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All what jazz?

I’ve just taken in a few shows at this year’s jazz fest, all good, but again the thought strikes me each year how these events are turning more and more into pop festivals.

On the one hand, I hate having to break down music into often-arbitrary genres. That’s one of the reasons I began this site. On the other, I think the festivals’ growing dependence on acts that are clearly pop or rock is troubling.

There's less jazz at jazz festivals these days, or so it seems.

There’s less jazz at jazz festivals these days, or so it seems.

I know it’s about money. In Canada, through the 1980s and ’90s, the festivals’ big sponsor was tobacco, but then the federal government clamped down on how cigarette manufacturers could market their products. The fear was this would be the end of the festival circuit in this country, but other corporate partners stepped in to fill the gap, at least partly. I don’t think the festivals have ever fully recovered though.

Don’t get me wrong; I have no love for the tobacco companies and I’ve never smoked their products, even though I was a regular festival-goer in Vancouver back to the first Du Maurier festival in 1986 and was exposed to their corporate logos. I’ve also lost track of how many jazz players, all too often photographed with a cigarette propped between their fingers, died before their time. If they weren’t dropping dead from heroin overdoses in their thirties anymore, they were losing to lung cancer in their fifties.

I don’t miss the tobacco advertising, but I do regret that jazz festivals are losing their identities. I recognize the challenges they face in terms of keeping an audience and finding revenue streams, particularly over the last few years of economic turmoil in North America and Europe (The days of those festival tours by big bands from Europe, supported with generous arts grants from their governments, seem to be a thing of the past.)

I should also point out the mix of musical styles at festivals isn’t entirely new. The festivals have included funk, R&B, roots or world music acts for a long time, but they didn’t seem to be the focus. There might have been a “groove” series for funk acts or a double-bill of African musicians. Most festival headliners though always fit comfortably into the category of jazz, which albeit is a broad term for many styles of music. If they acts weren’t jazz, most of the pop acts at least had some relatively direct links to it, or at least blues.

The renowned New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has provided an example of mixing musical styles, though perhaps the word “heritage” allows an escape clause to account for the many non-jazz acts.

In general, jazz fests seem to be pushing jazz less and less. Even the venerated Montreal festival shows acts like the Specials, Xavier Rudd and Mother Mother as headliners across the banner of its website, with only a few clear-cut jazz names in the mix.

I know folk festivals and blues festivals have gone the same route in recent years by offering more acts that clearly fall outside their boundaries. In a way, it’s great chance for people to get exposed to more kinds of music, but it’s also a little embarrassing, at least to me, when your headliners have little to nothing to do with the style of music that your festival claims to be celebrating. I’d hate to see these festivals turn into pale imitations of Lollapalooza, Coachella, ACL or Bonnaroo, with a smidgeon of jazz, folk or blues thrown in.

Who dare climb the Tower of Song?

I regularly listen to CBC Radio’s Q, and one of the things you learn quickly is that host Jian Ghomeshi is a certifiable David Bowie nut. Not a bad thing, but don’t expect him to be unbiased.

Back in March, he got into a debate with CBC Radio 2 host Tom Power about a cover of Bowie’s classic song, “Heroes.” The normally cool and composed Ghomeshi was unusually animated, even angry about the version by the Wallflowers for the 1998 film Godzilla. Power, to Ghomeshi’s disbelief, preferred the version by Jakob Dylan and company.

D'oh! David Bowie wishes his version was like the Wallflowers -- in an alternate universe.

D’oh! David Bowie wishes his “Heroes” was more like the Wallflowers’ — in an alternate universe.

To me, it’s no contest. It’s Bowie’s song (well, Bowie and Brian Eno’s). I won’t get into the debate itself though. For that, you can listen to the Q blog.

What I was more interested in was the topic of cover versions and how possessive listeners can become of original, authentic versions of songs.

Way back when, popular music meant tunes that people would get to know through sheet music to buy and play at home. With the growth of the recording industry, the music itself, not the transcriptions, became the product. In other words, you bought a version that somebody had performed for you.

In the early decades of recorded music, it was commonplace for singers or musicians to offer their interpretations of well-known songs. This was stock in trade for most early jazz, as the performers picked songs, often from movies or Broadway musicals composed by the factory that was Tin Pan Alley, which they would then interpret.

Even in the early days of rock and roll, tunesmiths like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller cranked out hits like “Hound Dog.” You could then buy a Big Mama Thornton recording of the R&B tune, or one by this white kid from Tupelo. Elvis something.

Bob Dylan and the Beatles changed everything. The performers themselves increasingly became their own composers, or vice versa. Before long, the way the public experienced a song was not simply from a recording but the recording.

