Live Jazz: Quinton Cain Quartet at Jazz on Jay June 17, 2021

The Quinton Cain Quartet charged through the door of live, free outdoor jazz at Jazz on Jay Thursday, June 17; a door Azzaam Hameed and friends kicked open on June 10.

While Hameed’s quartet honored venerable touchstones (not tombstones…) of soul, funk and modal jazz, Cain and crew went modern, groovin’ high with plenty of crunch and glide.

Nobody had a problem when wind blew the charts off their stands: The interactive band linked and locked, listened and glistened. It was sunny. It was sweet. It had altitude and attitude and an easy bravado they rode to seque and sweep from one tune to another.

Drummer-leader/composer Quinton Cain

They didn’t stop for nearly half an hour at the start, as fans toted lawn chairs and just-bought lunches into the busy, at times bristly, sound-scape. “Retrogression” eased from slow to faster, and stranger, as guitarist Luke Franco tossed the ball to trombonist Joe Giordano whose wordless vocals mystery’ed up the tune and they eased into Giordano’s “A.P.V.” Cain’s drums drove the bus, and everybody, while Tarik Shah’s always-on-the-move muscular bass built a head of steam from which solos would burst and billow.

Trombonist/keyboardist/singer Joe Giordano

Bassist Tarik Shah

Cain’s slower, sweeter “Pollen Colored Fantasy” blurred impressionistic, pretty and plush. But then they stripped down and beefed up in a mid-funk romp. Giorgano was the star here. While he took bold, brassy risks early, he settled into the pocket, giving the chords a work-out but staying on the map. As Giordano settled in, Franco began to play more outside, body-rocking to the beat, comping big and soloing way over there. Cain’s splashy cymbals flew like spray off a breaking wave as Shah again proved the band’s Most Valuable Player: Hearing a particularly tasty guitar lick, he immediately echoed it, repeated then built it. 

This second medley climaxed, that’s the right word, with the late, great trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s “Roy Allan,” a tribute and a trip; gracious and graceful.

Guitarist Luke Franco

Then Cain and crew reached back into his own songbook for “As the Sun Sets” and “Transience and Transcendence,” again linking songs and again without seams. Giordano grabbed the spotlight here, finding the “Woody Woodpecker” theme in a mountains-and-valleys solo; later in the tune, repetitions evolved into Coltrane-y oscillations. In “Sun,” the guys took turns going double-time as everybody else held the beat steady, a great attention-grabbing trick. 

Quinton Cain Quartet

When they upshifted from “Sun” into “Transience and Transendence,” Giordano again sparkled, though Franco and Shah got their own tasty pieces of the pie. Happy in the driver’s seat, Cain drove strong, taking the crowd home in a mood as sunny as a Trombone Shorty funk-as-fun number.

Jazz on Jay continues Thursday, June 24 with saxophonist Matty Stecks & The 518.

Live, Alive-O! Azzaam Hameed and Friends at Jazz on Jay

Gathering at Jazz on Jay Thursday wasn’t just that warm buzz of being with people; it was the particular joy of being with MY people; both the jazz fans I’d see at every cool show before the plague and Schenectady in all its diverse and goofy glory.

Jazz on Jay crowds are as rainbow-y as at Music Haven. Jazz on Jay got up and running again Thursday with pianist-sometime-singer Azzaam Hameed and Friends, first of 15 free shows outdoors where Jay Street T’s onto State. While Music Haven remains on hiatus, the Central Park venue may present pop-up shows over the summer. Jazz on Jay features local and regional artists, much easier to book than Music Haven’s world music offerings.

In short, nobody needed a visa for fun Thursday. 

It was show up, smile up whether masked up or not, raise our voices and clap hands up; spirits, too.

It was, as Hameed’s quartet asserted halfway through its 80-minute set, a “Lovely Day” in the words and melody of the great and recently departed Bill Withers – guitarist Hayes Mills strong at the vocal mic.

Fans lined the storefronts and toted chairs into shady spots, grabbed lunch and drinks, happily greeted familiar faces and danced some as the band played under a tent, facing northward (toward Perreca’s) up Jay Street.

Celebrating the series’s youth movement Indiana Nash highlighted in Thursday’s Gazette, Hameed generously showcased young (high-school) talents: pianist Jordan Gamble and singer-pianist Paris Bouldin. Gamble etched a muscular groove in “Sunny” then a short vamp, neither developing quite enough; Bouldin sang “River” with good feel and force – both earning warm welcomes from band and audience.

Hameed and band played loose and easy, almost too laid back at first, then muscled up and swung to impressive effect in “Wade in the Water” half an hour in. 

Hameed crooned “Fly Me To the Moon” with easy warmth but guitarist Hayes Fields sang more often, drawing fans to clap and sing along in “Lovely Day.” Other soft-soul-pop hits swung breezy and sweet: the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” and Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” cruising in light instrumental arrangements, a radioactive Michael Jackson pop hit wrapping up. 

This followed not long after the band hit its top altitude, and attitude, in Miles Davis’s “So What.” Bassist Al Brisbane and drummer George Spence took confident advantage of scarce solo opportunities. Fields and Hameed generally led throughout the show, but everybody gave this timeless, jaunty classic a fine and frisky ride. The beat was strong, the vamps and solos solid and cohesive.

