Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rick Nelson, 1940-1985: An Appreciation

Ricky Nelson, 1959.

Rick Nelson, late 1970's.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Rick Nelson’s music lately. Rick or “Ricky” Nelson was one of the most successful rock singers of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Sometimes unfairly dismissed as just a teen idol with a pretty face, Nelson made many great rockabilly records and his continued commitment to his music throughout his life proves that he was a real artist, not just a dilettante. I first starting listening to Rick Nelson’s music when I was in high school, around 1996 or 1997, so I was the right age for songs like “Young Emotions,” “Lonesome Town,” and “Young World.” Rick wasn’t as dynamic and exciting as Elvis Presley, but his voice had a pure sweetness that I’ve always enjoyed listening to. Since high school I’ve periodically revisited Rick Nelson’s music and I still enjoy listening to him. But what got me started on my recent Rick Nelson kick was finding his 1972 album “Garden Party” used on CD for $4.99. I thought to myself, “I really like Rick; I’m surprised I don’t have this CD, I should get it.” Hearing the “Garden Party” album made me remember how much I like Rick Nelson, and it made me revisit the Rick Nelson CD’s I already owned. I decided to write this post as an appreciation and overview of Rick Nelson’s career, and a discussion of some of my favorite songs of his. 

Ricky Nelson was born into a show business family. His father, Ozzie Nelson, was a successful bandleader during the 1930’s and 40’s, and the singer in Ozzie’s band was Rick’s mother, Harriet. After Ozzie’s recording career cooled down, he and Harriet performed frequently on the radio, and eventually they starred in their own radio show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” The radio show was a family sitcom, starring the family members as themselves, with child actors portraying young Ricky and his older brother David. When Ricky was 8 and David was 12 in 1948, they started performing on the radio show as themselves. Ricky was a natural performer, playing the smartass younger brother to David’s straight man. The radio show continued to be popular, and Ozzie wanted to break into the new medium of television. Ozzie negotiated a TV contract with ABC that gave him a huge amount of control over the TV show. Ozzie wrote and directed nearly every episode of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” The TV show was a huge success, airing for 14 seasons, from 1952 until 1966. It is still the longest running non-animated sitcom in U.S. television history. America watched Ricky Nelson grow up into Rick Nelson on the show, as Rick was 12 when it began and 26 when it finally left the airwaves. But a lot happened to Rick Nelson during those 14 years. Rick started the show as the smart aleck younger brother, but he matured into a very handsome young man who was a teen heartthrob even before he began singing. 

Like most other teenagers of the time, Rick loved rock and roll music. Unlike any other teenager of the time, he starred on a very popular national TV show. When he was 16, Rick wanted to make a record, supposedly to impress a girl. With Ozzie’s help, Rick landed a record deal, but not before numerous labels had turned him down. When Rick’s first record came out in 1957, “A Teenager’s Romance,” backed with a cover of the Fats Domino tune “I’m Walkin,’” Rick had the unique opportunity of being able to plug his record on his family’s TV show. So Rick singing his latest record quickly became a standard feature of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” While this huge exposure early on undoubtedly helped Rick in establishing his music career, there’s no way he would have been as successful for as he long as he was if the only thing selling his records was the TV show. A lot of people credit Rick’s singing on “The Adventures” with helping to popularize rock and roll. Certainly seeing clean-cut Rick sing must have reassured parents that not every rock and roller was a greasy juvenile delinquent. And much of the credit for this must go to Ozzie Nelson, who astutely saw that rock and roll was not much different from the music his parents dismissed when he was a teenager himself. Rather than complain about the new music, Ozzie astutely embraced it.

