Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Wayne Shorter: An Appreciation

Miles Davis is a gateway drug. For my birthday, my man Mikey gave me the Miles Mono box. Boss. Now if you dig Miles, it's not too long before you get back to Trane. Then Herbie. Down the jazz rabbit hole. I have never been proficient at playing jazz, trust me I tried. I don't speak jazz very well; although I did take a course in college where I did audio projects on Charlie Christian and Thelonious Monk (who remains an icon to me on a multitude of levels, and whose music I revisit regularly). But no, the hook that Miles has put into me is a mood elevator named Wayne Shorter.

Yesterday was Wayne's 81st Birthday. So first off, Happy Birthday, Mr. Shorter. I had planned on penning this yesterday but with our Emmy adventure, I felt it better to wait. Second, the addiction reference is real. You all know how I am about music. Prior to being exposed to Mr. Shorter via Miles' 1960s Quintet (which featured Herbie Hancock), I only knew him as the cat that wailed on Steely Dan's "Aja." That is one if the great jazz-pop moments and I love Steely Dan. So wanting to expand my Miles experience past the box set, I put on my vinyl copy of Miles Smiles and read the liner notes and there's this name: tenor sax and composer - Wayne Shorter (That album is a gas, a classic just a half-step behind Kind of Blue). Oh, no. Now I've got to know more about Wayne. What? He's still alive? He's won 10 Grammys? He's released solo material for over 50 years? Where have I been? Sleeping on Wayne Shorter, y'all. That's where.

So, I started by picking up another Miles Quintet album ESP. Whoa, Mr. Shorter is all over this supporting Miles with some outstanding tunes and solos. Then it's time to take the plunge. Solo Shorter. But, is he going to sound too much like early '60s Trane, whom I dig? 'Cause, if I want Trane, I dig Trane.

Uh, no. Trane is Trane. Wayne is Wayne. I picked up Wayne's album Juju and it was all over.

Juju is the kind of LP that once you put it on you have to hit repeat. Depth, layers, love, subtlety. His compositions and playing are sublime. Yes, he's got Trane's rhythm section and I am a sucker for McCoy Tyner, but Juju is a winner across the board. It's not for everyone; hard-bop & post-bop aren't. The LP was released on Blue Note about the same time as A Hard Day's Night. How do these 50 year old albums sound so fresh?

The title track is a lilting waltz that casts a spell, well - "Juju." The titles of this and the bookended LPs, Night Dreamer & Speak No Evil, have exotic titles and clearly, Wayne is excited to take us on a journey. "House of Jade" plays like a soundtrack piece. The very Asian-moded "Mahjong" is a stunner. McCoy is playing these evocative figures and solos, while legendary drummer Elvin Jones rumbles around in rhythm defying manner only to set up Wayne's brilliant, smoky motif. I can hear why Steely Dan crapped themselves when he agreed to play on "Aja." Like I said, I speak jazz poorly. I need Rosetta Stone.

I picked up the other two aforementioned Wayne Shorter discs. Nearly as masterful as Juju. But this man has a vast catalog. I'm three albums in and just up to 1965.

If you know about or can recommend more Wayne Shorter music leave it in the comments. You got some Jazz your grooving to? Leave a comment.

If you've heard Weather Report, perhaps the most famous fusion band, you know more about Wayne than I do. I'm not particularly a fan of fusion, but guess what? I'm going to try listening with open ears now.

The discovery of music is one of the beauties of this life. It is one of the greatest gifts artists give us. I am so thrilled that Mr. Shorter is among us to be appreciated and loved. Thank you, Mr. Shorter. I close with this bit of brilliance...

"Jazz means I dare you!" - Wayne Shorter

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Commotion Session

This past weekend on August 3 & 4, I was back in the studio (Karma Frog in Reseda, CA) to cut my contribution to an upcoming Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute album. My task was to cover the compilation's title track, "Commotion." The song was originally recorded by CCR in 1969 for their smash LP, Green River, which features their iconic "Bad Moon Rising."

My usual producer, Adam Marsland was at the helm and he played the majority of the instruments as well, including some amazing organ parts. I took up my trusty American Fender Jazz for the funky bass. The session was a brisk two days. Musicians teleported from 1969 would have been pleased by the brevity of the time it took to record the side. None of this 21st Century month to record and tweak a track.

We had a blast. After the rhythm tracks were put down, Adam asked do you want to put down a guide vocal or try a lead? Well, I went for it, and it was full-tilt chooglin' boogaloo after that. Our "Commotion" just got spookier and spookier. There were magical things conjured up in the voices and the instruments that followed. Part of it for us was that we just went crazy. Neither of us wrote it and it is not one of the better known CCR songs, so we felt we had some breathing room.

It was a challenge recording the vocals, post-stroke. But, I've come to terms with my stamina and what I can achieve with my instrument. Doing the multi-layered backing vocals was the most fun for me. What began as an improvisation became the presence of a spectral choir complete with handclaps and tambourines that will make sure you shake your derriere for three minutes.

What ingredients did we toss into the gumbo cauldron? Gris-Gris. Voodoo. Swamp. Funk. Mud. Spiritual Hot Sauce. Church! Ghosts. Laissez les bons temps roulez. CCR always was swampy. We wanted to take them to the logical conclusion. The recording is of a piece with my "Huckleberry Finn." Like The Empire Strikes Back; it's the moody, dangerous middle section. Don't know what comes next...

Here's what Adam said about the session:

"Norman Kelsey's new track "Commotion" shoots to the top of my list of very favorite things I've produced at Karma Frog. Smokin'!"

