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.

TO The Record Shelf #3 – “Universal Blues” by Keith Pray

Some see the blues as a confining category, a system of fences, borders or limitations. To Keith Pray, the fences touch what’s on the other side, and imports freely cross borders.

The Rotterdam resident took his musical training at three schools here and another in the Swiss Alps; he teaches music on two campuses, plus the Japanese martial art Aikodo. He’s a highly hyphenated cat: saxophonist-bandleader-organist-teacher; not always in that order. So the variety of sounds and songs, of motions and moods on his new (sixth) “Universal Blues” album comes as no surprise but instead as an unfolding, like a big map.

In non-plague times, he leads the 17-piece precision-power modernist Big Soul Ensemble monthly at the Van Dyck, plus the UAlbany Jazz Ensemble; also the straight-ahead Keith Pray Quartet and the Ortet. He plays saxophones in all his bands, except organ in the Ortet.

Pandemic isolation changed his recording method on “Universal Blues.” He said, “Due to the pandemic though, with no gigs, it was the most budget friendly way I could make it happen.” He worked with drummer Bobby Previte, bassist Bobby Kendall (Heard) and keyboardist Dave Gleason (Sensemaya, Art D’echo Trio, and Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble), plus guest guitarist Justin Hendricks this way. “I made ‘mockup’ versions of the basic skeleton (form) of each composition then shared that electronically with Bobby Previte,” said Pray. “He then imagined how we would play it live and recorded his tracks. I then mixed the drums a bit and sent it to the other Bobby (Kendall) to lay down bass parts,” Pray explained. “He sent it back, and then I sent it to David Gleason for keys.”

Joking a bit, Pray explained, “Finally (not really) I put the sax parts on and began mixing.” Then came a border-busting change.

“As I mixed it I liked it a lot and almost released it like that (basically an acoustic record) but when I composed the tunes, I had ideas for electronics but never liked the sounds that I had access to.” Expanding his sonic landscape, “I invested in some new sounds and was in pretty good shape, again almost releasing – but still felt there was a dimension missing.” 

To push past this border, to jump the fence, “I began exploring sound design and created a whole pallete of new electronic sounds based off some very simple acoustic sounds that were in my music room.” He used such found sounds as Chinese medicine balls, udu drum, “even the air moving from my Leslie speaker (used with the organ) and even myself doing some throat singing!” When he added some synthesizer sounds and effects, “It was ready for final mix and master! What a learning experience!”

Pray said, “I have always enjoyed the role of producer but never had aspirations of being a recording engineer.”

In particular, the siren sounds in “Inyo” reflect a new sonic open-ness. “I thought of all of the sounds as colors,” he explained. “My cousin who did the cover painting started with a much simpler image and over time it morphed with layers of things that were not in the original vision. In my case, it was similar. I originally wanted electronics as part of the sound scape but couldn’t get the ‘colors’ right.” 

Then he began to hear-see a new kind of “right.”

“Part of the use of the disparate sounds is similar to visual artists using a slash of red where it doesn’t seem to belong and how with purpose it can become an integral part of the image,” Pray said.” He continued, explaining, “This is also similar to hip-hop and how they use samples that shouldn’t work together but become part of the new sound.” It also echoes how Asian philosophies (and martial arts) reconcile unexpected elements – “the struggle for balance between conflicting things.” He said, “I wanted to give the listener a sonic journey, things that might challenge the listener and things that may unfold over repeated listenings.”

Unfold, you know, like a map to someplace new.

“Inyo” maps a conventional 12-bar blues groove, but trouble soon shows up; picture a raid on a nightclub.

“Mongol Blues” calms things with a serene long-line melody that goes to the gym and gets buffed, but guest guitarist Justin Hendricks manages more than just muscling up the tune. Like adding guitarist Greg Tuohey to Aaron Parks’ trio on “Little Big,” the six string brings in color as well as clout.

“Grounding” follows a similar path, layering linked saxes, orbiting keyboards and bell-like guitar tones over off-center toms-heavy drumming and a bass line whose spaciousness translates as momentum. Then the saxes rule, though everybody gets a taste.

The rhythm section trio intro’s “South Sphere,” an easy amble at first. Right soon comes sax time, over a discreet percussion clatter and a cool bass line linking to synthesized swoops and swirls. The sax returns and it all swings sweet and strong under Pray’s most Coltrane-riffing of the whole album. Kendall’s bass muses thoughtfully before a cozy coda.

“Mourning Eagle” has a martial taiko fierceness in Previte’s aggressive drumming; a sax issues sparse calls, goes both bigger and outside while echoing bursts orbit the rhythm. Like the beginning, the end is all big beats, hypnotic and resonant, before a wild-card whirl.

“Three Layers” opens like a blossom in slow motion, growing in force as instruments join, including the guitar, featured only here and on “Mongol Blues” and “Grounding.” The piece detours, too, alternating moods of energetic agitation with serenity that eases into silence.


Pray played the Cock ‘n’ Bull in Galway on November 7, 2019. Tenor sax great Jerry Weldon guested with Pray’s quartet. Weldon played to the crowd in a flamboyant fun way; Pray played the songs, workmanlike, solid, and without borders.

As in live shows with his big band, sax-powered quintet and Ortet organ trio, Pray steps back for his band-mates to shine. I’ve seen Big Soul Ensemble gigs where he doesn’t solo at all. But he also leads with his horn, a confident and fluent player whose technique follows fast on his ideas in a powerful flow. For all the strength of his compadres, this is clearly Pray’s play, his show, his map.

He said, “I did my first session as a leader when I was 19 at Mountain Lake Public Radio” in Plattsburgh, though the session was never released. “I co-led my first big band around that time too,” Pray said. “I never wanted to be a leader, it just always seemed to happen!”

His training and experience as player and bandleader run deep and wide. “I moved to the Capital Region from Keeseville (in the Adirondacks) to attend Schenectady County Community College (SCCC, now SUNY Schenectady) for music, then went to (Crane School of Music in) Potsdam to finish my music ed degree,” said Pray. “Then I moved back around here and played full time for a few years until I moved to New York City for eight years.” There he earned a masters in jazz performance at Queens College. 

Moving back here in 2006, he started teaching in Schenectady public schools, where he remains. He also taught at SCCC and SUNY Oneonta, and now at UAlbany. “In 2014 I went to the European Graduate School in Saas Fee, Switzerland (up in the alps) to start my doctorate in Expressive Arts: Therapy, Conflict Transformation and Peace Building,” said Pray. He finished the course work but not his dissertation. “I would rather leave the writing to writers!”

Pray maintains creative momentum despite the pandemic. 

“I get up and do some stretching and meditation, eat, get my 14-year old up for school, then I log into my virtual world where I teach high school band (all online) for the Schenectady school district,” he said. The photos he shoots on several nature walks a day around his home in the Rotterdam hills, then posts to Facebook, show a musical eye. Cooking family dinners, “I have really delved into cooking new things since Covid,” he said. “It helps clear my mind and keeps the creative side moving in new ways.” He practices sax and organ, trains and teaches Aikido and runs the UAlbany Jazz Ensemble. Before the pandemic, he also played regularly with his three groups. So, now he feels, “I’ve never had all this free time!” 

The ever-busy hyper-productive Pray explained, “I feel like I’m on vacation!”

Pray’s six releases are available digitally and on CD at http://www.keithpray.bandcamp.com.

