Thursday, April 20, 2006

Now posting in a new location...

A few days ago I received an email from Phil Marshall suggesting that we pool our energies on our Colorblind James blogs. Made sense to me, and offered the opportunity for Phil, Ken and I to comment more efficiently on each other's postings. And I've yet to turn Phil down on a collaboration. So, for the forseeable future, my CbJE postings will be found at the link to the right: Absolutely More: The Colorblind James Experience Story.

I may move some of the pictures and memorabilia over to the new site, but will likely leave the postings themselves here. And I've uncovered a bunch of new items to scan and write about, with Phil's and Ken's comments added to help keep me honest. So click that link, and head on over to a newer, livelier blog...

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Burst Before the Lull

A short note to let regular readers of this blog know that the postings will be light-to-non-existent for a while. I cranked out a couple of posts today, just to get them off my desk and to offer some fresh material. My wife and I are expecting twins, who will be with us in a matter of days. Owen James and Chloe Louise will soon be demanding a fair amount of my attention, I expect. After their birth, I may not get to post again until they can play the clarinet... Still, keep checking back. It may be that in my upcoming sleepless condition, I'll be blogging anyway, simply because there's nothing else to do at 3:30 in the morning.

Song List, Part 3

Reading over this list after all of these years, I am nostalgic for many of these songs, that I loved to play, but that we never recorded, like "Persian Rug" and "Port City." Other oddities like "Boston Brains," or the extraordinary "America, America" we managed to get documented on a WITR broadcast or as album outtakes, at least. That last should have been on an album, but never made it. If I could curate a CbJE boxed set, that would be the song I would choose for the title track.

Song List, Part 2

Most of these songs on this list were performed regularly, although some were rarely played at all. We would go through phases where some would be played often, others hardly ever. A couple of these I am not sure I ever actually learned, like "Corn Cob Pipe" and "After the Fox." (The fact that that one's in B-flat is compelling evidence...) Some of the early favorites like "Considering a Move to Memphis" and "A Different Bob" were reduced a lot from domestic shows after '89, though not in Europe, where audiences demanded them. British audiences in particular could get surly if they didn't hear all of their favorites.

Song List, Part 1

Here's the first installment of a song list that I ran across while digging through my CbJE stuff, in all its dot-matrix glory. (You can see a larger image by clicking on it.) It shows that my estimate of 200 or more songs in our repertoire was no exaggeration. These are just the originals. I think Phil compiled this list, and it would likely have been made around 1990, as it mentions the 'Strange Sounds' album, but not 'Solid! Behind the Times.' Many of the songs from that album are listed here, though. It also shows that there was a comforting consistency to Chuck's choice of keys. To this day, I am far more comfortable playing in guitar keys like D and G than I am in flat keys such as B-flat, unusual for woodwind players, who tend to favor flat keys.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Six Men and the Elephant

One of the best aspects of the incarnation of CbJE of which I was a part was the dizzying diversity of our musical backgrounds. The six of us had an unusually wide bandwidth of interests and formative experience. This was not fully appreciated at the time, but in my view it was what made our shows, recordings and arrangements so unusual. It also made for some stress at times, as we could individually have intensely differing views on how to interpret a song, or even how to count it off. For example, I remember that when we were learning "Strange Case" we simply could not agree on where the real accents lay on the song's riff. Each member felt the song in a different way, and because we all had different amounts of formal training (ranging from lots to none at all), we didn't really have a common language with which to discuss the problem. We set the song aside for a while and revisited it just before the 'Rochester Sessions' radio show. There Jimmy counts us off, but once it starts the actual meter is very obscure. (I still try notating it in varying ways even to this day...) We simply listened to each other, rather than trying to consciously define the metric. It worked.

Chuck was an utterly natural musician, unable to read music, but he could pick up nearly any instrument and make it do his bidding. He loved jug band music, Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, polka music and much, much more. Phil Marshall was more elaborately schooled, having had some classical guitar background in addition to his experience with rock and fusion-type bands. Jimmy, our drummer, had deep roots in country-western and Irish music, as well as an extraordinary sense of time—superior to that of any conservatory-trained percussionist I have ever met. Ken our bassist, was steeped in punk and Johnny Cash, concerned with stripping anything to its purest essence. His muscular bass lines are models of economy and power. Joe "The Bone" Colombo, our trombonist, studied music at SUNY Fredonia and then did a stint as a musician in the Army. He loved jazz. His huge sound and nimble chops were an important part of our sound, and I enjoyed working with him immensely. As for me, I was (and remain) a bizarre blend of uptight dorkiness and wild abandon, represented by my twin interests in classical music and free jazz. Seldom could I find the middle of those two poles.

