Live Music: “ModRock” at the El Portal Theater

June 25, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

ModRock had its official opening Sunday evening at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.   It’s an entertaining, feel good, romp through some very important times in popular culture. In the mid ‘60s London was ground zero for popular culture.   Long lasting fashion trends like the miniskirt came out of the London scene.   And, some amazingly powerful, enduring, and influential music also came out of London during those days.  ModRock uses a wide spectrum of this music to advance its story..Thanks to a very energetic cast, tastefully chosen costumes and props, and a great set of tunes of the times, the show is winsome.   It would have been entertaining to hear the original recordings, but it was better that the vocals were sung live in front of a band behind the backdrop for most of the evening. The songs remained familiar, but between the band’s nuances and the performer’s harmonies they morphed into something more unique.  A nice touch, that.   All of the actors wore subtle wireless headsets and the sound in the El Portal was so good that one could finally make out a blurred phrase or two in the original songs.

Melinda Porto and Steven Good

Melinda Porto and Steven Good

Set in London circa 1965, the plot of ModRock concerns a summer romance between a middle-class Mod girl named Kate (Melinda Porto), and a working class Rocker Boy, Adam (Steven Good). As his teacher, she helped him get his school certificate earlier.  The two young lovers are swooning away with each other, but the idea will never fly with their circles of friends.   Kate’s brother Simon (Scott Kruse) is the brooding so-serious-about-being-a-Mod Mod and will have none of it.  Tensions mount as all of the characters balance growing up and maturing with being true to their styles and cliques.   The plot is a familiar one.  We’ve seen it in Romeo and Juliet, Grease, West Side Story and many others.  It’s a classic tale, but it tugs at some of our most basic emotions concerning the power of love to transcend less important but still compelling issues like class or fashion.

As we watched this tale of Mods and Rockers on Sunday, we really couldn’t help but wonder why these two groups would resent each other so deeply. They were more alike than different. They did the same things in a different style.  Neither group had much money, and both were usually in the process of saving up to buy a new motorcycle, a new scooter, or perhaps even swiping clothes.   Wisely, the show concentrates on their music, clothes, and two-wheeled transport.

The Mods were outfitted with a dazzling array of colorful leggings, miniskirts, slickers, go-go boots, Cuban heeled boots, winkle-pickers, drainpipe pants, parkas, and turtlenecks.  The Rockers, on the other hand, were wearing high-cuffed blue jeans, white tee shirts, and everything else in black – biker jackets and biker boots for the guys and black leggings, leather jackets, teddies, lingerie for the girls.  And of course, in this new millennium, they all smoked e-cigarettes on stage.

The “ModRock” cast

ModRock had two of the more choice iconic props you could hope for in place, a big old Triumph motorcycle for Rocker Adam and a multi-mirrored Vespa scooter for Simon the Mod…both iconic machines in their own right.   The bikes were set on casters but were clearly a grunt to push around, much like a broken down cycle would be.

The production flourishes with the cast telling its tale as they act the songs out.  The Hollies’ “Bus Stop” established how Adam and Kate actually met each other and the Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” was just the right song to expand on the Mods’ obsessive efforts to keep up with fashion that changed by the hour.   By choosing to use songs like Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be With You,” Chad and Jeremy’s “Summer Song,” The Fortunes’ “You’ve Got Your Troubles,” and Burt Bacharach’s “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me,” ModRock succeeds in showcasing the angst in longing and broken love. These softer, yet poignant songs were up there in the charts and all over the radio right next to the Beatles, the Who and the Kinks in their time.  So, it was an important detail to include them.