SIDEBAR

The siren sounds threw me in “Inyo,” first track on Pray’s “Universal Blues.” 

They took me back to Japan. Yeah, I’ll explain. 

Living between Tokyo and Yokohama, I had a fine stereo and collected American rock, folk and jazz records. The first time I put on a Tom Rush album, the song “Driving Wheel” had a strange but compelling trilling treble riff. Interesting I thought; a bird-song-sounding accent that repeated in the same place whenever I played the album.

When I played that same album back here, that distinctive part of the arrangement was missing. 

How did that happen? Did the shipping process effect the vinyl? Did moving almost 7,000 miles from Japan to Schenectady somehow change the music?

I played it again, and again: The sound I’d heard in my Minami- Rinkan living room wasn’t there in my fourth floor walkup on the State Street hill. 

A bird in my bamboo yard there had “played” that part.

Decades later, the Eighth Step presented Tom Rush in Proctors GE Theater, a black box where 400 seats – all full that night – sloped up from stage level. Impresario Margie Rosenkranz, who has heroically kept the place running through venue moves plus the usual challenges of running a non-profit arts program, came to me at my seat to ask: “Would you carry Tom Rush’s guitars to the stage?” I said, “Sure,” and she led me backstage into Rush’s dressing room where he sat quietly reading. She pointed to his two Martins. I took one in each hand, nodded to the star and headed for the stage. A few fans applauded as I placed the guitars carefully onto stands. Friends clapping ironically, knowing I’m no star, or singer of any kind? Folks kindly welcoming an unannounced intermission act?

I realized, as I took a quick bow, that I’d forgotten to tell Tom Rush how Japanese birds sang along with him, there between Tokyo and Yokohama.

TO the Record Shelf #2 – “Loste” by Alex Goldberg

Once a precocious Niskayuna kid, Alex Goldberg built his mostly instrumental album “Loste” in bits and parts, fits and starts – unlike the all-together-now live process of the Chandler Travis Philharmonic on “The Ivan Variations” (TO the Record Shelf #1).

Alex Goldberg, composer, arranger, producer, percussionist, keyboardist, singer, on “Loste”

“‘Loste’ took a long time to make,” said the Brooklyn resident.

“The fastest part was writing, then I spent awhile on the arrangements,” he said. “Recording the parts, and then finagling everything on my computer took the most time,” he explained. “For some of the songs with strings and horns, I had one instrumentalist come in at a time and layer each part multiple times, to slowly build a simulated orchestra. On the one hand, it gave me a lot of control over the editing, but it was also quite laborious.”

Goldberg noted, “A few of the shorter songs on the record (“Introe,” “Transitione,” “This Feeling”) were created after the longer songs were finished, as I started to hear gaps in the album’s arc that I wanted to fill.”

The result is inventive, at times intense – a smart, sweet suite. The seamless eight-song work has melody and heft, smooth grooves and rambunctious outbursts.

It’s ambitious because it’s deeply rooted, in a family of players and listeners. Both grandfathers were professional musicians; so is the uncle who taught him to read drum charts at age seven. The youngest of three sons (his brothers are fraternal twins) of hand-drummer father Steve and guitarist-for-fun mother Laurey, Goldberg grew up in a houseful of sound supplied by records of jazz, psychedelic rock, classical minimalism and singer-songwriters.

Full disclosure, Steve and Laurey are friends I see at many shows, but I only ever met Alex once.

“I saw Steve Reich’s ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ when I was in college and knew I had to try to work toward something,” he said. Deerhoof albums also made him made him want to make music.


He played in all the Niskayuna High School ensembles, studied with Albany percussion master Mark Foster from eight to 18, then with NYC percussionist Frank Cassara (of the Steve Reich and Philip Glass Ensembles) at Vassar College, improvising on vibraphone and starting to write music.

A high school band called Blunt Trauma only played two shows; “and I’m not sure it counts,” he said.

“In New York, I’ve played in dozens of bands, often as ‘just the drummer,’ but have also been more of a full member, writing parts and arranging songs, in a few projects,” he said, listing the now-defunct avant-rock/soul project Throw Vision (which spawned four solo projects) and the currently-on-hiatus rock band Double King. “I also currently play in my good friend Dan Kleederman’s band, Grand Kid,” said Goldberg. “He’s heavily featured on guitar and some bass throughout ‘Loste.’”

So is Schenectady-born jazz trombonist Alex Slomka, a childhood friend who now lives in Westchester and plays in New York City big bands. As kids, Goldberg and Slomka played as the Alex Brothers.


“Additionally, I’ve done a bunch of shows and touring with performance-prog project WSABI Fox,” said Goldberg, “ as well as playing with and recording drums for experimental soul artist L’Rain.”

In 2014, Goldberg released a solo album as Flordingblast, an electronic-digital project whose fusion/minimalism-inspired pieces show the influence of Flying Lotus.  

Then Goldberg aggressively swung the pendulum in the other direction. 

“This time I wanted to make something with real people, real instruments,” he said; “a very expansive, and lush soundscape ended up coming together…a very involved recording project.”

The credits include Schenectadians Slomka and mixing engineer Dane Orr, plus guitarist-bassist Kleederman, with strings, bassists, a singer, brass and reeds players. Goldberg wrote, arranged and produced, sang and played drums and keyboards. Chris Connors played guitar and helped mix and master the album.

Goldberg’s organic approach still left room for high-tech tinkering. 

For the guitar solo in “Introe,” he and Kleederman “composed it, phrase by phrase,” he said, “then further edited it to create its final shape. By the end, the guitar is the most prominent voice on the song.”


He wrote out parts for his players, “but I left certain moments open for soloing,” he explained, “like Jared Yee’s tenor saxophone soloing on ‘Not Sure,’ which was better and more perfect for the song than I could have imagined.”

He set aside Anna Webber’s flute solo from “Typical” but “I ended up taking that solo, slowing it down, and using it…in ‘Transitione,’” he said. “I also grabbed some of the percussion parts from ‘Typical,’ slowed those down as well, and then drummed and added more sounds to the groove, and eventually cobbled that piece together. So yes, definitely a song that was born from collaboration, even if not in real-time!”


For all its studio craft, “Loste” feels smooth to the ear.

“Introe” swells into view gently, then more insistently as instruments join in a wave of welcome, until a final chord signals a stately baroque courtship dance of strings and wordless voice in “I Know You,” taking wing as an ethereal chorus.

“Typical” cruises through urban contemporary streetscapes on the biggest drumbeat heard so far, under filigrees of voices and guitar; the guitar takes the wheel late and steers a bold course.

Snare rimshots and reed swirls curl around massed voices in “This Feeling” – a song of exaltation.

More meditative is “Not Sure,” also more complex, with whistles and voices setting up a brooding transition that resolves onto sailing on sunnier seas, dotted with islands of dissonance.

“Transitione” grooves with flutes over an off-center beat clatter, a cheerful intro for “Stay the Same” that sets up a restless cello ostinato before singers and flutes stroll in and make themselves very much at home in its cozy melody.

“(King)” takes us in stately grace along a regal procession that draws in more and more musical marchers to achieve real majesty before a solo saxophone sings the suite to a close.

Goldberg is donating half of the proceeds from sales of “Loste” via Bandcamp and http://www.alexdgoldberg.com to the Black Trans Health Initiative & other funds. 

“These days, I teach some drum students virtually, work on percussion and recording projects for friends, and work on my next album and live set,” said Goldberg.


