Monday, July 25, 2011

Rick's Place

I first heard the resonant, staccato name "Rick von Schmidt" (more frequently "Eric") on Bob Dylan's debut album back in 1962, when "the Zimmer Man" intro'ed one song, "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," thus: "I first heard this from Rick von Schmidt... He lives in Cambridge... Rick's a Blues guitar player... I met him one day in the, uh, green pastures of Harvard University!" (And thus did the fledgling folkie not only publicize von Schmidt, but also craftily announce the Chaplin-clown-wiseass persona of an unknown kid calling himself "Bob Dylan.")

Somehow Rick's name took on a mysterious incantatory power... and I'll bet I wasn't the only listener to wonder "Who's this Cambridge guy? Dylan's weird enough; is von Schmidt his mentor or something? Could he be that strange too?" Gradually, as Dylan and Joan Baez and Judy Collins and others replaced the various Trios and Belafontes of folk music, word got out about Eric too--a somewhat eccentric bearded painter/illustrator who also wrote folksongs and sang, part of the amazing coterie that included Richard Farina, Dave Van Ronk, Rolf Cahn, Tom Rush--and Jack Elliott whenever he rambled through. Eric's father Harold was a wellknown and respected cover artist for The Saturday Evening Post (like his pal Norman Rockwell), and the son wandered off on his own illustrative path, which included stays in Europe and England and the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, as well as his Boston-area home turf.

By the time Dylan mentioned him, von Schmidt already had one album out in the States and another soon to be recorded in England, and in 1963 there would be a Blues LP on Prestige Records' folk line. Also recording for the label about then was another new face, Tom Rush--who always knew a good song when he heard it. Within a couple of years, Tom and other singers from DeShannon, Jackie, to Dylan, Bob, were mining Eric Sings von Schmidt, his Prestige follow-up, for Eric's originals... and that's continued for 40 years, with many covers of "Cold Grey Dawn," "Light Rain," "Rattlesnake Preacher," "My Love Come Rolling Down," even the sarcastic mock-doowop "Acne," but especially his island-rhythm, Caribbean hard-times tale--a true classic--"Joshua Gone Barbados," about an out-for-himself union boss, who rouses his followers to action, then flees the violence that follows:

Yeah, Joshua gone Barbados
Stayin' in a big hotel
People on St. Vincent
Got many sad tales to tell...

But Joshua gone Barbados
Just like he don't know
The people on the island
Got no place to go.

(Another beautiful number worthy of new versions is "Blues for Kennedy," written in the wake of the assassination. Support musicians Geoff Muldaur and the infamous Mel Lyman are major assets on this track and elsewhere.)

Comic, cryptic, rhyming liner notes by Richard Farina, and von Schmidt's self-portrait, line-drawing cover complete a great album package. Look close to see that Eric holds a small piece of paper which quietly states, "All my own work." An artist indeed. And gradually his impetus switched from performing to painting as he became the artist of choice for many in the folk world. His impish portraits adorned albums celebrating Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Cisco Houston, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Dave Van Ronk, the Reverend Gary Davis, Paul Geremia, and many others, and for the one-and-only album by country-rockers the Blue Velvet Band, he designed a complete board game citing anecdotes true and otherwise from the lives of real country/bluegrass musicians.

One of the Blue Velvets was Jim Rooney, producer, musician, and Bill Monroe expert. In the late Seventies Cambridge scenesters Jim and Eric teamed up to compile the definitive history, photo-rich, of the Cambridge folk era; they called it Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (yes, same title as the von Schmidt song that Dylan made famous). An oral history comprised of thorough interviews with some 60 folks who were there and had many a fine tale to tell, tied together by the wry and hip commentary of the author-editors. But the small print run meant a quick out-of-print status--such that when an ex-Boston recording engineer borrowed my copy, he decided not to bother to return it! But demand for the elusive book eventually led to a revised second edition issued in 1994. (Yes, I own a copy and, no, I'm not loaning it out.)

