The Air Felt Like Heaven

Saturday dawned with unseasonable warmth and bright sunshine. A still unsettled Presidential election, too. Votes were being counted in Pennsylvania. The New York Times was unsettling, as it often is these days.

Exit 46 rocks the neighborhood. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I do better when I’m busy. The leaves were nice and dry so I filled six bags with them, then looked up and noticed how many more were still to come down. I went for my morning bike ride. I love my Pedego.

It was 11:25 a.m. when Biden won the Keystone State and the Associated Press called the election for him. My wife got the notification a minute later (I’d turned mine off as too unnerving) and within moments I heard the first car horn. A traffic jam? No. The horns were soon answered and swelled into a chorus with happy shouts from front yards and porches. It really took me a minute or two to get what was going on.

My friend Ron was across the street at his son’s house, and he came out and we did distanced fist bumps. A heavy weight had been removed from his chest, it seemed. One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Erin McKeown, posted about this moment:

on saturday morning, i was walking slowly on one of the dirt roads near my house. i think i was listening to the new david sedaris collection. all of a sudden my phone started blowing up. every text chain i am part of. folks i hadn’t heard from in awhile. you know what had just happened. at that moment, a cyclist whizzed by me. i spontaneously whooped and raised my fists, and they returned my whoop and shouted “i just heard.” it was a surreal and strange moment. and of course, i immediately started to feel better. the malaise i felt this week was trump leaving my body.

It so happened that Saturday coincided with the semi-regular Shop & Stroll event in our Stratfield neighborhood. People sold crafts, jewelry, coffee and hot chocolate in their driveways. My friend Ari and other lens people displayed their photographs. You could buy cider doughnuts.

Exit 46 has an array of strong vocalists. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I grabbed a $2 hot chocolate, and was reminded of why I don’t drink sugary drinks anymore. Sipping it, I walked down the street and there on the corner, in front of a house whose dog hates my dog, the band Exit 46 was set up. I met the band through dog walking, actually. There’s a high level of canine ownership in the band, which was originally called Josh and the Dogwalkers.

Exit 46 has been on my radio show—right before the COVID shutdown—and I’ve played their cover songs on the air. There are three women lead singers, and two male. The sax man rocks out, and there are also strong players holding down the guitar, bass (a psychiatrist!), keyboard and drum chairs.

Exit 46 (our stop on the Merritt Parkway) does mostly covers, some with subtly altered lyrics. They love Fleetwood Mac—the later period, not the blues band led by Peter Green. They’re not political—it’s not like this was a rally celebrating the ouster of Trump.

But it felt like that.

Wordsworth wrote, celebrating the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” They said the very air felt electric. And didn’t they set the calendar back to zero? I’m exaggerating, but it felt a little like that long-gone time.

Exit 46 went through some old favorites. The aforementioned Josh had a strong lead on Creedence’s “Down on the Corner.” He also joined the women on a mostly acapella version of “Seven Bridges Road” by Steve Young. I love that song. They did “Wagon Wheel,” which doesn’t sound like a Dylan song, but at least partly is—it was finished by a member of Old Crow Medicine Show from a fragment Dylan had left over from the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sessions.

Sorry for the digression, but “Wagon Wheel” has become so popular in Americana circles that it’s been banned in certain locations. John Cranford of Swampfire Records put up signs at the Swampfire Sessions proclaiming, “Absolutely No ‘Wagon Wheel.’” The New England Americana Festival sold a t-shirt with the image of a crossed-out wagon wheel. I don’t care—I still like it, even though it is the folk “Free Bird.”

But back to that day and that place. The sun shone down, making it almost too warm. Crazy to think it snowed the week before, but now I was worried about sunburn.

The band did “Quit Dragging My Heart Around,” and a bunch of songs I didn’t know—probably because I’ve ignore the pop charts for decades. The audience kept growing. The band swung into a version of the late John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” sung very well indeed by another Ari, owner of the house and that dog that hates my dog. Out of Prine’s vast repertoire, why does that song from his first album get covered so much more than any other one? Dunno. Maybe because Bonnie Raitt covered it. Here’s a video snippet of that:

The Shop & Stroll ended, the sun went down, the band packed up. There were complications. The President said, “I WON. BY A LOT.” But we had that shining moment.

PRESCRIPT: Before election day, we had another moment: Halloween. Most of the block was dark, including my house, but my neighbor Dan always goes above and beyond, and this year he had a fun COVID-friendly chute to deliver candy to the people who have long seen our neighborhood as a central gathering point. Here’s what that looked like:

Dan’s distanced domicile.

The Long Night of John Martyn

Back in 2006, I interviewed the great producer Joe Boyd about his book White Bicycles, detailing his work with some of England’s most storied new folk musicians, including Nick Drake, Martin Carthy, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and more.

John Martyn, in his prime.

He was generous about all of them—until we came to John Martyn, one of the more interesting musicians in that stable. Boyd’s Witchseason represented John and Beverley Martyn during the period they recorded their fine Stormbringer! and Road to Ruin albums. To my surprise, Boyd had nothing good to say about Martyn—a virtuoso guitarist, brilliant songwriter and vocalist of no small ability—and got us off the subject as quickly as possible.