He said, “Before the plague (my term, in an interview by email) I did all those things, but taught more lessons and worked at a music rehearsal studio, and played in a bunch of bands, in addition to my project.”

TO the Record Shelf: “The Ivan Variations” by the Chandler Travis Philharmonic

OK, now, From the Record Shelf looks back, at music from the past that has endured. TO the Record Shelf looks ahead, at new music.

Frighteningly prolific, wildly witty, relentlessly clever and fiercely fun-loving, Chandler Travis made his album “The Ivan Variations” the old-fashioned way. In a method unavailable in these plague years, he piled all 14 musicians of the Chandler Travis Philharmonic onstage to play together. You remember: live, with happy people listening.

Check the cover art of this live-onstage CD: Over a black and white photo, a mustard yellow rectangle bill-boards words in the venerable Teutonic this-is-serious style of Deutsche Grammaphon Gesellschaft classical recordings.

When some friends of mine were hired as the record buyers for the (now long-vanished) E.J. Korvette’s department store in Northway Mall, they knew rock, jazz and folk pretty well but realized their classical music knowledge was scanty. So they simply ordered EVERY Deutsche Grammaphon release. It worked. But I digress. Oh, the DDG catalog lists 4,939 releases; 14 hit this month alone, including “The New Stravinsky Complete Edition” – 30 CDs. Even Chandler Travis isn’t THAT prolific…

“The Ivan Variations” collects 13 versions of the same song. Cheerfully Spikey (Jones, that is), zippy and Zappa-esque, it sounds like a music store taken over by conservatory kids who ensured a good time by imbibing laughing gas and peyote, a-plenty. Then they donned Mardi Gras masks and marched in Second Line glee past Tin Pan Alley, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, some smoky jazz basements, Carnegie Hall and a comedy club.

My favorites: “Headstand Ivan” in which they simply turned their charts upside down, “Ivan Backwards” – you know, other versions turn the melody inside out. “Ivan Can’t Take It” is a brassy rocker; “Ivan Ska” swings like a tropical breeze; and the encore of “Ivan in Worcester” is an a cappella reprise.

That cover photo shows Travis conducting the ensemble, ringmaster of this sound-circus; but it’s just one of several circuses he typically leads in 80 shows a year.

The Harwich, Mass. (Cape Cod) resident (who celebrated his birthday Monday, March 15) recently said by email he’s busy recording “Great dollops of new stuff from the Philharmonic the Three-O, and the Catbirds,” all bands that he leads and for which he writes and arranges nearly everything. This hyper-activity follows a highly productive 2020 when “we put out quite a bit of new stuff…by the Incredible Casuals, myself, Travis & Shook, Paulette Humanbeing, Pete Labonne, and the afore-mentioned Catbirds, Three-O, and CTP.” Travis said most of this new music is available for free on the merchandise page of his website. Like “The Ivan Variations” by the Chandler Travis Philharmonic (there’s also a smaller Philharmonette, but I digress), this music is available directly at www.chandlertravis.com, also at iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and band camp.

Looking forward, he said, “As things are starting to look better about the Covid situation, we’re starting to book some jobs around where we live on Cape Cod for the summer tentatively.” Travis explained, “We anticipate doing more outdoor jobs than usual, but we’ll see what happens when! We also hope to get back to Caffé Lena and the Hangar in Troy and some of our usual faves up in your area as soon as the coast is clear-ish!” 

Travis has played almost everywhere hereabouts including opening shows for the late great comic George Carlin with Travis Shook and the Club Wow and headlining in Albany’s Washington Park, the Union College Old Chapel and, as noted, Caffe Lena and the Hangar. 

For now, for a fun blast of Travis’s playful ingenuity at big-band scale, there’s “The Ivan Variations.”

From the Record Shelf: The O’Kanes “Tired of the Runnin'”

And Kieran Kane rolls on, with partner Rayna Gellert

Early in the plague time, she-plays-everything singer-songwriter Rayna Gellert emailed about a Caffe Lena live-stream gig with partner Kieran Kane. I didn’t know their duo music, but this caught my attention since Kane is the real goods. His Nashville major label duo with Jamie O’Hara called the O’Kanes was very damn good.

Wikipedia tells us:

The O’Kanes was an American country music duo, composed of Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane. Active between 1986 and 1990, the duo recorded three albums for Columbia Records and charted seven singles on the Billboard Hot Country Singles (now Hot Country Songs) charts, including “Can’t Stop My Heart from Loving You”. Kane charted seven singles of his own in the early 1980s, and O’Hara won a Grammy Award for co-writing “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ol’ Days)”, a hit for The Judds. After they disbanded in 1990, both members pursued solo careers, and Kane founded a record label named Dead Reckoning Records. 

O’Hara died of cancer on January 7, 2021 at age 70.

Wikipedia

The O’Kanes’ 1988 album “Tired of the Runnin’” had stuck in my mind mainly for just one song. So when Kane’s partner Gellert reached out, the synapses clicked, kinda obliquely.

Looking back I found a Gazette column (March 9, 2017), mentioning them as openers on a Sarah Jarosz show at The Egg. “Singer-songwriter-fiddler Rayna Gellert and Kieran Kane open. Indiana-born, former member of the Freight Hoppers and Uncle Earl, Gellert wrote and sings terrific tunes on her solo debut ‘Working’s Too Hard,’ co-produced with Kane. Once a member of under-rated Nashville supergroup the O’Kanes with Jamie O’Hara, and a summer Sacandaga-area resident, Kane opened, really well, for Jesse Winchester at The Egg in early 2002.”

I saw Kane do that show with the late, great Jesse Winchester (whom I first saw in Montreal in 1971 during his draft-dodging days) and met and liked him. 

So, I went to the CD shelves and looked in the Record Room/Temple of Music cabinets for that O’Kanes’ album. Nope.

Then I checked upstairs in the deeper (attic) archives. Again, nope.

So, then I hit the working library shelves in my office where Best Of’s and Greatest Hits stuff goes. Once again, nope.

By now, I really wanted that music again, as I recalled listening to it with the guys on an early gathering of now-long-running Adirondack music meet-up. Chas Hinckley of Cape Cod and Central New York wrote me about that O’Kanes album when I asked him about it recently. “I heard a little Dick Dale but also some Don & Phil (Everly), New Riders of the Purple Sage, and a few other bits of nostalgia.”

So I scratched around on-line, found and ordered it, not from Amazon. When it arrived, I anxiously opened and put it on right away and listened; you, know, the way we used to do.

And it hit me just as I’d hoped it would, both confirming my memory of how cool that half-remembered extra-fine song was. “Rocky Road” has that great lift-off instrumental break. But another tune that I hadn’t remembered at all hit me just as sweet: a cover of “Isn’t That So” by Jesse Winchester from his 1972 album. It’s a winner in almost anybody’s hands, as many covers attest.

By the way, for a positively overwhelming Jesse Winchester hit, try this video. I just KNEW that I loved Neko Case even before this, but I truly wanted to have her babies after I saw her tears as Jesse sang… But I digress.

Before loving up the O’Kanes’ “Tired of Runnin’” here, let me tell you about digging around online, like in my CD and vinyl shelves, for more recent Kane music. 

