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Only Tigers Can Survive

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The Enduring Artistry Of
Iain Matthews
August 1, 2014

"I have been in love with painting ever since I became conscious of it at the age of six. I drew some pictures I thought fairly good when I was 50, but really, nothing I did before the age of 70 was of value at all." - Hokusai

Artistically restless and stubbornly persistent, Iain Matthews (formerly Ian Matthews, and even earlier Ian McDonald) is an unwavering survivor. His diverse musical career has endured for nearly 50 years now, yet why is it that most are virtually unaware that Matthews continues to produce stellar material well into the new millennium? The casual music listeners among you may be marginally cognizant of Matthews' name as having once been the leader of Matthews Southern Comfort, a group who enjoyed brief commercial success here in the States and in England with their 1970 cover of Joni Mitchell's, 'Woodstock.' The more serious listener meanwhile will no doubt be aware that Matthews had previously been an integral part of the early Fairport Convention line-up and group sound, just prior to his setting out on a solo career. After getting off to a shaky start with his first LP, 'Southern Comfort,' he chose to return to an ensemble setting forming the aforementioned Matthews Southern Comfort for a lovely pair of recordings, only to abruptly walk away from the band at the very height of their popularity. The following year brought his brilliant sophomore effort, 'If You Saw Thro' My Eyes,' an LP that easily on par with anything that Fairport Convention had produced musically. That should really come as no surprise however considering that Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Andy Roberts (guitar hot shot), Tim Renwick (Al Stewart), and Pat Donaldson (Fotheringay) all liberally contributed to the proceedings. Then came 'Tigers Will Survive' a mere twelve months later. While 'Tigers...' was not quite as memorable as its predecessor, it was a pleasing effort nevertheless that yielded a minor hit with his remake of the Crystal's, 'Da Do Ron Ron.' Another U-turn followed in 1972, demonstrating once again just how perpetually unsettled Matthews has proven to be. The singer established another group effort, forming the lesser known, Plainsong with compatriot, Andy Roberts in tow. After releasing only one LP, Matthews then turned back to his solo career, this time in earnest. As a few more of you might then also remember, this about face resulted in the excellent, 'Valley Hi' in 1973 with ex-Monkee, Michael Nesmith in the producer's seat, and 'Some Days You Eat The Bear, And Some Days The Bear Eats You' one year later. But for the vast majority of people, the musical history of Iain Matthews seems to end right there in 1974, none the wiser that Matthews soldiered on in what he's come to call his "borderline career."
*For the record, we could also mention his very early stint with Pyramid, but its inclusion is not really essential since they only released one single.

I find this to be somewhat astonishing when you consider that the mercurial Matthews has actually maintained a very active presence within the music community, releasing nearly three dozen additional recordings in the four decades that followed 'Some Days...' That Matthews is associated primarily with only the first ten years of his music making while the public at large remains nearly oblivious to his latter day work then becomes an unforgivable oversight. Of course one could almost be pardoned for having overlooked his erratic output from the late 70s through the 1980s. That period in time was something of a sink hole for nearly every musician of Matthews' generation and prior. After punk rock rendered their kind as prehistoric, the next wave of neu-Romantics then ruled the day with their hairdos, synthesizers, and their steely sonic landscape, forcing the Cro-Magnons to adapt alternative and often unsuitable approaches to making their music, an option that often didn't result in memorable outcomes. Even top-tier talents like Joni Mitchell succumbed to recording missteps like the Thomas Dolby produced, 'Dog Eat Dog,' and a misguided duet with Billy Idol on 1988's, 'Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm.' Needless to say, Iain Matthews wasn't exempt from donning clown costumes either. It was the only way for he and others to remain viable. Matthews choices appeared simple - M.O.R., dance friendly blue-eyed soul, alá Boz Scaggs' 'Silk Degrees,' or techno-pop. Not surprisingly, he tried all three with decidedly mixed results. The late 70s brought soft rock and white soul, while the 80s saw the heavy reliance on ARP synthesizers and drum machines, none of which truly fit him well. The songs were still there, in fact his writing remained as impeccable as ever, it was just that the format in which they were framed was not an especially complimentary showcase for his material. Nevertheless, the musician recorded an amazingly prolific 10 LPs during that difficult period, not one of which seemed to make any appreciable impact upon the public. Dejected, Matthews threw up his hands in disgust at the end of that run, and walked away from the art of making music to instead perform A&R duties for the new age label, Windham Hill. Of  that startling decision, Matthews says it was actually quite easy - "I was struggling for nearly 15 years, living hand to mouth with nothing to show for my efforts but a string of out-of-print LPs" - but then again, Matthews is a survivor.

The 1990s proved to be more forgiving for the songwriter. A gradual return to a more rootsier form of music in the marketplace opened the door for Matthews, the musician, to re-enter a more stylistically flattering playing field. It sparked a productive and rewarding succession of recordings that began in 1992 with 'Pure And Crooked,' and continued through 'A Tiniest Wham' which closed out the century. With acoustic guitars once again in vogue, Matthews' songs came alive as they had previously in former lifetimes, to deliver inspired, tastefully mature, and haunting reflections from a steadfast and eloquent musician who was now well into 3+ decades of making music.