Now, having read Graeme Thomson’s Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn (Omnibus Press) I see why. Martyn, who died in 2009, was a musician at war with himself. Although he wrote songs of incredible sensitivity and delicacy, he fancied himself a pub roughneck, was terrible to women, and sabotaged a promising career.

He didn’t start out that way. Thomson’s book explains that, growing up in Glasgow, Martyn was a bookish lad who failed at sports and found himself with the guitar—which he practiced incessantly. His show-biz parents split up early, and he rarely saw them afterwards, being raised mostly by his grandmother. This was the period of some very talented guitarists on the UK folk scene—Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn. He left Scotland for England in 1967, and was soon sharing stages with his idols. The balladeer Ralph McTell (“Streets of London”) describes him then as bubbly and full of fun, “in awe of the power of music.”

Martyn’s first two solo albums, London Conversation (1967) and The Tumbler (1968), aren’t very good. He was just getting started as a songwriter, and was caught up in the fey tradition of British musicians writing about fairies and elves and magic toadstools. Ugh. He might have been better off sticking to blues and traditional English material, but that was never his way.

Martyn in those days was also generous, playing magical second guitar on his friend Bridget St. John’s John Peel-produced Ask Me No Questions, for instance. On my radio show recently, St. John (who now lives in New York) had only good things to say about their friendship. When John met Beverley in 1968 she was the more established musician, having released a string of commercially oriented singles. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins played on them, and Boyd suggested taking her to America to record an album.

Martyn worshipped American musicians and loved The Band—he wasn’t going to stay home while she went to Woodstock and recorded with them. So off they both went, and he basically hijacked the sessions that became Stormbringer! (which features Levon Helm on drums and my friend Harvey Brooks on bass). They later recorded Road to Ruin in England, and you can hear Beverley receding. But these are still very good folk-rock LPs.

Beverley Martyn didn’t record an album of her own until No Frills (1998), recorded after they broke up. Once the couple had kids he apparently expected her to stay home and take care of them. The same pattern basically obtains with the other women in his life, some of whom left promising careers to be at his side. Drugs also entered the picture—heavily—and dealers and gangsters became regular callers. As they say, it ain’t a pretty picture.

John Martyn with his great foil, bassist Danny Thompson.

As a solo artist, Martyn had a brief run of fantastic albums, beginning with Bless the Weather and continuing through Solid Air, Inside Out and Sunday’s Child (1971-1975). He had been inspired by jazz, particularly Pharoah Sanders’ Karma, and that influence is reflected in his increasingly experimental guitar playing and singing. He displayed a fantastic range and an ability to slur vocal notes but still keep the songs eminently coherent.  

Martyn’s most famous song, which he professed to hate.

As a listener, I began to get alarmed around the time of One World (1977). He hated his pretty voice, and wanted to sound like a tough guy. I thought the music was both brutish (his voice deliberately made ugly) and fairly atonal—one song sounded like the next. I tuned out for a succession of albums, Grace and Danger (OK, one of the better ones), Glorious Fool, Well-Kept Secret, Sapphire, Piece by Piece, Cooltide, The Apprentice, No Little Boy, The Church With One Bell (a decent covers record), and Glasgow Walker. Between them, there’s maybe a halfway good double album.

Other musicians have coarsened their music, to both positive and negative effect. Tim Buckley, after making the sublime Happy/Sad (and also being influenced by both jazz and hard drugs), sunk into unlistenable “experimental” shrieking. Tom Waits’ later singing is difficult to listen to–he apparently wants to escape his early LA/Eagles/Asylum recording artist pop singer image. But his songwriting gift is intact.

What happened to John Martyn is a shame. He could have made good music. He could have been a good man. He could have been a good husband. He wasn’t. The second part of the book is pretty dispiriting, one bad gig, bender and ruined recording session after another. I read a late-period interview in Mojo magazine (after he lost his leg), and he seemed preoccupied with pub brawls. Paradoxically, once he was in a wheelchair he couldn’t make it to the bars and his on-stage performances improved. But really, don’t bother with his later career. But that run of wonderful early albums remains.

There’s a quite good documentary on Martyn, Johnny Too Bad (2004), that’s on Youtube in three parts. Here’s Part 1; you can easily find the rest of it:

Thomson’s book is recommended. I intend to check out another of his books, about Kate Bush. My guess is that it’s more uplifting.

Live Music in a Pandemic

My wife and I got the calendar out and we tried to figure out when we last heard live music. Keep in mind that our summers generally include as many as six Americana/folk festivals, including Green River, Green Mountain, Rhythm and Roots, Old Tone, Brooklyn Folk Festival, Clearwater, and others. But we went all the way back to January and came up dry.

But in the last couple of weeks I’ve been to two outdoor events, with mostly good results. Since it hasn’t gotten (really) cold yet, this is a good time to sample some (relatively) safe entertainment.

