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.”

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.

Ma Rainey’s Small Axe

The “Lovers Rock” episode of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” showed me again why I love reggae. (The series premiered on November 20, 2020 on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. It won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for 2020’s Best Picture.)

I admit I was once pretty insufferable about reggae. 

“How about some Allman Brothers?” a visitor once asked me in my Hamilton Hill apartment. “No,” I said. “I only play reggae these days.”

Through that obsession, I knew the series title came from a Bob Marley song lyric: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” a proudly determined assertion of underdog power. I recognized most of the songs on the funky soundtrack, and understood lots of the slang. New-to-me terms in the dialog, delivered in the lilting fluidity of West Indian/London language, delighted me with its fresh brashness. And in key ways, this hour-long celebration of Caribbean culture transplanted to Europe is much more than the vivid depiction of a party.

We see it from the set up, as men move furniture from a front room, others haul in and assemble a massive rock club-scale sound system. Women fix food in the kitchen, post a menu on the wall. Meanwhile, men and women dress and groom, discuss and joke about possible mates. 

Then the music starts.

Guests eye each other warily and warmly, then pair off and dance. Couples form and fade, it’s profoundly sexy, a ro-dance that all but melts the screen as the music pulsates, throbs, bobs and booms. For every riff, every beat, a well-dressed body moves in sensual sync. Reggae rocks so many beats at once that all the motion on the screen amplifies the sound, and vice versa. It’s feedback, it spirals upward and it’s loudly joyful.

In that throb, “Lovers Rock” shows two extraordinary things happen.

During several songs, the DJ turns down the sound system, but the music continues. EVERYBODY sings, with harmony, and it’s so fun, so beautiful.

As the music intensifies, the dancefloor gender balance gradually shifts. Soon, the room seems full only of men, moving in more and more frenetic joy – until those men ARE the music.

Sure, there’s a story, a plot, moved forward with overlapping incidents and episodes. There are courtship vignettes, passionate pairings so hot that sweat in the sound-filled air condenses and runs down the wall. There are confrontations that arise, erupt, shift, resolve and fade, like songs. But McQueen’s always moving camera also shows peace-making, protectiveness and nurturing.

There is false and true love.

But the echo that “Lovers Rock” leaves in my soul is the ecstasy of the music.

The music.

That’s what I want music to do for me, to give me that ecstasy; it’s why I listen – not that I can imagine myself giving myself so joyfully, physically to it.

The best writing about music, and films showing the making of it, reach for that feeling. But, for me, “Lover’s Rock” comes closest of anything I’ve seen to showing how it feels. 

The Denzel Washington-produced film of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” shows how music can confer memories we don’t actually have for ourselves. Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapted the script from Wilson’s work and director George C. Wolfe staged it for film. Telling a story now a century old, the film and its music operate like a time machine to a specific time and place. But the force of the music removes the distance, the sense of otherness, and invites us back, or over there.

Compared to the immersive naturalism of “Lover’s Rock,” “Ma” feels arch and stagey at times. Since a play has to rely on talk, telling us its meaning, rather than the kinetic way a film shows us – and in two dimensions rather than three – Wilson’s words must carry the action. They do; with supercharged narrative force but also with nuance in close-ups of actors’ faces. 

However, even those sections that show rather than explain feel enclosed. When a curious character repeatedly assaults a locked door, frustrated at not knowing what’s beyond it, the metaphor feels a bit too on the nose: The payoff feels blunted by the recognition he’s burst into another, even more confined space than what he left. The escape he sought, then won, shows us how impenetrable is his bondage. He stands in an airshaft. It’s walls loom high, unclimbable. 

The play/movie’s conflict is about the power and freedom that same character restlessly seeks. He wants to make his own art, freed from the mercenary mission of accompanying another artist, the singer. 

He faces a double confinement, concentric barriers. The singer’s power is the engine that brought him into the studio where the action plays out; and she is a force of nature played by Viola Davis. At her quietest, she is still calmly formidable. When she’s getting what she wants, she feels no need to rip anyone’s face off with a nuclear glance or volcanic words.

She has a clear map for her players to follow and resists their pencilling in alternate routes to their own self-expression.

She steamrolls dissent, insisting on her vision of her songs. 

A subtler and more alien and therefore more unbeatable force is the business. White men own the means of production: the studio, the machines, the means of making money from talent they lack but think they own.