Kieran Kane and Rayna Gellert’s album “When the Sun Goes Down” released May 2019. Cover art by Kieran Kane

The Gellert and Kane website offers their two most recent albums; BandCamp and the Dead Reckoning Records site (the label Kane founded after the O’Kanes split) serves up Kane’s solo albums and collaborations with Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin (Both Kane and Kaplin were born in NYC.). 

The Kane and Gellert site also displays Kane’s paintings, moody works that share a subdued palette, as quiet as most of his music, with New Orleans artist (and my wife Ellie’s friend) Jan Keels. Keels tells stories by showing places and things as often as figures and faces while Kane paints people mostly. But I digress.

All Kane’s music shares a confident economy of expression and gesture. If you believe fully in every word and note, you can play and sing simply. This makes Kane both a compelling solo artist and an ideal collaborator. Instead of hot licks, his cool music gives space, a remarkable restraint considering his crew on “Dead Rekoning,” his 1995 solo debut and first release on his label, includes fiddler Tammy Rogers, bassists Roy Huskey Jr. and Glenn Worf, drummer Harry Stinson, guitarists Dan Dugmore and Mike Henderson, accordionist Fats Kaplin, percussionist Don Heffington – oh, yeah, and singers Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and “Somebody’s Darling.” These folks could burn down the barn, but Kane banks their flame and cooks on the embers.

His duets with Gellert – “Old Light,”  “When the Sun Goes Down,” “The Ledges” – portray a relationship, so solid it shows them looking together out at the world rather than at each other. This gives a quiet wide-screen view, tasty as any sound movie in recent memory.

Wandering through this more recent music brought me back to my first listen to Kane, and one that holds up very well indeed. This subtle master of understatement draws you in, every time.

Kane’s albums with fellow singer-songwriter Kevin Welch and he-plays-everything instrumental master Fats Kaplin – “You Can’t Save Everybody,” “Lost John Dean” and his solo album “Somewhere Beyond the Roses” are also about a shared vision, a deep connection among equals.

Drop the needle onto “Tired of the Runnin’” and you first think “Everly Brothers,” so tightly do Kane’s and O’Hara’s voices curl and twine on the opening track “One True Love.” Its gently insistent groove echoes the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One,” a cute and melodious pun.

“All Because of You” and “If I Could Be There” both reach further back, like how The Band distilled Appalachian folk ballads into new journeys over old roads. We know the folds of the land but not what’s around the next bend.

“Blue Love” may be the album’s most Everly song, and it’s deeper than just the harmony sound, a delicious constant through the album. It uses repetition and variation like main Everlys writers Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.

“Rocky Road,” the song whose memory spurred my quest to re-find this album, has a country-rock glide. It cruises into view next with a mid-tempo ease that makes me want to drive slower when I hear it, even though its cozy “Little Martha” Allman Brothers warmth has a delicious momentum. Jay Spell’s accordion, then Richard Kane’s electric guitar, gently rise in the cool dark, like a moon over a bayou and its reflection. For all the expert stringed-thing sounds on the album, Spell’s squeeze-box is its beating heart. Giving credit where it’s very much earned, the rest of the band is Roy Yeager, drums; and Henry Strzelecki, bass; with Kane playing mandolin and O’Hara, acoustic guitar.

“Highway 55” updates “Long Black Veil” to eerie, sad, mysterious effect, and here comes Spell again, swirling up high but framing a mood of stark tragedy that takes on a nightmarish clarity in “Tired of the Runnin’” – a beautifully apt pairing, a mini-suite of tears.

“In My Heart” also mourns a loss, another Bryant-like structure and sound; Is there any higher praise? 

“”I’m Lonely” rocks string-band blues style, with a “Rocky Road”-like lift-off, but feels more contained; a fine set-up for the album’s only cover: Jesse Winchester’s slow-burn blues “Isn’t That So,” a Gospel shuffle.

Kieran Kane and Jamie O’Hara made “Tired of the Runnin’” in that pre-Americana age when Nashville pickers slipped out of the Grand Ole Opry countrypolitan lock-step to play bluegrass and jazz, as if for just themselves and therefore with consummate skill and joy. That’s why it’s lasted better than commercial country of that time.

It goes deeper, it goes further, and it gets there easy, with no fuss.

It’s perfect without feeling stuffy or pristine, so even messy feelings come in elegant packaging, without ironic distance. 

And we can hear Kane and Gellert in the here-and-now (hear and now?) when they play live Friday, March 12 from the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vermont. 7 p.m. Tune in here.

Not THIS Winter…

In any non-plague winter, my friends Dennis and Dan from Massachusetts would be picking me up here in Schenectady today or maybe next week for our annual Adirondacks music pilgrimage to the deep-in-the-woods home of friend and host Stephen and wife Kevan. 

Packing skis, snowshoes, warm winter gear, CDs, food (I’d have stocked up at Perreca’s!) and drink, we’d stop at the Noonmark Diner in Keane Valley for pies. Then we’d scale Stephen and Kevan’s corkscrew uphill driveway to what was once called the Rice Mountain Lodge, unpack our goods and settle in for the weekend. 

We’d listen to music, for hours, days; obsessively and intently then discuss and debate; then listen some more.

Stephen and Kevan’s house near Paul Smiths, HQ of the Mountain Music Club

Most afternoons, and sometimes after midnight, we’d hit the trails that web and wander through tall forest; so close to the house that we put on skis or snowshoes inside before exploring in the snow. 

In the words of a ski-resort band that Sundazed Records impresario Bob Irwin once led, we’d “laugh at the cold:” 38 below zero one moonlit, mercifully wind-less midnight.

This year, no.

Instead, we’ve been recalling those meet-ups of what I like to call the Mountain Music Club, whose members are emailing more often than usual about music and life and music and the plague and music.

Dan prompted this latest dialog, digging out emails from last fall, earlier in the plague, and encouraging me to blog it here. Stephen dove right into music, recounting a recent Talking Heads/David Byrne epiphany. And he shared with us emailed conversations with LA music-maker John. I use their words here with their permission.

Then I digressed all over the place, in the emails Dan resurrected: Thanks!

First, here’s Stephen talking with his rock-bassist buddy John about his happy surprise at Kevan’s suddenly “getting” the Talking Heads.

Just thought of you in the music business as I Googled info on Tina Weymouth and more details on writing credits for the Talking Heads. Why? After wife Kevan read a review of the Chris Frantz memoir that just came out (“The Mamas and the Dadas,” WSJ) and asked me about the Demme movie, I reminded her that I had blasted my big B & O speakers (Bang & Olefsen – expertly refurbished by mutual friend/stereo maven and music fan John Michael Caldaro) to their limit back in 1984 at our farmhouse at the end of a dirt road in Central NY and that she had declined to join me. (In fairness, I think she was on a museum business trip to NYC.)

(I was a late comer to the Talking Heads, always distrusted punk and, having done some art school, was wary of wannabe hipsters. But this movie reminded me how very wrong I was.)

So, we cranked up the same speakers tonight and streamed the Big Suit into the living room. Amazingly, Kevan turned the volume way past where I had conservatively set it for her ears and loved the full hour and a half. As did I, after too many years.

So, this song writing credit thing that still haunts (Robbie) Robertson and (the late Levon) Helm and The Band’s history—collaboration vs. personal inspiration—drove me to Wikipedia to see how all 92 Talking Heads songs were credited, since in his publication Frantz seems to have a jaundiced view of Byrne’s ability to share credit.

