Why I worship Jeff Beck

This article was originally published on OpenSalon.

If you’re an electric guitar player, forget reading this. Just go get the DVD and watch it. You’ll probably have to watch it in halves, as I did, because you’re likely to be overwhelmed by  two and a half hours of it. If you’re not sure whether to laugh, cry or put your guitar up for sale, do the first two. Then realize that you have much more to learn about your instrument and just being a musician.

For the rest of you, Jeff Beck performing this week…live at Ronnie Scott’s is a valedictory performance by one of the world’s great ignored guitar players. Although there are others — Ronnie Earl comes to mind — few have held the status for so long.

That wasn’t always the case. If you were a guitar player in the ’60s, you cut your teeth playing covers. Who you could cop was a mark of how good you were. The best guitar player in my high school was a kid named Randy Santoruffo. He was the only person who could play Roger McGuinn’s 8 Miles High solo note for note. Randy was the guy who first told me about Jeff Beck and all of the crazy things he could make a guitar do.

Watch this and you will understand that Jeff Beck had as much to do with shaping rock guitar as anyone alive or dead and seems not to care — he’s still searching for new sounds and grooves, not resting on his laurels.

If you’ve never heard Beck (as he was known before the kid fron LA), the DVD is backwards. You’ll want to listen to the two penultimate cuts where he and Clapton blaze through two Muddy Waters tunes, trading solos (inexplicably, these cuts are missing from the CD version). In particular, “You Need Love” is the kind of tune that tells you their respect and love for the blues, and even more, their knowlege and authenticity. Jimmy Page turned a lot of Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon tunes into histrionic little melodramas, making them safe for white kids in the heartland, but Beck and Clapton dig deep and retain the dangerousness, the rawness, the pain, even the African rhythms of 1950s Chicago blues.

Once you understand that, Beck is an open book. The 19 or so other tunes recorded over the course of a week in December 2007 are a great sampling of his career long ramblings through blues, rock, metal, funk, fusion, electronica and whatever else struck his fancy. In all of them, he makes the Stratocaster sing.  Eddie Van Halen was probably as good as Beck at all the techniques of making an overamped electric guitar do strange things, but Beck does it merely as a means to an end. And the end, for this silent performer, is to sing out his heart, his guts, and all the rest of him.

Nowhere is that better displayed than on his lyrical ballads. “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” is a tune Stevie Wonder wrote but didn’t record (he gave it to Beck in exchange for Beck’s solo on “Looking for Another Pure Love” onTalking Book) and it was the anchor of Beck’s most successful album, 1975’sBlow by Blow. This version hues fairly close to the original. The tune is, for me, equalled only by the Allman’s “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” among rock instrumentals for sheer beauty.

As beautiful is “Nadia” from 2001’s You Had It Coming. Apparently it began life as an Indian pop song. Here it is an achingly beautiful classic, like Miles playing My Funny Valentine or Coltrane playing In a Sentimental Mood. As with “Because…”, Beck plays largely single notes, using his mastery of the whammy bar and the volume knob swell. More than the gimmicks, his spare phrasing, his willingness to play soft, his sense of when to play fast and when to play slow, his use of the rich harmonics his massive Marshalls produce — all of it come together in breathtaking beauty.

There are other beautiful tracks, too: a fine take on the Beatles “Day in the Life,” a soulful version of “People Get Ready” with Joss Stone on vocals (make up your own mind — I liked Rod Stewart better on their early ’90s collaboration).

There are a few nods to Beck’s periodic infatuations with major chord rock, notably Big Block. Most of the rest of the cuts draw on his funk and fusion chops and whatever you might call the last 10 years of his catalog. It’s all good, it’s all great.

Chuck Berry took the newly electrified guitar of the early 1950s and laid the foundation for most of rock guitar with tunes like Johnny B. Goode, Maybelline, and Sweet Little Sixteen. It was fast, rhythmic, sly, hip and good to dance to. A decade later, young white kids in England wanted to turn up dial on frustration and rage and they began turning their more powerful amps and more tolerant guitars onto the blues they had been soaking up from America.

