JJ Cale - an appreciation

The death of JJ Cale at the age of 74 is a profoundly sad event on many levels. Cale is an excellent example of the quiet innovator, a musician who, like Randy Newman and Laura Nyro, first became known as a songwriter, with other artists (in Cale's case, Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynrd) first covering his songs, allowing him to make a living from music, and ensuring that his own recordings would be released. As is often the case, his first well-known songs, "They Call Me the Breeze" and "Round Midnight" are not among his more interesting compositions. They simply suited their interpreters, and it is interesting to contrast the turbo-charged three guitar attack that Lynynrd Skynrd brought to "They Call Me The Breeze" to the cheap-and-cheerful sound of Cale's own version, whcih is basically an overdubbed demo. But there are no prizes for guessing which version has the essential feel and soul. Skynrd collected the plaudits, Cale collected the cash, and he went on to expand his songwriting and playing style on 14 albums. In a more recent interview, Cale commented "I would probably have been selling shoes if it wasn't for Eric (Clapton)".
Cale, by all accounts, remained uncomfortable in the spotflight through his life. Legend has it that, when he visited London for the first time in the mid-70's, he spent most of his debut London concert cowering behind his amplifier and speaker stack, upon hearing that Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, among other famous musicians, were in the audience. Although, geographically, Cale came from the middle of nowhere relative to the UK, he was popular from almost the beginning of his career in the UK; I was introduced to his LPs in 1974 while still at college, where he was getting extensive local radio airplay.
Like many artists, he had no interest in being a public figure. His realtively small number of interviews show a man with no interest in celebrity, and a reflexive horror of talking about himself as a person, but deeply interested in the recording process, an inveterate tinkerer, happiest in his home studio. He never realy embraced digital recording technology, preferring analog equipment and mixing processes. For many years he lived an itinerant existence in a trailer home, finally settling in the hills near Escondido CA in the 1990's, buying a country ranch home, where he spent his time happily tinkering, writing and recording, with occasional short tours.
Cale's music, like everything else about him, seemed to emerge from left field, containing a wide reach of styles and influences. Today it would be instantly classified as Americana, but at the time that term did not really exist. Eventually, his recorded soundscapes became known as "The Tulsa Sound", an amusingly meaningless label for what is a very rich music.
What was notable about his songs was the great natural feel that he cpatured in the basic playing, along with a meticulous attention to detail. Unsure of his own vocal abilities, he compensated by often double and triple tracking his voice, creating a laconic almost half-spoken vocal wall of sound. His early recordings often used drum machines since he could not afford a drummer.One of his early songs, "Any Way The Wind Blows", was recorded using cheap instruments and a beat box, with triple tracked vocals. The result, cheapness be damned, is beautiful, impossible to replicate, and the groove makes you want to listen to the tune for ever. On one of his best known songs,"Cocaine", the main riff is constructed from multiple single notes played one a time, which lends what is essentially a rock power chord a unique diconnected quality. The notes do not interact because they were played separately.
Cale's guitar solos are notable for their jazz-like quality in terms of phrasing and timing, and their minimalism, adhering to thr Ry Cooder philosophy of never playing a note where none will do.
Cale was enormously influential on other artists. Eric Clapton is on record as saying that he always wanted to make an LP that counded like JJ Cale. He made an album, "Road to Escondido" with Cale in 2006, which garnered a Grammy award, but truth be known, it is not a great album, sounding too much like two mutual admirers dancing around each other. It is doubtful if Dire Straits would exist in their 1980's form without Cale's influence; Mark Knopfler's entire singing style is line-of-descent from Cale's whispery, laconic vocal delivery. "Water Of Love", from the first Dire Straits album, sounds like it could have fitted onto any JJ Cale LP of the same period, with Knopfler's double tracked vocals sounding uncannily like Cale's. The vocals on "Calling Elvis", and the wry humor in the lyrics ("give him my number, Heartbreak Hotel"), sound like something Cale could have written and sung.
Favorites? Well, for overall level of interest and stylistic depth, I would go for "Troubador", the LP containing "Cocaine", but also many other great songs. For sheer minimalist beauty, "Anyway The Wind Blows" steals the show however.