Both sides of Rick’s very first single entered the Top Ten, with “A Teenager’s Romance” climbing to number 2, and “I’m Walkin’” peaking just below it at number 4. Rick quickly proved that he was no one-hit wonder, scoring Top Ten hits in quick succession with “Be-Bop Baby” and “Stood Up.” Rick loved rockabilly and idolized Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. As Rick was forming a band of his own, he soon found a young guitarist who would play a vital part in shaping his music’s sound. That guitarist was James Burton, who would play lead guitar on nearly every record of Rick’s until 1968. When Elvis Presley returned to performing live in 1969, he hired Burton as his lead guitarist, and Burton played with Elvis until Presley’s death in 1977. Rick wanted his records to have a real rockabilly sound, and Burton provided that with searing solos on songs like “Believe What You Say” and “I Got a Feeling.” Rick continued to have many hits in 1958 and 1959, notching 5 Top Ten singles in 1958 and 4 Top Ten singles in 1959. Rick was beginning to rival his idol Elvis Presley as the most successful rock and roll singer. Ironically enough, the vocal group The Jordanaires sang back-up on both Elvis’s records and Rick’s. Elvis allowed the Jordanaires to sing on Rick’s records as long as they went uncredited. 

Rick’s career hit a slight bump in 1960, as none of his singles that year made it to the Top Ten. But his first single of 1961 was one of his best, “Travelin’ Man” backed with “Hello, Mary Lou.” Both sides made the Top Ten, with “Travelin’ Man” going all the way to number 1. Rick scored 3 more Top Ten hits in 1962, giving him a total of 30 Top 40 singles from 1957-1962, more than anyone else during that time except for Elvis and Pat Boone. Rick changed record labels in 1963, moving from Imperial to Decca, who signed him to an unprecedented 20-year contract. After changing labels, Rick scored just one more Top Ten hit during the 1960’s, “For You,” which peaked at number 6 in February, 1964, just at the exact moment The Beatles were starting to dominate the U.S. charts. 

Like nearly every other pre-Beatles rock singer, Rick’s career was severely damaged by the British Invasion. While the times they were a-changin,’ everything on “Ozzie and Harriet” was still pretty much the same. By 1966, when “Ozzie and Harriet” finally went off the air, Rick’s singles had stopped charting, as did his albums. It seems as though Rick wasn’t getting great material written for him on Decca, as most of his Decca hits were covers of old songs like “Fools Rush In,” “For You,” and “The Very Thought of You.” Since Rick didn’t write songs himself, he was at a disadvantage when The Beatles came along, as it became the norm for rock singers to write their own material. But he eventually started writing quite prolifically in the late 1960’s, even recording an entire album of his own songs, 1970’s “Rick Sings Nelson.” 

As his career floundered, Rick seemed unsure of what direction to take with his music. He recorded two country-flavored albums in 1966 and 1967, “Bright Lights and Country Music” and “Country Fever,” but then turned more towards folk on his next two albums. Rick had a very versatile voice, and his voice’s pure tone made it easy for him to alternate between singing standards, ballads, pop, rock, rockabilly, folk, and country. In 1969 Rick finally figured out the direction he wanted to move in. He started a new band and he fully embraced the nascent “country rock” movement. Rick called his new group “The Stone Canyon Band.” Originally, Rick wanted to fully blend into the group and have their records released under the name “Stone Canyon,” with no mention of his name. Decca Records strongly objected to Rick’s idea, forcing him to modify the billing to “Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band.” Rick was obviously anxious to start a new chapter in his career and attempt to jettison some of the baggage that came with being “Ricky Nelson,” the All-American boy next door. 

Rick’s first album with the Stone Canyon Band was 1969’s “In Concert,” which was recorded live at the Troubadour folk club in L.A. Rick’s opening act was a young comedian named Steve Martin. “In Concert” blended Rick’s original songs with songs from contemporary folk singer/songwriters like Tim Hardin, Eric Andersen, and Bob Dylan. “In Concert” proved to be an excellent album, showing that Rick had updated his sound and image, and it became his first album to hit the charts since 1964. Just before “In Concert” was recorded in the fall of the 1969, Rick’s mellow country rock cover of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” became his first Top 40 hit since 1964. It seemed like there might be a new audience for Rick’s new sound. But in October of 1971, when Rick was playing as part of an oldies revue at Madison Square Garden, he discovered that some people didn’t want him to change. The story surrounding that performance at Madison Square Garden is that all of the performers were supposed to look and sound exactly like they did in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Rick didn’t look and sound exactly the same, as he now sported shoulder-length hair, long sideburns, and hippie-like clothes. And while he remained true to the spirit of his old recordings, they inevitably sounded a little different with the pedal steel guitar of the Stone Canyon Band. Near the end of his set Rick sat down at the piano and announced that they were going to play “one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever written,” The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” A chorus of boos ensued as Rick sang the song. The booing got louder, and at the end of the song Rick quickly rushed into “Travelin’ Man” and left the stage. Rick assumed that people had booed him because he looked different than he used to and his music sounded different than it used to. And he had perhaps broken the spell of the nostalgia show by introducing a more contemporary song as “one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever written.” However, other sources have since said that the real reason there was booing during Rick’s set had nothing to do with his music at all. Some sources say that there was a fight going on in one section of the audience, and the crowd was booing the people who were fighting, not Rick. Whatever really happened that night, the point is that Rick thought that people were booing him and his music, which led him to write his masterpiece, “Garden Party.”