At the same time, Hendrix began experimenting with this new found electronic freedom in the context of the funk and soul bands he had been backing. All of this started to explode in the London of the mid-60s, with bands like Cream, The Yardbirds, The Who (pre-Tommy), Fleetwood Mac (the Peter Green edition), The Bluesbreakers, and so on creating the rock equivalent of free jazz. Suddenly, rock guitar players were doing more than fills at the end of the chorus.

Listen to Clapton’s legendary solos on “Crossroads” or “Spoonful” on Wheels of Fire and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Across the musical street, so to speak, Hendrix had created out of feedback a wholly different guitar sound. It was Beck, for me, who succesfully absorbed and bridged these two streams. Later, Santana would do something similar.

Part of the Hendrix legend is that he was supposed to record with Miles Davis the day he died.  Alas, we’ll never know how cool that might have been. But both Beck and Santana did creat real jazz in the 1970s and into the 80s. Sadly, no one was really listening that much. Both found their way back to  popular music, but Beck never really recaptured the audience interest nor certainly the financial success.

I never saw Beck back in the day, but have seen him 3 times over the last 15 years. Every time, he came out in blue jeans and a T-shit, plugged in and played his ass off for 90 minutes. No fog machines, dancing routines or other extraneous crap: just insanely good playing.

Nonetheless, Clapton, Beck and Hendrix remain for me the foundation of modern rock guitar. No Page, no Van Halen, no Satriani — well, the list goes on — without those three. Clapton long ago retired from the rock pioneer business, but Beck, he’s still the got the spirit.

One last note:  The DVD is also a great chance to see and hear Tal Wilkenfeld, the 22-year old Aussie bass phenom. You can get a taste of that in this clip from the Crossroads Festival.

Sarah Vaughan deserves more recognition

This article was originally published on OpenSalon.

The three big divas of jazz are unquestionably Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. Yet Vaughan seems to have been relegated to the status of insider’s gem. Think of Ken Burn’s Jazz series; you came away with a strong sense of Billy and Ella, but Sassy? Not so much.

For the uninitiated, Vaughan had an enormous range that she used flawlessly and at will. Like Holiday, she sang like a horn, often departing mightily both tonally and rhythmically from the melody and truly improvised, not only from one performance of a song to the next, but even from beginning to end. Like Ella, she could scat to beat the band.

I’ve been a fan for decades, but watching the Jazz Icons DVD of her live in Europe in 1958 and 1964, I was just blown away. Vaughan has had the rap with some people that her awesome technique got in the way of expressing the song. Seeing her live, not so. You can connect with her face and see the expressions change with the words and feel her moods change as she smiles, or becomes pensive.

You can also see that she’s somewhat shy and awkward, not a big secret. And here in lies the source, I believe, of her reduced posthumous popularity. She has no personal hook to hang on to. Billy is the archetypal black jazz story: poor, addicted, overcoming those to become a great artist, Lady Day. Ella, the crossover star. Sarah? Just another ordinary Afro-American singer, albeit with arguably the greatest popular singing talent of the 20th century.

And I wonder how much our twisted racial sensibilities play into this, at least for white folks. All three of these singers deserve adulation on their merit. But does Billy’s tragic life help us confront our tragic history? Is Ella easier to take? Does Sarah fit into that no-man’s land, like maybe Dinah Washington, of the black singer who sang on her own terms, whose only attraction is talent? Yes, it’s a strange country we live in.

Anyway, listen to Sarah Vaughan sing two very familiar tunes, signature tunes of other singers (always a brave act!)  — Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Lover Man — from her 1958 Dutch tour and see if you’re not bowled over not just by her talent, but by the aching beauty of her interpretation. Listen to Lullaby of Birdland on her 1954 album with Clifford Brown and see if you don’t think she could swing as well as anyone; listen to the delicate interplay with Brown on the break of Jim and see if you don’t think she was one of the great musicians of jazz history.

Reconsidering Herbie Hancock


This article orginally appeared on OpenSalon.

In the last year, I’ve purchased LPs of Hancock’s first two albums (Takin’ Off, Maiden Voyage) and the remastered CD of Empyrean Isles, his third. It’s given me a chance to hear the early Hancock in a concentrated dose and reconsider his place in the evolution of jazz. And a lofty place it is, I’ve decided.

