Sunday, March 9, 2014

Oscar Peterson Swing Journal Cover Shoot (2,000)

An afternoon such as this rarely happens in a lifetime.

Thursday afternoon I received a call from photographer Paul Hoeffler inviting me to assist on a cover-shoot for Japanese publication Swing Journal. Pianist Makato Ozone was flying up from Manhattan along with Hiroshi Itsuno, senior manager of Universal’s classical division in Japan to interview Oscar Peterson and capture the two on the cover. I immediately accepted the invite and warned Paul I would be bringing my small Konica along in case opportunity permit.

Peterson lives in a music suburb of southern Ontario; Mississauga in a ranch style suburban manor. A block from the famous landmark resides a mall with three choices of dining; the Sub Shop, Pizza Pot and Chinese Wok. Needless to say, the Wok made for suitable snacking before invading the “master Peterson's” private enclave.

Ozone has made a career playing the music of Oscar. As a child he played Hammond B-3 organ appearing on national television with Jimmy Smith bearing his young soul on the Smith classic, “The Cat.” At the age of eleven he was introduced to the music of Peterson. From that day he soaked up every phrase and nuance in Peterson’s playing. Eventually, it was suggested he attend Julliard. Rudimentary sight-reading skills persuaded him to stick with that which he had a passion for; jazz. Off to the Berkeley School of Music and four years with “young lions” his own age. Ozone played in Branford Marsalis’s final graduation performance band. After Boston, he signed with Columbia records.

These days it’s Verve. His latest session “Dear Oscar,” is a splendid tribute to his beloved idol. The playing is first rate. Ozone studies privately; classical piano styling’s - performing everything from Gershwin to Mozart.

Japanese always arrive with a cordial gift. In this case it was a carefully chosen bouquet of flowers to be presented to Oscar’s wife, Kelly.

Paul and I arrived with tripods, strobes, a ladder, and case carrying two Nikons and lenses. Set-up was basic. The low basement ceiling made bouncing flash mandatory. Another strobe encased in a soft-box  awaited.  The shoot was to take place around Peterson’s 9 foot Bosendorfer concert grand. We didn’t remove the cover until cued. This was a piano without spots, scars, dust or rust. The ebony finish reflected perfection, the kind you would expect from a man of Peterson’s stature. Being a pianist in a situation as such can lead to temptation and a few depressed notes. Not on your life! I imagined the tone from a afar. Ozone never ventured close to the keyboard until Oscar asked him to try it. I may have been curious, but not that forward.

As we set up, Oscar made his way towards the piano coaxing Ozone to play more. Ozone is the ultimate fan. Not only had he memorized every significant phrase, he knew Oscar originals. One after another the tunes followed just as Oscar had harmonized them. At one point, Oscar planted himself side of the piano facing the hammers and Ozone. Admiration flowed between both mentor and disciple. Eventually, Peterson shifted onto the soft leather stool. Ozone had given us everything from Oscar he could recall, a bit of Strayhorn and classical. It was now Oscar’s turn. Peterson played more originals suggesting the young player might explore for future consideration. While the music flowed, Hoeffler moved discreetly from beneath, straight on, down the sound board, and above with his 24 millimeter lens. There was a terrific line of energy flowing between the two which Hoeffler plugged into. Occasionally, Paul would hand signal me to move a strobe otherwise I remained a silent observer. When I felt a certain comfort zone, I’d fire off a couple frames.

It was Ozone who suggested listening close to the sound board. With this in mind, I took up residence back of a living room chair allowing my head to partially enter the open body of the massive grand. The sound was spectacular! The thick harmonics resonated unlike most pianos offering richness rarely experienced in lesser cabinets. Peterson’s touch was the same as that which entered my ears and heart as a fourteen year-old alone with a copy of “West Side Story.” I’ve always considered it a landmark recording. Bernstein’s compositions are not the typical pop songs of the day, but rather charmingly crafted melodies with inventive harmonic movement. Peterson swings fiercely on the opener “Tonight” engaging the rhythm section of bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen. The arrangements are tight, complex and some of Peterson’s most handsome playing. “Maria,” for one, finds the master at his most colorful best.

The shoot lasted longer than expected with Paul transfixed on every show of emotion. When one thought the last out-pouring of generosity had all but run its course something quite unexpected would happen. This required additional frames. Finally, the two gentlemen embraced. Oscar called at Paul and said, “here’s one you missed.” The sequence was repeated for film.

We shifted to the upstairs living room off the solarium. The room was resplendent in plants, pottery, mantel piece with many personal awards and citations, stain-glass scene of loons, couch, chairs and small workstation. It seems Oscar prefers the smaller quarters with computer, keyboard, mixing board and attachments to the larger well-equipped basement studio.