One interesting facet of Matthews recording career up until this point had been his discerning ear for the songs of others. Throughout his first 20 years, the singer mixed his own material with well placed covers by the likes of Neil Young, Randy Newman, Jules Shears, Richard Farina, Al Anderson, Jesse Winchester, and the aforementioned, Joni Mitchell, as well as lesser known talents such as Paul Siebel, Duncan Browne, Allan 'Jake' Jacobs, and Pete Dello. One revealing aspect of Matthews brief hiatus however showed that the songwriter had gained new confidence and momentum as his own supplier in the interim. He increasingly began penning more and more of his own songs that easily stood shoulder to shoulder with those from whom he admired. Each new release became a musical statement of Matthews' belief in both himself and his talents. But the singer's impulsive side came to the fore as well in the new millennium, finding him collaborating with others as a way to maintain the momentum, and to explore new territories and genres. He worked with the talented guitarist and renowned songwriter, Elliot Murphy on two outings, reformed both Plainsong and Matthews Southern Comfort for new records, and hooked up with the Searing Quartet upon his move to Amsterdam in 2002. Under the direction of pianist, Egbert DeríxMatthews immersed himself in acoustic jazz for several recording dates with the pianist, in addition to forming No Grey Faith for a tribute to Sandy Denny, and assembling the trio, More Than A Song with bassist, Ad Vanderveen and guitarist/vocalist, Eliza Gilkyson, who collectively released two recordings.

Matthews' pleasant and silky tenor has always provided an anchor for his work, but his penchant for folk rock tinged with touches of country has also remained relatively consistent throughout the singer's extensive songbook. Lately however, the songwriter seems to be enjoying his collaboration with Egbert Deríx, declaring that his latest release, 'The Art Of Obscurity' will be the last of his solo efforts. Obviously, the title of his solo swan song is a self-deprecating reference to his disillusioning inability to connect with the record buying public. As difficult and as frustrating as that can be for any talented artist to accomplish, sadly there is more than a grain of truth behind Matthews' assessment of his own achievements, although not for lack of talent, nor trying. Even during those dark days of yore when preferred record production trends and public taste worked against him, Matthews always displayed the grace, resolve, and prowess of a jungle tiger. And like that tireless feline with its nine lives, Matthews has repeatedly shown that tigers can survive despite the odds against them. God bless you, Iain.

Gilded Cages

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The Lush Chamber Pop Of Eric Matthews
June 06, 2014

A thinking man's musician, Eric Matthews writes what I consider 'smart' songs. The composer, arranger, conductor, and producer pens lushly orchestrated material that seems to be borne from a magical time capsule, evoking another era, yet sounding modern at the same time. And while it is pop, many of his musical references are far more obscure than they might outwardly appear. Matthews doesn't always follow the designated pathway that's associated with the AABA form that's considered standard in pop music. His songs take little sidesteps along the way, unveiling small surprises that work to never quite take you where you thought you were heading. As subtle as those detours are, it's those understated diversions, those rabbit holes that make his songs uniquely his own, highly crafted and filled with copious atmosphere. Although he's often compared with Nick Drake, the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and the early baroque pop of the Bee Gees, placing Matthews within any one particular musical niche is actually a difficult endeavor. His songs are awash in harpsichords and pianos, flugelhorns and trumpets, violins and violas. Of course guitar, bass, and drums are also to be found, but in a beautifully poetic quote from Rolling Stone's, David Greenburger, "They're but foot soldiers amidst a platoon of stately orchestration, merely answering to that higher power."* 
*As an aside, this also illustrates why Greenburger's name is capable of a Rolling Stone byline while mine will never be.

Of course, 'smart' songs are usually 'cool' songs as well. What I mean is that this is not the sort of music that would necessarily sound great blasting from a car radio speaker on a sunny day at the beach. Matthews' material is considerably darker and muted, better suited for 'fire and rain.' It's interior music, similar in many way to the ambiance of David Sylvian in his most accessible moments. Additionally adding to this somewhat cerebral undercurrent is Matthews' often oblique lyrical content. At first blush, his words sound grand and perhaps even deeply profound, yet when taken alone, they appear to have come from the cut-up techniques of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs. That is to say that while they do paint a picture however vague it might be, it's not always an image that's easily discernible or even understood. Witness the opening lines from 'Flight And Lion' to see what I mean:

 "Strangest heart incredible/
Leave me alone, not approachable/
Travel from the inside so uglyful/
Shower golden sick side incapable." 

WTF? While it's entirely possible to read something into that, you have to admit you'd only be guessing. So you see, in Matthews' world, the words themselves are meant to play like music, words designed to fit inside the shape of the melody, and then sometimes the melody might give them meaning. Yet in the end, his lyrics can still leave you scratching your head in puzzlement. My advice - just flow with them. How Matthews ultimately succeeds in elevating his songs from being so 'cool' as to actually become distant, detached, and aloof is the warmth that his arrangements, along with his production values bring to the equation. That "platoon of stately orchestration" mentioned earlier provides the whisper of emotion that is otherwise subdued within his songs, wrapping you in a comforting blanket that serves to keep any potential chill at bay.

Although Matthews has had some classical training, it was largely the influence of his parent's Miles Davis platters (those with Gil Evans, presumably), as well as their orchestral music records (comprised primarily of Russian composers) that first inspired the songwriter. But the real impetus oddly was John Williams' 'Star Wars' score which entranced the young Matthews at an early age. It was this recording that steered him towards orchestral pursuits rather than rock 'n roll. Remarkably, his debut recording and its successor were both issued by Sub-Pop, a label better known for its grunge, punk, and metal music, yet Matthews readily admits to harboring a disdain for rock music having stated, "It all simply sounds loud … I couldn’t be any less in love with the aesthetic of guitars and guitar records." Nevertheless, the songwriter/musician has found a comfortable cranny where he's able to effectively make sumptuous rock music his own way. 'Gilded Cages, Vols. 1&2' is comprised of that music, the lush chamber pop of Eric Matthews.

