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Sunday, 28 October 2012

Kermit Ruffins

Last time I wrote a bit about my time in New Orleans and I thought I would continue talking about it for another post.
On a Sunday afternoon, after walking around the French Quarter for the whole day, listening to some great music on the streets, having some great seafood, my girlfriend and I went to hear Kermit Ruffins in Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy pub.
The first time I heard of Kermit was in the Treme series, where he played himself. I didn’t think much of him at the beginning but I listened to a few of his albums and immediately started loving his music and now, after seeing him live, I think he’s such a wonderful person. Kermit Ruffins is a New Orleans native who’s been playing music since he was a teenager. If anyone wants to get a quick feeling of New Orleans, you should listen an album of his.
He is an avid cook, he’s always having a good time, and through his music, he makes sure everyone else is happy too. In a sense, Kermit, like his great idol, Louis Armstrong, is just a simple guy trying to draw a smile on your face with his music. He’s warm, unpretentious and humble.

Kermit's Treme Speakeasy by Žan Anderle
We went to many bars in New Orleans, but Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy felt different. I’ve never been in a bar where I felt so at home. It just felt so unbelievably cozy and relaxed.

 We noticed right away that pretty much everyone was from the neighbourhood. You could tell from the way people were talking to each other, the way they were behaving and the casual clothes they were wearing. Everyone knew everyone and they were all so friendly. When we came in all the tables were taken, but right away a couple that offered to share their table with us. The waitress came to get our order saying “what can I get you, baby?”. Everything and everyone in that speakeasy made sure we relaxed and had a good time.
Kermit is famous for cooking at his own gigs and this was no different. He gives away his food during the breaks, but we couldn’t wait for that. We ordered one portion (the portions in New Orleans are huge) of red beans and rice with rabbit. We opted for rabbit, because we didn’t feel like some crazy stuff Kermit always grills like raccoon or possum. It was the best red beans and rice we’d had thus far and we had them almost every day in New Orleans, so that says something. Kermit takes his grilling very seriously. He jokes that he’s actually a master chef who does some music on the side. Well, when you try his food, you see that that’s not far from the truth. His food is just as delicious as his music and it tastes the same way - homey, cozy, friendly, happy, indulgent and just simply good.
Before the show, Kermit was standing by the entrance, saying hi to every guest and he knew most of them. The way he was greeting everybody and the way he had so much fun throughout the show, it just felt like he’s having one big house party every week.The band even had a big ICE box filled with beers by the bandstand.
His love and respect for Louis Armstrong was definitely visible in his performance and his choice of songs. The music was wonderful and even though he was joking all the time, the quality of the music never suffered. Kermit called a lot of friends on stage to perform with him which just added to the feeling that this wasn’t a show but a friendly get-together where he and his Barbecue Swingers played for some friends.

When you’re in New Orleans, even if it’s just for a few days, you come to realize that the city is all about delicious, hearty food, friendly people, wonderful music everywhere and having a good time (Laissez les bons temps rouler!). Well, that’s what I feel Kermit is also all about. His everyday life revolves around music, food and indulgence (here's a good, but long, article about his everyday life) and in the end, you can see that his music, food and his bar embodies this New Orleans personality of his.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Lonesome Me

The Spotted Cat by Žan Anderle
This year in September I was in New Orleans. Going to New Orleans had been my wish for a very long time, but I didn’t want to go before I turned 21, since most of the bars won’t let you in otherwise. Which means I had a lot of time to dream about it before I actually went there. I read about it, I read about the food there, I looked at the pictures, I listened to bands currently playing in New Orleans, I watched Treme and so on. When I finally got there it was everything I expected it to be and so much more. Without a doubt it’s a city of my dreams. And now, three weeks after the trip, I find myself missing it more and more. I miss having problems deciding on what live music I’ll listen to on that day, I miss the amazing food, I miss the unbelievably kind people, I miss beignets, I miss seeing the wonderful street artists, I miss forgetting about the time because I enjoy the music so much and most of all I miss the music I love, being played right in front of me wherever I go. So I’m writing this, hoping it will make me feel a bit better.