I’ve spoiled the story enough that I now worry I’ve waved you away from watching it. 

But my intent is the opposite. I want you to see it.

Allowing for the not always perfectly realized effort to take a play to the screen, it is often simply and breathtakingly great, largely because of the casting and performances. The hype is correct. The late, great Chadwick Boseman’s last appearance may be his greatest and Viola Davis confirms again that she’s our most all-purpose powerful actor now. 

They give life to the place and time and people that Wilson’s words sketch, framed in a skilled supporting cast. We see the limited and limiting world of art and artists in a mercantile world they inhabit. They have no hope of owning any of it except those moments when they perform. It is a lively cultural kaleidoscope, but also a period piece crackling with timeless concerns. The film-makers wisely waste little energy on atmosphere. Instead, word images of pride and creative energy at work create an engine of kinetic striving; voices in rooms build a world. Then, however, the imposed boundaries of what can be achieved even with tremendous talent add up to a heartbreak.

Well, several heartbreaks: Is the murder in “Ma Rainey” worse than the cultural appropriation – a new form of slavery – also shown?

Like the “Small Axe” in Bob Marley’s song and McQueen’s movie, the Black artists are underdogs whose triumph, if there is one, may come too late to benefit them and is almost always owned by others.

Think Van Gogh dying penniless while his works now make millions.

Think disputes over Prince’s estate.

And think – OK, spoiler alert – the horrifying last scene in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – like Pat Boone singing Little Richard songs.

Think of that “oh-shit” moment.

Pretend It’s a City

Another recent TV experience talks about music in ways I like.

While “Small Axe” celebrates the joy music brings, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” shows how the “business” of show business exploits and destroys it, Fran Lebowitz in the second episode of Martin Scorcese’s “Pretend It’s a City” documentary series provides both comic relief and a surprising reverence.

Interview segments have the hermetic intimacy of “My Dinner With Andre,” while scenes showing Lebowitz walking city streets suggest she’s finding much to annoy her.

A misanthrope celebrated for her cranky impatience with human imperfection, and just as uncompromising in admitting her own, Lebowitz talks in this episode of loving the crude, trash-flashy New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. When that building literally falls down, it hits as a perfect New York episode of timelessness and decay fighting it out. After concert footage shows the Dolls’ raffish, pioneering fearlessness, Scorcese shows us Marvin Gaye, that suave Motown god. Unlike the Dolls, he’s unselfconsciously at ease with himself. The Dolls, and Lebowitz, perceive the world as cracked mirrors, but always aimed at them. Gaye sings alone, then with a band as he teaches a song to them, singing their parts like Paul McCartney still does. 

After extolling Gaye and Motown, the conversation turns general as it shifts to a restaurant where Lebowitz talks at Scorcese. She tells him music “is centrally important to people. And they love the person who gave this to them…No one is loved like musicians. Musicians are really loved by people because they give them the ability to express their emotions and their memories. There’s no other form that does that. I think musicians – musicians and cooks – are responsible for the most pleasure in human life…music makes people happier, and it doesn’t harm them.”

And then she talks about the time Charles Mingus chased her down the street…

Enough, enough, e-fucking-nough

Identify Criminals

Use police, news and civilian video and facial recognition systems to identify criminals

Use cell-phone locator functions to identify criminals

Clean the Capitol

Sweep all spaces for electronic audio and video surveillance devices; also phone and intercom bugs

Fumigate and disinfect for COVID

Reset all communications networks and computer services

Sue all criminals to bankruptcy to cover costs, including the trump organization and family and republican campaign organizations

Establish workable security for U.S. government facilities 

Impose Judgement

Fire Capitol Police “leaders”

Fire and indict as traitors all Capitol Police “leaders” or “officers” whose appearance in photos abetting incursions confirms complicity; National Guard troops also

Invoke the 14th Amendment, Section 3 to unseat any U.S. Rep. and Senator who supported blockage of state Electoral College confirmations

Abolish the Electoral College

Shorten presidential transition to 30 days

Criminalize as treason any failure to cooperate with transition requirements

Try all criminals for treason and/or sedition; imprison for life – including trump

“…a ticket into the woods, onto still waters and meandering brooks…”

The West Branch of the Sacandaga River winds in close curves, a tunnel of steep grassy banks. Its roof blooms overhead, a calming blue streaky-tattooed with feathery cirrus clouds. It’s narrow, one twist right after another, so you come upon another boat in a hurry and have to paddle in a laughing rush to miss colliding head on.