I don’t care that Robertson wrote the lyrics, The Band’s sound is from Helm. It’s collaboration. And I’m glad to see all the Heads get credits for the early stuff and Weymouth added to “Psycho Killer” credits. Sometime you’ll have to explain how thick your skin has to be to survive in this music business…

My take away after watching the concert again is far more favorable to Byrne than I expected. Truly brilliant sense of theater and movement that added that sense of mystery to the art that I think makes some art greater than others. (I suffer from giving too much information in my painting; Byrne made his imponderable lyrics fit in a context of knowing absurdity.) But I thought of you and your bass as I tried to see Weymouth guitar work. That was hard, since all eyes and cameras were on her legs and hair and wonderful smile. Wiki tells me she picked up the bass at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) but had some teenage guitar before. Whatever, that bass and the percussion of her husband et al was irresistible. Let’s hear it for African polyrhythms!

Then, Stephen’s friend John chimed in by email this way:

So Liz and I are doing an advertising gig at the Village Recorder in West LA in the early 90s. We had already had our music demo approved for whatever commercial it was, maybe ATT or Nike or some car… don’t remember. Now we just had to record in a proper studio with a live band.

So our agency and their clients are sitting respectfully on the couch as my pal musicians roll in. The band are great guys who we are good buddies with, and by the way, have played with Dylan, Phil Collins, Supertramp, Sting. All brilliant.

OK, ready to go but Liz has to do a quick Xerox of the chart we are going to record; we need eight copies. Liz goes to the studio manager’s office to the copy machine and can’t get in ‘cause David Byrne is making a copy of his novel!!

He wouldn’t let her near the machine! I’m burning about $2K an hour in musician and studio fees while we played “Dr. Robert” waiting for Liz and the chart! I don’t think our clients who came from New York or Portland or wherever expected to hear ten minutes of a song from (the Beatles’ album) ”Revolver.” Well, she drummed her fingers loud enough to where we interrupted his genius for about two minutes. 

Session went fine once we all had the music in front of us.  

Songwriting credits are the source of big arguments and big money. I read Levon’s book and shuddered to think of the royalties he claimed he never received.

Music business is not an elegant business.

OK, my turn, but first, the wisdom of Hunter S. Thompson:

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

Then I digressed all over, in the way the Mountain Music Club indulges me between blasts of the good stuff on Stephen’s stereo.

Being New York City proximal, we got Talking Heads early and often here, from a $750 opening act (!) gig with the Good Rats from Long Island at SUNY Albany’s Page Hall (where Good Rats lead singer Pepe Marcello rolled a shopping cart full of baseball bats onstage to brandish as air-guitar props and where I also saw MANY cool things including Warren Zevon with an all-star band of Hollywood killers, Elvis Costello with the original Attractions, Billy Falcon’s Burning Rose [afterward he said, “If you’re not singing like Van Morrison, you’re not singing right!” – guess how he sang? – several sky-scorching Pat Metheny shows, Allen Ginsberg [the after-party at the Ginger Man featured William Kennedy – we talked about Sinatra], where Willie Nile opened for the Roches, solo and without introduction, killing the place until someone yelled, “Who ARE you?” – I could go on, and I think I have). 

Talking Heads went on to theater gigs as headliners, then to SPAC on the Big Suit tour (delayed by a suicide scare – a guy climbed to the top of the Thaddeus Kosciuszko twin bridges [whose curves earned the local nickname: the Dolly Parton bridges] that closed I-87 for an hour). Afterward I talked with Byrne some and found him at first disconcertingly deliberate until I got his odd conversational rhythm: ask a question, wait a while, maybe two or three whiles, as he thinks, then gives you a few paragraphs.

In later years, I saw the post-Talking Heads Frantz-Weymouth funk band Tom Tom Club in several big-bar shows here; then saw Byrne lead his jazzy big-band Ten Car Pileup at SPAC, a smaller but cool band at The Egg the night after Obama was elected – that band co-starred the celestial Jenny Muldaur, daughter of Maria and Geoff – then his (current) Utopia band in the perfect setting of Albany’s 3,000-seat Palace Theater, before the highly touted month-long Broadway run that Spike Lee filmed.

Comparing the credit-cash dynamic of the Talking Heads to that of The Band is interesting but misses the point some.

Sure, Byrne and Robertson are kindred control freaks, arguably stingy with co-credits. (But I loved it when Byrne booted the lyrics of a Heads’ song in the Albany Utopia show, then laughed at himself…) And in a better world, the Levons (he offered me a cigarette once, I declined with thanks; another time I petted his dog, a black lab mix), the Tinas and Chrises would get a fair shake for devising the sounds that clothe melodies and meanings of songs. Another discussion for another time is the power-correction equation in great bands – that become great because one of two lead creative forces has the power and balls to say, “NO, that’s SHIT!” – and make it stick. Cf: Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, the Davies brothers in the Kinks, etc. 

No, even the creative side of the biz is unfair.

But there was more than that imbalance going on with the Heads, and with Byrne, who seeks creative input from both musical (Brian Eno, the cats cited below) and theater professionals (Twyla Tharp, and the co-designers who helped shape the visuals of the Utopia tour.)

While Tina and Chris always had the funk (and so did Jerry Harrison – while it seemed learned, acquired, for Byrne), anti-art-school-hipster bias notwithstanding, the power of the expanded (Afro-) Talking Heads largely came from its adjunct members: keyboardist Bernie Worrell (who co-founded Parliament Funkadelic with George Clinton – there IS no higher funk credential this side of James Brown), percussionist Steve Scales (a grossly under-rated rhythm genius who locked beats with Tina and Chris to micro-precision but just enough drift off the one to push things) and guitarist Adrian Belew (whom Frank Zappa discovered playing in an Ohio motel lounge band “making good Stratocaster noises” and hired him on the spot and who played in David Bowie’s touring band later. Belew told me it took just three days to learn to play Bowie’s songs but three weeks to learn the choreography to interact with projected images [including himself] on a 50′ video stage backdrop over the SPAC stage.) But I digress. Those three packed a beat power that punched up the funk big-time. 

Most of all, I think I like reading how Kevan turned shit UP. 

But now, at the risk of launching a sexist screed here, I gotta talk some shit. 

We always joke about sending Kevan off to some high-testosterone zone when we gather to geek out on tunes, Dennis tries to steer wife Mary Ann gently away from our obsession sessions, and I’m forever having to turn DOWN shit here when my wife-hero Ellie is home. She imagines, for unfathomable reasons known only to her, that dinner conversation should take precedence over kicking out the fucking jams when there also just happens to be food and guests around. Very confusing. 

I recall the tributes that mourned John Belushi after he died included a tale of how SNL czar Lorne Michaels or some other straight objected to Belushi blasting an album by the LA punk band Fear (who played SNL at Belushi’s “do-it-or-fire-me” ultimatum) in the SNL offices. Belushi calmly listened to the objection, then turned it UP! The piece was titled “Why John Belushi Went to Heaven.”

Once early in my re-Schenectady time, when I drifted back here after the Navy with no clearer or stronger ambition than somehow earning enough to rent a place to set up my stereo, I was in the deafening listening room of a music-crazone named Milton P. Zapolski. He sold audio gear in an emporium called Stereo Sound where it was OK to smoke a joint in the listening rooms and where Kite, my first writing publisher, started in an upstairs office.