Jazz on Jay continues next Thursday with drummer Quinton Cain’s quartet.

Wise-Ass Wednesday (or whenever)

Takes a REAL wise-ass, a persistent curmudgeon, to post a Wednesday rant days later…

But I digress.

Vin Diesel has much to answer for. 

Drivers are emulating his “Fast & Furious” film antics and turning roads into raceways. Meanwhile, COVID is tearing up conventional behavioral restraints as police departments face calls for reform and deadly, rising rates of gunfire – while ignoring almost everything else.

Race-tuned road rockets blast past and backfire at all hours of the day and night.

This is to request whatever entity operates re-incarnation to bring Diesel and the whole F&F cast and production team back in a very specific way:

Bring them back as speed-bumps, on MY street. 

This may discourage the manic motor-heads roaring past my place – and endangering anybody unlucky enough to be walking or driving there – by beating the blazing crap out of their cars. With every crashing lurch, this would impose valuable lessons in car karma on those intoxicated by a dangerous cocktail of gasoline, hormones and entitled narcissism.

And it would give Vin Diesel et al some bumps and bruises, too.

“…the rest of the story…”

CBS Sunday Morning swung and missed badly in their May 23 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young story.

Celebrating the quartet’s 1970 “Deja Vu” album, CBS went all obvious. They recalled romances and breakups and discord within the band and its celebrated second gig at Woodstock.

Touting what Rhino Records calls a super deluxe version of “Deja Vu” (four CDs and a vinyl LP, with many out-takes and demos), the story featured interviews with all members but Young. Nash cites an included demo version of “Our House,” singing with then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell who inspired that cozy tune.

In this superficial telling, however, CBS completely ignored how two C,S,N&Y songs of that era encapsulated the band’s unlikely blended history of happy harmony singing and angry activism.

On May 4, 1970 – fifty one years and a few weeks ago – Ohio National Guard troops shot dead four unarmed, un-menacing students at an anti-Vietnam War protest on the campus of Kent State University. They also wounded nine other student protesters.

As Graham Nash told me in an interview some years ago, C,S,N&Y were riding high that week with “Teach Your Children.” A gentle cautionary tale that Nash has said was inspired by a celebrated Diane Arbus photo of a young boy in shorts, grimacing as he held a toy grenade, the song featured a sweet Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) pedal steel solo on an easy country-rock groove. It peaked at No. 16 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

In a hot rush, almost immediately after the Kent State shootings, Neil Young wrote “Ohio,” a protest anthem that angrily mourned “four dead in Ohio.” They hurried to record it but had to fight their record label to release it as a single, backed with Stephen Stills’ thematically related, somber “Find the Cost of Freedom.” 

Nash told me their record company wanted to delay “Ohio” since it would likely push “Teach Your Children” down the singles chart. But C,S,N&Y stood their ground.

In a sense, the record company was right: “Ohio” surged to No. 14 on the Hot 100 as “Teach” slid down. 

But Nash also said they were proud of their defiance.

Insisting on relevance, they ultimately won the long-view argument by releasing a protest song of enormous, timely impact. However, as predicted, releasing “Ohio” also marginalized “Teach Your Children” – which otherwise would have paid Nash greater songwriter royalties without Young’s “Ohio” making a bigger noise and sales.

Too bad CBS went all “People” mag – and I don’t mean that in a good way – and ignored this key facet in the endlessly complex tale of C,S,N&Y.

Their last chapter is far from written, but the “Teach Your Children”/“Ohio” story may be their proudest.

A walk in the woods and the wet

We must have passed the place a thousand times without stopping: a roadside parking lot with a quiet sign inviting visitors. Then a miniature windmill was added, amplifying the welcome. So when we found the Plotterkill Preserve overflowing on Mothers Day, the Great Flats Nature Trail proved a fine Plan B.

Clouds cloaked the sun by the time we hit the trail. In an hour of slow walking and gawking under gray skies, we met only four other groups of wanderers. All were families; half with dogs, securely leashed. Nobody wore masks, but distancing was easy and everybody did.

The trails mostly offered dry footing; where some went soupy, logs laced our way across ink-black mud. Wooden platforms spanned the swampy parts. Walking there was its own reward, among endless varieties of green. Gray and brown vines reached upward on trunks from boggy flatlands, sometimes eclipsing the trees supporting them. Ponds and streams threaded through rusting dried grasses; some bubbly-alive, some stagnant-still. Wildflowers clumped sociably together. 

Enough people roamed the place that wild-life seemed scarce, hiding from us – except for birds. Cardinals, red-winged blackbirds and mallards perched, flew or swam nearby. Some yelled at us, others kept up their everyday conversations; bragging about the Red Sox leading the American League east, complaining about the weather, ridiculing what we wore.

This was their place and we were just visiting.

Help…

Three strangers said “God bless you” and a woman handed Ellie an umbrella from her car window and drove on.

Ellie and I were standing in the rain directing drivers to a drive through food distribution event Wednesday in Collins Park – a miserably wonderful experience, and vice versa. With our son Zak, we joined a few dozen volunteers at 4 p.m. to prepare for the 6 p.m. distribution, but customers started lining up even before we arrived. 

We never actually saw the distribution across the park, but saw everybody drive in, then out. 

By 5 p.m., we’d waved more than 100 cars into line as sprinkles muscled up into a downpour for real.

