prefer records to CDs?

Oh, gosh. I never thought about it too much. There are people who have brought it to my attention, the differences. But I really don't. I know when I hear music and it's reproduced beautifully.

The only thing I noticed was the early recordings that I did at the studio in New York, the old church, how wonderful [it sounds]. And I never, ever was able to reproduce that sound or hear that sound on my voice after we stopped recording there. Everything sounded very flat. They lost the roundness because, of course, it was a church. Evidently it was just the right amount of reverberation in the walls and what have you. Because we've never been able to get that sound again.

By that time, we had hit the 30-minute mark. I still had a handful of questions (any artists you listen to that might surprise your fans?; will you please sing "When Sunny Gets Blue" this weekend?) but they'll have to wait for another time.