Monday, November 27, 2017

What Was It Like to Play With Guitarist Roy Buchanan?

Roy Buchanan might have been the quintessential “guitarist’s guitarist,” earning the respect and admiration of contemporaries such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, yet never achieving mainstream success. But one defines “success” on one’s own terms. As the artist himself said in the 1971 PBS documentary Introducing Roy Buchanan: The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist: “I didn’t care whether I made it big…all I wanted to do was learn to play the guitar for myself. 
You’ll feel it in your heart whether you’ve succeeded or not.” By the time of his untimely — and, some say, suspicious — death in 1988 he’d done much more than “learn to play,” having established himself as one of the premiere American electric guitarists. His pioneering use of the full musical and sonic capabilities of the Fender Telecaster especially influenced the generation of guitarists who followed. Bass guitarist Jeff Ganz toured with Roy in one of his final lineups, a power trio also featuring drummer Ray Marchica. I had a conversation with the veteran NYC bassist recently, in which he shed some light on Roy Buchanan, both as man and musician.
Q: When did you first become aware of Roy Buchanan?
A: I was made aware of him like everybody else, watching the PBS documentary on television. When I heard him, he was always in a very traditional surrounding, like in a 4-piece rhythm section. But it was polite, swinging, rockabilly-oriented rhythm section playing, with his brand of guitar: everything that became popular that you could do on a Telecaster later, (only) he was doing it in 1959!
Q: How did the band come together?
A: I was recommended to be a local musician, which was his paradigm in the mid-‘80s; there were different versions of his band that didn’t last very long, and then it became not a band at all because he could make more money with “pickup” guys, because the people were not there to see anything but him. The fellow who produced the PBS documentary was named John Adams, and a mutual friend of ours named Scott Kuney recommended me to do the gig, and asked if I could get a drummer. So I recommended Ray Marchica. Ray has a very diverse resume, everything from Broadway pit work, to Dan Hartman, the Ed Palermo Big Band…this is a total musician, and one of my closest friends. The only time we ever got together to rehearse was the very first time he was checking us out on December 7th, 1984 at RCA Studios in New York.
Q: How was it that first time you played with him?
A: Analogous to what John Paul Jones said about the first day of Led Zeppelin, the room just exploded! ‘Cause you’ve got New York guys who are listening and adapting to the situation, and are being asked to contribute their own ideas; all of that happened very simultaneously. Our first gig was the next day at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ, opening for Robin Trower. To be honest with you, it went so well that we got some heavy, heavy reviews in the Newark Star Ledger; the guy really liked the band! Also, because Roy knew about this band’s versatility, even from the first gig he started to experiment. Like, he goes “Hey Jeff, do you know ’The Lady Is a Tramp?’” I said, “Yeah!” He says, “Well, can you sing it?” And that’s what happened on the first gig: I sang “Lady Is a Tramp,” and it sounded like “I Saw Her Standing There,” with Roy trying to cop that exact groove! So he started trusting this band right away.
Q: What was the most fulfilling aspect of your experience with Roy?
A: My personal thing was when he was able to rip into a solo without a lot of accompaniment, when it was just me and the 8-string bass with him. So there was a lot of room to do what he did and experiment, and then Ray and I kind of music-directed him with “stop time” and stuff like that, but never really took him out of what he did. When you’re playing with a more “traditional” blues band, you play your solos and then you stop and you’re comping behind somebody else. That isn’t really what happened in our band. It was him, and arrangements on the spot. There were a lot of things going on in my head simultaneously: it was like, I’m doing a gig, but I’m being asked to be me! Now I’m feeling 14 again, and idealistic about why I started!
Q: Roy gained the admiration of many legendary guitarists, but not their level of fame or recognition. How come?
A: The difference between Roy and those guys is that Roy was not the least bit conscious of his own image. He would get onstage and wear whatever he wanted to wear; he was not interested in any visual trends, he was strictly a real guitar player, you know what I mean? There were times when Ray and I wanted to leverage him into something bigger, and he simply wasn’t interested in pursuing it. It was a different kind of mind set; he just wanted to play the guitar, but he wanted to play his way. He was the antithesis of “showmanship.” He wasn’t lighting his guitar on fire, making himself look a certain way, or playing licks over and over to impress the crowd, like so many people are now. I think he was one of those guys who just wanted to work, but he was stuck being a genius! And with that came a lot of the demons.
Q: So he wasn’t conscious of his “brand?”
A: Hard to say…it seemed that way to me, but how do I know? He took all the real answers with him.
-Interview by John Montagna
Writer’s Note: Mr. Ganz’s comments have been edited for brevity and consistency.
PS. Some thoughts on technology and the guitar. And some other low-key heroes of the music scene.
Photo of Roy Buchanan by Tom Morton of the Hochberg Photo Collection