The Women In My Life, Pt.5

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Long Hot Summer Nights  
 Wendy Waldman 
April 18, 2014

Some songs clearly reflect the musician's environment, artists like early Tom Waits for instance, or Bruce Springsteen when he was young, restless and hungry. The Beat infatuated Waits brilliantly captured the warp and woof of L.A.'s hidden underbelly with his documentation of nocturnal visits to the city's dimly lit taverns, all-night diners, and squalid SRO hotels that were home to three time losers; the marginalised who skulked in the shadows of the main drag searching for love, redemption and the elusive heart of a Saturday night. Springsteen on the other hand amplified the wild romance, hopes, and dreams of the East shore working class kids who populated the neon drenched mid-Atlantic seaside boardwalks and pinball arcades, a scene worlds away from the drudgery of their daytime factory jobs; a noisy, brightly lit milieu drenched in excitement, sexual energy and drama where just a mere 100 feet away lay another world, one where the racket and glare gave way to the soft crash of waves on a sandy beach, and a thousand stars that shined brightly overhead. Then there are others like the troubled, Nick Drake whose music didn't so much encapsulate an arena of any kind as it did to evoke a vibe, a underlying feeling that permeated the fabric of his songs. Which leads me to songstress, Wendy Waldman, the topic of this week's feature. The music that Waldman made as a young artist held the same sort of responsive sway as Drake's in that it elicited an emotional and spiritual condition, albeit a more optimistic one. It wasn't necessarily a music that reflected a specific place and time, rather, it framed of a state of being. But Waldman's songs were not nearly as overt as the others. Waits and Springsteen, however poetic they may have been, presented virtual snapshots. Drake's music on the other hand was sepia-toned ethos, dark and brooding, as unsettling and it was compelling. Similarly, Waldman's subject matter and tone also imparted a certain color and mood. It's just that in her case the atmosphere was not as obvious, perhaps more cloaked and therefore somewhat subjective. What one man hears in her music may be in some measure different for another. 

But what do I know? Maybe it's entirely subjective. Perhaps I'm just blowing smoke here. It might just be that I simply have nostalgic associations with Waldman's music. Maybe so. After all, I'm not a music critic, I'm just a music fan. But here's what I do know. I know that I've always liked Wendy Waldman's music despite my lack of a firm theoretical understanding of its potency. I know that she's a good songwriter too, interesting as well, and I know that Waldman is terribly underrated. She's one the few who came out of that early 70s Southern California music scene who didn't manage to succeed on quite the same level as her contemporaries, people like Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, or the Eagles (yawn). And who knows why? Well, informed sources will tell you that her record label was to blame - under-promoted, focused more on their bread winners - that sort of thing. To their credit however, Warner Brothers financed five recordings for Waldman, and they assembled a loving retrospective after she'd been freed of her contract with them. Personally, I'd say it's more likely that by the time her music found its audience, trends were changing and she simply ended up getting lost in the shuffle much to every one's loss. The consensus today however is that those recordings she made in the 1970s are among her best, a ironic twist considering. I can also tell you this as well, Waldman's got a good voice too, it suits her material to a T. Plus she's accomplished. She continues to successfully record under her own name, as well as writing for others. She has her own record label, has produced albums for Suzy Boguss, Matraca Berg, and Sweethearts of the Rodeo to name a few, and her house/studio in L.A. is home to the 35 year old public radio program, 'FolkScene.' On top of that, she's still easy on the eyes. So what's not to like?

That thing about evoking a state of being that I was jabbering on about earlier? Well, I still think there's some validity to that. The songs of Waits, Springsteen and Drake from roughly that same period as Waldman's illuminated a specific world, one which not everyone shared in common. That's what made them unique. There was film noir intrigue present in Waits' material, romance and camaraderie in Springsteen's, and unspeakable loneliness in Drake's. Waldman's songs on the other hand were more universal in their content, though every bit as evocative. Hers were filled with the soft undertow that flowed through everyday events - a current that was subtle and deceptive, one that was omnipresent without being readily obvious - songs that captured the 'vibe' of the time, but not necessarily the 'particulars' of the time. When I listen to her music, I'm instantly transported to one of two specific geographic regions - the villages and mid-sized cities of New England, or the vast California wilderness - two remarkable extremes, wouldn't you say? And why is that? Well, because the tone of her songs directly reflect her experiences and influences - the coffeehouses and folk clubs of Cambridge and its surrounding environs in the 1960's when New England hosted a burgeoning folk music scene that spawned the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Tom Rush, Jim Kweskin, and Geoff and Maria Muldaur among other notables. Yet on the other hand, as a native Californian, Waldman's music also carries the rustic qualities of that state's least populated areas where the only accompaniment to the strum of a guitar, dulcimer, or mandolin is the cry of an eagle, the howl of coyotes, and the aroma of sagebrush. Those quiet, natural and comforting vibrations abound in Waldman's songs.

So here's where the subjectivity comes into play. Without her songs addressing any of these emotions directly, Waldman's material nevertheless kindles the spirit of a comforting inner peace that is largely fleeting for most of us. It evokes the warmth that one experiences only in those moments when everything in the world seems to feel just right. It's music that is alive and living. For me personally, it stirs up the optimism of younger days that were filled with hope, determination and sensation, a walking dream where anything seemed possible and all was good. It doesn't especially matter when or where those feelings swelled, only that they were the blanket that wrapped you in the moment, if you were lucky enough of course to have ever experienced that sensation. In many ways, Waldman's music has the capacity to affect me like a drug. Obviously not in a stultifying way, but rather in a mood enhancing way, sort of like the calming buzz that one feels after a bit of wine, or a few tokes of low-gauge marijuana. Details become more evident and striking. You become more conscious of the moths that are drawn to the light of the corner lamp post on a long, hot summer night, or perhaps more aware of the sound of a distance train whistle, the playful bark of a dog, or the drone of the single engine propeller plane flying overhead. The minutia that colors the canvas in tiny brush strokes, the incidentals and impressions that highlight the moment. Those are magical elements to tune in to, and they're increasingly lost in our busy adult worlds, so therefore I feel reassured when I listen to Waldman's songs. For me, they reflect that precise state of mind and serve to remind me that I'm still capable of feeling and appreciating those sorts of simple pleasures, and that in a nutshell is what I like about Wendy Waldman and her music. She's a fine songwriter whose music speaks to me on many levels, and I yearn to return the those long hot summer nights her music evokes.