Sure, for a while, it was still a regular thing for performers to cover their peers’ songs, even if the song was still fresh in everyone’s ears, e.g. Jimi Hendrix tackling Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” or Santana scoring a hit with Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman” (augmented by jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen”).

For a few years, you still had the occasional band like Three Dog Night that followed the old model and scored massive hits by covering songwriters like Hoyt Axton, Laura Nyro and Randy Newman. Their cover of “Mama Told Me Not to Come” was okay, but hardly stands up to the Newman original. But that’s kind of my point with all of this.

Don’t get me wrong. There are and will always be great cover versions, but most will still have to measure up against the original. Some, say the Talking Heads’ cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” become classics in their own right. Most don’t.

Then you get the occasional phenomenon like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” an amazing song with many fine versions but which might need to be put on ice for a while. As a Canadian, I know I’m supposed to prefer k.d. lang’s or Rufus Wainwright’s by default, but I don’t. I like them fine, but the late Jeff Buckley’s is my favourite. He played these tragic broken chords with lots of reverb. It almost sounds like some old 1950s doo-wop record. It’s one of the most heart-breaking things I’ve ever heard.

John Cale also does a simple, stellar version, from a 1991 tribute album to Cohen, long before most people had ever heard of the song. (By the way, he also does a one-of-a-kind version of “Heartbreak Hotel.”)

Thanks to modern recording, the chance anyone can do justice to an original version becomes all the more remote. The best covers maintain the spirit of the original but allow the artist do something different, perhaps explore meanings the creator didn’t even imagine. Hal Willner’s tribute albums (I keep threatening to write the Willner piece for this blog!) offer the best example, but to give you a bite-sized version of what I’m talking about, once again we can return to Leonard Cohen. I’ve posted a YouTube link to Nick Cave’s cover of Cohen’s “Tower of Song.” The five-minute mini epic sounds like at least a half dozen songs and seems to reference everything from punk rock to Johnny Cash to that Elvis guy. (As an aside, it’s from the same tribute album as the Cale cover.)

It’s a small masterpiece, and to these ears, maybe the greatest cover song ever recorded. Wonder if Jian Ghomeshi or anyone wants to debate that question.

Joe Boyd: On Nick Drake and more

The name Joe Boyd is synonymous with the English folk-rock scene in the 1960s/70s, as much as those of any of the musicians with whom he worked.

The American producer set up in Britain during the 1960s and produced legendary singers and bands, such as Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, John Martyn and more.

In 1966 he started London’s UFO Club, which was home to the Pink Floyd’s early psychedelic performances. Boyd produced the band’s first single, “Arnold Layne.”

He later went on to produce others such as Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Maria Muldaur and R.E.M., and found the folk label, Hannibal.

Boyd is the subject of a recent interview on Salon.com. In it, he speaks about his memoir, White Bicycles, as well as his work with Drake, Thompson and R.E.M. Check it out.

At long last … Nick Cave

A string quintet, a children’s choir, a little fire and brimstone. What more would you expect from Nick Cave?

I’ve wanted to see the guy for about 20 years after I started getting into him around the time The Good Son came out. One of the more theatrical performers around, he nonetheless doesn’t tend to do extensive tours. He and the Bad Seeds play Europe and Australia often, but when they do North America, they typically play about a dozen shows.

He did play Vancouver when I was living there in the mid-1990s for Lollapalooza, but I skipped it because he’s just not someone you want to see in an outdoor festival setting. A dingy club or an old theatre is the place for his dark tales of retribution or occasional redemption.

The closest he came was Seattle a few years back, but by the time I heard about it, both concerts at the Showbox had sold out. Then, near the end of 2011, he brought his Grinderman side project to the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, and I thought seriously about flying back for it. Apparently it was an amazing show, and I regretted not going, though I was holding out for a chance to see the Bad Seeds.

It finally happened. With an airline credit to use, I decided to book a flight back to Toronto where I hadn’t been in six years and catch last week’s show at the legendary Massey Hall. (Also caught a fine show by the dour troubadour Ron Sexsmith the night before at the Randolph Theatre, formerly the Bathurst Street Theatre.)

Cave did not disappoint. The night started quietly, but a few songs in the band tackled the new song, “Jubilee Street” and punched up the ending, which had the theatre crowd on its feet, heads bobbing near the stage front.

While he played much from his latest Bad Seeds album, Push the Sky Away, one of his mellower releases, he included a good cross section from his career: “Red Right Hand,” “The Weeping Song,” “Papa Won’t Leave You Henry,” “God Is In the House,” “From Her to Eternity,” “The Mercy Seat” and so on. He was joined by five string players and backup singers, including opener Sharon Van Etten. (This, itself, was a treat as her album Tramp was one of my favourites from 2012.)