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Creme de la Creme of Cream’s Jack Bruce

by John Montagna, Culture Sonar:

Legendary bassist, vocalist and composer Jack Bruce passed away just over three years ago. His groundbreaking work with Cream in the 1960s made him a household name and bonafide rock star. But his unpredictable, genre-defying solo catalog is where the real goodies are to be found. 

Originally hailing from the tough streets of Glasgow, John Symon Asher Bruce began his career as a jazz bassist in his teens. Later he studied cello and composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, but the Academy frowned upon its students playing jazz; they demanded he choose between school and his jazz gigs. Fortunately Jack (wisely) quit school and ultimately made his way to London and its vibrant jazz and R&B scene. 

Keeping company with top players such as Alexis KornerJohn MayallGraham Bond, and (of course) Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton, his bold, melodic approach on acoustic AND electric bass set him apart from the pack. 

It is that spirit of adventure and experimentation that makes Jack Bruce’s solo work so captivating and addictive. He was equally adept at the fearless improvisation of jazz, the raw power of the blues and rock and roll, and harmonically rich compositions that reflect his early classical training. He was also unconcerned with the commercial potential of his solo recordings, choosing instead to follow wherever his muse led him. 

With such a rich and eclectic body of work it’s difficult to choose which of his albums to start with, but in my opinion these three are the purest examples of Jack Bruce at his essential best. If you’ve only heard him with Cream, you don’t know Jack.

A Question of Time (1989)
An excellent primer, possibly the closest Jack ever came to making a “mainstream pop” album. But don’t let the smooth, streamlined production fool you. 

The full spectrum of Jack’s unique musical language is represented here, from head-banging rock (“Life On Earth”) to greasy funk (“Grease The Wheels”), down-and-dirty blues (“Blues You Can’t Lose”) and a dreamy, soulful ballad based on an old Scottish folk song (“Make Love”). 

Jack glues it all together with thick bass lines from his Warwick fretless (some of his most potent playing on record) and his then-45-year-old voice, still strong and full of emotional power. Guests include Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell, legendary jazz drummer Tony Williams, blues master Albert Collins, and his old Cream mate Ginger Baker. A stunner.
Things We Like (1970, recorded in 1968)
Jack’s solo career is marked by bold choices. His first move after the demise of Cream was a return to the upright bass for this frenetic “free jazz” session featuring drummer Jon Hiseman, saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, and guitarist John McLaughlin (yes, THAT John McLaughlin). 

Egged on by old mates from his London jazz days, Jack mercilessly attacks his upright like Charles Mingus after a quart of Irish coffee (one wonders why he didn’t record on upright more; he’s a monster!).

Jack claims to have written most of the tunes on TWL when he was twelve years old, and the quartet gets right down to post-bop business using them as springboards for some mind-blowing group improvisation. Lean, mean and uncompromising, Things We Like is (dare I say it) far more compelling than the “live” half of the double Wheels of Fire album!

