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"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press


Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)



OS MITOS DA CULTURA POP: DE DANTE A DYLAN

O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.



THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE: FROM DANTE TO DYLAN

The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)

THE COWBOY AND THE DANDY: CROSSING OVER FROM ROMANTICISM TO ROCK AND ROLL (Oxford University Press, 1998)

FREUD: A COLLECTION OF CRITICAL ESSAYS (Prentice-Hall, 1981)




4/22/10

Tom Scott Reinvents Rock Saxophone

by Perry Meisel

I can still see my Fender-dented friends rolling with laughter when I spinned my saxophone discs back in the late '60s. You remember, of course, how ignoble horns had become during psychedelia (unless you confined your digging strictly to jazz, and to Coltrane at that), and how derisive the reactions to BS&T and Chicago when they appeared on a musical horizon overshadowed by thunderous guitar. The virtual disappearance of rock saxophone during those years was ironic. Ten years before, after all, Curtis-style solos kingpinned most rocking platters. But by 1968 you couldn't trade a Selmer tenor for a pair of Cream tickets.
Enter Los Angeles tenorman and arranger Tom Scott. Scott has risen to prominence through tours with George Harrison and Joni Mitchell, though his rise to status as a musician has been less automatic. Whether it's a standard rock petulance about saxophone, or a high-minded condescension toward so-called derivative players, Scott's almost singlehanded conception of a violently outspoken idiom of rock saxophone, perfectly suited to the demands of an electric environment, has received almost no critical notice.
The blade of Scott's tone is a stone shocker, a big draw, and it has developed, like Dave Sanborn's, as a hornman's adaptive reaction to the frustrating power of electric guitar. Scott says the taut, punchy side of his sound really emerged when guitarist Larry Carlton joined what was soon to become the L.A. Express in the late '60s. Scott found himself challenged by a new electric edge that sent him close to the mike in search of that big brash roadhouse sound which he's now soldered to his earlier jazz training.
To be sure, much of Scott's success is a product more of limitation than of genius. But craft grows from confinement, and we can dig him for finding a road even if he may not have the gas to travel it down (witness, for example, the flubbed phrasing and solos right off the new record - "New York Connection" on Ode - during his Bottom Line engagement in February). Even on his early jazz recordings the phrases come short - too short in the hard-driving context of those sessions - betraying by their brevity an inability to work the extended phrase of the great swinging solo. So the shift to the more minimal demands of rock was clearly a withdrawal.
But a productive one. Scott has after all managed to extract the basic ore of funk's phraseology and turn it into a tensile mode of expression for rock horn. His phrases turn back on themselves with classic soul syncopation, each figure winding behind its predecessor till the last one lands on the inevitable tonic or fifth at the end of a given chord cycle. Couple this to Scott's steaming tone, and you can see why a palpable hush grips concert halls when this fugitive tenor rips out of a dense network of guitar and organ. Scott is, after all, a jazzman who came in from the cold, and the narrow desperation of his vision is a signature of his exile from the perils of real jazz performance.
Of course, this stance is by no means without its counterparts and forebears. It harkens back, inevitably, to King Curtis and the whole history of Texas tenor, the great Second Tradition of soul saxophone that includes everybody from Illinois Jacquet and Gene Ammons to Stanley Turrentine and Fathead Newman. "When I heard King Curtis," he says, "I thought - now that's the way to play with a rock and roll band." So his earlier jazz influences - Cannonball, Getz, Coltrane, and so on - got traded in. The Manhattan sidemen that Scott has chosen to work with since his departure from the L.A. Express reaffirm the King Curtis connection since many of them - Ralph McDonald, Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey, Eric Gale - worked with Curtis for years before his death in 1971. This literal reaffirmation of roots turns the old charge of derivation (the inevitable component, after all, of anybody's sound, deep into the immemorial history of the blues) into a resurrection of that main tradition of rock and roll horn so long ignored by the generation that grew from it.

Originally published in The Village Voice, April 26, 1976

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The Woodstock Myth: Dues City is a Roadie's Reality


