Saturday, December 8, 2012

Music Reviews-Felix and Jarvis, Mingus: Blues and Roots, Van Halen: 1984, Steely Dan, David Ware, Mickey Baker

Felix and Jarvis
There was a glorious time back in the post-disco early eighties in which people didn't care about what you called music, they just wanted to dance. Disco had temporarily spent itself; hard rock had gotten flabby and soft; funk had lost its way but new wave and rap were just getting started. Out of Detroit, came a group that combined elements of all of the above and then some. That group was Felix and Jarvis.

I don't know much about Felix and Jarvis other than they started out as either dancers or producers for The Scene. The Scene was a mid seventies to mid eighties Detroit dance show that everybody in Detroit watched in order to know all the latest dances and styles.  Along with local DJ's like The Electrifying Mojo, The Scene was instrumental in helping to introduce Detroit to then unknown people like Prince or The Time. The Scene was a little raunchy for the times but certainly not compared to what goes on today. About the worst thing ever heard on The Scene was the signoff line "Sugar is sugar and salt is salt / If you didn't get off it's not our fault!".

Detroit humor.

Anyway I mention Felix and Jarvis because for the longest time I had been trying to find a song they they did. However I had of course forgotten they they were the group that did the song. Completely out of the blue a cousin of mine put a selection from Felix and Jarvis on his FB page, not even knowing I was looking for a song. That jogged my decaying brain cells and all sorts of fun music memories came flooding back.

As mentioned you could call Felix and Jarvis' music electro-funk or rap or proto-House or rock-n-roll or new-wave or whatever you wanted. It was always danceable though no matter what you called it.
The song I was looking for was Make it Rise. The lyrics " know I'm not that kind of girl/There's part of me that wants to get down but my mama told me to keep my feet on the ground" always make me smile. Felix and Jarvis also did Flamethrower Rap Flamethrower Rap (Live at The Scene) Jam the House and Bounce.

Blues and Roots
by Charles Mingus
Rather unfortunately today blues has come to mean either decrepit old black men moaning about my baby done left me or white singers doing their best to sound like decrepit old black men while playing the guitar much louder and faster than the next person trying to play the guitar louder and faster than the next person trying to play the guitar louder and faster and so on.

For better or worse the electric guitar has become the signature instrument of the blues while the blues has become extremely formalized and ossified. This obviously wasn't always the case. There was a time when both the range of instruments used in blues music as well as the actual types of music understood to be blues were MUCH wider than is currently the case. Charles Mingus was best known as a jazz virtuoso bassist, composer and pianist, though he was not overly fond of the word "jazz". In fact he didn't like that word applied to the music that he created and enjoyed. Not one bit.

It made sense to pay attention to what Mingus did or didn't like as not only was he a genius level intellect who could verbally rip you a new one but he was also an extremely demanding bandleader and a psychologically and emotionally disturbed bully who could and did throw public beatings to musicians who weren't performing up to standard. He once beat up his trombone player, knocking out the man's teeth. He was fired from Duke Ellington's band (Mingus' hero) for fighting. You could say that waking up Mingus' temper was always a mistake. Of course you could also say that working with Mingus was always a mistake but like a lot of disturbed people when he wasn't actually kicking you in the a$$ he was apparently a pretty nice guy. As you know all that stuff is less important to me than his musical talent though to be fair I'd probably feel somewhat differently if I had been the one getting punched in the mouth. Like a lot of talented people Mingus had personal demons. The more open racism of the time didn't help matters. Mingus is one of the most prolific composers of any genre and definitely someone you should know about. In Mingus there's not only every jazz musician who came before him but a fair amount of classical influence as well. Mingus took his music very seriously and saw himself in the same light as Van Cliburn, Glenn Gould, Beethoven or any other classical icon. Talking during his concerts was not something he enjoyed or tolerated.
Blues and Roots was Mingus' backhanded response to critics who complained that he had become too intellectual and lost the blues feeling in his music. I say backhanded because not only is the album dripping with blues feeling but it has more than a few avant-garde stylings contained within that are far far beyond what Mingus saw as more simple blues that he had surpassed. Mingus required constant improvisation from anyone in his band and that's what you hear in Blues and Roots. I guess his soloists decided they didn't want to get punched in the mouth. Whatever the reason might have been, this is a great introduction to Mingus if you haven't heard him before. "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" sounds EXACTLY as it's titled. It's something I listen to over and over again. Despite Mingus' contempt for fatuous fans and musically ignorant critics this album does have a rootsy, bluesy sound. And of course the bass is EXTREMELY well recorded and mixed.
My music is as varied as my feelings are, or the world is and one composition or one kind of composition expresses only one part of the total world of my music... This record is unusual—it presents only one part of my musical world, the blues. A year ago, Nesuhi Ertegün suggested that I record an entire blues album in the style of Haitian Fight Song (in Atlantic LP 1260), because some people, particularly critics, were saying I didn't swing enough. He wanted to give them a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy. I thought it over. I was born swinging and clapped my hands in church as a little boy, but I've grown up and I like to do things other than just swing. But blues can do more than just swing. So I agreed.
Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting  Moaning  Crying Blues   E's Flat and Ah's Flat Too

by Van Halen
This album was the last by the original incarnation of Van Halen with wild frontman David Lee Roth. It was probably the perfect balance between a pop sound and the earlier heavy metal/hard rock sounds of Van Halen. It was also the album in which Eddie Van Halen insisted upon having his keyboard playing more upfront than had previously been the case, over the objections of Roth and producer Ted Templeman, who had desired that the guitar virtuoso stick to playing guitar.