Harmony Row (1971)
In 1970 Jack toured sporadically with Tony Williams’ Lifetime, but the pioneering fusion group only saw marginal success. Returning home to London, Jack wrote an entire series of songs in one afternoon, and by January 1971 he was committing them to tape at Command Studios with ace session guitarist Chris Spedding and Soft Machine drummer John Marshall. 

The music on Harmony Row is unlike anything Jack (or anyone else) has produced: atonal harmonies, unorthodox song structures that allow for fiery group improvisation, and abstract lyrics by Jack’s longtime collaborator Pete Brown about post-war Britain, societal decay and complicated relationships.

Jack later referred to HR as his favorite album, and it’s easy to see why. Taking the album’s title from a tenement street in Glasgow not far from where he grew up, the nod to his humble roots and the personal nature of the music make Harmony Row a singular artistic statement by a singular artist. It feels like the musical heart of Jack Bruce: restless, always exploring new territory, sometimes dangerous and confusing, other times beautiful and profound.
PS.  A meditation on a legendary musical instrument and how it shaped rock and jazz … and an interview with another English blues-lover who shaped rock music.
Photo: Pierre Manevy (Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Monday, November 6, 2017

10 Things You Didn’t Know About “I Am The Walrus”

This November marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.” Written primarily by John Lennon for the TV movie Magical Mystery Tour“I Am The Walrus” features a cryptic Lennon lyric with a bizarre chorus, an innovative arrangement from producer George Martin that includes sprechgesang (don’t worry, I’ll define it in a moment), studio trickery from engineers Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott, and an excerpt from Shakespeare’s King Lear. All of this adds up to create The Beatles’ psychedelic masterpiece. Here are ten things you may not know about “I Am The Walrus.”
1. The song owes a huge debt to Lennon’s favorite hallucinogenic…
Lennon wrote the bulk of the song during several LSD trips. During one trip, he heard the two-note pattern of a police siren passing by. The sound morphed into the opening notes of “I Am The Walrus.” They are even mimicked in the two note motif in the verse (“Mis-ter ci-ty p’lice-man…”).
2. … And to Quarry Bank High School
“He has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced.” That was a description of John Lennon written by the headmaster of Quarry Bank High School in 1956. Just ten years later, a student at Quarry Bank wrote Lennon to tell him that they were analyzing Beatles lyrics in class. Lennon decided to give the students (along with music critics) something a little more difficult to analyze. So, he turned an old playground nursery rhyme that he sang as a child (“yellow matter custard/green slop pie/all mixed together with a dead dog’s eye”) into the line “yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.”
3. The Mysterious Eggman
The title of the song was based on the poem “The Walrus and The Carpenter” by one of Lennon’s favorite authors, Lewis Carroll. It wasn’t until later that John realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the poem! There is no “egg man” in the poem, although Humpty Dumpty does make an appearance in Through the Looking Glass. Surprisingly, Eric Burdon, lead singer of The Animals, stepped forward to claim that he was the egg man referenced by Lennon. Burdon was known as “Eggs” to his friends, due to his strange fetish of breaking eggs over naked women.
4. The Beatles Were Crying
At the end of each verse, Lennon sings “I’m crying.” The Beatles had been doing a lot of crying around this time, since their manager Brian Epstein had recently died. In fact, “I Am The Walrus” was the first song The Beatles recorded after Epstein’s death four days earlier. “I’m crying” could also be an allusion to one of The Beatles’ favorite singers Smokey Robinson who had sung the same phrase in the 1965 song “Oooh, Baby Baby”.
5. A Vocal from the Moon
Lennon, one of rock’s best vocalists, was always frustrated by the sound of his voice. For “I Am The Walrus,” he asked engineer Geoff Emerick to make his voice sound like it was coming from the moon. As always, Emerick turned Lennon’s strange request into the perfect effect. Violating EMI’s strict rules, Emerick had Lennon record his vocals using a low-fidelity talkback microphone (typically used by an engineer in the control room to “talk back” to musicians in the recording studio). This helped create one of rock music’s first distorted lead vocals.