“Garden Party” recounts the story of the Madison Square Garden concert, and Rick’s annoyance at the audience’s inability to accept his new music and new image. In the chorus of “Garden Party” Rick sings,

“But it’s all right now
I learned my lesson well
You see, you can’t please everyone
So you got to please yourself”

“Garden Party” is a forceful statement for the autonomy of the musical artist, supporting the idea that an artist must be free to make art that pleases them, regardless of what the masses might think. This was pretty heavy stuff coming from a supposedly lightweight former teen idol. In perhaps the most famous verse of “Garden Party” Rick sings,

“If you got to play at garden parties
I wish you a lot of luck
But if memories were all I sang
I’d rather drive a truck”

Ironically enough, despite of its stance against pleasing the masses, “Garden Party” went on to become a huge hit single. It was Rick’s last Top Ten single, peaking at number 6 in the fall of 1972. The success of the single pushed the “Garden Party” album into the Top Forty. But Rick’s commercial comeback was brief, as his next album, 1974’s “Windfall,” just barely scraped into the Top 200 at #190, and spawned no hit singles. The next year Decca, which had now become MCA, terminated Rick’s 20-year contract, which still had 8 years to run. 

Rick signed with Epic Records, and he had a very frustrating tenure there, recording enough material for three albums, but seeing just one issued during his lifetime. After he left Epic, Rick signed with Capitol Records. Rick would release just one album on Capitol, 1981’s “Playing to Win.” In the liner notes for the CD reissue of “Playing to Win,” the story is recounted that Paul McCartney had offered to produce an album for Rick in the late 1970’s. Paul had the idea of writing some songs with Rick and recording at Sun Studios in Memphis. But when Rick and his management brought the idea to Capitol, executives were very cool on it, because Paul had just left Capitol to sign with Columbia Records. So Rick never recorded with Paul, which is a shame. No matter what the quality of music would have been, just the association with McCartney would have greatly helped Rick’s career and might have led to a full-fledged comeback. But as it was, “Playing to Win” made it to #153 on the Top 200. Not a great showing, by any means, but it did provide Rick with a historic achievement. Rick became the only rock and roll artist to land albums of all new material on the Billboard charts in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. That’s no small achievement, and it shows that he was still trying to do new things with his music. Of course, you can add some asterisks to this record, as there were artists like Frank Sinatra who were very successful on the album charts in all of those decades, but of course Frank doesn’t count as a rock and roll singer. And had Elvis Presley lived a little longer, he surely would have been able to hit the charts during the 1980’s, assuming that he was still recording new material. But Rick’s achievement was a sign of his longevity and his commitment to his music. 

Capitol Records dropped Rick after the lackluster performance of “Playing to Win.” Rick was then in the middle of a very expensive divorce from his wife Kris Harmon; and he was forced to tour constantly in order to make money. Rick was still playing all of his old hits, and singing them with as much passion as he had when he first recorded them nearly thirty years before. In 1985 Rick had signed with Curb Records, and by the end of the year he was about halfway through making a new album. Rick was touring with Fats Domino in the fall of 1985, and Rick’s performance on August 22, 1985 was recorded for TV. That performance shows Rick singing many of his greatest hits. His voice still sounded good, he was still impossibly handsome at 45, and it’s clear that he still loved singing and performing these songs that had made him famous. On December 31, 1985, Rick Nelson was flying to Dallas for a New Year’s Eve concert when the plane carrying him and his band crashed. The two pilots survived the crash, but everyone else on board was killed. Rick Nelson was only 45 years old. 