The Spotted Cat Music Club is a cool place on Frenchmen Street just outside the French Quarter. It’s quite famous in New Orleans and everyone from around there will know it. I loved the place from the first day I was there. It was where I went every night for one last beer before going to bed and it’s where I heard The New Orleans Jazz Vipers. They’re a band playing traditional jazz and they’re quite renowned around the Frenchmen street. Here's an example of what they sound like. I think it goes without saying that it’s a completely different thing hearing them live. It’s hearing them live when you can so easily feel all the energy and joy that they exuberate.

Jazz Vipers by Žan Anderle
All of them are great, but Joe Braun, the saxophone player and singer on some songs, is really something special. Seeing him on and off the stage, talking to him and hearing his music gave me something to think about. Off the stage, he’s actually a quiet, shy guy and when I went to talk to him to tell him how much I’ve enjoyed their music, he was just so humble and modest. So when he’s hanging around the bar and on the street, he seems like an average guy, but when he hits the stage and starts playing, he becomes someone different. His singing is truly wonderful as is his playing. He puts so much emotion and energy into it. Listen to him sing and play on “Lonesome Me", a Fats Waller song. It feels like music isn’t just something he does, it’s a part of who he is. Without the music, he’s only a shadow of himself. It’s only when he’s singing and playing that he really becomes himself, and that is what makes his music so genuine and full of energy.
One day I heard the Jazz Vipers play a song called New Orleans (they haven’t recorded it, so here’s a Louis Armstrong version) and Joe was the one who sang it. Another thing become apparent that day. The way he got serious and happy at the same time when they started playing this song, the way he sang “just think of New Orleans” really slowly and the emotions you could feel in his singing made me realize he must feel a deep connection towards New Orleans. He doesn’t just like the city, he loves it with all his heart and he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, no matter what happened. It’s impossible to explain it with words, so I’ll just let him explain the way he knows best. Here’s a song he wrote after Katrina, inviting people to come back to New Orleans "I Hope You're Coming Back To New Orleans".

New Orleans really grows on you and if I miss it so much after being there for only 10 days, I can only imagine what it must mean to someone living there.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Fine and Mellow

I love Youtube. I think it’s just amazing how it lets anyone watch different obscure historic gems.  One great example is 1957 CBS television broadcast - a session with some big names in jazz. Musicians in this video are Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldrige and some others. For those who don’t know much about jazz history, you were supposed to go “Wow!” after reading this, because these are some of the biggest names in jazz history. So without further ado, this is it. Let yourself be amazed.

It would be fun to watch this video just for the sake of seeing all these musicians play together, but that’s some potent music right there. And if you know anything about the relationship between Billie Holiday and Lester Young, then this is truly priceless. If you don’t know what I mean, let me start at the beginning.

Billie Holiday is considered to be one of the greatest female jazz singers of all time and if you’re listening to her for the first time, that may be hard to believe. The first time I heard her, I didn’t really like her and I didn’t get it what’s supposed to be so special about her. I mean her voice isn’t clean like Ella Fitzgerald’s for example and her vocal range is only one octave. But after listening to her more closely one or two times I began loving her singing. Today, she’s probably one of my favourite female singers of all time. And if I stay with Ella for a second, I love her too and I think her singing is just beautiful, but Billie Holiday has so much emotion in her singing that it’s just heartbreaking.
Her life was a tragic one and that’s an integral part of her singing and her music. She was born in 1915 to a 13 year old mom. Early in her life she was raped and when she was 14 she was already a prostitute. For her whole life she had drug and alcohol problems and she always ended up being with guys that beat her up and abused her.
Listening to her songs, you can quickly notice that most of the time she not only sang them but unfortunately lived them as well. For example Good Morning Heartache, I’m a Fool To Want You, Solitude, I Must Have That Man and many others.
She wrote and co-wrote only a few songs but every song she sang, she made it her own. A lot of times there is also a part of her life in her songs; She wrote God Bless the Child after she had an argument with her mom, who didn’t want to pay her back any of the money Billie lent her. Whenever she sang Strange Fruit (a poignant song about racism), she thought about her father who died because he was denied treatment due to his race.