Besides bringing this incoherent and contradictory wealth of experience to the band, we all continued to practice and study on our own. This consisted of actual instrumental practice, listening to new or unfamiliar music, and frequent conversations (or arguments) about why a song or performance was or was not a great one. I spent a lot of time listening to and trying to emulate early rock 'n roll saxophonists, like Herbert Hardesty, the great soloist on those early Fats Domino records. Ken rekindled my interest in Johnny Cash, and I tried to make my own playing as lean and elegant as the guitar lines of Luther Perkins. ("Keep trying, McIntire," I hear them mutter...)

As a collective whole we were, even more importantly, primarily interested in AMERICAN musical styles. This is a fact that rarely gets observed. When we were interviewed by some music press in Oslo, a reporter commented, "You are the most American-sounding band I've ever heard." I thought at the time that it was a shame that we had to travel to Scandinavia before that crucial fact was noticed by any reviewer. Mostly reporters focused on how "quirky" we were. They failed to notice that the real story was in the breadth of American music that we'd absorbed and the unusual synthesis that we had achieved. Songs like "He Must Have Been Quite a Guy," "Talk to Me," and "Why Should I Stand Up?" stand outside any clear stylistic norms, yet beautifully evoke an epic American quality. I remember hearing those songs at the old Jazzberry's long before I joined the band and was blown away by their power. I clearly remember thinking that I was in the presence of something truly original, that could only have happened in America. It was akin to the first time I heard the music of Captain Beefheart.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

St. James Infirmary

Below (and to the right) is a link to a posting on a website devoted to the song known mainly (though not exclusively) as "St. James Infirmary." We in CbJE played this song regularly in 1990 and '91. I can't remember exactly when we learned it, maybe Phil can help me there. I was personally quite proud of the version that we arranged, feeling it was honest to the original (or at least honest to whatever early version we learned it from), and was an excellent group effort; it also had some of my best clarinet work ever. I still feel that way. Locals in Rochester might be able to find an old copy of 'The Bug Jar Compilation,' the cd where our recording of it appeared. We recorded it during the 'Solid! Behind the Times' sessions, along with a few other covers, including a terrific version of Moon Mullican's "What's the Matter with the Mill?" (a song about impotence) where the tape ran out before we'd finished, but at an oddly appropriate moment. Hopefully, eventually these oddities will see the light of day.

Anyway, "St. James Infirmary" is another perfect example of the sort of psychological complexity that Chuck sought in his own songwriting and in the covers that we played. I liked our straightforward-yet-expessive approach, cool and passionate in equal measure, just like the song's protagonist as he surveys the corpse of his lover.

The website below is curated by one Rob Walker, who has explored this song with tremendous thoroughness. I learned a lot from reading it, including the news (to me) that our version has some interesting lyrical variants not found in others. Cool.

Addendum: In a recent posting, Mr. Wilson makes the following statement about his website, which deserves to be quoted here, as it beautifully reflects the values that Chuck held himself: "I consider myself to be more confused about "St. James Infirmary" than almost anybody else, and thus, arguably, the least definitive source on the topic. This site isn't about expertise, it's about uncertainty, and ambiguity. Which, as it happens, I find far more interesting." Chuck would have certainly agreed.

Monday, January 16, 2006

1990 Tour (de France)

A big "Bonjour!" and a posting for the Francophone readers of this blog: here is an article that appeared in a publication called 'Libération,' about which I know nothing. I only have this photocopy, not an original. The photo features another outdated image with me and John Ebert's trombone, so much more visually exciting than a clarinet. You can tell by this that we were pretty lax about keeping current publicity materials available for the press. This article came out on our third tour, where we played three shows in France—a big gig at the Bourges Festival (appearing on a bill with with The Oyster Band), and then two club shows in Toulouse and Paris. In Toulouse we were on a bill with an Australian group called The Johnnies. (As in Johnny Cash, Rotten, et al.) The last two shows followed a loop through Germany and Switzerland. We were supposed to do four shows in Spain, but that fell through. (More on that later.) My French is almost non-existent, but the article seems pretty good, as far as it goes. I am pleased to be noted as a "compositeur de musique electronique sérieuse," a description that still applies. Blind Willie McTell's name is misspelled and some of the material looks like translations from other articles and interviews, but it gets the job done.

At the Bourges Festival Chuck tried to ingratiate himself with the audience by announcing that he was related to Jerry Lewis, relying on Phil to translate for him. This was greeted with blank regard, as I remember. For our last number at that show we played "Kojak Chair," and Chuck said to Phil, "See if they get Kojak on TV over here." Phil politely inquired this of the audience, and someone from the back shouted "Kojak ees sheet!" There was a short silence and then Phil replied in a deadpan voice, "Oui." This brought the house down.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Pondering 'Strange Sounds from the Basement'

In my last posting I said that I thought 'Strange Sounds from the Basement' ('SSftB,' hereafter) was our masterpiece. I'll try to justify that opinion now, as well as explain why the album missed its mark with our record company.