The plot of ModRock hinges on a Mod/Rocker rumble and in the aftermath everybody gains some perspective and the maturity to move on in their own directions.  Some Mods become Rockers, and some Rockers become Mods, and some become … hippies.   Gotta have an image.  Ultimately it was about style, and the key to balancing all of it can be found most likely in bands like the Who, the Kinks, the Small Faces and the Rolling Stones.   They were some of the most iconic Mod bands ever, having been influenced by Rockers’ heroes Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, and Buddy Holly.  If the crossover didn’t bother the bands, perhaps there was something bigger going on?  As Kate’s character lets on, she didn’t know Mods were supposed to hate Rockers until she read it in a magazine.

For anyone who is even mildly curious about Mods, Rockers, and the hotbed of popular culture that England was in the mid-60’s this show would be a fun starting point.   It gives the audience plenty of iconic images and music to go out and research, which will be a rich process in itself.

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

Live Music at the Hollywood Bowl: The Los Angeles Philharmonic and an all-Haydn program conducted by Nicholas McGegan with trumpet soloist Alison Balsom

August 22, 2012

By Don Heckman

It wasn’t an especially high visibility event at the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night.  The Los Angeles Philharmonic was conducted in the first of two appearances this week by the amiable Nicholas McGegan.  The soloist of the night was English trumpeter Alison Balsom.  And the music was Haydn — not Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner or Brahms.

Not exactly the stuff of a star-studded evening filled with headlining major classical names.  Which may explain why the attendance was a bit over 5,000.

And that was a shame.  Stars aren’t everything.

Nicholas McGegan

McGegan, who is the music director of the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, is also a conductor whose emphasis is upon the music rather than his choreography on the podium.  And, although the trumpet doesn’t exactly compete with the violin and the cello as a charismatic classical solo instrument, Balsom is both a brilliant player and a ravishing on-stage presence.

And then there’s Papa Haydn.  A close friend of Mozart’s, and a teacher of Beethoven, he was a well known and much admired 18th century European composer, before his work was, to some extent, eclipsed by the music of his close friend and his student.  Fortunately, Haydn wrote so many compositions that his music will always be with us.  And on a balmy summer night, hearing some fine selections from that catalog, well played, in the always appealing setting of the Hollywood Bowl, was an experience to be savored.

Franz Joseph Haydn

The works all traced to Haydn’s later years, in the 1790’s, when he was based in London.  And one could argue, as McGegan suggested, that the delightful melodic vigor of the evening’s program – the Symphony No. 30 “Alleluia,” the Symphony No. 103 “Drumroll,” the Overture to Windsor Castle and The Trumpet Concerto – may have been positively influenced by his affair, at the time, with Rebecca Schroeter, the English widow of German composer Johan Schroeter.

The two Symphonies were performed with buoyant vitality by the Philharmonic’s players, with especially fine work from the woodwinds in the “Alleluia,”  brightly dancing through Haydn’s soaring melodies.  The Overture, composed for an existing English opera commemorating the marriage of the Prince of Wales in 1795, was appropriately celebratory, with McGegan directing the Philharmonic into an energizing, climactic presto.

Alison Balsom

The Trumpet Concerto received some unlikely visibility twenty years ago, when Wynton Marsalis won a Grammy Award for its performance (along with the Mozart and Hummel trumpet concertos).  On this night, Balsom’s interpretation was as impressive for its engaging musicality as it was for the authenticity of her phrasing and ornamentation.  And there was no denying the obvious appeal of her stage presence.

Call it a memorable, entertaining experience for the 5,000+ listeners wise enough, or lucky enough, to have made it to the Bowl on a low profile night for an evening of musical pleasures.

Short Takes: Of Poetry and Mortality and Angel Pirates

August 18, 2012

By Brian Arsenault

OK, OK, I know this first take isn’t really short but Long deserves some attention:

Losing My Brotherhood: A collection of poems by Bobby Long  (Music Publishing LTD)

Bobby Long


I don’t know singer-songwriter Bobby Long’s music so I come to his poetry fresh. Fresh like the poetry itself in Losing My Brotherhood, crisp as fall mornings, snapping like a brisk breeze in the trees.