So writer-artist Eric began writing and illustrating children's books too. And he recorded several more solo-with-friends albums over the years, but without ever snagging the gold ring or, really, recapturing the magic. While his arts/painting career went ticking merrily along, von Schmidt's reputation in folk music sputtered to an undeserved halt. His last two albums were (1) a mid-Nineties, newly recorded attempt at a career greatest-hits overview and (2) the 30-years-late release of an unissued album--a good one too--recorded back in 1972 or so.

But the earth's orbit did not alter, and Eric died suddenly, less than a year later, on February 2, 2003--Ground Hog's Day (my birthday too) become an unwelcome part of history yet again. His unexpected death may have marked an ignominious end to a solid folk career, but we'd do well to remember there was a time when a younger, questing world was ready, baby, to follow Eric von Schmidt downtown, up the country, and all around--from Cambridge to St. Vincent and points east, but west to Minneapolis and on out to Oregon too.

And wasn't that a mighty time? There was magic in that name, and that man.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Make Ice, Not War

Across the U.S. this year, July has been a grim torment. But Washington State goes blithely on, troubled not by hellish heat but by persistent grey clouds and rain. For us it's been uncommonly cold or unusually muggy, but tiny irritations, of course, compared to the weirdness of weather and brainless political posturing going on in the other Washington and various states.

In July of 1986, a quarter century ago now, I was zipping around Europe thanks to a Eurail pass, sleeping on trains or in youth hostels--six months into what would become a 20-month, around-the-world adventure. Back then, most terrorism was still centered in the Middle East; but there was that plane at Lockerbie... and as a result Reagan had been bombing Libya (and 25 years on, plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose!) and I had been quizzed and harangued about "our cowboy President" everywhere I went, Fiji to Frankfurt, Auckland to Austria, Koh Samui to Copenhagen, Bali to Burma to Basel.

One hot day, I sought to escape all the polite disapproval of American policies and policing by holing up in an air-conditioned McDonald's. I was thirsty anyway, and Mickey D's always had ice, even in Switzerland. Sitting there, I started writing a quirky little poem about frozen water--any cold warfare reference was purely coinci-dental--and like glacial melt it just grew:

Chewing Ice

From the press and rush, the crowd of quick and lucrid,
I have come to these familiar golden arches,
misplaced on a platz in Basel’s merchant core.
I’m thousands of miles from the nearest Boeing plant
yet less than a hundred from warheads and bombers,
weary of Pax Americana and accusations.
But this is not that poem.
Instead of fear or shame, just now I feel
relief. Drinking-in the culture of Coca-Cola,

I’m “Yankee Going Home,” for the moment.
Among these neutral burghers I can sit
simply breaking the ice, my mouth making small talk
and chipped bits smaller still--all the while remembering:
“Chewing ice will ruin your teeth.”
Dentists have threatened that for 40 years at least,
but I have always reckoned on the inevitable
less-than-perfect dentures in a glass...
Ice is my connection.

To lemonade I sold in summers long ago,
each penny cup with its separate cube melting,
in some postwar, G.I. loan development in upstate New York,
or the shadetree road near Arlington’s dragon’s-teeth graves…
To the domed, grey metal crusher in some kitchen of the past,
its scimitar blades chewing over and over,
shredding and shaving each cube to crystalline gravel…
To the thousand brain-spearing pains I cursed,
shooting them up through the roof of my mouth and away.

I think of ice in the South:
of pre-Cold War trucks and horsedrawn wagons
hauling the great, cloudy blocks, the massive sweating men,
their claw tongs delivering burlapped relief, icebox salvation,
from that ramshackle icehouse down by the river,
whose strangeness of brine and shade
was a magnet drawing local boys like iron filings.
We’d drift in arcs of electromagnetic force
from one clanking hulk of machinery

to another: ammonia-dazed coils, brute forms chopping and grinding,
unnatural devices transforming water to mystery--
cold technology shaping all our futures,
taunting us with the promise of mastery over the earth.
I went seeking ice and silence;
I brought back the chilly, controlling ways
it seems now I may never lose…
Or was it earlier still, in the belly of my mother,
whose craving all that scorching summer and fall

on the San Antonio airbase was pieces of ice?
Chunks she held to her swollen sides,
cubes that cooled her cheeks and soothed her forehead,
chipped ice she chewed for company while my father
taught his fledgling fliers how to get aloft
and stay there, how to fight on the wind and air
and target their tons of fire,
how to never ever lose
a combat pilot’s cool and leather-jacketed smile.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Part 3B: Perk Up!

