Jake Shimabukuro in Ann Arbor on 11.19.14

A heads-up on another interesting show coming to Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium. Ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro will, like Bob James last week, make his UMS debut Wednesday evening.

Jake has been recording and touring since the late 90s. While it seems as though the music industry has reached peak ukulele saturation over the last few years (e.g., Eddie Vedder and Dave Matthews catching up with Paul McCartney), Shimabukuro was well ahead of that curve. His fame was initially limited to Hawaii and Japan, but the pan-stylist broke through US media in 2006 by becoming one of YouTube’s first viral stars via his compelling solo rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” (13M views and counting…) Curiously, It’s interesting that Jake first broke through to the mainstream by covering a song by Harrison, whose ukulele now tours with McCartney.

If you’re new to Shimabukuro and even the slightest bit interested in the man or the music, I suggest the 2012 documentary Life On Four Strings (which is available via Netflix, among other outlets). It not only covers his biography but also offers a glimpse into the touring musician’s solitary life on the road. Here is a trailer:

His music has something for everyone: musicians can enjoy the virtuosity, connoisseurs will appreciate the content and arrangements, and his accessibility will draw in the everyday listener of all stripes. This cocktail promises to make Wednesday evening at Hill Auditorium a treat for all who attend.

See him Wednesday evening at 8:00 PM. Ticket info here.

MTH-V: Bob James Live | UMS Debut on 11.15.14

This post is also a plug for a show happening in Ann Arbor this Saturday. Legendary keyboardist Bob James will be returning to his alma mater for a night of music in a quintet setting. This performance caps off his recently being awarded the 2014 School of Music Theater & Dance Hall of Fame Alumni Award.

Some readers may consider James to be an odd choice for this blog, but there is a related thread that’s run through a few posts here. I do have a soft spot for so-called “smoother” styles. For example: an early video post featured David Sanborn, Marcus Miller has had a couple posts, a recent post extolled the virtues of Steely Dan, and Tom Scott & The L.A. Express have also been highlighted. And, coming down the pike, I intend to throw more Sanborn, some blue-eyed soul and more yacht rock, and even a dash of Candy Dulfer into the mix. What does this have to do with Bob James? Well, though I was completely unconscious of it at the time, his “Angela” was the first tune to get that sound in my head while I regularly watched Taxi reruns as a small boy. And I remember the first time I knowingly heard the full studio cut of “Angela” in the wild (on the radio), and having a name to associate with the tune, was while night-driving solo through Seattle in my early twenties. (I had heard Fourplay and other groups of his, but didn’t really put the pieces together to know it was him.) I remember thinking that after so many years of hearing short clips of his music, I was very impressed – stunned, even, – by just how hard it grooved. And, coming full circle, the aforementioned “smooth” figures and their associates, many of whom have been featured on this site in some capacity, round out the Bob James milieu of the late 70s, having been in his orbit in one way or another. 1978’s Touchdown is a good example of this.

Here’s a somewhat recent live clip of James performing in Seoul, South Korea with bassist Nathan East and guitarist Jack Lee. It’s nice to hear him performing it on piano:

I mentioned at the outset that this is also a plug for his upcoming show at University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium Saturday night as part of this season’s UMS series. (UMS has provided great memories for me over the years as well as some good content for this blog, particularly regarding Einstein on the Beach – one of this site’s through lines – and Charles Lloyd.) In fact, it will be the alumnus’s UMS debut. He talks a little about his music, background, and upcoming show here:

I particularly enjoy (and agree with) this quote: “You gotta make people dance first. If [the audience] are not pattin’ their foot, there’s something wrong with what we’re doing: we’re not in the pocket.” Piggybacking on that, UofM’s Professor and Chair of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation sums it up nicely:
“There are these straight-ahead jazz artists and their aficionados who can sometimes become snobbish and talk about categories – they can be snobbish in their tastes and look down their noses at music with wide appeal. But every time I put on one of Bob’s ‘smooth jazz albums’ or other albums, I’m constantly noticing the hip chord progressions, the slick arrangements, the fantastic rhythm section playing, and the wonderful improvising.”

Catch Bob James Saturday at 8:00 PM.

