Thursday, December 19, 2019

Antonio Hart in Pittsburgh, and Records

I sold some vinyl last Sunday at the Pittsburgh Record Fest #23, which happened in the afternoon at Spirit. It went really well, with a lot of vendors and a lot of buyers. Plus, I went in with four boxes of albums and a box of singles, and left with just two boxes of albums and a thinner box of singles. I naturally came home with a few things, but they were all pretty inexpensive. In fact, I obtained three of these albums in a trade for two A Certain Ratio albums, which is a pretty good deal, methinks.

The thing about a Record Fest though is that it takes time to prepare for it, if you're going to do it right. That means pricing things, which often means doing some research to figure what's a good price to fan impulse buys, without making things too inexpensive. (I didn't take anything high ticket stuff because most people aren't going there expecting to drop megabucks on a single record.) Because of all that, the time that I spent getting ready was time that I didn't spend right here, talking about new records and shows.

It was a foregone conclusion that alto saxophonist Antonio Hart would offer a good time to everyone who came out to his show on December 7. But his sextet took it even further at the New Hazlett Theater. They pumped up their straight-swinging sound with some deep melodic exploration and energy in two exciting sets.

Hart was flanked by trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and trombonist Robin Eubanks. Hendrix came to town with Billy Harper back in 2015 and released his own Jersey Cat album in the months following that show. If he hasn't made a name for his own self yet, his performance with Hart made him a name to remember. Eubanks has been around for quite some time, releasing albums on his own as well as supporting people like Dave Holland. Hart referred to him as a supportive older brother, who met the saxophonist when the latter was a Berklee student.

The rhythm section was a little  younger than the frontline but it consisted of players that give a listener hope for the future of this music. In particular, pianist Miki Yamanaka really fit that description, due to the way she comped aggressively behind the soloists, building up the music without intruding on anyone. She attended Hart's jazz program at Queens College and he joked that she wasn't his best student since late nights hanging out in jazz clubs made her miss a lot of classes. Clearly he knew, though, that her field work paid off, and so did the audience. Bassist  Alex Ayala and drummer Vince Ector also did a lot to create musical nets that pushed the horns forward.

Beginning the evening with the brief invocation "Peace, Harmony and Love," the group dove into a set that included "Black Children," a Hart composition that dates back to one of his earliest albums, Don't You Know I Care. The saxophonist's tone was a blend of crispness with a thick, beefy quality that comes from his early Cannonball Adderley influence. Hendrix also sounded bright and crisp.
But everyone in the sextet has worked to develop their own personality in their playing. Ayala's solos were extremely melodic. During "Down and Up," he spun a web with Ector during Hart's solo, and switched to walking when it was Eubanks' turn. 

The second set offered the most rewarding moments of the night. "Nine Weeks" was inspired a tour of that length that Hart endured a few years ago in Europe. This slinky number, in which Hart played soprano, eventually pushed towards freedom as everyone soloed together, expressing the tedium of long tour, but doing it in a way that was a blast to listeners. Eubanks' "Sum of All Parts" gave him a chance to show off his trademark blend of blowing and growling vocally during his solo. Yamanaka's "Early Morning" began pensively, with harmonies that created the sound of phantom horns early in the theme. It was a tender piece though it had enough aggression to consider it a ballad.

It was another fine evening presented by the Kente Arts Alliance.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Appreciating Caroll Spinney

By the time Sesame Street aired the segment that talked about store owner Mr. Hooper's death, I was in high school. I kept watching the show long after I aged out of it, but by that time, it was more of a joke. And I recall laughing with some friends about the segment - without, of course, having watched it. The thought of Big Bird dealing with death just seemed like it had to come off as maudlin.

Then, around the time that youtube was running whole hog, I saw the segment. And it crushed me. By just thinking about it, I have the same reaction I get when thinking about, or seeing, George Bailey pleading to Clarence that he wants to live again in It's A Wonderful Life. (When his brother Harry toasts him in the final minutes of the film, I have the same reaction.)

The writers of the Mr. Hooper story are largely responsible for pulling off a smart but difficult task, but a lot of the credit goes to Caroll Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird from the very beginning of Sesame Street. He conveys the reaction a typical six-year old might have while coming to grips with death. "Why can't things be like they were," he demands. It's the heaviest line in the whole scene because it sounds real. The whole segment was done with skill and grace. It doesn't dumb it down for the kids. The first time I saw it, I was bothered that Gordon explains it away with "just because." But I later saw an interview with Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon. That "just because" refers to a previous segment where Big Bird explains while he's doing a funny walk down the street: "just because." It was seen as something a kid would say when they're just doing what they want without any cares. Maybe it oversimplified the discussion of death, but it's done in a way that kids could understand.

Now Caroll Spinney has joined Jim Henson and Jerry Nelson at the Television Workshop in the sky. It's the end of an era.

Full disclosure: Big Bird was never my favorite character on the show.  That distinction probably goes to Cookie Monster. Yet his constant flubbing of Mr. Hooper's name, while the shop keeper was still on the show, was comedy gold to me. Especially since Big Bird carried on blissfully even when Mr. H barked out the correct way to say his name.

Besides, Spinney also voiced another fave on the show: Oscar the Grouch. I loved that Spinney based the voice on a grumpy cab driver who asked, "Where to, mac?" on his first day of work on Sesame Street. And Oscar's low, "heh-heh-heh" laugh was something that I took away from that character. I also thought it was hilarious when Oscar called Big Bird an "overstuffed bag of giblets." I didn't know what giblets were as a kid, but I didn't need to. It was funny.