(Delayed yet again, but here at last! A smaller selection of pics this time, with many others still viewable below in the gallery of last week's Part 3A...)

Tenor sax great Bill Perkins was one of those many-hats guys, a genial man of many parts who "played" most of them: leader, co-leader, sideman, band section man and featured soloist with those same bands, from Herman and Kenton to Maynard Ferguson and Terry Gibbs' Dream Band, to later Bill Holman groups and Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show Orchestra, as well as Jazz/Classical orchestras in Germany and the Netherlands. He was a cool West Coaster and a Hardbop-influenced, sometimes abrasive blower (later on). He mastered and routinely recorded on all four saxes plus flute, alto flute, oboe, clarinet, even bass clarinet--not just "doubling," but quadrupling. He earned college degrees in both Electrical Engineering and Music (after WWII service), so he was already 27 when Woody Herman hired him suddenly in 1951 and his real professional career began. He became a first-call player for Hollywood soundtracks and commercial sessions as well as Jazz; yet he also worked on the other side of the glass during the Sixties and early Seventies as a highly regarded studio engineer. He invented and held the patents on a pair of MIDI electronic instruments used by trumpeter Miles Davis and saxman Ernie Andrews, among others. In fact it wouldn't surprise me to learn that this towhead California native son was a surfer dude and an avocado farmer too!

But above all else William Reese Perkins most certainly was a thoughtful, hardworking, quietly polite, shyly diffident, all-around nice guy--who managed to work his musical magic on ballads and up tunes too for over fifty years and... what? maybe 75?... never less than first-rate albums.

Several months ago, trying to get started, I wrote these paragraphs:

I've been slow to post this third portion of the Richie Kamuca-Bill Perkins saga partly because I kept (and keep) discovering other CDs I'd neither heard nor known about, featuring Perk in some way--a few with him and Richie too--that I wanted to absorb before writing more. For example, other tapes from the November 1956, Macumba Club performances (mentioned in Part 2) by the so-called "Bill Holman band," meaning the swing-defined, short-lived version of Kenton's mid-Fifties Orchestra, with great Holman charts bustin' out all over--a pleasure to play yet attuned for those dancers too. That disc, Sounds of Yester Year DSOY814, Swinging in San Francisco 1956, has Richie and Perk side by side and revelling in the groove. And a slightly different ensemble, recorded months earlier on Ground Hog's Day (my 13th birthday, so I had to hear Tantara TCD-1123, Kenton: Cool, Hot & Swingin', too), has features for Perkins certainly worth a listen; see below for one of them.

The major solos that he played in the early Fifties for Herman's "Third Herd" and then for the mid-Fifties Kenton Orchestra made the Jazz world aware that this unassuming fellow might be a tenor to reckon with. His first major assignment for Herman was to replace "Four Brothers" mainstay Stan Getz, and to produce some approximation of Stan's famed "Early Autumn" solo. No problem, Perkins nailed it, night after night. (Composer Ralph Burns then supplied a follow-up, also assigned to Perk, a nice tune called "Misty Morning" that went nowhere.)

He joined Kenton in 1955, and at the July sessions in Chicago, built around new Holman arrangements--Contemporary Concepts was the album name--Perkins pulled out another plum. With no rehearsal, seeing the chart basically for the first time, Bill cut a magnificant, spur-of-the-moment version of "Yesterdays"... which he always grumbled about thereafter, but which left his bandmates gaping. More than one of them, as had happened with "Early Autumn" too, spoke wonderingly in interviews of Perkins' ability to play that tune nightly without ever "coasting," coming up with a new gem of a solo every time.