Rick Nelson was a truly talented singer, songwriter, and performer who often gets overlooked in the history of rock and roll. But those of us who are fans of Rick Nelson’s know that his music was something special. If you think Rick Nelson was just another pretty boy teen idol, you’re wrong. He was much more than that. Rick Nelson stayed true to his rockabilly roots and did what he wanted to do. He did his best to stay true to his artistic vision. In the late 1970’s, he was offered a huge contract to perform in Las Vegas, but he turned it down because that wasn’t who he was as an artist. Rick didn’t want to just smile, wear a tuxedo, and sing his greatest hits with an orchestra. When he did play Vegas in 1978, he did so with his 5 piece rock band wearing blue jeans, and not an orchestra or dancing girl in sight. The more I’ve read and learned about Rick Nelson, the more impressed I am with his integrity. He was a great artist who died much too soon. But fortunately he left us with a lot of great records. The success he had on the pop singles charts is staggering, as he charted 53 Top 100 singles between 1957 and 1973, of those 53 songs, 35 made the Top 40, and 19 made the Top Ten, which gave Rick more Top Ten singles than any other artist of his generation except for Elvis Presley. Here are my Top Ten Rick Nelson songs, in chronological order:

Believe What You Say (1958)-Rick’s first single with James Burton on lead guitar, this is a great rockabilly song that shows how hard Rick could rock. It became a staple of his live shows, and he did a great re-recording of it on “Playing to Win.”

Lonesome Town (1958)-This haunting song shows how effective Rick was at singing ballads. It features just Rick, a guitar, and The Jordanaires singing backup. 

It’s Late (1959)-In which Rick and his date lose track of time and end up staying out all night. Uh oh! It’s a fun song, a typical teen song of the time. Features a tasty James Burton guitar solo.

Sweeter Than You (1959)-Another ballad that highlights Rick’s sweet, intimate voice. Listen to this song and you can see why girls went nuts over him. 

Travelin’ Man (1961)-One of Rick’s best-known songs, this song features him as a Lothario with, literally, a girl in every port. It’s a supremely catchy song, with great backing vocals from The Jordanaires.

Hello, Mary Lou (1961)-The B-side to “Travelin’ Man,” but just as good a song. It opens with a distinctive drum pattern and is an early hint of the country influence in Rick’s music. 

Teenage Idol (1962)-Rick originally didn’t want to sing this song, as he feared its lyrics would make him sound self-pitying. And sure, it’s a song about how hard it is to be a teenage idol, and how he has no time to find the right girl, “cause I’m just passing through.” But even though it doesn’t accurately reflect Rick’s life at the time, as he was only touring during summer breaks from filming “Ozzie and Harriet,” it’s still an interesting song about being a famous musician recorded by a famous musician at the peak of his fame.

Fools Rush In (1963)-A great rock and roll rearrangement of this standard, featuring a terrific vocal from Rick, and a great solo from James Burton. When Elvis recorded the song in 1971, he copied Rick’s arrangement, and James Burton plays the same solo on both records. 

Easy to be Free (1970)-One of the best songs that Rick ever wrote, it’s a lovely country rock song with a great melody and lyrics about self-discovery and finding yourself. 

Garden Party (1972)-Rick’s statement of artistic freedom and autonomy, delivered with a loping beat and great harmonies. Fittingly, it became his last big hit single. There are, of course, many other great and wonderful Rick Nelson songs, but these ten songs are a good place to start a journey into Rick’s music.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kevin Kling's "Tales from the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log"

