Friday, February 29, 2008

Happy Leap Year: Wilco Live at the 9:30 Club

What can I say, I’m a huge Wilco fan. So it came as a great happy leap year treat that I found this Wilco concert from NPR’s All Song’s Considered. It was recorded live at Washington DC’s 9:30 Club this past Wednesday. It is almost two and a half hours of Wilco magic. Also, an added treat is that John Doe opened the show and his set is available, too.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Dan Zanes: Going Where The Fun Is

This interview was originally published in the Tompkins Weekly.

Some people might think it’s a stretch to go from making music with The Del Fuegos, a seminal band in the 1980s, to making music for families, but you’d be wrong. Dan Zanes has not only made this jump, but he loves it.

Dan Zanes and Friends have recorded 5 albums, won a Grammy for Best Album for Children in 2007, and perform to packed houses across the country when they tour. A 6th Spanish language album is forthcoming this spring. Dan and his band of merry music makers for families, including the show stopping Father Goose, will be at the State Theatre on March 2 for a 3 PM show.

Tompkins Weekly, with one question from my son, got to talk to Dan Zanes about music, collaboration, and even a bit of politics.

Tompkins Weekly: Can you talk about the transition from “adult music” with the Del Fuegos, to making music for families? Is one harder than the other?

Dan Zanes: (Laughs) Playing for grown ups is much harder. Kids and young people are definitely everything I ever wanted adults to be. When we were starting up The Del Fuegos it wasn’t even a show unless people danced. So we were always pretty tuned into the communal aspect of it all. But, as we got more popular and the shows got bigger—you know—and a lot of times it would be places with seats, and our own attitudes changed and we became disconnected from our audience. And the communal nature of it all began to slip away and it’s really back in full force—and then some. Playing for families, and the young people always set the tone . . . it’s the same thing I always wanted from music from the time I first started playing when I was eight-years-old. I just wanted to be doing something with other people; I wanted to be connected to other people, having fun. And for me, going from adult music to music for families was really just that same thing—looking for fun and trying to find where the good times really live.

When we started doing this, there really wasn’t any kind of road map for how to go about doing family music. So we’ve been able all just do it our own way. I never knew this possibility even existed. It’s been incredible. Music is social and that’s were the fun is; and that’s where everyone gets included; and that’s where the communal spirit lives.

TW: Much of today’s music for kids, like most popular music, is pretty lowest-common-denominator. Are you consciously making music that challenges this or are you just doing what comes naturally?

DZ: Well—you know—I try not to do too much that is a reaction to other music that’s out there. We do things that are a reaction to the climate in which we live. For me, I think that’s the responsibility of any artist—to work in the world we live in and make something that reflects that world. Just in my humble opinion we all have a responsibility in that department. But as far as other family music goes, really no.

I mean, when I walked into the records store when my daughter was first born, I noticed—at least in the mainstream stores—the balance seemed pretty out of whack. It was very, very corporate and there didn’t seem to be a lot of hand made music on the shelves. The corporate’s always gonna be there, of course. We gotta live in the real world here. But, I expected to see much more hand made music available in the mainstream also.

And I really think there’s always been really great music for families. We didn’t start doing this because there was nothing out there. It’s just that I couldn’t find the sound I heard in my head. And the sound I heard in my head was basically the updated version of the Folkways records that I grew up with. Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins. To me all that stuff was perfect family music and that’s exactly what I expected to see when I walked into Tower Records twelve years ago when my daughter was first born. I thought—yeah—Folkways records for the 21st Century. And for me that was a mix of traditional songs and new songs embracing the widest variety of cultures. . . . It’s a great country and everybody is here. Not everybody feels welcome, and that’s a problem. But everybody’s here and the culture is being revitalized. No matter how big and how tall and wide the wall is on our southern border, the culture of the country is being revitalized by the people that are coming here from all over the world. There’s no two ways about it. So we choose to celebrate that.

TW: Tell me about the forthcoming Spanish language album,¡Nueva York?