I'd also like to suggest a third band classic, Perk's solo version of "Out of Nowhere," which appears on Magic DAWE50, another of the "Live at the Macumba" CDs issued by Kenton collectors, this performance dating from November 17. (A February runthrough is included on the Cool, Hot & Swingin' CD.) As was usual, Perkins takes the last solo on Bill Holman's great arrangement for "Stomping at the Savoy," then as the tape continues to roll, we hear Perk himself announce the follow-up/encore... But this particular "Out of Nowhere" comes from the "Somewhere" of inspired improvisation, as Perkins uncorks a magisterial four-minute solo that moves from stomping to romping and back again, and then to a tromp-'em-on-down, all-by-himself cadenza finish. Sadly, only Kenton Band aficionados have ever heard it!

Even at my age, one can still learn by listening and reading. And I have lately learned why I was confused regarding certain solos by Perk and Kamuca. The liner notes to one of the Macumba CDs makes this point: Perkins acknowledged some years later that playing in that for-the-tour temporary sax section with Pepper Adams on baritone, listening to his Hardbop solos and authoritative blowing in general, worked its way into Perk's approach to the tenor. Which means that both of the Lester-light Youngsters were transitioning away from Pres by the end of '56. Kamuca may have started earlier, since he was always fond of the lower register on his horn, but Perk wasn't far behind, working his way downward and blowing more powerfully too. (Eventually he'd become an on-call choice not only for tenor, but down to the bass-ment for baritone sax and baritone clarinet. He modestly compared his playing of that last to "the sound of the Queen Elizabeth coming through the fog," while on flute "I'm known as the barnyard Shank"!)

Meanwhile, Perkins had signed with Pacific Jazz/World Pacific earlier that year, and owner-producer Richard Bock quickly found several ways to present him, starting with the famous date known as Grand Encounter: 2 Degrees East/3 Degrees West, with Left Coast Bill the sole horn amongst Easterners John Lewis and Percy Heath, and the West's Jim Hall and Chico Hamilton--a gently supportive, four-man wrecking crew of Jazz stars who let Perk be the one who shone.

* * * * *
That's where I stalled and stopped, wanting to hear more, understand more, explain more... but tacitly admitting, yes, that the task was beyond my comprehension and comfort zone at the time. I know more now, these several months later, but the real change is I've come to accept my own shortcomings and to recognize the futility of trying to analyze, even summarize, scores of albums and 50 years of creative, evolving musicianship in a few hundred words. So instead this will be one fan's reactions/comments/thoughts, a verbal and visual miscellany rather than an essay.

If any performance of Bill's Getz-smart "Early Autumn" solos has been issued in some manner, I've not found it. My personal Perkins stash begins with Capitol T560, emphatically titled The Woody Herman Band!, which features the tenorist 7/11 (so to speak) and has an intriguing, darkroom-manipulated cover photo (this in 1954). I fancifully read it as Woody grandly singing the praises of his star saxman, bespectacled "Brother" Bill, seated in the lower left corner!

His years with Kenton were grander still, and that burgeoning reputation persuaded Richard Bock to issue several Perkins-centric albums. The fine Degrees sessions produced a quiet, nobody-in-a-hurry set, which many Jazz fans cherish and a few just yawn at. But there is general consensus about Bill's brilliant star-turn on the ballad "Easy Living," possibly the last of his solo features to attain "classic" status for many years. (The quasi-live, in-a-theater, Perk-arranged octet set was another winner, but overshadowed by all the other bob-and-weave, a la mode releases by Mulligan-Baker-Pepper-Niehaus Inc.)

The mid-Fifties were a lavish smorgasbord for players West and East, the following decades more of a soup kitchen. Perkins appeared with umpteen bands, some of them surprisingly well-documented like the half-dozen Gibbs Dream Band albums, and he also cut well-regarded LPs with folks as varied as Bud Shank and Benny Carter, Doc Severinsen and Shorty Rogers, Victor Feldman and James Clay, Akiyoshi-Tabackin and the Lighthouse All-Stars, Niehaus Octets and Pepper Elevenses and Kenton Neophonic extravaganzas. Yet for 20-some years to make a decent living he had to rely on steadier gigs: studio engineer at United Recorders, man-about-multiple-instruments for commercials, and tenor ace on the Tonight Show.

