Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Thursday, October 21, 2010

“Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage” by Kenneth Silverman

I don’t think it would be too far off the mark to consider John Cage as the single most influential figure in non-popular music during the second half of the 20th century. Love him or hate him, he changed the way “art music” is written, is heard, is notated, is presented, is danced to; well, you get the idea. He set into motion several balls which haven’t stopped rolling yet. Even so, to the public at large - at least that portion to which his name has any meaning whatsoever - he is known almost solely because he composed a “silent” piece of music.

John Cage lived 79 years, 79 intense years filled right to the very end with almost feverish activity, creativity, an unstinting lack of compromise and, in the end, after decades of struggle, world-wide fame and all the others perks which come with long-fought-for acceptance. He lived a complicated, controversy-filled life, one which would be impossible for the average biographer to make sense of. But Kenneth Silverman is not just any biographer. His previous accomplishments include highly regarded books on Houdini, Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel F.B. Morse, Cotton Mather - all easy subjects to write about superficially, but difficult subjects to put into their proper perspective. John Cage, a complex man who never seemed to comfortably settle into one mode of expression or one personal philosophy for very long before he was off on another artistic quest, might very well have been Silverman’s most difficult task yet.

But Silverman tackled the job with a diligence that less thorough authors might spurn. He searched through hundreds of print sources, interviewed people who knew and/or encountered Cage, pored over correspondence, checked facts, compared opinions. The result is a fresh, comprehensive, uncensored, meticulously detailed, carefully explicated examination of a man whose life was filled with contradictions, stubbornly held convictions, and difficult to fathom twists and turns.

We learn that “our” John Cage was the son of a previous generation’s equally enigmatic John Cage, a scientist/inventor quite well-known in his day, but also a bit of a crackpot. Cage, Jr. decided early on to study with Arnold Schoenberg, thinking he would be his entree into musical modernism, only to discover that Schoenberg wanted his students to have a thorough grounding in classical music theory and harmony, the very things Cage was hoping to liberate himself from. His need to shake free of harmony led him to begin composing percussion music. It is almost humorous in retrospect watching him naively and over-optimistically trying to convince people to listen to new music as well as his lectures on the subject.

But Cage was not easily dissuaded. Silverman carefully follows him as he quickly moves from innovative style to innovative style, prepared pianos, electronics and tape manipulation, the beginnings of what would come to be called “Happenings”, graphic notation, indeterminate music composed with the crucial aid of the I Ching (Silverman’s explanations and illustrations of this process is invaluable) and later with the aid of computers, the concept of “time brackets”, and on and on. The author traces the development of Cage’s decades-long collaboration with his gay lover, choreographer Merce Cunningham, as the two try - in vain for quite a long time - to build enough of an audience for modern dance and modern music composed in inseparable conjunction with each other to pay the rent and put food in their stomachs. We see Cage taking on a variety of students, including a Japanese composer who was married to Yoko Ono at the time, which helps to explain what I had previously considered to be the unlikely connection between Cage and John Lennon.

As he aged, John Cage never mellowed, never played it safe. He had long since discovered that his compositional concepts could be expressed textually rather than being set out on staff paper, to be repeated the same way each time a piece was performed. So it should not be surprising to find him turning to the writing of texts for their own sake - as one might expect, texts of a rigorously unconventional nature. His interest in the writings of kindred spirit James Joyce are examined, as is the Irish author’s influence on Cage. We also follow the development of the Cage-originated poetic form, the mesostic, which made him as much an innovator in the literary field as he was in music.

Silverman looks at Cage’s consuming interest in mushrooms, his artistic experiments with stone lithography, his friendships with many world figures in music and art, friendships which often turned prickly after awhile. Indeed, there is a tremendous amount of twentieth-century avant-garde culture discussed within the 400-plus pages of this densely-written, but eminently readable book. It is difficult to imagine there will be any need to write further books about John Cage in the future.

The review copy was an advance copy (due to a variety of circumstances, this review is appearing after the publication date), so it had no index. It should be obvious that the index, which will be in the finished product, will be exceedingly helpful in keeping the characters straight. (Silverman does the reader the favor of summarizing every so often, to remind the reader of people and events which were had not been mentioned for a while). There is also a reference to a CD on the Mode label. I’m afraid I simply do not know if the CD is included with the regular copies of the book, or if it is available as a separate entity. But looking at the CD track list at the back of the book, it seems clear that the CD will be an invaluable adjunct to the text.