Girl On A Motor-Cycle

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Mystery Girl Lotti Golden
March 28, 2014

The girl on a motor-cycle

No, this isn't about the semi-erotic 1968 French film de cinema (also known as 'Naked Under Leather') which starred the young and ever fetching, Marianne Faithfull poured into a black leather body suit, and indulging herself in various psychedelic and carnal adventures.* But it is about another equally enchanting female rock singer whose debut LP of a quarter century ago chronicled her own saucy coming of age story. Simply called, 'Motor-Cycle,' the album is an autobiographical tale set in New York's East Village, mid to late 60s, a place and time when the district was still very much a bohemian enclave - filled with painters, sculptors, transvestites, poets, drug addicts, drag queens, eccentrics and malcontents - far removed from the vibe of today's Lower East Side. The artist I'm speaking of Lotti Golden, the very girl whose story is chronicled in 'Motor-Cycle.' When the LP was released in 1969, Look Magazine had this to say about the singer/poet/songwriter, "Everything surrounding Lotti is contradictory. She is direct-distant, earthy-fragile, young-old, part nun and part witch. When she speaks, the voice pipes and wavers like a little girl's, but the accent is tough Brooklyn. She industriously writes poetry and songs, rich in metaphor and starkly descriptive of people and places, and tells you with a straight face that "nothing's worthwhile, it's all a game, everything I do is just an excuse."
*And you know how I feel about Marianne.

The girl on a stoop
Addressing the album itself, the article touted 'Motor-Cycle' as "a synthesis of funky singing and honest, hip lyrics about urban teenage trauma. The music meanwhile is a sometimes satiric melange of rock, jazz, blues and soul which captures women's liberation and motorcycle soul in one fell psychedelic swoop." On the other hand, someone else said this of Golden's opus, "Self-consciously affirmed art is no match for the shell shockingly lurid. I'm thinking of the 1969 Lotti Golden album, 'Motor-Cycle' which in the name of some kind of perverse Midnight Cowboy-era, Piaf-of-Gotham shtick, takes Laura Nyro a step or two further than really necessary, and then sends her hurtling point-blank into the Velvet Underground, exploding in one huge fireball - a musical Ground Zero if ever there was one." I'm not entirely certain if this second uncredited assessment was meant as praise in the highest order, or complete and utter disdain. It could be either. You'll have to make that call for yourself after you've heard it.

As for myself, I've come to be captivated by Golden's debut. 'Motor-Cycle' is a fascinating tour-de-force of stream-of-consciousness thought and divergent musical touchstones that defy easy stylistic categorization, yet it's been most commonly juxtaposed with another Brooklyn born chanteuse who also held an affinity for high passion and soul music, and to whom Golden had been frequently compared; the great, Laura Nyro with her own ground-breaking LPs, 'More Than A New Discovery' and 'Eli And The Thirteenth Confession,' the latter of which was released the year prior to 'Motor-Cycle.' Like Nyro, Golden was only 19 years of age when she recorded and released her first LP, and although both women appeared to be somewhat older in their fully formed music, the lyrical content that informed their recordings played itself out in teenaged emotional turmoil; the kind of impassioned drama that can only be felt by girls so young and open to love, life and living. I should point out however that despite those similarities, Golden didn't possess nearly the same degree of finesse and depth that Laura Nyro held. The parallels between the two that continue to be sighted even today are nothing more than lazy categorization at best. Both songwriters obviously shared similar musical influences, and therefore their sensibilities did hold certain commonalities, but the two women and their art were a world apart when it comes down to brass tacks. The distinctions that separate them is that Golden was the wild and sassy, streetwise and tough shelled boho to Nyro's brooding and sensitive dark Madonna. Where Nyro searched for meaning and love, Golden played for kicks. Two entirely different types of girls. Plus, you've got to remember that it was Nyro who actually designed the template that others, including Golden could only hope to emulate, and that's not personal bias on my part, it's just the stone truth. Nevertheless, 'Motor-Cycle' is a compelling work of art. As the online music magazine, TMT aptly put it (and I'm paraphrasing here), "listening to 'Motor-Cycle' is like hearing Lou Reed's, Velvet Underground as recorded by Motown." You'll only need to hear it once to understand what that means.