High praise from the boss. My track has a lot of stank and green onions on it. Delicious. It's very different from anything I've ever attempted before in its blues-rock heaviness. I am looking forward to releasing this record and shooting a music video for it, too. So watch out for updates in the coming months.


Friday, August 01, 2014

James Brown: Ow! An Appreciation

"Norman, how you gonna narrow down James Brown to your 10 favorite sides?"

"Bobby, I don't know. But whatsoever I choose, they got to be funky."

At Georgetown, I became obsessed with James Brown. I blame The Soul Brother #1 hisself. In "The Payback," James sang "I don't know karate, but I know karazy." Truer words were never sung. He was in prison, I was perpetually running for student government. Every year, lobbying for his freedom was part of my platform. In part, it was a joke. In part, it was wanting people to understand the power of his records and my own musical passions. It was the early days of CDs and I coveted the few JB discs I could find.

In show programs, I dedicated my college theatrical performances to family and James Brown. I read every scrap I could find about him along with his autobiography, "Godfather of Soul." Trying to understand him. I never did. I've never been able to do the splits, never will be. But part of my brain still dreams of being able to dance like James. He created a whole vocabulary of words and sounds that I freely admit to imitating.

Every time I heard "Funky Drummer" or another James sample in a hip hop song, my heart would skip and my brain would knowingly wink to itself. I was a tribe of one. The night Mr. Brown was released from prison? I was at Maceo Parker's show at Blues Alley in DC with my man, Christo. No lie. I have the autographed CD to prove it.

Now, 25 odd years later, and in anticipation of the new JB biopic that opens today, I give you my James Brown Top 10. Get On Up!

10. "Living In America." I remember buying the 45 when it was contemporary and feeling that it was a bit risque. This was the track that really introduced me to the Godfather's music. I think I've always been aware of who James was, but this was the first time I paid money for one of his records.

9. "Cold Sweat." Primal funk that will never fail to fill a dance floor. 'Scu'me while I do the boogaloo.

8. "Think." James was notorious for re-re-rerecording his songs. I love his early 60's version with His Famous Flames. The 1973 side was his funkiest workout of a rerecord. Dang. That is a stone groove. Outtasite either way.

7. "It's A New Day." A deep cut. You know this one, I'll give you serious props. It's a mover. Ain't it funky, now.

6. "I Got You (I Feel Good)." This is where it begins for many people; James' biggest crossover hit. This is the second, poppier version of the song. Ski Party and the T.A.M.I. Show introduced JB to wider audiences in the early-mid-60's. Movies have always been good to JB. The Blues Brothers, Rocky IV and Good Morning Vietnam all showcased James and/or revived his music for new generations. I also recommend you watch the documentary Soul Survivor: The James Brown Story, in which James participated. It features so many great interviews and James doing those great dance moves.

5. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." This recording sounds raggedy and otherwordly. Like James was speaking to all of us from a different part of the cosmos. He was. Watch the Ed Sullivan Show and witness "excitement."

4. "Sex Machine." At Georgetown, I had this thing memorized and woe be upon unsuspecting roommates who had to play Bobby Byrd to my JB, complete with cape routine.

3. "Super Bad." Heeeeeeeeeey! This single is the party. Few records are this declarative, and definitive. He and the band let loose and if you don't dance you got to get out of James' house. BRIDGE! Blow me some 'Trane. The live version on Love Power Peace is an explosion of #SOUL. It was James big single and the Parisian audience can't even comprehend what's happening to them (Trivia: that's Bootsy Collins on the bass). Clark Kent was Superman. James Brown was Super Bad.

2. "Bewildered." I still don't know how James pulled this off. This should be recognized as one of the great ballads of all time. How this isn't a standard is beyond me. There are three versions and I love them all equally.

1."Mother Popcorn." Y'gotta have a mother for me. Wonder where Prince, yes Prince, cribbed those lines for "Gett Off?" If Prince is copping it, it's a groove. This song is excitement. This record was for one of the many dance moves that James introduced, you can feel James doing the dance in the studio. That's how bad this record is. "Jump back, baby. James Brown's gonna do his thing."

Listen to that horn section. That arrangement is popcorn. What popcorn has to do with havin' a mother, or puttin' on a little salve? Don't get boint by this hot buttered jam. Yeeeeyeaah! James vocal acrobatics are as avant garde and hard bop as anything Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis were laying down. You can't do that on a pop record, James. POPCORN!

On the long version, James exhorts saxophonist Maceo, "don't want no trash." Maceo is the man. The solo is jazzy, funky and one-take perfection. James is moving around the mic moving and squealing like a kernel about to burst from the hot oil in the popcorn machine. Here, however, James is the kernel, the oil and the machine. Dig?

"Mother Popcorn" was a #1 R&B smash that also crashed the pop Top 20. James unleashed this in 1969 and it is fresh every time I hear it. Does it help that popcorn is my favorite food? Perhaps. Gimme a refill, good God!

I reserve the right to change my mind and the order of these. Depending on the day, "Super Bad" and "Mother Popcorn" really duke it out; but they never displace "Bewildered."

This list is incredibly incomplete. Missing are "Please, Please, Please," "Night Train," "Licking Stick-Licking Stick," "Out Of Sight," "I Got The Feeling," "Try Me" & "It's A Man's Man's Man's World."

As for his LPs, my favorites are two live albums. The historic Live at the Apollo (1962) and Love Power Peace, Live at L'Olympia Paris, 1971. Please seek them out. They rank among the greatest live vocal recordings ever.

I've got Apollo on reissued vinyl, still waiting to be played. Love Power Peace is being released August 5 on vinyl. The Star Time 4 cd box set is still comprehensive; but I enjoy the CD of JB (a lot of Mono single mixes). Of course, if you can find JB on wax - WINNER!

Love Power Peace