Lester Young, one of the best and most influential saxophone players in jazz history, met Billie Holiday early in her career and they became fast friends. When they were touring together with the Count Basie orchestra, they were always drinking together, having a laugh together and so on. He was the one that named her Lady Day and in return she nicknamed him Pres as in The President.
They admired each other musically - she said that she wanted to sound like he does on the saxophone and he said that many times he studied her singing. And when you listen to Fine and Mellow, that’s exactly what you hear - they are like two parts of the same voice. They were similar in so many different ways. Both were depressed but they both always tried to hide it with a smile. They both had self-destructive tendencies such as drug addiction. They just had a special rapport and understood each other like no one else. She knew what he was all about and vice versa, which resulted in some amazing music they’ve recorded together.
Around 1950 however, they had an argument and they’ve stopped talking. So when they filmed this video in 1957, they hadn’t been talking to each other for some time.
Here’s where the real value of this video starts coming up. At that time they both had big problems with their health (or rather problems with their drug addictions). She wasn’t anything like she was in her younger days. She was unreliable, fragile and her voice was weak, and it all showed in her performances. He was quite ill as well, and for the whole session he was staying more or less in the back. The solo in Fine and Mellow actually wasn’t scripted. The marvelous thing is that you can’t see any of this in the video itself - you couldn’t tell their condition was bad just from seeing this video. She magically finds the power to sing like she did in the good old days and Lester just stands up and decides on the spot he’ll take a solo. And when he does it’s the smoothest thing you’ll ever hear. Listen again and also pay attention to her reaction to the solo. It feels like she’s remembering all the things between them and she can still understand exactly what he’s trying to say, even if they aren’t talking. There’s simply amazing energy between them.

In 1959, two years after the session, Lester died and 4 months later, Billie followed. People are still writing about their enigmatic relationship, musical and personal, today, but they will always be the only ones who understood the magic that was between them.

You might be surprised

Photo by Michael Wilson

Dr. John is one of my favourite New Orleans artists. Born Mac Rebennack in 1940, he’s been in the music business since the 50’s, although he didn’t get widely known until 70’s. He does everything from jazz, blues, New Orleans R&B, rock and boogie woogie and he has this amazing ability of doing all these different styles at once and creating something unique. Critics have often complained that he’s too eclectic but I say he’s just being extremely versatile and that’s something I appreciate about him. I also enjoy how no matter what he does, you can always hear New Orleans in him.
He demonstrated what he’s musically capable of right away on his first album “Gris-Gris”. He somehow combined New Orleans R&B and mystical voodoo into something extraordinary. The music on this album is a combination of eerie, earthy, mystical, spicy, joyous and complex. I think there’s no point in trying to describe what it’s like because it’s probably unlike anything you’ve heard before. But in a good sense. I definitely recommend it. It’s Dr. John’s album that got the most plaudits from the critics. If you’re interested, here’s an example of what you might expect - Mama Roux. After “Gris-Gris” he’s been just all over the place with different styles of music and he can offer so much with whatever he does.

Today I wanted to talk about a song from one of his latest albums “The City that Care Forgot”. The song is called “You might be surprised” and the lyrics just blow me away every time I hear the song. Pay attention to them when you listen to the song.
Dr. John has a distinct voice and a specific way of singing which has so much character and that’s what makes the song even better. Add some wonderful piano playing and you’ve got yourself a great song. Here it is.

