When our beloved musicians die, we feel bereft because we know we’ll never hear anything new from them. An archivist may discover some buried treasure, but that’s not the same…

Subversive post-minimalist composer.

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Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

English classical composer, double bass player, b. 1/16/1943.

If Gavin Bryars is a “post-minimalist” composer, is he a maximalist? Categorizing modern music is a fool’s errand, certainly with a complex figure like Bryars. He’s capable of writing lush, orchestral textures, and he’s equally comfortable undermining lush, orchestral textures.

How do we classify this early Bryars work, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” — simple, incremental orchestration superimposed onto a repeated phrase from a street singer?

The star here is not the repetition (as it would be in a minimalist piece) and/or the variation, but the repetition versus the variation. The 24 minute piece opens up a dialogue with the listener about what music is and how we process it when we listen. …


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The Rolling Stone obituary refers to Michael Fonfara as “Lou Reed keyboardist” (from 1974–1980), and the subtitle mentions that he appeared on Foreigner’s single “Urgent” (providing “keyboard textures”). But the story doesn’t mention Fonfara’s work on David Ackles’ first album (sometimes titled “Road to Cairo”), which features one of my favorite organ solos of all time.

On the verses of David Ackles’ antidote to despair, “Be My Friend,” Fonfara uses brief organ phrases to suggest longing and hope. …

A three hour tour (more or less)

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Photo by jcob nasyr on Unsplash

MDSHall recently asked Riff readers what 10 songs they’d take with them to a desert island. That tropical paradise sounded so enchanting that I came up with a list to that make me feel I’m already on a desert island. Why not make our present isolation as exotic as possible?

In these selections, you’ll find variety over consistency, and an avoidance of the familiar suspects — no lost jiggers of salt on our little island.

So pour yourself a large rum and coke, pull your sofa up next to a sunny window, and enjoy a musical getaway.

“The Breeze and I” (“Andalucia”)

If you only know Henry Mancini from “Moon River” and “The Pink Panther,” you might not be aware that he lent his talents as an arranger to a number of Latin standards (and re-arranged some of his classics in a Latin mode, e.g. “Mr. Lucky [BOOMER ALERT!] Goes Latin”— which contained his breathtaking composition “Lujon”). Here he turns “Andalucia” by Ernesto Lecuona (one of Cuba’s great composers / bandleaders) into a lush bolero, suitable for island dreaming. …

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Photo by Rahim Sofri on Unsplash

When I hear Tony Rice play, my first reaction is usually “How did he get a guitar to do that?” As an acoustic finger picker, he has no electronics to amplify his creativity. It’s all phrasing and timing and grace.

This performance of “Shenandoah” from an instructional DVD (produced by fellow guitarist Happy Traum) purports to show Rice’s “method,” but no matter how carefully I watch the video, all I see is magic.

Bluegrass tends to be a niche genre — too complex for many country fans, too tradition-bound to appeal to rock or pop listeners.

Rice, however, continually sought to expand the genre. His version of “My Favorite Things” pays homage to John Coltrane — not by reproducing Coltrane’s notes, but by celebrating the energy and joy of the jazz classic (the studio version is on “Backwaters”). …

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Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash

Many of my fellow male Boomers learning of the death of Leslie West: “Damn!”

Almost everyone else: “Who?”

The central figure of Mountain was a major transition between late1960’s gonzo blues-oriented hard rock and 1970’s metal.

But hard rock fans might not know that Leslie West was capable of incredible restraint.

On 1970's “Climbing”— which contained Mountain’s biggest hit “Mississippi Queen” — West covered “Theme for an Imaginary Western” from Cream’s Jack Bruce (lyrics by Pete Brown) — one of the most moving compositions from the classic era, and (I think) Mountain’s best studio performance. …

An intellectual but accessible jazz great passes.

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Photo by Catalin Sandru on Unsplash

The generation of jazz musicians who began their careers in the 60’s and 70’s (like McCoy Tyner) have begun to pass away, but often without having achieved the recognition of their predecessors — perhaps because their music is harder to categorize. Some of the names for the directions these musicians explored suggest that they’re defined by the past (“post bop” or “hard bop”); other names imply these musicians have no sense of the past at all (“free jazz”).

Musicians like Stanley Cowell (obituary from the Washington Post) tended to see their playing not as a discrete moment on a timeline, but as an opportunity to pose a question. When you listen to Cowell, you don’t think something like “What I’m hearing follows (or differs from) X from the past” but “What I’m hearing answers what I just heard a moment ago, and asks a new question.” …


Steven Hale

Music: Discovering the lost and forgotten. Politics: Exposing injustice. Screenwriting: Emotional storytelling.

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