He had a children’s choir from a local school join him for several songs before waving them off. When I first saw the kids, I thought he probably won’t do his X-rated cover of “Stagger Lee.” It’s funny for a songwriter that plumbs the dark depths of the human soul, that unleashes as much fury in music as anyone, Cave does not lean heavily on expletives. His sodomy and murder-filled take on the old blues song stands out as an exception in raunch, and being Nick Cave, he doesn’t go halfway on anything.

When the Seeds launched into “Stagger” to close the main part of the set, I was thrilled and assumed the kids had safely left the building. (Turns out they were just backstage waiting to come out for the encore of the new album’s titular track. Hmmm, wonder if their parents had anything to say about the strange man with the dirty mouth.) The song was perhaps one of the best things I’ve seen on a stage, so I’ve included a YouTube link of “Stagger” from a New York show a few days later.

Dressed in black silk suit and white dress shirt, the dapper Cave comes across a bluesy, punky, long and lean version of Elvis, or maybe bizarro crooner Scott Walker. There’s no one like him. For close to two hours, he and his Bad Seeds put on an energetic set that was by turns quiet and poignant, then blaring, bluesy, ecstatic, full of moments of rapture.

If his music has mellowed some in recent years, the man himself has not, as Nick Cave continues to present a dark, dense take on love and life in a way that only Nick Cave can. Definitely worth the wait.

The Oscars, they’re all gold statues and tin ears

I didn’t watch the Oscars; I almost never do. Still, I’m glad Canadian composer Mychael Danna, who scored Life of Pi, upset the legendary John Williams in the original score category.

Confession: I don’t like Williams. I find him syrupy, obvious. Yeah, sure, I know he’s the most famous movie composer of all time who’s worked on blockbuster after blockbuster, but for me he represents a trend common in Hollywood movies of over-scoring. By this I mean the use of music throughout the film, almost without pause. It’s sort of the musical equivalent in movies of the laugh track in sit-coms. I find it irritating when TV and movie people don’t think I come up with some appropriate emotional response on my own. It’s one of the things I appreciate about movies made outside the Hollywood system. They’re just so much quieter.

215px-Psycho_(1960)

None of Bernard Hermann’s scores for Hitchcock, not even for Psycho, was ever honoured by the Academy.

Still, music can sometimes tie everything in a film together. There is no shortage of composers and scores that I love, so I thought that as everyone still has movies on the brain, I’d put together a short list. These aren’t in any particular order:

Anatomy of a Murder – This Otto Preminger 1959 classic is part courtroom drama, part dark comedy. The edgy film was well ahead of its time, but having Duke Ellington compose the music didn’t hurt either.

Michael Nyman – The modern British composer has come up with some incredible movie music, most notably for the films of Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; A Zed and Two Noughts). He is probably best known for composing the score to Jane Campion’s The Piano. But wait – the envelope, please – the Oscar goes to John Williams for Schindler’s List. Williams’ score won over The Firm, The Age of Innocence, The Fugitive and The Remains of the Day. That’s right, The Piano wasn’t even nominated. I worked in a music warehouse at the time and remember pulling orders for the Nyman disk often. As for the others, including Schindler’s List, not so much. Bullshit isn’t a strong enough curse word to describe how I feel about this Oscar outcome.

Angelo Badalamenti – David Lynch’s musical interpreter always comes up with a surreal mix of weird pop and lounge lizard jazz that manages to capture what’s going on inside the director’s brain – whatever that may be. Maybe we don’t want to know.

Thomas Newman – He’s scored plenty, but I best know and love his work with Alan Ball, who wrote the screenplay for American Beauty, probably my favourite film, and created Six Feet Under, probably my favourite TV show. Newman’s music plays a strong role in establishing a quirky yet emotional undercurrent in these works. He comes by scoring honestly, as the Newmans are a film score dynasty. Cousin Randy (yes, the one and only) is among the many Newmans and has been know to score a film or two himself. (Not that this matters, but American Beauty is the only film in recent years to win best picture that I would’ve picked as my favourite film of that year, though it had some stiff competition from Magnolia – see below.)

Hal Hartley – Hal was probably my favourite indie director in the late 80s and early 90s. He’s still out there, but outside of Henry Fool and Fay Grim, I’ve lost track of his more recent work. As well as writing and directing his films, he composes the original scores. I’ve downloaded a couple of collections of his film music via my eMusic account and love listening to them when I write.

Koyaanisqatsi – Philip Glass has scored numerous films. While his music sometimes grates my nerves, other times I’m moved as was the case with his work for this visual poem from Godfrey Reggio about the modern world and life out of balance.

Jon Brion – He’s produced albums by Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. His trademark quirky scores, noted for using old keyboard and analog sampling instruments, have left their mark on films such as Magnolia (another favourite film), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I Heart Huckabees. By the way, if you’re ever in L.A. on Friday night and Brion is doing his stint at Largo, go, just go.