So there is a bit of tension throughout this album but it's good tension. Van Halen had four members but even more so than normal, on this album bassist Michael Anthony is buried deep in the mix. On a few songs he's almost inaudible. Eddie Van Halen has strong beliefs about the proper role (secondary) of bass in a rock band. And since the band's name is Van Halen, not Anthony, Eddie's ideas tended to win out. It's something of a shame since Michael Anthony is not a bad bassist but merely playing very limited simple parts. But this album is still full of catchy riffs, amazing guitar work, loud clean drums from Eddie's brother Alex and Roth's raunchy braggadocious vocals.

This album was full of hits. My favorite was Drop Dead Legs which defines bada$$ but the really big hit here was Jump. Panama is a fun driving song while Hot for Teacher is actually built from an insistent boogie riff that slowed down wouldn't sound out of place on a John Lee Hooker or Slim Harpo release. And to be honest the video sold the song at least as much as the music did.  I'll Wait (co-written with Michael McDonald) is a great power ballad or at least as close as Van Halen could come at that time. It also has great synth sound combined with trademark Eddie Van Halen guitar. Top Jimmy combines technical fireworks with rhythm guitar playing far beyond that of your average metal player.  1984 is a creepy little synth number that sounds like a missing track from a Death Wish or Miami Vice soundtrack. House of Pain and Girl Gone Bad round out the album for those metal/hard rock fans worried that Van Halen had gone too pop.

I wasn't a metal fan when the album was released and am not really one now. But this album was all over the radio and MTV and for folks of a certain age was almost impossible to avoid. This is full of melody and hooks. I still wish that Anthony had been turned loose a little more on bass but other than that this remains an album I enjoy listening to and a reminder of better times.

Steely Dan
When you name your music group after a literary euphemism for a woman's sex toy it's a pretty good bet that you either have an incredibly dry sense of humor or you're just gonna be downright nasty. Steely Dan mostly leans to the former. Even when they are nasty their command of lyrics means you might not even know it until you've thought about it for a while. It's rare that they are explicit.
Steely Dan is basically a rock band that actually knows a little bit about jazz. Actually they know quite a bit about about jazz as many of their classic seventies albums featured rock or R&B players who were familiar with jazz or actual jazz musicians who were slumming. Steely Dan is currently a two man show that is run by Walter Becker (bass, guitar, vocals) and Donald Fagen (piano, synths, vocals). Other group members either left or were pushed out depending on whose story you believe. In any event Becker and Fagen always hired a lot of studio musicians and did almost all the writing* themselves so they had no real need for an actual "band".
When people like Michael McDonald sing backup for you, you know that you're in the big leagues. Fagen's voice is quite nasal but it sort of grows on you I think.

The first thing that I always noticed about Steely Dan is how clean and pristine their music sounds without being sterile or lifeless. Infamously Becker and Fagen are obsessive studio perfectionists who know exactly what they want and won't stop until they get it. That might take 20 minutes or it might take 365 days. Either way. You get to hear every single instrument but no single instrument dominates. It's similar to some Motown recordings. It's very radio friendly music. I don't know how well it comes across live because I've never seen Steely Dan live. Fagen and Becker stopped performing live when I was just a kid and only started performing live again in recent years.

The second thing I noticed about Steely Dan (and this is true of a lot bands from before the video era) is that they weren't exactly the most handsome dudes in the world. It was a simpler time, when musicians were judged a little bit more by what they could play and somewhat less by what they looked like. All things considered I think that was a good thing and something that's missing today in our more visual age.

My favorite Steely Dan songs are almost all from their debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill. I like some of their later work but to me the first cut is usually the best. Unfortunately "Dirty Work" describes a few women I've known over the years. To be fair I'm sure women might recognize a few men in those lyrics. "Reeling in the Years" was supposedly one of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page's favorite songs. Although Steely Dan got radio play on some pop-jazz or smooth jazz radio stations, it wasn't really a jazz band. I grew up with relatives who were fierce jazz fans and inherited many of their tastes. So I don't see Steely Dan as a jazz group but more of a light rock group with some jazz stylings.

Dirty Work  Reeling In The Years Hey Nineteen Reeling in the years (live) Black Cow   Do It Again Peg Cousin Dupree Kid Charlemagne Midnite Cruiser Rikki Don't Lose That Number Deacon Blues The Royal Scam

*Rikki Don't Lose That Number borrowed heavily from the jazzman Horace Silver's work "Song for my father" while Gaucho was a total steal from the jazzman Keith Jarrett's creation "As Long as you know you're living yours". As we've discussed before, whatever you create , SOMEONE may try to steal it. I believe Garrett sued successfully for writer's credit.