The girl

'Motor-Cycle' is a 'song cycle' that consists of a mere seven titles, the duration of each falling somewhere between six to eight minutes in length on average. Within that time frame, each song is then inconceivably packed with more musical twists and turns than a mountain road - rock on one verse, jazz on the next, a soul groove for what appears to be the bridge (is it?), which then maybe descends into a slow blues only to be followed by what sounds like a chorus lifted from a Broadway stage show. Everything but the kitchen sink seems to be thrown into the mix, although that might actually be buried in there somewhere too. The shifts are schizophrenic, a bit disorienting, and entirely unnecessary, yet producer, Bob Crewe somehow manages to hold it all together, miraculously steering the bus from the cliff's edge. The results, however wild, are absolutely riveting. But then, adding an additional layer of bizarreness to the proceedings is Golden's poetry; more anecdotal verse than actual lyric. Her stories are populated by a circle of friends who seemingly came right out of Andy Warhol's Factory; a motley crew of misfits and angels, demons and saints, all who seem to ingest every street pharmaceutical available to mankind, from scag to speed, coke to Seconals, and even Robitussin (which at that time still contained codeine). It's surprising that the record company didn't insist on whitewashing the drug references. What's more astonishing is that they actually published a lyric sheet. It's been reported that after Crewe first heard the songs as demos, he felt compelled to pose the obvious question, "Just who are these friends of yours, Lotti?"

The girl with a guitar
Now as much as I'd like you to believe that I'm so very cool and have been down with Golden's hipster cache since the beginning, the reality is that it's only been within the last ten years or so that I've actually come around to fully embracing 'Motor-Cycle.' If I were to have based my opinions regarding her music solely on her debut, Golden wouldn't have been an artist whose music would be likely to ever dominate my turntable. Too esoteric, too over-the-top, an acquired taste best saved for special occasions. What truly turned my ear (and my attitude towards her) was Golden's sophomore effort, the self-titled, 'Lotti Golden' released some two years later in 1971. That second LP brought with it a welcomed stylistic shift. Gone were the excessive musical cues, as well as the melodrama and intrigue that underscored her debut. If fact, 'Lotti Golden' might perhaps be considered a more 'traditional' outing - one that's more song oriented than the conceptual opus that preceded it, is likewise stripped of the quasi-psychedelic flourishes that branded it, and certainly less lurid in its lyrical content - but in no way can 'Lotti Golden' be called a 'conventional' recording. Her sophomore effort showcased an even more emotive singer with a voice that now evoked a bizarre and arresting amalgamation of Bonnie Bramlett, Betty Davis, and Buffy Saint-Marie (of all people), if you can imagine that. Golden begins the LP with a whisper, but builds to a seductive scream in the latter half when she bathes herself in blues based material that's steeped in the sweetest of southern soul. It's a powerful performance that points to this particular arena being the one where Golden truly excelled best. Additional proof came in the form of a rare 45prm that was released in 1970, the year prior. Golden's debut was recorded for Atlantic Records with plans for a 2nd LP, tentatively to be entitled, 'Blood Ring.' For reasons that remain unclear, that follow-up was scrubbed, but a remarkable single was inexplicably released that is indisputably Golden's masterwork. She asserts complete control and domination over a driving performance of Mitch Ryder's, 'Sock It To Me, Baby' with snippets of the Isley Brothers', 'It's Your Thing' thrown in for good measure, resulting in a rendition that makes the song very much her own. Golden's recitation is nothing short of revelatory - funky, forceful, and commanding - and it should have elevated the singer to recognition as a soul shouter, if anyone had actually heard it. But they didn't. Meanwhile, the single's flip side, 'Annabelle With Bells (Home Made Girl)' is an obvious outtake from the 'Motor-Cycle' sessions, crafted in somewhat the same vein as the others on her debut. However, it's more linear and compact than its counterparts and would have made a welcomed addition to the full length LP, had it been included. Why it wasn't remains a question for the ages because if the whole of 'Motor-Cycle' had been like 'Annabelle...,' the LP might have found an audience, but then it also would have been far less of the curiosity that it was then, and remains today.

The girl with just two of her friends
All said and done, both 'Motor-Cycle' and 'Lotti Golden' make for captivating listening, whether taken alone, or in tandem. And I do encourage you to hear them both. Yes, they have their differences as well as their similarities, yet despite their age, they're as intriguing today as they were at the time of their release. I'm truly delighted to have finally gotten hip to just how rewarding spending time listening to Lotti Golden can be. And although I'm not yet geriatric, if I were a younger man trying to describe them, I'd probably be inclined to say something like, "This shit is dope!" And that too, is the stone truth.


As a solo musician and songwriter, Lotti Golden is today considered a cult artist, but the story doesn't end there. The talented Golden spent the 1970s as a contributing editor to Crawdaddy!, Creem, and Circus magazines. She's also regarded as a pioneer for her transition to the role of writer/producer in the early 1980s. After penning the mega dance-floor hit, 'I Specialize In Love' popularized by disco diva, Sharon Brown, Golden and her partner, Richard Scher masterminded a studio project, writing and recording under the moniker of Warp 9 (which also included 'Jellybean' Benitez). The wildly successful production product is now considered to have ignited the 'electro hip-hop' movement (a genre of which I know absolutely nothing), assuring Golden a secure future in studio production and hit songwriting for others in the 'urban dance music' scene. Those for whom she penned hits are Brenda K. Starr, Diana Ross, Brenda Holliday, Patti Austin, and others. Continued success came to Golden in the 1990s with her new business partner, Tommy Faragher. Together they authored and produced hits for Colin James, Eternal, Dana Dawson, Hinda Hicks, Bardot, and others whose names and music appear to exist in some parallel universe completely independent from my own. I can however claim to be familiar with a few others who have apparently benefited from the duo's 'golden' touch. That would be Al Green, Diane Schuur, and the O'Jays (the latter of which I didn't even know where still alive and recording!). To my knowledge, I haven't heard any of these productions that were designed exclusively for discotheques. It's an area that's not even on my radar. I guess that makes me more of a bird with a broken wing than I care to imagine. But when it comes to urban dance music, ask me if I really care.

