Category Archives: Music

In Appreciation of The Byrds

This post is one of an on-going series of musical re-discoveries, previously covering artists such as Van Morrison and Neil Young.  This time, I’ve gone back to the first four albums made by The Byrds, a Los Angeles band that got started in the mid-sixties, led by Roger McGuinn and joined by David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke.  I remember seeing some comments made by Crosby about how they saw the Beatles movie “A Hard Day’s Night” in 1964 and were inspired to go in a pop direction.  Their first record, Mr Tambourine Man, came out in mid-1965, and featured four Dylan songs along with some originals written by Clark and McGuinn, and some other covers.

The band put out another record before the end of 1965, Turn! Turn! Turn!, and then came Fifth Dimension in 1966 (featuring the great single ‘Eight Miles High’), and Younger Than Yesterday in early 1967 with ‘So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’).  As they progressed Crosby began to contribute songs, the Dylan covers lessened, and things got more spacey and psychedelic.  While I can’t say that any of these four albums is without a bit of lesser quality filler, considering the speed at which they were working I think it’s understandable, and the highlights are very good.  I really love the guitar interplay along with the strong bass sound, first really shining on the song ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ on the first record, and very evident on ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’, ‘It Won’t Be Wrong’, ‘Why’, ‘Have You Seen Her Face’.

You can get the hits easy enough in a compilation, but really each original album is worth a listen.  After these albums the band membership started changing rapidly, and of course there were other important developments instigated largely by Gram Parsons.

Nudie suits!

I’ve long heard about ‘Nudie suits’ but never really knew the story behind the term.  Today I was reading a book on the Flying Burrito Brothers 1969 album ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’ by Bob Proehl, and in one chapter he tells the story.  I can’t resist posting it here:

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in the highly anti-Semitic Russia of 1902, little Nutya Kotlyrenko was shipped off to America at the age of eleven, as soon as the family’s finances allowed.  At Ellis Island, he took the Americanized surname his brother and cousins had already adopted, Cohn, and unable to write or spell his first name, he left Ellis Island with a botched version of it: Nudie.

“I guess that man never knew what a favor he did by giving me that name,” Nudie wrote later in his life, “but it’s been a trademark for years.  People are always impressed by an unusual name, and Nudie has suited me just fine.”

Nudie Cohn grew up poor in New York City’s garment district, apprenticing under tailors and dressmakers while dreaming of a career in music or the movies. After years of traveling the United States working odd jobs, he wound up back in New York City making g-strings and burlesque costumes for the strippers in Times Square at a shop called Nudie’s for the Ladies.

After a number of business ventures and financial hardships, the Russian immigrant who dreamed of being a singin’ cowboy moved out to the San Fernando Valley along with his wife, Bobbie, operating a small tailoring business out of their garage. Unable to afford a decent sewing machine or fabric to work on his own designs, Nudie decided in 1947 that country vocalist Tex Williams would be his springboard into the burgeoning field of cowboy costuming.

The story goes on through the fifties, when Nudie makes the shining gold suit for Elvis, and many country stars wear his suits.  Then things take a dive in the sixties until Gram Parsons, shown above second from the right, engages Nudie to make him and the band a very special set of  suits in 1969.  A new era dawned.  Nudie passed away in 1984.

Here are the backs of the suits for the band:

Vijay Iyer's 'Historicity'

Good review today at Pitchfork on the Vijay Iyer Trio’s new CD ‘Historicity’.  I first saw pianist Iyer in NYC a few years back, and he’s been making some excellent modern jazz recordings.  This one features a number of cover tunes.  From the review:

The Vijay Iyer Trio, with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, is almost a negative image of the old Bill Evans Trio. The sense of telepathic interplay is there, but it’s put toward different ends. If Portrait in Jazz is the sound of aloneness, Historicity is the sound of crowds, a heaving, seething swirl of cross-talk, phrases meeting in often unexpected combinations. It reflects how far both jazz and our world have come in the last 50-odd years. Today, we’re never far from information and chatter, and Iyer uses both his own compositions and those of others to stir conversation with his bandmates.

'Orphee' by Philip Glass

Yesterday I made it to the Portland Opera’s production of the Philip Glass opera ‘Orphee’ based on the 1949 film by Jean Cocteau (and of course much further back into the myth of Orpheus).  I was mostly interested in hearing the music played live, but enjoyed the show.  The stage set was a modernist apartment, the singing was in French, much taken directly from the film script apparently.

