Monday, December 22, 2008

The Inimitable John Carter

In the unsung hero department, John Carter looms large. He was a virtuoso clarinetist with a unparalleled ability to interpret complex historical events, transforming them into personal statements of complete artistic integrity. He never stopped evolving; in 1982 (at the age of 52), he released Dauhwe, the first in a five-suite series exploring African American historical experiences and narratives (Dauhwe, Castles of Ghana, Dance of the Love Ghosts, Fields, and Shadows on a Wall). I strongly believe that this large-cycle suite, Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music, is one of the great musical achievements of the twentieth century, as well as a consummate example of the suite's versatility and power as a form. He died in 1991, two years after Shadows came out.

"On a Country Road" is from the fourth suite, Fields: Seven Vignettes Depicting Life During the Fields Period in Early America.
John Carter - On a Country Road (1988)

"Fast Fannie's Cakewalk" is from an earlier suite, A Suite of Early American Folk Pieces, for solo clarinet.
John Carter - Fast Fannie's Cakewalk (1979)

Krill - Cluj

"Cluj," a piece that I've reworked a number of times, from Krill. Album released in 2000, me, with John Dierker, reeds; F. Vattel Cherry, bass; and Will Redman, drums.
Krill - Cluj (2000)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

RIP Odetta

Another great loss of an inspirational artist. Not that I want this blog to be a necrology. She was hoping to sing at Obama's inauguration.

In this interview at The New York Times
, she gives some fantastic responses to some ridiculous questions, and delivers a few stirring performances. There is some striking historical footage as well.

Here's an excerpt that I particularly liked. In one section, the interviewer (not sure who it is) is speaking of Dylan's interest in her music.

INTERVIEWER: Bob Dylan put you in his early songs. And he took something deep from your work. What was it?
ODETTA: Well, he said my work influenced him, and he sold his electric guitar and got an acoustic guitar. That influence was just like a key that opened up something that was of his own stuff. So, I can't even take credit for that; I can't take credit for how he heard something.
I: I think he listened to The Anthology of American Folk Music too, 'cause he stole -- liberated --
O: --No, no. No, no, no ... we call it folk music, we call it ... what do we call it, we don't call it stealing--
I: --Appropriation?
O: Well, we could, but we don't. It is "passing on the folk tradition." [Laughs] It ain't what you say, it's the way you say it, right?
I: So in other words, the amateur imitates but the professional steals.
O: I don't--you know, we professionals have stolen an awful lot from amateurs, ha ha! Those guys working, singing those songs, they weren't professional, but us professional people got at them, didn't we, and learned from them.

(photo from May 1960, from the Life magazine archive)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In C

Sunday night I participated in the annual Darmstadt performance of Terry Riley's In C, organized by my friends Zach and Nick. Raucous and feel-good, and well over an hour. Here's a trippy video from the end of the night.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Crosseyed and Painless

Recently, in my Introduction to World Music class, we were discussing the relationship between music and identity. I mentioned that although we tend to each think of ourselves as complex individuals, we often paint others with broad strokes and put them into simple categories. The World Music survey itself is a class that usually links one—sometimes two—musical styles or genres to entire countries, supranational constructs ("The Middle East"), or even continents. Some of the chapters in our textbook have ONE SONG that represents a region. That's just crazy. (At the same time, is it that much better to have five or six selections? Ten? It's still nuts. Gotta figure out a better way to do this ...) As an offhand remark, I asked them to think about how hard it would be for each of them to represent themselves with just one song.

Later, a student told me they had been thinking about that remark and thought that we should try it as a class. I substituted this for another homework assignment, asking them to think about the decision-making process as much as the actual song. We had many interesting results: songs linked to family history and heritage, songs linked to ethnicity, songs linked to place and hometown, songs linked to adolescence. When we were done they asked me what I would pick. I had no idea. I said I'd think about it.

When I tried to do the assignment later, the most interesting thing for me was how quickly I started thinking in terms of authenticity, something I always ask students to be highly skeptical of. Several meaningful, favorite pieces of music came into my mind, but in many cases I'd imagine representing myself with it and then feel ridiculous. Another interesting part of the experiment was how quickly the "answer" came into my mind. Make you sure you stay for the kid getting down with the unicorn.

Friday, July 11, 2008

RIP Bill Finegan

After returning from a multi-week vacation, I learned that Bill Finegan died on June 4. I've been finishing an article for The Journal of the Society for American Music on his arrangements of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F, and had just emailed his son Jamie who told me that he had been in the hospital. He passed away only a few days later.

I became interested in Finegan's work when touring (briefly) with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1997 as the second alto saxophonist. His stuff was by far the most engaging music in the book. It was a thrill to play "Wagon Wheels" and "Pussy Willow," to fit into these rich textures and play such striking lines—especially for the second alto. While we were in Chicago I found some Sauter-Finegan Orchestra albums at Jazz Record Mart. I wasn't disappointed when I finally got home and was able to play them.

Bill Finegan's passing is a major loss. He was a brilliant artist.