I can’t imagine anyone with a interest in John Cage or with a more generalized interest in twentieth-century composition not wanting to read this book. Curiosity seekers should also find much to chew on here.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

“Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins” by John Abbott and Bob Blumenthal (Abrams)

There have been a great many tributes in celebration of Theodore Walter Rollins’ 80th birthday this year, but few may prove to hold as much permanent value as this absolutely gorgeous book.

There are relatively few jazz musicians whose importance to the world at large is so great as to justify the publication of a photographic coffee-table art book. What’s more, there are very few photographers who have devoted as much time and skill to documenting an individual jazz musician as John Abbott has with Sonny Rollins. When you couple dozens of beautifully composed, shot, and printed photographs with Bob Blumenthal’s eminently readable, consistently insightful, and thoughtfully conceived series of essays on Rollins, the result is a book to peruse and to treasure.

Sonny Rollins is indeed a colossus of the tenor saxophone, but jazz-astute readers will have already made the connection to Rollins’ classic 1956 quartet LP, “Saxophone Colossus.” Blumenthal has structured his text after the album, with each chapter/essay being thematically inspired by one of the five tracks on the LP.

Thus, chapter 1 of the book is entitled “St. Thomas”, a tune which at one time was credited to Rollins, but which he readily acknowledged many years ago was an adaptation from a Caribbean tune, meant to represent his family ties to the Virgin Islands and Haiti. Blumenthal uses the tune as an example of Rollins’ “assertive” approach to rhythm. Though he first recorded with singer Babs Gonzalez in 1949 while still a teenager, It was Rollins’ assertiveness which attracted attention while playing with Miles Davis in 1951. In an era in which the initial fire of bebop was mellowing down to the cool approach introduced by Davis in 1948, it was Rollins who, along with such musicians as Horace Silver and Art Blakey, opened the door for the more aggressive “hard bop” sound which eventually established itself as the jazz mainstream for many years to come.

Though Rollins’ surprisingly names Fats Waller as his earliest influence, Chapter 2, “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, delves into the far greater impact Coleman Hawkins had on Rollins’ big tone and improvisational choices. (Secondary influences included Ben Webster, Don Byas, and Lester Young.) Blumenthal notes also that Hawkins was the first jazz musician to achieve and maintain a high level of popularity without having to resort to the trappings of show-biz, thus acting as the role model for all subsequent jazzmen who saw themselves as dignified, serious artists, rather then entertainers. By recording the pop ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, Rollins was in a sense showing the effect of Hawkins, jazz balladeer extraordinaire, on musicians whose primary concern was their music, rather than catering to the whims of a fickle audience.

Chapter 3, “Strode Rose”, leads Blumenthal to consider “Saxophone Colossus” as a “well-made jazz recording.” Due to the relative lack of sales potential, many of the jazz LP’s of the 1950’s were ill-rehearsed blowing sessions. Musicians who did not play together regularly were thrown into a studio for three hours, often without prior rehearsal. A series of tunes and/or chord sequences (often “borrowed” from other tunes) was agreed upon, and the tape started rolling. Recording sessions were a chance to pick up some quick money by blowing extended improvisations without a great deal of forethought. It’s a small miracle that so many of these blowing sessions are still entertaining, and indeed strike many people (such as myself) as far more listenable than over-produced, carefully arranged, yet bloodless modern recordings. Certainly, Rollins played on his share of blowing sessions. Still, “Strode Rode” stands apart from the average tune on this sort of album in that it IS, like so many of Rollins’ originals, actually “original”, i.e., a fully-realized, carefully considered composition. Blumenthal’s analysis of the tune is as fascinating as it is effective.

In chapter 4, “Moritat” (the original U.S. title, shortened from the German, for the Kurt Weill song better known as “Mack the Knife”), Blumenthal tells us that Rollins chose to record the piece out of personal preference, rather than as a nod to the commercial market. Indeed, he points out that Rollins has often chosen to record tunes that many other musicians of his caliber would consider trivial, simply because he likes them. He also credits Rollins’ frequent quotations of well-known melodies within his improvisations to his sense of humor, as well as to their “suggestive and melodic shapes.”