That ribbon of river is wonderfully disorienting, a world of its own, an atmosphere so strong it erases everything outside itself. You’re not lost there. You stop caring that you don’t know where you are in any precise way. You wind and you wander until that wonder-world widens. The banks flatten into reedy marsh, sun sparkles beckon you through a channel onto a shiny, waved surface. It’s called – really – Good Luck Lake. Around its low shore, camps hide among trees and dark hollows. Tents, fires, log lean-to’s, canoes and skiffs tugged up between rocks onto thin beaches. Some seem so permanent they might have been here all summer, decades or generations of summers.

My passport to the West Branch and Good Luck Lake was the place knowledge of my kayaker friend Tim Owens, the key was my Hornbeck canoe, a bit more than ten feet of yellow gold Kevlar with thin cherry-wood thwarts and gunwales I’ve stained a thin red that sheds drips from the two-blade paddle, like kayakers use. And, like kayakers, I sit low in the hull, unlike the raised cane seat of my previous boat. 

Both my boats are gifts, showing how generous is my family and how stingy I am with myself. 

At my 50th birthday party, I was blindfolded and handed a ribbon to follow from the picnic pavilion at the Girls Inc. daycamp Ellie had borrowed for the day, though pine-scented woods to a slope down to the spring-fed swimming hole so cool, all summer, they called it the Ice Bucket. The ribbon was tied to a thwart in a 16-foot fiberglass Indian River two-seater that I enjoyed for years. 

At that party, my musician brother Jim reunited the Auratones, his high school band, to play tunes that brought tears to my eyes and got my parents dancing, gawking at the long-skirted hippie swirls of Kathy Kenney. At their first break, Ellie led us all along a path into a clearing where people started looking up; I didn’t know why until a biplane appeared. Aerobatic pilot Jeff Seckendorf performed dazzling dives and climbs, loops and rolls. His wife Karen guided him from the ground by radio. “No, go up again – you’re behind the trees.” 

Afterward, but before the canoe gift, more music, barbecue picnic food and cold draft beers. Friends near and far had filled a 30 foot paper scroll with writings, photos and drawings, some jokey but most sincere, friendship tributes sweet and deep. One of Ellie’s girlfriends took her aside, Ellie reported later, and angrily hissed, “You BITCH! No party I’ll ever throw Ray will ever match THIS!” But I digress.

My 50th birthday banana-yellow fiberglass canoe mainly roamed the Mohawk River and Watervliet Reservoir which then had a public fishing area on the shore near the dam, at the end of a forest path from a parking lot. I took everybody I could on paddle trips there, partly to share the fun, partly to help carry its 75-pound hull, paddles, life jackets and water bottles through the woods from my car to the rocky-beach launch site and back. 

Eager from the start, Zak and his friends never needed persuading or inviting twice, but some older friends of mine, nervously cited “Deliverance” misgivings.

A backwater passage on the Mohawk, from my Hornbeck

The Mohawk felt different, bigger, though the current was never much of a challenge except in the spring or after big summer storms. I could easily single-hand that boat upstream among the islands from the dock near the Community College (now SUNY Schenectady) and only had to paddle at top intensity rounding the last island right below Lock 8, Rotterdam on the left bank, Scotia on the right. Closest I ever came to dumping that boat was right there, looping upstream across the island into the full force of storm-water surging over the gates in a foamy, brown, roaring rush, then into the hissing water racing downstream where I felt I was paddling downhill. Otherwise, the Mohawk was a pussy-cat, but I still preferred the Watervliet Reservoir for its privacy. I almost never saw another boat there and only a few fisherfolk along the shore. I, or we, would paddle in between the south shore and the only sizable island in the whole lake; we called it Heron Island for the great blues that fished on the shore side of it. Bald eagles nest on its east end. Then, if Zak and the boys were with me, we’d cross the main deep bay to a clay bank on the north side and fill buckets with it. 

The lake narrowed then, paddling west, into a passage with birches on both sides, before opening up again into a wide space along Rt. 20. Passing under the Rt. 158 bridge, we’d again paddle into narrower waters, the Normanskill that feeds the lake. I didn’t know it then, but this winding waterway was a preview to the West Bank of the Sacandaga years later. But here the banks rise and fall; ferny flats with few trees; or sandy banks that eroded one spring flood time to reveal a Model T Ford buried there. 