Sax at 200

Time for another bicentennial post. First Wagner and now today’s honoree: Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. I briefly considered some long-winded ode to the instrument but 1) I don’t have the time for something so comprehensive and 2) how can I sum that up in one blog post? I’ve written a fair amount about the sax over this blog’s last five years (more on that below) and will continue to do so. Instead, for the time being, just a gripe…

NPR’s All Songs Considered put together a saxophone listening quiz for today’s birthday boy: eleven examples from a variety of styles. (I scored 10/11, btw — I actually knew the missed answer but overshot with my mouse. Oh well; I don’t think that’ll keep me from any future job interviews.) Some of the examples were impressive surprises, but the string of pop selections left me wanting. For an outlet that seemingly prides itself on being hip and clever, the Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, and Lady Gaga (feat. Clarence Clemons) triumvirate couldn’t have been more cliché. All they do is perpetuate the saxophone-as-honky-rhythm-and-blues-novelty-cameo stereotype, which is of course alive and well without NPR’s help. I concede that this is a sizable and personal crusade that I carry with me at all times, but it was present nonetheless. (This is surely amplified by my focusing on styles that don’t normally include sax…) And no mention of Dave Matthews Band, the attendance, airplay, and financial titan of the last two decades that features a saxophone (and violin) instead of lead guitar? (Again, yes, I’m a DMB fanboy, but still. I have a point here.) I guess that doesn’t drive the click-throughs as much on NPR. But you don’t have to go the DMB route. The folks at All Songs Considered LOVE (and rightly so) Bon Iver, so why not include a little Colin Stetson? Curious. No, instead they touch on jazz and classical (of course) and non-Western styles. Shorter’s solo on Steely Dan’s “Aja” was a good inclusion, but that’s of course more jazz than rock in that instance. Why not throw in a wild card like Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, or Mats Gustafsson? To its credit, All Songs‘s Borbetomagus feature did go in that territory, but it seemed partitioned (e.g., “sorry, birthday boy…“).

[Is All Songs Considered now officially a nuisance for me? Earlier complaints here and here.]

It just annoys me because the saxophone is such a versatile instrument, and yet even on a noteworthy date its given a relatively narrow presentation. Bummer. So, to counter this in my humble corner of cyberspace, below are links to various sax-centric posts from over the last few years.

• Saxophone and style: here, here, here, here
• Why I’m not a gear-head here
• Dave Liebman archive here
• Reviews of PRISM Quartet’s Antiphony and The Singing Gobi Desert
• Reviews of albums by Chris Potter, Dave Liebman (here and here), Tore Brunborg, and Stan Getz
• Posts on saxophonists LeRoi Moore (here and here), Jeff Coffin, Michael Brecker, James Carter, Bob Berg, Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Mats Gustafsson (with The Thing), and Jan Garbarek
• Some good-to-great sax solos alongside Miles, Fagen, Jack, Joni, Warren, Elwood, Tord, Manu, and more Miles
• Shameless plug: I talk a *little* sax and style on the Jan. 9, 2014 episode of the PRI: Echoes Interviews podcast

Thank you, Mr. Sax. I’m still trying to figure out your invention…

MTH-V: Steely Dan’s “Black Cow”

Over the last several weeks I’ve gone down the Steely Dan rabbit hole. (And you could arguably say that I’m still in it.) It started with the blind purchase of Gaucho, followed quickly by Aja, Katy Lied, and Pretzel Logic. And I’m sure that others will soon follow. For years Steely Dan has been little more than a George Carlin punchline for me, having only a peripheral knowledge of their music at best. It seemed that the closest I got was the deluxe edition of Elton John‘s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the full live performance of which (on disc 2) includes Jeff “Skunk” Baxter sitting in.