The images range from the stark from “On a Bad Day“:

          “I’m a lone diner, a friend without friends . . .”

To the softly romantic as in “On a Good Day“:

          “A flowered dress can never lead to unhappiness. . .”

Still, perhaps one should first ask the question as to whether there can be poetry at all in the age of witless tweets and e-mail catch phrases and abbreviations.  OMG, we all know them by heart by now so I won’t list more of them here.  Do we have time and tolerance for carefully crafted images?

Pray that we do. Long gives us some hope.  At least he knows how to break a contemporary rule or two. Consider also from “On a Good Day“:

             “Coffee and cigarettes lead me to happiness. . .”

Can you still write that? Isn’t cigarette smoking effectively illegal in New York (Long’s a transplanted Londoner) along with big sodas?  Won’t coffee soon be a banned substance along with the white sugar some still use in it?

Oh the horror. Oh the humanity.  Oh well, as Long notes later:

“Manhattan and Berlin are both slowly falling.”

Humanity, humanness is the essence of Long’s poetry.  With poetry, it always should be.

From “A Man for the People‘:

“Maybe I need my father and the whim of a pretty girl’s hair

as it’s all misty and bitter today,

out in the world”

A pretty girl’s hair and other lyricism aside, Long is certainly dark enough for modern times but his mostly free verse isn’t above some occasional internal rhyming and pleasing rhythm.  He is a song writer and a singer after all.

From “You’re No Anne Boleyn“:

“the subdued enclosure of your famous disclosure

has me covering up the bits that you forgot

the fanatical reprieve of all the people you deceive

the rumor’s hit the road

the rumor’s hit the road”

Long’s poems are mostly short.  Crisp, as I said at the start.  A couple of images, fleeting moments quickly over, quirky considerations.

“When the time is right I’ll write for him

Like Salieri did for Mozart

Without the trek of deceit and jealousy”

That’s from “If I Saw Leonard Cohen.“  I like that poem very much.  Lou Reed appears in another poem.  Bobby has good taste in music.

By the way, there are some drawings by Ben Edge interspersed throughout the book that kind of depress me although they are very good.  They’re a lot like drawings in kids’ books that I read long ago. They depressed me too. But Long’s poetry doesn’t.

I haven’t yet read all the poems in Losing My Brotherhood. I’m glad about that.  Not just because I like Long’s work and I’m not anxious to be done with it.  Also, as with short stories, one wants each of them to stand on its own and not be amalgamated with all the rest.

There’s a bit of Brautigan in Long’s work, succinct, right to the heart of the matter.  Does anyone remember Richard any more.? In my youth, he was for a time all the rage.  Then again, sorry DK, so was Shelley once.  I haven’t seen a young girl with a book of Shelley’s poems in her hand for a long time. Pity.

Death Clarifies

I saw Amy Winehouse  performing somewhere on some cable station last night with a great band and superb backup singers.  She was in a word, GREAT.  When Jimi died it stopped all the foolish arguing about who was the greatest rock guitarist.  He was. We knew. When Amy died it should have ended all the talk about who the best singer of her generation was. She was. And we know it.

She wasn’t like Sinatra at all and yet she was. Like Frank, she just stood there and the music flowed out of her like it was easy, natural, why she was here. Wish she could have stayed longer but she may have been needed elsewhere in eternity.

Your Next Assignment

RJ of RJ and The Assignment may look like a scary pirate on the cover of his last CD but his playing is heaven sent.  I mean this guy makes wonderful tunes out of the M*A*S*H theme and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Really. Deceiving Eyes (the title) there may be, but your ears will ring true.

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

Here, There & Everywhere: Micah Altshuler Sings About A La La Dream…

July 31, 2012

By Don Heckman

When iRoM’s London-based, European correspondent Ella Leya told me she’d written a song for her ambitious teen-age son, Micah, I was intrigued.  I knew Ella was a gifted singer/songwriter – her songs have been featured on such films and TV shows as Ocean’s Twelve, PU-239, My Sassy Girl, Dirty Sexy Money, and Samantha Who.  But I didn’t know that musical ambition had arrived in the next generation.

