Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Joel Francis’

(Above: At 79 Sonny Rollins still has plenty to say with his horn.)

By Joel Francis

Sonny Rollins’ saxophone has the power to bend time. For nearly two hours Thursday night, the jazz legend and his five-piece band melted minutes like hot butter in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Ark.

The first number, “Sonny, Please,” set the mood for the night. The song started slowly, with Rollins repeating the melody, like a cook tasting the broth before serving it for dinner. Once Rollins’ palette was whet, he cued the band and the song was twisted, flipped and cavorted into as many different ways as possible. The format was almost like a congenial roundtable discussion: If a musician had something to say, they jumped in and said it for as long as it took.

Rollins opened “Park Palace Parade” with an a capella solo before the band dropped into a reggae beat behind him. At five minutes it was one of the shortest songs of the night. For another song he strolled to the front of the stage and delivered a solo on the precipice, leaning over the audience.

Although several songs reached over 20 minutes, there were never any filibusters. In fact, time seemed to accelerate with each solo. The opening three-song, 40-minute set seemed fleeting.

After a 25-minute intermission, the band wordlessly dropped into a reading of “In A Sentimental Mood” that somehow disposed of 50 years of schlock and clichés. Rollins’ longtime bassman Bob Cranshaw was given a lengthy solo and the ensemble performance wound down after 20 minutes with another extended, a capella sax solo.

Rollins was gracious in ceding the stage to his band. Trombonist Clifton Anderson and guitar player Bobby Broom took the majority of the solos. Anderson’s mellow horn and Broom’s tasty licks provided a nice counter-texture to Rollins’ saxophone. When he was really feeling their solo, Rollins would snap his fingers and bob his head in rhythm. Drummer Kobe Watkins made the most of the three-bar fills Rollins repeatedly gave him on Noel Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You.”

This was Rollins’ first performance in Arkansas and he announced how proud he was to be playing his idol Louis Jordan’s home state. Later in the set, he interrupted himself during the intro to “Nishi” to reminisce about a radio host he used to listen to as a child, Bob Burns, better known as the Arkansas Traveler.

For a man who could compress time so pleasurably and succinctly, introducing Burns, who died more than 50 years ago, to the present was no big deal.

Read Full Post »

Above: “True Love Ways” is The Daily Record’s favorite Buddy Holly song.

By Joel Francis

Fifty years ago this week, the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed in an Iowa cornfield, claiming its passengers and 22-year-old pilot Roger Peterson.

The event became known as “The Day the Music Died,” but the fact people were still talking about it 12 years later when Don McLean memorialized the moment with the song “American Pie” proves that music indeed survived.

The rock landscape had changed a lot between 1959 and 1971. The pioneers of the rock and roll were having hard time. Chuck Berry had bounced from Chess to Mercury and back and was seven years removed from his most recent Top 40 hit (although the No. 1 “My Ding-A-Ling” was right around the corner). Carl Perkins was performing as a sideman in Johnny Cash’s band and Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino and Bill Haley dismissed as washed up. Only Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis retained a whiff of their ’50s fervor, but it took a televised “comeback” special and a genre hop to country and western for them to manage the trick.

That Holly was not only remembered, but celebrated in the aftermath of Woodstock and Altamont, in an era where rock’s excesses were just starting to steamroll, was not pure nostalgia.

Far from killing rock and roll, Holly planted the seeds that allowed it to flourish. Holly was one of the first artists to recognize the recording studio as creative environment, by experimenting with double-tracking and overdubs. He was the first songwriter to pilfer the Bo Diddley beat for “Not Fade Away.” He was the first rock and roll star to play a Fender Stratocaster, the guitar of choice for Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and countless others.

Although the Beatles often receive credit for being the first group to write their own material and put strings on a rock album, the truth is, Holly did both nearly a decade before them. It’s not a big leap from Holly’s “Raining In My Heart” to McCartney’s “Yesterday.”

But the most amazing of Holly’s feats is that he did it all by 22, an age at which Bob Dylan was just emerging from his Woody Guthrie fixation, Brian Wilson was begging out of tours because of stage fright and Neil Diamond was still trapped in the Brill Building.