Here’s a bit of the review by David Stabler from the Oregonian:

If you think all Philip Glass music sounds the same – rush-hour traffic for the ear – Portland Opera would like you to meet “Orphée,” a French twist on the Orpheus myth.

Glass’ operatic riff opened at the Keller Auditorium, Friday, in a stylish production that will almost make you take back those awful things you said about him.

I found the music quite nice – the opening incorporates many sounds from early silent film scores, and I liked the ebb and flow of his rhythms.  (I actually like Glass music, though I can understand the feeling that he repeats many patterns.)  They were recording the show, and so a commercial release of the opera should be available next year sometime.

PDX Pop Now! Benefit @ Mississippi Studios, 29-Oct-2009

Last night I made it to the PDX Pop Now! benefit at Mississippi Studios, with a nice bill of locals.  PDX Pop Now! puts on a free local music festival in July each year for all ages.

Headlining was Britt Daniel (lead man of Spoon, who lives here), with openers the Robinsons (aka Portland rock couple Viva Voce), and IOA (Amanda from the band Point Juncture, WA & friends).

Britt Daniel – He said Spoon has finished recording their next CD, and played a few new songs along with lots of older ones.  One new long one was called ‘Mystery Zone’.  He mostly played solo, and did a few with drummer Janet Weiss.
The Robinsons – Kevin and Anita both played guitars and sang – a nice set with emotional songs.
IOA – pronounced ‘iowa’ this was the first ever performance by the seven-piece band led by Amanda Spring.  Cool sound with two horns and two percussionists!

Jazz News

Somehow after living here for over four years, I only managed to come across Portland jazz radio station KMHD this week.  It’s good stuff, jazz and blues 24/7, non-commercial.  I’ll be tuning in regularly.

Also on the jazz front, saw a good review for a new biography of Thelonious Monk, and I decided to pick up the book.  Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Robin D. G. Kelley, in his extraordinary and heroically detailed new biography, “Thelonious Monk,” makes a large point time and time again that Monk was no primitive, as so many have characterized him. At the age of 11, he was taught by Simon Wolf, an Austrian émigré who had studied under the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic. Wolf told the parent of another student, after not too many sessions with young Thelonious: “I don’t think there will be anything I can teach him. He will go beyond me very soon.” But the direction the boy would go in, after two years of classical lessons, was jazz.

How Much Velvet Underground trivia do you need?

I popped into Powell’s today to pick up an interesting book on painting and alchemy, but before I get to that, I had to note something that surprised me.  On the new music books shelf, two new books covering in intense detail, the doings of the sixties New York band the Velvet Underground.

The first is by Richie Unterberger, and it is called the ‘White Light / White Heat – The Velvet Underground Day by Day‘ – it’s a chronological history of the band, documented in amazing detail, going back to Nico’s appearance in La Dolce Vita and before, going all the way up to about 2007.  I only had a chance to quickly flip through, but it appears to be definitive – apparently covering just about every gig the band ever played, lengthy text writeups day-by-day through the band’s active years, lots of b/w photos.

But then right next to it was Jim DeRogatis’s book The Velvet Underground – An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side.  This one is much more graphic, with lots of color reproductions of photos, posters, etc.  (But didn’t ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ come out from Lou Reed solo, after the band broke up?).  Here’s a nice interview with DeRogatis.

I had no idea there was a market for this level of documentation about a band that was clearly very influential but really never sold many records, and whose heyday was 40 years ago…

I remember when I first found Velvet Underground music, it was on a double LP compilation in the late Seventies sometime, when the original albums were very difficult to come by.  It looks like this, and I’ve still got it:

At the time, I was about 17, the band  had been broken up for about6 years, and so to me this was like an ‘oldies’ band, rumored to exist but hard to track down.  Now thirty years later, all their music is readily available, and we can apparently read all about what they did on any given day in 1967.

Odds and Ends

I spent a few days in San Francisco this week, for work meetings.  Nice to catch up with a number of old colleagues, some of whom I had last seen both years ago and continents away!  Not much time to do ‘fun’ stuff, but I did stop by the SF MOMA store, and found a new book of work by Neo Rauch, German artist (which I picked up and then proceeded to leave in my hotel room! so I hope it gets successfully sent up to me here).