by Perry Meisel

I drove up to Woodstock a few weeks ago to check up on Dolph Menzies - roadie, tour manager, drummer, gofer, mystic, tough guy, friend. Dolph has been hanging around Woodstock for about six years. He's worked a variety of gigs for a variety of stars - the Band, John Sebastian, Paul Butterfield, Dave Mason, Dr. John, Jackie Lomax, the Concert for Bangladesh - and lived in one borrowed house or another ever since he moved up there. He was taking care of Robbie Robertson's place for a while last spring after Robbie moved to Los Angeles, and now he's living in Levon Helm's unfinished recording studio with just a woodburning stove and a pile of philosophy books to keep him warm. In the studio's garage sits the old blue Monterey station-wagon that Dylan toured in for years. Dolph tried to sell it to A.J. Weberman recently but Weberman has suddenly turned assassinologist and has no time now for Dylan relics. So the car continues to sit there collecting dust along with half of the Band's old sound system and a quantity of assorted instruments. Once in a while Dolph has people over to jam, and once in a while he works out by himself on the drums that sit in the middle of the beamed and high-ceilinged room that will be the studio itself.
Dolph also continues to shuttle back and forth to the old dues scene in New Haven, where his rep as a Man of Mode has run consistently higher than anybody else's in local memory. He was already a hero back in the '60s when live rock and roll hit the Elm City as hard as it hit any town in the country. Legendary local bands had thrilled to Dolph's double-bass drums - especially Gandalf and the Motor Pickle, and Bells - and local heads had swelled to glints of recognition from the longest hair in town.
When the call came from Woodstock, Dolph's hometown credit quadrupled, and whenever he returned to the local spots after that he filled those barrooms with a glamor that made us all feel like we were On the Map at last. Maybe our State Street rock and roll would get a hearing up where the stars lived. Or maybe - as it even happened once in a while - some of us would get a chance to audition for the Big Time or at least to jam with the heavies.
So I found myself going up to Woodstock once or twice a year with the axes tucked in the back of the car. Sometimes I'd see Dolph and sometimes I'd visit a folk singer friend who also lived in one of the borrowed houses that are so famous up there. I remember playing with hacks who could hardly tune their guitars, and I remember waiting around for hours one night on a rumor that Todd Rundgren was on his way to the Nightcrawler for a jam.
There seemed to be a hip tension reigning in Woodstock then, a little annoying maybe for people who showed up from the outside, but with the all-important compensation that it existed for a reason. There were doors that had to stay closed - Dylan's and the Band's, for instance - and keeping them closed seemed to insure nothing less than the future of rock and roll itself. It was a glorious sacrifice to make because it insured our own place in rock history, too, if only by our absence.
But when Dylan and the Band started moving to L.A. one by one by one two years ago, the mythic Woodstock began to get disassembled. I remember how different the vibe was the last time I was at the Nightcrawler, auditioning for what turned out to be a remarkable funk band called Sky. Their music surprised me since it was so inconsistent with the somnolence that threatened to infect the whole atmosphere in which they lived.
In fact, Woodstock seems to have been woven out of so many contradictions that it couldn't have held on for long in any case. The sweet country setting got canceled by big city tensions; the ambience of a retreat by the prevailing deference and cool; the number of musicians by a lack of studios and clubs in which they could play. And, to top it off, a massive pop investment in the myth of Woodstock got canceled by the dearth of real musical activity there. No wonder the air festered and people began to clear out.
Dolph shakes his head at my version of the myth. "What you're talking about has croaked all right," he says, "but that's because it never really happened in the first place."
I protest. Everybody in music has had Woodstock on the brain at one time or another.
"Then that's the only place it ever existed," he replies. "This is just a place where a lot of musicians happen to live. All the stuff about a big scene is just a media invention. You know, music didn't put Woodstock on the map. It was an artists' colony long before Albert Grossman got a house up here and started bringing Dylan around. That was in the days when Dylan could sit outside one of the cafes playing chess or something and people would drive by yelling 'Hi, Bob!' out the window and then keep on going down the road."
Dolph gets up to chop more wood for the stove. It's suddenly cold in the room. He says while he works that Woodstock has too often been a giant outhouse for city people. "They come up here to lay back," he says, "and they lay back so far that they end up laid out."
The talk drifts to the music that's going down in the area now. Butterfield, for example, has just finished an album at Bearsville and is thinking about getting a band together so he can go on tour again. The new stuff in town, though, seems to be high school rock like Foghat. I ask if that's what's happening in Woodstock these days.
"Well, Foghat doesn't even live here," says Dolph. "They record at Bearsville and their roadies are around from time to time. But the whole crew's on the road most of the year anyway. That's how you make money, you know, by working, working, working. You go to Europe, you tour the United States, Japan, then back to the studio for another album, then maybe a month off before it starts all over again. But the Band would never do that. Maybe a month or two on, and then three or four months off. We never worked steady just because the guys didn't want to."
"You worked all the tours?"
"Most of them. But, you know, at the end of every tour it's 'Thanks a lot, good-bye, get lost.'
And then when the next one starts, you've got to hassle it out all over again. And you never know how much you'll get paid, either. Sometimes it's $250 a day, sometimes it's $75 a week. And sometimes the $75'll come out on the check as $69.50. Everybody's burning everybody else."
"This is the Band?"
"No, man, it's the accountants. They run the music business. They've got everybody so tied up and criss-crossed that nobody knows what's going on. There's one big firm that handles everybody who's anybody in rock and roll. And the business is their business after it's all said and done.
"They've got the screws on the musicians most of all. Guys like the Band are in such a complicated financial and contractual situation that they can't ever try to do anything. Whatever they touch has got some string attached. It's such a mess that they're better off just hanging out the way they do."
"Don't they get itchy to play?"
"Not any more. They emptied their rocks paying dues with Ronnie Hawkins way before Dylan even entered the scene. When they were finally booked to play with Dylan in 1965, Levon decided to forget the gig because the band wasn't getting featured billing. So he stayed home while the rest of the group played those first jobs."
The stove has died down again, so Dolph loads some more planks on the cutting block.
"Roadies are always in a strange position," he says, returning to that theme as he splinters the wood with an ax. "I remember a story I heard about the last night of the 1974 Dylan tour," he says, and proceeds to recall a backstage narrative that somebody told him about that evening in L.A. The guy with the story says he came walking through a dressing room area about an hour before the show and sees Bill Graham screaming bloody hell at a bunch of cops who are hassling him about crossing the security lines. Graham's yelling that he'll throw the cops out if they don't show him a little respect. Meanwhile one of the roadies comes running out and gets in between Graham and the cops saying, all right now, let's just calm down, this here's the last night of a long tour and we're all a little tired out. Graham just keeps on spitting and cursing and the cops are getting hotter too. But it's the roadie, of course, who eventually gets carted off to the joint. The next morning the guy who told the story is looking around for this roadie in the hotel, and he finds out he's still in the cooler. So he wakes up the managers and Graham and everybody else and screams his lungs out until they send a lawyer down to bail the roadie out. It turns out that the feds had found an alimony charge on the guy back in San Francisco, so they were ready to ship him up there and give him the works. Without all the screaming, the guy would've been left behind and forgotten.
We drove over to the Bear for dinner, where I waited 20 minutes for Butterfield to vacate the men's room. The Bear is one of the few decent places to eat at in town ("The rest are tourist traps," says Dolph), and it's full of flanneled scenoids who converse in a quiet, cool hush like the one that prevails in the deserted roads of the village. I remember being cautioned years ago by my folk-singer friend never to put anybody down in Woodstock. "You just don't do that kind of thing around here," he said after I'd badmouthed Rundgren or somebody. The caution makes sense here tonight, where an unscrupulous cough or a prolonged guffaw would earn me the evil eye.
Eventually we drive back over the curving nighttime roads to the studio. This time we go down to the basement, so I can see the new sound system one of Dolph's friends on the Woodstock Road Association is building. It's lightweight and compact even though it can drive the hell out of its powerful amplifiers.
"We're the guys who manufacture the glitter and the glamor," says Dolph while he flips open amps and demonstrates how easy it is for one guy to move the new sound cabinets around. "We're professionals," he says. "We know just what to do and just how to do it." Todd Rundgren's Utopia, he remembers, went on the road a couple of times before they'd figured out the logistics of moving unusually large amounts of equipment quickly and efficiently every day for a couple of months. They even had to cut both tours short because the equipment problem became so troublesome. Dolph uses the story to remind me that being a roadie is a high skill profession that's crucial to big-time rock and roll performance.
When rock got large and loud in the late '60s, he tells me, a need developed for people who knew how to handle the existing sound systems, and who could build new ones capable of producing the kind of massive sound that rock had suddenly invented to the collective amazement of a generation. I remember how tenuous the sound was at concerts back then, how feedback and muffled voices were the norm rather than the exception before equipment became a rock concept in its own right. Lots of good tech people came out of the Fillmores, for example, and colonies of roadies eventually grew up in certain places around the country like Woodstock, L.A., and the Bay Area.
But there are really two kinds of roadies, Dolph explains as we go back upstairs. There's the groupie type, the star-struck moony from the same layer as the wine-and-reds set out there in the first row yelling "boogie" at Brubeck. And then there's the techie type, the professional who gets hired for a special talent. Dolph is chopping wood again and handling the ax like a veteran lumberjack while he's telling me this stuff. Some of the guys in the Road Association, for example, had electronics training in the army or worked for technical firms before moving over to rock and roll.
Then Dolph besieged my ears for awhile with the kind of technical talk you get accustomed to from equipment freaks. Then a hesitant story about some lawyer or accountant trying to burn the Road Association out of plane tickets back to New York after they'd flown somewhere on a work order that turned out to be a ruse.
The stories piled up one on top of the other till I wondered if it was just me that felt the gloom. Sure, Dolph talked about rock and roll magic, too - flipping out back-stage, for instance, when Sebastian sang his standards - but he impressed me primarily as a man of rock and roll realities. Dolph has always been a level-headed guy and now I was afraid that he saw things a little too clearly. The guy who represented the Big Time to all of us back in dues city, the guy who hauled fuel for our star-tripping fantasies every time he screeched into town with his laid-back smile, was totally demystified on the subject of success.
When Dolph closed the door behind me as I left to return to New York, he also closed the door on my old dreams. Not that I could ever feel anything but love for Dolph himself. It was just that the world looked a little darker to me at that moment. It appeared that you couldn't really make it in music unless you were hooked up way deep in the corporate structure. It seemed that those fantasies of democracy and discovery had to remain fantasies, that you had to be willing to make the dues circuit your version of success unless you had the capacity for creative isolation that roadhouses and crummy barrooms don't help you to develop.
I looked for rock and roll radio as I shoved the car onto the Thruway at midnight. I found the Byrds singing "Eight Miles High," and I felt a little appeased because the soothing glow was still there in the sound like it was supposed to be. My mind reentered rock and roll dreams for awhile and I remembered the tables down at Hungry Charley's where we once sat with Woodstock hushes of our own. I wondered why I kept hanging out and kept playing even after the music and the people had both become absurd. And I wondered, too, why a grand disillusion was bumming me out so badly tonight when I thought I'd given up rock and roll for just such a reason more than a year ago.
The highway was painfully dark as I passed through New Paltz and Newburgh, and I wondered if these towns, too, had small-time rock and rollers with a conscience about Woodstock. Small-time began to bang around in my head, and I remembered the excitement we used to feel about the big gig at the Zodiac or the Dial-Tone Lounge.
The kind of supercompetence that Dolph believed in as a rock and roll professional was really what I'd wanted from rock and roll too. After the first few years of mind-blown ecstasy in front of screaming amplifiers, the trip refined itself into one of rhythmic architecture instead. But when you play in small towns, it's hard to find people who think the way that you do.
The contradictions began to mount up like the fatigue that haunted me outside Suffern. I thought of those civilian freaks trying to lose their egos by dancing to the music of us enlisted freaks driven by a cult of consummate egoism, the cult of stardom. It was a myth we all participated in gladly since we were led to believe that a rock and roll hierarchy was necessary for rock and roll's survival. But this was a strange state of affairs for a music and worldview that promised success to anybody who went out and got a guitar. I remembered Kerouac, too, and the myth of bop prosody, and I thought again of how dangerously easy it was to see yourself as an artist in pop America.
I finally got jazz radio before the Tappan Zee Bridge, and I was able to relax for the first time since I'd left Woodstock. I remembered playing alto as a kid just down the eastern shore of the river I was crossing. Geography was becoming too logical when a strange effect of light intruded from the south. I turned and saw Manhattan fiercely bright in the clearest air of winter. Yet the beaming networks managed to contain themselves in a cunningly aesthetic way, as though whole city blocks were incandescent barges in some Renaissance jubilee glazed on canvas.
I suddenly felt a little like Nick does when he thinks he's understood Gatsby, nostalgic for fresh starts even though they never seem to last. The city's hard brightness reminded me that it was hustle alone that kept things going and lights set up in the darkness that kept things important. And then I thought of Dolph again, hauling lamps up thick cables in gloomy concert halls like an act of speech.