King Crimson - Larks Tongues In Aspic

Currently I am listening once again to King Crimson's LP "Larks Tongues In Aspic". It is difficult to over-estimate the impact that this LP had on me when I first listened to it back in 1976. With this LP, King Crimson had managed to place themselves in an area of musical endeavor that was impossible to classify. Was this rock? was it jazz? was it heavy metal? Ultimately, it didn't matter. "Larks Tongues" is an exemplification of the old saying that ultimately there are only two types of music - good and bad.
The origins of this line-up of the band and the evolution of "Larks Tongues" are described here in detail.
Robert Fripp deliberately created a band of disparate musicians with very different backgrounds, and then allowed a lot of playing freedom in a live setting. John Wetton, the bass player, was from the pop/rock band Family. Bill Bruford had, to general astonishment, left Yes just as they were reaching a commercial peak, but he was not interested in a profitable career, he wanted an interesting career. Violinist and keyboards player David Cross had been recommended to Fripp by his management company. The wild card was Scottish percussionist Jamie Muir, whose playing background was in free jazz and avant-garde, and whose percussion collection took up the most room of any of the band members. Muir had a startlingly energetic, almost manic stage presence.
Live, the band was fearless - their Beat Club performance in 1972 included a 30+ minute free improvisation, literally starting from nothing. Given King Crimson's initial history as a band that played highly-structured and often intricate music, this was artistically brave bordering on reckless. The new band's only link to the past was the inclusion of "21st Century Schizoid Man" as the encore. Everything else in the live set was new.
"Larks Tongues" as an LP has an extraordinary dynamic range, from the initially melodic then building free-form percussion wall of sound that starts the LP, through the delicate balladry of "Book of Saturday" to the heavy metal/industrial thunderings of the first and second title tracks. Along the way the band explores just about every modern music genre (with the possible exception of Celtic folk, which they did cover in live improvisations, but not on this LP).
Unfortunately, this LP was the only recorded testament of the five-man line-up. Within months, percussionist Jamie Muir had left the band. As a four piece band, King Crimson continued to make great music, through "Starless and Bible Black" and "Red", until Fripp abruptly disbanded the band in September 1974 after the completion of "Red". "Red" may be the best Heavy Metal LP of the early 1970's, being all the more notable in that it is almost entirely free of blues influences, owing more to avant-garde and classical music structures.

Interesting interview with Robert Fripp

...in the Financial Times, in which Fripp acknowledges that he has basically (for the time being) retired from making music, and is currently involved in a dispute with Universal Music Group over the rights to and management of his back catalog that has sapped his artistic energy and creativity.

An interesting advert for bass playing services...

This bass player has some interesting ideas about music keys...
Here are Peter Cook and Dudley Moore parodying musical rules...there is also another sketch (only from radio source material I fear) where Dudley Moore is a Welsh piano teacher and Peter Cook is a prospective pupil who only wants to learn to play using the "white notes". The stand-off between the two of them is resolved when Cook offers to pay a ludicrous amount per hour for tuition, at which point the teacher decides that the "black notes" don't really matter after all...

Music I'm Listening To - 5th March 2013

1. "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" XTC
From the last XTC album ("Nonsuch") featuring full participation from Dave Gregory, Andy Partridge's searing evisceration of Roman Catholic and church duplicity and persecution of a real Good Guy. Excellent John Bonham impersonation by Dave Mattacks on kit drums.
A useful antidote to the current crap being reported about the Papal Conclave, yet more sex scandals etc. etc.

2. "Atavachron" Allan Holdsworth
One of the first LPs where Holdsworth used the SynthAxe extensively, "Atavachron" contains some great tunes, and the usual amazing guitar layering and solo playing.

3. "Krin" Brad Dutz
A fascinating solo CD by one of the truly quirkily talented modern percussionists. I first heard Dutz when he played with Tribal Tech in the late 80's and early 90's, where his ability to play tuned and untuned percussion gave a deeper richness to that band's considerable command of melody and improvisation. Many of his compositions, like "Snowy Egret" from this CD, feature long elaborate melodies that have very little in the way of repetition. "Snowy Egret" resembles "Robot Immigrants" from Tribal Tech's CD "Nomad", it has a similarly long and winding melody line. Dutz has made dozens of CDs over the years, solo and with an elcectic set of collaborators, all of them inhabiting the difficult to classify hinterland between jazz, avant-garde, and sound effects. This is in addition to what I suspect is his day job, playing percussion music for films and documentaries.

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