Something I had been waiting for from the library came in while I was away – Herbie Hancock’s Blue Note Sixties Sessions, a 6 CD set.  I have just started to delve into it.

Then today I popped into the annual Wordstock festival here in Portland.  I was not terribly interested in any of the visiting authors, but I did enjoy seeing some of the small press offerings.  One press from Seattle had a number of nice works available – they have two areas of interest: Japan and New Orleans.  They’re called Chin Music Press, and they do really nice production quality books (the old-fashioned kind – they have a t-shirt that says they’re Seattle’s alternative to the Kindle!).  I picked up a title called ‘Goodbye Madame Butterfly’ by Sumie Kawakami.

Steve Lehman = Math-jazz?

A recent musical discovery in my world has been Steve Lehman, young saxophonist who’s doing some interesting things with the music (thanks to Sekhar for the tip!).  His most recent recording, Travail, Transformation and Flow is an octet recording, using computer techniques to shape the compositions (you can get a taste of a couple tracks at the link).  Here’s how the Washington City Paper review by Michael J. West put it:

On the disc, Lehman uses a jazz application of “spectralism”: a French school in which composers begin with a note on a given instrument, use a computer to analyze the spectrum of tones that make up that note, then orchestrate all of those tones on different instruments to create new harmonies. The physical acoustics and the musician’s attack on the instruments help determine the nuances within the tonal spectrum, but timbre is the primary element of spectral harmony.

In an interview from a few years back, called ‘Grooving not Repeating’ at All About Jazz, Lehman talks about his college experiences at Wesleyan (my alma mater):

In college and graduate school I was working mostly with Anthony Braxton, Jay Hoggard and Jackie McLean, over at the Hartt School of music. I also studied with people like Alvin Lucier, Ron Kuivila and Pheeroan akLaff, while doing my best to take advantage of the performance courses in South Indian and West African musical traditions that were offered at Wesleyan. It’s hard to sum up the importance of the 6 years I spent at Wesleyan and even harder to know how much of it had to do with the fact that I was functioning within an academic environment.

I think it’s safe to say that when I arrived at Wesleyan as a freshman I was pretty squarely focused on the music of people like Jackie McLean and John Coltrane. By the time I graduated, in 2002, I had been exposed to an extremely broad set of musical traditions. And also given the tools, by people like Anthony Braxton and Jackie McLean and Jay Hoggard, to begin defining the parameters of my own music.

All in all one of the more intriguing new players, and I want to track down more of his music.  The next generation has had hip-hop as a soundtrack growing up, along with pervasive computing, and it all kind of comes together in Lehman’s approach.  He’s said he wants to “attempt to create a more groove-oriented music, without using repetition as a structural device.”

Beatles For Sale

This week marked what I suspect is the last hurrah for compact discs – the re-release of the entire Beatles catalog, with new mastering, new photos & booklets, mini-documentary videos.  I was working part-time at a record store back in 1985, when compact discs were first rolling out.  Our store had a smallish selection of CDs, mostly classical recordings – other genres had yet to really roll out on disc.  We mostly sold LPs and cassettes.  Now, about 25 years later, the CD  market is drying up fast.  Digital downloads are making up a large and increasing share of the music market.  While I understand it, I do miss record stores.

Since I’m the kind of guy who still has LPs and 45s along with lots of CDs, I picked up a few Beatles titles for old times sake.  The one that’s speaking most to me at the moment is ‘Beatles For Sale’ from late 1964.  The lads had been working hard, touring and recording all year (oh, and they made a movie too!  A Hard Days Night), and this one came out at the end of the year in the UK (it was chopped up for the US market into Beatles ’65 and Beatles VI).  It’s a combination of originals and covers, basically the last time they’d do covers on record. According to the recording notes, on the last day of recording on October 18th, they recorded 7 songs in one long session, 5 covers along with “I’ll Follow the Sun” and “I Feel Fine”.  Amazing!

But I think the sting of the album comes right at the beginning, where a newly Dylan-influenced Lennon indulges in a little self-pity in his powerful trio of opening songs: “No Reply”, “I’m a Loser” and “Baby’s in Black”.