DZ: Yeah, of course (laughs), you know we’re hanging around more Latino musicians and learning more about music from the Dominican Republic and Mexico and Columbia and Puerto Rica and—you know—it’s mind boggling how much stuff is around. And I was always intimidated because it was in another language, but finally I just said enough talking about it, I gotta learn Spanish. So I started learning and in the process meeting more musicians and learning more. And as I hear more stories and I look around me, I realize how insane . . . and this discussion around immigration is heating up and you realize that the people that you’re hanging around with, playing music with, are being vilified. You know, it’s incredible to hear the way people are treated. Music and the sharing of music and culture has opened my eyes up to so much. So we’re choosing to celebrate the 21st Century here in the USA. And certainly it’s a bilingual country . . . it’s moving in that direction. And certainly the country’s being revitalized and man it’s fun. Again, we’re going where the fun is. What we’re trying to create is some kind of musical document that says this is what the 21st Century might sound like when everybody’s coming together and sharing songs and sharing culture and sharing stories and fun and jokes. You know, this is the way the party’s gonna sound for me (laughs). And it could sound that way for you, too, if you wanted to have some fun.

Musically, I take these CDs real seriously and we always try to do something that has a lot of meaning for us. And this one has certainly got the most meaning of any that we’ve ever done. And this is our way of celebrating. We’re not gonna live in fear and suspicion. We’re gonna live in celebration and appreciation and gratitude.

TW: You always have such great guest artists such as Suzanne Vega and Natalie Merchant on the records. How does this come about?

DZ: The only person that’s ever made the first call is Rosanne Cash. And every other person I’ve had to seek out. But people—you know, a lot of times—I don’t have to do too much arm twisting. A lot of people have become my friends, or I meet people along the way, and it’s gotten to a point where people know how they’ll be presented on this record. It’s basically, in one sentence, what if Lou Reed came over to your house for dinner and you decided to sing a couple of tunes afterwards. What would it sound like? That’s how we frame everybody. And it’s usually pretty different from what their own records sound like, so people see it as a pretty good experience. I’m so grateful to the people who’ve agreed to do this, because each one is someone I have so much respect for and I’m a huge fan of. So if Lila Downs or Bob Weir or Phillip Glass or the Five Blind Boys (of Alabama) come over to my house—it’s pretty outrageous.

TW: And here is the question from my son. How do you become a song person?

DZ: You learn a piece of a song and you starting singing it when you’re walking down the street. And then you start singing it in your house. And you learn a little bit more of the song and then you’ve got a song in your head. And then what happens is you learn the next one and you slowly fill your head with songs. That’s how you become a song person.

TW: Do you guys come out and sign after the show?

DZ: Of course, we’re like an old country and western band.

TW: Thanks, Dan, I appreciate you talking the time.

DZ: Oh, thank you for helping to spread the word.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Taj Mahal To Play State Theatre In Ithaca, NY

This post originally appeared in the Tompkins Weekly under the title, "Taj Mahal: A Man of Many Musical Styles"

Taj Mahal’s music is tough to describe. Broadly, it can be put under the rubric of Blues. But simply labeling his music as the Blues doesn’t do it justice. It doesn’t take into account the huge impact world, country, reggae, and gospel music has had on his sound. When asked about this he said, “I didn’t want to fall into the trap of complacency. I wanted to keep pushing the musical ideas I had about jazz, music from Africa and the Caribbean. I wanted to explore the connections between different kinds of music.”

Born in Harlem in 1942 as Henry St. Claire Fredericks, Taj grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts—picking up the guitar as an early teen. It was while in college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst majoring in agriculture that he took on the name, “Taj Mahal.” As the legend goes—his stage name was inspired by a dream. He released his first album in 1968. Since then he has released more than 45 more, collaborating with artists such as Ry Cooder, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Rolling Stones, and Ali Farka Touré.

Among this diverse range of albums are two Grammy winners. Taj won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for 1997’s Señor Blues and again for 2000’s Shoutin’ in Key. All in all he has been nominated for a Grammy nine times. Of his success Taj Mahal is pretty modest saying, “in the end, ultimately the music plays you, you don’t play the music.” While this may be the case, someone still has to pick up the guitar, woodshed, and develop the chops to play they way he does.

Perhaps, it is difficult to name one of his songs, but you have certainly heard them. For example his tune, “She Caught The Katy,” is the first song sung by John Belushi’s character at the beginning of the movie, The Blues Brothers.

Taj Mahal will be appearing at the State Theatre on February 21 for an 8:00 PM show. He will be playing with his trio. Taj is on vocals, guitar, keys, and banjo. Kester Smith playing drums and Bill Rich on the bass round out the band’s lineup.