For whatever reason I decided to explore the band’s material, and I began with 1980’s Gaucho simply because of the personnel, particularly: Tom Scott, the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Hiram Bullock, Don Grolnick, Michael McDonald, and Steve Gadd. (Many of these are folks have been featured on the blog before: Tom Scott here and here, Breckers here, and Sanborn/Bullock/Grolnick here.) Honestly, my initial impression after one listen was: for a band (core members Donald Fagen & Walter Becker) so obsessed with production and studio perfection, you’d think Fagen would be a better singer… Anyway, that aside, I was immediately attracted to the songs and arrangements. I don’t know if I’d use “jazz rock” to describe Steely Dan, but it’s a close description. Interesting harmonies and melodies, catchy tunes, and solid players. There are some occasional misses (e.g., the rendition of “St. Louis Blues” on Pretzel Logic…yuck), but overall I’m quite taken with the library.

A song that quickly became one of my favorites is “Black Cow” from 1977’s Aja. It features the aforementioned hooks and complexities, and the studio recording features an outro solo by Tom Scott. Here’s a very nice live version from possibly 2003 featuring solos by keyboardist Ted Baker (whom I may have seen at Einstein on the Beach – I’ll have to check my program) and saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus.

Catching Up

It’s been too long since a new post (not counting the last one, a gig-related update), and the last big entry was pretty inside baseball. The last few months have been quite busy. There are myriad reasons, but the largest of which is likely the prep, execution, and recuperation from the Borghi | Teager East Coast Tour. It was a grassroots, DIY affair and it couldn’t have gone better. Seven shows in four days (not including the bookended days of driving and one day of rest), many of which were in different cities and times (from 4:00 PM to 4:00 AM), including radio sets (both live and pre-taped), genre shows, and non-genre shows. We slept on floors and couches and a few beds and managed to come home with small but comfy profit. Now we’re home, the new studio album is out, and we’re already busy scheming away for 2015 (including a big show in Muskegon – a homecoming of sorts – I’ll plug more at a later date).

But I’ve also been busy teaching and working and attempting a family/social life. And The Fencemen are also quietly rumbling away, dusting off old tunes and writing new ones. And I’m raking leaves. Yada yada…

So I figured I’d perhaps doing a quick roundup of miscellaneous thoughts and notions and updates:

• I actually listened to U2 Songs of Innocence – yes, the free iTunes album everyone was typing in ALL CAPS about. This was about a week ago, actually. I didn’t hyperventilate over it as so many others did. I watched the initial announcement (which was after their performance at the Apple Event) and thought it was more odd than anything, particularly because I thought the song they performed was pretty weak. Granted, I’m a mostly passive U2 fan. I had three albums (not to mention the Batman Forever soundtrack) before Songs…, and I listen to them occasionally at most. I wasn’t too offended that the album was available to download in my account (it didn’t appear on my computer without my authorization), but I was very skeptical and slightly disturbed at the notion that the “freemium” culture had now achieved total corporate saturation. My best case (and hopeful) scenario is that this is hopefully a jumping of the shark of not paying for music. But we’ll see.
Anyway, why did I listen? Because I had read and heard so much about the calamitous PR surrounding and released of the album and almost nothing about the actual content. Well, after one complete listen I can report that most of it didn’t stick with me, save for a couple decent moments. And considering all the hype around the immediate announcement of the album, those moments should’ve been much more than “decent.” I’ll be removing Songs of Meh from my library. I had considered doing a full New Listen going through each song, but that would’ve been more about the act of doing it than caring about the actual music. Which I don’t in this case.

• No matter how big or small a genre or scene may be, I’m continually amazed at the lack of unity or community. You’d think that all would band together and that a rising tide would lift all boats. Instead it’s more like a rising tide is an opportunity to sink your neighbor…

• I recently performed in a chamber recital, my first in a couple years at least. It was lovely to revisit that world and aesthetic, and it has me wanting to possibly do more.

• I’m continually impressed with and amazed by my friends and colleagues. It sounds cliché, but I’m surrounded by some damn talented folks. Some of my favorite music was (and continues to be) created by them.

• The Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross score for Gone Girl is quite good.

• PRISM Quartet’s The Singing Gobi Desert has been nominated for a Grammy. I was happy to see that, as it’s a great release. You can read about it here.

• I should mention again that the new Matt Borghi & Michael Teager effort is out now. Shades of Bending Light is our second studio album. Among many other things, it marks my official return to alto saxophone in a non-classical or musical theater environment. I’ve kept that horn separate for years, for whatever reason. It’s nice to have it back in the fold.