Chapter 5, “Blue 7”, is built around a tune that was instantly composed (improvised) on the spot by a combo that existed solely for a three-hour recording session. However, it has transcended its blowing session origins to become a cohesive, fully unified jazz classic. Blumenthal connects “Blue 7” to the subsequent “Freedom Suite”, which thus allows him to get into a discussion of Rollins’ political views, as expressed in his music. He also talks about Rollins’ infamous unannounced sabbaticals, during which he spent his time practicing and reflecting on both his music and his life.

There is much to ruminate on in Blumenthal’s text. But despite my emphasis on the musical aspects of the book, I must once again commend John Abbott for his photos, which dominate the book as a whole. He has an exceptional eye for color coordination (a sense I am sorely lacking, which is why I am so impressed when I see the work of someone who has mastered color). He also has a finely developed sense of line, posing the saxophone as carefully as he poses Rollins himself in the studio portraits. He also is skilled at capturing facial expressions (even at a sideways glance) in the live-performance shots.

The photographs, the text, and of course the man and the music under consideration all combine to make this an exceptional book of its kind. Highly recommended.

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

"Eleven Unsung Heroes of Early Rock & Roll” by Dick Stewart (Lance Monthly Press)

Publishers, and for that matter, authors, can be a fairly conservative lot when it comes to choosing which rock-oriented books find their way onto the market. It’s not surprising that the 40th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix is considered a milestone, leading to a plethora of books on The Man. Likewise, there are a number of books appearing about John Lennon, the Beatles, and yes, Paul McCartney, timed at least in part to coincide with what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday. Do we really need new books about Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley? - well, the list goes on.

This is why I am so pleased whenever I see lesser-known artists representing various levels of commercial achievement making rare appearances on the nation’s book shelves. Currently awaiting review are books about the under-rated 60’s psychedelic band Arthur Lee and Love, traditional New Orleans jazz clarinetist George Lewis, pioneer folk singer John Jacob Niles, among others. To be sure, we have their records to remember them by, we have magazine articles and websites devoted to their accomplishments, but there is a permanence associated with having one’s life story enshrined within the covers of a book that goes beyond more ephemeral forms of documentation.. (Don’t get me started about the so-called ‘death of the printed word”! As anyone with a collection of files on floppy disks can tell you, there may be very little permanence associated with cyberspace.)

And this is why I am so pleased to see a book devoted to some of the less widely-known names associated with rock’n’roll in the pre-Beatles era. (To be sure, a few of the people covered in Dick Stewart’s book had careers which extended beyond the British invasion.) The book’s subtitle is “Historic Contributions by Artists You Never Heard Of”. There are actually only two artists here whom I’ve never heard of, - Robert Kelly and Clyde Hankins; see below. Indeed, a few of the eleven men (there are no women included, but for that you should blame history more than the author) had major hits. Even so, I dare say that the average, non-specialist reader would likely find most, possibly all, of the names in this book to be unknown quantities, even when familiar with a few of the records they appeared on.

Stewart, a former surf guitarist who hails from New Mexico, is especially fond of the rock’n’roll scene of West Texas and his home state, which accounts in part for a preponderance of artists who recorded for (and were in some way or another victimized by) the great Clovis, NM-based producer Norman Petty, who often treated his young artists more as servants than budding professionals.. Buddy Holly and, to a far lesser extent, Buddy Knox have dominated the discussions of the Petty studio to such an extent that it is sometimes forgotten that Petty also was a major purveyor of the guitar-instrumental variety of rock’n’roll. The book devotes a chapter each to lead guitarist George Tomsco of the Fireballs, and Jimmy Torres and Keith McCormack of the String-a-Longs.