Lastly, it must be said that we should all be paying close attention to the shows at the State Theatre this year. After many years, and numerous attempts, the State seems to finally be finding its voice. This is due in large measure to Dan Smalls coming on as Executive Director. With Dan in place—and upcoming show that include Medeski, Martin, & Wood; The New Pornographers; and Keller Williams—the State Theatre is positioning itself as the area’s most vital music venue. For a listing of additional upcoming shows or to order tickets online visit


Friday, February 15, 2008

I only want to see you underneath the purple rain

My wife had never seen Purple Rain. Wow, I thought, as I put it into our Netflix Queue. We watched it a few days later. She is three years younger than I am. So while I was fourteen when the film was released, she was eleven. Eleven certainly is too young to see this movie. And the impact on my fourteen-year-old self can’t be understated. Think “Darling Nikki.” “I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess u could say she was a sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby,” etcetera. I listened to the soundtrack on my Walkman constantly.

While I can’t say that the movie has held up over time, the music totally has. The movie is pretty dated visually—it comes across as a very long form music video—and the presentation of women is certainly troubling. In the end, though, it was great to watch again because what it reminded me of the fact Prince is a crazy good musician.

(A footnote here is that fact that The Time, featured prominently in the movie, reunited to perform at the recent Grammy Awards. This certainly wasn’t a band on my, “I hope they reunite” list. Sheesh, they even had a keytar and the mirror guy who just dances and does his mirror thing. But don’t even get me started about the Grammys.)

And here for your listening and viewing pleasure is Prince playing “Purple Rain” live in 1990. This song won the “Best Original Song” at the 1985 Academy Awards. The next clip is Prince absolutely shredding a guitar solo “While My Guitar Gently Weeps at the Rock and Roll Hall induction of George Harrison.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Bjorkestra: An Interview With Founder Travis Sullivan

You have to give Travis Sullivan credit. It takes not only vision, but no small amount of courage to take the music of a much beloved and genre-bending performer and arrange it for a new musical setting. And a new setting, indeed, it is. Sullivan has taken Bjork’s music and re-arranged it for an 18-piece jazz band—The Bjorkestra.

Although Bjorketra’s debut album, Enjoy!, was just released January 22 on Koch Records, the band has around since 2004. As for Travis Sullivan, he has been a part of the New York City Jazz scene for the past decade—performing with the likes of Joe Williams and Clark Terry. He released his debut solo album, As We Speak, in 1999 to excellent reviews. Not too bad for a guy from a small town in New Hampshire.

Dynamic Meter got the chance recently to talk with Travis Sullivan about The Bjorkestra and his career.

Dynamic Meter: So, New Hampshire doesn’t seem like it would be the hotbed of jazz. When did you start studying music and what kind of music scene was there where you grew up?

Travis Sullivan: I started playing saxophone when I was 10 and piano a couple of years later. I didn’t get interested in jazz until I was about 16 years old. The band director at my high school was a drummer and Berklee School of Music graduate. He would stay after school with me and some other students and we would play songs from The Real Book and some of his original tunes. That was where I got my first introduction to playing standards and improvising.

It was at The University of New Hampshire that I really started to get a more “serious” education in jazz performance. Although I was working on getting my B.S. in Biochemistry, the music department took me under it’s wing and the last couple of years there I played lead alto sax in the UNH big band. I was very lucky to be at UNH at that time, because there were several other students that were very serious about studying jazz and were great players too. Also, Clark Terry is an adjunct professor at UNH, so he would visit a couple of times every semester to do workshops. He would bring great jazz artists with him like Phil Woods, Snooky Young, Frank Wess, and James Williams. Kenny Werner also did several workshops there too, right around the time he was writing “Effortless Mastery.” He was a big influence on me.

As far as the jazz music scene in the southern New Hampsire area, there are a small number of dedicated and talented musicians around. It’s also close enough to Boston so that you don’t have to drive too far to hear great music too.

DM: Where did the initial idea for The Bjorkestra come from?

TS: It started with having the idea to arrange one of Bjork’s songs, “Hyperballad,” for a big band that I was playing with that was led by a Scandinavian jazz singer. This was back in 1998, and I was just getting into Bjork’s music. I never finished the arrangement for that band. It wasn’t until about four years later that it was completed. From there I decided I was going to write a song cycle for big band and vocals, with Bjork’s music as the central thematic material. I never imagined ten years ago when I wrote the first notes of the “Hyperballad” arrangement that it would lead me on this course with The Bjorkestra!

DM: How have you selected the songs to arrange?