Liz McNicholl performing on a golden afternoon in Connecticut. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On an absolutely golden day a couple of weeks ago, I went up the Merritt Parkway to the home of my good friend Liz McNicholl, the Ireland-born Americana artist. I’ve known and loved Liz’ music for more than 20 years, and have seen her fine band many times at places like the Gaelic American Club and hosted her often on WPKN.

Liz has been hosting weekend shows poolside at her Connecticut home, and this was to be the last one for a while. Even though on the COVID paranoia scale I’m probably an 8 out of 10, I couldn’t not go. I didn’t want to not go.

Peter Blossom, Liz McNicholl, John Hurley. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The band (John Hurley and Pete Blossom were on guitars) played covers like Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (Liz) and “Simple Twist of Fate” (John). I love their version of “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” written by–of all people–Paul Anka. Here they are with Pat Alger’s “Once in a Blue Moon,” made famous by Nancy Griffith:

I arrived as the band was starting, and obliviously chose what turned out to be a less-than-ideal viewing spot between some large group “pods.” I should have gotten there earlier, because Liz had an ideal safe location for me all picked out–but what could she do with the band already on “stage”?

Liz is really careful about this stuff. She limits attendance, and works out what amounts to a seating chart–like preparing for a wedding, she says. You can’t put Cousin Bob next to Uncle John.

I made it through the first set with a big smile on my face, but not wanting to mingle on the patio at intermission, I retreated for a walk around the block. The sun was moving, and when I came back the folks in front of me had moved their chairs closer to get some shade. Can’t blame ’em, but uh-oh. Why am I such a worry wart?

Really, it was just fine. A beautiful afternoon out, and Liz and her husband Aaron couldn’t have done more to make the people there comfortable. She couldn’t have taken any more precautions–the music was magical, the show was outside, the people were distanced. But there’s just no way to wind everything back to carefree pre-COVID times.

My friend Valerie Denn, who books Americana shows, just posted to Facebook about the huge losses we’ve suffered in live music. And someone commented, “Just through a show with no masks. It is your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The government has taken all three from us by making everyone wear masks and not gather in larger groups. Liberty means to live your life free of restrictions and regulation set upon your life.”

I think that’s nuts. Do we want to say goodbye to live music forever? And how could you think it’s your right to infect other people?

The Better Half at Applausi. From left, Mugrage, Packham, Seem. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The second show featured my friend guitarist Greg Packham–playing drums. Or in this case, drum. We were at Applausi, an Italian restaurant in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. The food was delicious, and it was nippy but not yet cold.

The band, called The Better Half, featured a former member of Orleans, Michael Mugrage, on guitar and vocals and Jenny Seem, who took most of the leads on a string of pop hits (including “Dance With Me” by Orleans). It was fun to see confirmed progressive jazz guitarist Packham not only banging the skins, but doing so on a Carpenters hit. Seem is a fine singer, especially on a record they gave me called Pie in the Sky.

Mugrage is a gifted songwriter, as the demonstrated by the few originals the group performed. He has quite a resume, producing music for Monday Night Football, writing a theme song for Good Morning America, and acting as Ronnie Spector’s music director. He wrote songs for Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, The Average White Band, Tommie Roe and Richie Havens. He seemed to be having a good time, and praised the Applausi chefs.

Again, it was quite nice to be hearing music again. The evening was properly distanced. I’d go again, and next time I hope they turn on all the patio heaters.

Testing the Hasselblad

I take a lot of music photos, including for this blog. I think I can call myself a photo journalist, but I’m not a camera person. I don’t speak the lingo, pore over photo magazines buy multiple cameras. I mostly use small Panasonic cameras with nice Leica lenses. Portability is key with me, and the Panasonics fit into my pocket.

My tried and true Lumix goes everywhere, in my pocket. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But I was offered a test of a very high-end Swedish Hasselblad, a camera that held sway in the salad days of the professional photographer. I hired photographers in the 1980s and ‘90s, and they bought Hasselblads if they could afford them. They were versatile, allowing for the use of different backs, with 35-millimeter film and Polaroids for quick tests.

Hasselblad has made a great effort, in the modern age, to reduce the once-lofty price of its cameras, and the X1DII digital camera I tested was $5,750 with a 45-millimeter f3.5 lens that sells for $2,695. So a big investment at $8,445.

The camera came with a strap, a 110-volt recharger, and a 32-gigabyte SD card (plugging into one of two SD slots, a useful feature). For someone used to pocket cameras, it’s fairly heavy at 1.69 pounds without the lens. I took some photos using the RAW format, but found I lack both the computer and the software to handle such huge files. But the Hasselblad will also shoot in JPEG, or JPEG + RAW.

The photos looked good. Here’s one I took of my Saab:

I thought the Hasselblad was beautiful and beautifully made, but it’s way over my pay grade. I’m no camera expert, but I have friends who are. Tod Bryant of Norwalk, Connecticut took pictures for me at E/The Environmental Magazine, did corporate work for annual reports, brochures and advertising, and has taught photography for 30 years at the Parsons division of the New School University in New York City. His current interest is architectural history and preservation.

With Tod, I tested the Hasselblad against Tod’s Nikon D850, a $2,996.95 camera with a $1,951.95 17-35 millimeter f2.8 lens ($4,948.90 total). That one is fairly heavy, too.