Over all that stretch of time, he kept listening and storing up, so that when he resumed a career away from the studios around 1980, that beautiful "Lestorian" languidness had been Pepper-tempered (both Adams and Art) and Trane-hardened. As Bill told friends and interviewers (one who has written about Bill many times is Doug Ramsey of the much-honored Rifftides blog), he could still reach out for the early romanticism--what Bird called "playing clean and looking for the pretty notes." But he was listening differently, hearing the changes change, absorbing the drums of rock and the heat of global atmospherics--and a gruffer tone and steely timbre were often the result.

Looking over LPs and CDs both, I realized that, mirroring his back-burner career, I neither own nor have heard anything Perk recorded between 1960 and the early Eighties. But from then on, until his death from cancer in 2003, Bill worked in Jazz steadily and the albums reflect his maturity and ability to tune in. First came the date Perk and Shank co-led, Serious Swingers (Contemporary C-14031), announcing with bravura and saxy brass the maverick session-men's classy comeback--highlights: "Don't Explain," a dark beauty requiring no explanation, and an "Out of This World" which is.

Many quartet and quintet releases followed, usually with Frank Strazzeri or Alan Broadbent at the piano. Revisiting the venerated Mullligan-Baker model, Bill cut some no-piano albums too; an example would be V.S.O.P. #80 CD, Two Brothers, by trombonist Herbie Harper and Perkins (who also produced). My verdict... Two brothers? Half the excitement of four; fun for West Coast fans, but a bit flat; competent but a little too cool.

But that album does include a quintet version of another tune that would soon become a Perkins classic. Less than a year later, the tenorman captured Irving Berlin's ballad "Remember" with a tenderly rendered solo floating on the Metropole Orchestra of the Netherlands. That album, I Wished on the Moon (Candid CCD97524), let Perk drift and soar like the Getz-plus-strings of Focus ("The Summer Knows" and conductor Rob Pronk's great original "No More"); swing and sway the Jazz Latin way ("Besame Mucho"); and pursue an exotic "Caravan" out to the Silk Road and beyond. (I also wrote a year ago about Brilliant Corners, Bill Holman's amazing 1997 tribute to the music of Thelonious Monk--the other orchestral band masterwork that featured Perkins around this time.)

Perk's solo career in Jazz more or less began with sessions involving alto great Bud Shank, and the two friends rose to prominence occasionally in tandem thereafter, so it suits the arc of the Perkins Story that Bud figured at the finish too. In the early Nineties Perk played tenor, soprano and more on several nostalgic, keep-'em-flying releases by the "Lighthouse All-Stars" and "West Coast All Stars"; and Shank was there for a couple of them. More bracing and challenging was the less-known 1995 release titled The Bud Shank Sextet Plays Harold Arlen (JIMCO JCD 9502-2), featuring Bud, Bill, Jack Nimitz, and Conte Candoli up front, plus rhyth'men John Clayton, Jr. and Slammin' Sherman Ferguson.

You don't have to be a wizard to know that tunes like "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Blues in the Night," "My Shining Hour," "Out of This World," even "Over the Rainbow," arranged by Bill Holman, Marty Paich, et al, will indeed shine when played by the right musicians. And the Shank six, older pros with scuffed soles--scoured souls too--don't need a yellow brick road to know which way a cyclone blows, not to mention the horns, when shaping a rough-cut gem. Unruly rhythm ballads, bees not asleep but a-buzzin', positive accentuations only when the sun comes out... Shank is elemental and Perk in his post-modest element. (So watch out for stray sparks and still-burning embers!)