When she sent me a video of Micah doing the song, I was even more intrigued.  I’m not familiar with the music aimed at young teen demographics, and I was surprised by the relatively mature subject matter of the song – until I discovered that today’s young teen music is not about prom nights and puppy love.  And Micah, in his stoic, but charming way, tells the song’s story with exactly the right trace of detached intensity.   Here’s a colorfully atmospheric video of Micah and the song.  Posted on a special day.

Happy birthday Micah…

A Russian/Californian in London: “Madame Butterfly” by the English National Opera

May 16, 2012

With this post, writer/composer/singer Ella Leya begins her International Review of Music reports on the cultural view from London and beyond.

By Ella Leya

London.  It’s been a few months since I left the gold-and-sapphire paradise of the Southern California Rivera and arrived at the rainy, smoky, dressed-in-tarnished-iron and moldy stone banks of river Thames. A move much desired and anticipated since the first time I crossed the Atlantic Ocean twenty years ago – an emigrant from the then Soviet Union – and landed in… well, Norfolk, Virginia. Neatly cut grass lawns, smiling faces, suburban flare – everything I had never seen before, neither in my hometown Baku, nor during my jazz tenure in Moscow. But not exactly what I had envisioned to be America.

Soon after, I progressed to Chicago, IL., then Laguna Beach, CA, all while missing dear old Europe with its cultural abundance and familiar non-American uncultivated lifestyle. Of course, in the process I failed to notice how American I had become. Indeed, we humans make those kinds of transformations better than lizards – shed our tails at dusk and grow a new one before dawn.

Mine grew so California lavish and Chicago comfy that it instantly got clipped as a part of London’s no-nonsense welcome. A huge, self-absorbed, swarming beehive of people from all over the world – half from Arabia and the other half from Eastern Europe.  Young, ruthless, with strong fangs, indoctrinated with Mark Zuckerberg ambitions and quite often blessed with Maria Sharapova looks. All going about their business amid a nucleus of rigid, proper, Elizabeth the First’s England.

I tried to escape into long desired and missed cultural abundance, but got drowned in a big puddle the moment I stepped foot in the West End. My head spun as I tried to follow a kaleidoscope of theater bills with their repetitious quotes from the same three papers, in which a handful of critics gloated with praise – “the best ever,” “the first time ever,” “triumph of theatrical experience,” “the most innovating,” “the never before seen…”

How in the world could I make a decision? After all, In California, I was accustomed to a schedule of four-great-dances and a couple of concerts packaged for me and delivered to the conveniently nearby Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Drenched and frustrated, I came back to my London flat and began packing my suitcase, ready to depart for the safe enclave of my home in Laguna Beach. But, as I was ready to send Time Out London magazine into the trash, a beautiful picture caught my attention. A woman wrapped in red silks against the red glow of a sunset. Madame Butterfly.   Opera by Puccini, performed by the English National Opera at London’s Coliseum. In English.

What? A Puccini opera in English? Didn’t make sense to me.

The London Coliseum from the Dress Circle

But I went. Last Saturday. And London will never be the same for me.

First of all – the Coliseum, a majestic palace and London’s largest theater.  It rose at the beginning of the 20th century on St. Martin’s Lane, featuring my favorite art deco elements. And it felt like my new home the moment I landed at my seat in the center of the Dress Circle.

Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio San

Then the magic began. With that very image that had spurred my interest. Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio-San, dressed in a traditional kimono, in a slow, eloquent dance with two golden fans, emerged on stage, out of a red glow of sunlight.  A beautiful butterfly, her wings caught in the flames of love, trailing, being wrapped into long red silks of blood. With no music. With lots of air. An introduction to the show and a quick synopsis of Madame Butterfly’s story.

