Thursday, February 27, 2014

What About The Blues?

"The blues is quicksilver
  It is not a quotation
  If it becomes a quotation
  It becomes irrelevant"
-- James Baldwin  

Can the blues be funky? Just to ask the question could be an insult to Mother Blues. The black experience has given birth to so many uniquely American art forms -- field hollers, gospel music, black realism in painting, art, literature and film -- and the blues! "I love the blues, she heard my cry..." The blues is like the Mississippi, a great tributary nourishing jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll -- and funk too sprang from her delta. In the broader sense of a 21st Century funk that subsumes the earlier criteria of both soul and funk, a true blues performance will be funky soulful, funky down-to-earth, alternately joyous and heart-wrenchingly sad. And since the blues itself gave rise to the original funk music, how could the blues be anything but funky? The answer is: only when the blues is not the blues!

There is much that is ersatz in our modern life. The pressure to constantly produce products that are new, the push to get us opening our wallets, these forces create much that sizzles but fails to nourish. Somewhere around 1968 a modification to the Marshall amplifier increased the volume of the rock band to a thunderous din that still continues. There are many practitioners of amplified blues that mistake loudness for excitement, divorced from the history and tradition of this great Americana. Trust me, I'm not going to launch into a criticism of middle-aged, middle-class, white guitar slingers. In spite of mass media fanning the flames of ignorance, the great majority of contemporary society is beyond ageism, thinks in terms of culture instead of race, and there is no more middle class, we all have a right to sing the blues.

Instead this is a cautionary note. Don't assume because you are paying obeisance to the form that your art automatically acquires validity. Balance and interplay between the musicians, an ability to evoke emotion from a single note, a feeling that transcends intonation and above all an inner quest for truth that will not allow a single meaningless note, these qualities will put the funk in your blues. An electronic tuner should be as foreign to the bandstand as a music stand. Don't use a pedal on your guitar rig when you can put a microphone on your beat-up overdriven amp and a good sound man will balance your performance for the listeners in the larger venues. Please don't sing a song that you haven't lived.

Don't sing "She caught the Katie and left me a mule to ride" unless your baby flew off in a jet plane and left you with a beat up Honda Civic, and you at least provide your audience a brief explanation to frame up your anachronism. By analogy, this line of thinking goes on and on. I don't think you can "pitch a wang dang doodle" if you never visited a get-down club where you had to be polite and watch your back while reveling just the same. It's OK if you never knew anyone named Abysinnian Ned, but at least know what the lyrics are talking about. Don't invoke the bravado of Muddy Waters "I'm A Man" or Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" unless you've got a rap sheet, or you're portraying the persona of a good friend who does.

And finally, be very careful about trying a note for note copy -- even the original artist wouldn't copy their own recording. Your love and respect for a given artist should include an understanding that we are all continually changing and the honesty of the present trumps a slavish replication of some golden moment from the past. Study your predecessors and become accomplished, but find your own voice. Develop your own style, try an open tuning on some songs, use appropriate alternate chords, don't play the same turn-around on every song. If the original was a rhumba, try a reggae beat. Will that medium tempo work as a ballad? Can you rework that country blues into a big city sound with your horn section? How about letting the horns or the rest of the band hit the bar while you do a couple of unexpected a capella numbers?

Bluesman, be true to your own soul. Then and only then will your blues be funky.

"Junior may be younger and stronger, but Grandpa knows how to go 'round a whole lot longer."
 -- Magnificent Montague

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.“ -- from “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

African Science -- CD Review

A delightful, well thought out CD! African Science takes the listener on a journey, from the insight of The Lesson, and the joyous syncopation of the title tune, on through a rainbow of moods: backbeat modernity, inspired poetry, African ebullience, a salute to First People, the time machine of a soulful Ragtime, a funky Mambo, and an achingly accurate chanted portrayal of the hold of a ship in the Diaspora. Carlos Joe Costa and the other gifted talents gathered around him create a series of audio vignettes, pleasing and thought-provoking. Get it online at CD Baby, iTunes and more. I play tenor sax on Colours and Deep Fried Mambo...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why you wanna play that?

I enjoyed hearing jazz organist Jack McDuff making his performance philosophy clear on a recent KCSM broadcast interview. Re musicians who would sit in and ask to play an old standard, like All The Things You Are: "Man, why you wanna play that? Nobody wants to listen to it!"

Because I started playing sax in 1955 my personal taste meshed with the rock 'n' roll boom. At the same time I came to dig this new music's R&B roots thanks to KWBR (later known as KDIA) and early KSAN on the AM dial. And Blue Note jazz could be heard on KROW AM late at night -- great days for San Francisco, Oakland and the Bay Area when all that was coming at us new!

So I learned to treat anything with a swing or shuffle beat as hopelessly ancient. Louis Jordan an old fogey -- Ray Charles version of Let The Good Times Roll the definitive one for my generation. Big band swing -- boring...

Within a few years sixteenth note funk was the hottest thing going: Get Out Of My Life Woman by Lee Dorsey, anything with a Jamey Jamerson bass (we didn't know who was who in those days - just called it Motown) -- dance styles defined the mid 60s...