Originally published in The Village Voice, March 16, 1976

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4/20/10

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme

by Perry Meisel

Godhead and ego-loss seem so near at hand that even jaded or rockophile listeners will shiver with fear and longing whenever this disc gets played. Perhaps the first concept album in jazz record history, A Love Supreme will serve future ages as a monument to Coltrane's terrifying achievement. Phased through interludes of suffering, anger, knowledge and peace, these 40 minutes finally stand outside of time. The suite's unfolding not only codifies Coltrane's post-bop revolution in phrasing - swinging down and backwards behind the beat instead of nuzzling inside it - but also adds to jazz grammar a newer idiom of sweet tone poems suspended over tempo. Enshrined with Trane, too, is the rest of the legendary Quartet - McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison - a visionary company whose example may well end up immobilizing jazz by its overweening challenge to all musicians who aspire to like divinitude.

Originally published in Crawdaddy, March, 1976

Joe Cocker Consults the Soul Doctors

by Perry Meisel

Joe Cocker sang from the killing floor last week at Mikell's, where he and some of New York's greatest soul sessionmen have been preparing for a major tour effort scheduled to begin in North Carolina early next month. Also coming in the next month is Cocker's first album release in more than a year, recorded mostly in Jamaica with the New York studio crew and now awaiting last-minute vocal dubs and mixing at the Record Plant. Though Cocker weaved in and out of full attention about as steadily as he weaved between the chairs at Mikell's last Thursday, his voice still moaned thick and lustrous from his twisted and pouting body while mind-blown customers breezed in and out of this undiscovered West Side music spot with plenty to run home and tell their friends about.
The surreptitiousness of Cocker's arrival here two weeks ago helped to maintain the embarrassed silence that has shrouded his career since the old rumors of personal and vocal troubles intensified over the course of his 1974 American tour. Hopes are, though, that he's now close enough to the straight and narrow to survive a grueling, five-nights-a-week schedule.
But it's really the band that will make the difference. It's nothing less than a who's who of soul sessionland past and present: guitarists Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale, bassist and bandleader Gordon Edwards, drummer Steve Gadd, and keyboardist Richard Tee. Even if Cocker has trouble keeping it together on the road, these Original Doctors of Sound will keep halls bellydancing with the kind of stoned soul music they've been playing for years in the studio behind a list of collective credits that bulges as big as the eye that reads it - Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Butler, King Curtis, David Ruffin, the Stylistics, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, David Newman. They are the north end of a network of rhythm and blues musicians that reaches up from Muscle Shoals and Memphis all the way to New York. These are the true heroes of the last decade of American pop music (add, too, the names of Chuck Rainey, Gerald Jemmott, Roger Hawkins, Bernard Purdie, for starters) and they've gone largely unnoticed.
If you remember what "Memphis Soul Stew" sounded like, then you've got a pretty fair idea of what these guys sound like now. They've been digging that loose, pumping groove every weeknight at Mikell's for the last six months, and off and on for a year or so before that. They come in after full days in the studio downtown and they come in to play, jamming mostly on soul standards like "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" or "Heard It Through the Grapevine." You sit there shucking in your seat till your eyes buzz out at four a.m. when you decide it's finally time to drag yourself home.
The secret of the sound lies where you'd least expect it: in the silence and space that lets the melody breathe through the beat. Gordon Edwards likes to compare this strategy to the way defensive linemen block and open up spaces for the ball-carrier. "We may not score ourselves," he says, laughing, "but we're always on the winning side."
But even in a crew this heavy it's Cornell Dupree who threatens to steal the show. Perched high and cool on his swivel seat at the rear of the bandstand with his pipe curling blue fumes around his head, Cornell lays claim to a consummate definition of sweet soul guitar. He breaks your heart the way he breaks the beat, splitting and stuttering double-stopped chords over the back of the rhythm with a lazy restraint that puts all but the Croppers and the Bensons on permanent notice that his is the last word on the subject of soul.
It's taken some time for most of us to realize that the rock music that blew our minds in the '60s was in many ways an interpretation of the kind of music these guys have been playing all their lives. The rhythm and blues revival that stared up in rock about three or four years ago validated that perception when a number of preeminent English rockers - chief among them Winwood, McCartney, and Rod Stewart - started recording on native American ground with roots musicians. Cocker's extended venture with New York's veteran soulmen, after his long commitment to L.A.'s rock pros, comes as the latest in this series of rockers turning to the Original Doctors for counsel and collaboration. If you're lucky you can catch Cocker with the band tonight or tomorrow (February 25 and 26) at Mikell's. "We'll probably be here," says Cornell Dupree, "till a half-hour before the plane leaves."

Originally published in The Village Voice, March 1, 1976

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Cannonization: What Adderley Can Teach Us

by Perry Meisel

Cannonball Adderley was the first jazzman I ever listened to when I was a kid. I was fumbling around with my first alto, age 10 or so, when Cannon burst into my world with all the authority of a mentor and all the assurance of a god. Cannon recast Parker just enough to make the Moves easier to understand and, what's more, he lingered over the resonance of each gold note he played with a luxury Bird's relentless appetite had forbidden. His impeccable lyricism made every phrase a melody and every improvised chorus a whole tune that would've taken most songwriters days to piece together on their own. Dead at 46 on August 8, 1975, Cannon was remembered as a preeminent figure in the story of hard bop.
But he was also remembered as a sell-out. That was the second chapter to Cannon's career, the chapter that began seedlike around 1963, the context of Milestone's posthumous issue of the full "Japanese Concerts," and that flowered naturally from it (and from Horace Silver's gospel innovations) into a funky style of jazz with roots in the blues predilections of bop itself, the focus of Capitol's "Music, You All," a posthumous issue of a 1971 Troubadour gig in L.A. The Quintet's historic turn to the soulful drew sneers from the day's critics and jeers from the usual avant-gardists, who were even willing to scorn the edifice of bop, not to mention a chickenshack r&b that seemed to signify the conventions they were hellbent on exploding. Yet here was Cannonball resurrecting that funk tradition right out there on the mainstream circuit. It was one thing to consign Getz and Desmond to the fading world of penny-loafers and the Kingston Trio, but it was another to feel compelled to do something similar to Cannonball Adderly, who'd blown next to Trane every night for two years in that legendary Miles Davis sextet of the late '50s.
What's amazing to realize now is just how prophetic Cannon's soul style of jazz has turned out to be. Walk into the clubs any time these nights and you'll hear a struggle with the bugaloo. Ron Carter's just fronted a disco album (CTI's "Anything Goes"; roll over, Cole Porter) and even Sonny Rollins managed to put a scare into lots of people a few weeks ago by threatening to rock out at Carnegie Hall. Sure, the rock/soul thing in jazz might seem like a plain cash-in with the spate of robot boogie now upon us - witness recent discs from Hancock, Corea, Cobham, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams, Jan hammer, Lenny White. But the new and insistent presence of funkophile currents in the daily clubworks of musicians as revered as Carter, as boppish as Kenny Barron, and as flat-out talented as Dave Sanborn, should convince us that what may really be at issue is the future of a new and serious jazz idiom struggling to get born.
If the search for a new style can find a model for instruction or a legacy for assurance, it will have to be the Adderley legacy and the Adderley model. Cannon now looms as a figure far more relevant to the contemporary musical quandary than his persona would lead us to believe. Nobody in the history of jazz has played a hard soul groove with as much blues power and dense sophistication combined as Cannonball. It's just such a unified head that's lacking in the new sound and that's essential to its success. Cannon grew ever closer to the blues as the years went on, retaining still that early elegance and awesome logic, but committed to more and more of an explicit statement about where the final denominator of his art was to be found.
If Cannon long ago reserved a place for himself among the heroes of the hard bop past, a place awaits him too as a principle of unity in the music of the future. The famous bopper has suddenly become our contemporary.