The captain of an American ship, while stationed in Japan, marries a young geisha for convenience. Soon the captain, portrayed effectively by John Fanning, departs for America. For three years Cio-Cio-San longs for his return, bears their son, then gives the child up to be raised in American prosperity by her wretched, disloyal husband and his new lawful American wife. While she commits hara-kiri.

The production was sweepingly cinematic.  Not like on a huge Cinerama screen but in a three-dimensional way, with no sense of stage limitations. And minimalist to the bare bone. With no palaces, forests, and ships cut out of plywood and propped on stage to look fancy. Nothing but the dark, shiny, ascending floorboards of the stage.  A large, sloped mirror ceiling reflecting the characters.  Brilliant light bursting through a rectangular, letter box gap, rivaling the sunset and the sea, with a few moving Japanese screens and flying lanterns. And, of course, gorgeous traditional Japanese costumes detailing every flower in a blossoming spring garden.

But the character who stole my heart was Madame Butterfly’s son, a puppet manipulated by three ascetic figures in black. So tender and expressive were his movements as he picked up the flowers for his mother, rested his head in her lap, stared lovingly at her, that I had tears in my eyes, wishing for my own son to communicate even a small portion of that same tenderness.

Not once during two and a half hours of the show did I question the sincerity of Cio-Cio-San’s love. (Though, once or twice, when her American lover aimed at a high vibrato note, I wondered why she would love him.  But that’s me – not a big fan of the leading tenors.)  Nor did I question Puccini’s tuneful melodrama, in part thanks to the smooth, sophisticated cruising through the score by the ENO Orchestra with charming Oleg Caetani at its helm.

But most of all because of the genius of the late Anthony Minghella, who directed this stunning masterpiece, together with his wife, Hong Kong-born choreographer Carolyn Choa. Unfortunately, it was Anthony Minghella’s only opera, Instead, he’s been known and  hailed internationally as the Oscar-winning director and writer of English Patient and BAFTA-winning The Talented Mr. Ripley, two of the most captivating films of the last fifteen years.

As I was leaving the Coliseum, into the sun and the crowds of people in St. Martin’s Lane, I stopped by the box office and bought tickets for every show of the English National Opera and Ballet for the rest of the season. A good place to start sinking my teeth into big, wondrous London.

Q & A: Herbie Hancock and “The Imagine Project”

June 27, 2010

By Don Heckman

Herbie Hancock’s storied career has been one of the most remarkable in jazz history.  An influential pianist for more than four decades, moving freely from the most esoteric improvisational forms to the entertaining arenas of pop crossovers, he has been in the vanguard of expanding the horizons of jazz expressiveness.  Last year, his album River: The Joni Letters, a transformative collection of the music of Joni Mitchell, became the first jazz-oriented album to win the Grammy Album of the Year award.

On Tuesday, June 22, the release of his newest audio and DVD  album, The Imagine Project, opened far wider creative territories, illuminating Hancock’s fascination with the global universality with which music reaches from culture to culture. Recorded in locations reaching from India, Brazil, Colombia and Mali to Paris, London and Los Angeles, Hancock joins with an international list of music superstars that includes Dave Mathews, Anoushka Shankar, Jeff Beck, the Chieftains, John Legend, Seal, Pink, Wayne Shorter, Susan Tedeschi, Juanes, Derek Trucks, India Arie, Chaka Khan, K’Nan, James Morrison and Lisa Hannigan.

Last week, we sat in the sunlit patio of Hancock’s home in the Hollywood hills, as he described some of the unusual, often humorous adventures of creating an album in worldwide locations.

DH:  Herbie, as I understand it, the concept for The Imagine Project actually began to materialize while you already were in a far corner of the world.