Square Peg In A Round Hole

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Steve Kuhn
February 07, 2014

Don't let the often dour look on Steve Kuhn's face lead you to believe that his music is a somber affair. Quite the opposite actually, Kuhn's jazz songbook is full of lifeBorn of Hungarian ancestry, raised in Brooklyn, the composer and pianist is nevertheless a hard one to peg. A square peg in a round hole. He's released a multitude of recordings over his long career, yet has never truly received the recognition he's owed. While his playing is lyrical, harmonic and consistently intriguing, the music itself is knotty, filled with twists and turns that while firmly rooted in the jazz idiom, additionally draws on classical sources as well. His is a mixed bag of intellect, emotion and impressionism of which music writer, Thom Jurek aptly states as possessing, "Restlessness and calm, tempestuousness and serenity, conflict and resolution, and - above all - creativity and vision." In the liner notes to 'Promises Kept,' Kuhn's 2004 release for ECM Records, author Bob Blumenthal puts it another way: Kuhn has long had a capacity for creating indelible melodic notions and developing them with a sure sense of drama and unpredictable logic. His compositions rarely unfold with symmetrical regularity; like streams seeking their own course, they twist and surge, gaining emotional power in their turns from quiet reflection to bold passion.” Meanwhile, Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers says, “He’s one of the finest pianists out there today. Few other pianists, regardless of genre, can tease such an evocative range of timbres from their instrument. Kuhn’s lower register is as dark and rich as a Belgian chocolate, while his upper register has the light, translucent quality of ice-cold champagne.” Between the three, it's extremely high praise for a jazz pianist whose many recordings under his own name have been out of the mainstream for almost all of the five decades that his career has spanned. This is the music of Steve Kuhn.

Blessed with the gift of perfect pitch and a photographic memory, Kuhn began his musical career at the age of 13 when he began playing occasional engagements around Boston with saxophonist, Serge Chaloff whose mother, Margaret had educated Kuhn in the Russian style of piano playing which produced the like of Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Horowitz. Kuhn later attended Harvard University where he was able to meet and play with many traveling musicians who came through town including the great Coleman Hawkins and Chet Baker. He then enrolled in the prestigious Lenox School of Music alongside fellow students Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry where the faculty included Bill Evans, Gunther Schuller, George Russell and John Lewis. While attending the school, Kuhn was drafted by trumpeter, Kenny Dorham to take over the band's piano chair. One year later at the age of 21, Kuhn was then tapped by none other than John Coltrane who was piecing together his now infamous 'Quartet.' The pianist had only been with the band for a few weeks when Coltrane's first choice for the position, McCoy Tyner became available. It was a short run for Kuhn, but the experience was an eye opening one and made a lasting impression upon the young man who was slowing growing is stature himself.  

Kuhn then went on to work extensively with Stan Getz and Art Farmer, through whose groups he met and befriended bassists, Scott LaFaro and Steve Swallow, as well as drummers, Roy Haynes and Pete LaRoca of which Swallow and LaRoca became lifelong friendships and collaborators. Later in 1966 when he teamed up with his former Lenox School classmate, Gary McFarland, Kuhn's playing drew the interest of German record producer, Manfred Eicher. At the urging of Eicher, Kuhn left the environs of New York for Oslo, Sweden where he resided for several years working with vocalist, Karin Krog and other Scandinavian musicians, many of whom would would eventually, like himself, end up as key players in Eicher's newly created and atmospheric, ECM Records. Returning home to New York, Kuhn later recorded his very first date for the label, 1975's 'Trance,' followed almost immediately by the impressionistic, 'Ecstacy,' his first of only a handful of solo outings. The pianist's association with ECM proved to be the real departure point for Kuhn whose talents by now had further matured, displaying his deeply rich and idiosyncratic style. Although Kuhn has remained a sometimes overlooked figure in the overall scheme of modern jazz, his subsequent recordings for ECM, as well as the many exquisite performances that he's delivered since, have all succeeded in establishing that Kuhn as a true master pianist of our time, if not sadly a somewhat neglected one. 

About The Music

The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper has pointed out that, “Unlike many of his generation who take a right-handed approach, Kuhn dominates the whole instrument. His left hand is as creatively active as the right, and his notes are polished and pin-sharp. The ideas tumble freely, yet remain coherent as a composition.” Additionally, Kuhn's own website reminds us that "As a composer, Kuhn’s songbook is one of quality rather than quantity. He has revisited many pieces repeatedly over the years, revealing their depth anew with each fresh interpretation, like gems held up to different light." And so it's these particular qualities - Kuhn's unique piano style and his proclivity for compositional reinterpretation that will both become evident to you with the sets included below. Since I'm not nearly as poetic as Bob Blumenthal who was quoted previously, I won't attempt to paint a picture of Kuhn's impressionistic playing other than to share a few words with come to mind when I listen to Kuhn - deep, passionate, emotional, intelligent, provocative, tender, restless, serene, moving and memorable.

Regarding Kuhn's frequent revisiting of his own compositions, you'll hear two versions of his masterful, 'Oceans In The Sky.' The first is an extremely powerful and swirling quartet reading with Steve Slagle, Harvie Swartz and Michael Smith, and the second finds this Kuhn signature piece set with piano and highly evocative string arrangement. Likewise, 'Morning Dew II' is also a re-imagining with string accompaniment, while 'Morning Dew I' which immediately follows, radically turns it on his heel with an uptempo trio arrangement. If it weren't for the melody, you'd be inclined to think that they're two entirely different songs.

More surprising to you might be Kuhn's unique interpretation of Ravel's, 'Pavane For A Dead Princess,' and Tchaikovsky's, 'Swan Lake,' both in a trio setting that makes them sound as though they might have conceivably been composed during the 20th century rather than the 19th. It defies easy categorization, being all so very hard to peg, but that is the music of Steve Kuhn.