With Peterson at the controls, the next forty minutes were spent listening to music he’d composed and recorded for Canada’s millennium celebration. All the compositions depicted various regions of the country from Inuvit territory to his country cottage.  Some pieces sounded stately, while others sweet and gentle. There was even a piece that sounded as if composer Aaron Copland had been speaking secretly through Peterson. The arrangements of Michel LeGrand never venture into melancholy, gorgeous in their understatement.

When I arrived home I was thrilled to remember sitting on the stool next to the Bosendorfer and Oscar playing a short distance down the string board. I leaned inside and fired off possibly four or five frames of black and white with my $100 Konica, I’d bought at a used camera shop. I loved packing this priceless gem with a 1.7 mm lens. Everything looked like it was shot in the fifties.

The following morning I biked to West Camera and had the film processed, then made a negative sheet and printed. I did well. A moment caught in time never to be forgotten.

Paul Hoeffler died July 2005. Hardly a day goes by I don’t think about him and the encounters with the greats, long conversations, the giant black and white prints of the greats; most of all – the friendship and inspiration.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Gypsies of Appalachia

They came down from the mountain with their fiddles and banjos; singing like it was a calendar holiday. Folks danced on the courthouse lawn while aging farmers sat nestled amongst feed bags – ball-caps bent downward; slumped on wounded chairs. The temperature at night barely dropped into the mid- ‘80s, and daytime heat slowed everything to a snail’s crawl. There was always a mix of religion and an old-time “Glory Hour,” on radio.

Preaching was for Sunday, but with so many churches looking on, the language spoken was in Christian terms. You courted, yet you didn’t do sinful things, or at most, speak openly about them.
Everyone loved mountain music. There was plenty to say in them songs. The Great Depression was a writer’s dream. There were stories to be told detailing the hardships, a horse that died an unspeakable death, and a barn that burned so dramatically, it made the county newspaper. There was a communal wedding; a family who nearly starved during winter, a mishap in the fields, mounds of injustice and caravans of nameless, destitute folks, who traveled by night.

One could compare their nomadic plight to the Hungarians and Romanian gypsies of Southern Europe. Beyond the uncertainties, hardships and the toil of daily life — both worlds produced extraordinary musicians.

The American side borrowed generously from its European and African American cousins; the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English; slaves from West-Central Africa, Bight of Biafra, Sierra Leone, Senegambia and Gold Coast. The field hollers, work songs and blues, the folk ballads and fiddler reels, took hold in the hills and mountains; drifting downstream as far as good times and misery would allow.

The term bluegrass surfaced in the ‘50s from the legendary band; Blue Grass Boys, led by Bill Monroe. The Golden Years were manned by such stalwarts as the Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, later; fiddler Vassar Clements and cast of the faithful.

Blue grass has seen good times and lesser days; sporting a long list of disciples who never saw the music as a mere bank note. The early sixties it was the Hootenannies and college students who embraced. The years in between? A quiet, but active solitude. It was during the year 2,000, that celebrated film makers the Coen Brother’s released, O, Brother Where Art Thou; a modern satire linked to Homer’s Odyssey where prisoners from a Depression era chain gang set out to retrieve $,1,200,000 treasure stolen from an armoured car. The American folk soundtrack won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001.

For those who have seen their beloved country music morph into something unattractive, far from its simple roots; blue grass is still wide-open territory. There’s no pressure to adapt a rock/pop perspective. In fact, the natural pace, candor, and authenticity of the music keeps it pure and uncontaminated from the money Dons.

Comedian Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers are among the current front-runners, in a genre rich with prodigious talent. Add to the list; The Boxcars, The Steeldrivers, Daily & Vincent, old timer; Alan Jackson, The Devil Makes Three, Union Station, the positively brilliant Alison Krauss & Russell Moore, the Gibson Brothers, and Perennial Blue Highway.

The singing is still a ‘lonesome sound’ – notes that bend with the wind and cry for help. Instruments roar at a ferocious pace; fingers snap and pickers pluck.

I have a few personal favourites worth a closer listen—all a mix of country, bluegrass and folk. Shovels and Rope, The Lone Bellow, Jason Isbell and Carolina Chocolate Drops. I truly admire these young artists for their commitment to excellence, deep passion for roots Americana and willingness to fight the hard battle and for just being themselves. Bravo!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Robert Klein Bombay Black (Up In Smoke!)

When I escaped Indiana, the only stimulants I’d ever consumed were six-packs of ice cold Dr. Pepper. I witnessed mom down a daily receptacle of coffee, and by late afternoon, observe her teeth clatter like a wind-up toy. To this day, I still haven’t drank a cup or even a spoonful of ‘Java,’ as it was addressed in our house; for fear of attracting the shakes and chipped teeth. 