HH: It was an interesting piece of serendipity, or synchronicity.  When I was first putting the concept for the record together and pulled Larry Klein in as the primary producer, and we were just laying the foundation of it down, the decision was made that it would be great to go to various countries to get the flavor of the culture.  You get the taste of the food, the atmosphere, the people. And if we’re really going to honor various cultures, it makes sense to be there.  And it turned out that I was already scheduled to go to India with Martin Luther King III as a partnership between the Thelonious Monk Institute and the State Department with the student band from the Monk Institute to represent America’s culture in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s decision to travel to India to study Gandhi’s non-violent methods.

DH: But doing the album wasn’t actually a scheduled part of that trip?

HH: No, but I thought, “Hmm, I got this trip coming up to India.”  But it was coming up right away, like in about ten days or a couple of weeks.  And we hadn’t really decided on songs or anything.  We hadn’t gotten that far.  But we decided to see if there was a day off where we might be able to record in India.  Then Larry thought about this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke with references to music.  And I liked it.  You know,  It’s deep.

DH: A German poem, that Larry Klein adapted into a piece called “The Song Goes On” to record in India.  That’s getting global pretty fast, I’d say.

HH:  Right.  But it gets better.  What we initially saw was the English version.  Now what’s funny is that, you know, these ideas are forming as we’re going along.  First there was the idea of doing it in India.  And conceptually doing it in Hindi.  But we didn’t actually implement that until we were in the studio.  There was a guy there that actually did a translation from the English into Hindi, using the Erdu written language.  Then we discovered that Erdu uses the same written characters that are read in Arabic.

DH: Ah, the international plot thickens.

HH: Right, and even more.  We were looking for a singer with a warm, round tone, and Larry found an Indian singer named K.S. Chithra, and she agreed to do it.  So she gets to the studio, she looks at the Erdu lyrics, and we come to find out she’s from South India, where they speak Tamil.  They don’t speak Hindi.  [Laughter].  So the decision was made to do a phonetic translation of the Erdu phonetically using Roman characters of English, because English is the common language in India.  And she could read the characters phonetically the way we do.

DH: But Wayne Shorter’s on that track, too, and he wasn’t in India with you.

HH:  Nope.  That happened later.  He happened to come over one day for a completely different purpose. But he had his horn with him.  And so I asked  him, “Do you have a minute to listen to something, and see if you feel comfortable about playing on it.” I was actually thinking about the song, “Don’t Give Up.”  So he listened to some of it, but I could see in his face it wasn’t really right for where his head was at the moment.  So anyway we wound up instead just starting to play ‘The Song Goes On.’  Just a few bars went by.  And he stopped us.  He said, “Okay, okay.  Let’s go.”  And he goes in the booth, we press the record button, and he’s listening to the track, first time, and just responded.  One take.  That’s what you hear on the record.  It doesn’t get better than that.  He acts like he was there in the room as part of the orchestration of the moment.”  So we got Wayne Shorter involved, we got German involved, we got English, we got ancient Roman and we got Erdu and we got Hindi.

DH: With a slight connection with Arabic, too.

HH: Right.  All that involved in one piece.  And with all that going on, everything pointed toward the fact that this was the right direction to go in.

DH: Having realized that, did you then make a grand plan of what the rest of the album was going to be?  Or did you just take things one step at a time?

HH: Well, we had decided to take advantage of that one opportunity and we were now in a different stage of the project.  You gotta start somewhere.  Like Miles said to Gil Evans when they were planning that album, Miles Ahead + 19.  Gil was scratching his head and he said, ‘Well, Miles, what should I do?’  And Miles said ‘Start it off!’

DH: Count on Miles to put it succinctly.

HH:  Yeah, so to speak. [Laughter] Anyhow, we came back to the States and then we started figuring out some other cultural combinations.  One idea was I wanted to have Africa involved.  For several reasons.  Not just because of my own personal heritage, but because that continent is the ancestral home of humanity.  That’s the common bond between all human beings on the planet.  And so we were looking into that.  Larry did some research and found out that there was new music happening in Mali, where they’re being influenced by the blues.  And by rhythm ‘n’ blues from here.  It’s gone back there and creating a new kind of hybrid music.