Drivers were grateful, but some seemed shy as if they’d had to suppress their pride to take free food in a public place. As rain poured down and Ellie and I refined our direction raps, the most common emotion coming through their open car windows was sincere thankfulness, but sometimes a desperation we could feel.

To keep traffic from backing up onto the roadway, Ellie stood near the corner and waved cars on to me. I waved them forward and told them to stay on the road, not turn into the parking lots alongside it. As I spoke to the first driver and more cars drove in, Ellie addressed the second while the third, fourth, fifth and sixth waited.

Complicating things, a baseball game, an event at the adjacent Beukendal Lodge and a young girls’ track and field event also brought people to the park, as did the usual attractions of the lake and picnic areas.

When I waved a car to a stop, I’d ask, “Here for the food drive?” – in a way I hoped felt neutral. If “no,” if they came for baseball or track, I’d apologize for stopping them. If “yes,” I’d ask, “Picking up?” If “yes” again, I’d say, “Great! – you’re in exactly the right place.” I assured them, “You’ll be there in a minute; thanks for coming.” If they came to volunteer, I sent them to the parking lots, again with thanks.

Masked, I stood back from the car windows. 

As customers drove in, some thanked me and said, “God bless you.”

We saw folks of all ages and conditions, in all sorts of vehicles from battered sedans and pickups to newish, pricey SUVs. Some seemed to be in their last miles, and several drivers seemed to be living in their cars. A mother and daughter, both in good moods, ate ice cream cones from Jumpin’ Jacks near the park entrance. Many were un-masked, some held their hands over their mouths. A guy with Confederate flag headrest covers in his beater pickup rushed to put his mask on before opening his window. He was poignantly grateful; so was the young couple in a pickup with REDNECK CHICK across the windshield. A well-dressed couple in a new Porsche SUV avoided eye contact. Hunger can hit anyone.

Folks driving away with their food bags – our son Zak helped pack and hand them out – waved gratefully. They mouthed “Thank you” or stopped to say it, relieved and happy. An outbound woman stopped to wave Ellie closer and handed an umbrella out her window. Ellie tried to decline this sweet gift: “How would I ever get this back to you?’ The woman waved and left. I could tell Ellie was smiling through her mask.

Set to run from 6 to 8 p.m., the Drive-Thru was all but over by 6:15. 

In-bound traffic peaked around 5. Outbound drivers soon started warning us “They’re running out.” Zak texted from the distribution line that the food was all bagged; his work was done. He told the volunteer coordinators about his “two old folks directing traffic” – could we go?

Wet shoes squished as we walked to Ellie’s car, cold and emotional. 

We’d seen people in dire straits, trying to hide desperation that was often all too clear and deeply sad as they drove in; and we felt their gratitude as they drove away.

Realizing that this scene of volunteers handing donated food to our neighbors is playing out across America brought a disturbing recognition. Something is deeply, maddeningly wrong.

In what some claim is the greatest country in the world, we had seen desperate people in their hungry hundreds lining up for donated food. The embarrassment some seemed to feel was in the wrong place. It belongs instead to a society or system that rewards selfishness and pushes millions down through the cracks. 

For a nation that worships winners, we tend to overlook how each winner requires a sacrifice by dozens or hundreds of “losers,” some struggling, some dead. For each Bezos, multitudes of marginalized workers literally piss into bottles, working without breaks in warehouses. Hunger and homelessness are essential in this system for the greedy to win. 

Fortunately, resources – both material and human – are gathering to meet this gnawing need. There IS help, and helpers.

Earlier in the pandemic, we’d stifled our own impulse to join those helpers. Now, all three of us vaccinated, we were glad to volunteer – and felt a little uncomfortable at the gratitude that greeted us. 

As we peeled off wet clothes and started to make dinner, we realized we had seen humanity at its worst in the inequality that brought people to us in such desperation. And we had seen humankind at its best in both our fellow volunteers and the gratitude of those we helped.

This made the experience of sharing simply wonderful, delicious and nourishing.

Sad news on a stormy day

Nobody who loves music hereabouts wanted to believe that bassist and producer Tony Markellis has passed. Sadly, devastatingly true; among the most terrible news of a wretched time. How unfair that he moves on just as the world begins to recover.

Tony was my second favorite musician after my brother Jim. A player of subtle supportive listening on ballads or mighty muscular force in any groove, Tony made every song he played on better, every band he played in both more poetic and more powerful.

A round guy whose email address proclaimed him the meat man, Tony had an easy calm way about him. He’d been everywhere, but still loved to move along. He’d played everything but still loved to lay it down.

When I talked once with Trey Anastasio, who had the exquisite taste to bring Tony into the Trey Anastasio Band, he said it was fine with him “to just watch and listen to Tony, all night.” Trey did so, himself; and I did that whenever I heard him play, starting from an early-70s David Bromberg Band gig in Binghamton. The sound system died, but not the music. As Bromberg led his strings and horn players to the lip of the stage, Tony turned down his amp and laid down the groove so everybody could hear everything.

He loved playing with thoughtful singer-songwriters, especially Michael Jerling, as much as with rocking bands. And he always swung, always.

However, some of my favorite times with Tony were when he didn’t play. 

Many a night when I climbed the steep stairs at Caffe Lena, there was Tony at the top, listening, and knowing everything about the music and musicians. I could have written my Gazette reviews just by jotting down what Tony said.

