Record Rack: James Maddock, Van Dyke Parks

July 24, 2013

One to Delight….One to Fright

By Brian Arsenault

James Maddock

Another Life  (InKind)

On Another Life,  James Maddock poetically ponders life as it moves along without recourse to salvation or maybe even forgiveness, particularly of self.

Maddock has been called the Brit Bob Dylan, I guess because he lives in Greenwich Village and is a big part of its folk scene.  Of course, Maddock doesn’t sound British and Dylan doesn’t live there any more. Though there’s a lot of people who act like he does.

Who Maddock’s melancholy may more remind you of is Neil Young. Carrying on despite life’s pain and all the foolishness we create.

“We all want another life” . . . but would we “be a better man.”

Hard to tell but there’s poetry in the pain.  There are “fireflies in the park looking for each other in the dark.”  Yet some of us, maybe all of us after a time, have a “lost spark.”

Yes, Maddock is melancholy much of the time but he is not bitter, just regretful. And who past 40 isn’t.  And who can blame us because “nothing can prepare you for your life”  since life is “a rocky road that never lets you go where you want to go.”

His is not an angry voice.  It is a soft voice and we may need as many of those as we can get, especially in these times. He’d like to put those angry “words back in your mouth.”

Maddock is homesick but not so much for a place as for what we have loved and lost.  He’d give back time to himself and the rest of us if he could — “head out on the highway, relive it all again.”

Wouldn’t you like to be “kissing girls you never kissed” but at the same time hold on to what you have: “I’m a fool but I’m yours.”

Musically, the album can sometimes be a little dull.  But then again, I’m not a big fan of all the new wave string bands that seem to be all the rage.  You know who I mean.  And a string of folk ballads can get just a little repetitive.

At times, though, as on “Arizona Girl” and “Better on My Own,”” the band kicks it up a notch and plays with real cleverness and snap.

* * * * * * * *

 Van Dyke Parks

 Songs Cycled (Bella Union)

Unlike on Songs Cycled, wherein Van Dyke Parks creates a torture rack of calliope laden faux cleverness. This album is just a painful abuse of the listener.

Oh yeah, I know about how Van Dyke is supposed to be so quirky and creative. Balderdash!  This is monotonous atonality dressed up with some au courant cultural observations.

When you can tell what he’s singing.  Or if he’s singing.

The instrumentals are everything Spike Jones might have wanted to be.  For me, it’s run from the room screaming time.

Of course, I always feel like dashing when someone occasionally puts on a Jones’ abomination and starts to tell me what an underappreciated musical genius he was.  Most of the people who do that are dead, thank goodness.

To further establish my lack of objectivity, I’m not much of a Randy Newman fan either and I think Smile the most overrated rock (or any) albums of all time. And have you heard Brian Wilson sing lately?

Anyway, rather than listen to this album, go ride a merry-go-round for about 40 minutes without stopping.  And you’ll get the general sing-songy fingers-on-a-blackboard idea. Also the upset stomach and mild dizziness.

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Here, There & Everywhere: Jazz at the Federal

April 23, 2012

This post is part of the Jazz Journalists Association’s international “Blogathon.”

By Don Heckman

It’s always a significant event when a new room for jazz opens. Whether it’s small or large, daily or weekly, it’s still something to acknowledge, at a time when existing music venues are struggling to survive and new arrivals are in short supply.

So I was glad to be part of an enthusiastic crowd at the Federal Bar and Restaurant in North Hollywood’s NoHo district last Wednesday, when April Williams kicked off her Jazz at the Federal. In its beginning stages, it will only be scheduled for Wednesday nights, But given the success that hard-working April has had with her Upstairs at Vitello’s jazz programs, it’s a fair expectation that she’ll do similarly well with her Federal programs. At least one hopes so.

Underscoring her desire to program first rate jazz – ranging from big bands and straight ahead jazz to funk and TK – the opening night headliner was the Bob Sheppard’s stellar quintet, with the leader on soprano and tenor saxophones, John Beasley on piano and keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on bass and Steve Hass on drums.

The program ranged from Sheppard originals to a line by Freddie Hubbard (once an employer of both Sheppard and Beasley), And the ensemble interaction during the more intricately arranged passages was first rate. But the musical focus of the evening had less to do with complex charts than with some prime, showcase playing from the two principal soloists, Sheppard and Beasley.  World class players with impressive resumes, both have enhanced the bands of leaders with far broader visibility. But each can stand on his own – as they did this night – as avid improvisational adventurers. And with the equally intrepid support of Lefebvre and Hass the musical expeditions journeyed through one fascinating musical territory after another.

All this took place in the Federal’s large, high ceilinged second floor – a space alternately recalling a Greenwich Village jazz club of the ’60s and a timeless French cellar bistro. Although the brick walls and exposed beams tended to muddy low tones somewhat, it was a problem that sound reinforcement can resolve. Otherwise, the room is an amiable audio location.

When April Williams begins to present her continuing shows in May, Jazz at the Federal will begin to establish itself as the jazz destination it has all potential for becoming. The schedule forecast includes Arturo Sandoval’s 20 piece big band, the jazz funk of Bernie Dressel’s supercharged instrumental/vocal band, Bern, and Grammy winning Gordon Goodwin’s 18 piece Big Phat Band.

Only time – and the audiences – will tell, of course, but the future of Jazz at the Federal looks promising. Let’s hope the room and its programs become well attended additions to the rich diversity of jazz in Los Angeles.