Every family has their own holiday traditions, and one that my Mother and I have is going to see Kevin Kling’s show “Tales from the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log.” I was probably about 14 or 15 when I saw “Yule Log” for the first time. I haven’t seen it every year since then, but pretty close, so I’ve probably seen it at least 10 times. I still laugh my head off at all the jokes, even though I know the punch lines. I still laughed in all the same places when we saw the show last night. Kevin Kling is one of Minnesota’s treasures; he’s a storyteller and actor who can often be heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” “Tales from the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log” is his annual Christmas show, with stories about the holiday season. The show has changed over the years, as Kling adds some new parts and removes others, but the main part of it is his retelling of a Christmas morning from his childhood spent at his grandparent’s house in Missouri. “I was never further from fear than when I was sitting in the way back of my parent’s Chevrolet Impala station wagon, surrounded by presents, heading from Minnesota to Missouri.” Kling then tells us of his family’s quirks, like his Uncle Dale, “Who is a preacher in real life. When I told him I was going to become an actor he said, ‘Well Kev, you know the homosexuals are going to hell right after the Catholics.’ He had this list of who was going to hell, like he found it in God’s dumpster, and he was always letting you know where you were on the list.” 

There is something magical about Kling’s storytelling. He invites you in, paints a picture, and you can see it in your mind. You can see the joy in Kevin’s boyhood eyes as he gets a model plane for Christmas, one that actually flies! But the joy turns to fear as he knows he will have to fly the plane later in the day, in front of everyone, including his Dad, who is a pilot. Kevin is sure that he will crash the plane and embarrass himself. But he’s spared that embarrassment when his Dad takes the remote control for the plane and crashes it on its’ maiden voyage. Kevin is overjoyed that he didn’t crash the plane himself. 

There are other stories that make up “Yule Log,” some of them stay and some of them go, but one of the best is the story about Rose, an old woman in her 80’s that Kevin met in the Uptown bar during the holiday season. He sees Rose sitting alone and strikes up a conversation, figuring there must be a story here. He and Rose spend the rest of the afternoon talking. Kevin asks her about her sheep brooch, which has pearls for the sheep’s wool. There’s one pearl missing, in the middle of the brooch. Rose says that when something awful happens to her, she takes out a pearl. Kevin says “Rose, there’s one pearl missing.” Rose responds, “Yes, but look at how many I have left.” That moving moment makes me choke up every time. 

The show last night was made even more memorable by the presence of the lovely and talented Simone Perrin, a singer with a beautiful voice with whom Kevin has collaborated several times. Simone sang several songs and was backed by the pianist Dan Chouinard, who told a childhood story of his own, and the virtuoso Peter Ostroushko on the violin and the mandolin. The Brass Messengers band played before the show started, getting everyone in the holiday mood. 

Kevin Kling has one of the biggest hearts. He’s full of joie de vivre. He loves the little things in life, the little details that tell the larger story. He has such a terrific eye for the little details, and that’s what makes his stories shine. He’s more than just a funny storyteller; there is a heart to his stories that makes them so memorable. Kling was in a very serious motorcycle accident in 2001, and he almost died. He says that since then he notices the little blessings more in his life. I try to see Kevin Kling perform whenever I can, because I always treasure his wonderful mix of the funny and the profound.

Here are some of my favorite Kevin Kling quotes:

What Kevin describes as the perfect Minnesotan sentence: “I ain’t gonna pay no dollar for a corn muffin that’s half dough.”

“Sometimes my memory doesn’t always bring me what I ordered, but because I’m Minnesotan I figure it’s what I really wanted anyway.” I’ve used this line many times with friends, doing my best to imitate Kevin’s Minnesotan accent, and it always gets a laugh. Not wanting to make a fuss is a key ingredient in the Minnesota state character.

When Kevin was a child, the thing he most wanted for Christmas was a squirrel monkey. “So I pray to God to ask Jesus to tell Santa that I want a squirrel monkey. I feel like I’ve gotten through to the reasonable Jesus.”

“Oh, and I want a good squirrel monkey, not like the neighbor’s, who has ‘no sense of decency,’ according to my Mother.”

 “Fear as a child is black and white, it’s not like when you’re an adult and its grey and just is there all the time.”

Monday, December 10, 2012

Reflections on Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012

The Classic Dave Brubeck Quartet: Joe Morello, drums, Dave Brubeck, piano, Eugene Wright, bass, Paul Desmond, alto sax.

Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012.
Dave Brubeck was my favorite jazz musician, and I was very sad when he passed away last week at the age of 91. Brubeck lived a long life, full of many successes and triumphs, yet it still makes me sad that he’s gone. Like many people, Dave Brubeck’s music helped introduce me to jazz. I first started getting into jazz when I was about 16 or 17, around 1997-98, and the first jazz albums I remember really liking were Wes Montgomery’s “A Day in the Life” and the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out.” From there my love of jazz grew, but my admiration for Dave Brubeck’s music has remained over the years. 

In 2001, I was lucky enough to meet Dave Brubeck twice. It’s pretty cool to meet one of your musical heroes. During college, I spent the fall of 2001 in Washington, D.C., studying at American University as part of the “Washington Semester” program. Part of that program was an internship two days a week. My internship was at Hedrick Smith Productions. Hedrick Smith is a journalist who spent many years at The New York Times, where he won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for breaking the Pentagon Papers story, and the other in 1974 for International Reporting, for his reports from the Soviet Union. Smith wrote the bestselling books “The Russians” and “The Power Game.” After he retired from The New York Times, Smith started producing documentaries for PBS. Most of these dealt with public affairs, but sometimes Smith would be able to sneak in documentaries about jazz, one of his passions. The semester I was at Hedrick Smith Productions, he was finishing a documentary about Dave Brubeck, called “Rediscovering Dave Brubeck.” For me, this was one of the selling points of interning at Hedrick Smith Productions. I thought to myself, “I get to work for Hedrick Smith and he’s making a documentary about Dave Brubeck? Done and done!” The filming of the documentary was completed, so I didn’t get to go along on any shoots. But I did get to see some of the editing up close, which was pretty interesting. When Dave Brubeck gave a concert at George Washington University that fall, Hedrick Smith Productions got a number of tickets, and I was able to go to the concert. We had really good seats, and we got to go backstage to meet Dave after the show. I was thrilled! Dave Brubeck was really nice and really sweet, a true gentleman. I was able to get my copy of “Jazz Impressions of Eurasia” signed and I got my picture taken with Brubeck. I don’t remember how long we talked to him, or exactly what I said to him, but he was kind and sweet and gracious, especially given the fact that he was 80 years old and had just played a two-hour concert. As we left the green room, he said, “Bye Mark!” to me. I thought to myself, “Dave Brubeck remembered my name!”  I also got to meet Brubeck again later that fall, in December of 2001, right before the documentary premiered on PBS. Hedrick Smith Productions organized a special event at Birdland in New York City. Part of the documentary was shown. I can’t remember if Brubeck played at Birdland, I don’t think he did. But a lot of famous jazz people were there, like George Wein, who started the Newport Jazz Festival, and jazz critic Ira Gitler, who had panned “Time Out” when it was originally issued, but he had since come around to appreciating Brubeck. But the person besides Brubeck I was most excited about seeing in person was Joe Morello, the drummer in Brubeck’s Classic Quartet, who supplied all those different time signatures and of course who played the famous drum solo on “Take Five.” I got to meet all of these jazz legends, which was pretty amazing. Joe Morello was a really nice guy to talk to; I was floored to be meeting the drummer who had played on all those famous records. I also met some of the members of Brubeck’s current group, drummer Randy Jones and bassist Michael Moore, and Brubeck’s son Chris, who has followed in his father’s footsteps as a musician and performer. (Nearly all of Brubeck’s children are musicians, and he played with them many times over the years.) I met Brubeck again that night at Birdland and I got another autograph from him. I can’t remember what I said, I don’t think I talked to him for very long-there was a long receiving line of people waiting to talk to him. And next to Brubeck, of course, was his wife Iola, an amazing woman who helped Brubeck immensely during every phase of his career. Dave and Iola were married for 70 years. She stood by him when they were dirt poor, helped him get concert bookings, and co-wrote songs with him. Theirs was a true partnership. I got to meet Iola backstage, and she was, like her husband, very nice and very sweet. 

After my semester in Washington, I saw Dave Brubeck perform live every time he came to the Twin Cities. I saw him in concert 5 times, once in D.C. in 2001, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis in 2003, 2006, and 2008, and once at the Dakota Jazz Club in 2009, his last Twin Cities performance. Every time I saw him he put on a great show. His piano playing was always vibrant, rich, and dynamic. I was amazed at his stamina. He looked old when he shuffled to the piano bench, but then he would start playing and the years would melt away. And every time I saw him, he would play “Take Five,” still finding some new touches to add to that famous song. The Quartet that he led during his last decade was a terrific group, made up of Bobby Militello on alto sax, Michael Moore on bass, and Randy Jones on drums. Their interplay was always fun to see, you could tell they truly enjoyed playing with each other.