Each has a tune or two that everyone knows, in one way or another. Takin’ Off starts off with Watermelon Man, Herbie’s signature take on Mongo Santamaria’s classic. Maiden Voyage has the title cut and Dolphin Dance, two tunes you’ve heard even if you don’t know it, as they’re often used in movies and such to denote hip sophisticated ’60s scenes. Empyrean Isles has Cantaloupe Island, sampled extensively (as are the other tunes I’ve mentioned) by funksters and hip-hoppers. It was the underlying loop for a big hip-hop hit by someone I can’t remember, but you’ve heard them.

Hancock came on the scene at a pivotal time in jazz history. The golden era of post-bop music that grew up around Monk, Coltrane, Davis, Rollins and others was essentially over. Free jazz, whether the Ornette Coleman strain or the John Coltrane strain, was just building up steam, to be headed off into the wild blues yonder. Many of the former era’s second tier was creating very nice but not so innovative music under the various umbrellas of hard bop, soul jazz and so on (Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderely, Horace Parlan, and so on).

There were a lot of idiosyncratic innovators — Bill Evans comes to mind — and the Brazilian/Latin fusion thing was also going on. But jazz lacked a center that was both innovative and accessible.

So let me suggest that in retrospect, it was Hancock who created that, or at least tried.

The first album only hints at it. Hancock mostly comps great  behind the great Dexter Gordon, who himself was among the most soulful of the older generation. But Watermelon Man puts a marker down for funky syncopated rhythms played over simple chord progressions.

It’s on Maiden Voyage that Hancock lays his cards down. He takes on Blue Note session trumpeter Freddie Hubbard as co-conspirator and along with tenorman George Russell, they wind their way through a series of tunes that combines Blakey like rhythms with some of Davis’ modal ideas.

Looking back, it seems to me that Davis looked at modal jazz as a way to simplify soloing. Evans, McCoy Tyner, and especially Hancock, took that idea and wrote tunes that started with the chords that Miles would hint at in his solos, so to speak.

OK, so that’s a lot of music theory speak for saying that Hancock started writing tunes that were not dedicated to all sorts of torturous chord changes in the bop style but rather to a smaller number of more interesting chords that let solos breath.  Somedays I hear it as an updating of the blues — a way to approach chords that gives a song a readily comprehensible structure, creates tension and release, and leaves room for a lot of creative improvisation.

Before giving Hancock all the credit, it’s worth noting that So What, Davis’ masterful opener to Kind of Blue, is really the mother of all of these tunes. You have to pinch yourself when you realize that Davis wrote a tune in 1957 that set the tone for so much of music from then until now.

But it’s Hancock, on Maiden Voyage and Empyrean Isles, that turned that idea into a repertoire. Listen to Oliloqui Valley on Empyrean Isles and you’ll hear a kind of music that’s at once hip and accessible. Gathering around him topflight Blue Note session men Hubbard and bassist Ron Carter and enfant terrible Tony Williams on drums, he creates music that’s the jazz companion to James Brown — tight, hip and listenable.

It was this group that Miles essentially adopted after several years wandering in the wilderness looking for a replacement to his second great group, the Kind of Blue ensemble (Evans, Adderley, Coltrane, Paul Chambers (b) and  Jimmy Cobb (d)). Davis’ also added saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who in the Blakey band had also been writing these kind of new tunes, although often his tunes are somewhat more complex and idiosyncratic. I guess I should also point out that Adderley keyboardist Joe Zwainul (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy) was into similar things, later to anchor Weather Report with Shorter and bassist Jaco Pastorious.

In interviews,  Hancock is always deferential to Davis’ legacy. You might get the impression that the band were a bunch of talented kids molded by the master. Listen to Hancock’s early work and you can see how wrong that would be. This group brought with it 50% of what Davis was looking for in the late ’60s, easily. That he later pushed into electric music and so on is a subject for another post, but in bringing on the Hancock ensemble, he must have learned from them, too.

Hancock has gotten a lot of props this year for his wonderful Joni Letters album. I hope some people have had a chance to go back over his body of work. Whether its the early period, his Headhunters stuff, or gems like The New Standards, Hancock has been much more than a great piano player. Check it out.