For more information about April Williams’ Jazz at the Federal, click HERE.


Q & A: Maria Schneider at the Ojai Music Festival

June 10, 2011

By Don Heckman

Maria Schneider, composer, bandleader, and avid birdwatcher, has followed one of the jazz world’s most unique creative pathways since she arrived in New York, fresh out of college, in the mid-‘80s.  Although she studied and worked closely with Gil Evans, her composition style, from the beginning, has been her own.  For years, she led her Maria Schneider Orchestra in regular Monday night appearances at Visiones jazz club in Greenwich Village.  More recently, she has concentrated upon recordings and composition, for her orchestra, as well as via commissions for various ensembles and artists.  Tomorrow night at the Ojai Music Festival’s Libbey Bowl, her Winter Morning Walks – a commission from the Festival, will be performed by Dawn Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  She will also lead her Maria Schneider Orchestra in a program of her large ensemble jazz works.  Last week we talked about the commission as well as the feelings and the philosophy that energize her creative efforts.


DH:  I know you’ve worked with Dawn Upshaw before, Maria.  But that was a cycle of songs in Portuguese based on poems by the Brazilian author Carlos Drummond de Andrade.”  How different is this work?

MS: Well, one thing that’s very different is that I knew I wanted to some improvisation.  Dawn said she couldn’t improvise, but I left some of the elements open so she could sing  things in her own time.  And the orchestra can follow her or take the lead.  So hopefully it’s going to be very organic and very alive.

DH: And you’re also including some players from your Orchestra to improvise with the Australian musicians?

MS: Yes.  Frank Kimbrough on piano, Jay Anderson on bass and Scott Robinson on alto clarinet and bass clarinet.

DH: And the other notable difference, I guess, is that the texts you’ve chosen are in English.  How did you find them?

MS: They’re by poet Ted Kooser.  He’s phenomenal.  I connected with him because we’re both from the mid-West.  And I totally connected with his mid-West imagery.  There are nine different songs, all from his book of poetry called Winter Morning Walks.  Some are just beautiful observances of the landscapes.  Some are more inward.  I loved them so much that I wish I could do five more of them.  But the commission was for 25 minutes and I think it’s probably already 28.

DH: Any apprehensions about Saturday night’s performance?

MS: Well, there’s one aspect that could be tricky. I’m not conducting.  I’m going to just sit in the audience and pray to God that they pick the right tempos, because I’m a control freak about that. If they do it too fast it’s going to be a torture for me.  I’m going to want to jump out of my seat and shout ‘Slower!’ ‘Slow Down!’  But it’s the right way to do this piece, and I’m really excited about it.

DH: Composing works of this sort for ensembles characteristically associated with classical music is a big switch from writing for a large jazz ensemble.  Has it been challenging?

MS:  In the beginning, I approached it with real trepidation.  It was a big leap for me.  I was a little gun shy in the classical world from college, because in the ‘80s the music that was really accepted in that world was atonality.  And that just wasn’t my way.  I’m very tonally oriented.  It’s the way I hear.  Which is why I found my niche in the jazz world, which felt much more accepting of many different things, inviting of different worlds, different tastes.

DH: Yet you now have found a way to work creatively in that classical world.

MS:  Yes, but you know, the classical world now seems to changing.  They’re coming back. And now there’s a lot of people in the classical world prejudiced against atonality.  What can I say?  Skirts are up, skirts are down.  Everything always seems to swing from one way to another.

DH: Premieres, whether classical or jazz, can be daunting, though, can’t they?  New music, for both the players and the audiences.  High expectations.

MS: It’s certainly true that premieres aren’t always the best performances.  But sometimes there’s a magic in it.  I remember when we first premiered a piece at Disney Concert Hall commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic.  And it had the kind of magic that you only get once in a performance.  That was fun.  But there’s no doubt that it’s better when everyone plays a piece together for a long period of time.  Of course, to get to that point, you always have to go through those first performances.

DH: Well, actually, it’s really a kind of premiere situation every time you put a new piece of music in front of your own Orchestra.  How does that work out?

MS: I actually find it really fascinating.  When I first bring a piece of music to my band, they’re reading it.  They’re great musicians and they read it correctly.  But the music doesn’t come out yet.  And I always think ‘Oh, my God, I’ve lost my touch, I’ve forgotten how to write.’  And the musicians, bless them, say no, they just need to learn it and to hear it.  And it takes time — to have a conception of the sound body they’re trying to create and sort of slowly discover it.  That’s when they’re finally hearing it and it comes alive.

DH: How does that feel to you – when the music finally comes alive.  Especially when it’s coming alive before an audience?

MS: I feel like I’m giving a party when my band plays.  That I’m like a really good host, with super guests invited both in the audience and on stage.  And that I’m kind of setting the theme for them to interact with each other.  And I love to watch how everyone in the mix appreciates each other and feeds off each other.  Taking the music and making it their own — way, way beyond what I envisioned as I was writing it.

DH: One last question, Maria.  When you finish up a commission like this, hear the music played and enjoy the applause, what is it that gives you the greatest pleasure?

MS: I think it’s the thought that I’ve persuaded people to dive into the meaning of the music.  The life in the music.  Sometimes I think that life gives more music than music gives music.  And when it comes right down to it, music is how I express life.

DH: Thanks, Maria.  Great talking with you.

For more information about the Ojai Music Festival click HERE.  (805) 646-2094. 

Maria Schneider with microphone photo by Tony Gieske.


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