TS: The selection has been more or less intuitive and has depended on a several factors. Of course it has to be a song I like, but also I have to be able to imagine what I can do with it in putting it into a big band context. My choices have also depended upon varying the style, tempo, and mood of The Bjorkestra’s repertoire as much as I can. I have also made choices based on what I want to learn about arranging, and have selected songs that I have believed that through my reworking of them will teach me more about the craft.

DM: How do you get started with arranging one of Bjork’s songs.

TS: There hasn’t been any single approach. It’s all based on what my initial impulse/reaction to the song I’ve selected, so it’s been different for every arrangement. However, I have found it useful to strip down the song to it’s bare minimum, musically speaking – and have created lead sheets with just melody and harmony, and then built it up from there. That way I can approach the arrangement the same way I would arrange a jazz standard. Also, it has given me a great appreciation for the inventiveness and genius of Bjork. I’ve found her songs stand on their own without the production and the techno grooves.

DM: Is there a difference in your approach in the arrangement due to whether or not the piece will be instrumental or have vocals?

TS: I think that there’s a little bit more freedom in the writing the instrumental arrangements. When writing a vocal arrangement you really need to be careful to write figures that are going to complement the vocal line and not get in the way. Frequently I find myself writing something for the horns behind the vocals and then eliminating some or all of the material later on. There are a few more choices that can be made when the vocals are out of the picture–you can increase the complexity of the writing to some degree.

DM: As a follow up, how did you find Becca Stevens. She has such a great voice. Was it a challenge to find a singer that could take on Bjork’s tunes, without mimicking her style?

TS: Becca was recommended to me by one of the musicians in The Bjorkestra who had her as a student at The New School. It was a little bit of challenge to find the right singer for this role, only because I didn’t know what I wanted when I was writing the arrangements. I had always thought of each arrangement as a sort of sound canvas, and the vocals were to be another color in that canvas. Of course, when you take the music off of the page and into performance, the importance of having the right vocalist becomes paramount. It was more important for me to find a singer that could hang in the big band context, which meant having a good understanding of form and being able to sight sing as well as being a strong reader in general. The fact that Becca has assimilated Bjork like a traditional jazz singer has assimilated Billy Holiday is the icing on the cake.

DM: Do you try to directly recreate the sounds from the original songs, or do you take the notes and the rhythms and consciously arrange them in a new way? “Cocoon” is a good example. The original starts with very electronic sounds and beats. Can you walk us through your approach?

TS: Every arrangement has been approached differently. I’ve drawn upon both Bjork’s studio and live recordings as source material. Sometimes the arrangement becomes a strong vehicle for improvisation and is greatly expanded upon from the original Bjork version, which is the case for our version of “Army of Me.” In the case of “Pluto,” I departed from the original tone of Bjork’s version all together and changed it to a bossy nova that evolves into the techno of the Bjork track. We also do a couple of songs that are more or less straight re-orchestrations of the original.

“Cocoon” is a good example because it contains a little bit of everything in terms of my approach to arranging Bjork’s music. When I decided to tackle an arrangement from Vespertine I heard a lot of possibilities in “Cocoon.” First, I changed the meter to ¾ rather than the original 4/4 for a couple of reasons: it almost sounded like Bjork was phrasing the melody in 3, and also because I heard the potential for a re-harmonization of the melody to reference the waltz “Someday My Prince Will Come.” This is also a little bit of tone painting for those familiar with the lyric of this song.

As I was writing this arrangement, several other ideas came to me because of the mood that was developing, and I wanted to include some free improvisation. I was influenced by Jim McNeely’s writing, somewhat, when I included the unaccompanied piano solo. I also used Bjork’s high-pitched vocal melody near the end of the song as a jumping off point for a free tenor sax/trombone solo. The ending of the arrangement expands on the “for a boy” section of the Bjork version and has an orchestral, Vince Mendoza sort of vibe.

DM: There are some other jazz performers who are known for taking rock music, for lack of a better term, and re-imagining it in a jazz context. Brad Mehldau’s Radiohead covers and The Bad Plus taking on Nirvana are a couple of well-known examples. Do you feel as though there is a connection between these performers and what you are taking on with The Bjorkestra?

TS: The Bjorkestra was conceived as a work unto itself, a song cycle for big band and vocals more or less, and I think that is where there is a departure from jazz artists that play covers of rock/pop music. The connection lies in that the modern jazz artists you mentioned are seeking to expand the language of jazz rather than continue to regurgitate the same music that was already played (and played with much more originality and passion!) forty years ago.