Originally published in The Village Voice, February 9, 1976

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4/18/10

Larry Coryell's Creative Regression

by Perry Meisel

I remember crawling over to Slugs on winter nights during the '60s to trade in my bop conscience for something more contemporary. Once in a while I found Larry Coryell there fracturing the blues with a space guitar that seemed to command Clapton and Coltrane all at once. Coryell also commanded a cult following then, mostly touseled and horn-rimmed student types like himself who were convinced that jazz chops could blaze a path to rock vistas undreamt of by the Townshends and Pages. The release of three albums by Coryell during the last few months (Vanguard's "Essential Larry Coryell," a retrospective double LP; "The Restful Mind" with Ralph Towner and Oregon; Arista's "Level One" with the Eleventh House) makes it a good time to reconsider this one-time local wizard and to see what his music is like now that time has robbed most '60s heroes of their glow.
Coryell appealed to us then because he shared our impatience with what we took to be complacent moods. We wanted to hear somebody rip those cool bop and r&b grooves to pieces, and Larry presented an unending supply of little dramas in which Sincerity and Vision conquered Swing and Funk. Now we realize that a foot-stomping groove is a hard thing to put down. Besides, Sincerity and Vision have died as concepts and as handles on reality. So we're left with the embarrassing paradox that honesty is probably the most notorious pose of all.
The Vanguard twofer documents the period following Coryell's legendary first band, the Free Spirits, a time spent gigging mostly with saxophonist Steve Marcus and recording with everybody from Elvin Jones and John McLaughlin to Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey. The array of sidemen testifies to the quantity of grooves that Coryell has straddled throughout his career, though it signifies on the darker side an ambivalence that sometimes borders on plain confusion.
Coryell's standard strategy as a songwriter and a soloist lies in the ritual slaughter of a conventional mood, an assassination sanctioned, even sanctified, by what we used to think was its resemblance to Coltrane or Dolphy's systematic deconstruction of bop settings, their way of phrasing behind the beat or playing around the rhythm rather than within it. We were, it turns out, wrong in our willingness to make the comparison. Now Coryell's stuff sounds like pure technical pride with little wisdom and lots of nervousness about where the center may be. Blues feeling alternates measure for measure with something so perverse that it defies description. Of course, next to Ralph Towner and Oregon, he comes off sounding like Albert King.
With the formation of the Eleventh House just under two years ago, Coryell seemed to have found what he'd been looking for throughout those years of conflict and doubt. The band was a knockout live, a bristling dynamo of superfunk pyrotechnics that harnessed metal, blues, and real jazz articulation all at once. The alliance of moods, though, was so short-lived that Coryell was back to raw nerves within a few months, helped along by concert halls full of luded punks (the old cultists were at the movies now) who drooled for trash guitar and pelvic thrusts. Larry gave them what they wanted, and began to sound like somebody who'd never even heard of his own touted heroes, mellow luminaries like Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, and, of course, Django Reinhardt.
The ironies redounded with particular vengeance a few Mondays ago at the Village Gate when Coryell and the Eleventh House smashed their way through a first set that resembled nothing as much as psychedelic nostalgia. Though the second show witnessed a Coryell more exciting than the one who snores on the new Eleventh House LP, Coryell's success was due largely to a British blues manner that nothing in his history could be said to presage. Ironies even more outrageous emerged when Coryell's conversation turned to his favorite current theme, something he calls "creative regression." "You've got to go backwards," he said, " in order to go forward. You've got to go back and listen to the guys who turned you on to playing in the first place - Bird, Diz, Miles, Wes, Trane."
All this is fine, of course, except for the obvious fact that Coryell himself doesn't seem to be doing it. As it turns out, "creative regression" goes a long way to explain why a new jazz idiom is happening now for the first time seriously since Coltrane. But it serves Coryell only as an ironic, and largely unwitting, self-commentary.

Originally published in The Village Voice, December 15, 1975

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High Energy: Freddie Hubbard/Mirror Image: Blood Sweat and Tears

by Perry Meisel

Like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Freddie Hubbard first made musical history by resisting the fashions of the late '60s. Freddie had challenged the far-out expectations of the Coltrane era by blowing funk in the clubs, just as BS&T had practically scandalized worshippers of psychedelic guitar by featuring horns in a rock band. Both, in fact, anticipated the present course of jazz and rock and both have now released albums that suggest the fate of the conventions they helped to produce.
If Hubbard's High Energy registers the failure of jazz's attempted rebirth through funk, BS&T's Mirror Image shows that horn rock, by contrast, has quietly resolved itself into a high commercial craft. Unlike rave bands like Tower of Power, the newest BS&T seems at home with the pop conventions that structure its sound. Hubbard, on the other hand, appears frustrated with the contemporary jazz platitudes of which his new album is composed: cool electric piano and smooth horn lines; formulaic soloing and indifferent melodies; all played with excruciating deliberation over obligatory rock polyrhythms.
Both Freddie's funk and Al Kooper's horns had been responses to crisis conditions in jazz and rock. Hubbard had discovered before most jazzmen (aided perhaps by his studies with Sonny Rollins) that the bugaloo beat could at once liberate jazz from the smothering memory of Coltrane's achievement and accomodate it to the dizzying popular success of rock and roll. Jazz, after all, had been losing more of its audience with every advance Coltrane made; just as young jazzmen found themselves losing personal identity in the profound mourning that followed Coltrane's death later on. Hendrix's death three years after Coltrane's was only the symbol for a like situation in rock (though with reverse commercial results): imitations of revolutionary genius led nowhere. Besides - and worst of all - there was nowhere left to go. If Parker had given jazz a new place to start, Coltrane, on the other hand, left future musicians hardly anything to finish. It was Miles, of course, who codified the rockification of jazz with its conventions of cool, chord-drenched funk that Freddie has already begun playing to the amazement, and often to the embarrassment, of club audiences accustomed to avant garde.
Kooper seems to have reached an insight like Hubbard's at about the same time. Though there was to be no event in rock so singly revealing as the reaction within jazz to Coltrane's death (Hendrix's death as late as 1970 failed in itself to affect the now-complacent rock community), Kooper understood, like Cream soon after, that deafening guitar acrobatics were far from the path of rock's continued health. Kooper, you'll remember, had a headful of Danny Kalb at the time. Hence the first BS&T album - tune-oriented and short-soloed - which pushed the ensemble sound to the front and the guitar (now safe in the hands of Steve Katz) to the back.
BS&T's initial commercial success, however, coincided with Kooper's departure and the band's reformation under organist-trombonist Dick Halligan and altoist Fred Lipsius, former musical director of the dining-room band at Miami Beach's Fontainebleu Hotel. Kooper's mildly ironic and passing use of older jazz cliches became a permanent and naive feature of the second Blood, Sweat, & Tears, the money band that toured Eastern Europe for the State Department behind the prince of slush rock, David Clayton-Thomas. The emergence of a new unit later on (with Katz retaining his sinecure and the indispensable Bobby Colomby still on drums) represented a return to more contemporary jazz assumptions. But the jazzmen hired by the band's corporate leadership were themselves part of the jazz scene exhausted by reaction to Coltrane's death. The survival retreat sounded by Kooper had come full circle: rock's problem's had turned into those of jazz.
Hence new frontment Jerry Fischer and Jerry LaCroix, plus guitarist George Wadenius - all polished rockers whose addition to horn and rhythm sections staffed by jazzmen has brought to the band a hip balance of styles. Jazz skills find lucid outlets in the strong melodic context of the new album's songs. The tunes succeed because they're based, rather frankly it seems, on soul models whose own roots lie in R&B's old marriage of jazz sophistication with blues and gospel feeling. Patricia Cosby and Sharon Brown's "Love Looks Good on You," for example, features a Motown melody with a style of arranging that producer Henry Cosby may well have learned from Sigma Sound in Philadelphia.
Fischer and LaCroix's exceedingly derivative singing fails to become offensive because both vocalists showcase the scrupulous manipulation of convention which seems to be the object of the album's craft. Two-bar vocal trades apres the O'Jays, for example, knit the delivery of Wadenius's "Are You Satisfied?" No less than six combinations of writers have contributed songs; a fair reflection of the shifting series of bags - from Chicago-cops and pop rock generally to Corean jazz and heavy guitar leads - which compose the album's various moods.
Freddie Hubbard, on the other hand, seems no longer at home with the funk he espoused so passionately in the late '60s. If the new BS&T has recovered the ensemble emphasis of rock through a frank use of convention, Freddie has failed in his turn to create new confidence for the jazz soloist with the once-inspiring funky groove. While the self-conscious use of pop conventions now informs rock, it's precisely the rock convention itself that now embarrasses jazz.
The solos on High Energy (a nostalgic title, to be sure) display an appalling lack of ideas, as though there were no ideas left to express. None of the musicians, least of all Hubbard himself, seem to want to play anything at all. You can even hear Freddie lose belief in solo phrase as he plays it, growling pointlessly at the close of Stevie Wonder's "Black Maybe" or adding superfluous echo on Stevie's "Too High" in an effort to veil his lack of conviction. The famous warm trumpet is all tone now, though even the rich vibrato often seems as embarrassed a move as the blues scales themselves. Freddie's tune, "Crisis," is an all-around emblem for the album: it performs its title by framing a swinging bridge between funk choruses as though to illustrate how traditional jazz feeling has been squeezed by the rock imperative. When the swing channel comes around, the rhythm section, like Junior Cook's tenor, seems unwilling to indulge in the groove; fearful perhaps that they'll relax or even corn it up, though the fear of corn is most apparent during the funk sequences themselves.
Pianist George Cables' soloing is less wooden than Hubbard's or Cook's, though the need to punch out the funk feeling is clearly frustrating. Cables' two compositions, "Camel Rise" and "Ebony Moonbeams" are the album's most interesting original tunes even if they fail, like the other heads, to provide an inspiring vehicle for solos. Like "Crisis," the title "Ebony Moonbeams" suggests that these settings represent a twilight time for jazz.
Besides Freddie's pair of middling funk compositions - nothing to match, say, "Red Clay" - the album features versions of two Stevie Wonder tunes whose durable lines stand almost too high against the quintet's originals. Freddie assembled a large back-up group of percussionists, rhythm players and hornmen to augment the quintet at the live Hollywood sessions which make up the album. Like the big electric bands at Miles' funk dates, the detailed back-up means to texture the ensemble, while, instead, it registers jazz's declining belief in the sacrament of the solo itself.