In my own view of art, the works that are most lasting are those that convey some powerful truth, yet avoid oversimplification. They are not afraid to confront and illuminate the ambiguities of life. (This is why there is very little good art made by any sort of fundamentalists: they fear, and thus seek to eliminate, ambiguity.) Chuck loved ambiguity, he revelled in it. On this album he made a declaration of the fact, in "Colorblind's Night Out:"

"Oh Lord it makes me feel so good, when I don't know where I stand"

In SSftB, Chuck pushes that concept into distant realms, which is probably one reason why the album is so misunderstood. The opening track makes a good case in point. In "Ribbon Cutting Time" the first verse opens with the declaration that "I keep my eyes on each step I climb" and I think that this is crucial to the understanding of the song. The song's character sets an idyllic tone, almost hilariously clichéd, singing that "Leaves are on the trees, ducks are on the pond, the sun is shining brightly, all the clouds are gone." As the song progresses, with the protagonist describing his difficult life, it becomes clear that he's been warped and embittered by the journey. The final verse is heartbreaking in its callousness and cruelty:

I'm stepping over bodies,
Stepping on bare feet,
If they can't keep up with the pace,
Get 'em off the street.
I'm through with all your charities
Get lost, what's mine is mine
I've worked hard for what I've got,
It's ribbon-cutting time.

After hearing this last verse, the first line takes on a much more ominous implication. Yet almost no-one that I know of outside the band heard or understood this amazing transformation. It just seemed to be a simple folk song. The complexity is heightened by the accompaniment over these lines, where the clarinet and trombone evoke a church organ's sustained chords of piety and devoutness, in ironic contrast to the uncharitable words of the song's character. He is Scrooge, without the Christmas transformation, clearly revealed in his meanness of spirit. Operas, novels and films have been written to illustrate this theme, and not conveyed it nearly so well.

One of the other strengths and difficulties of Chuck's songwriting was its humor. Having a sense of humor is something of a two-edged sword. If you are funny often enough, people will assume you're not really serious about much of anything. This was surely not the case with CbJ, nor the the rest of the band; we were deadly serious about our work, and being aware of humorous implications was often part of that work. Yet humor is an elusive element, and what translates as funny in one place may not do so somewhere else. I now think that Chuck's humor has a Northeastern sensibility (whatever that means), which does not always resonate with other parts of the country. For example, when I moved to central Florida, in an area that was really a part of the deep South, I found almost no-one liked the band or understood the songs at all. The Brits got our humor fairly well, though other Europeans found a lot of our songs utterly baffling.

We all respected Chuck's songwriting enormously, and we worked very hard to realize his particular vision for a song, sometimes even giving up a cherished solo or part that we had painstakingly devised. I remember a couple of brilliantly executed solos that Phil had composed (one being for "Buster Cornelius") that Chuck simply thought were wrong for the song. This could be a hard pill to swallow, but swallow we did. (In a comment on the previous posting, Phil describes how he had to give up his original solo on the album's title track, something I'd never known before now.)

The title track demonstrates an unusual kind of virtuosity, that being this band's ability to play in very slow tempos. Very. Slow. Tempos. This is much harder than it sounds, and we excelled at it. I like the way we illustrate the peculiar images that Chuck evokes in each verse, and I always laughed to myself when we played it at his description of the "pop-rock combo" that consisted of "two tubas, a saxophone, and a clarinet." Only in Chuck's world would such a group be thought of as "pop-rock." The difficulty in a song like this is to keep the listener engaged, despite the slowness of the tempo and the languid delivery of the lyrics. Actually, it was quite successful in performance. If you were on the band's wavelength, songs like this could be exhilarating, especially in contrast to the frenetic two-beat songs we did, such as "Kojak Chair" or "Talk to Me." I had always argued that this should be the album's opening track, but less radical heads (including Chuck's) prevailed and it was consigned to the opening of the LP's Side Two.

Another song that was generally misunderstood was "Jesus at the Still," which described a moonshiner's encounter with Jesus while working one night. In one sense, the song is a sort of parody of hillbilly gospel songs, and that was how most people tended to view it. But it also had a deeper layer, that of exploring the Catholic tradition of visions and visitations. Was it sacreligious? Some thought so, some didn't. The ambiguity bothered some folks, that's for sure. In a certain way, Chuck's religious songs acted as a sort of mirror of your own spiritual state. If your beliefs led you in a certain direction, you heard the song a certain way. Or otherwise. The album's genial surface fooled a lot of people into thinking there wasn't much there. Songs like "Two-Headed Girl," "Sidewalk Sale" or "Acorn Girl" didn't seem to be about anything in particular; the general lack of apparent angst fooled a lot of folks. "Not for Sale" was especially deceptive in this case—a bitter lob at the folks who'd engineered our disastrous tour a couple months before and was a line in the sand of sorts.