Then the Fillmore and Avalon blossomed starting in 1966 and everything came together. Blues roots, psychedelic newbies (most of 'em really didn't play that well -- my favorites in that era were Moby Grape and Quicksilver) -- and horn bands -- Linda Tillery & Loading Zone, Sons of Champlin, Cold Blood, Electric Flag. Then Charles Lloyd's Forest Flower recorded live at the Fillmore (one whole side of the LP was a one chord exploration) and Miles Davis had a new sound with Filles de Kilimanjaro, and of course Bitches Brew.

Country Joe & the Fish were better than they get credit for, and the only "hippie" group to live by the new ethic. They took their album proceeds and opened up the "Free Store" in Berkeley and only closed it when too many abused the privilege -- that was an instructional exercise! Santana "Blues Band" and Sly & the Family Stone were like rooting for the home team. And The Doors, The Seeds, anyone from LA were the enemy. Blood Sweat & Tears, Chicago Transit Authority -- scholarly carpetbaggers coming in to rip off our scene -- grudgingly had to admit they were really good, maybe even great. Earth Wind & Fire were rehearsing in Carmel Valley in their early days, and even though they smelled like LA money there was enough soul and musicianship there that they could come on in, and even Kool & the Gang were almost counter culture R&B when they started out.

So that's why I can't hang with the blues revival, and I don't fit with the be-boppers and Real Book crowd. And I don't fit with younger soul burners because I was dismayed when even soul music got almost too slick -- don't know the book for Ohio Players, Parliament/Funkadelic -- even my James Brown knowledge stops shortly after Sex Machine and Cold Sweat. About the time I quit playing for a living Put It Where You Want It was a new song. Anyway, there was such a proliferation of new music in every genre starting in the 70s that I quite comfortably dropped out of "the scene" in early 1972, went to school for a career in the new "digital electronics." If I hadn't got that AA (or pretty damn close, just lacking one political science and one ethnic studies course) I wouldn't have the retirement pay I have today -- at least I can make my "nut" -- unlike some of my musician friends who played straight through and have to keep playing.

Luckily I have time now to write and study. I recently spent about 3 days analyzing and charting out Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance." This is the type of song we would incorporate into our show circa 1970-71. We would cover Sly, the Isleys, Aretha, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers "Does Your Momma Know About Me," Detroit Emeralds, Temptations, ChiLites, James Brown, James Brown, James Brown -- and for instrumentals we'd do Grazin' In The Grass, Listen Here, Live Right Now (Eddie Harris), My Money's Funny (Frank Samuels & the Kinfolk) and we'd come up with originals that sounded like Miles at the Fillmore. We could take the last chord of any tune and turn it into a 2-3 minute jam. If we could have done it as good as Charles Earland, we would've played Dolphin Dance -- certainly not "All The Things You Are." And the beautiful thing about gigging for mixed audiences circa 1968-1972 was that you would get over with a soul and R&B format -- even including "far-out" jazz -- of course, not too much of it, and wait for the right moment.  
Listen to:  Dolphin Dance -- Charles Earland -- YouTube 
Chord chart at Don Baraka's Studio Update

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Funk hero Pete Fallico

Yes, a heroic figure! Pete Fallico, supporting great artists who choose the Hammond B3.
                                      Great article by Richard Scheinen,
Photo by Patrick Tehan, Bay Area News Group.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

San Francisco Mime Troupe

In the broader sense, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is funky -- creative, immediate, unpretentious, of and for the people. Funky is not the first word one would call on to describe their art. "Guerilla theatre" perhaps, but they are nonetheless funky using the 21st century definition...

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Gil Scott-Heron remembered

While America celebrates February as African American History Month, and Public Broadcasting offers a wealth of fascinating, interesting and provocative programming, just the same I'm reminded of some wry commentary offered by the great poet, songwriter and performer Gil Scott-Heron.

It was the early 80s, and he appeared mid-week at Santa Clara University on the San Francisco Peninsula.
Expecting to see at least a quartet with bass, drums, flute and Gil Scott-Heron singing and playing electric piano, to my surprise he was doing it solo! Sitting at a Fender Rhodes piano, his first set was an informal hour, mostly conversation.

It's been said that a clue to a person with a good intellect is a sense of humor, and Gil certainly evidenced that. His presentation was closer to stand-up comedy than the fiery revolutionary poetry and soulful music I had hoped for, but the audience was engaged, his witty humor an unexpected facet of his personality.

As Mississippi bluesman John Blues Boyd says, "The truth will make you laugh." 30 years later I smile as I recall Gil Scott-Heron describing his search for some good soul music or jazz when he would get to a new city. In the earlier days of his career not every radio received FM, and there was a lot of music on AM, so he described his search for music on the AM dial.

Basically, you might start at the left side where the lower frequencies had more power and often belonged to network stations, but no dice. In order to find Black music you had to go farther to the right, where the stations were crowded together in the less desirable frequencies with low signal strength and some overlapping -- but that's where you could find the funk, the soul, the jazz -- and with careful tuning you were in business.

This then reminded Gil of Black History Month -- after all, out of 12 months of the year -- Black people get the shortest month, February! The laughter of recognition filled the auditorium. Gil Scott-Heron: poet, musician and humorist!

-- Don Baraka