DH: And on John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which opens the album, you bring some of those elements together, with a line-up that includes Mali’s Oumou Sangare, India Arie, Pink and Seal.

HH: Right.  And Jeff Beck, too.  The interesting thing about the song “Imagine” is that the intro, which opens the whole record, came way after the fact.  What happened was Pink and Seal went into the studio to do “Don’t Give Up” and they both were excited about what was happening, and the concept behind the record.  But they both were kind of sad that they were playing on top of a track that I was already on.  They had both kind of expected that they would be able to record with me.  So we came up with the idea, “Hey, why don’t we make an intro for “Imagine?”  And just do it in the studio that way.  Which we did.

DH: What about Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’?”  That’s another interesting combination, with the Chieftains, Lisa Hannigan and Toumani Diabate, also from Mali.

HH: I got this hare-brained idea that we could put some kind of African foundation with some Celtic music.  Actually, it wasn’t because I knew in advance it would work.  It was because it was the farthest thing I could think of from African music.  ‘Cause I was looking for something that would be the most far-fetched, at least to a lot of Western ears.  Or a lot of American ears.  So I went on iTunes to see if I could find something. So I found one of those world beat radio stations, one that was particularly dedicated to Celtic music.  I’m listening to different things, and all of a sudden I hear one section in one of the pieces, and I said, “Wait a minute.  Am I crazy, but I think this can work.”  So I glued something together with an African piece.  It didn’t fit perfectly, because the tempo didn’t match, but it was close enough where Larry Klein came in the next day and I showed him what I was messing with.  And he said, “I hear it! I think this can work.”

DH: There actually is a kind of rhythmic correlation between Celtic and some kinds of African music, isn’t there?  Especially in the 6/8 patterns?

HH: Right.  And that’s when we decided we were going to try it.  It was Larry’s idea to add the Chieftains, if they’d be interested.  What I didn’t know, until I talked to Paddy Moloney, the leader of the Chieftains, was that they’d done a lot of things with various cultures.  With Asia, with Japan, with Spain.  And he told me there was a definite cultural link between the folk music of certain of those areas – that they have the same roots.

DH: You actually began to assemble that track in Paris, though, didn’t you?

HH: We were there for three days working on some other songs, including “Tamatant Tilay/Exodus” with the African group Tinariwen.  But Larry did a scratch track for “The Times They Are a-Changin” and sent it to Paddy, the day before we were flying to Dublin.  When we got there, Paddy was freaked out.  Because he had originally heard just the scratch track that Larry had done, and then when he heard the real one that we were going to use, he didn’t know what to do.  He was kind of shook up.  So I come to the studio and I say to Larry, “Play it again.  Play the piano track.”  And he did that, and Paddy was fine.  So we added the bass and the drums, and now we had a kind of patterny thing going.  I mean [guitarist] Lionel Loueke had added some variations, but it didn’t throw Paddy off.  So then we recorded on top of that,   When we got the take that we thought we wanted, we brought in the Chieftains.  And right off the bat it went perfectly.  I went, “whew!”  And Paddy went, “Oh, I see!” The other thing that he did is, at the end of the vocal on “The Times They Are a-Changing,” he played a little kind of Celtic melody.  I don’t know if Paddy wrote that, or if it’s a folk melody.  But I remember when he played it, I had tears in my eyes.  It was so pretty. Every time I heard that melody, it would just touch me.  Actually, part of my heritage is Irish, and I was wondering, “could it be reaching into my own Irish roots?”  Whatever!  I don’t know.

DH: But isn’t that the whole point of the recording?

HH: Right. Exactly.

DH: What about some of the other tunes?  “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke’s song.