The Arlen one-off became the template for Perk, Shank, and Conte, together again and touring, at the turning of the millenium, around the album--and sometimes as the group--named Silver Storm. (Look for Raw Records 067384302010.) The pros are even older but the rogues of rhythm even hotter (Joe LaBarbera drums, Bob Magnusson bass, and Bill Mays, yes, at the piano). The chimneys are snowy but the furnaces still fired up and the tunes meant for blowing the ashes out--"Idol Gossip" to "Yardbird Suite," a raucous reprise of "My Shining Hour" and four of Bud's best originals. But only one need detain us: "Perkolator."

Doug Ramsey's liner notes might have posted a notice here: "CAUTION--Storm Warning. Big Fun a Head. Proceed at Your Own Asterisk!" But Doug's virtuoso sentence is its own reward: "This wild new version summons up a vision of Witold Lutoslawski, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Charlie Parker meeting in a Manhattan free-jazz loft." (What? No martini time with Martinu? gibes for Giacometti? mingling with Brancusi's braintrust? Surely they're just as impertinent.) Joshing aside, "Perkolator" sounds like Abbott and Costello Meet Boyd Raeburn, as Clayton bows, Mays meanders, and LaBarbera cuts up. As for the horns, think rehearsal room hijinx plus some split-second-timed blasts commingling BeBop and the Big Bopper... some fun, kids, and not strictly for the Boyds.

Still, I prefer to give the last word to Perkins himself--that is, to a quintet disc with Bill as producer and sax/flute lead, 1999's splendid release, the unintentional yet suitably valedictory album titled Swing Spring (Candid CCD 79752), featuring Clay Jenkins' trumpet and the rhythm threesome of Perk's longtime piano pal Frank Strazzeri, Tom (the bubbly bustling bass) Warrington, and fiery drummer Bill Berg (his sketch of Perk serves as the CD booklet's cover). First off, portions of the album play like a classic Blue Note set circa 1960--melodic, not quite so soulful but just as straightahead-catchy as early Hank Mobley or Horace Silver.

Yet there's more, a bitchin' brew of '60s Soul, '70s Funk, '80s explorations, '90s neo-Swing--breezes blowing, exotic processions, simmering nights and salt sea spray, Barbadian beaches and love walking... somewhere. The tracks of his years are here, Lester to Richie, Pepper to Coltrane, Art to Bud--and not forgetting some Shorter twists and angles--but they all come a-Perkin' now. Jenkins plays the perfect foil, and Strazzeri is brilliant from main-stem to "Lotus Blossom"--the moody, mercurial tenor statements on the latter ascending to that select list of Bill's best. (And his tenor on the final track, "BeBop Love Song," manages to evoke the great tune by that other Jenkins, and so hint at "Goodbye.")

Tenors, baritones, sopranos, clarinets, flutes; blown tenderly, tenaciously, tempestuously. He didn't go gentle, but he did finally say, Good-night...

I have this afterthought. Maybe the Jazz world should consider bestowing a "Brownie" Award--but only occasionally, when some nominee over a lengthy career in music displays the inherent skills, intermittent genius, quiet wise restraint, and general nice-guyness of the award's namesake, Clifford Brown. Ignoring other deserving candidates, I think it's safe to say that genial, generous, multi-talented, blow-for-broke Perk would be a shoo-in.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Perky Fanfare:

A Disarming Occasional Piece, for alto flute, tenor sax, and baritone clarinet;
Composed and Performed (with Overdubbing) by William Reese Perkins.

...No such beast, so far as I know. But contemplating the world this morning, with wars and non-wars, nationalist skirmishes and political folderol raging everywhere... well, it just seemed like a decent idea, a needed brief musical interlude that might be played during lulls in the fighting.

Today I'm posting the visual gallery half (call it Part 3A) of my long-overdue light examination of tenor sax great Bill Perkins. The text will appear later in the week. Assembled as one, I believe the length to be formidable and possibly forbidding; accordingly, I have split the thing in two. So here are a couple of dozen CD and record covers--roughly oldest to newest once past the Herman pair--the albums I've been listening to in order to write about Bill. I see them as Perks of the job.