All in all, now that I think about it, I suppose we're lucky the album sold as well as it did. It is a truly strange record, and its radical qualities are hard to perceive. I still get mad about the fact that it was never released in the States, where I think it would have done a lot better.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

"Strange Sounds," Indeed...

After we got home from the tour of '89 (see previous posting), we all spent Christmas with our families and didn't speak to one another too much. We were physically and emotionally exhausted, and, I'd say, just plain tired of one another. I personally had no idea what would happen next. For all I knew, we were finished as a band. The $20,000 debt loomed, and I figured that we'd just spend the next year or two applying most of our gig income towards paying it off.

Somewhere around New Year's Day, 1990, I got a call from Ken, who told me that a deal had been arranged by Chuck to give Cooking Vinyl, our label in England, a new acoustic album, in return for debt payoff. This was fantastic news. We had wanted to record as the Death Valley Boys for a while, and this was a tremendous opportunity. On the '89 tour we had attempted to record a live acoustic album at one of our London shows, but it was pretty much a disaster. We were off our stride musically, we tried to pull too many new songs together at the last minute, and it was for me personally, one of the worst nights of my life as a musician. I felt like I was playing my clarinet with mittens. Even worse, the attempted recording sounded horrible, to the extent that our soundman Carl's board tape on cassette was far better than the "professional" one. The suits at Cooking Vinyl were somehow pleased with this sonic catastrophe, and would have released it, but Chuck said no, we'd record a new album instead. We made plans to record in February of 1990, at Gary Holt's studio in Mount Morris NY. We had recorded 'Why Should I Stand Up?' there, we liked the studio, and Gary was an excellent engineer and musician himself.

One of the unusual aspects of this particular album is that the horns were recorded entirely separately from the rest of the tracks. In fact, Joe and I never saw Phil, Jimmy or Ken in the studio even once on this session. Joe worked out the bulk of the horn arrangements on his piano at home, and he and I put them together in the studio. I play clarinet exclusively on this album, and Joe expanded his range of trombone colors by using a different mute on nearly every track. Chuck attended all of these sessions to approve the arrangements and our playing, but mostly he was astonished at the brilliance of Joe's parts, which were elegant and tasteful, and complemented the songs perfectly, without getting in the way of anyone else's tracks. I think that we were able to do this because we understood one another's playing extremely well by then, and had reached a higher level of musicianship from all of the touring. We were scary tight.

We recorded this album in about a month, working on it on nights and weekends, for a sum of (I think) around $2500. (This is probably what other bands would spend on pizza and beer in the same amount of time...) When it was done, I think we all felt a satisfaction that we'd done something truly unique. Scott Regan responded with what is IMHO our finest, most beautiful album cover. If there is a CbJE masterpiece, for me this is it. I would not presume to speak for the other band members, but this, in my opinion, is CbJE's most consistent, coherent and sophisticated album ever. Every track is worthy, contributing mightily to the sum. The recording quality is superb, in spite of the modest means, and we were all in peak form as musicians.

There are many fantastic moments, but I'll mention a few of my favorites: Phil's amazing double-tracked mandolin solo on "Don't Be So Hard on Yourself," his slide guitar on "Colorblind's Night Out," the lush sound on "O Sylvia," the three-minute miracle that is "Two-Headed Girl," and the lazy, loping ease that we have on the title track. The collective timekeeping of Chuck, Ken and Jimmy achieves a transcendental perfection. Joe's horn arrangements glow throughout, and the band's total musicianship is both astonishing and artfully concealed all at once. I'll make further comments on the songs themselves in a future posting.

And how was this masterpiece greeted by our record company? With bafflement, irritation and overall dis-interest. The album was never even released in the USA. Cooking Vinyl pressed up 2500 copies (LP, cassette and CD, in total) and did nothing discernable to promote it. When the first pressing sold out, there was no discussion of doing more. I never read a single review of this album, positive, negative or in between. The bitter irony for us was that we'd delivered a truly wonderful album, instead of the dreadful live thing that they originally wanted to issue. That our record company failed to see the difference in quality made this all the more painful. I always thought that the album would find an audience eventually, but I'd say the odds are pretty long at this point. Still, it's a recording that when I pull it out and play it, I feel pretty damn lucky to have been a part of it.