DM: On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the traditionalist jazz musicians—those who don’t like this blending of genres. What kind of reactions have you gotten from these or any other musicians?

TS: Jazz musicians are starving for new music, and The Bjorkestra has been met with a great deal of enthusiasm with all of the musicians that I’ve approached for their involvement with this project. That has been true not only with the NYC based musicians, but also the contracted artists that we’ve used on the U.S. West Coast, the South, and in Europe as well.

With the traditional jazz establishment—and by that I mean Lincoln Center and so called “pure” jazz clubs—I feel like we don’t even fall on their radar as of yet. Rock clubs and spaces with more eclectic programming have been far more receptive to booking The Bjorkestra.

Regardless, we are performing at The Jazz Standard in February as part of our CD release celebration, and I’m hoping that our success at this venue will start to open up opportunities at other jazz performance venues. I think it’s only a matter of time, because The Bjorkestra, like it or not, plays jazz!

DM: Other musicians who are not regular members of the band, such as Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder, have been sitting in. What has this been like? Does it change the arrangements at all? Is there anyone you would really like to have sit in?

TS: It’s been a fantastic experience having some distinguished artists sit in with us. I had Ben Monder come in and record a solo on “Army of Me” and he sent it in a different direction with some crazy sounds that he used. Kurt played on “Hunter” at a Knitting Factory performance and it was very cool to hear his sound integrated with the band. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin also played an entire show with us once, and he tore into an unaccompanied tenor solo on “Cocoon” that sounded like a modern classical saxophone etude – it was amazing!

Having these artists play with us though doesn’t necessarily change the arrangements, but their performance does contribute to overall vibe and energy of what’s going on in the moment.

There are several people that I’d like to have sit in with us: Dave Douglas, Matmos, and Zeena Parkins would all be great. At the top of the list though, of course, is Bjork herself!

DM: Of course The Bjorkestra isn’t your only project. Tell us about some of your other work.

TS: I play saxophone in several other projects in which I am a leader or sideman. The Casual Sextet is my band that plays some interesting music and features some excellent musicians, including Rez Abbasi and Janek Gwizdala on bass. I also co-lead an electric jazz group called Identity Crisis with The Bjorkestra drummer Joe Abbatantuono that has been playing around NYC here and there. I play in bassist Danny Zanker’s Anti-Elevator Mission, which plays Middle Eastern jazz/fusion, and we just released a CD last year with that band, and I also play with The Sean Nowell Firewerks Quintet, who just had a release on Posi-Tone Records last year. Other than that, I’m playing and sitting in with whoever I can, learning, and trying to absorb as much of the New York experience as I can possibly handle!

DM: New York is really happening right now. Is there anyone you dig down there that has not made it onto the radar of those who live outside NYC?

TS: Yes. There are several artists that are known in NYC but are not on people's radars outside of NYC. The first one that comes to mind in Daniel Carter, who is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist (he plays, alto & tenor sax, clarinet, flute, and trumpet) is a free improviser. He's in his 60's now and although he is well known in the underground jazz world in NYC, he's not as well known elsewhere. Also, there are a couple of large ensembles that I really love listening to - The Delphian Jazz Orchestra and The Pedro Girardo Jazz Orchestra are both very unique and innovative bands. I imagine that one reason they are not known elsewhere has a lot to do with their size - it's very difficult economically to take a big band on the road. Other artists that I think deserve wider recognition are Rich Perry, who is one of the tenor sax players with the Monday Night Village Vanguard Orchestra and is a brilliant soloist. Also, Art Hirahara (the pianist for the Bjorkestra as well) is someone that blows everyone away with his playing, and isn't that well known outside of NYC.

DM: Well Travis, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s been a pleasure.

TS: Excellent questions man. I enjoyed answering them!


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Shock Doctrine

I have been reading Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. What an incredible book. Well researched and intelligently written. And totally terrifying. The book is about the rise of disaster capitalism, which she defines as, “using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks—wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters—to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy. Sometimes, when the first two shocks don’t succeed in wiping out resistance, a third shock is employed: the electrode in the prison cell or the Taser gun on the streets.” I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

As with most books that I read, I try to find a musical companion. For this one, I bring you Pearl Jam’s Rearview Mirror . . . . “Saw things / Clearer / Once you, were in my . . . Rearviewmirror.”