All of these anecdotes from the show date back at least 35 years. Maybe I'm just the unusual type to keep these things in my memory bank, instead using that brain space for more productive things. Or maybe Caroll Spinney was really good at what he did and knew how to make an impression on viewers.

Either way, I salute and thank him for his work.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Where Have the Last 4 Weeks Gone? or The Harry Von Zells Make Their Debut

Shameful. Awkward. It's been a month since I've done a damn post about anything, let alone new releases or previews. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt about it, rather than channeling those emotions into action and that action into words. Not that I'm beholden to anyone with the blog but me. Maybe that's the problem. 

Not that there hasn't been a lot going on. There's been plenty. I have been writing for Pittsburgh Current over the last few weeks and getting a review or two penned for JazzTimes. Then there's the holidaze. Thanksgiving usually takes a lot out of me. In fact, that happened literally a couple years ago. My asthma was acting up so bad that after dinner, I drove myself to the ER because I felt short of breath and my inhaler wasn't doing it for me. (The wine with dinner didn't seem to help.) Plus, Thanksgiving is equated with loss in my brain. When I was 14, my great-aunt - who was like a surrogate grandmother on my mom's side - passed away the day before Thanksgiving. The way I found out made it even worse. I was out collecting the weekly fees for my paper route from customers. I got to the house where my aunt lived on the top floor, and my mom met me at the door and told me they found my aunt, who had apparently had a heart attack and died. Her sister, who lived with her for years, had passed five months earlier. 

Then five years ago, my dad passed the week before Thanksgiving. I think I've covered that in other blog posts, so I won't revisit that too much. I might have also talked at length about my aunt too. 

A few weeks before this Thanksgiving, I got word that a local jazz drummer, Carter Freije took his life. I had just seen him play with Michael and Peter Formanek and Patrick Breiner. Five days later he was gone. From what I've heard, he had been doing everything he could to keep himself from falling off the edge. It's hard. Let's look out for one another.

On a brighter note.....

....I finally got back onstage with a new band last week!! Yeah, that's me up above for anyone who might not realize it.

The Harry Von Zells made their debut at Howlers on Black Friday. The band is named for the late great radio announcer Harry Von Zell who also appeared on TV on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. In broadcast history, one of his big claims to fame was that he accidentally referred to President Herbert Hoover as "Hoobert Heever." I know him from a record of radio broadcasts featuring the Marx Brothers, in which Von Zell cut up with Groucho on Birds Eye Open House. My wife and I both thought it would be a hilarious band. Knowing that it might just be us that liked it, I was pleasantly surprised when I ran it by the band and they were cool with it. There's another local band called the Zells, but one of them works with me, and he gave me the okay when I ran the name past him.

This is the result of a collaboration with guitarist Erik Cirelli that goes back over about a year. He and I first got together to do some free improvisations. Then I thought it'd be cool to play rock with him. As the Love Letters came to an unceremonious close, Erik and I started looking for people to play with. We lucked out because Michael Cunningham, who sang and played keys in the band Neighbours, was interested in getting back in the saddle too. Then Erik remembered a cat named Nathan Figlar, who had played with in a few sessions.

Practices were dicey because we're all adults with adult responsibilities (I'm guilty of having the most inhibiting work schedule too) and gone are the days when live revolved around getting to the practice space, come hell or high water. Speaking of which, we realized that it would be better to have a practice space rather than do it in my basement, where we would be limited by my son's sleeping hours and where I'd have to do battle with laundry piles prior to having the guys over. It's been over 20 years since I've rented a space but it's nice to have one again. We're at a Guardian Storage building, which means that in my mind, that company make my brain automatically think about music, since the record collection I bought over the summer was being stored at a Guardian building. Now here I am making music at one of those places, able to crank up to an uninhibited volume level. The dopamine is flowing in my brain.

After a show, I usually find some element of it that gives me some sort of let down: turnout, mix, something about the way one chorus sounded, etc. That didn't happen last week. None of it. Some friends, from far-flung corners of my life, came out for the set, which always puts me in a good frame of mind. Plus there were others that I didn't know who were there. (I think our volume cleared the room for a bit, but hey, I'm okay with that.) And we played really well.

It was an eight-song set, which ended up being about 35 minutes total. We kicked off with a cover, though only about two people in the room probably recognized Big Dipper's "Stardom Because." I've wanted to cover that song for several years, and even got an accurate set of lyrics from Big Dipper's Gary Waleik and Steve Michener. Years ago, I might have been superstitious or self-conscious about launching a new band with other people's tunes, but I've always had a fondness for the song's musical question, "What ever became of all of the famous, who never got started?" I relate to that line - not because I have delusions of fame but because I feel like the bands I've been in have always kind of missed the boat. I also feel it encompasses Big Dipper, not to mention the co-composer of the song, Michael Cudahy, who played in the greatly underrated band Christmas, in the '80s/early '90s.

So, yeah, it was a good start to a new band. No upcoming gigs scheduled yet. At this point I'm gearing up for the Pittsburgh Record Fest #23, which is happening a week from today. For the first time in two years, I'm going to be selling at it., with a bunch of things from the big purchase of the summer. That preparation has been another thing swallowing up time. Hopefully more posts will come though.