Originally published in Crawdaddy, October, 1974

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Cornell Dupree: Teasin'

by Perry Meisel

Teasin', Cornell Dupree's first solo album, represents another entry in the lexicon of rhythm and blues that Cornell and his colleagues compile with every date they play. The vintage band includes many of the illustrious veterans of Atlantic's studio scene: tenorman David "Fathead" Newman, bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, keyboardist Richard Tee, and percussionist Ralph MacDonald.
Cornell's liquid guitar dominates the album less than one would expect from a solo release, though its modest bearing is a measure of the restraint and respect with which the musicians handle both the tunes and their skills. In Dupree's hands, electric guitar becomes once again a human instrument capable of the emotional inflections common, it seems, only to the voice and horn. Cornell's sweet lead croons slow melodies like Ray Charles's "What Would I Do Without You?" as well as up-tempo funk like Eric Gayle's "How Long Will It Last?" with equal love and reflection. At his best, Cornell syncopates his phrasing with a quiet vengeance, splitting runs over the back of the beat and often concluding lines with double-stopped chords that crack the heart of the rhythm itself.
The title cut, composed a few years ago by King Curtis and Delaney Bramlett, embodies the relaxed, pumping sound that these sessionmen have made the model for rhythm and blues today. Simply polyrhythms - horns, guitar, and rhythm section at apparent odds - turn the tuen into a cool locomotion whose swinging strategy persists throughout the album. Secrets abound whenever these musicians play, particularly the secrets of silence and space: choice phrasing, they seem to say, means placing rests as precisely as the notes themselves.
Mark Meyerson and Michael Cuscuna's production, however, takes the lessons of Jerry Wexler and Muscle Shoals too literally in that the virtues of a slightly blurred ensemble sound become instead a mild haze of indistinguishable tracks whose overlapping often obscures the guitar itself.

Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, October 29, 1974

Minnie Riperton: Perfect Angel

by Perry Meisel

Minnie Riperton's fine debut album is proof enough that the arrival of a new singer-songwriter on a crowded scene need hardly be another bore. Though Wonderlove arranged the tunes and Stevie himself has added two songs and a lot of back-up work, Minnie's high breezy voice remains the undisputed center of the sound.
Appetite is the word to describe the cool urgency of Minnie's singing, though it's a fastidious appetite that discriminates between moods even from phrase to phrase. Rarely, too, are lyrics so perfect a vehicle for voice improvisation. The settings are fluid mixtures of soul and folk, of driving rhythms and pearly ballads. Minnie and Richard Rudolph write real melodies, not riffs masquerading as tunes or offhand phrases sewn together and called songs. The album's fullest cuts land midway between the rocking tempo of "Reasons" and the hush of "Lovin' You": light Wonder grooves like "Edge of a Dream" and "Every Time He Comes Around," grooves whose models emerge with Stevie's own tunes, "Take a Little Trip" and "Perfect Angel."

Originally published in Crawdaddy, October, 1974

"My Life as a Man" by Philip Roth

by Perry Meisel

That an extreme narrative self-consciousness emerges in Philip Roth's new novel hand-in-hand with a critique of psychoanalysis should come as no surprise. Roth has practiced the art of the "missing narrator" as well as the Freudian confessional, the one too shapeless, the other too patently ironic for his purposes. If the remarkable portraiture of Letting Go lacked the binding vision that a stronger narrator alone could have provided, the vision of Portnoy's Complaint consumed all but the narrative voice itself, a situation the novelist Peter Tarnopol describes in My Life as a Man as "the emotional ferocity of the argument" exceeding "by light-years the substantive issue."
The issue in Portnoy was Freud as the modern Jew's new Moses; though a Moses, the book suggests, whose promise of freedom enslaves one to psychoanalytic ways of thinking far more than it brings relief. Intoxicated by Portnoy's voice, Roth enjoyed wriggling in his Freudian cell too much to pay serious attention to his bondage. Even his jokes were based on a tacit acceptance of orthodox psychoanalytic assumptions, chief among them the belief that discernible Causes lie behind Behavior.
Those assumptions have at last become false, even to the Portnovian Roth whose humor persists in My Life as a Man; though against a far different background than that as of Freud as Fond Father.
Roth's reinterpretation of Freud is bound up in the new novel's self-reflective method. One of the book's more noticeable ironies, for example, is the rather spurious difference between Tarnopol's short stories ("Useful Fictions") and his autobiography ("My True Story"); a difference which seems at first to divide the novel neatly in two. The "tender pornography" of Nathan Zuckerman's misadventures in "Useful Fictions" is tighter perhaps than anything Roth has written since Goodbye, Columbus. The autobiography, by contrast, is difficult, at times even tedious in a way that recalls the long middle sections of Conrad's Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes. Yet to account for this difference in fluency by way of a psychoanalytic distinction between painful fact and pleasant fiction amounts to landing squarely in Roth's trap. Tarnopol is quick to point out why such a distinction is naive. "Tarnopol, as he is called," he writes of himself, "is beginning to seem as imaginary as my Zuckermans, or at least as detached from the memoirist - his revelations coming to seem like still another 'useful fiction,' and not because I am telling lies. I am trying to keep the facts."
Similarly, Dr. Otto Spielvogel, Portnoy's analyst and now Tarnopol's, reveals a predictable delusion during a session with his Artistic Patient: "The word 'narcissism' is purely descriptive and carries no valuation," he says in response to Tarnopol's charge that he wields the term reductively, "like a club." Spielvogel, that is, insists on the objectivity of psychoanalytic diction, an objectivity that no language, the novel claims, can ever possess. Spielvogel's insistence is all the more ludicrous because he has already spurned objectivity in the way he writes Tarnopol's case history.
In debunking the assumptions of orthodox psychoanalysis, Tarnopol approaches another Freud, hipper than the dogmatist evoked by disciples like Spielvogel or Ernest Jones. The Freud of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, for example, remarks that his scientific terms are really part of "a figurative language peculiar to psychology" and that even the chemical terms that might replace the psychological ones would themselves be "only part of a figurative language," too.
It is just such a sense of the figurative, or metaphoric, quality of all language - its lack of a straightforward relation to "things out there," its avowedly fictive nature - that pervades every scene, every change of text in the novel's shifting angles of vision. There are no "real" interpretations for anything. "I tended," says Zuckerman with irony, "like a student of high literature or a savage who paints his body blue, to see (my) migraines as standing for something, as a disclosure or 'epiphany,' isolated or accidental or inexplicable only to one who was blind to the design of life or a book. What did my migraines signify?" Tarnopol's reaction to Spielvogel's article may serve as the clue to a suitable reading. "'Oh, you ought to go through this thing, line by line, and watch the ground shift beneath you! Below every paragraph there's a hundred foot drop!'"
If this is true for reading "My True Story," imagine how "Useful Fictions" appears in retrospect! No wonder the first story, "Salad Days," begins with little Nathan learning to sign his name "right" for his father. "Who the hell can read something that looks like a train wreck!" scolds Mr. Zuckerman, as if to picture the result of speeding through the terrain of Roth's paragraphs.
Tarnopol the short story writer knows all about the common fictions that give meaning to people's experience. Characters and situations are defined in "Salad Days" by their likeness, for example, to pop stereotypes and commercial labels. Dancing his mother across the floor makes Nathan "another Fred Astaire," just as his girlfriend's father, Al "The Zipper King" Shatzky, refuses to change his name (his daughter wants a "real name") because he says he's a "trademark." More acutely, Tarnopol's wife Maureen leaves a suicide note in "My True Story" that bears only the repeated legend "Marilyn Monroe." And in "Courting Disaster," the second story in "Useful Fictions," Nathan becomes a lit major in college, allowing Tarnopol to deal in cliches closer to his own heart. Thus begins the parade of World Literature through Roth's dense, allusive pages - the extremes of Flaubert and Henry Miller, for example; of Impersonal Art and Passionate Confession; the question, finally, whether such a distinction is one of a kind or simply of skill.
In what seems to be a parody of the close of Joyce's "Ithaca" chapter in Ulysses (a parody that would de-parody Joyce's nonsense catalogue of Sinbads by giving them names), Tarnopol concludes the first part of the novel by listing a series of possible Causes for the sate of His Life ("Pent-up Rage or . . . Heroism or . . . Defiance or . . . Judaism"); all of them no more, of course, than "useful fictions"; a central text for the critique of Cause and Effect psychoanalysis. And yet Tarnopol - or should I say Roth now? - makes one complaint that's surely been relieved, even reversed: "instead of the intractability of serious fiction," he writes, "I got the intractability of soap opera."