When Davell Crawford, the “Piano Prince of New Orleans,” played the Cock ’N’ Bull in Galway, Tony joined the two of us in the bar after the show. Davell was born into the New Orleans tradition, the grandson of James “Sugarboy” Crawford and godson of Carol Fran, though Roberta Flack took over that job when Fran passed. But for Tony, New Orleans was just one of the many streams he navigated with unerring taste on his bass. And, believe me, Tony had better New Orleans musician stories than Davell. 

The many musicians he played with here and everywhere will be telling Tony stories in every green room, every tour-stop bar and every recording studio here for years.

If you’re ever lucky enough to be back there, listen up, and raise a glass to our own thunder sage, our groove giant, our boss of the beat.

To Tony Markellis.

FROM The Record Shelf: Loving Laura Nyro (especially “New York Tendaberry”)

When a friend shared “Beads of Sweat” by Laura Nyro with Duane Allman on Youtube, I sat hypnotized by these geniuses who left us too soon.

Late into that night, I listened to Laura Nyro music; thought about her, remembered her and loved her.

Apart from Dylan, the 60s strongest singer-songwriters were Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. Twins in eminence and talent, they were different in every other way, (Using past tense here since Mitchell seems retired.)

Mitchell made a silvery sound, a spacious but shy voice plain as prairie rain. Nobody sounded or sang like her; like a lone violin, sighing in the doorway of an empty schoolhouse, far from everything on a moonlit plain. Her writing felt universal, touching every life; carried to the heart with a vivid, vulnerable delivery.

But if Mitchell was emphatically just one, Nyro was multitudes. Mitchell was a mirror, Nyro a movie screen. Mitchell ’s music hid its complexity in homespun folkie charm while Nyro flaunted her sophistication as a precocious genius of soul music, post-bop jazz and Broadway drama. 

Nyro’s sound was juicy as red sauce, multi-colored as a shop selling dive bars’ bright neon signs. Her voice echoed among tall buildings, making fire escapes hum. She could whisper in soft desolation, or brass out defiance like a trumpet, her father’s instrument. She populated the streets of her big-city myths with characters in vivid film noirs with people and places animated by the power of stories.

She explains that atmosphere herself on the back cover of “Gonna Take a Miracle,” her 1971 album with LaBelle:

Nights in New York

Running down steps

Into the echoes of the train station

To sing.

The only time I met her, one of a handful of times we were in the same room, I was too star-struck, too awed, to tell her how she and I go way back; how I saw her at Monterey in 1967, sent her a group fan-letter from Japan after a dream that came true in 1969, how we spent two hours on the phone once, decades later. 

At Monterey, I couldn’t afford a $6 ticket, so I climbed a tree outside the fairgrounds arena where the first festival of pop music brought her to a stage full of stars.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monterey_Pop_Festival_set_list#Laura_Nyro

For her very New York style, that very California context felt a bit wrong; but nobody boo’ed her there. 

Now, I had no idea this enormous, epic thing was happening until I heard it through my barracks window miles away. I was a Russian student then at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio where the feed-back heavy sound of the Paupers boomed across the bay.

I wished later that I’d hurried over, immediately; but I only caught the Saturday evening show. 

Saturday afternoon, I hitched to the fairgrounds, stopping first at the community college where a a band called Yashala played for free on a stage on the football field. Folks applauded louder for their announced claim to be from San Francisco than for their music, and they were right. I missed the afternoon show at the festival that opened with Canned Heat and closed with the Electric Flag. 

But I was perched in a tall tree when the Saturday evening show started with Moby Grape – the best band I’d ever seen up to that epic night.

Hugh Masekela seemed to play too long, or we weren’t ready for South African jazz; and I don’t recall the Byrds at all. Then came Laura Nyro, with a band, in a short, strong set. After her, San Francisco favorites Jefferson Airplane got hometown raves; then Memphis grooves took over as Booker T. and the MGs warmed up the crowd for Otis Redding, then the reigning soul giant.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monterey_Pop_Festival_set_list

Nyro didn’t get the career boost of other Monterey acts because she’s  doesn’t appear in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop” movie. Her rambunctious “Wedding Bell Blues” and epic “Poverty Train” are among out-takes in “The Complete Monterey Pop Festival” three DVD set my family gave me for a birthday. They prove how great she was and that she didn’t get boo’ed as stubborn myth maintains. 

After Monterey came more training in Texas, a flight to Istanbul and my first overseas duty station. I flew via London, where Cream drummer Ginger Baker drunkenly disembarked, and I saw other European capitols only from the air and their blank airports. Isolated on the Black Sea coast, I relied on albums my friend Alligator’s girlfriend sent him from New York to keep me connected to America, to myself.

Then, stationed in Kamiseya, Japan between Tokyo and Yokohama, Laura Nyro’s music came back to me in a dream; her face on an album cover.

At the Post Exchange on base the next day, I found her new “New York Tendaberry” album; the cover just like in my dream. I listened to nothing else for weeks, months. 

Her voice ached with intimate longing in pain or rang proud with love; in musical frames ranging from just her piano to big orchestrations that rolled like parades. Her songs, cinematic and sympathetic, portrayed characters in their deepest hearts, as if listening through a keyhole to secrets that can’t be said but must be sung.