Champion The Underdog

  • 4
Right On The Line
John Handy
January 03, 2014
For my good friend, J.P. Gelinas whose ears are always wide open to everything

When Mosaic Records released the limited edition, (MS-035) 'Mosaic Select: John Handy' in 2009, the accompanying liner notes proclaimed "John Handy is truly one of the unsung greats of modern jazz - as saxophonist, composer/arranger and group leader - especially for the series of four albums that he recorded for Columbia Records between the years 1965 and 1968." They then went on to praise Handy's playing on alto sax especially, as "A thing of wonder, featuring a beautiful sound incorporating perfect intonation and articulation, as well as an extraordinary control of the upper register which he uses quite often and with great finesse in building excitement and intensity in his solos. It concluded by stating, "Handy's exciting 60's band had a unique, modern sound that was both melodic and intense, and his unending flow of fresh ideas, all seemingly devoid of 'licks,' ranks as one of the most striking and endearing characteristics of his work." 

Richard Seidel who penned those notes is spot on in his appraisal of Handy and his music. And the reason why Mosaic chose to reissue these CBS recordings from within Handy's entire body of work is because they are arguably among the very best in his long career. The music that was created by Handy and captured on those discs, today remains every bit as colorful, fresh and innovative as they were at the time of their release, a remarkable and certainly uncommon feat. 

The four Columbia dates that the Mosaic compilers refer to are 1965's, 'Live At The Monterey Jazz Festival' where Handy wowed the crowd with two lengthy compositions that he and his relatively new quintet performed during a Saturday afternoon of modal and avant-garde programming. On hand were himself (natch!) on alto sax, Michael White, a Bay Area powerhouse and favorite on violin, guitarist Jerry Hahn who had only recently replaced pianist Freddie Redd, bassist Don Thompson, and drummer Terry Clarke, the latter three all virtual unknowns at the time. Handy on the other hand had already established a reputation for himself when he previously contributed to several of the Charles Mingus' seminal recordings of the late 1950s. Handy's triumphant success at the storied Monterey Festival led to recording 'The 2nd John Handy Album' issued the following year. The Mosaic collection accurately reminds us that "This group was unique in the pantheon of jazz history. (Up until this time) that particular combination of instrumentation had rarely, if in fact ever, been used prior - certainly not to this extent or effectiveness. The very nature of the instruments themselves along with the styles of the five players creates an open and expansive palette, enabling them with a musical range that traverses long, trance-like Coltranesque modal pieces, to taunter, more direct and edgier rock pieces."* 1967's 'Summer of Love' brought the third CBS date for Handy, another live recording, this one taped at the Village Gate in NYC and called, 'New View!.' With 'New View!,' the quintet was replaced with an entirely new band, one that featured the great Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, the young Pat Martino on guitar, and a fine rhythm section that consisted of Albert Stinson and Doug Sides on bass and drums respectively. The next year found Handy back on his own turf in San Francisco, CA where his final recording for Columbia was 1968's, 'Projections' where he reunited with violinist Michael White, and added the exemplary Mike Nock at the piano, Bruce Cale on bass, and Larry Hancock on drums. Although these four albums remain difficult to categorize, they are nevertheless filled with musicality, and are rife with Handy's display of inventiveness, bold courage, and "the logic of his advanced yet tonal music." Even today in the year 2014, they continue to offer delights and surprises, hence my reason for featuring what I feel to be the 'best of' in the three sets found below. Also included are several outtakes, previously unreleased material recorded by Handy in 1966 that were included exclusively in the Mosaic Select box. These performances are included in Volume 3 which features a studio version of 'Tears Of Ole Miss (Anatomy Of A Riot),' as well as a 1967 recording from Carnegie Hall entitled, 'The Thing.' Why these recordings went unreleased until only recently is a mystery and not addressed within the notes, yet they are all top notch, each and every one --- fine compositions and excellent playing throughout.
 *Of which none of the latter are present in the sets below 

These Columbia dates certainly don't represent the whole of John Handy, but they are among his best recorded work. While the albums in question were indeed met with critical acclaim in their time, the saxophonist didn't see any real tangible success until the 1970s when he tailored his sound to the era and embarked on a more R&B influenced approach, incorporating elements of funk, smooth jazz and what some might call 'sell out.' But that's not a far assessment when it comes to jazz musicians. Unlike their rock counterparts, jazz players earn a fraction of what even the most marginal of rock bands are capable of making, an unjust imbalance that continues even today. For Handy, or for any of his contemporaries to have hopped on the gravy train for a brief ride can hardly be considered having sold out. In reality, what it boiled down to for them was simply survival, plain and simple. A chance to make some money while the gettin' was good. For the first time in many a year, the newer, homogenized jazz sound was selling. If history had been any reliable indicator (and it was), they all knew that this phase would only be a fleeting window of opportunity, and for Handy, it finally allowed him to live comfortably for the very first time as a working musician. 

One remarkable departure that the saxophonist made during this period was the recording of 'Karuņā Supreme,' the first of two collaborations he did with East Indian sarod master, Ali Akbar Khan and tabla wunderkind, Zakir Hussain. The second, called 'Rainbow' and released in 1981 featured the welcome addition of L. Subramaniam on violin. Although others before him had attempted various 'East meets West' fusions, Handy's work with Khan is by far the most rewarding of the lot, if you put faith in the reliability of my ears. Several examples of their wonderful co-partnership are featured in the sets below. But Handy increasingly became dismayed by the business and the concessions that one must sometimes make, so he turned to education after his commercially successful, but artistically lackluster run in the 1970s. He moved to teaching music at various institutes of higher learning including Stanford University, UC Berkeley, S.F. State, and at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. And even though Handy continued to remain active with his own music and performance, he's sadly kept a rather low profile for the remainder of his career. 