Hasselblad and Nikon. (Tod Bryant photo)

Tod’s conclusion: “I was amazed that there was almost no difference [in photo quality]. I tested both cameras indoors with window light at ISO 25,600 in program mode and the RAW files were virtually indistinguishable at 100 percent. The ‘Blad held more clean detail in some shadow areas. The Nikon’s JPEGs were very close to its raw files, but the jpegs from the X1DII were noticeably darker and they had a strong blue cast.”

For a second opinion I went to the comments section at B&H in New York, which sells the Hasselblad.

Dac Minh: “This Hasselblad is designed for those who love and enjoy the art of photography, old school if you will. If you came from film photography, you will like this. I find this camera connects to me like no other. When I held this in my hand, it makes me want to go out and take pictures. The camera somehow makes a boring looking landscape better in picture. There is an intangible thing that cannot be measured. You just have to experienced it and see for yourself. For the longest time, I hesitate buying the X1DII because of the price, no more. This camera is a keeper. It will go down in history as one of the classics.”

Joseph: “Such a beautiful camera. You could buy it just as a work of art, frame it and put it on the wall! But, I’d recommend using it instead to take some remarkably high quality photos instead. This is my third medium format camera and to be clear to anyone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of medium format, this is a crop medium format sensor. Still larger than a DSLR sensor but not as large as a true Digital MF Sensor like you find on an H6-100 or PhaseOne 100 or 150mp digital back. That being said, you still get much higher quality resolution from this than you do on a typical DSLR.”

Here are two images taken with the Hasselblad and Nikon, hand-held at 25,600 ISO. Tod’s conclusion: “The X1DII is definitely sharper and cleaner, but not enough to justify the price difference for most photographers. Some pros might need the Hasselblad for certain specialized uses.”

First the Hasselblad:

A Hasselblad test photo.

And now the Nikon:

A Nikon test photo.

If you’re a photographer like Dac Minh or Joseph, you can probably see the difference here.Me? I think the Hasselblad shot is slightly better and more evenly lit. But for my purposes, I’ll probably keep the Panasonic until it breaks, and after that I probably don’t need a camera at all. My iPhone 11 takes excellent pictures.

Now More Than Ever: It Never Entered My Mind

Despite music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart and book by Joshua Logan (who also directed), the 1940 musical comedy Higher and Higher played for only 84 performances at the Shubert Theater on Broadway (there was a brief return engagement that summer).

rodgers and hart

Rodgers and Hart. Yes, they probably did write the song around the piano, wearing coats and ties.

June Allyson was in the original cast, as was Jack Haley, who also starred in the film released in 1943.  Maybe you don’t remember “A Barking Baby Never Bites” or “Disgustingly Rich,” but one song from the musical is well known to everyone who treasures the Great American Songbook: From Act Two, “It Never Entered My Mind.”

It’s simply a gorgeous song, and unbelievably tender. The singer—of either sex—describes living a new solitary life, the contours of which are wholly new.

“Once I laughed when I heard you saying/That I’d be playing solitaire/Uneasy in my easy chair/It never entered my mind.”

There are literally hundreds of versions of this song, evenly distributed between vocal and instrumental takes. It’s been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Hartman, Carol Sloane, Cybil Shepherd, Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Jeri Southern, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Chet Baker, Anita O’Day, Chris Connor, Rosemary Clooney, June Christy, Jackie McLean, Suzanne McCorkle, Linda Ronstadt, Hugh Masakela and Mark Murphy.

And, of course, Miles Davis. I was reminded of the version that appears on the Prestige album Workin’, released in ’59, when I heard it in the new documentary Birth of the Cool (reviewed by me for New York City Jazz Record). Miles had recorded the song earlier, in ’54, with Art Blakey for Blue Note, but this is the version that gets me every time.

Although John Coltrane appears right at the end, the take is primarily Miles’ trumpet, Red Garland’s piano and Paul Chambers’ bass. The group wouldn’t last long after this recording. Miles would defect to Columbia Records, and fire both Coltrane and drummer Philly Joe Jones over their drug addiction. But here they caught lightning in a bottle.

This is from The Music Aficionado blog:

I find the classic quintet recording more mature and delicate [than the earlier version], and a large part of the credit goes to Red Garland who shines on this tune, playing a repeated four-note pattern over Chambers’s pedal-point bass during the muted trumpet melody. Garland also gets the only solo, a masterful showcase of ballad playing in which he sticks in a 10-second quote from Country Gardens at 3:58. The ending is unique with the same pattern played in double-time, a bowed bass and Coltrane’s only contribution to the song—the last two notes.

I listened to Miles’ version of this song over and over, maybe a dozen times. I played it for wife Mary Ann, and she fell for it, too. And she still hadn’t heard the lyrics.

“And once you told me I was mistaken/That I’d wake up with the sun/And order orange juice for one/It never entered my mind/You had what I lack, myself/Now I even have to scratch my back myself.”

