October 25, 2012

Serendipity on the Shelves…

A colleague recently posted on Facebook that Donald Fagen has a new album (Thanks, Paul!) I’ve always been a fan of the compositional and production prowess in his work with Walter Becker, (a.k.a. Steely Dan), so I look forward to hearing the new record. Like many folks, my usual M.O. when preparing to hear a new work by one of my favourite (yeah, I know…I dig the British spelling) artists is to go back and do a little “homework” by reviewing one of their classic projects. It helps to me to establish my own frame of reference for hearing the new music.

So I started digging through the “Archives” to find my favorite Steely Dan album, AJA. Right at the point where I was about to give up hope, I saw the black cover with the ribbon graphic and the woman’s face in the shadows. Luckily, at some point many years ago, I bought the CD (although I still have the vinyl.) This was a life-changing album for me at the age of 18. First of all, getting hit between the eyes with the multidimensional music of AJA at the very time the “music bug” was biting hard made a huge impression. At the time, I couldn’t articulate very clearly what was going on musically, but my gut told me that this music was Really Important…and I needed to figure it out.

Secondly, this music sustained my soul during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college where I endured a Western Pennsylvania young person’s rite-of-passage known as “Working At Kennywood.” For those of you who don’t know what this means, Kennywood is a large amusement park and is Pittsburgh’s answer to Six Flags Over Wherever. Every day…ev.er.y  day…from Memorial Day to the 2nd week of August, I would spend 14 hours as the Command Module Pilot of a wonderful 40 year old contraption known as the “SCOOTER” i.e., the Bumper Cars.

(Cue 18 Year Old Thinly Disguised Smart*** Voice on ancient public address system:) 
“Welcome to the Scooter…please keep your arms inside the cars and remain seated until the ride comes to a complete stop.” Every night after work I would stagger home, take a bath, set the alarm clock, fire up the turntable, plug in the phones, and decompress to some of the hippest music I had ever heard.

Fast forward to Middle Age…Even though several decades have passed since my initial fascination/obsession with AJA, I’m happy to report the obvious: the music still sounds amazing. The songwriting, production, grooves, improvisation (Wayne Shorter…Pete Christlieb…Steve Gadd!) sets the gold standard for contemporary popular music. For example, as a teacher of arranging, I would recommend the studio writing on Deacon Blues as a model for young writers of a perfectly balanced and crafted example of How To Do It.  One curious result of having lived a significant part of my life since spending a lot of time with this music is that I have a totally different take on Fagen and Becker’s coy and ambiguous lyrics. As a young man, I was taking these lyrics waaaay too seriously. J

Here is where the Serendipity comes in (I’ll bet you thought I was going to post a link to one of the cuts from AJA, didn’t ya?)

On the shelf next to AJA was a record I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and trying to find for some time: Kenny Wheeler’s MUSIC FOR LARGE AND SMALL ENSEMBLES. I’m thinking of programming some of this music for an upcoming Jazz Vespers Service so finally finding this record along with AJA was a double stroke of good fortune! A good friend (Thanks, Tim Huesgen!) turned me on to this record in the ‘90’s. For those who know and love this record, I’ll bet that you would agree that it is difficult to express via the written word the beauty and power of this music. In my view, Kenny Wheeler and Bob Brookmeyer led the way in the development of contemporary jazz composition for large ensemble. Like AJA, the beautifully crafted and highly personal music on this record sounds as amazing to me now as it did twenty years ago. In addition to Kenny's writing, he is featured on flugelhorn as well as Dave Holland on bass, Peter Erskine on drums, as well as a band full of wonderful British players.

I invite you to listen to Kenny’s beautiful composition CONSOLATION, a movement from his Sweet Time Suite on this recording. For me, this has to be one of the most “spiritual” pieces for jazz orchestra ever written. My heart and mind are always blessed by hearing it. I hope it speaks to you as well. Peace.

© Eric Richards 2012     eric@ericrichards.com