While hustling a living in my early Greenwich Village twenties, someone gave me a joint of pot, which I smuggled into my two-room flat and considered lighting for days. When that day arrived, I discovered I didin’t possess a match or have a need for one; so I went knocking on doors. Later that evening I puffed away guilt; waited for the on-rush of “said” high, and don’t recall doing much more than snoozing.

Then came the army and Sergeant Benadryl, an unstable returning Vietnam veteran. Sergeant Benadryl would buy up as many cases of cough medicine as affordable and have a “Get High” day – the thought of which made me gag-cough. One afternoon he slips me a matchbox containing marijuana. I smuggle it back to my humble digs and share with my New York girl. I think we may have caught what was termed, “a buzz, ”  or likely, a dry chest cough. It wasn’t until I was on military leave and a stop-over in Manhattan I discovered what an authentic ‘BUZZ’ was meant to be.
My old band-mate, Bob Slawson of the Chicago Loop, turned us onto blond Lebanses hashish. We sucked back a few pipefuls then went in search of soul food. I remember walking aimlessly, in full laughter-face, lost amongst swirling urban debris, and begging Bob for directions. Every street sign seemed to point the wrong way, or so it seemed.That very moment , I understood the magnanimity of the word, ‘stoned.” 

We laughed, downed collard greens and gorged ourselves on sumpous fried chicken. Early morning, my new bride and me, stood with our thumbs out-stretched trying to hitch a ride across the Triborough Bridge then on to Canada. 

New arrivals in Toronto, with dozens of longhair friends, the true meaning of ‘Let’s Get Really Stoned’ made it’s debut. I’m talking an abundance of hashish in every pigment, from Pakistan green, blonde and red Lebanese, Royal Nepalese, Kashmir black, and the prince of all paralysis – Bombay Black; cut with opium. 

Bombay Black was so powerful, I could barely lift my arms to drain a frothy Mountain Dew; my body- quenching drink of preference. Honestly, no reasonable Canadian would have been caught dead or alive drinking this sweet sewer rot. This was strictly for young American men with a craving for fizz, sucrose and a healthy body gurgle. 

We learned the English way of smoking a joint as taught to us by our new Middle Eastern friends. Tobacco and chips of hashish rolled nicely in ZigZags produced a savory high, one you would memorize and crave for it’s return.

The price was reasonable up against the pot trade; which mostly flowed from Perth County. A quarter ounce ran anywhere from $15-$25. Fair enough! Which brings me to the concert of all concerts; my big night at O’Keefe Centre with comedian Robert Klein.

The gig came courtesy of fellow musician Marabeth Soloman. I got a call from her suggesting I’d be the perfect fit with Klein. She sensed we would hit if off big time.

I headed down to, if memory serves me well to CBC studios, meet and run through the particulars of the sold-out evening concert. 1972 saw the release of Klein’s comedy side, Child of the Fifties.There was a comedy bit about a “F.M. Disc Jockey” he wanted me to noddle a bit on and a blues reference in – “Musical Instruments,” with him on harmonica.

We arrive an hour before curtain’s rising – meet Klein and his lovely wife. He’s in a spirited mood; all anticipation. Without thinking I pull out a joint of the deadly Bombay Black. Klein catches a glimpse and inquires about the high. I explain it’s the best ride I’ve ever had. He then orders me to fire it up. I do so, and the four of us puff away. We’re about ten minutes before showtime and the high is working it’s way through the lungs, brain and getting ready to purge the body of all normality.
Klein and I get togther just before the downbeat and figure out when I should take a seat at the grand piano. He hands me his watch and says, “Wait thirty-five minutes,then come out and take your place.”

I watch from side-stage and observe him roll through his act, then I see his head drop, then silence. I also recognized, I was seriously stoned to the point of palpitating fear.

Klein recoups his senses and lays out another hilarious bit; head drops, again, total silence. The audience is in hysterics. Thirty-five minutes approaches. I clutch the music chart and walk out on stage and take a seat at the piano. Klein doesn’t realize I’ve arrived.

A few minutes pass and I’m getting, “stoner’s paranoia.” I have hair down to my ass, sporting aviator glasses and draped in a tank top – just short of looking like a replicant Muppet. I eye-scan the audience and realize they are inspecting me; maybe even checking my pulse. Scary stuff. So I look directly ahead, scratch my beak, shift around in the seat, check my lungs for wind and try to subdue anxiety. A few more moments pass and I see Klein heading my way – so I start playing FM radio music. He closes in and says , “Not now, not now, I’m really fucked up.” I didn’t know what to do, so I toss the music to the floor. He picks up and hands back and the audience laughs.