That night, Mary Ann and asked Alexa (our Amazon Echo) to play some vocal versions of “It Never Entered My Mind.” We sampled Carol Sloane, Linda Ronstadt, Stacey Kent, Johnny Hartman, Helen Merrill, Johnny Hartman and Peggy Lee. The last two inhabited the lyrics most completely, and had the greatest emotional resonance. (I know Ms. Lee could be difficult, but when she sang she was without peer.) the definitive Hartman version is on his album The Voice That Is! on Impulse, but here he is doing it live, on TV with Sammy Davis Jr. You have to fast-forward through Sammy’s surprisingly good jazz vibraphone playing:

We can’t read COVID-19 “Alerts” 24-7. We need escapes, places of refuge. And right now, “It Never Entered My Mind” is ours.

Once you warned me that if you scorned me/I’d say a lonely prayer again/And wish that you were there again/To get into my hair again/It never entered my mind.”

Musicians Cope with COVID-19

I’m just going to jump into this. How are musicians coping with COVID-19? Simultaneously, many have lost the live gigs necessary to support life, a public interested in buying CDs or downloads (because everyone is focused on not getting sic), their side jobs working in public-facing gigs, and vital teaching income, too.

I read a story about a Washington, DC-based freelance musician who lost all three of her jobs—“working security at the 9:30 Club, one of the city’s most beloved music venues; providing paraprofessional support at a charter school; and playing a weekly gig at a local club.”

But musicians are amazingly resilient, and because they can’t not make new music, they’ve come up with work-arounds. My fiddler friend Andrea Asprelli writes, “Last week I couldn’t sleep and funneled my insomnia into getting my friends to play this song with me. I started to get nervous halfway through that I’d come down with a fever and never get to finish it. But here it is!” It looks like Zoom, a tool a lot of us are using to stay connected; instead it’s video magic by Kaitlyn Raitz:

Andrea adds, “Hope you’re all quarantining well—getting into baking or gardening or taking up the banjo, calling friends and learning something you never thought you wanted to know about your quarantine-mates. But no quarantine is complete without a good wallow, so let yourself have that too.”

Many musicians are hosting live streams. I heard a great one from Eilen Jewell and her husband Jason Beek from their living room in Boise, Idaho. That show was live-streamed on Radio Boise, which like my station, WPKN (and our sister station, WFMU) is producing a lot of content from home these days. Jewell and Beek have another live stream Friday, April 3. And here’s how independent radio stations are coping right now.

Ukelele queen Victoria Vox is just one of many musicians whose tour calendars were wiped clean for March, April and maybe May. She’s responded by doing a daily original song and cover with her husband, Jack, who’s right next to her in the living room. The heartwarming shows are on their page together as Jack and the Vox, with videos here.

The Jalopy Theatre in Brooklyn usually has old-time music almost every night, but now it’s shuttered, and the Brooklyn Folk Festival it produces is postponed until November 6-8. In the meantime, there’s its “Stay the Folk Home” shows on Facebook Live. Nora Brown is at 8 p.m. EST on Friday, April 3. Past shows have featured Zoe Boekbinder, Stephanie Jenkins, Ali Dineen and others.

I’ve heard Miss Tess sing live at least five times; now I can also hear her virtually, via Facebook Live.

miss tess

The great chameleon Susan Werner is doing “Susie on Sundays” shows from 7-7:45 pm EST, again Facebook Live. Here’s an archived example on YouTube, with her taking requests.

Abbie Gardner of Red Molly is live streaming; check it out here. The Mammals blank tour page ends, hopefully, on May 23 with a gig accompanied by The Restless Age in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In the meantime they’ve been posting and emailing new songs, including “Radio Signal.” Last week, they said, “Today we are very pleased to present ‘Radio Signal’ the second single from our upcoming album Nonet. May it provide light during these trying times.” Check it out here. They also did Dylan’s “I’ll Keep it With Mine,” accompanied by the kids, for the Passim Emergency Artist Relief Fund here.

Our Band, featuring another couple, Justin Poindexter (guitar vocals) and Sasha Papernik (vocals, accordion and piano), has been posting regular new recordings, and emailing them out to all us shut-ins. The most recent was “Gayle’s Song,” which Justin explains:

Of all the many places we have travelled, the place that we return to most often is River House, way up in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Ashe County, NC along the Virginia Border. The lady who runs it, Gayle Winston, is a dear friend and hero to Sasha and myself. She is a real renaissance woman: the first female Broadway producer, an extraordinary cook and host, friend of many surprising celebrities, a spectacular designer, and much more. She is truly the great lady of the mountains. We wrote a song last summer for her 90th birthday, and I hope you’ll check it out. Paul Defiglia joins on bass. 

It would be possible to go on in this vein for hours. Don’t forget “Farm and Funtime,” the wonderful radio show hosted—even in the absence of COVID-19—by Bill and the Belles. Here’s a sample archived show:

Jazz at Lincoln Center is going to be releasing full-length concerts from the vaults to watch every Wednesday. The material includes Ted Nash’s “Presidential Suite”; Sherman Irby’s “Inferno”; Chris Crenshaw’s “God’s Trombones” and more.

lizzie

Jazz singer Lizzie Thomas is making every Friday Date Night, with “The Duo Series.” She promises “classic with a smidge of camp.”