I don’t recall what music Milton had on his muscular MacIntosh, Marantz and Advent rig that day. but I do remember that he told another listener, who asked about my eyes-closed, shoulders-bobbing concentration, that “Yeah, Michael listens like a man.” 

Apart from the implications of that anecdotal “data,” lemme just ask, do guys (we) listen differently, more intently and with a greater willingness to submerge ourselves in gusts of sound, than women (they…) do?

While you mull that over, lemme tell you about the time Milton took a lull in a Pink Floyd show as a disappointing early ending and hollered, from the first row of the Carnegie Hall balcony, from right next to me, “PLEASE play some more!” He went on to explain, in a shout that filled that quiet passage, that he was from the country, but not naive, and didn’t appreciate being short-changed. 

The Floyd guys laughed, the audience didn’t; but were soon mollified as the band fired up more music from “Meddle,” the (much more interesting) album they made before “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Years before that Pink Floyd show, Milton was studying at the Manhattan School of Music but mostly skipped class to haunt any classical ensemble he could infiltrate. He inveigled his way into so many New York Philharmonic concerts and rehearsals, insistently urging they play more Mahler, that Leonard Bernstein – Milton called him “Big Lenny,” to his face – came to recognize him. 

So, one night after a triumphant Big Lenny Carnegie Hall extravaganza, Milton slipped backstage and espied the maestro approaching down a corridor, amid perfect New York-culture company. 

Caped, chuffed by applause, ever-so-grand, Big Lenny stopped and hailed Milton. “Ah, the Mahler Club!” Then he made introductions. “On my left are Mr. Adolph Green and Miss Betty Comden, and on my left is Miss Lauren Bacall.” Milton tugged on his chin, frowned in confusion, then spoke, speculating, “Lauren Bacall, now I know that name from somewhere.” She exploded in snubbed-celebrity outrage, turned and stomped off, Green and Comden stifled laughs, but Big Lenny just let go with guffaws.

Well, Excuse me!

Some recent stories need clarifications and caveats

My Gazette story Jan. 31 on the Aerodrome brought lots of interest and input from readers: folks LOVED the place.

However, concentrating on the musical legacy of the place, I neglected to mention several key contributors to the venue and its activities on the business and bookings side. Fred Baye as assistant manager booked the bands that played there, leveraging his knowledge of music and the music business to hire both big and emerging acts. Fred worked with manager Bob Murphy, who founded the Ale House in Troy after the Aerodrome closed. At that time, Fred moved on to work with Gov. Mario Cuomo and evangelist Billy Graham while also fostering an alliance between rock and Gospel.

Many artists and fans also chimed in about bands they saw at the Aerodrome, often naming giant stars of the time. It’s happening everywhere: To Michael Eck’s Facebook post of a YouTube video showing Tim Buckley singing “Buzzin’ Fly,” William Rella posted, “Saw him at Aerodrome in Schenectady. Close to the last date ever there.”

But my musician brother Jim Hoke wrote me about “the mentioned-but-not-described band with the name ‘Aerodrome’ whose name appears often as opening act for more famous bands.” He wrote, “These guys were fucking great, and could play and sing rings around most of the bands they opened for. 

“When we first played there, they were the Characters…I remember many a night at that place, watching the Characters open shows, playing impeccable covers of the hits of the day. They had a sax player with an electronic rig that would simulate, say, the strings on ‘I Am The Walrus.’ They were a couple years older, and many years better than my band (West Side Highway). Later, after the featured band was done, these guys would play the late last set for die-hard drunks and hangers-on. There’d be four people in the place, so that meant it was safe for them to play jazz and other deep weird shit and they were amazing musicians; we were awed. The story you told (and that a fan told to me) about one of the bubble-gum bands getting pissed off at the crowd and “playing Miles Davis” was likely a mis-remembrance of the Characters. Those galoots in The Ohio Express and their ilk couldn’t have played Miles Davis – they weren’t nearly that good. 

“As the Characters became the default house band, part of the deal was the name change, to re-enforce the brand, I suppose…I never heard about them again, except that the sax player, Jack, went on to do a one-man-band act called The Mechanical Man.”

My story on www.nippertown.com announcing the discovery and posting of live Blotto sets brought these clarifying comments from Helena Binder, formerly Blanche Blotto. 

“Thanks for this, Michael!” – she wrote. “I must correct a few things for the record,” she went on, “Keyboards on ‘I Wanna Be a Lifeguard’ and all the tunes on the ‘My Father’s Place’ recording were played by me, not Chevy Blotto. He joined after I left. And ‘I Love You Calvin Klein’ was written by me alone.” Blanche then wrote, “Great to have the publicity on the release of these recordings.”

Two Names, Two Nations – One Big Bag of Music

This story also appears on http://www.nippertown.com

So prolific, so hyphenated, he needs two names, jazz-pop saxophonist-composer-keyboardist-singer-bandleader-teacher Matt Steckler AND Matty Stecks sums up his past, jumps genres and looks ahead on four recent record releases.

The most recent and ambitious, “Long Time Ago Rumble” sums up everything so far in a varied career. Jumping around like a car radio on “scan,” it offers a a confident ride through hard-bop, found-sounds, contemporary (also not so contemporary) pop/R&B, world-beat and what once was called “new music.”

Stecks attributed the stylistic range of the new two-CD album to “the talent pool up there,” explaining the project in an email conversation. “Up there” is Brandon, Manitoba where he taught for three years, performed, composed and recorded. 

In July, as the COVID pandemic shut the door on any extension of his teaching contract there, he returned to his home town – like millions of others whose lives turned upside down. He lives now with singer-wife Megan Demarest and their precocious eight-year old son Elliott in the suburban Niskayuna home of his artist-retired Union professor father Charles Steckler and his father’s wife Ginger Ertz, retired education chief at Skidmore’s Tang Teaching Museum.

So, how did a hometown Schenectady kid wind up in Manitoba, then back here? 

The short answer: a confluence of academic, creative and performance endeavors, a path that echoes his father’s and that landed him in 2017 as Assistant Professor in Jazz Studies in the Brandon University School of Music. Stecks taught Jazz Composition, Jazz History, Aural Skills, a Graduate Seminar in Performance, Advanced Improvisation; Ensemble Coaching and ran the Saxophone Studio.

An even shorter answer: through a questing talent buffed bright by many mentors in technique and vision.

In the last graduating class (1992) at Linton High School (which became Schenectady High School when cross-town counterpart Mont Pleasant became a middle school), Stecks sang in the chorus Diane Warner led, studied jazz with bandleaders or private teachers Al Hollenbeck, Sheila Tebbano and Jim Orden; and saxophone with Emil Kalled, Nick Brignola, Conrad Kuchay and Chuck Fisher. 

Vibraphonist Jay Hoggard was his advisor “and link to traditional jazz practices” at Wesleyan, where Anthony Braxton “was the visionary who opened my ears to composition and the avant garde,” as Stecks explained. He also drove into New York for sax lessons with Thomas Chapin and explored world music with T. Viswanathan, Abraham Adzenyah, Gage Averill and others. While playing a weekly quartet gig with Braxton, he also started what later became his band Dead Cat Bounce (hereafter DCB, mostly), first in music/poetry collaborations with his room-mate, then a growing fascination with the World Saxophone Quartet.

After Wesleyan, Stecks earned a Masters in Music in Jazz Performance at the New England Conservatory, studying with Jerry Bergonzi, Danilo Perez, Allan Chase, Paul Bley, Cecil McBee, Bob Moses and others, plus briefer stints with Gunther Schuller and Steve Lacy and other luminaries. DCB came into its own in the Boston area, too: three albums and three tours from 1997 to 2003.