More time passes, greater paranoia, and all I could hear was my heart ripping through my shirt. Klein eventually returns and signals me play. We do our two bits and the crowd loves it. It must have been an hour and half show of which on stage, I spent a good hour fighting the psychological misery of a hash stoning. 

After the show, Klein comes rushing towards me, “What the fuck did you just do to me? You should have told me how strong this stuff was. Don’t ever do that to me again!” I felt demoralized and defeated,  like a crazed hash-junkie who just poisoned the great Johnny Carson.

 A year passes and I get this telephone call. “Hi Bill, it’s Robert Klein, look, I’m coming to Toronto to do a show at the El McCambo – I’m second on a bill with Fireside Theatre – man, you wouldn’t have anymore of the black hashish, would you?”

 Wow! What a relief. 

Not long after the airplane lands, Robert comes directly by our house. We smoke ourselves silly. Klein cops a chunk and that evening we punch up an amazing show. Beforehand, we sat back stage and Klein quizzed everyone sitting nearby about politics; all things Canadian. He wanted to know more about Trudeau and incorporated the latest political gaffes and laughs in his act.

Another year passes and Klein sees a write-up about me in Billboard Magazine and calls. We talk for awhile and he reminds me of the Bombay Black and one of the most hilarious nights of his life.
It’s been at least forty-years since I’ve seen a hash joint or even heard mention. Those were the hash days my friends!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Trombone Shorty Hurricane Season

Imagine being a small child growing up in the Tremé district of New Orleans; an area decorated in thick Spanish moss and resurrection ferns, shaded by the Tree of Life, and pampered by the aroma of shrimp jambalaya, steaming crawfish and corn beignets from neighborhood kitchens and gumbo shacks.

The day ahead has to be most inviting. Then toss in a civic concert made up of brass parade bands, Indigenous music; in a neighborhood drenched in old-world architecture and complex history, where free people of color planted roots and gave birth to jazz. That’s exactly the landscape a young Troy Andrews ran about when he started playing trombone at the age of five years old.

These days the world recognizes him as Trombone Shorty, but back then he was Trombone Shorts, the young, gifted man who formed his first band at age six.

Andrews was born in the New Orleans Tremé district in 1986. By his teen years he would become a member In the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts musical program for high school students, which boasted a long list of renowned graduates; Harry Connick Jr., Nicholas Payton, Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Andrews learned to play trombone, trumpet and drums. He also comes from a long line of superb musicians and a grandson of legendary singer and songwriter Jessie Hill.

Shorty’s first major tour was in 2005 as a featured member of Lenny Kravitz’s horn section. The following year he began working with producer Bob Ezrin and U2 at Abbey Road Studios. That led to his first major appearance with U2 and Green Day at the reopening of the New Orleans Superdome during an NFL Monday Night Football pre-game show. In 2005, the Tremé district sustained minor to moderate flooding from the levee breaks that ravaged New Orleans under Hurricane Katrina. The Superdome will be forever etched in people’s minds as a failed sanctuary, not a refuge from immense pain and suffering.

 Trombone, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, sousaphone and percussion are principle partners in traditional New Orleans music. No place on earth celebrates the trombone and holds in higher esteem than the Crescent City.

 We booked Shorty back in July 2010 for the Beaches International Jazz Festival just before he broke wide open. It was one of those rare occasions when the sheer force of a band consumes every inch of foreground. It was an audacious full-throttle performance of sheer technical brilliance and musical ingenuity. 10,000 packed Woodbine Park for the big New Orleans jam session.

Andrews extracts every possible sound and modulated oral effect in and out of the instrument. He can snap off riffs, solo with nuance, purr to mellow, and bleed soul from the horn’s bell with plunger mute in hand.

The band from the early days remains intact with drummer Joey Peebles and bassist Mike Ballard setting a blistering pace – rooted in deep funk and colored in resplendent shades of contemporary soul.

Andrews works from the same playbook as James Brown and current Brown prodigy, Bruno Mars.
The shows are fast paced, engaging and big fun. Every inch of performance space and every possible music accent can be accomplished by a solid dash of choreography or unison band riff. While Mars is disciplined soul music - Vegas style, Shorty is a spontaneous street mash-up of urban funk with tight boundaries.

Mars ruled Superbowl 2014 with 115 million fans looking on. Shorty, along with Janelle Monae, and Earth, Wind and Fire rocked NBA All Star half-time ceremonies. Both will write the next playbook by which all young aspiring funk minded musicians will study until earning a degree.

"If it please your neighbor to break the sacred calm of night with the snorting of an unholy trombone, it is your duty to put up with his wretched music and your privilege to pity him for the unhappy instinct that moves him to delight in such discordant sounds."  - Mark Twain

If only Mr. Twain had heard Trombone Shorty blow that horn!
Photography @ Bill King Photograpy