Drummer Devin Gray is doing a live chat with fellow jazz skins man Gerald Cleaver April 3 from 2-3 p.m. EDT. Check it out here.

Finally, I have to give a shout-out to Liz McNicholl, who’s my favorite ray of sunshine. She’s worried about John Prine, who’s critical with COVID-19, so here’s her take on “Angel From Montgomery” via the Localpalooza:

A Sweet Evening With Exit 46

They’re called Exit 46, which our neighborhood entry point onto the Merritt Parkway off Stratfield Road. It’s a band put together of folks who live within a five-block radius; at one point the name was Josh and the Dog Walkers, because that’s how a lot of them met.

Exit 46

Exit 46, rocking Fleetwood Mac. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I heard about Exit 46 from Tracy, a/k/a “Malibu’s Mom,” one of the singers. Vocals, and harmonies, dominate; the repertoire is primarily oldie comfort food. We were, well, walking our dogs around Lincoln Park, which is now closed because of coronavirus. (Dogs are still getting walked, with social distancing arrived.)  I heard more about the band from Josh across the street when he was, what else, walking his dog.

We agreed that a public appearance on WPKN would be a swell idea. Exit 46 practiced, wrote a couple originals to complement the Fleetwood Mac, and we set a date—which came and went; I don’t remember why.

Exit 46 was happy, and so was I. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Finally the big night came. The band is big, nine or 10 pieces, and had to be accommodated in the studio next door. This was when such things could happen. Remember? The lineup included a psychiatrist who’s a nationally known sleep expert; a former NBC Sports executive; a co-owner of a professional audio company. One of the singers, Ari, has a dog that hates my dog, and once bit the poor guy on the ass.

They played. They sounded great, especially the numbers with a lot of harmonies. The sax player added a lot. They were really into it. So was I. Look at that photos, taken through the glass window!

Now we’re back to walking our dogs. We talk about doing it again. Right now, no guests on WPKN. But life will go back to normal, really it will.

40 Years Later, Guitarist John Stowell in Westport

The group was together only for the one gig, but they found unity in standards: “Alone Together,” “Without a Song,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Ask Me Now.” Also essayed was the Ellington piece “Rain Check,” a feature for Duke’s trombone player, Lawrence Brown.

john stowell

The band in full cry, from left, drummer Rogerio Boccato, bassist Jay Anderson, saxophonist Greg Wall and guitarist John Stowell. (Jim Motavalli photo)

My friend Richard Epstein, who is on WPKN with me and is a fine bassoonist, started the series at the Pearl restaurant in Westport, Connecticut’s Longshore. The musical director is Greg Wall, the tenor and soprano saxophonist that night.

On drums was Rogerio Boccato, a Brazilian who’s played with Maria Schneider, John Patitucci, Fred Hersch, Brian Blade, Moacir Santos, Vinicius Cantuária, Danilo Perez and Jimmy Greene and many others.

On bass was Jay Anderson, veteran of more than 400 recording sessions, with people like Paul Bley, Harold Land, Phil Woods, Terumasa Hino, Joe Lovano, Bob Berg, John Scofield, Adam Nussbaum (from Norwalk!) Jamie Baum (from Bridgeport!) and John Abercrombie. The two Johns there are two of our best jazz guitarists, and there was another one on the stand in Westport—John Stowell.

Wall introduced Stowell by pointing out not only that he is from Westport (Staples High, 1968), but that he hadn’t played in the town for 40 years. But Fairfield County, Connecticut is where he was formed. In the early 70s, he studied with guitarist Linc Chamberland and the pianist John Mehegan (who also taught Baum).

john stowell

John Stowell, at his day job. (courtesy of johnstowell.com)

“My earliest jazz experiences were in Westport,” Stowell told me. He came out of rock, of course, and played in high school rock bands The Fun Band and Goodhill, both of which I remember. The Fun Band included fellow Westporter Charlie Karp, who became something of a local legend when the band released a single on ABC, “Welcome to the Circus.” Right after that, Karp left school to go on the road with drummer Buddy Miles. They met in the high school auditorium, when Buddy needed a guitarist for his gig there.

Stowell was there when Cream played the Staples auditorium in 1968. He says that trumpet player Ricky Alfonso, who was in Goodhill (and later played with Joe Cocker and the saxophonist Bill Barron), helped steer him toward jazz. But Chamberland was a major catalyst.

Just as I did, Stowell went to a club called Rapson’s in Stamford (in Portchester before that) and listened to Chamberland play. He was a master musician, influenced by the take-you-higher John Coltrane playing style of the 1960s, and the club dates had a rapturous following among musicians. Convinced that Chamberland needed to make a record, I brought a Nagra tape recorder down to Rapson’s and captured him live.

linc chamberland

Linc Chamberland’s first album.

With the somewhat laid-back artist’s consent, I took those tapes down to Muse Records in New York, where producer Joe Fields (from Bridgeport!) received them kindly. He recorded and released two albums with Linc, A Place Within (1976) and Yet to Come (1981), both of which are near to Stowell’s heart.