(This is not the album version, but I think this one is a lot better. It’s just way more intimate with only the piano and his amazing vocals)

The Lyrics:
Life is a near death experience
Hell is right here on this great big Earth
It could be a little taste of heaven
If we only knew our worth
All we got to do is want it bad enough
To push ourself through
We always underestimate ourselves
We do a little bit each and every day we can always do better
In each and every way
If we don't believe in ourselves
Nobody's gonna do it
If we don't push ourselves
We'll never make it through it.

What did you think?
I think the song is amazing and I LOVE the lyrics! It’s fascinating how the song starts off as a bit depressing and ends up being inspiring and optimistic.
Life is a near death experience: I think that’s a great line all by itself but it also sets up the whole song. One day you’re here, the next you’re not. Life is basically just the things we do before we die and we’re the only ones that determine what that will be like. We can (and do a lot of times) make it hell on earth but what we’re often not aware of, is that if we just believed in ourselves and pushed ourselves we could make it a little taste of heaven. And if everyone did that, imagine all the things we could achieve.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Eric Clapton & Wynton Marsalis Play the Blues

This particular collaboration has a special place in my heart. Let me try to explain why. The music I primarily listen to is quite old and my favourite musicians are guys like Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Dinah Washington and so on. Which is absolutely fine but it also means that there are only a handful of musicians I enjoy, still living. So whenever I want to listen to something “new” I go and dig up the dusty old stuff. I don’t really expect a release of a new album which I’ll be crazy about. But sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised like with this album.

I can still remember how I found the album. It was a sunny Saturday when I was cleaning my room, which of course means I was doing anything but. So to be precise I was spending my time on facebook. I saw a good friend post a youtube video of 'Layla' played by Eric Clapton and Wynton Marsalis! I couldn’t believe it and what I didn’t realize was that this was just the beginning. I anxiously waited for the video to load and the moment I heard the sound of the band I was blissful. I was asking myself what had I done to be so lucky. I mean just the idea of two of my favourite living artists working together is something wonderful, but to think the result would be so amazing? After this striking piece of music was over I found out that it wasn’t just one song but that they’ve made a whole album together. I immediately got the whole thing and started listening to it. It may sound weird but all of this made me so happy. I was literally dancing around the room. And it was just getting better and better. The music was exactly the kind I love, all of the songs were great and I was savouring every single note of them. And then came the fourth song and something amazing happened. It was a Louis Armstrong song. As soon as I heard the opening line on the clarinet and actually realized it was a Satchmo song I got deliriously happy. By the end of it, it was too much for me. I couldn’t take any more of it, so I finally relaxed and just sat back with a huge smile on my face and enjoyed the rest of the album. By now you can see that it doesn’t take much to make me happy and that I really get over excited about music. In the week that followed I actually carried copies with me so I could give them to my friends, saying “you have to listen to this!”.

A year later I still think this is an amazing work and something both artists can be proud of. I just love the rich, full, vibrant sound of New Orleans - it seems like everyone in the band is playing something entirely different, but in the end it all somehow works together perfectly. To me, it’s a lot like New Orleans itself. In a small area you have so many different kinds of people, cultures and influences from all over and you would think there’s no way this can be good, but it all works great together.
I also like how Wynton and Eric took an old style of music and added new elements to it which gives it an amazing sound. And last but not least, I think Eric performs admirably. He somehow manages to sound like he’s been playing with this band for ages while still completely retaining his own sound.

Give this song a listen, to get a feeling of what you can expect from the album and then I  recommend, if I may, getting the whole album. I think it’s well worth it.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Bobby McFerrin

Bobby McFerrin. Wow, where to even start with this guy? Bobby McFerrin is a virtuoso vocalist. He’s a surprising, exciting, joyous person who’s brimming with music, and all of that shows in everything he does.