HH: This was around the end of the project.  We didn’t have time to fly into London. We made a kind of basic track, because I had never met James and I didn’t know what he would be comfortable with.  I didn’t want to throw any curves at him.  So we made a fairly simple kind of track for him to sing over and we sent that over the Internet.  And because of the time difference, they got it the next morning.  It was evening for us.  So he was able to record that day.  And they were able to send it back.

DH: Doesn’t Morrison sort of represent what’s going on here, too?  Because when you hear him talk, he has a sort of sweet, high voice, with a strong English accent.  And then he starts to sing…

HH.  And it’s like he’s from Detroit!

DH:  [Laughing]  Exactly.

HH: That’s a hybrid right there.

DH: Serious hybrid.

HH: Right, but we had to do some work on that track. James did a great job.  And I thought it worked with the basic track that we had put down.  Then Larry listened to it and he said, “I think you should do another track.”  And I said, “Oh.” Because I had a couple of little twists and turns in the rhythm.  Nothing to throw him.  But I just… I had to do something.  And Larry said, “I don’t think you need to have those.”  Larry actually had another idea that he got from something I had played.  And, you see, Larry’ll say something, and I trust his judgment now.  If he has an idea, there’s something there, and I have to find it.  We tried a few takes and we were on to something.  And finally it started to kick in, and it works. I can’t even divine or describe how it works.  But it makes James’ singing have another dimension.  The end of that piece, by the way – because the words say “A change is going to come” — I wanted it to evolve into something more toward the future.  I mean that piece was written during the civil rights movement.  Somebody said it was the last piece that Sam Cooke recorded, and the last piece that he wrote before he was killed.  And it was inspired by Bob Dylan.  So there’s another linkage.

DH: This album is not really just about music, is it?

HH: It’s an important message about the family of man.  That we are all the same people.  We need to build a future where we work together.  And it takes our willingness to be open to cultures outside of our own, and embrace those cultures.  Because guess what?  Those are our cultures.  We’re Americans, we’re immigrants.  Those are our cultures.  They’re not foreign.  They’re where we came from.

DH: But this is also not a Herbie Hancock record, at least not as a soloist.

HH:  Right.  I’ve made Herbie Hancock records already.  I don’t feel I have to do that any more.  It’s not about me, it’s about we.  But I could say that it’s my vision.  So in that sense I connected the pieces.

DH: What’s the bounce back for you, when you’re doing something else?  What do you take away from this when you are doing a strictly Herbie Hancock performance?

HH: Interestingly enough — in a lot of cases – the pieces have a very rudimentary harmonic foundation, .  And you know me, I like to re-harmonize.  But the chord structures are real simple, like folk music.  In some cases there are exotic elements like African rhythmic things going on and all that.  And just folk things too. This Celtic thing sounds to me in essence like the root of some American folk music.  Blue grass and so forth.  Because of all this, I learned new ways of playing while I’ve been doing this record.  And so I’ve added to my experience of improvisation.  And I had to pull it out of myself.  I had to do it the way an actor has to do a part in a movie. You gotta find it in yourself.  Maybe it’s that commonality that you have with the music of another culture.  Because it all comes from the human spirit.  We all have babies, and we all have spouses and partners.  I mean we’re more similar than we are different.  It’s in each of us, even though it’s not always that easy to find.

DH: You know the old definition of country music.  It’s three chords and the truth.

HH: [laughter]  That is valid.  The truth is that’s the key, right there.  But I’m really fortunate in that I didn’t have any doubt that I could find it.  It didn’t have anything to do with ego. I believe we have infinite capacity.  But it was a challenge, and I just had to find solutions.  And I learned.  I didn’t try to force it into bebop, or force it into any of those more natural choices that I might make.  That would have been easy, but it wouldn’t have fit.

DH: You’re saying The Imagine Project represents another part of you.

HH  Right, right, right.  So that’s what I can take away.  A broader palette that I can choose from.

DH: Sounds like the first step toward the next album.  Thanks, Herbie.

Photos by Faith Frenz


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