More training, more gigs and a new band followed in New York from 2003 to 2014 when he made a fourth DCB album, plus two with Persiflage. Meanwhile, he earned a Master of Arts and a Ph.D. in Composition at NYU and studied with Jerica Oblak, Jim McNeely, Marc Antonio Consoli and Justin Dello Joio. Numerous Persiflage gigs included Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors and the Blue Note in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, Cleveland’s Tri-C Fest and the Hennessy XO Jazz Fest in Shanghai.

In 2012 and 2013, Stecks presented the big-band series “Party Horns” in Proctors GE Theater, as his own music earned critical plaudits.

JazzTimes called DCB’s fourth album “Chance Episodes” one of its top 50 jazz CDs of 2011; Stecks composed the music on commission by Chamber Music America and the American Music Center’s Composer Assistance Program, but it’s anything but academic.

In the Boston Phoenix, Jon Garelick hailed DCB’s sound as “tightly arranged, swirling contrapuntal reeds and multi-part blues n’ roots-infused tricky compositions.” Mike Joyce reported in the Washington Post, “DCB revels in a reed-driven sound marked by sharply contrasting forms, textures and tones…strident, joyful, lush and strutting use of a horn section.” 

Of the Party Horns series at Proctors, Stecks said, “Besides bringing (his own bands) Dead Cat Bounce and Persiflage there, I brought some other great New York City bands upstate,” including Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party, Josh Roseman, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber and Brooklyn Qawwali Party. Stecks said, “(Proctors chief) Philip Morris has always had an open heart to trying new and creative ideas out.” 

In a spring 2012 Gazette preview of the series, I described DCB as “inspired in about equal measure by the World Saxophone Quartet and Charles Mingus, plus Caribbean, Brazilian and West African echoes. It’s in nonstop intelligent motion but never feels hectic because the melodies are so pleasing, the beats so earthy. They go pretty far outside at times, but they know the way back and how to get there without a map. They’re well schooled but intuitive, individual in their soloing but also eagerly cohesive section players.”¶

In 2014, Stecks moved to Bennington with wife Megan and son Elliott. Stecks taught at the Dorset School and played regularly with Alex Torres and His Latin Orchestra including the New York State Fair in Syracuse and the Saratoga Museum of Dance.

Then in 2017, they moved to Manitoba on a three-year teaching contract. In the way that the best educators learn by teaching, Stecks refined both technique and artistic vision north of the border.

About technique, Stecks-the-professor said, “I realized at last the value of classical technique in getting young musicians to ‘put it all together.’” He added, “But equally important is training and trusting the ear and the body. So I’m both refining a skill set specific to my main instrument and becoming more holistic in experiencing music, through my voice and other instruments (piano, drums, production). Each side informs the other.”

Conceptually, “I’m no longer concerned with the loaded term ‘finding one’s voice,’” he said. “I realize now that the voice is Matty Stecks,” he explained, noting the moniker is a longstanding nickname among his friends, but now is also “a practical way to deal with having all projects under one roof.” He said, “The genre (is) merely the vehicle through which to express it. That’s very liberating.”

Credited to Matty Stecks & the Musical Tramps, the most ambitious project assembled under that roof is “Long Time Ago Rumble,” a two-CD studio project released on Ropeadope/Manitoba Film and Music. Stecks plays reeds and keyboards and sings, with singer-wife Megan Demarest, three other singers, guitars, bass, drums and percussion, keyboards, cello and clarinet. 

“The cast of talented musicians I’ve assembled put their heart and soul into this effort, which began as a live world premiere concert, commissioned by Brandon Chamber Players in January 2019,” wrote Stecks in the liner notes. “Together, the ensemble is lovingly called Matty Stecks & Musical Tramps (named after the 1914 Chaplin film which I re-scored for the occasion.)”

He explained by email that he recorded the album in May and June of 2019 with producer Jordan Jackiew at Tailored Recording in Winnipeg. “The jazz stuff was tracked together live, the pop and film score was tracked; the rhythm section together plus overdubs and the collective improv stuff tracked together with electronic processing in post (-production).”

Leaving Manitoba in July as COVID shut down the world, Stecks “didn’t want it to be a lost year, so I made sure I had a creative outlet where I’m waiting this out in my home town. I’m presenting at music conferences online, consolidating that research. I had two album recordings in the vault (“Lucky & Live in STL” with DCB and “Night Cravings” with Persiflage) that I didn’t want to sit on any longer, so I released those on New Year’s. And I’m practicing a fair amount and writing and working on my production skills.” 

While in Manitoba, Steckler also played a supporting role in “Suite 150: A Big Band Jazz Portrait” by the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra as member of the reed section rather than a soloist. “Suite 150” collects 11 pieces, one each by 11 Canadian composers celebrating their homeland on its 150th year (in 2017; the album was released in 2018). It’s modern, bold and confidently played. 

Steckler led the two retrospectives he released Jan 1. 

“Live and Lucky in StL” shows DCB in full flight on a 2003 tour. These guys play music; it’s charged with youthful energy, but applied to veterans’ views of the tradition(s) they celebrate. The configuration – four saxes, bass and drums – feels both muscular and sparse without a keyboard or guitar comping chords. Its performing bravado matches a conceptual boldness that may shine brightest in its most familiar tune. Charles Mingus’s venerable “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” usually swings in a melancholy way, but here it’s rambunctious and zippy before settling into brawny section playing over a gleeful clatter. They close with a Second Line shuffle that might make you sprain something if you tried to shake with all its beats. Here, Stecker plays with fellow saxophonists Jared Sims, Felipe Salles and Charlie Kohlhase, bassist Garry Wicks and drummer Bill Carbone.

“Night Cravings” is a Persiflage studio date (2014). The band was elastic in its NYC gigs, often featuring name players. But by the end of Steckler’s Brooklyn residency, he’d solidified the lineup with Curtis Hasselbring, trombone; Todd Neufeld, guitar; Dave Ambrosio, bass; and Satoshi Takeishi, percussion. Generally leaner in its arrangements than the DCB release, it swings with a more muscular feel. It also explores fresh sonorities in the blend of sax, trombone and guitar. Some is feisty, some sweet, but always a confident, fun ride.

On these DCB and Persiflage projects, Stecks plays various reeds, ranging from pristine Jean-Pierre Rampal flute phrasing to edgy David Sanborn-like rawness on alto, his most fluent solo axe. And on ““Long Time Ago Rumble,” he also sings and plays keyboards.

Now Stecks stays busy solo or in collaborations. “While gigs are important and sorely missed at this time,” he said, “a permanently documented legacy is on my mind (recordings and compositions), as is the drive to collaborate more, in research-based ways and as a means to reconnect with friends.”

Stecks is working on “little one-off solo performances online; a concert band plus chorus piece commission (a setting of a Walter LeMare poem) for Manitoba’s Music Monday event (which hopefully one day will be performed!); a Christmas recording with Maxine Linehan, and holiday stream concert from RPI/EMPAC; and some socially-distanced performing with Megan (jazz & popular covers).” He has a grant application for a jazz quartet recording project back in Manitoba “when things open up;” he’s teaching a few students online, taking his turn at meal prep in a gourmet-rich household of four cooks and home-schooling his son. “Perhaps my biggest project is trying to tame and channel the raging musical talent that is my son Elliott. If he realizes that, he’ll be a force to reckon with.”