I used to know him only as the guy who sings ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ and I heard something about him doing vocal improvisations, but I never really paid much attention to him. Then one day, a friend posted a link on facebook of Bobby McFerrin singing something from Bach. I watched the video on youtube and after that I watched another related video and another after that. Before I knew it, I spent a few hours listening to his performances. I was mesmerised. For about a week I was always talking about him (yeah, I get excited about music), saying “Have you heard this guy sing? Have you heard the stuff he does with his voice? Insane!” but it wasn’t until September this year that I really started listening and thinking about his music. I went to see a Bobby McFerrin and Wynton Marsalis with Jazz at Lincoln Centre concert. It was absolutely amazing and inspiring and it made me aware of more things about him. After the concert, I started reading about him, watching interviews and listening to his music more closely. I’ve been wanting to write about him for a while, but the concert was the final push.

Born in 1950 in New York, he started his musical career as a pianist. He soon realized he was drawn to singing and so it happened. He started singing. For the first two years he deliberately stopped listening to other singers, because he wanted to find a voice of his own and he was aware of how easily anyone can be influenced by others. So he began with simply singing alone in his room with just his tape recorder with him. He carefully examined what he sounded like, all the things he could produce with his voice and tried to perfect it. It took him a long time before he sang in front of an audience because he was quite shy and afraid of his own voice.
Now, he says, he’s intrigued with how he can convey emotions with just sounds. While he likes songs with lyrics and wishes he could express himself with words like some people can, he expresses himself with sounds and that have a much greater meaning to him. He explains, if he says ‘I love you’ it means the same to everyone, but if he sings some notes, a melody, he expresses something, and whoever is listening will understand it differently because everyone will bring their own story to what they’re hearing.
I personally find all of this inspiring and I think it’s all evident in his music - I could not think of a single musician he’s similar to. He’s as unique as it gets.

His second album ‘The Voice’ was a milestone in jazz history as it was the first jazz album recorded solely with a single person’s voice without any accompaniment. After that, his rich musical career ranged from jazz, spiritual, African, pop and even to classical (who on earth sings Mozart’s and Beethoven’s piano or cello concertos) and on his way he collaborated with many world renowned musicians. It’s rare for a musician of any kind to be doing such a wide variety of genres and doing them so well, but to be doing them with just his voice?! That’s unheard of. On top of all that he’s also a critically acclaimed conductor.

If you’ve never listened to Bobby McFerrin and you want to listen to something extraordinary, I suggest you give ‘The Voice’ a try. It’s a nice introduction to the amazing musical world of Bobby McFerrin. Mind you, it really is just an introduction, because there is just so much more to him than one album. That’s also one thing I find interesting about him; usually with musicians or even artists in general, you can point to one or two works, that are representative. I can’t imagine doing that with McFerrin. He’s elusive in that manner and he can’t be put in just one category.

Ok, enough talking from my part, I think it’s time for the songs to do some explaining of their own. I’ll post only a few, but if you start listening to him some more, you’ll realize what I mean about him being eclectic.

The first song is from the album ‘The Voice’ and is a cover of a famous Beatles song ‘Blackbird’. Listening to the song, it’s sometimes hard to believe that there are no instruments, no percussion and just one person involved. And that’s the magic of McFerrin - he’s somehow able to fill the whole song, so you never feel like there’s anything missing.
You can find some more songs from the album on youtube, but only a few so I would recommend getting the whole album. I feel it’s something everyone should listen to at least once in their life, because it demonstrates perfectly how much can be done with just a voice. Plus, the music is amazing.

With the next song, I wanted to show his versatility. Here’s just one song, because if I tried to provide an example of all the different things he did, you would spend a lot of time in front of your computer. A lot.
It’s a Bach number, done with the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Also an album worth listening to.

And for the end, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’. Not because I got a sudden urge to be cheesy, but because everyone knows it, and I think not a lot of people realize what’s actually going on in the song. It’s hard to notice, since Bobby McFerrin does everything so naturally.
Before you listen to the song, try to guess how many instruments are used in the song? Just make a wild guess. Now listen carefully and count the instruments and how many different people are singing (hint: there is overdubbing involved).

The first time I realized what you just realized (if you listened to the song), I was left speechless. Bobby McFerrin is truly amazing.