She was deepest and most compelling in darker moods. Any album that starts “You don’t love me when I cry” promises a rough ride, perfect for that time when missing my first lost love surrounded me like air. In “Captain* for Dark Mornings,” she pleads in a long fade, “Captain, say yes,” but the song doesn’t console falsely. She has nearly rebuilt herself in “Tom Cat Goodby,” a blithe retelling of Frankie and Johnny’s deadly tale of betrayal and revenge that reaches for refuge but instead finds desperation. 

In the next two songs, her voice itself becomes orchestral. She stacks it high in layered choruses in “Mercy on Broadway,” sometimes with the tile-walled echo of subway singers. Then she strips off the years in “Save the Country,” leaving it bare in childlike, hopeful innocence, a call to renewal, to goodness, to salvation in togetherness. 

“Gibsom Street” lets the heart catch its breath and start to climb out of isolation. It’s springtime.

Whenever I listened to the album, this and the next tune, ”Time and Love,” always brought me a sense of relief, words of hope riding hand in hand with a melody of pure uplift.

“The Man Who Sends Me Home” has a wistful serenity that deepens as the arrangement fades to leave behind everything but voice and piano and longing. When the sound rebuilds as drums, bass then a heaven of flutes join in “Sweet Lovin’ Baby,” the sun comes out.

Captain Saint Lucifer” has a brash, swaggering sound, horns and woodwinds and the album’s most emphatic beats, but it curls back to a solitary piano.

“New York Tendaberry” makes love to her town, going big and brassy, then whispering in reverent tenderness. 

“In The Country Way” announces her retreat from the city to the next phase of her actual life. 

That album so dominated the soundscape in the little cottage where I lived in Minami-Rinkan, Japan that my room-mates joined me in writing a group fan letter, responding almost song by song. Michael “Lew” Ayres hailed the emotional courage of her singing with “It takes a lot of nerve to sing like that.”

Her courage inspired mine, and the lingering heartache of a a breakup lifted like a fog. The sun was out, again.

I got every album she made and saw her play whenever I could. I rejoiced in her Tanglewood show with a full band; but I also lamented when time passed with no new music from her, no new albums to wash over me.

Her first hiatus came at just 24 right after “New York Tendaberry.” In the mid-70s, she kicked back again, to have a family, there in the country (Connecticut).

Then in 1984, Nyro made a come-back. 

Famously reclusive even when actively making music, I knew she wouldn’t grant many interviews. But I desperately wanted her voice on my phone. So I called her publicist 22 times in less than a week and was finally, very grudgingly, promised 20 minutes by phone. Her publicist then was Barbara Cobb, gratefully named here because she endured my maniacal persistence.

Then, the day before the interview, Cobb phoned, demanding “copy approval” – to see and approve my story before publication.The interview I’d craved and chased so relentlessly might just go away, but I refused. Then Cobb called back: it was back on.

I’d been promised 20 minutes, but we talked for almost two hours because I had really done my homework and was ready. She told me a lot, but wouldn’t acknowledge that “Captain Saint Lucifer” on “New York Tendaberry” was Miles Davis, as I guessed. 

She had a thing for captains: In ”Luckie,” first song on her breakthrough album “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,” she sings, “You can meet the captain at the dead end zone” while two songs on “New York Tendaberry” sing of “Captain for Dark Mornings” and “Captain Saint Lucifer.” But I digress.

Looking back over my hand-scrawled interview notes, I recalled how lovingly she said New York City radio opened windows into the music that inspired her, especially jazz masters Miles Davis and John Coltrane and soul groups whose harmonies took her into subway stations to sing in their echoes. “It just came pouring out of the radio,” she said. “My favorite times in music were the girl groups, heavy, melodic, gorgeous R&B. And there was the best jazz in the world, ever, earlier than the Beatles, five years before the Beatles.”

Coming back from hiatus happened, she exulted, because “I’m blossoming, the art is blossoming.” She yearned to play live with “New York City musicians who listened to everything” – her beloved girl groups, R&B and jazz. She was looking for a band then, to make a sound with “real simplicity, a strong pulse and a certain finesse.” Her next album would be a live set,

She said her own best songs “demanded to be written,” that writing them felt like “a meeting with this spirit.” She said, “I never thought about it; I just did it. I had a radical energy, with wild and wooly ideas.”

She also presciently noted, “Society doesn’t listen to women; if it did listen, they’d hear about the deeper realities,” the realities her songs carry.

She said, “People conform so much; they stay and live in little boxes that can’t contain life, but outside the boxes is a bright world of light and shadow. I could hear that world in music.” She said, “Women represent that progression the strongest, that’s why feminism appealed to me.” Nyro lamented, “It’s very hard to live with this amount of violence in the world. Women are peace, the female principle.” 

She said, “I see music in color images,” but complained “MTV takes too much away from the hearer by giving away too much.” And she linked sight with sound when I asked her about “New York Tendaberry.” She said, “That was a wild exploration in time. I was painting pictures of the city then.”

By contrast, the album that brought her back into the public eye, “Mother’s Spiritual,” looked at life in the country and as a mother, a sonic sigh of newfound contentment.

The only interviews she gave then were with the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and me at the Gazette.