I wrote the liner notes to the first one, and my twin brother John the notes to the second one. Chamberland, who always preferred fishing to playing music (especially the on-the-road variety) died of leukemia in 1987. But I digress.

Stowell met the bassist David Friesen in New York, and they formed a much-traveled duo that stayed together for seven years. It was, in fact, Stowell who connected Chamberland with Friesen and drummer Gary Hobbs for that second album, Yet to Come.

After that, Stowell teamed up with the flute player Paul Horn—famous for recording an album in the Taj Mahal—and they toured the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. I visited the country around the same time, and there was still a lot of residual ill-will from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (in 1979). But I digress again!

Stowell is a bop guitarist, with a nods to Kenny Burrell and Jim Hall perhaps but he has his own way of approaching the instrument. Wall is a very up-front player, with a lovely tone on both instruments he played in Westport. Stowell is more introspective, but compelling. Here’s a sample from Youtube:


Stowell is leader or player on 20 albums for the Origin label. He told me he’s on the road eight or nine months out of the year, including frequent trips to Europe. When he’s not playing, he’s teaching—he gives lessons, and has produced both guitar instruction books and CD-ROMs. It seems he turned out pretty well.

Stop by the Thursday night shows at The Pearl of Westport for Greg Wall and a whole host of jazz talent—you don’t know who will show up.

Thanks to Dan Woog, whose O6880 column on Stowell’s appearance led to this one.

A Visit From Kelly Hunt and her Banjo

I had a lovely visit from banjo-playing singer-songwriter Kelly Hunt and her multi-instrumentalist partner, Stás Heaney. The pair, with Heaney playing fiddle, sat down at my kitchen table and recorded 40 minutes for my WPKN-FM radio show, with four songs from the Even the Sparrow album (which came out May 17 on Rare Bird).

Kelly Hunt and Stas Heaney in my kitchen. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Even the Sparrow is a delicate thing, with its heart and soul in the past. Like that sepia-toned Band album, it evokes an earlier and simpler America. “Men of Blue and Grey” is the true story of a Civil War photographer whose glass plate negatives were used to fix holes in his greenhouse roof. Hunt imagines the sun streaming through the leaves papering that roof, illuminating lives even as they are burned away.

“Green things grow within the glow,” Hunt writes. “And green things grow within the glow of the men in blue and grey.” Here she is performing “Across the Great Divide” (not the Band song) on NPR’s Tiny Desk series:


Hunt records with an old calfskin tenor banjo, though it’s too delicate to take on the road. Inside she found a note reading, “This banjo was played by a man named Ira Tamm in his dog and pony show from 1920 to 1935.” Hunt looked for Ira Tamm, and so did I, but no trace can be found. Don’t worry about it; instead, see if you can conjure the wonders of that dog and pony show. I see a small white dog standing on its rear legs while mounted on a circling Shetland, the whole thing accompanied by the “tinkling banjo” that Donovan evokes in his “Epistle to Derroll.”

Kelly Hunt: looking at the world from both sides now. (Jim Motavalli photo0

Hunt tried out a bunch of careers, including French bread making and graphic arts; she was even a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship and accepted to medical school before settling down to her own distinctive brand of Americana. Maybe it’s in the blood—her mother was trained as an opera singer, and her father played sax. She grew up in Memphis, and is there another town with more of a colorful musical history?

Hunt told me Joni Mitchell was an early influence, especially on her singing style, and I’m reminded of “Furry Sings the Blues,” Mitchell’s near-journalistic tale of visiting the venerable bluesman in Memphis. I always liked it that she quotes him as telling her, “I don’t like you.” A bit of honesty there, as he only tolerated her for free smokes and liquor.


Hunt gave me the impression of someone who’s been too busy exploring the many options available to her to become a music industry obsessive. She makes the music that comes naturally to her, and if it speaks to us too, great. She and Heaney are working on a second album. Some label should snap it up.

The interview/performance will be heard at 9 p.m. EST on Tuesday, November 26. If you’re out of the area, you can listen at WPKN.org. For another time is the story of how her manager, Al Berman, came to represent two performers named Kelly (and Kelley) Hunt.

End of Summer Music, in Connecticut and Rhode Island

CHARLESTON, RHODE ISLAND—The Rhythm & Roots Festival, in Ninigret Park here, marks the end of the summer for me. That and the CT Folk event, about which more later.

erin

Erin, with kazoo, channeling Janis Joplin. Jim Motavalli photo)

Rhythm & Roots has a lovely location, a park complete with playground, a swimming hole (actively in use throughout the event) and acres of elbow room.

Rhythm & Roots, my friend Pete remarked, has a very particular focus. That focus is on zydeco (mostly the French kind), blues and rootsy rock. Sometimes those categories get mixed up, as in the first group I encountered on August 31, Erin and the Swingers from Boston. My notes suggest a mash-up—Janis Joplin meeting Cream, circa 1968. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If the river was whiskey, and she was a diving duck…well, you know the rest. I liked her horn player.