Mark Mothersbaugh – Another quirky composer in the Brion mould, he would still be a fixture in modern music for his work with Devo. These days, he’s Wes Anderson’s go-to guy but has also composed for countless TV shows and movies.

Bernard Hermann – The gold standard. Reason one: Citizen Kane. Welles even described him as an intimate member of the family. Then there’s many scores Hermann wrote for Hitchcock, including Psycho, whose screeching strings must be among the most famous few bars of music in cinematic history. He worked with many other directors such as Nicholas Ray, Robert Wise and Francois Truffault. His last work, Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, is in my view one of the greatest film scores ever. Hermann’s music captured the psychotic noir world of an America ready to be ripped apart in the 1970s, right at its New York underbelly. There’s an amazing montage of Travis Bickle driving the streets of the city, and all we hear is Robert Deniro’s monologue about the netherworld he’s taking us into and Hermann’s unsettling score. Clearly, Scorcese knew what he had here and didn’t want to wake us from this nightmare with any background noise.

Hermann was nominated for an Oscar and even had a second nod the same year for the film Obsession but lost out to The Omen, scored by Jerry Goldsmith (himself, a noted film composer). The only Oscar that Hermann ever won was back in 1941 for The Devil and Daniel Webster. It’s hard to believe. All those years working with Hitch and not even a nomination from the Academy. This fact alone should explain why I rarely watch awards shows.

The mystery man of Motor City

One of the joys of being a music snob is when you encounter some reminder that you don’t know everything.

Such was the case recently when I saw the Oscar-nominated documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. I’m guessing many other music snobs reacted the same way. (*Spoiler alert – If you haven’t heard the story and want to experience something almost too stunning to be believed, don’t read on. Just watch the movie.)

Rodriguezcoldfact

Rodriguez’s debut album

In a nutshell, the movie chronicles the story of Detroit songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. The line in the film is that he sold about six records in the U.S., and you might say he disappeared in the intervening decades, although he never really appeared in the first place. His 1970 and 1971 records on Sussex attracted virtually no attention.

It’s tempting to draw some Nick Drake parallels. Brilliant folkie singer-songwriter that’s stuck in the shadows of popular culture, even at a time when singer-songwriters were finding success. Drake, however, at least was a known commodity among musicians and a small cult of fans, enough so that when his music finally garnered attention (thanks to a certain Volkswagen commercial), there was that accompanying sense of what took you so long.

Rodriguez was different. I don’t think anyone – me included – had even heard of this guy until the documentary premiered at Sundance – anyone outside of South Africa, that is. There he was huge and provided kind of soundtrack for white liberals in the anti-Apartheid movement. The fact South Africa was so cut off culturally from the rest of the world probably added another factor in why no one had heard of him. (Note: the film doesn’t get into this fact, but he apparently did a couple of tours of Australia, including one opening for Midnight Oil.)

Back in America, he was never promoted and was dropped from his label after the two records, despite his immense talent. Yes, his music is excellent. The Dylan comparisons aren’t that far off. There certainly was no reason he shouldn’t have been running in the same circles as Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley, etc. The fact he lived in Detroit though was likely one factor for his anonymity. At the time, the Motor City was Motown and shit-heel proto-punk like the Stooges and the MC5 and hard rock like Bob Seger. While you can hear some of these influences, his music is still in the folk rock mould. I’m guessing if he’d lived in Laurel Canyon or Greenwich Village, he would have gained a much bigger following, even with the raw deal he got from the record business.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the movie comes courtesy of Clarence Avant of Sussex Records. It’s tempting to dismiss him as another greasy record exec, but Avant knows what a talent he had in Rodriquez. It’s also safe to assume that whatever royalties the South African record pressers sent to Avant are long gone, as is Sussex Records, which disappeared only a few years after Rodriguez last recorded.

Throughout the documentary, we’re treated to a bizarre story about a man unknown in his own country but a star in an isolated one on the other side of the world. Along the way, we hear wild rumours of his death and what he did to survive in Detroit after his unceremonious exit from the recording business. Actually, I should say “what he does,” as Rodriquez is alive and well, living a modest life and working in building demolition/reconstruction in Detroit, a city that needs a reconstruction more than any other. Thanks to the publicity from the film, Rodriguez’s career is getting a bit of a reconstruction.

Searching for Sugar Man is a story with a happy ending, but it is a happy ending that is earned, not forced. Rodriguez is a brilliant songwriter that has earned every dollar he’s made from the music world (or is making now) and many, like myself, are only finding him for the first time. Spend a couple of hours on this search, and you will feel all the sweeter for it.