When I told my musician brother Jim I was going to see Nyro at the Berkshire Performing Arts Center near Tanglewood some years later, he sent me a cassette with his arrangements of her songs. He arranged, produced and played everything himself. 

Nyro played solo that night, in a cozy small theater.

When the theater manager surprised me by taking me backstage to meet Laura, I was determined to deliver Jim’s cassette. He and I hoped it would enthrall her into hiring him to produce a fantastic album or five.

Starstruck, I forgot to tell her I’d seen her at Monterey – and nobody booed her – that I’d seen her “New York Tendaberry” album cover in a dream that actually came true, that we’d talked on the phone once for two hours – and wouldn’t she confirm now that “Captain Saint Lucifer” was Miles Davis?

We talked for a few minutes; as she left the dressing room, she pushed against me in the doorway. Warm, almost intimate, it certainly felt closer than I ever expected to be with her. As she passed, I slipped Jim’s cassette into her bag. If she listened to it, she never called him.

Laura Nyro at The Egg. Michael Hochanadel photo

I only ever saw her sing once more, at The Egg on April 13*, 1990; North country troubadour Michael Jerling opened and held his own. Then she sang into the reverent hush her songs always earn.

“It takes a lot of nerve to sing like that” – like Nyro; but her songs were first heard in others’ voices. Her breakthrough album “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” (1968) and the deeper, darker “New York Tendaberry” (1969) were her twin peaks as both singer and songwriter. When she moved to the country, away from the neon New York streets and echoing train stations that inspired her songs and sound, her writing turned inward, like Joni Mitchell’s. Thereafter, the live recordings that dominated the last years of her career made perfect sense. She could sing songs from any time and place. And she medleyed songs together as if impatient to cram as many as she could into her show, including the soul classics of her subway harmony nights.

Nyro’s cover versions of others’ songs generally worked better than other singers’ covers of hers. She convincingly sang both hits and lesser-known songs by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the Shirelles, the Royalettes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Delfonics, the Crystals, the Moments, the Drifters, Dionne Warwick, the Miracles and others.

Of many versions of her songs in other voices, the furthest from her classy, elegant artistry was David Clayton-Thomas’s “And When I Die” with Blood Sweat and Tears – worst over-singing this side of Meat Loaf. Peter, Paul and Mary’s version was much better, one of 31 covers of a tune Nyro wrote at 17. (I always wondered how Nyro and the similarly precocious fellow New Yorker Frankie Lymon would have sounded, singing together in a train station. He co-wrote “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” at 14.) Some 32 artists covered her “Stoned Soul Picnic,” 22 recorded “Eli’s Comin’,” and 18 did “Time and Love.” 

Jazz pianist and arranger Billy Childs made an entire album of Nyro songs, “Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro,” in 2014. An all-star tribute, it features singers Lisa Fischer, Dianne Reeves, Rickie Lee Jones, Shawn Colvin, Alison Krauss, Renee Fleming, Esperanza Spalding and Dan Tyminski and ace players Yo-Yo Ma, Wayne Shorter, Jerry Douglas, Jay Bellerose, Brian Blade, Chris Botti, Scott Colley, Chris Potter and more. The players on Nyro’s albums are mostly un-credited, apart from Duane Allman on “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat” (1970), LaBelle on “Gonna Take a Miracle” (1971); and players on her early albums. 

Later she mostly performed solo at the keyboard, and Hudson Valley jazz singer Christine Spero has recently played entire live shows of Nyro songs.

Performing Nyro’s songs may be the finest tribute to her memory (and sampling them, as hip-hop artists started doing decades ago), but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 honored her in fine fashion.

Bette Midler inducted Nyro, praising “that haunting imagery, that beautiful music, that beautiful sexy little girl voice – sexy mama voice that had soul in its DNA, her inimitable piano sound…”

Midler said Nyro was “the essence of New York City” – a place of “rapture, dread and desire.” Her music portrayed the New York where every artist wanted to live.

Midler said Nyro’s Carnegie Hall debut was “like a deity had come down from on high to sing the truth.” Midler said Nyro’s truth included support for peace and feminism.

By then, Laura Nyro had been gone for 15 years.

She was just 19 when she played Monterey, 24 when she made “New York Tendaberry,” her best album, and retired from music for the first time. Laura Nyro was just 49 when she left us.

LAURA NYRO ON THE SHELF

Laura Nyro’s vinyl albums occupy two and half inches on my shelves including two copies each of “New York Tendaberry” and “Mother’s Spiritual” albums as Ellie and I combined lives and records. Nyro’s CDs fill four inches of shelf including the two-disc compilation “Stoned Soul Picnic,” also “Spread Your Wings and Fly: Laura Nyro at the Fillmore East May 30, 1971.” 

Albany musician and producer Al Quaglieri brought that live set to us in 2004 on Legacy Records, a SONY Columbia reissue label. Quaglieri wrote in the CD booklet of the technical challenges of salvaging this music, concluding, “I’m simply thankful it still exists, and happy to be able to share it with the world.” 

Quaglieri said by email that he reissued all her Columbia albums, the later ones only for the Japanese market. “I always approached reissues doing my best to respect any artist’s work, leaving things they left in the can in the vault where they should remain.” He added, “While Laura, as a perfectionist, might have found the handful of unreleased things I used as ‘bonus’ tracks unworthy, they were all solid, emotionally sound, and well-performed.” 