Few mourn other ’50s rock casualties, like Eddie Cochran, who died a scant 14 months later, but Holly’s influence continues to be felt today. It’s  in Elvis Costello’s spectacles, Weezer’s Top 5 1994 hit, and the myriad of bands – ranging from the Rolling Stones to the White Stripes to the cover band in the bar around the corner – who regularly drop “Not Fade Away” into their sets.

The day the music died? Not even close.

Read Full Post »

darling-baby

The Elgins – “Darling Baby,” Pop #72, R&B #4

The Elgins started as a trio in 1962 who called themselves The Downbeats. When they added frontwoman Sandra Edwards (nee Mallet) and another singer, they switched their name to the Elgins. That wouldn’t have been a problem, except copies of “Darling Baby” were already being pressed, so new labels had to be hastily printed. Copies of “Darling Baby” credited to the Downbeats carry a hefty price tag. (Original pressings of the Elgins’ “Darling Baby” run between $25 and $50.)

The group’s name choice is an interesting one. The Temptations went as the Elgins before Berry Gordy made them come up with a new handle. There was also a Los Angeles-based doo-wop group with the same name.

Unfortunately, all of this history is more interesting than the actual song. Penned by the usually spectacular Holland-Dozier-Holland team, “Darling Baby” is as generic as its title. Despite a fine vocal performance by Edwards, the backing vocals are laughably unconvincing, the rhythm plods and the arrangement is stagnant. Edwards pleads her departing lover to “talk it over one more time,” but it’s obvious there isn’t much being said.

Fortunately, the Elgins’ follow-up hit “Heaven Must Have Sent You,” atones for the misstep of “Darling Baby.” – by Joel Francis

Read Full Post »

uptight

Stevie Wonder – “Uptight (Everything Is Alright),” Pop #3, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

Nearly two years after success of “Fingertips,” Little Stevie finally found a follow-up hit – just in the nick of time. Motown had just about given up on him. Never mind that Wonder hadn’t been given much to work with: an album of Ray Charles covers, the “Fingertips” knock-off “Workout Stevie” and corny kids songs like “Happy Street” and “Hey Harmonica Man.” His dry spell was compounded by the fact that his voice was starting to change. Motown producers were wary of working with the onetime boy wonder, but Clarence Paul, who had acted as a mentor and father figure to the boy since his 1961 signing, liked his protégé’s newfound tenor.

The only thing uptight about this number is its title. The melody is fun, free and fresh. From the signature horn fanfare to the delight in Wonder’s voice, there are smiles all around. Every week Berry Gordy used to run each prospective single through a quality assurance committee who would vote on which numbers were released. The idea was a holdover from Gordy’s days on the assembly line. It’s hard to picture anyone not voting for this upbeat tune. I like to imagine that a spontaneous dance session broke out when it was played.

Once the song broke, everything was alright in Wonder’s world. Success may have been an early struggle, but it flowed effortlessly after this. With three exceptions, Wonder had at least one Top 10 hit per year from 1965 to 1985.

Read Full Post »

(Above: The Stooges do “1969″ in 2007.)

By Joel Francis

When Ron Asheton started playing electric guitar in the mid-’60s, there were no signs pointing the way he wanted to go. The Beatles were just starting to experiment with feedback and backwards instrumentation on their albums; Pink Floyd was buried in the London underground and Andy Warhol had yet to champion the Velvet Underground (not that many were paying attention anyhow).

The closest things to the sounds in his head were Pete Townshend’s guitar riff on The Who’s “My Generation,” the surf guitar instrumentals of Dick Dale and the dirty blues of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.

By the time Asheton, his brother Scott, and their longtime friend Dave Alexander hooked up with fellow Ann Arbor, Mich. musician Jim Osterberg there were a few more road signs. Home state natives the MC5 had kicked out their jams, and the free jazz freak-outs of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders were regularly released on the Impulse label. But there still weren’t many fellow travelers on the Asheton brothers’ weird road during the Summer of Love. Osterberg, who would soon call himself Iggy Pop, was one hitchhiker they had to pick up.