He also collaborates, online and asynchronously, with musical friends, often posting these songs to YouTube:

“One person sends a video to another to improvise to, and it’s synched in editing,” he said. “The pop songs that have collaboration just require remote file sharing, and patience!”

In this oblique or virtual way, Stecks maintains collaborations and community. In the “Long Time Ago Rumble” liner notes, he writes, “A special thanks to the ‘village’ of Manitoba – my adopted home these last few years – you’ve helped me gain perspective on what a music scene, and a community, can be in a different setting.”

He said by email recently, “I’m in touch with the DCB core members and am trying to figure out performing opportunities, though everyone’s in different places. The Persiflage project would be easier to play live as everyone’s based in NYC. Although both have been dormant, I’m never one to say definitively ‘this is the end.’ And I’ve used music from both projects in other performing situations (like the quartet up north I intend to record at some point.”

Hopeful, realistic, ready to create, wherever, he said, “I have a path now for creating wherever I end up. And I’ll never take the opportunity to create for granted ever again.”

Matthew Steckler/Matty Stecks’s music is available at https://mattystecks.bandcamp.com/ and https://www.mattystecks.com/, and can be streamed on Spotify and other streaming platforms

Stecks was recently selected for a composing residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts at “Steepletop,” the historic home of poet/activist Edna St. Vincent Millay in Austerlitz at the edge of the Berkshires.

How perfect that Fred Birdsall was with me on that Colorado summit when the mountain goat came by.

We’d climbed Gray’s Peak, then Torrey’s Peak near Georgetown together that morning, a day off for Fred from his wife Ann Hyde’s Institute of Design where he did whatever was needed to keep her fashion school in the Rockies humming. As all-purpose logistical support, he did everything for her, the staff and students. He became friends first with my wife Ellie, a teacher there, then with me when I started visiting her for weeks every summer. This made perfect sense to me; they’re two of the best people I’ve ever known.

Fred looked country, a solidly made man whose slouch hat shaded twinkly blue eyes over a bent nose and strong jaw, mostly working in a smile. A retired oil executive, he’d taken Ann with him on exploration projects across Arabia, then went with her to Paris where she studied fashion. Of his former profession, he said simply, “Everybody needs oil, every day,” but he also said his in-laws had originally opposed Ann’s marriage to “oil trash.” While Ann’s elegance somehow seemed carefully cultivated, constructed in a patrician childhood, Fred’s was innate, but also blended with an old-school gentleman’s kindness. Plainspoken but cosmopolitan, he ordered Budweiser by its full name over lunch or dinner, but also knew his way around the wine lists of the top restaurants in Europe and America and the most complex music of the classical canon.

In his easy-going courtliness and interest in everything, Fred reminded me of my father in law, Alfred von Wellsheim. He was unflappably, dependably calm and kind where Ann was electric, charismatic and volatile. He radiated such affection for colleagues and neighbors there in Winter Park that you instinctively adopted them all as friends right away.

Most of all, Fred loved to roam the Rockies. This was great for me, to have a high-information guide with stamina to match; less great for Ellie who envied our hikes and rambles while she was stuck in daily after-class staff meetings led by the exacting, meticulous Ann.

We’d park Fred’s sun-faded gray Datsun station wagon at a trailhead and go up, and up. At the beginning of every visit, before I became acclimated to the short oxygen supply at altitude, I’d make him do all the talking so I could catch my breath, and learn of his life. Both Gray’s and Torrey’s topped 14,000 feet, an “adult portion” as Levon Helm says of New York City in “The Last Waltz.” But I’d been in the mountains for a few weeks by the time we walked up one, then across a knife-edge ridge to the other. No technical climbing or safety gear, just a very steep walk on firm rock where friction and footing were no problem. We popped above tree-line before nine o’clock, peered down at a ramshackle cabin falling apart on a shelving ridge far below us and crunched through some snowy crusts on the trail, up high.

Then the goat came and I suddenly could barely breathe at all. 

Two mountain goats, on Torrey’s Peak

I froze; Fred did, too. Pure white, short but exerting a presence beyond its size, its winter wool still peeling away on that August morning, it looked at us for a minute, maybe three. I raised my Nikon, loaded with Kodachrome, and shot a frame, hoping the shutter click wouldn’t spook it. No reaction, good; then the goat came toward me; then right up to me, and gently pushed my knee with its head – another click – then turned and walked off the summit; but gave me time to change lenses for a close-up first.

Half the fun of an experience like that is sharing the awe, and Fred was always perfect for that. 

He knew the name of every flower that flourished up high, and liked hiking along on Ellie’s color-awareness field-trips to meadows where paintbrush or penstemon popped out of the ground in red or purple pointillist exclamations in the wind-waved grass.

When Ann closed her fashion school in Winter Park as Alzheimer’s began to change her life, Fred gave Ellie his Datsun wagon, the institute’s everyday utility vehicle. She drove it across the country with our son Zak and daughter Pisie, who’d come to see Fred as an auxiliary, bonus grandfather. They had the bad luck to follow flooding, and said later that was the stinkiest road trip any of them had endured. And, the air conditioning had stopped working. But that rugged car saved Zak’s life when a car ran a stop sign and T-boned it.

Ellie flew out to Colorado for a farewell to Ann and a last ramble there with Fred and other friends before his move back to Houston. They revisited many of the sights around Winter Park and other parts of Colorado, toasting Ann and her Institute in wines whose price tag made Ellie gasp.

On that trip, Fred sometimes surprised himself and Ellie by addressing her as Edith, a woman he’d met years after Ann’s passing and who’d enchanted him. He and Ellie laughed at this name substitution since he was so clearly smitten. Fred and Ellie also talked about a trip he hoped to take one day, a guided excursion through places crucial to the ascent of civilization, including Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and archeological sites and ruins across Europe. As Fred and Edith grew closer, Ellie was the first person they told of their engagement and impending wedding. Fred was then near 80, but a teenager when he spoke of Edith.

They married, made Fred’s civilization-exploring epic trip as their honeymoon, and settled in Houston. Dstance grew between updates from them.

As time passed, and Ellie calculated Fred’s age, she’d wonder and worry about him. 

So, when “Fred Birdsall” popped up on the caller ID of our landline phone on Saturday, my heart leapt. But a woman’s voice spoke to me, asking if she’d reached Ellie’s phone and if Ellie were available. When I explained that Ellie was in her sewing studio, a different building, the woman identified herself as Edith, announced in a calm voice that Fred had died and suggested she’d phone back another time. “No,” I begged her, “let me take the phone out to her,” as I searched around for snow-worthy footwear and headed for the door. 

I knew the news would hit hard, so I stayed with Ellie as she and Edith spoke long and lovingly of Fred. They cried and laughed. Me, too; across the room. 

They agreed that Ellie should miss the memorial this Tuesday in Houston, though Ellie promised to be there in spirit. A great spirit, like Fred, she can do that. She and Edith both seemed happy that Fred hadn’t died of COVID but of general wearing down and wearing out, the sum of a well-lived and long life. He’d have turned 94 this March, but always seemed younger, on a summit in the Rockies or over dinner. Edith said every day with Fred brought happiness.

And in those years he was here with us, he was a calm sweet source of delight for us all – even for that mountain goat.