Thursday, March 31, 2011

Compared to What?

In the early 1990s I was teaching at a university in Akita prefecture, northern Japan, and I produced a concert at the school that included famed jazz pianist Les McCann as the headlining act. McCann and his Magic Band were in the area to play a couple gigs at local jazz clubs, and using a mama-san connection in the jazz scene, I’d secured their participation in my own mini-music festival. Of course, I really had no idea what to expect.

The night of the gig, I was really sweating it. A couple local bands and several student groups opened the evening in the 4th floor auditorium of the uni’s main admin building. It was a major effort to set up the place since there was no elevator; all the sound equipment had to be hauled up the seemingly endless staircase. But the real nail-biter was waiting for Les and his band. By 8pm I was freaking out, while certain members of the audience who had paid a steep ticket price were also restless since there was no word of the band's arrival. Still, by landline (pre-cellphones) the mama-san assured me that the band would show. 

Sure enough, just as the act that preceded the Magic Band got onto the stage, a couple vehicles carrying Les and his boys pulled up into the parking lot of the school's main building.  When I heard they had arrived (I had sentries posted awaiting the arrival!), I rushed down the four flights of stairs. There were half a dozen players piled into a van, and Les seated in an accompanying car. I greeted them at the building door. The Man himself, by 1992 a bearded, sumo-sized pianist, seemingly twice the size he'd been when he recorded a startling set at the Montreux Jazz Festival twenty years earlier, was faintly pleasant but a bit standoffish.  And I can still remember how his eyebrows raised at my announcement that there was no elevator up to the auditorium. 

That was all understandable, too, since Les had already played an afternoon gig, and he probably weighed in the neighborhood of 120 kilos. Anyone could have guessed that exhaustion would come easy for a fellow his size. By the time we reached the third floor, the towel around his neck was soaked in sweat, and by the fourth, he was wheezing dangerously. Heart attack city?

As a sort of icebreaker, I told Les I had cold water for him in my office. He looked at me like all he wanted to do was lay down and die. What happened next though was even more than I might have imagined. 

Since my office was on the 4th floor, I had arranged it as a makeshift dressing room, with drinks and a swivel office chair installed for Les to relax in. As we got to my door, the poor headliner looked white as a sheet. Just inside, and with the door closed behind him, he went straight for the comfort of the chair, like a man on a mission --- apparently without a thought—when BAM! All 200+ pounds crashed butt-first to the floor.

Sure enough, the chair's wheels had given way, and it rolled backwards as Les rocked like a boulder off a ledge.

“Sorry, Les,” I feebly offered, then ran calling some of the guys to help drag the big man back up to his feet. He was clearly shaken, but to his credit, instead of complaining, he had a good laugh.

Shortly after that tumble, Les McCann and his Magic Band went on stage and blew the roof off the auditorium. The night, like the song that has made Les most famous, was incomparable!

Check out Les McCann's song and others on the radio program Daddy Peet Expresso, on

Journey of the Heart

A musical journey is very similar to a physical one in that it is also a journey of the heart. My first one got a boost during my teenage years in a white clapboard farmhouse back a long lane tucked amidst the hills of southern Ohio. I had a well-to-do friend, Tommy J, whose parents raced horses, and they followed their animals south when winter came to the Midwest. That meant that my buddy often found himself at home alone during the winter months. When I’d visit on weekends, we pretty much had the farm to ourselves, but we were never lonely thanks to his stereo system and eclectic record collection.  And it was from there, amongst the Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Uriah Heap and other English rock albums, that he revealed an LP (long play) record called Transa,  and a song in particular, "It's a Long Way," that gave me, his wayward friend, a new and exciting sense of direction, one that I would never forget:

Woke up this morning 
Singing an old, old Beatles song 
We’re not that strong, my lord 
You know we ain’t that strong 
I hear my voice among others 
In the break of day 
Hey, brothers, Say, brothers 
It’s a long long long long way  

We teenage boys liked our music loud, but I remember first listening to Caetano Veloso’s uptempo ballad at low volume. It got played somewhere amongst Tommy’s stories of his year abroad in Brazil. Along with those images of a life in the far off tropics, I was captivated by Caetano Veloso’s suave voice and strong sense of melody, along with the vibrant rhythms and evocative lyrics, which were a mix of English and Portuguese. It resonated of a world distant from my rural Ohio experience.

Os olhos da cobra verde
Hoje foi que arreparei
Se arreparasse a mais tempo
Nao amava quem amei

Arrenego de quem diz
Que o nosso amor se acabou
Ele agora esta  mais firme
Do que quando comecou
It's a long road

Agua com areia brinca na beira do mar
Agua passa e a areia fica no lugar
E se nao tivesse o amor
E se nao tivesse essa dor
E se nao tivesse sofrer
E se nao tivesse chorar
E se nao tivesse o amor
No Abaeto tem uma lagoa escura
Arrodeada de areia branca

With that song in my head, I have since traveled the globe. I even spent three years living in Lisbon, Portugal, and while there, learned to love the songs of a number of fine Brazilian singers, including Chico Buarque, Gal Costa, Milton Nascimento, and one of my very favorites, Caetano Veloso's sister, Maria Bethania. I also became a fan of Portuguese fado, Spanish flamenco and lots of other musical styles I'd never heard of earlier. Ironically, it was while living in Lisbon that I also started a journey of discovery of music from America, for it was there that a friend turned me on to American jazz and blues.

Ever since that experience, new horizons -- whether in the deserts of Rajastan or the mountains of the Ainu, in the tropical rain forests or the turquoise seas of Southeast Asia --  have tugged methodically at my heart strings. The soundtrack to such a journey can be rich and varied.

I invariably advise students to seek out and listen to music other than the songs played on radio or advertised on TV because generally much of what gets heavy media airplay is what is being proffered and sold by large recording companies. This is not to say that music of that sort isn't good; it's just that what the typical deejay is going to spin is what his station's (or network's) musical programmer will mandate. Often times, that's music which can easily be called mainstream. It's called such, first, because it is often made by recognizable artists, and secondly, because it usually reflects certain production values (smooth and easy, classic oldies, and the like).

Luckily, there is so much more to music than what the stations deem as popular, and there is much more being made by incredible musicians than the stuff that a station considers the sort that will make advertisers happy.

In fact, everywhere there are remarkable musicians, singers and composers with so much to say. Give that local music from anywhere a chance, and what you will discover will often be as astounding as another new vista encountered on a hike through the local hills.

Bon voyage!