Thursday, September 30, 2010

Shanley on Sherman

My article on Allan Sherman is currently running on the first page of the Blurt website. You can find it here: There's a shorter version of it in the latest print issue, which should also be on the newsstands by now. (Newsstands, what an antiquated term.) I strongly encourage you to purchase that too, so the print media will stay alive. But start by reading about him.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Me and Van Dyke down by the Frick House

Van Dyke Parks played at the Andy Warhol Museum tonight. I never knew much of his own music until about two weeks ago, when I was taken up on a pitch I sent to Harp for a story on his current tour. It's actually his first tour too because he's never been on the road.

Mr. Parks is a ham, pure and simple. He's a sweetheart too. He gave me one of the best interviews I've ever done. I took him to the Frick Art & Historical Center today - along with Clare & the Reasons who are touring with him and backing him up. During Van Dyke's college years, he attempted to get in to a party at the Frick mansion that Helen Clay Frick was having for Arthur Rubenstein, in which our beloved pianist made it past the door but not into the parlour before Ms. Frick had him booted.

Here is a picture of me and him after our tour, which coincidentally was given by the mother of Andy Mulkerin, who wrote about him in City Paper last week. That's Pittsburgh for you.

Ironically, this almost didn't happen. When I heard Van Dyke was coming I was having a moment of doubt about my ability or desire in writing articles about music, so I nearly blew off pitching Blurt for about a week. IOf course I changed my mind and I'm glad I did because this turned out to be one of the most amusing days I've had in the last few months.

The Blurt article isn't up yet, so I won't give away more of his golden quotes. Keep watching.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rest in peace, Pam

My dear friend Pam passed away on Monday, after a long battle with cancer. Even though I prepared myself for this, it's still hard to take. I believe that she is the first friend of mine who has died. Sure I've lost relatives close to me, but never one of my running buddies. And she was up there on the Running Buddy list.

Pam loved music as much as me, having sung in a band and even run away to join the Doobie Brothers as a back-up singer. (Hold your salty Doobie comments out of respect for the dead, por favor; I am.) Unfortunately she was still a teenager and her mom made her come home. Later on in life she whooped it up with Rick James and Three Dog Night, the latter band being one of my favorites from back in the day, making us kindred spirits.

When she was getting ready for chemo last year, I wrote a set of lyrics that were like an open letter to her, and the Love Letters still perform it. The point of the song was not to give up hope, even in the darkest days. It actually worked for a while: when she went in to have a cancerous growth removed, it was gone. Alas she wasn't out of the woods, but for a minute I believed in miracles. Or positive vibrations. Of the latter, I'm still fairly convinced. We'll see if I can still sing it.

Pam could be rather dark and bleak, but she was also wickedly funny. And easy to crack up. I never heard her sing, but she says she used to do a killer take on Smith's version of "Baby It's You." I just hope the next time that comes on at work, I don't lose it and have to go running.

Pam, wherever you are, I love you. Keep an eye on me. And with God as my witness, I swore turkeys could fly. (In-joke. Google it for reference.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

CD Review: Steve Coleman & Five Elements

Steve Coleman & Five Elements
Harvesting Semblances and Affinities

Steve Coleman's liner notes for this album begin by explaining, "The main theme of this CD is the musical realization of temporal impressions. The recording of these compositions happened during the traditional time of the harvest [October 6, 2006], as the Sun was in the waning degrees of Libra. The previous full moon that occurred was the Harvest Moon, another sign that the harvest season was in full force...[M]y intent was a type of energy harvesting, i.e. the gathering, through musical symbolism, of the energy of particular moments." He goes on to say that the material is a musical interpretation of 13th-century philosopher Ramon Llull, who worked with numbers representing universal truths.

As time goes on, I personally feel that the idea of our lives being affected by vibrations could be true. It works on guitar strings when they aren't exactly in tune. The moon affects the tides. Get a bunch of people to think positively and who knows what'll happen. So maybe Coleman's thoughts about the timing of these recordings actually holds some ground. But still, most people will come back to the big question - does it swing?

The answer is yes. But it's still a pretty challenging listen. Of course, you ought to expect that from an album with a pithy title like Harvesting Semblances and Affinities.

The first remarkable thing that stands out on the album comes with Jen Shyu's performance. She is a vocalist who uses her voice like an additional instrument. Once in a while it sounds like she's using lyrics (She begins the album with a phrase that sounds like, "I sawwww a guy."), but unless she's garbling everything or singing in some strange foreign tongue, the bulk of her performance isn't words coming out of her mouth. Most importantly, Shyu pulls off the nearly impossible tasks of neither getting in the way of the other instruments or getting really annoying and ruining the music with bad theatrics.

Alto saxophonist Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and trombonist Tim Albright play some patterns together that feel pretty rigid. Tyshawn Sorey (drums) and Thomas Morgan (bass) are right there with them, either spurring on those oddly shaped phrases, and in turn giving them more clarity, or else they act as a counterpoint to them. It sounds funky, but not in the traditional sense. Don't expect 4/4 grooves.

Towards the end of the album, things get a bit too busy. Whereas "Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)" opens the album by displaying the potential of what will come as the album continues, its ending counterpoint "Attila 04 (Closing Ritual)" sounds tense and staccato and hard to appreciate beyond it's technical skill, most of that coming from Storey's accents. "Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation)" sounds like everyone is blowing for themselves, which contrasts with the earlier, 14-minute epic "060706-2319 (Middle of Water)" where it seems like everyone is playing a written part, no one is actually soloing and the end result in an unrelentless, but intriguing piece. Yet up until those final tracks, Coleman really produces a impressive and cerebral set that has as much emotion at its core as it has chops and numerical basis. If he can include a piece by a Danish composer based on a Latin text and make it fit within his own compositions - save for Shyu's more operatic performance - the saxophonist needs to be explored further and further.