Originally published in Crawdaddy, September, 1974

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Lori Lieberman: A Piece of Time

by Perry Meisel

Charles Fox has funkified his arrangements enough to make Lori Lieberman's new album her best to date. Lori's voice remains technically astonishing and affecting in a way that doesn't mean she's naive. Her long association with writers Fox and Norman Gimbel has provided her with fine songs and lavish encouragement though her singing, for all its independence, risks turning precious if these Hollywood heavies don't ease up even more than they have here. Fox's tendency to sweeten everything in sight still leaves room for flocks of swinging ensemble ideas, though often too many to keep the groove on its simple course.
Rocking tunes like "The World is Turning" and "What's It Got to Do With Music" share the intricate musicianship that makes the ballads more than just a showcase for Lori's husky voice. "I Got a Name" (the Fox and Gimbel song that was a hit for Jim Croce) wins the top nod all around.

Originally published in Crawdaddy, September, 1974

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4/15/10

Buzzy Linhart: Pussycats Can Go Far

by Perry Meisel

After distinguished careers as session-men at Atlantic's Muscle Shoals studios, Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett have become producers in the tradition of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Ahmet Eregun. Buzzy Linhart's new album is one of a number of recent Atlantic releases they've supervised. It seems a proper place to talk some about them and about bassist David Hood, another member of the younger generation at Muscle Shoals whose praises have gone so long unsung.
Wexler began recording Ray Charles in the early '50s. Hawkins, Hood, and Beckett recently joined up with Ray's most genuine disciple, Stevie Winwood, as if to complete a design that embraces the progress of 20-plus years of pop music. The mediate factor of Muscle Shoals includes, of course, Aretha Franklin and some of the world's finest rhythm and blues instrumentalists. Hawkins and Beckett's production venture will succeed in turn, one hopes, in civilizing rock's rather blind return to rhythm and blues. Perhaps they'll also certify Winwood's own eminence once again for those who've grown "bored" by Traffic.
Hawkins, Hood and Beckett, along with guitarists Pete Carr and Jimmy Johnson, comprise the core band of Linhart's first Atlantic date. Hawkins's drumming has already become legendary, though a casual listener is no doubt inclined to dismiss it as commonplace. More than any other rhythm and blues drummer, Hawkins creates the depth, the dimension, fundamental to the sound we've learned to call "soul" (jazz-men, in their infinite wisdom, used to call the feeling "funky" - that's what it means musically: a bugaloo beat, a rock and roll beat). Hawkins hollows out space as much as time, drawing grand distances under the music with deceptively simple strokes of snare and bass drum so that eight-note fills, for example, approach from a horizon forward. If you froze a moment when Hawkins wasn't actually playing (often close to half of every measure), you'd still feel the drums by the design of their silence.
Though hardly as definitive a musician as Hawkins, Beckett is the essential keyboardist; hardly noticeable in a full arrangement, though it would limp without him. David Hood, too, like rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson, plays perhaps only half the measured time (unlike the colossi Jerry Jemott and Chuck Rainey). Yet it's precisely this restraint, this seeming transparency, that suggests why these musicians produce so clean and relaxed a sound, tight but loose, devastating but delicate (the Allman Brothers, for example, fail to swing in direct proportion to the efforts of their rhythm section; compare bassist Lamar Williams's unnecessary verbosity with Hood's remarkable understatement).
Hawkins and Beckett's production for Linhart carries on the sound forged by Wexler and Dowd in New York and Muscle Shoals: a seemingly square, lolling band whose colors look blurred but rich, like a Southern glade after a shower (even Willie Mitchell's Memphis version seems a slight caricature in its accentuated square truck). The "lolling," like the "square," is of course an illusion, for the music's unprecedentedly crisp and swinging.
Buzzy himself is more tolerable than ever before, though his singing often makes you wonder why your struggling friends aren't playing Max's this weekend. The tunes are melodically pleasant, often satisfying (Buzzy's redone his biggest hit, "Friends," on the album); satisfying, that is, if you can forget English long enough to let the lyrics pass you by (David Crosby looks like a cynic in comparison). But Buzzy's solos on vibes, few as they are here, display his one admirable skill as a performer. Though inclined to repetition, the solos are lyrically terse and dramatic (whether on a stomper like "The Greatest Person I Know" or the quasi-bossa nova groove of the title tune). Buzzy's singing is similarly lucid in its intentions (his sense of phrasing is solid, at times almost inspired), but the bridge to execution rattles over a mean abyss.
The explicit musical moods vary impressively. The pumping Muscle Shoals sound most memorable behind Aretha frames "Shoo That Fly," "You Don't Have to Tell Me Goodbye" and "Tell Me I've Been Trying"; complete with belching baritone and stabbing but discreet brass. Pete Carr's relaxed guitar moves a slow blues ("A Tear Outweighs a Smile") and Buzzy's vibes lay a cool middle on the ballads, folk-rock ("If You Can't Join 'em, Beat 'em") and jazz ("See You Again").

Originally published in Crawdaddy, August, 1974

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Minnie Riperton: Perfect Angel

by Perry Meisel

Minnie Riperton's fine debut album is proof enough that the arrival of a new singer-songwriter on a crowded scene need hardly be another bore. Though Wonderlove arranged the tunes and Stevie himself has added two songs and a lot of back-up work, Minnie's high, breezy voice remains the undisputed center of the sound.
Appetite is the word to describe the cool urgency of Minnie's singing; though it's a fastidious appetite that makes the progress of a tune more like an elaborate meal than the usual subs-and-soda routine one's grown to expect from the pop menu. Rarely are words so perfect a vehicle for vocal improvisation: each phrase receives a special tone, a special accent suited to its place in the lucid wheel of the lyrics. Discrimination abounds, especially between "desire" and what makes Minnie's "spirit higher": a reactionary distinction in one sense, to be sure, but a welcome one in song because it tempers the impulse to throw wet kisses, to seduce with sexual thrill alone (like Sylvia or old Millie Small) and throw musical emotion aside. Sure, Minnie makes you sigh, but she makes you swell too, the way a fine horn solo leaves you rounded and complete.
The settings are hard to define, fluid mixtures of soul and folk, of driving rhythms and pearly ballads. Minnie and Richard Rudolph write real melodies, not riffs masquerading as tunes or offhand phrases sewn together and called songs. Light Wonder grooves like "Edge of a Dream" and "Every Time He Comes Around," which fall midway between the rocking tempo of "Reasons" and the hush of "Lovin' You," are the album's fullest cuts.
The band is perhaps too discreet (with the exception of Marlo Henderson's snappy but repetitive guitar), though Stevie's keyboards and harp are, as always, magnetic.

Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, July 16, 1974

Badger: White Lady

by Perry Meisel

Recording in New Orleans under Allen Toussaint's supervision, Jackie Lomax and his new band Badger are a portrait of rockers in the process of relaxing. Like Hawkins and Beckett at Muscle Shoals, Toussaint now runs a Gulf Coast clinic; another way of saying that the rhythm and blues revival in rock is finally seeking some advice. It's less the funky beat itself, the good doctors seem to say, than the relaxed head behind any groove at its best.
You might be inclined to compare Lomax's singing with Dean Martin's; though even if you did, you'd at least be admitting he's mellowed out. Lomax, though, has always relied on traditional, even slush, modes of singing, usually against a heavier band than he fronts here; but the combination has been, to me, an indication of honesty. It's easier to rip off the Otis Redding you heard at sixteen than to work out the foxtrot style that really defined your musical sense as a white child, condemn it though you must.
What's cooled out most remarkably here is the sound behind Lomax's singing. The band gets a trifle messy on explicitly funky tunes like "The Hole Thing," but it handles everything else - the light swingers as well as the album's many ballads - with admirable poise and restraint. Roy Dyke's still far from your main soul drummer, though he's finding his way down what used to seem the disreputable path toward simplicity. Toussaint's own organ and piano set examples for bassist Kim Gardner and guitarist Paul Pilnick, while his horns pop and slide mildly enough not to interfere with the textures slowly breeding in the band itself.

Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, June 11, 1974

Ann Peebles: I Can't Stand the Rain

by Perry Meisel

Try living with Ann Peebles for awhile. Soon you'll be slowstepping your living room in a funk masque of the pharaohs, bobbing your head and shoulders back and forth in a cool shake that talks stuff as heavy as the stars.
Ann's no purveyor of cute feminine personality like the name ladies who fool you with erotic promise, jive you with high school sighs and pouts. No, Ann's a singer first and last, a musician with a weight of insight and a core of soul.
Sure, you feel her breath on your shoulder when you listen to her sing. But it's no lipstick lady who says
You can dream, dream, dream
But it won't come true
no big-eyed sweetheart who tells you
I'm gonna tear your playhouse down,
Room by room
This is Ann 's third album with producer Willie Mitchell, Memphis swami and agent of Al Green's Annuciation. Once again Mitchell's saying Look Here and once again there's plenty happening. Remember too that this isn't empty rock and roll hype, but Memphis r& b, the real thing.
The comparison with Al Green is inevitable but unrewarding. Ann's voice is generous, not ascetic, though surface similarities abound: the slight twang of a tongue thick with feeling or the mild hesitation, the reticence that comes from an emotion too complex for easy utterance.
Her styles are various, from badass akimbo ("I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down" and "Run, Run, Run") to liquid embrace ("If We Can't Trust Each Other"). She sings best on a sustained groove, bouncing in and out of the band's heartpulse rhythms that set her landscape and a pace. In fact, the studio musicians (Al Green's band, too) often rival Ann for attention. After all, only vintage Motown and Muscle Shoals outdo these subdued giants - the Hodges, Howard Grimes, Rhodes, Chalmers, and Rhodes. The Memphis Horns outdo only themselves (with some help, of course, from Mitchell's brilliant wind arrangements).
Ann's range is a measure of mood as well as of technique. Though she can stretch a melody line over three octaves, giving the lyrics a weight even cynics have to admire, she's most satisfying in her middle, most natural, register. Then she pumps home, twisting melodic expectations ever so slightly with a syncopated economy as a writer as well as a singer.
Inside Ann's voice is the real magic, the moist texture that ranges from the whisper of ballads like "Do I Need You" and "Hanging On" to the full-throated strut of "You Got to Feed the Fire" and "I Can't Stand the Rain." Her trembling vibrato and delicate phrasing occasionally fall short of their aims. But these are welcome imperfections, signs of ambition and confidence.
Truth is, you just can't say no.

Originally published in Crawdaddy, June, 1974

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4/14/10

Dr. John: Desitively Bonnaroo

by Perry Meisel

Dr. John's verbal trip is the hippest a pop lyricist's can be. Dig the formula on this new album, "Quitters don't never win/ And winners don't never quit." Reduced to logic (a sinful move in poetic analysis but an indifferent one for pop lyrics), the words simply cancel themselves out. Singing, in other words, is music, period, not the proper vehicle for verbal statement of any kind.
Dr. John has become sufficiently serious about the musical aspect of the biz to produce high-quality rhythm and blues (so bland a description accords with the album's latent message). Even when he aimed just to blow minds his music was creditable, if a trifle boring. More and more, though, the musician in Mack has triumphed. Yet the costs of the victory seem emblazoned forever in his appearance. The Dr.'s plumed pomposity, like the scar of a vaccine, is a sign (paradoxically) of immunity from the hype it appears to suggest.
So the crazy voice, immaculate in its phrasing if uncertain in tone, broods over a slow a sonorous funk band and a fine back-up chorus. Mack's arranger-producer, Allen Toussaint, has loosened up considerably since he did the horns for the Band's Rock of Ages, where his parts were too complex for the groove. Now his saxophones bend cool, wet, and simple; with a growling backbite, though, that threatens to rage. It's the 'threatens,' in fact, that's everything, a mark of the soul technique of restraint and inference that has mercifully found its way into music fit for a rock audience. The moods vary from blues ballads like Toussaint's "Go Tell the People" and Mack's "Me-You-Loneliness" (the fondness for formula continues) to salty shakers like "(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away" and "R U 4 Real" (the language games persist, too).

Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, May 14, 1974

Tom Scott: Tom Scott and the L.A. Express

by Perry Meisel

If musical taste is an index of sanity, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express must be among the healthiest people in the world. There's no sensible name for their kind of sound: instrumental rhythm and blues played with the rhythmic assumptions and technical resources of jazz and the open-mindedness of rock. That's not to call Tom scott's band still another example of the mechanical "jazzrock" practiced by groups as apparently distinct as the new Soft Machine and Tower of Power. No, the L.A. Express knows that belaboring your virtuosity is far from where it's at; that the real way to smoke is to be cool. The best art inevitably instructs as much as it gives pleasure.
The shocking immediacy of Scott's bleeding, golden tenor saxophone often obscures the extent of his ambition. Though he suggests King Curtis and Junior Walker, Fathead Newman and Wilton Felder, his playing is hardly mere imitation. Scott has instead forged a hip amalgam of these classic soul styles into a fresh and violently outspoken funk idiom. Indeed, Scott's one of the few young tenormen whose promise seems to me to justify placing his name near those of the masters.
The tunes that feature Scott on tenor (all but two) are the most satisfying on the album, especially the relatively simple stompers. "Strut Your Stuff," a Scott original, repeats a maddeningly restrained march line that's bound to turn up under your fingernails after a single listen. "Bless My Soul" and "Nunya" are somewhat less relaxed soul blitzes, though always supple, thanks to the ease of drummer John Guerin and bassist Max Bennett. Pianist Joe Sample (on apparent loan from the Crusaders since the Express's session work on Joni Mitchell's last album) turns in as much soloing as Scott; though he seems rather deliberately laid back, most sympathetic (and oddly so) to the amorphous balladeering of Scott's soprano on "Easy Life" and "Spindrift."

Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, April 30, 1974

Hot Tuna: The Phosphorescent Rat

by Perry Meisel

Jorma Kaukonen's current songwriting is one of the first signs of psychedelic nostalgia. Like the hoarse tone of his impressionistic guitar, Jorma's tunes and singing conjure, even now, the kind of religious ambitions most of us buried long ago.
Hot Tuna's fourth album, though, is far from a resurrection of past glories. If the songs appeal, melodically, to a bygone state of mind, the musicianship too recalls why the high San Francisco style had to die. When Jorma and Jack Casady formed Hot Tuna, they seemed to be mining the blues and country music for the grooves that were missing in all but the best of the Bay Area bands (read Dead and early Airplane). A musical habit had developed in accord with the ideology of the Haight: ignore the earth, and by implication a groove, and reach instead for the airy heights. Thus, drummers and bassists grew too fond of cymbals and top strings, neglecting the need for solid beats and bottoms in order to join in the lust for incantation.
Jorma and Casady seemed to be retrieving those missing roots when they went acoustic. But after the first Hot Tuna album, they hired Sammy Piazza, as if to relax their rescue work and retire into the false comfort of the past. Piazza's drumming is a maze of nervous frills hiding a rhythmic ignorance that's a virtual caricature of the deficiencies of the old acid style.
When Jorma's writing fails on this new album to summon the sweet remembrance of San Francisco past, the band itself succeeds - by recalling the musical shortcomings. With departure of blues fiddler Papa John Creach, Hot Tuna has lost its only defense against regression. Dense electric songs like "Easy Now," "In the Kingdom," and "I See the Light" (surely, one hopes, an ironic title) depend too much on naked musicianship alone to share the saving mood magic of "Soliloquy for Two," "Corners Without Exits," and "Living Just for You" (the last the album's purest example of psychedelic nostalgia).
But even psychedelic nostalgia can't soak up the thick, muddy drone that pervades all but Jorma's two mild acoustic instrumentals. Though he still exudes sincerity, Jorma's soloing has lost its ingenuity and its lyricism. And Casady, a onetime mister funk, hardly wants to swing anymore, preferring Sammy's swamps instead. His bass was the thickest of the sixties, but it could kick and snap, too; now it mopes and groans along with the rest of the band, too tired to rock out.

Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March 26 1974

Larry Coryell: The Eleventh House

by Perry Meisel

The terms "rock" and "jazz" have been bandied about as opposites for so long now that the real distinction in pop music - one between blues and non-blues feeling - has been altogether ignored. So many jazzmen spend time on the road playing R & B that things should've been clearer long ago. But, alas, conventional categories save us from having nothing to say when we don't know what's happening. As it turns out, Charlie Parker and Stevie Winwood share more than Winwood shares with, say, Todd Rundgren or that Parker shares with Pharaoh Sanders.
The standard rap on Larry Coryell has been that he's straddled that no-man's land between jazz and rock longer perhaps than anybody else around. What he's in fact straddled is a choice between two basic moods - between a pure blues feeling that seems to have bored him and an outrageous metal heaviness that's never commanded his full belief.
Coryell has finally brought the two together in a workable, at times superb combination in his new band, The Eleventh House. The melodic, restraining quality of the blues tempers the gratuitous impulse to scream. While the band can smash and soar with frightening power and agility, it can also dazzle in a ballad setting. Pianist Mike Mandel's "Adam Smasher" and Coryell's own "Iam-Ejercicio" are the clearest examples of charted shifts, within single tunes, between a swinging blues funk and a square, almost classical, sense of time suspension (the latter a jazz tradition by now, but one that marks a break with the blues). Though a few of the tunes are self-indulgent earsplitters (notably "Yin"), Coryell manages to maintain a sure balance of assertion and cool throughout the album.
The unique blend of Randy Brecker's trumpet, Mandel's piano, and Coryell's guitar represents a resolution of moods even in the way melodies are sounded. Each instrument eases the bite of the others, just as most of the soloing returns to the lyricism of the blues after flights of frenzy or rage. Drummer Alphonse Mouzon (formerly with McCoy Tyner) roots the band in strong, driving rhythms welded to funk even in the craziest forays.
Coryell's solo piece "Gratitude 'A So Low' " combines a new and happy precision with his traditional ebullience. If his rides occasionally lack drama, they still demonstrate a meeting within, at last, of the humanity of the blues and the exotica of technology.

Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March 12 1974

4/13/10

Art Garfunkel: Angel Clare

by Perry Meisel

So sweet and guileless is most of Art Garfunkel's solo album that it shows where the real religion came from in the blend of pretense and purity that he produced over the years with Paul Simon. And yet it would be a mistake to label the music's awesome serenity as a return to genuine psychedelic spiritualism. In fact, what is astonishing about the album is Garfunkel's ability to carve a path across a landscape of vision abandoned now that the rush of Movement energy has faded in disillusion. Perhaps one secret of his success is that the inspiration is entirely personal. Unlike Simon, Garfunkel views the trials of growing older as part of a natural sequence, not as a theft of one's exuberance by an unkind world that turns all revolutions into ashes.
Still, this sense of Garfunkel's hard-won serenity will probably seem an unacceptable means of dealing with American life in the Seventies. More to the taste is Simon's wistful return to a personal and cultural childhood, an innocence in no way religious, and even more jejune than the now-failed, self-made innocence of the late Sixties. The rarefied heights of Garfunkel's music will be both too deliberate and too frightening for those who would rather forget, or never knew, preferring to wash down Qualude with Bud, or marrying, donning a profession, and fathering a new generation of consumers.
Lamentable depths of bathos are the side effects of Garfunkel's efforts. Surely the srings are often pushed beyond the limits of taste, just as Art's singing is occasionally too earnest, too formal in its pose. But these are the dangers of his style, especially when a great deal of the production has been handled by Roy Halee (producer of Simon and Garfunkel, and of Simon alone), whose skilled head, for all its excellence, seems to falter in curious wonder at Garfunkel's unique direction.
There are no original tunes here, nor are there classics of any kind. Though Garfunkel has chosen songs as vehicles for a consistent tone, the surface moods vary considerably. The most characteristic feeling is the slow, deep funk of Paul Williams's "Traveling Boy" and Jim Webb's "All I Know" and "Another Lullaby" - all slush melodrama without the filter of Garfunkel's painfully beautiful interpretations. While the swelling strings tend to oversweeten Art's fragile tenor (doubletracked, by the way, in unison on many cuts) the sheer emotion of the singing usually manages to defraud Halee's excessive arrangements. Perhaps too somber is Randy Newman's "Old Man," though the wagging joy of Van Morrison's "I Shall Sing" more than balances the impulse towards the morbid.
The predominance of strings, like the ballads' folk posing, continually raises the difficult issue of classical instrumentation's relation to rock music. The easy drift toward Mantovani is as inescapable as it is impossible to resolve on the level of practice. Is it best simply to do without strings? Or can the tasteful models of the Beatles and Motown provide the synthetic direction necessary to avoid the semi-classical assaults that can only reduce rock to the bloodless level of fifties pop?
The horns, on the other hand (present on only two cuts), are innovative to the point of rivaling the Beatles' use of woodwinds. Description can do little justice to the perfection of texture and blend of parts and solos that mark these jeweled pockets of the album.
Why Garfunkel wanted to call his album Angel Clare is probably bound up in the history of literary pretension that marred his work with Simon. And yet there must be some logic for the choice of Hardy's wooden intellectual who learns too late the truth of the heart, a strange persona indeed for the sweet and gentle Arthur. Is it a sense of belated recognition that Garfunkel means to convey by the title? Well, then, Angel, your Tess has been returned to you, pardoned for her crime as well as her sin. The Fates have relented, granting Arthur a lengthy marriage with his Muse, complete with the hope of abundant issue in the future.

Originally published in Fusion, March, 1974

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4/11/10

Al Green: Livin' For You

by Perry Meisel

There's been a lot of talk lately about a narcissistic Al Green, about a guy who for a while seemed to outclass everybody in sight but who now indulges in vain onstage displays, as though singing were a sideline and stardom a license for self-adulation. Sounds like a description of a successful rock and roll band, doesn't it? Perhaps that's one reason hip listeners have been disturbed. The astonishing subtlety that can swell the surface of a tune with unspoken ripeness has given way, claim the disenchanted, to a mere episodic brilliance, to a tantalizing local flare no longer bound to a larger sense of drama.
Livin' for You, then, is an important release, a test of those recent impressions. Superficially it seems like the rest of Al's records - cool and slow, scrupulously arranged and produced by Willie Mitchell. Al is cast, typically, as a jazz soloist; his voice the ultimate mix of grit and grace, funk and delicacy.
And yet it takes many listenings to begin to grasp his genius afresh and even more to distinguish it from the time-wasting that's also present. His moods are firmer now, more explicit than they used to be, with a new and unfortunate potential to freeze into hues less various than before. That sense of something won by the end of a tune seems absent much of the time too, that sense of pain turned to joy through the controlled emotion one has grown to expect from him.
For every triumph on the album there's something surprisingly tame. "Home Again" and "Free at Last" are exquisite ballads in the full Green style, opening in a breathy mood and filling in the throat over the slow bounce of the band. Yet "Sweet Sixteen" and "My God is Real" - both overtly blues-flavored, oddly enough - are marked by stalling, not invention. They're the chief examples of that drift into the frozen; an almost shallow brooding hangs motionless over both songs from start to finish. Like "Beware," which begins as a compact ballad (but which is the longest cut on the album), they also feature a thick instrumental middle, a rarity in Mitchell's usually chaste handling of Al's steady Memphis studio crew.
An increased use of electric piano causes the thickness. In spite of the superb playing, it obscures the real bones of the back-up, Charles Hodges' organ and Tennie Hodges' guitar. The clear presence of their sparse counterpoint is essential to the settings best for Al's voice; settings like those on "Home Again," "Free at Last" and, especially, on "So Good to be Here." The chorus,

So good to be here,
So good to see your face

is a stunning arrival musically as well as lyrically, for Al enters it from his low range in the last bar of the verse, ascending the scale of the refrain itself half in tenor, half in soprano, mirroring the sense of the words in the music. "Unchained Melody," on the other hand, parodies that success. The ascent to the chorus is made directly, over the tops of the notes on the climbing scale rather than under and through them. The landing is one of effect, not of feeling.
"So Good to be Here" is the album's most memorable tune, prettier than the other songs and more perfect vocally. It is compactly dramatic, wasting not a phrase in its reach through three moods, from offhand ease to braided tautness, much like "Free At Last," its only real rival.
Such economy and supple strength, though, are strangely hard to come by. There's more freedom in Mitchell's arrangements than ever before, calling for instrumental fills and even a short guitar solo on "My God is Real." What the looser settings do, however, is take the tension out of the whole sound (tension in the sense of structure, not harmonically but texturally). Al's singing suffers accordingly because too much of the burden of development is taken - intentionally? - away from him.
Mitchell's past arrangements were almost static, with the Memphis Horns or the strings alone embellishing the late choruses of songs. It brought out Al's particular genius for understatement and suggestion (which even by itself has canonized him among r&b singers), for he chose to lay back in the rhythm and insinuate rather than blurt it all out and finish the tune breathlessly (like so many singers), having run out of things to say. But insinuation occasionally becomes an end in itself here. Al's brilliant phrasing is no longer in the exclusive service of building up a tune. Sometimes he's just plain marking time, like on the title cut or on "Let's Get Married" (where the sentiment of resignation seems, mercifully, more a pose than a real assertion).
Somehow Al's characteristic intensity is too often missing, except in a few jewelled instances. Even the strings don't sound as sweet as they used to, as though a slack atmosphere reigned during the sessions. The last moments of the album (an attempt to end the excessive vamp on "Beware") are jarring and upsetting, for they contain the kind of joking finale one associates with Leon Russell. The very last thing on the record is Al Green's laughter, which probably began when the musicians couldn't end the tune. But as a way to end an album, it's pretty weird - not even Beatles giggling but big ha-ha's. I think I'll stick with Let's Stay Together.

Originally published in Crawdaddy, March, 1974

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