Four years later, it was mostly over. In retrospect, it’s amazing the band lasted that long. The Stooges two albums, released in 1969 and 1970, were rawer than razor burn, more violent than the 1968 Democratic Convention and as combustible as the Hindenburg. When it was over, Asheton’s guitar work pointed the way that nearly every guitarist since has followed, or at lease acknowledged.

It’s difficult to imagine the furious stomp of the White Stripes and the six-string perversions of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr without the expanded palette Asheton created. The Sex Pistols and the Damned both covered “No Fun” in concert. Heck, the blueprint of the grunge movement was mostly hijacked from the Stooges’ designs.

Of course David Bowie prodded the Stooges to reconvene in 1973 for “Raw Power,” but it wasn’t the same. Iggy’s name was out front and Asheton was confined to the bass guitar by Ig’s new best bud, James Williamson. There was even a piano player! Asheton’s rightful place on lead guitar was restored when the Stooges reunited a generation later for a couple guest shots on Iggy’s solo album, an R.L. Burnside tribute and, finally, an album of their own, but by then they were no longer leaders.

Ron Asheton’s name rarely comes up in “Guitar God” discussions. The music he made nearly 40 years ago remains difficult to assimilate by mainstream tastes. And like his long-overdue adulation, it took people a while to figure out he was gone. Six days after dying from a heart attack, Asheton’s body was discovered in his Ann Arbor apartment.

There was no obituary in the New York Times and little mention on the 24-hour news channels, but somewhere in heaven a white cloud is tarnished with soot and Asheton’s scary noise is driving the harp-plucking cherubs out of their minds. Which is as it should be.

Read Full Post »

motownnew

Above: Part of the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit celebrating 50 years of Motown Records. The exhibit is open all year. (Photo courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

By Joel Francis

It may seem hard to believe, but “the sound of young America” is 50 years old.

To celebrate a half-century of Motown records, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is hosting a new exhibit, “Motown: The Sound of Young America Turns 50,” all year in the Ahmet M. Ertegun Main Exhibit Hall.

“It’s an obvious anniversary, one we should do something about,” said Howard Kramer, director of curatorial affairs for the museum. “Lots of labels have anniversaries, but Motown still rings wide and true.”

One of the largest items on display is the upright bass Funk Brother James Jamerson played on all his Motown sessions until 1963. It’s the instrument heard on “My Guy” and “Heat Wave.”

“A lot of people maintain the key to Motown was the rhythm section: The snap of the drums, the gorgeously intricate bass line and then the percussion laid over the top,” Kramer said. “Jamerson was the primary bass player. He carried the weight of those recordings.”

Of particular interest to Kramer are four posters promoting Motown concerts. Two of the posters advertise Motown Revue shows, which featured several of the labels artists on the same bill.

“For the 1963 revue, Stevie Wonder was the headliner.Usually the person with the biggest hit at the time was the headliner, and in this case he was riding ‘Fingertips, Part 2,’” Kramer said. “It’s interesting to see both who’s on top and the volume of artists (on the bill). It’s also interesting to note that for the 1968 Motown Revue shows at the Fox Theater in Detroit, they played 9 or 10 days in a theater that seats 5,000.”

Together, the posters span five years and a range of venues from a high school gym to a civic sports arena.

“These posters give you an idea of the breadth of places Motown performers were playing,” Kramer said. “They’d play arenas, high schools, theaters and also posh nightclubs like the Copacabana in New York,” Kramer said. “They played every possible circuit.”

Other items in the exhibit include the dress Supreme Mary Wilson wore for the group’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show after the departure of Diana Ross, the outfit and glasses Stevie Wonder wore for his halftime performance at the 1999 Super Bowl and a stage costume worn by Miracle Bobby Rogers in the 1970s.

“Rogers’ suit is an example of the over-the-top clothing vocal groups wore at the time,” Kramer said. “There’s no reason for this to have been made except for a performer. This is not street wear.”