I recall during the 1980s that Handy played with some regularity at two of the San Francisco jazz clubs I frequented during that particular decade - Pearl's in Chinatown, and Milestones in the SOMA district - frequently sharing the stage with some incredible talent like George Cables, James Leary, Bruce Forman, Jeff Chambers, and of course his old friend, Bobby Hutcherson. Handy also joined Mel Martin and Warren Gale for a time in the band, 'Bebop And Beyond' which in addition to the aforementioned Cables, also featured Frank Tusa, and the late Eddie Marshall on drums. None of Handy's misdirected, albeit forgivable musical ideas from the 1970s were present in these later settings, but rather much the same John Handy whose innovative and unorthodox music is so gloriously represented in the four Columbia albums shown below, demonstrating that he remained as Charles Mingus once said of him, "a musician with a brain." 

John Handy should by all accounts be lionized for his remarkable contributions to modern jazz, yet he has remained criminally under-recorded and thereby, under-exposed and under-appreciated. So now, and in the future when recalling the 'greats' within that wonderful musical genre, let us remember to name drop the fabulous, John Handy. Your jazz friends will be duly impressed by your assessment.

I Want You To Feel Good Too

  • 15
148 Minutes With Terry Adams
December 27, 2013

Outside of Thelonious Monk, Terry Adams tops my list of pianists who really ring my bell. Best known for his work with NRBQ, Adams is an absolute monster on the ivories with his highly percussive playing style and wild abandon. Just check out his work on 'Want You To Feel Good Too' as a prime example of why he's always knocked me out.* Or on the other hand, give a listen to his solo on 'My Girlfriend's Pretty' which was recorded live at the Bearsville Theater in 2011. It's absolutely beautiful in its thoughtfulness and execution. But beyond his work with the 'Q,' Adams has also contributed to outside projects throughout his career having worked with Carla Bley and the Sun Ra Arkestra, as well as collaborating with saxophonists, Marshall Allen and Gary Windo, lending artful accompaniment to singer, Annie Ross, and additionally supplying the soundtrack to David Greenberger's, 'Duplex Planet Radio Hour.'  
*And then there's Al Anderson's blistering solo too! Just a few of the many reasons why I've always held NRBQ so dear.

Years ago, I started a tradition here at Birds With Broken Wings of ringing in the new calendar year with music from the only band that ever really mattered to me -- NRBQ. Sure, there are others whose music I like, but what better way to usher in a new year than with the type of joyful noise that can only be made by NRBQ? Well, perhaps the answer might be the music of their keyboardist, Terry Adams. Drawing from his solo recordings, his collaborations with the above-mentioned artists, and of course his contributions to the 'Q,' that's just what I intend to do this time 'round. By virtue of Adams having always been the driving force behind the band as a principle songwriter and guiding light, I think Terry's own music might just be a good contender, and an interesting departure from historical convention.

Provided you're not already familiar with some of the selections featured below, you're likely to discover that there are many sides to Adams beyond being the electric spark that continues to ignite NRBQ. Terry demonstrates an inherent ability to adapt his iconoclastic piano style to suit the occasion, taking in the mood and environment to tastefully fit his contributions to the role he plays within, yet he does so without sacrificing any of the trademark nuances for which he's come to be known. And that of course is the hallmark of any great pianist, one of which Adams certainly is. When backing vocalist, Annie Ross, he follows her lead as any good accompanist should. When with the Carla Bley Band, Terry effectively plays his essential part within a large ensemble that delicately balances scored composition with improvisation. But in both circumstances, Adams retains his own musical personality while tailoring it to the needs of the music. Case in point, when with NRBQ as you might already know, he can simply be all over the road, hammering the piano with fists and elbows one minute, and then caressing it the next, or diligently noodling about in search of the elusive and sometimes unattainable, although he usually manages to find the notes for which he's been searching. With a repertoire as large as their own, Adams needs to be flexible and diverse, and here's the key. When duetting with former Sun Ra saxophonist, Marshall Allen, the pianist appropriately plays both 'inside' and 'outside.' But in Adam's case, that's really not so unusual. His playing is always like that. In fact, it's where Terry's talent truly resides --- his equipoise of extremes. That ability makes his playing unpredictable, yet always right. Like Monk, he jabs at the keyboard as he formulates unusual chord voicings with interesting harmonics, and then pieces together solos that at times seem angular, or disjointed. And although they might sometimes sound ragged or crude, there's really a great amount of thought and feeling behind them. What his solos truly include are a sense of adventure and playfulness, and Adams is able to make it all work because he's a master at his instrument, channeling a bit of Monk, a slice of the 'Killer,' and a smidgen of Fats Domino into a style that becomes completely his own. To draw some sort of left field analogy, his playing is sort of like that kind of remarkable woman who's capable of casually throwing together an outfit of second-hand odds and ends and making it look absolutely fabulous, causing those around her wonder just how the hell she does it with such élan. That's what Terry Adams does at the piano. 

While these sets may not rock quite as much as an evening with the 'Q,' they're every bit as eclectic and musical, running the gamut from jazz to rock, blues and the avant-garde, and all done with Terry's unique panache. I hope you'll discover that there's more to Adams than the exuberant, madcap, but lovable stage presence you see when he's fronting the 'Q.' Of course he is those things, but first and foremost he's a top rate pianist -- one of the very best. Here's to '148 Minutes With Terry Adams' and also wishing a very Happy New Year to you.