6. The Human Click Track
The recording of “I Am The Walrus” was incredibly complex, ultimately taking 25 takes to complete. On one of the earlier takes, Lennon was playing an electronic keyboard called a Hofner Pianet (some sources say it was a Wurlitzer electric piano) and was making a lot of mistakes. Ringo was having trouble keeping a steady tempo — understandable, considering the song was long with a slow tempo. On top of all this, emotions were high due to Epstein’s recent death. George Martin was getting frustrated and his temper was beginning to show. McCartney jumped into action and saved the day by playing tambourine next to Ringo, acting as a human click track to keep Ringo in sync with Lennon’s keyboard.
7. What the Hell Am I Supposed To Do With This?
When Lennon first performed “I Am The Walrus” for George Martin, he asked Martin for the producer’s opinion. “Well, John, to be honest, I have only one question,” Martin said. “What the hell do you expect me to do with that?!?” Luckily, the always inventive Martin came up with an innovative orchestral arrangement that fit the song perfectly. It features eight violins and four cellos, three French horns, and a contrabass clarinet — a rare member of the clarinet family that was a favorite of Frank Zappa. In fact, Zappa loved “I Am The Walrus,” and played it often in his concerts.
8. Stick It Up Your Jumper
Martin’s arrangement didn’t stop with the orchestral instruments. He clearly felt that Lennon’s song needed something more. So, he hired the Mike Sammes singers, known for their work on Disney films and TV themes. Rather than create a standard vocal arrangement, Martin took advantage of the singers’ excellent score reading skills and created a sprechgesang arrangement. Sprechgesang, which means “spoken singing”, is a vocal technique halfway between singing and speaking. In his score to “I Am The Walrus,” Martin had the Mike Sammes singers make whooping sounds, laugh, snort, and shout phrases like “Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper!” Nothing like this had ever been heard on a popular music recording.
9. Thou Hast Slain Me
At the end of the very complicated mixing sessions for “I Am The Walrus”, Lennon had an idea that made Martin roll his eyes — mixing a live radio broadcast into the recording. It took some engineering work from Geoff Emerick (plus some paperwork to get permission from his bosses at EMI) to patch an AM radio into the console. During the mix, Ringo manned the radio while John instructed him when to turn the knobs. Coincidentally, Ringo stumbled on the BBC production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear. The broadcast was at the point of Act IV, Scene VI, where the steward “Oswald” is killed.
10. Walruses in White Satin?
Many artists have claimed that they were part of a Beatles recording even though no proof exists. A few years ago, Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues claimed that he and Mike Pinder sang backing vocals on “I Am The Walrus.” This claim is not backed up by any other source. (Thomas also claimed that it was his idea to put harmonicas on “The Fool on the Hill” and that an adventure with a groupie inspired McCartney to write “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window.”)
Bonus: Who IS the “Walrus?”
When John wrote and recorded “I Am The Walrus,” it was weeks before he donned the costume for the famous sequence in Magical Mystery Tour. Mysteriously, the soundtrack album included a comment below the song listing: “’No, you’re not!’ said Little Nicola.” John confused things even more when he sang, “The walrus was Paul” in the White Album song “Glass Onion.”
Some conspiracy theorists claimed that the walrus was a symbol of death in Greek and Eskimo mythology. The fact that this was blatantly false didn’t matter. It was one of the clues (along with the King Lear death scene) that helped to create the “Paul Is Dead” myth.
Eventually, Paul had the last laugh when he wore a walrus mask for the video to George Harrison’s 1988 song “When We Was Fab.” Finally, he was the walrus.
PS. He was invaluable in shaping one of their most colorful albums.  Plus, read more about the legends, stories and tall tales behind many Beatle tracks.
Photo: Keystone, courtesy Getty Images