David Ware
David Ware just recently passed away from kidney disease. He was an avant-garde post-bop tenor saxophone player working in the jazz tradition but with a foot firmly placed in gospel and blues worlds as well.

His masterpiece as far as I was concerned was his composition Godspelized  (this is a severely shortened version) which just as it sounds combined gospel with free jazz. This is an acquired taste of course but again if you want to go beyond blues cliches, take the red pill and listen to David Ware. Glorified Calypso is just a beautiful tune, just beautiful. I love the drums on that piece. Peace Celestial is basically a prayer given through the saxophone. David Ware was very interested in eastern forms of music, worship, and philosophy. This came through in much of his music but especially in things like Ganesh Sound.

Ware's mastery of circular breathing (he was a practitioner of yoga and meditation) was on display in the piece Flight of I. His deconstruction of Ellington's Autumn Leaves is awe inspiring but even I have to admit that his tone is a bit harsh here. You kind of have to be in the mood for it. That's sort of the same with the song Astral Earth. So tread carefully if you're not familiar with this music genre but if you are open to new things David Ware was the musician to show them to you.

Mickey Baker
If Mickey Baker wasn't quite a founding father of rock-n-roll he was certainly an important uncle. Arguably he was just as important a guitarist as Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley or any of the other greats. He was definitely as talented. For a variety of reasons Baker didn't get the press they did. He should have. Baker didn't do as much initial recording under his own name but was a very in-demand session guitarist for various rock-n-roll, blues, R&B or jazz bands. Baker came to greater prominence with his partnership with Sylvia Robinson and their smash hit (co-written with Bo Diddley) "Love is Strange". The man-woman guitar playing duo was popular at the time in part because of the success of Les Paul and Mary Ford.
Mickey Baker was originally from Kentucky. He was mixed. His black mother was the victim of what would have been statutory rape had laws on such things been enforced for black women's benefit at that time. His mother was twelve when Mickey was born. I don't think Mickey ever knew his father. Mickey was sent to an orphanage when he was eleven for theft. He escaped that place and bounced around St. Louis and Chicago for a while as a musically minded hoodlum before putting crime behind him and moving to New York where he became a budding jazz guitarist. After working in a club and seeing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie play he had wanted a saxophone but a guitar was all he could afford. 
Playing jazz wasn't very lucrative, then or now and after seeing bluesman Pee Wee Crayton on a West Coast tour, Baker decided to move more into blues and R&B. As he had no name for himself yet that was only marginally more lucrative. Struggling around New York however, Baker played everything from bar mitzvahs to calypso, blues to R&B. This hard won talent attracted notice and Baker became first call session guitarist for big names like Ruth Brown, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Little Willie John, Wynonnie Harris, Screaming Jay Hawkins, The Drifters, Big Joe Turner, The Coasters and many more.
Baker was something of an entrepreneur. Not only was he working as a session guitarist and slowly starting to record under his own name but also he was writing guitar instruction books (one such caught the eye of a young Frank Zappa) and giving guitar lessons to make money on the side. Sylvia was a previous student who decided that she wanted to be a rock-n-roll star. So the two joined up and Mickey and Sylvia was born. Baker remembered it this way:
"Finally I would go out on little gigs with her and get her to stand up with the guitar in her hand. It took time to do that but finally when she got that courage, she could really gyrate with that guitar man. I'd be up there on that damn stage man and no matter what theater it was or what club it was-and I could do anything. Here I was supposed to be one of the most famous guitar players in the world. No matter what I did with the guitar, nobody would pay any attention. They were looking at Sylvia gyrating. She had those sequined dresses. She'd be gyrating the guitar!!"
Baker usually had a very sharp biting tone with just an edge of distortion. Rhythmically he could and did play almost anything and with some of his instrumentals you could call them rock or jazz and you'd be correct. NO ONE did better rock guitar instrumentals. Fed up with the music industry and with American racism he left the US for good in 1962 and moved to France, where he recently passed away. "Love is Strange" was used in the movie Dirty Dancing and also used for Pitbull's "Back in Time". It is one of the greatest songs of all time. Their duet "Dearest" is pretty good too. Do men and women even sing to each other like that anymore? I also like the song "I'm Tired". "Whistlestop" was funk before its time. Check out Baker's use of reverb, echo and doublestops. He also used overdubbing and doubletracking and other studio tricks that were ahead of his time. "No Good lover" is nasty rock-n-roll with a light feminist touch. It sort of reminds me of the song "These boots are made for walking". Love it. It's a song I keep on repeat...

Love is Strange Third Man Theme No Good Lover Dearest   Mickey Baker with Memphis Slim (Live)  Spinning Rock Boogie I'm Tired  Blue Jazz Rock  Riverboat  Whistlestop Do what you do  What Would I Do?
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