I’ve got a lot of Dave Brubeck CD’s, and I’ve never been disappointed with one. To me, his work was always fascinating to listen to, from his octet of the late 1940’s to his solo recordings of the 2000’s like “Private Brubeck Remembers” and “Indian Summer.” One of my favorite recordings is the Dave Brubeck Quartet live at Carnegie Hall in 1963. It’s a 2-disc set, and it captures his Classic Quartet of Brubeck, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums at the peak of their powers. One of the most thrilling moments is a version of “Blue Rondo al a Turk” taken at breakneck pace that the group somehow pulls off. It’s just wonderful.

Dave Brubeck was someone who was not spoiled by his fame and good fortune; he was a truly nice guy who loved making music. And he was a man who stood up for the right things, like refusing to play in the South when concert halls said he couldn’t play there with an integrated band. The world is a much better place for having had Dave Brubeck in it and the world is poorer now that he’s gone. Dave Brubeck led a wonderful life, and he will always be fondly remembered by those who heard his music and those who knew this great man. 

Some of my favorite Brubeck recordings are:

Jazz at Oberlin-A wonderful concert recording, Brubeck’s first big album.

Jazz: Red Hot, and Cool-Features the original version of Brubeck’s classic song “The Duke.” Also features a classic album cover, with Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and model Suzy Parker.

Brubeck Plays Brubeck-Dave’s first solo album, and first album of all originals, features the original version of “In Your Own Sweet Way.”

Jazz Impressions of Eurasia-This 1958 disc shows Brubeck eagerly soaking up other musical cultures and different time signatures. In Joe Morello, he’s finally found the drummer who can handle tricky time signatures.

Time Out-The quintessential Brubeck recording, featuring the legendary “Take Five,” ironically one of the few tunes the Quartet ever recorded that Paul Desmond wrote, and “Blue Rondo al a Turk.” At the time, Columbia Records balked at releasing the album, as it featured all original songs-meaning there were no standards that everyone already knew, it had an original piece of abstract art on the cover, and all the songs were in time signatures other than 4/4, so how could anyone dance to it? Fortunately smarter heads prevailed. Time Out sold a million copies and went to number 2 on the Pop Albums chart.

Time Further Out-The 1961 “sequel” to Time Out, it features more songs in unusual time signatures, like the classic “It’s a Raggy Waltz” and “Unsquare Dance.”

For All Time-A box set of all of Brubeck’s “time” recordings for Columbia, an essential purchase, even if you already have “Time Out” and “Time Further Out.” 

Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall-This 1963 concert is just amazing. Brubeck, Desmond, Morello and Eugene Wright are all at their best for this wonderful concert. We’re lucky this show was taped.

Jazz Impressions of New York-1964 set of great songs, showing Brubeck’s range as a composer. Features the dynamic “Theme from ‘Mr. Broadway’” and the lovely and lyrical “Summer on the Sound.”

Jazz Impressions of Japan-Another great 1964 album, featuring the rocking “Toki’s Theme” and the beautiful and haunting “Koto Song.”

Buried Treasures-This long-forgotten 1967 live date wasn’t released until 1998, but it’s a wonderful concert from one of the Classic Quartet’s last tours.

Their Last Time Out-And this is the very last performance of the Classic Quartet, from December, 1967. (Well, until they reunited briefly in 1976.) This recording was just issued in 2011, and it’s a wonderful concert, showing that the Quartet was still vibrant and terrific to hear. But Brubeck had made up his mind to take a break from the road and to try new things. He was back on the road less than a year later with a new group.

1975: The Duets-This disc features only Brubeck and Paul Desmond, recorded just two years before Desmond’s early passing. It highlights the musical ESP they shared, and the wonderful way their playing complimented one another.

London Flat, London Sharp-A great recording of Brubeck’s last Quartet, from 2005. It shows that his playing was still as good as ever.