He said, “Laura was infamous for insisting her producers completely erase tracks she didn’t like, and she would sit and watch while they did so. In her session logs, I found quite a few references to songs that were tracked, but for which there remains no extant tape.” Quaglieri speculated “…the Fillmore tapes were made just for her own performance evaluation.” He also cited some demos. “She demo’d the entire ‘ELI’ album on the piano, by herself…an amazing insight into her mind and her creative process, but I swear she would come back from the dead and hunt me down if I ever put them out.”

When Legacy sent a copy of the “Spread Your Wings and Fly” album to Nyro’s father, Louis Nigro, Quaglieri sent a note “telling him what an honor it was to be touching Laura’s work.” Nigro thanked Quaglieri in a note “which I totally cherish,” said Quaglieri, a note in which Louis Nigro also wrote, “Laura was a very special person and brought a lot of joy to many people.”

*CRAMMED CALENDAR

Spring of 1990 when Laura Nyro last played here was filled to bursting with shows I got to see and photograph. We won’t see a run of shows like this again:

Richard Thompson at the Iron Horse Feb. 22

David Bromberg at The Egg Feb. 27

Asleep at the Wheel at Tiger’s March 16

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and Techtronic at the Clifton Park Arena March 17

The Grateful Dead at the Knickerbocker Arena March 24

Randy Travis, and Ricky Van Shelton at the Knickerbocker Arena March 30

Motley Crue, and Faster Pussycat at the Knickerbocker Arena Apr. 11

Laura Nyro, and Michael Jerling at The Egg Apr. 13

Melissa Etheridge, and the Havalinas at the Palace May 2

The Kinks at the Palace May 4

Cher at the Knickerbocker Arena May 9

Laurie Anderson at Proctors May 12

Rush at the Knickerbocker Arena AND the Spanic Boys at Pauly’s Hotel June 2; yeah, the same night

Richie Havens at the first-ever Alive at Five June 15

A DIFFERENT JAZZ FEST

Rejoice! Listen up, WAY up! Anywhere!

Before (and after) the plague, New Orleans hosts its annual Jazz and Heritage Festival on the last weekend in April and first weekend in May.

Dancing at the Congo Square stage

On 12 stages, music rings out across the Racetrack Fairgrounds in the Gentilly neighborhood from late morning to dinner time. 

Obviously, not this year…except, except:

http://www.WWOZ.org presents “Jazz Festing in Place” Thursday, April 22, through Sunday, April 25; then Thursday, April 29, through Sunday, May 2. The city’s wonderful, always funky NPR station streams archival recordings of stellar sets at past Jazz Fests.

The schedule roughly mirrors a real down-there, in-person, all-the-fun-you-can-stand Jazz Fest, but obviously with only one act playing at a time on WWOZ.

The station’s full Jazz Festing in Place schedule is charted here in the “cubes” format of in-person Jazz Fests. But remember: a single day’s musical offerings at a regular Fest would occupy the same sized page and be even more complex.

https://www.wwoz.org/642501-cubes-jazz-festing-place-2021.

I can vouch for some of these; I was there: “Jazz Festing in Place” includes some of the better Jazz Fest sets I ever saw:

Thursday (22): The great pianist Henry Butler (2012)

Friday: (23): Zion Trinity (2008 – my first Jazz Fest), Little Freddie King (2012)

Saturday (24): Alejandro Escovedo (2008), Allen Toussaint (2015)

Sunday (25): Marva Wright (2008), Trombone Shorty (2008)

Thursday (29): Bonerama (2013)

Saturday (1): Rosie Ledet (2015)

Sunday (2): Charmaine Neville (2008)

Rosie Ledet
Charmaine Neville

WWOZ’s “Jazz Festing in Place” features many vanished giants, demonstrating both how durable their music is and how beautifully Jazz Fest preserves their memory.

Thursday (22): Ella Fitzgerald (with Stevie Wonder, 1977), Richie Havens (1991), Henry Butler (2012), Shirley Horn (2004); and we have to list the Meters (1970) since Art “Papa Funk” Neville passed

Friday (23): Pete Fountain (1970), Fats Domino (with the Dave Bartholomew Band, 1999)

Saturday (24): Juanita Brooks (2000), Danny and Blue Lu Barker (2000), Joe Cocker (2009), Frederick Toots Hibbert (of the Maytals, 2005), Allen Toussaint (2015) 

Sunday (25): Mahalia Jackson (1970), Clifton Chenier (1970), Marva Wright (2008)

Friday (30: Ellis Marsalis (2018), Duke Ellington (1970), Al Hirt (1970), the Allman Brothers Band (2010 – originals Duane Allman and Berry Oakley were long gone before this version of the long-running southern rock juggernaut played Jazz Fest; Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks have passed since), Clarence Gatemouth Brown (2005)

Saturday (1): Wilson Pickett (2001), Snooks Eaglin (2005), Dr. John (2000)

Sunday (2): Ernie K-Doe (2000), Teena Marie (2010), Eubie Blake (1977), the Neville Brothers (2003 who played Jazz Fest almost every year until Art and Charles Neville passed)

Tune in, turn it up and enjoy. And consider supporting WWOZ, just as we support WAMC, WMHT, WEXT, WOOC, WRPI and WDST here.

Allen Toussaint
In a Second Line parade.