Groups like Erin’s, with repertoires including barn burners and slow shuffles, may not be innovative but they’re sure entertaining. But if she’s going to sing a John Prine song, does it have to be “Angel From Montgomery”? Everybody and his sister have taken that one around the block. How about another song from that golden first album, “Paradise,” maybe?

hat fitz and cara

Fitzie and Cara get down at Rhythm and Roots 2019. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A big attraction for me was seeing Hat Fitz and Cara again. I first encountered their music in a Dublin, Ireland Oxfam shop, figuring that a group with a name like that had to be good. And they are! Fitzie is from Australia—the Outback from the look of him—and Cara is Irish. The basic sound is blues, but boy do they do interesting things with it.

Fitzie holds the distinction of a record 18 straight appearances at Byron’s East Coast Blues and Roots Festival in Australia. He’s a gruff-voiced singer really fiery guitar player and a mean man with a slide, earning the right to play a National Steel Guitar.

Cara Robinson

Cara Robinson, a double threat on vocals and drums. And tin Irish whistle too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Cara Robinson belts out blues like an Anglo Bonnie Raitt, is a wonderful songwriter (they both are), and bashes the drums with authority (doubling on tin whistle). Together, they’re genuinely exciting. I saw them three times at this year’s festival. It’s their second appearance at R&R, and it’s always touch and go as to whether they can get visas.

In one of Fitz’s songs, he takes the viewpoint of the Woman Before Cara, who complained about the pre-war music on his scratchy Son House records. Luckily, Cara has no such qualms, because a Memphis Minnie record is cued on the turntable in a photo I’ve seen of their Australian home.

“Power” is genuinely powerful, and Cara’s gospel-inflected vocal memorable. New song “Hold On” was a balm for our times. And I love their version of “Prodigal Son.” The Rolling Stones claimed to have written it, but the real author—as these bluesologists pointed out—is the very Reverend Robert Wilkins.

If you can’t see this group live (going to the Nimbin Roots Festival in New South Wales?), and sightings in the U.S. are rare, check out their recordings. Here’s a video of “Hold On”:


Also just fine was Della Mae, an all-woman Americana outfit I’ve seen a few times. They have the songs and the vocalists. One song seemed to be channeling Merle Haggard’s “Working Man’s Blues.” They do very well by old-timey tunes, including “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open.” The group didn’t totally knock me out this time, but I like them.

della mae

Della Mae, doing right by Americana. (Jim Motavalli photo)

They like their zydeco at Rhythm & Roots, and also respect older styles. I saw only a bit of Michael Doucet (who sings in French), but caught a whole set from Ed Poullard, Preston Frank and Jeffrey Broussard. This was classic, sit-down front porch Cajun music with twin fiddles and an accordion, and it was lovely.

Also hugely enjoyable was The Lustre Kings, classic rockabilly and the kind of road band that you might be lucky enough to catch at a club near you. Front man Mark Gamsjager sings plays his Gretsch with authority, and comes off like a genial, white version of Fats Domino.

the lustre kings

Mark Gamsjager of the Lustre Kings. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And then there was the finale (for me), a wonderful set shared by Dustbowl Revival and Hot Club of Cowtown of Band music. Their approaches were different—Dustbowl is an Americana group (with horns) and Hot Club comes out of Django and jazz. But both groups made me realize the sturdiness of Robbie Robertson’s (and Dylan’s) material for this band (Band!). This was the last night of the two groups’ tour, and I was glad to see it.

dustbowl revival

Dustbowl Revival proving the eternal verities of Robbie Robertson’s songs for the Band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

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Last week I went down to New Haven for the CT Folk Festival, which really is the last outdoor thing I’ll see this year. I regretted missing Jim Allyn, because I love his music and had him on my WPKN radio show—and he was playing with ace banjo hand Dick Neal.

But I did get there in time to see Birds of Chicago and Donna the Buffalo, as well as spending some time with my WPKN friends in the new station tent.

birds of chicago

Birds of Chicago. Someone give me the name of that guitar player! (Jim Motavalli photo)

I had heard of Birds of Chicago, but live they were a revelation. I’m planning on hosting them on WPKN soon. The band is Allison Russell and JT Nero, husband and wife, augmented in New Haven by a really, really good guitar player whose name I didn’t get. I’ll amend this when I do get it. They both write, and Russell—who you may have heard on the Songs of Our Native Daughters album with Rhiannon Giddens and Amythyst Kiah—is a strong singer who also plays banjo and clarinet.

Their songs are hushed, gorgeous and totally human. The music was complemented by lovely and sincere commentary about having to leave their daughter home for the first time. A more charming experience I haven’t had in a while. And I wish I knew the name of that guitarist—he’s the best I’ve heard since Jerry Miller in the Eilen Jewell band. Everything he played was perfect, and in service to the song. Like Miller, he has complete command of American music, from the Carter Family and the Skillet Lickers forward.

donna the buffalo

The peerless Donna the Buffalo. See them now. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Donna was totally great, but I’ve written about them so much I’ll keep it short here. The version of “Ring of Fire” was new to me, though. If you want to like jam band music, but don’t actually like the bands (my situation) check out Donna the Buffalo.