The Fireballs first attracted national attention in 1959 with their pre-Ventures guitar instrumental “Torquay”, followed closely by “Bulldog”. It’s worth noting that it was Petty who encouraged the group to stick to recording instrumentals in their early days, and likewise encouraged them to focus on vocals later in their career. Though the band had a #1 hit with ”Sugar Shack” in 1963, many people don’t realize that this record and their last hit, “Bottle of Wine”, in 1968, was the same Fireballs band that did the instrumental hits, since Petty put singer Jimmy Gilmer’s name front and center on the label of the “Sugar Shack” 45. (By the way, “Bottle of Wine” is not an “old Irish pub” song, but was written in the 1960’s by Tom Paxton.) As a result, Tomsco became something of a forgotten man among rock historians.

The String-a-Longs’ career was more short-lived, but they also had a gigantic hit in 1961’s “Wheels”, with its distinctive four-guitar texture (lead, rhythm, bass, and an “extra” guitar which played a mixture of rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint) and a drummer who played on a cardboard box (again, Petty’s idea). Stewart’s interview with lead guitarist Torres is especially insightful, as he discusses the problems of being a Hispanic kid in West Texas, as well as his atypical background in classical and band music. It turns out that McCormack was involved with both bands, as the String-a-Longs’ rhythm guitarist and as the co-writer of “Sugar Shack”.

The Norman Petty connection is featured in three other chapters. Sonny Curtis, who was born without a first name, had played with the original Crickets, and later re-joined them in their post-Holly career. He is best known, however, as a songwriter, who wrote the Everly Brothers’”Walk Right Back”; “I Fought the Law”, which became a hit in the cover version by the Bobby Fuller Four”; and the theme for television’s “Mary Tyler Moore Show”. Sonny West wrote “Oh Boy” and “Rave On”, hoping to use them to establish his own recording career, but Petty assigned them to Buddy Holly instead. (To be sure, there is no guarantee West’s own versions would have had anywhere near the impact of Holly’s versions.) Drummer Carl Bunch was the drummer on Buddy Holly’s fateful last tour, and supplies a great deal of perspective on how and why Holly split with the Crickets (once again, Petty’s interference seems to have been crucial), and the unfortunate circumstances of that last tour, leading up to the fatal plane ride.

The first chapter of the book is devoted to Jack Ely, whose voice (though rarely his name) is familiar to untold millions, as the singer on the Kingsmen’s perennial “Louie Louie”. I doubt anyone at this late date still believes the old fib about the song having dirty lyrics, which Ely slurred so people would have difficulty understanding them. (That story never made sense to me from the outset. What would be the purpose of singing naughty lyrics if no one can understand them?). Instead Ely tells of a microphone placed up so high that he had to extend his neck and shout to be heard over the rest of the band, in this pre-multi-track recording session. Ironically, the Kingsmen had been known as a clean, Christian band prior to this controversy.

Fans of the late-period (mid-to-late 60’s) guitar instrumental band, Davie Allan and the Arrows (whose “Apache ‘65” and “Blues Theme” are both high on my personal playlist), will be frustrated when they read what Allan considers to be the reasons why the band was so poorly promoted. There is also a fascinating portrait of the late keyboardist/bass player Larry Knechtel, best known for his work as a session musician (he’s the pianist on “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and as a member of both Duane Eddy’s Rebels and Bread. In one sense, Knechtel probably doesn’t deserve a spot in this book, considering the disdain he seems to have held for most rock’n’roll and surf music. However, his insights into the life and requirements of a top-level studio player are well worth reading.

The two artists I had not encountered before reading this book both have interesting stories to tell. Robert Kelly is a perfect example of a hard-luck musician who eventually caught a break. In his early career, he was pretty much a struggling small-timer whose fight for survival led him into contact with no less a historical figure than sleazeball-nightclub-owner turned assassin Jack Ruby. Kelly eventually found success - though not necessarily fame - as leader of a Vegas showband called the Expressions. The other unfamiliar figure, Clyde Hankins, was a guitarist during the big band era, whose claim to rock’n’roll status comes not from his own playing, but from his role as teacher/mentor to a number of the Petty-associated West Texas guitarists, including Buddy Holly and Sonny Curtis. One could quibble over whether Kelly and Hankins deserve to be considered rock’n’roll heroes, but they’re worth reading about, in any event.

Author Stewart hints that a second volume of unsung heroes may be forthcoming. I for one look forward to it, and hope this book sells well enough to make that possibility a reality. For more information, head to