Thanks to a loan from the Universal Music Group, which owns the Motown label, many of the artifacts have never been displayed before.

“A lot of Motown stuff didn’t make it past the original era,” Kramer said. “The only item we’ve shown before is Rick James’ bass.”

For many of the Motown session musicians, playing for Hitsville was just another gig. But 50 years later, the notes they laid down still resonate.

After 50 years and several generations Motown is still a staple of radio, music, movies, television, commercials,” Kramer said. “That’s part of (label founder Berry) Gordy’s vision to make the music palatable to all ages.”

To learn more about museum hours and ticket information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.

Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part one)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)

Read Full Post »

Above: Norah Jones strolls through Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” at the 2008 Bridge School Benefit concert.

By Joel Francis

When Beyonce sang “a diva is a female version of a hustler” she probably wasn’t thinking of Norah Jones.

Jones has made her name with impeccable background music that is tasteful to a fault and straddles the line between folk and jazz. It appears she saves the more interesting facets of her personality for her side projects with the Little Willies, El Madmo, a punk one-off, and her burgeoning side career as hip hop chanteuse. Jones’ appearances with Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, Wyclef Jean and Q-Tip prove there may be more than a little hustler in her after all.

“Take Off Your Cool” with Andre 3000 of Outkast, from “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”

Jones was a little more than a year removed from the massive success “Come Away With Me” when this number appeared. Both camps took shots from a surprised public. Andre 3000 was blasted for pandering by working with the reigning adult contemporary queen and Jones was flamed for lowering herself to the low level of hip hop. Of course, the final result proved all naysayers wrong.

Anchored by a finger-picked acoustic guitar, the gentle production wouldn’t out of place on Jones’ own album – that is if Jones’ stuffy supporters could get past Andre 3000′s greasy come-ons.

“Any Other Day” with Wyclef Jean, from “The Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant”

This song, which first appeared on the Hurricane Katrina relief charity album “Come Together Now,” has more in common with the Dave Matthews Band than the Fugees. Wyclef Jean’s acoustic guitar leads the way, but it is essentially Jones’ showcase. She affectingly croons the story of someone trapped by a storm, while Jean drops in a faux-Bob Marley patois.

A quick glance and the writing credit explains Jones’ prominence. The song is a true collaboration, with Jones and her then-boyfriend Lee Alexander sharing authorship with Jean and his producer Jerry “Wonder” Duplessis.

“Soon the New Day” with Talib Kweli, from “Ear Drum”

Even so-called “conscious rappers” aren’t above desires of the flesh. This celebration of one-night stands is draped across producer Madlib’s backdrop of smooth ’70s soul. As Talib Kweli boasts about his conquest, Jones’ voice surfaces like the first rays of dawn gently forcing their way into the bedroom through the closed shade.

Although Jones is essentially limited to one line, she makes the most of it, adding heart and emotion to Kweli’s calculated braggadocio. But don’t mistake Jones as the conscience of the story – there is no remorse from either party. She clearly enjoyed it just as much as he did, just in a different way. Despite their disparate deliveries, the two voices work naturally together – neither performer sounds of his (or her) element.

“Soon the New Day” is a stand-out tune on a great album that should have been a single.

“Life Is Better” with Q-Tip, from “The Renaissance”

This cut is essentially a jam, with Q-Tip and Jones giving props to hip hop pioneers like the Cold Crush Brothers, the Leaders of the New School and, of course, Tip’s close friend J. Dilla. Jones gets the song to herself for the first two minutes and she makes the most of it. It’s fun to hear her away from her natural reference points singing of hip hop songs “banging for you” against a thumping bass line and jazzy sample. Tip’s verse is a roll call of his favorite artists.

Jones’ strong performance in her most urban setting to date makes one wish she’d take similar chances on her own albums. But if she’s not willing to alienate her own audience, it’s nice to see her spreading her wings elsewhere. Don’t be surprised when she shows up on the next Snoop Dogg album.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 328 other followers