Indian Summer-This solo 2007 disc is the most recent Brubeck album to be released. Hopefully some live shows from the past few years will surface someday. But this is a fitting final album for Brubeck, nostalgic and elegiac without being overly sentimental. His piano playing was still touching and moving. Thanks for all the wonderful music, Dave Brubeck.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Concert Review: Chris Isaak at the State Theatre

Chris Isaak, 2012. Photo from Cincinnati Enquirer.

Last night I saw Chris Isaak and his band at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. It’s the third time I’ve seen Isaak live. I previously saw him at Mystic Lake in 2009 and at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium in 2010. The only reason I missed Isaak in 2011 is that his Twin Cities tour date fell on the day of my wedding. I felt that my nuptials were just slightly more important to attend. Isaak always puts on a great show. It’s easy to see that he loves performing and he’s a natural front man with his matinee-idol good looks and his wicked sense of humor. Not to mention his amazing voice. Isaak looks and sounds amazing; it’s tough to believe that he’s 56. Isaak is always entertaining, whether he’s pogoing across the stage on one foot while playing guitar or telling jokes to the audience. 

Isaak’s band is fantastic, and you can tell they have a great rapport with Chris. Kenney Dale Johnson on drums and Rowland “Roly” Salley on bass have been with Isaak since he first started recording in the mid-1980’s. Isaak even let Salley sing a solo song, “Killing the Blues,” which Salley wrote and which was memorably covered by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their terrific album “Raising Sand.” (I knew of the song, but I had no idea that Salley wrote it.) Isaak also gave prime solos to piano and organ player Scott Plunkett, who tore up “Great Balls of Fire,” and lead guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, who played tasty solos all night. Rafael Padilla also did a great job on percussion, but he didn’t get a featured solo. 

Isaak sang most of his big hits like “Wicked Game,” “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing,” “Blue Hotel,” and “San Francisco Days,” hitting all the high notes, as he always does. He also sang some Christmas songs, but only about 3 or 4. He strolled out into the audience during “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and even ran up to the balcony. I thought I might be able to give Chris a high-five as he walked by, but he stopped about 15 or 20 feet away from where we were sitting and turned back. Shucks! My other close encounter with Chris was 2 years ago, when I was about 2 feet away from Chris when he sang “Love Me Tender” to a woman sitting in the row right behind me. Isaak also sang several songs from his most recent CD, the excellent “Beyond the Sun,” his tribute to Sun Records recording artists. (You could argue that Isaak’s entire career has been a tribute to Sun Records recording artists.) Honestly, I didn’t feel that the crowd was terribly enthusiastic last night. The State wasn’t quite sold out, and people didn’t stand up during the show unless Chris exhorted us to. Maybe the balcony was just a little sleepy, and perhaps things were more rockin’ down on the main floor, I’m not sure. The show ended with a three song encore of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Big Wide Wonderful World,” and an a cappella version of “Worked it Out Wrong,” which is a great song, but not a very up-tempo number to leave on. I would have liked a couple more songs; a rocker like “Speak of the Devil” “Like the Way She Moves” or “I’m Not Sleepy” would have been a great finale to the evening. But that’s a small complaint to have, and I finally got to hear one of my favorite Chris Isaak songs “Notice the Ring,” which he did a terrific version of. Isaak was quite loquacious last night, teasing his band members, kidding around, and making fun of himself. One of my favorite things Chris said was “I know you’re not supposed to take pictures in here, but go ahead. I didn’t dress this way to NOT have my picture taken!” It was a fun show, and I’ll be looking forward to the next time Chris Isaak comes to town. 

Set list, in not quite correct order:
American Boy
Blue Hotel
I Want Your Love
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Christmas on TV
Washington Square
Wicked Game
The Best I Ever Had
San Francisco Days
Notice the Ring
Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing
Somebody’s Crying
Ring of Fire
Dixie Fried
Can’t Help Falling in Love
Killing the Blues-Roly Salley solo
It’s Now or Never
Miss Pearl
Live It Up
Doin’ the Best I Can
Great Balls of Fire
Oh, Pretty Woman
Big Wide Wonderful World
Worked It Out Wrong