TO The Record Shelf #4 – “Blue Ice of Winsted” by Steve Ferguson

It came in a flat box, as vinyl albums did for decades. One day, YEARS ago, I got 29 albums in the mail on the same day. But the one that landed Saturday was the first new album I’d seen in years. 

The return address was Terry Adams’s P.O. box. 

Inside was: “Blue Ice of Winsted,” the last songs former NRBQ guitarist Steve Ferguson recorded before he died of lung cancer in 2009. He played this music on dulcimer, a late-in-life enthusiasm when his waning strength put the guitar out of reach. His former band-mate Terry Adams, NRBQ pianist and now clearly its leader, assembled it with care and devotion.

In 2006, Adams had brought his friend and erstwhile bandmate into the studio for “Louisville Sluggers,” a time-travel through NRBQ personnel and power that they also took on the road. 

That tour hit WAMC’s The Linda, the first venue Adams would visit with his Rock and Roll Quartet in May 2009. (He recorded and toured under that name until he felt satisfied the new band deserved the NRBQ name.) On a warm November night in 2007, Adams and Ferguson, bassist Pete Toigo and NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino played a sold-out show spanning 20-plus songs including early ‘Q classics Ferguson played on, later NRBQ faves and such left-field numbers as “Suki Yaki” (Ardolino sang that one up front, Adams at the drum kit), also the “Dragnet” TV theme and “Flat Foot Flewzy.” 

For guitarist Al Anderson, who replaced Ferguson in NRBQ (mid-70s to mid-90s plus reunions) that song was crucial. “I heard him play the intro to ‘Flat Foot Flewzy,’ which was life-changing for me because all the other guitar players at the time were trying to distort and be like Hendrix,” Anderson told Mass.live.com before a 2009 Ferguson tribute show. “But Steve was the real deal, the only guy playing like that — real.” 

When frequent NRBQ guest saxophonist Jim Hoke complimented Anderson’s playing on a vintage NRBQ song that featured Ferguson on the original, Anderson modestly said, “Fergie could play stuff I can’t touch.” 

The sense of reality that Anderson cites, of somebody playing music they really mean, shines through “Blue Ice of Winsted.” As Rick Mattingly wrote in the album notes, “‘Blue Ice of Winsted’ combines Steve’s spiritual journey with his travels in the physical world.”

“This music was his last; he knew that,” said Terry Adams by email.

The opening and title track “Blue Ice of Winsted” describes a landscape in simple, sincere instrumental terms; portraying roadside ice formations Ferguson spotted on the way home with a new dulcimer he bought in Winstead, Connecticut after working with Adams on “Louisville Sluggers.”

“Waitin’ On the Avalon” traces a raffish riverboat journey complete with gamblers, fugitives and other ne’er-do-wells. Apart from a count-off later, It’s the only vocal number, a crackly, plaintive sound, and it testifies to Ferguson’s admiration for colorful miscreants.

In “Journey of the Magi,” his playing achieves a stately grandeur akin to viola da gamba master Jordi Savall’s early-music explorations.

Ferguson next manages a zippier evocation of Savall’s questing internationalism in “Melungeon Son Dance,” a celebration of the multi-culturalism he’s honored throughout his career, from the soul-rock-jazz amalgam of NRBQ through his own Midwest Creole Ensemble. (Check that band’s sparkling, funky album “Mama U-Seapa” Schoolkids’ Records 1995).

Flip the record over and up comes “Angelic Waltz,” the first song Ferguson crafted on dulcimer and a short, graceful mood piece here.

“Gathering of the Eagles” acknowledges a tribute to a tribute: a fundraising tribute at the Eagles Club in Louisville for Ferguson’s medical expenses. We hear his voice, for the last time, count off this quiet tune.

“WanDer of the Orient” is another tribute; Ferguson wrote it to honor his guide on wide wanderings in Japan when he and Adams toured there after “Louisville Sluggers” hit. It sounds like friendship more than anything specifically Japanese.

And the album ends with “Ode to McGuinn,” a contemporary of Ferguson and Adams. The Byrds were one of Ferguson’s favorite bands; but rather than echo how the Byrds echoed John Coltrane, Ferguson goes back to the source for a timeless feel.

As Adams said by email, “I just oversaw the project after the fact, seeing that it was mixed and mastered well, and looked good.” He said, “It was Steve’s gift to the world and I wanted to make sure it was received.”

“NRBQ was a rehearsal band, playing for ourselves only, at home,” Adams explained, noting how Ferguson transformed it. “When Steve came over and joined in, it didn’t take long to realize we would be living rich lives by bringing our approach to people,” said Adams, defining his own life’s work. “Even though Steve left the band in 1974, we remained musical brothers,” said Adams, explaining, “We did an album together called ‘Louisville Sluggers’” (Clang! Records 2007).

“When I became the producer for (Chuck Berry pianist) Johnny Johnson’s album (“Johnny B. Bad” Elektra Nonesuch 1991), he was the first person I called,” said Adams. Johnson’s album also featured Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bernie Worrell and members of NRBQ.

“His music still lives in our recordings and concerts,” said Adams of his late friend – a gifted music-maker with a distinctive, cleanly articulated approach, a now-vanished star who made music to cherish.

Steve Ferguson’s album “Blue Ice of Winsted” is available at http://nrbq.com/store_lps.html.