Sometimes I’d paddle up the Normanskill until the hull scraped stones, passing secluded shacks and boats moored in the shallows or tugged up on shore. Once on the way back toward the reservoir from there, I sat still in the boat, resting, the paddle across my knees. A great blue heron lazily cruising upstream as I drifted down only spotted me from a few feet away and flapped frantically to fly over me; I could hear its gasping breaths under the wing-noise. 

As I got older, fatter and less fit, I had trouble rounding up a crew or single-handing the boat. Lift the boat onto my car’s roof-rack; tie it down with webbing straps, bow and stern and over the hull; drive to the water; unstrap it; lift it off and onto my shoulders to carry it on the yoke. I’d tote it 100 yards through the woods, avoiding roots or mud-holes trying to trip me. At the end of the portage, I’d descend a steep sandy bank, not tall but treacherous. Then I’d take it off my shoulders and into the water and away I’d happily paddle; knowing I’d have to do the same thing twice more.

So, I sold it, before I ever got around to painting on the bow, as Zak and I joked, the Russian words for “Good Suitcase.” The thought of that always cracked us up even if we never painted it on there. 

Selling anything feels difficult for me since I hate parting with any possession and always worry that I might not be delivering value for the money. But in this case, I didn’t mind that as much as usual since my family had – for a later birthday – gifted me a Hornbeck.

I knew about this, sort of – it was less a surprise than the first boat on my 50th. Ellie and I had visited the Hornbeck works in Olmstedville in the Adirondacks and determined what size boat I needed by test-paddling a number of them and seeing how my weight sat it in the water. Now, how it felt in the water was simply magical, after the heavier canoes and kayaks I’d paddled up to then.

It was efficient; a few paddle strokes set it moving fast. It had enough rocker (the keel rose at both ends from the center) that it turned almost eagerly, and if your strokes balanced, side to side, it tracked straight as if on rails.

When Ellie and our friend John snuck back up to Olmstedville and brought back my own Hornbeck, I was the happiest birthday boy around.

Hornbecks aren’t just fabled Adirondack water-craft, styled after John Henry Rushton’s legendary hull designs; they’re a life-changing joy. People almost never sell used Hornbecks, they list them in their wills. 

One of the guilty pleasures of a Hornbeck is showing off its light weight. Watch somebody struggle to tug a kayak off a roof-rack and try not to feel and act smug, showing off by carrying a Hornbeck in one hand, paddle and provisions in the other. 

They make paddle-trips SO easy. No need to recruit or cajole a paddling-and-portaging partner, and getting it into the water happens fast. In 20 minutes, I can pack the boat myself, drive to the Mohawk or Collins Lake – my main neighborhood paddle spots – unpack the boat, tote it to the water’s edge – smugly, one handed – and set off.

On Collins Lake, I’d count mossy-backed snappers and sleek painted or box turtles, spook giant gray carp, zippy bass or flat sunfish, admire water lillies and yellow blossoms whose names I haven’t bothered to look up yet.

On the Mohawk, I’d paddle into hidden passages so primordial in their quiet isolation they felt like pathways into other worlds. My favorite vanished years ago when hurricane floods reshaped the shore, must as they swept away snags where egrets, herons, ducks, geese and turtles sat in the sun. After one of those hurricane floods, I spotted bits of swept-away barns, including a room-sized square of thick flooring; a week later it was gone. A pair of bald eagles hung out in a giant oak on the Scotia bank, watching me, unafraid.

A great blue heron who didn’t care that I was there; he’d seen me before

I found the same serenity other paddlers sought in their Hornbecks, including Patrick Sisti, a print-shop salesman who visited my PR agency job. He was so quietly charming I steered any work I could his way. Lean, balding, beard to mid-chest, he took on a holiday persona as Father Christmas, nothing as crass as Santa Claus but a velvet-gowned, vaguely saintly apparition. 

Sisti died at a remote pond after paddling there alone and putting his Hornbeck back on his car-top.

And the day after Christmas – Britain’s Boxing Day and the wedding anniversary of my late in-laws – Peter Hornbeck died, too; suddenly, with his boots on after a family hike, as his obituary states.

Hornbeck’s obituary also states, correctly, that “Over the years, Pete’s little boats have given thousands of people their , where they could watch birds, catch fish and just be.” 

Thanks for my ticket.