Reeling in the Years: Jake and the Family Jewels

Jake and the Family Jewels made two highly regarded but slow-selling albums for Polydor in the 1970s, but then—in a familiar tale—vanished from the face of the earth. Most such bands are never heard again, and certainly not 40 years later, but Jake and his Jewels have just had a miraculous rebirth, with not only live concerts but a crackling new album.

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The reconstituted Jake and the Rest of the Jewels at Lyric Hall in New Haven. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It sounds like Al “Jake” Jacobs and crew have never been away. The reformed group, with many former members waiting to sit in, held a reunion show at Lyric Hall in New Haven, Connecticut recently, and the good vibes were intact.

Jacobs’ highly melodic music has many roots: Motown, doo-wop (Dion was an idol), the folk-rock of Bob Dylan and the Band. A New Yorker through and through, Jacobs was briefly in the underground sensations known as The Fugs, and led a memorable duo named Bunky and Jake (the late Andrea “Bunky” Skinner sings on six of the new album’s songs). It’s party music of a very particular kind, and should have found a wide audience. Check out the urban tale “I Remember Cissy’s Baby” on video here:

In concert, Jacobs unveiled a batch of new songs in a solo set, then unleashed the full band. I especially liked the tune celebrating unrequited love for Ann Sternberg, the bassist in an obscure all-female 60s rock band called the UFOs. Jake was a warm and friendly host, plus the old-new band wrapped around the old chestnuts like a shell. Steve Asetta, the driving force behind the Lyric Hall gig, was a particular asset on muscular tenor sax. And keyboard player Jan Jungden was very effective, doubling on vocals and flute.

Jacobs lived in New Haven for a while back in the day, and the evening brought out not only many old fans but a plethora of musicians who’d been Jewels at one time or another. Even Terry Adams, keyboardist in NRBQ (another band with Connecticut roots) turned up and did an ace duet with Jake.

Jacobs was over the moon with the success of the New Haven show, so it’s unlikely to be the end of the story. The band will also play New York’s Bitter End (an old haunt) at some time in the near future. Meanwhile, A Lick and a Promise is out for all to enjoy. The Polydor albums haven’t been reissued, but you can find some of the songs, including the original version of “I Remember Cissy’s Baby,” on Youtube. Here’s “It Came Without Warning”:

For years, I used a Jake and the Family Jewels instrumental, “Mother of Pearl,” as a theme song on my radio show. It never got old. The group may have white hair now, but they didn’t get old, either.

The Professors of Bluegrass: A Seminar in Divestment?

Peter Salovey may head Yale as its President, but in the Professors of Bluegrass he’s in the back row as the bass player. Actually, far longer than he’s been at Yale he’s been into bluegrass, first delving into it while an undergraduate at Stanford in the 1970s.

I got interested in bluegrass while I was in college in California. Disco was the music on popular radio, and I was looking for something else to listen to. KFAT in Santa Cruz had a show called “Cousin Al’s Bluegrass Hour,” which featured bluegrass, old time and classic country. I fell in love with the banjo, so I rented one and started learning clawhammer and the Scruggs style. When I got to Yale, Kelly Brownell—a faculty member who I jammed with—had a neighbor who was a better banjo player, and he suggested I play the bass.

Brownell, by the way, is now dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, and the Robert L. Flowers Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience. He’s an expert on obesity. Maybe he still plays that banjo.

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Professors of Bluegrass circa 1990s. That’s Salovey on the left, Kelly Brownell next to him.

That was back in 1990, the first flowering. A second incarnation existed from 1996 to 1999, and now this third version since 2005. The mandolin player, Craig Harwood, is the former dean of Yale’s Davenport College (now at Hunter). The fiddle player/vocalist is Katie Scharf, formerly of counsel at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and now Deputy Commissioner for Energy at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP).

So it’s kind of a heavyweight group that played very high level bluegrass and old-timey music at the Connecticut Folk festival and green expo in New Haven recently. For a group of busy individuals who rarely gets together to practice, they were very tight (despite messing up the intro in this video of the Professors essaying a Bill Monroe song, “Little Georgia Rose”):

As the Professors were playing, I was startled to see a line of protesters silently observing the proceedings behind me. They were from Fossil Free Yale, a group that wants the school to divest itself of polluting stocks. A spokeswoman explained to me that this was their best time to catch Salovey in an unguarded moment. The signs targeted mountaintop removal mining because, well, the Professors’ repertoire is Appalachian music.

I’m sure President Salovey would go to the mat to defend his students’ right to protest, but on August 27, the dissidents say, “Yale rejected our proposal for divestment.”

That’s probably not the final word on the subject. According to the New York Times, Yale’s investment office recently wrote its money managers “suggesting” (not insisting) they stay away from companies that refuse to take reasonable “steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” That’s progress, but I’m sure the protests will continue until the students get more tangible results. Fossil Free Yale says that 83 percent of undergraduates voted to divest in a non-binding referendum.

Divorced from politics and their heavyweight membership, the Professors of Bluegrass are just a really good band, one of the best I heard all day. It didn’t hurt that they were joined by the great Stacy Phillips on dobro–he’s one of Connecticut’s best musicians in any style. It’s too bad they play out so rarely. President Salovey was leaving right after the concert to “catch a plane at JFK.”

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own (Somewhat Mean-Spirited) Words

Joni Mitchell: “Freedom to me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I cannot create I don’t feel alive.”

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Joni Mitchell is a restless artist but not necessarily a happy one. (From Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words)

That’s from Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (ECW Press), consisting of three interviews (between 1973 and 2012) by author and Canadian broadcaster/singer Marta Marom. It’s a fascinating read, though maybe entirely not in the way the author (a devoted fan) intended.

As Publisher’s Weekly notes, “The creative process is a central theme in this new book.” Mitchell is a restless soul, and intent to grow with her music, even if she loses old fans in the process. That led her to jazz and making the Mingus album, among others.

There’s nothing at all wrong with creative evolution, and Mitchell is brave for undertaking it instead of singing her greatest hits at oldies shows. I’m in awe that her path to jazz took her first to the smooth LA jazz of Tom Scott and then to the real thing with Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius (with whom she made the sublime Hejira). Pause to savor that song:

But why don’t Mitchell’s choices make her happy? Why can’t she accept that her path led to a smaller (but probably equally devoted) audience?

She can’t have it both ways. Mitchell’s first five or six albums were brilliant, but also solidly in the commercial mainstream. You didn’t have to know who Charlie Mingus was to like “Big Yellow Taxi.” When she gave up that formula—as her creative mind dictated she must—the big crowds that gave her hits weren’t following behind; they bought Carole King and James Taylor instead.

Mitchell’s high standards mean she gets no pleasure from the awards heaped on her, because she says they’re just celebrating the “60s artist” she was, rather than the creative force she is now. Don’t ask her to hand out Grammys, because she dislikes most contemporary music.

Perhaps because of this, Mitchell in these interviews comes off as somewhat mean-spirited, claiming Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are plagiarists (hasn’t she ever heard of the folk process?), and disparaging other old friends like David Crosby (who produced her first album).

She also claims she cares not what critics say, then quotes them word for word. I don’t really get this. Why can’t she just relax and enjoy the laurels from her long and illustrious career? On the other hand, maybe she wouldn’t have had that long and illustrious career if she weren’t a restless, hard-to-satisfy genius.